The Presbyterian Church (USA) is continuing its legal battle against a Pennsylvania megachurch that voted overwhelmingly to leave the Mainline denomination over theological differences.
Last month, First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem voted to leave PC(USA) for the more conservative Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians.
FPC Bethlehem held the vote amidst legal action between it and the PC(USA) Presbytery of Lehigh over the congregation's alleged refusal to respect the proper process for seeking dismissal from the denomination.
Jackson Eaton, an Allentown-based attorney representing Lehigh Presbytery, told The Christian Post on Monday that they do not recognize the vote as valid.
"The position of the Lehigh Presbytery is that the actions taken to separate First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem from the PC(USA) and to affiliate with ECO are invalid and ineffective," said Eaton.
"The validity of the actions taken in the name of First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem will be determined by the court in a trial scheduled for this October."
Eaton added that the way that a congregation can leave PC(USA) is through its regional body, or presbytery officially dismissing them.
"First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem has not been dismissed from the PC(USA) by the Lehigh Presbytery," continued Eaton.
For months FPC Bethlehem has considered seeking dismissal from PC(USA) amid disagreement over the increasingly theologically liberal direction of the denomination.
An effort to have an official discernment process for seeking dismissal broke down, with the congregation and the presbytery disagreeing over the implementation of the process.
Last month, the two parties filed legal action against each other over whether or not the congregation had the right to leave the denomination.
"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 Bethlehem in June.
"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."
In late June, FPC Bethlehem overwhelmingly approved leaving PC(USA). Out of 1,048 voting members, 76.5 percent approved a measure to join ECO.
"We look forward to moving forward and recommitting ourselves to our first priority — continuing our 140-year commitment to Jesus Christ and serving the Lehigh Valley," FPC Bethlehem's leadership said on Facebook.
"We hope that all members — no matter how they voted — will be a part of this next exciting season of our church's future."
FPC Bethlehem directed CP to a June 29 letter by Senior Pastor Marnie Crumpler to the congregation, which explained that PC(USA) services will still be held thanks to a court order.
"… there are those who desire to have PC(USA)-specific services while the legal issues are worked out. We will accommodate," wrote Crumpler.
"To be fair, just as our right to vote was secured by a court order, the judge has secured a PC(USA) presbytery-run service to be held on Sundays at 8:30 a.m. in the sanctuary. The pastors will be chosen by the PC(USA) presbytery and the offering received by the presbytery. This is a short-term arrangement while we deal with the legal part of our move to ECO."