How is the PC (USA) reformed, evangelical, missional?

According to a recent presentation I observed, the only material difference between the PC (USA) and ECO is that ECO has said to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Christians “You cannot be called. You are not gifted,” while the PC (USA) has left that option open.

In every other respect, the presenter maintains, the two denominational bodies are virtually identical–reformed, evangelical, missional. For that reason, he insists, it makes no sense to contemplate departing the PC (USA) for ECO unless your exclusive desire is to escape GLBTQ folk.

Is this true? On balance, the answer has to be no, not really.

Screen Shot 2013-09-11 at 8.43.52 AM

Are the PC (USA) and ECO virtually identical–reformed, evangelical, missional? 

It is true that the words “reformed,” “evangelical,” and “missional” could be used by both denominations to describe themselves. However, using the same word doesn’t necessarily mean that each is using the same definition or meaning for the word in question.

I’d like to unpack what I think each of these words—reformed, evangelical, missional—means to each of the PC (USA) and ECO. In another response, I will explore the hot-button issue of homosexuality in more detail.


PC(USA): descended from the Protestant Reformation in historical terms and guided by that heritage, although not bound by its theological beliefs in anything other than the broadest sense and unwilling to give specific definition to this term with relation to ordination of officers. “Reformed” is an adjective more akin to a word like “American” (in that it describes the origin of the church) more than the church’s system belief. In the PC (USA) every candidate or minister defines “reformed” herself as does each Presbytery and congregation. See the Auburn Affirmation for a greater sense of the dominant spirit in the PC (USA).

ECO: descended from and theological formed by the teaching and theological themes of the Protestant Reformation. The essence of this way of being Christian (which affirms, incidentally, that there are other ways of being Christian) can be captured in a list of essential tenets that are specifically theological in nature and tied to the confessional heritage of the church in a very particular way. See the Fellowship Theology Document for concrete examples including: election, covenant life in the church, stewardship of life, etc. Also see The Fundamentals.


PC (USA):  I am not familiar with any instance in which the PC (USA) has self-identified as “evangelical.” The only credible way in which it could use the term is in its more historic sense: “of or relating to the Good News” (Lat., evangel; Gk., euangelion).

This is the sense in which the mainline Protestant denomination the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is “evangelical.” The word has historically been associated with all protestant churches since in the interaction with medieval Catholicism, the Reformers believed that they were recovering the evangel.

ECO: ECO is also “evangelical.” It is not evangelical in the same sense, or at least not exclusively the sense, in which the PC (USA) might use the term.

It is evangelical in the same sense as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC). Certainly the EPC holds the gospel as central to the church’s identity, but it is also evangelical (or neo-evangelical, more accurately) in that it is related to the “evangelical movement.”

That movement, of which First Presbyterian Church and ECO are a part, is a renewal movement with the church that has historically emphasized several things (as noted by David Bebbington, author of the seminal work on evangelical identity, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain [Unwin Hyman, 1989])

  1. Biblicism: a particular regard for the Bible
  2. Crucicentrism: a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross
  3. Conversionism: the belief that human beings need to be converted to God through Christ
  4. Activism: the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in effort

The two usages of the word cause confusion since they point to two very different theological realities. The former is essentially a reference to the origin of the church (in the reformation) and the latter to a particular way of being Christian that emphasizes a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, the role of the bible in personal piety, etc.


The word “missional” is synonymous with “missionary.” The word has become increasingly popular since its first use in the late 1980s. The word is intended to help the church rediscover that it’s posture with respect to culture is “missionary”: sent reconvert the culture through the appropriate re-presentation of the gospel message in a contextualized manner.

The church is called to this because, in the first instance, God himself is a missionary who did not leave us in sin but who sent His Son to rescue us.

It’s important to note that the word “Missional” itself is only as significant as the mission that serves as its foundation. A missional Mormon church would indeed be missional, but driven by a mission that is confused and discordant with traditional Christian teaching.

Given that significant differences exist between the PC (USA) and ECO on the meaning of “reformed” and “evangelical,” that both are (or claim to be) missional means only that each is committed to embodying purposes that are at vaiance from one another.


7 Replies to “How is the PC (USA) reformed, evangelical, missional?”

  1. For the most part the comments on ‘reformed and evangelical’ are on target regarding the PCUSA; however as a ‘missional’ church the PCUSA and its ‘gt out and get on your own’ grandchildren stuggle against and within itself. The code of a missional church is that the first word of the church is not church but Christ. At the core of its impetus is an existence for and an energy directed at those those who do not belong to it. The essence of a missional church is to equip the saints to reach to unreached. Reformed Christianity has a DNA of institutional lendings. We accent confessions, polity and various rules for the sake of institutional purity and survival. No matter how hard we try we remain hung on ourselves and our way of believing at the expense of those on the outside. A true and radical work of the Holy Spirit is always needed to get the old battleship going on mercy missions. Jerry Little


  2. Since the PCUSA has cut its missionary budget by at least 30% over time while continuing to heavily support the NCC and WCC you could hardly say it’s actually missional.


In lieu of a comments section, I accept and encourage letters to the editor. If you would like to write a letter to the editor, you can do so here.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: