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The Presbyterian Conflict

Edwin H. Rian

Chapter 11. "We Must Obey God"

IN ORDER to appreciate the full significance of what took place at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA, which was held at Syracuse, New York, in May, 1936, a brief resume of the issues involved is necessary.

The central point raised in the matter of the Independent Board and the deliverance of the 1934 General Assembly concerned the ultimate source of authority in religion. Should a Christian obey the voice of the church speaking through its councils and general assemblies, or the voice of God speaking in the Bible? When all bitterness, strife, name-calling, and hatred are brushed aside, there remains this paramount question and no amount of verbiage can make it otherwise. This issue was brought to a focus in two aspects: first, with respect to the authority of the courts of the church and second, with respect to the support of the established and official program of the boards and agencies of the church.

Those in control of the Presbyterian Church in the USA argued that the church is under a constitution, and under this constitution the general assembly is the highest court, and when it delivers a mandate, an order, or a decision, it must be obeyed by the members of the church. Presbyterianism recognizes the right of protest and free discussion, these men said, but if these protests are not allowed by the church, a member must obey or leave the church.[1] The general assembly "has all the power the church would have if it were possible to convene the church together in one place."[2] The general assembly, in other words, is the official interpreter of the constitution and the Bible, and all members of the church must abide by its decisions regardless of what those decisions may be.

On the other hand, those opposed stated that the Bible itself is the final arbiter for doctrine and life and that the constitution of the church makes that abundantly clear.[3] The general assembly and its decrees are to be received only if consonant with the Word of God. The general assembly and all the courts of the church are as subject to this important and essential principle of the constitution of the church as the humblest member. The Confession of Faith states emphatically that "they [synods and councils] are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as a help in both."[4] The holy Scriptures are "the only rule of faith and manners." "The Supreme judge, by whom all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture."[5]

In this difference between the two parties lies the fundamental difference between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Roman Catholicism believes in an infallible Bible, but it adds to this an infallible church as the final interpreter and arbiter in doctrine and in life. The Roman Catholic must obey the voice of the church speaking through its Pope and councils. On the other hand, the Protestant holds that the Bible alone is the supreme judge in faith and practice, and that all decrees and commands of the church are to be tested by their adherence to the Bible. The Protestant must obey the voice of God in the Bible rather than the voice of the church speaking through its councils.

When the Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly sat at Syracuse to decide the cases involving members of the Independent Board, this was the question. But the personnel of the Judicial Commission made it inevitable that its decision would favor the position that a member must obey the voice of the church. Three of the seven ministerial members of the commission, Herbert K. England, Robert Hastings Nichols, and Archibald Cardle, were signers of the Auburn Affirmation, which document attacked directly the inerrancy of the holy Scriptures. The question of the final authority of the Bible is at the very heart of Protestantism. When men no longer believe in this dogma, it is only logical that they should place the seat of authority in religion in some word or experience of man, which is exactly what the commission did.

The second aspect of the question concerned support of the official missionary agency of the church. The deliverance of the General Assembly of 1934 had stated,

A Church member or an individual church that will not give to promote the officially authorized missionary program of the Presbyterian Church is in exactly the same position with reference to the Constitution of the Church as a church member or an individual church that would refuse to take part in the celebration of the Lord's Supper.[6]

Such a statement makes it plain that the general council, which issued the Studies of the Constitution, and the General Assembly which adopted this document, elevated the decrees of a human council to equal position with the command of the Lord Jesus Christ. When it is realized that evidence had been presented, and not refuted to this day, showing that at least some of the program of the Board of Foreign Missions was unfaithful to the teachings of the Bible as defined by the Westminster Confession of Faith, the full import of this position is plain.

Dr. Machen and the other members of the Independent Board who had appealed their cases to the Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly had said in effect that neither the New Testament nor the constitution of the church made support of the church and its agencies a compulsory matter. On the other hand, the New Testament stresses free-will contributions. To say that a member must support the agencies of the church regardless of their loyalty to the Bible is like putting the minutes of the general assembly on top of the pulpit Bible.

In these two aspects of the same question is found the recurring theme and question which divided the founders of the Independent Board and the rulers of the church, and which is really the fundamental difference between Bible-believers and modernists. When once the sufficiency and infallibility of the Bible and its final authority in faith and practice are denied, the authority that is substituted must be something human and fallible even though it is a church council. In accordance with this principle, the members of the Independent Board were expelled from the Presbyterian Church in the USA, and another denomination now known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was organized.

