Members of the First Presbyterian Church of Bakerstown voted overwhelmingly Sunday to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) and join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a more theologically conservative denomination.
Hundreds of congregations in the 1.9 million-member Presbyterian Church (USA) have left because they believe the denomination has become biblically lax on matters, including gay ordination.
The church in Richland became one of 20 southwestern Pennsylvania congregations to vote to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) and join the EPC. Of the 400 members who voted Sunday, 368 voted to leave; only 31 voted to remain affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Mt. Lebanon United Presbyterian Church and Round Hill Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth Township also voted to join the EPC recently.
After the vote, a church leader told the members that he spoke with someone from the EPC, which welcomed the Bakerstown church, and the crowded sanctuary erupted in applause.
The Rev. Dan Muttart told the congregants that the Bakerstown church has reached a "pivotal moment" in its 141-year history.
He read from the Sermon on the Mount and said that those who go through life walking a narrow road that Jesus calls his followers to walk have "tremendous respect for all human life" as well as respect for "the institution of marriage between one man and one woman."
Those who walk a broad road, he said, have an "inherent selfishness" and "do not find themselves tethered to the written word of God."
"Too often, in our society today, even amongst some ... religious leaders, the broad road is promoted while the narrow road is demeaned," Rev. Muttart said during the fiery sermon. "You and I know this happens all the time. Today, here in the 21st century, the broad road is packaged together ... and presented to us on our television networks every night. It has key words that are associated with it, like 'sophistication,' like 'enlightenment,' like 'progressivism.' "
He told the members they should remain on the narrow road, "tethered" to scripture, even when described as narrow-minded, intolerant, homophobic or bigoted.
"That whole time, we are tethered to scripture, and the scripture speaks plainly to us, and would refute those who refute us," he said.
He said church leaders had agreed unanimously to recommend members vote to join the EPC.
Rev. Muttart said some in the Presbyterian Church (USA) use "the feeling of Christ, untethered, un-double-checked by scripture ... to get across their political agenda, to get across what they think life should be like, or what culture tells us life should be like."
"They are gaining in influence," he said. "What they would have us do is not tether ourselves to the written and revealed word of God."
During its biennial convention this summer, the Presbyterian Church (USA) did not approve a proposed constitutional amendment to change the church's definition of marriage from between "a man and a woman" to between "two people." It was a narrow vote, though, and the denomination agreed to study the issue.
Bakerstown members were given an opportunity to speak before the vote. One woman spoke in opposition to joining EPC, one man spoke in favor of it.
A third speaker, Douglas Ewers, who said he has been a member of the church "since the womb," said that the discussion is healthy for the church and urged everyone to vote based on their conscience.
After the vote, though, he urged unity.
"Issues like the one we are struggling with can divide us," he said, but noted that the members likely have more in common than not.
Annie Siebert: email@example.com or 412-263-1613. Twitter: @AnnieSiebert. Ann Rodgers contributed.