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The Hillsdale First Pres­by­terian Church cut ties with the Pres­by­terian Church (USA) denom­i­nation Tuesday, ending a three-year dis­cernment battle.

First Pres­by­terian left because of PCUSA’s growing liberal trend, evi­denced by the denom­i­nation adopting changes in immi­gration policy, geopo­litical standings, ordi­nation require­ments, and church gov­ernment structure. The con­gre­gation felt iso­lated from the denom­i­nation for its more tra­di­tional beliefs.

First Pres­by­terian elected to leave the denom­i­nation to join the Evan­gelical Pres­by­terian Church on Aug. 30 after the con­gre­gation voted 104 – 12, sur­passing the Pres­bytery of Lake Michigan’s required threshold of 75 percent con­gre­ga­tional approval for the church to leave the PCUSA.

The Pres­bytery of Lake Michigan approved First Presbyterian’s request to sep­arate from the PCUSA on Tuesday, and the EPC accepted First Pres­by­terian as a tran­si­tional member on Wednesday.

“PCUSA, their most pressing concern is social justice,” Pastor Patti Beckman said. “Now, I’m not against social justice, and it should happen in the course of min­istry, but for them, min­istry might happen in the course of social justice. They are com­pletely fixated on that. We are con­cerned here that the Bible is not held as the standard, the fact there are no moral stan­dards for those who are ordained anymore.”

In 1967, PCUSA altered its con­fes­sional standard by adding other con­fes­sions to it, which, Pro­fessor of Theatre James Brandon said, “con­fused and even muddled some of the earlier ones.”

“I just don’t think those were things that settled well with our con­gre­gation,” said Brandon, church elder and Dis­cernment Res­o­lution Team member.

Pro­fessor of History Tom Conner, who also served on the dis­cernment team and is First Presbyterian’s clerk of session, agreed.

“I think sooner or later this diver­gence was bound to happen between the liberal char­acter of the denom­i­nation and our deter­mi­nation to stick to more tra­di­tional prac­tices and under­standing of things,” Conner said.

The church began a pre­lim­inary dis­cernment step in 2011 by refusing to pay the per capita assessment, a vol­untary tax on each church member to go toward the pres­bytery, according to Conner.

The church paid the $15,000 withheld for the past four years from this assessment fol­lowing the congregation’s vote prior to the presbytery’s dis­missal decision, Beckman said.

The Gra­cious Sep­a­ration Policy for the Pres­bytery of Lake Michigan is a six-step process in which four rep­re­sen­ta­tives from First Pres­by­terian and three from the pres­bytery dis­cussed the con­tro­versies sur­rounding the dis­missal.

The largest concern during nego­ti­a­tions focused on property rights. The PCUSA holds the First Pres­by­terian Church building in trust, which means the denom­i­nation owns the building for the purpose of letting First Pres­by­terian use it. The PCUSA could seize the property since First Pres­by­terian is no longer a member of the denom­i­nation.

“There are people in the con­gre­gation who are ready to walk out of this building and start wor­shipping in a soup kitchen some­where because it’s not about the building,” Brandon said. “The building itself, the stain glass, the organ is priceless to our con­gre­gation.”

The PCUSA and First Pres­by­terian agreed on an $80,000 price for the building fol­lowing a com­plete real estate assessment, Conner said.

The EPC will examine First Presbyterian’s elders and pastor after they confirm the EPC’s essential beliefs.

“The last thing the EPC wants to do is admit a rebel­lious con­gre­gation,” Conner said.

The EPC will examine Beckman on its floor, which she said could be “rig­orous.”

There are some churches in the EPC that do not allow for women to be min­isters, which bothered some First Pres­by­terian members, even though the denom­i­nation does not pro­hibit the ordi­nation of women min­isters, Beckman said.

The EPC will also allow First Pres­by­terian to retain own­ership of its church building, according to Conner.

By breaking ties with the denom­i­nation, First Pres­by­terian hopes people will be more inclined to visit.

“We’re also hopeful that to the degree that people who might have been inter­ested in joining our church might be per­suaded not to because of our denom­i­na­tional affil­i­ation,” Conner said. “That issue will be taken care of.”

The church lead­ership sees a bright future ahead for Hillsdale First Pres­by­terian Church.

“It’s been a long road,” Beckman said. “There’s a new energy.”

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Breana Noble
Breana Noble is The Collegian's Editor-in-Chief. She is a born and raised Michigander and studies politics and journalism. This summer, Breana interned in New York City at TheStreet, a business and finance news website. She has previously worked for The Detroit News, The American Spectator, and Newsmax Media. She eventually hopes to pursue a career in investigative journalism. email: bnoble1@hillsdale.edu | twitter: @RightandNoble