The same question arose in the 1936 General Assembly with reference to other cases than those concerning members of the Independent Board. The Rev. Arthur F. Perkins, Merrill, Wisconsin, had helped to organize an interdenominational summer camp for young people known as the Crescent Lake Bible Fellowship. Members of the Presbytery of Winnebago objected to this camp because two similar camps under the jurisdiction of the presbytery were already in existence, so that competition and rivalry resulted. The Presbytery of Winnebago further alleged that Mr. Perkins refused to support the Board of Foreign Missions of the church. Because of these so-called evidences of insubordination and disobedience, Mr. Perkins was tried by a special judicial commission of the presbytery and suspended from the ministry for two years. He appealed the decision to the synod, which changed the suspension to one year, and then he appealed further to the Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly, which confirmed the suspension until such time as Mr. Perkins would give evidence of repentance and reformation.[7]

Mr. Perkins, according to his testimony, had established a summer camp for young people because the speakers and programs of the two camps of the presbytery were not wholly true to the Bible. Any number of such independent camps conducted by ministers of the Presbyterian Church in the USA are carried on each year, but because Mr. Perkins had dared to challenge the Board of Foreign Missions, and because he had dared to criticize certain aspects of the denomination's work, he was not allowed to organize an independent camp but was suspended from the ministry. This is simply another testimony to the fact that every minister and every member must support the full program of the church, or leave. In other words, the courts of the church are the final arbiter of faith and practice.

Still another case, that of the Rev. John J. DeWaard, Cedar Grove, Wisconsin, came before the Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly in 1936. Mr. DeWaard had criticized not only the Board of Foreign Missions but also the Board of Christian Education of the church for unfaithfulness to the Bible. The Presbytery of Milwaukee had ordered Mr. DeWaard to do three things: (1) cease his attacks upon the boards of the church, (2) bring all his charges against the church, its boards, and its judicatories to presbytery, and (3) encourage the session in the distribution of undesignated benevolence funds according to quotas assigned.[8]

Mr. DeWaard expressed his willingness to obey the second command, but refused to cease his attacks on the boards or to encourage his session to support the boards of the church. The presbytery then voted to dissolve the pastoral relationship and to continue Mr. DeWaard as stated supply for a period of six months. The Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly sustained this decision.[9]

The hierarchy of the church was determined to stamp out all forms of alleged insubordination and refusal to follow their dicta and program. It is significant in this respect to note that the one presbytery, namely Chester, which refused to try the Rev. Wilbur M. Smith, D.D., because he would not obey the mandate of the 1934 General Assembly, was also ordered by the 1936 General Assembly to try Dr. Smith.[10]

It is impossible to discuss the 1936 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA without considering the tremendous drama that was enacted there. Here was not one minister but eight, all of whom were well-known for their loyalty to the Bible as the Word of God and their unequivocal devotion to the Westminster Confession of Faith, suspended from the ministry of that church because they had the courage and the grace to obey the God of the Bible rather than the voice of the church. The ecclesiastical leaders of that church will never admit that it was a case of the Bible versus the church, but men not associated with the Presbyterian Church in the USA, and some, not even Christians, saw the real issue and did not hesitate to make it plain.

The Presbyterian Church in the USA is what is known as a creedal church because each minister and each office-bearer must pledge loyalty to the Westminster Confession of Faith as the system of doctrine taught in the holy Scriptures. The church had been known as an intellectual defender of the historic Westminster Confession of Faith, even though that defense had depended largely in the last decade upon a minority. But by the 1936 decisions the Lord Jesus Christ was dethroned as Head and King of his church, and the authority of human councils was placed above the Word of God. A missionary program which was contrary to the teachings of the Bible was forced upon the church and its members, and the penalty for lack of support and for effective criticism was suspension from the ministry. The Confession of Faith of the church was not altered, but it was so interpreted by the highest court of the church sitting as a court of Jesus Christ that for all practical purposes the Confession of Faith was changed. From that time forth each informed member of the Presbyterian Church in the USA was fully aware of the meaning of the Confession of Faith and the constitution for him. He must obey men.

The decision of the Presbyterian Church in the USA in the case of Dr. Machen and the others is almost identical with that in the case of Martin Luther. Luther declared that his teachings were in accord with the Bible and he tried to prove it. The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, said that it must decide what teaching is true to the Bible. When Luther refused to recant he was excommunicated. The one great difference between the two trials and decisions is that for the Roman Catholic, the church is the supreme judge in all matters of doctrine; it is the official and final arbiter for Roman Catholics in spiritual matters. But in the case of Dr. Machen, the constitution of the Presbyterian Church in the USA states emphatically that "the Supreme judge, by whom all controversies of religion are to be determined...can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures."[11] In other words, the Roman church was wrong in Luther's case in its lack of faithfulness to the Bible but right in loyalty to its constitution, while the Presbyterian Church in the USA was not only untrue to the Bible in its decisions but was also unfaithful to its own constitution.

