HOUSTON — An influential Houston church voted on Sunday not to defect from the nation’s largest Presbyterian body. The vote stands in marked contrast to a slate of wealthy Texas congregations that have left the denomination over a disagreement about biblical interpretation and homosexuality.
The congregation of the First Presbyterian Church in Houston voted narrowly on Sunday to remain with the Presbyterian Church USA over a breakaway evangelical denomination. The alternative denomination — A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, or ECO — advocates a stricter interpretation of the Bible and prohibits openly gay clergy.
The mood was somber Sunday morning at First Presbyterian’s main location, a red brick church in the heart of the city’s museum district, as thousands of churchgoers cast paper ballots to decide whether or not they would abandon their denomination.
The results were tight. Of the 1,681 members voting, 1,085 cast ballots in favor of leaving PCUSA. That was just 36 votes shy of the necessary two-thirds to align with the new evangelical denomination.
The vote was the culmination of a year-long “season of discernment” for the congregation, in which members heatedly debated the move. For more than an hour on Sunday, church members provided testimony for and against leaving PCUSA, some of it tearful.
Those in favor of leaving PCUSA spoke of the national organization’s “theological drift” and called for a more “Christ-centered theology.” Senior Pastor Jim Birchfield led church staff in a unanimous call for the denominational switch. In a January meeting before the congregation, he expressed concerns about First Presbyterian’s ability to attract younger members, who he said would respond to the church’s focus on orthodoxy.
Before Sunday’s vote, church elder Eric Thomas heaped more direct criticism on PCUSA, accusing it of promoting “false teaching” and being “too often focused on social justice.”
Opponents of the switch argued for theological diversity. PCUSA does not require churches to ordain openly gay pastors if they choose not to. They bemoaned what they saw as inevitable fallout from the decision, and said that appealing to stricter evangelist views would only further isolate young members from the church.
In particularly fiery testimony, one opposing member said she feared the switch would make her “a member of a congregation that distinguishes itself by its homophobia.”
PCUSA, which became a nationally unified group in 1983, has more than 10,000 member churches and 1.8 million worshippers. ECO, founded in 2012, is tiny by comparison, boasting just 112 member churches. But dozens of new congregations are in the process of joining the evangelical group, which has successfully recruited some of the largest and wealthiest Presbyterian churches in Texas to its ranks.
First Presbyterian of Houston was an obvious target for the fledgling denomination. The Houston church has roughly 3,100 members, owns property valued at more than $100 million and boasts an $18 million endowment. The church is 175 years old.
Other large Texas congregations have recently defected from PCUSA in favor of ECO. Last year, the state’s largest Presbyterian church, Highland Park Presbyterian in Dallas, joined the evangelical organization. Grace Presbyterian Church in Houston is also in the process of joining.
PCUSA decided last year to allow gay ordination in member churches on a local basis, and many expect the group to broaden its definition of marriage to same-sex couples in coming months. In a January meeting, Birchfield warned the congregation that debates over same-sex marriage would present “distractions.”
“We want to be a church that stops debating homosexuality as an issue and starts talking about ministry to real people whom God loves,” he said.
But Birchfield has stressed that the questions surrounding First Presbyterian’s congregational alignment encompassed more than the church’s views on homosexuality. The church has criticized PCUSA in general for being “watered down theologically” as an argument for joining a more evangelical denomination.
Church officials said First Presbyterian’s switch would not compromise the church’s goal of inclusiveness. Speaking in January, youth director Anthony Ceder urged the congregation to vote in favor of ECO, adding that by doing so, “you are not choosing a denomination that has no heart to demonstrate the love of Jesus to the gay community.”
Though many expressed disbelief at the vote’s outcome, all seemed ready to move on. The question of whether to defect from PCUSA had been intensely divisive, both sides agreed. In a closing prayer, Birchfield asked that the congregation remain united.
“We ask that you help us to continue to be gracious to one another in all that we say and all that we do,” he said.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Grace Presbyterian Church in Houston is in the process of joining the ECO. It is in the process of deciding whether to join.