PCUSA Presbytery Suing Megachurch to Keep It From Leaving Denomination

First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. | (Photo: Facebook)

The PC(USA) Presbytery of Lehigh filed a lawsuit earlier this week asking a judge to prohibit the 2,600-member First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, from leaving the denomination.

"The countersuits by the Lehigh Presbytery were joined by 22 members of the 140-year-old Center Street Church, the largest Presbyterian congregation in the Lehigh Valley," reported The Morning Call.

"It came as church leaders have scheduled a congregational meeting Sunday to vote on whether to immediately separate from the denomination, according to the filings."

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Jackie H. Etter, executive director of FPC Bethlehem, provided The Christian Post with a statement about the legal situation, referring to the Presbytery's actions as part of their "unhealthy efforts to control the decisions and property of local congregations."

"Their actions, including ending the dismissal process and rescinding the contract of our new senior pastor are the latest of these efforts that are happening across the country," read the statement in part.

"These sad efforts have been largely unsuccessful in most settings, and we expect their efforts to fail as well here in Bethlehem."

In June of last year, the leadership, or Session, of FPC Bethlehem voted 19-1 in favor of beginning a discernment process for leaving PC(USA).

At issue was the increasingly pro-LGBT direction of the Mainline Protestant denomination, which had already prompted hundreds of other congregations to seek dismissal.

"Your Session has been in active prayer, discernment, study and congregational discussions concerning the changes in direction of the PC(USA), especially the broad changes in theological interpretation and practices which it has continued to encourage," stated the Session in a letter from last year. "Session has observed this denominational drift for 20 years or more but has worked on these matters with heightened concern and diligence for the last five years."

The Session hoped to have the congregation join the Evangelicals Covenant Order of Presbyterians, a recently created theologically conservative Presbyterian Church.

While initially the congregation and the presbytery were expected to cooperate on the discernment process, differences in how to proceed led to complications.

Earlier this month, FPC Bethlehem filed a complaint against Lehigh Presbytery in the Northampton County Court of Common Pleas.

"This has been a difficult process that has taken its toll on our congregation. We believe this action gives us a light at the end of the tunnel. In America we are blessed with a civil court system that is designed to protect legal rights of all, including churches," stated FPC.

"In this spirit, and not from spite or malice, we are seeking an appropriate legal ruling to clearly delineate the congregation's civil rights regarding property ownership as we progress towards affiliation with ECO."

While the Presbyterian Church (USA) Presbytery of Lehigh did not return comment to CP by press time on Thursday, Richard Santee Jr., an attorney representing the 22 members who joined the Presbytery in their suit, told The Morning Call that the chief purpose of Tuesday's countersuit was "to prevent this group of self-styled leaders from taking action that is contrary to the bylaws of the church, as well as PCUSA."

"I'm very close to many members of that church, several of whom are on both sides of the issue," added Santee. "I know very well their pain."

FPC Bethlehem intends to hold a vote Sunday on whether or not they will remain with PC(USA). Early indicators note a majority of congregants support leaving the Mainline denomination.

PC(USA) membership chart.
PC(USA) membership chart. | (Photo: Courtesy of The Presbyterian Lay Committee)

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