At least one of the eight suspended from the ministry of the Presbyterian Church in the USA was a world-famous theologian who was honored by the world for his sound learning and cogent reasoning in defense of the Bible. Dr. Machen was by far the most distinguished minister of the Presbyterian Church in the USA in his generation. The Rev. Caspar Wistar Hodge, Ph.D., professor of systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary and a member of the famous Hodge family, wrote, "I regarded him as the greatest theologian in the English-speaking world."[12]

This blow to Dr. Machen by the church which he had served with distinction for over thirty years, together with the disloyalty of certain Independent Board members to Presbyterianism, filled his cup of sorrow. Six months later, on January 1, 1937, on a trip to Bismarck, North Dakota, to speak against unbelief in the church and the world, he contracted pneumonia and died. When he had passed to his reward a flood of tributes came from men and women of all shades of opinion, confirming not only his greatness but also the truth of his contentions in the conflict with the Presbyterian Church in the USA.

H. L. Mencken, who by no means can be designated a believer in historic Christianity, wrote,

He saw clearly that the only effects that could follow diluting and polluting Christianity in the modernist manner would be its complete abandonment and ruin. Either it was true or it was not true. If, as he believed, it was true, then there could be no compromise with persons who sought to whittle away its essential postulates, however respectable their motives.
Thus he fell out with the reformers who have been trying, in late years, to convert the Presbyterian Church into a kind of literary and social club, devoted vaguely to good works...
His one and only purpose was to hold it resolutely to what he conceived to be the true faith. When that enterprise met with opposition he fought vigorously, and though he lost in the end and was forced out of Princeton it must be manifest that he marched off to Philadelphia with all the honors of war.[13]

Albert C. Dieffenbach, religious editor of The Boston Evening Transcript, and a Unitarian minister, said,

Out of the historic issue of fundamentalism, which began about 1920 in the Northern Baptist churches but has continued unabated among a minority in the Presbyterian Church in the USA, that is, the Northern Presbyterian church, he [Dr. Machen] emerges in death as the theologian and crusader, as learned and valiant a spiritual warrior as the Protestant church has produced in modern times...

Now all that Machen ever did was hold fast to the faith and insist that those of his denomination who had taken their vows should do likewise. He was unwilling to yield an inch to the trend of modern thought.[14]

Pearl S. Buck, noted author and former missionary of the Presbyterian Church in the USA, whom Dr. Machen had opposed because of her unbelief, eulogized Dr. Machen's efforts to combat the rulers of the church even though she disagreed violently with his theological position.

We have lost a man whom our times can ill spare, a man who had convictions which were real to him and who fought for those convictions and held to them through every change in time and human thought. There was power in him which was positive in its very negations. He was worth a hundred of his fellows who, as princes of the church, occupy easy places and play their church politics and trim their sails to every wind, who in their smug observance of the convictions of life and religion offend all honest and searching spirits. No forthright mind can live among them, neither the honest skeptic nor the honest dogmatist. I wish Dr. Machen had lived to go on fighting them.[15]

Many other glowing tributes were paid Dr. Machen by leaders in other denominations and by outstanding Presbyterians, but these persons are quoted to demonstrate that the convictions and contentions of the minority in the Presbyterian Church in the USA that the issue was doctrinal, and that the authority of the Bible was at stake, were upheld even by men and women who declared themselves avowedly against historic Christianity. Individuals like Mencken, Dieffenbach, and Pearl Buck surely had no personal interest in the matter nor any axe to grind. They were spectators and, if anything, more in agreement theologically with modernists. No, the princes of the church may fool some of the people, and even a majority of the Presbyterians, by crying that the issue was "administrative," but they cannot stampede outsiders and they cannot keep down the truth forever.

Dr. Machen is gone, the supporters of the Independent Board have left the Presbyterian Church in the USA, and, sad to state, the consistent and clear testimony against unbelief that once made that church a bulwark of the faith is silent. Occasionally an individual voice is raised through a sermon or an article in a theological journal, but the corporate witness of the church through its boards and agencies is no longer on the side of historic Christianity. The church is large in membership, it is rich in endowments and buildings, it is praised and recognized by the world, but its great Calvinistic heritage, its adherence to the Bible as the Word of God, has been cast aside and "Ichabod" is written over its door. As each year passes the church becomes less doctrinally conscious and more in tune with the modernism of the day!

Endnotes

[1] Minutes of the General Assembly 1934, 73-78.

[2] Ibid., 80.

[3] Form of Government, chapter 1, section VII; and Confession of Faith, chapter XXXI, section II and III.

[4] Confession of Faith, chapter XXXI, section III.

[5] Confession of Faith, chapter I, section X.

[6] Minutes of the General Assembly 1934, 110.

[7] Minutes of the General Assembly 1936, Part 1, 105.

[8] Minutes of the General Assembly 1936, Part 1, 106.

[9] Ibid., 107.

[10] Ibid., 39.

[11] Confession of Faith, chapter I, section X.

[12] Presbyterian Guardian 3 (February 13, 1937), 189.

[13] Baltimore Evening Sun, 18 January 1937.

[14] The Boston Evening Transcript, 9 January 1937.

[15] Pearl S. Buck, "Tribute to Dr. Machen," The New Republic 89 (January 20, 1937), 355.

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