How To Make Your Favorite Doctrine Essential

(or, “How ECO* made a secondary issue, marriage between one man and one woman, a central tenet of the Christian faith, and you can too!”)

Note that if you’re in a non-denominational or independent church that doesn’t have any historic confessions other than scripture, you can skip this entire post and just

  1. find the thing you want to condemn anywhere in scripture,
  2. proclaim from the pulpit that it is a central tenet, and 
  3. it will be one.

So I was looking for the “essential tenets of the Reformed faith” because if I’m going to be an ordained PC(USA)* minister one day, I have to

sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do,

and I was trying to find a document that explains what counts for the PC(USA) as “essential tenets.” Fun fact: Such a document doesn’t exist. We have a Book of Confessions, but I couldn’t find any documents that delineated which tenets in those confessions count as essential. ECO and the EPC* have one, but the PC(USA) does not.

This aroused my curiosity.

I know ECO was (in part) formed and filled as a reaction to the PC(USA)’s allowing non-celibate but otherwise-qualified LGBTQ people to be ministers, and later permitting (not requiring) marriage equality.

The ECO website pretends it was about concerns around declining denominational membership and disputes of theology and bureaucracy, but the seven founding pastors met for the first time to “find new ways to encourage each other in faith, ministry, and mission” in summer 2010.

I’m sure it was just a coincidence that the General Assembly approved Amendment 10-A, which allowed for non-celibate gay and lesbian ministers, that exact same summer.

So I was curious: Would ECO pretend that wasn’t what they were about in their confessional documents? Or would they include something specific condemning same-sex marriage somewhere in their statement of essential tenets? (They would almost have to in order to justify their departure).

I scanned the document looking for mention of marriage. It included content about the Bible, the Trinity, the Incarnation, Grace, Election, and Covenant life. So far, no marriage.

“Living in obedience to the Word of God,” section 7. If it was going to be anywhere, it’d be here.

As we practice the discipline of regular self-examination and confession, we are especially guided by the Ten Commandments. We therefore hold one another accountable to…

Intriguing.

Then it proceeds to follow through on interpretations of the Big Ten. Worship God alone, Worship God in humility, “being reticent in either describing or picturing God,” etc…

So far, they seem to be more or less following the spirit of the Big Ten. Then I arrived at #7:

maintain chastity in thought and deed, being faithful within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman as established by God at the creation or embracing a celibate life as established by Jesus in the new covenant;

And there it was.

I was impressed. They found a way to work one-man-one-woman into their essential tenets by finding it among the Ten Commandments.

Then I tried to remember what the seventh commandment was, exactly.

It came back to me in a flash.

You shall not commit adultery.

Then I was very impressed.

That’s genius. Just genius. I don’t agree with them in the least, but I can respect ingenuity when I see it.

  1. The Ten Commandments are a central piece of the Christian faith.
  2. Adultery is condemned in the Ten Commandments.
  3. Adultery presumes marriage.
  4. Marriage is described elsewhere as being between one man and one woman.
  5. Therefore, we find one-man-one-woman marriage in a central piece of the Christian faith.
  6. Therefore, one-man-one-woman counts as a central tenet of the Christian faith.

The logic is brilliant – and reminiscent of a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in which the logic proceeds thusly:

  1. We burn witches.
  2. We burn wood.
  3. Therefore, witches must be made of wood.
  4. Wood floats.
  5. Ducks float.
  6. Therefore, ducks and wood must weigh the same.
  7. Therefore, if the person in question weighs the same as a duck, she’s made of wood, and therefore a witch.

Both arguments make sense – as long as you don’t think about them. At all.

With that in mind, I have reproduced what I assume must be the process ECO used to make their pet doctrine an essential tenet of the Christian faith, with hopes that you will (not) be able to do the same.

  1. Find that doctrine in scripture.
  2. Find a chunk of creed that is
    1. historically recognized as important and
    2. emphasizes an element or passage of scripture that is tangentially related to your pet doctrine.
  3. Tie that passage or element of scripture to the passage where you found the doctrine.
  4. Include the doctrine you found in (1) in your essential tenets, in a place that is
    1. logically connected to the chunk of creed, and
    2. near other familiar elements, so it’s not obvious that you just added it.

Here’s an example of how you could do it with patriarchy.

  1. The Lord’s Prayer is a central piece of the Christian Faith.
  2. The Lord’s Prayer starts with “Our Father.”
  3. Elsewhere, scripture says the father is to be head of the home (patriarchy).
  4. Therefore, because “Father” is referenced in the prayer, we find patriarchy in a central piece of the Christian faith.
  5. Therefore, patriarchy counts as a central tenet of the Christian faith.

And unlike ECO, I did it in five steps, not six.

Here’s another example: head coverings.

  1. In the (PC(USA)) Book of Confessions, Christ is repeatedly said to be head of the church.
  2. Women are part of the church.
  3. Paul says (I Corinthians 11) that “any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head.”
  4. Therefore, women covering their heads are a central tenet of the Christian faith.

Now it’s down to only four steps!

If this is starting to seem silly, that’s because it is.


*For those who are not quite as fascinated by Reformed denominations as I am, ECO is the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, EPC is the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and PC(USA) is the Presbyterian Church (USA).

ECO split off from the PC(USA)  in 2011, and the EPC split off from the United Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1981 because it was getting too liberal. Apparently the ECO churches didn’t join the EPC because the EPC was too… conservative?

Anyway, the UPCUSA merged with the Presbyterian Church in the United States in 1983 to become the PC(USA). It’s complicated. 

Back to the top.

David M Schell About David M Schell
David M. Schell is a doubter, a believer, and a skeptic. He writes about God and stuff. He is happily married to Kristen, and that's why his posts don't come out as often or as angry.

  • Leigh

    As much as I liked the article (Monty python for the win) please don’t use acronyms without telling me what they mean.

    • Thanks for the heads-up! I put in asterisks next to the acronyms and an explanation at the bottom.

      • Leigh

        Thanks. Nothing like the politics of church splits.
        I come from a denomination that has literally cut churches in two.