First Presbyterian Church stands at a crossroads.
Will the church remain part of a denomination that has become more liberal about gay marriage and other doctrinal issues? Or will it join a more conservative denomination?
The 900-member congregation will make that decision today with a vote following its 11 a.m. worship service.
The Rev. Charles Hasty, senior pastor of the church at 1100 First Ave., said the vote will be a defining moment for First Presbyterian, which has existed in Columbus for 185 years.
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"This is a tender time in the life of this church," he said in an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer. "I, as the pastor of this flock, (along with) the other ministers on the staff, have endeavored to minister to the entire flock through this time as we've gone through this discernment.
"This is an opportunity for us as a congregation and as individuals to assess what our faith means to us and how we live it out, and that's so much larger than one issue," he added. "As a community of faith, we have to acknowledge our diversity of thought and experiences and passions and priorities, because a part of our strength is the richness of that."
First Presbyterian is currently part of PC(USA), the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States.
But Hasty said a rift has been developing over the years between some church members and the denomination over a clear understanding of the deity of Christ, his role in salvation and the authority of Scripture.
The schism widened in June 2014 when the General Assembly approved an amendment to redefine marriage in the denomination's Book of Order, clearing the way for ministers to marry gay couples in jurisdictions where such marriages are legally permitted.
Some members also disagreed with the denomination's decision to divest from companies doing business with Israel, Hasty said, and they were disappointed when a motion to identify essential tenets was defeated.
The marriage amendment has since been ratified by a majority of the denomination's presbyteries, which are regional governing bodies throughout the organization.
"It was soon thereafter that our church began to study the possibility of seeking the gracious dismissal from PC(USA) to another denomination," Hasty said.
"And (a committee) investigated which options might provide the best fit should we decide to be dismissed. And it was determined early in the fall that the recommendation was to seek membership in the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians. This is a new denomination that was formed out of churches seeking dismissal from the PC(USA)."
Hasty said more than 200 churches left PC(USA) in 2013 and joined either ECO or EPC, which is the Evangelical Presbyterian Church founded in 1981.
But First Presbyterian hasn't been united on the issue, Hasty said, and there's been vigorous debate concerning the possible switch in denominations.
"There's a group within our church charged by our elders to educate and communicate with the congregation about the important matters at hand, what we're doing, why are we considering it and what does it mean," he said.
"There has also been a group within the church that was not aligned with that direction and wanted to present another side. So they have been a voice in the conversation and have had individual gatherings and conversations in a formalized setting."
Last week, there were two tables in the church's reception hall. One had information from the Education and Communication Team, the group charged by the elders to seek dismissal from PC(USA).
The other table had information from the group that would like the congregation to remain within the denomination.
In a document titled "Why Choose PC(USA)," the reasons given for remaining with the denomination included the national organization's focus on mission work and engaging young adults; reaching people through a full range of "Gospel concerns," such as evangelism, education and caring for the poor; its commitment to the Gospel for all people and its scriptural focus on unity.
On the other table, there was another document titled "Three ReasonsFor Leaving the Presbyterian Church (USA)." The first reason dealt with the denomination's liberal leanings.
"PC(USA) has moved away from the traditional and essential tenets of reformed theology that the Presbyterian Church has believed for almost 400 years and the First Presbyterian Church of Columbus has believed since its inception," the document reads. "Among those essential tenets is our belief that salvation is through Christ alone, Scripture is authoritative, and our Confessions help us interpret Scripture."
The document quoted the Westminster Confession, which the Presbyterian Church has used as a guide since 1647.
It states, "Christian marriage is an institution ordained of God, blessed by our Lord Jesus Christ, established and sanctified for the happiness and welfare of mankind, into which spiritual and physical union one man and one woman enter. "
The other two reasons listed were the unwillingness of the denomination to establish essential tenets of its beliefs, and the assurance by a retired regional Presbyterian executive that the denomination would make no claims on the local church building.
The building and assets are held in trust by the congregation, according to the document, but owned by PC(USA).
Hasty said the church has had a series of educational and informational events to prepare members for today's meeting, which will require one third of the congregation to be present for a quorum and a two-thirds vote for dismissal from the denomination.
He said the regional executive presbyter for the PC(USA) made a presentation to the church at the end of 2014, and a moderator from the denomination spoke to the congregation at the beginning of this year.
On Wednesday, a representative from the ECO visited the church to answer questions about transferring to the new denomination.
Hasty said the debate over issues such as gay marriage is not unique to First Presbyterian.
"There are Presbyterian churches all across the country that are going through something similar and are at different stages of the conversation," he said. "And, of course, we are part of the place and time that we find ourselves and we know that's the conversation that's going on in our country and our culture right now. So hopefully we are modeling a way to be faithful in the midst of this conversation and to define ourselves in a way that opens up a future for us."
He said there are "very good and faithful, passionate people" on both sides of the debate, and he hopes everyone will come together after the vote.
"This is a church that's going through a difficult time," he said. "But people love the Lord and want to be faithful and effective in their ministry. And they cherish relationships that have been strained in some very significant ways. Because these are things that people feel deeply about."
Hasty said this will be a significant day in the history of First Presbyterian, but it's not the end of the journey.
"Really, the most important day is not the day that we vote," he said. "The most significant day is the day after we vote and the day after that because we have been faithful to our process; the congregation has participated in it. And given what the outcome is, we will have to figure out how we move together faithfully into the future.
"And my hope is that we will be able to do that in a very honest, but unified way," he added, "and that people who find themselves on different sides of this issue will also find their faith calling them for reconciliation and redemption and recommitment to the faith."
Alva James-Johnson, 706-571-8521. Reach her on Facebook at AlvaJamesJohnsonLedger.