A Holy War is raging in Bethlehem. It’s not Christians against Jews, Jews against Muslims, or Muslims against Hindus. It’s actually a battle within one denomination and at one church.
The congregation of the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, which has existed for the past 141 years and includes 2,600 members, has voted overwhelmingly (76 percent) to break away from the Presbyterian Church USA. It has opted to join the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterian Church (ECO).
Not so fast, says the Lehigh Presbytery, the regional arm of the Presbyterian Church USA, which claims that the Bethlehem church has no authority to leave with its assets, which include a beautiful church building and a sprawling 50-acre campus. The result has been dueling lawsuits over the church’s assets and an uncertain future.
One lawsuit, filed by the Presbyterian Church USA and Lehigh Presbytery, seeks to prevent the Bethlehem congregation from conveying church asserts. The other, filed by the congregation, claims that its charter, first granted in 1877, gives it control over its property and staff, and not some “self-written spiritual rulebook.”
At a hearing June 24, Northampton County President Judge Stephen Baratta resolved the dispute between the warring factions in King Solomon-like fashion. He has ordered that both groups may continue to worship within the same four walls, with one side of the dispute offering services early in the morning and the other a little later. Neither side may interfere with the other, and both must act in good faith.
A nonjury trial is scheduled in October. Both sides claim to believe in the miracles, and they’ll need one to resolve this dispute before a judge decides for them, which will likely be next year. After that, appeals could linger for years.
What’s it all about?
Though she failed to respond to multiple requests for comment, First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem Pastor Marnie Crumpler derided the Presbyterian Church USA in a WFMZ-TV69 interview as a “bureaucracy that is trying to protect itself. ... The denomination is trying to make [same sex marriage] the issue. But that is not really the issue. The issue is control and authority and what they would like to do with our property.”
But same sex marriage and gay clergy members are very much a part of the discussion. According to a church member named Ellen, the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) has “become a political organization supporting ‘progressives’ agendas. This is NOT biblical. The General Assembly meetings keep the organization in constant turmoil. They started back in the 1970s with the homosexual issue and would not take NO for an answer. This is not the work of an organization which is looking for unity. This is more the work of Satan. Kill the church and Christianity from the inside. Focus on political issues – not on spreading Christ’s message.”
The First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, the largest religious congregation in Bethlehem, is a mainstream Protestant Christian congregation that had been affiliated with the Presbyterian Church USA since 1983. That’s the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country, and it is known for a relatively progressive stance on doctrine.
A group of elected leaders or “elders” make up the church’s session, or ruling body. The session in turn is represented in the Lehigh Presbytery, which includes 31 churches. The Lehigh Presbytery has representation in the Synod of Trinity, an intermediate governing body encompassing Pennsylvania and parts of Ohio and West Virginia with 16 presbyteries and 1342 churches. The highest authority in the Presbyterian Church USA is the General Assembly. A Book of Order suggests worship services, but each local congregation retains a great deal of autonomy.
Move to the right
Linda Robertson, a former Moravian, first joined the church in 1988. She loved its sprawling campus on Center Street, with “lemonade on the lawn” after Sunday services. She enjoyed the high standards of preaching. She eventually was elected to the Session, where she served for six years. At that time, she said the church was known as “the center on Center.” But she acknowledges that, over time, the Bethlehem church has grown more conservative.
Over the past three decades, the Presbyterian Church USA has mirrored the same conflict and debate concerning gay issues that exists throughout the rest of the nation. In 1976, the practice of homosexuality was regarded as sin, but by mid-2014, the Presbyterian Church USA’s General Assembly modified its Book of Order to recognize same sex marriages, although each congregation was given the freedom to decide on its own whether to perform same sex marriages.
Courts have traditionally refused to involve themselves in religious disputes.
“The law knows no heresy,” said Supreme Court Justice Samuel Miller in an 1871 dispute between another set of Presbyterians. But courts have full authority to resolve property disputes and interpret corporate charters.
The facts in this case are almost identical to those confronting the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court when the Peters Creek United Presbyterian Church voted to disaffiliate from the Presbyterian Church USA and wanted to take its assets with it. In a 4-3 ruling, President Judge Dan Pellegrini concluded that the church had no such authority because it unequivocally incorporated into its own charter and by-laws a commitment not to disaffiliate without permission from the local presbytery.
That is exactly what has happened here.
The local church also was unable to assume control of the real estate because it ratified a PCUSA Book of Order providing that all property owned by local churches are held in trust for the PCUSA.
Mark Twain, himself a Presbyterian, once said, “You never see any of us Presbyterians getting in a sweat about religion and trying to massacre the neighbors. Let us all be content with the tried and safe old regular religions, and take no chances on wildcat.”
He never visited First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem.