The OPC's Heritage after Seventy Years
John P. Galbraith
It was a mild, late-spring afternoon in seemingly business-as-usual downtown Philadelphia. But an event neither usual nor unprecedented for this historic city was shaping up for the day. Some people thinking about freedom were heading for the New Century Club at 126 South 12th Street. Virtually all, if not all, of them were members of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA).
Just six blocks away was storied Independence Hall, where, 160 years before, the thirteen British colonies had culminated their crusade for liberty from a tyrannical government with a declaration of their independence and founded a nation. As we entered the New Century Club that day, though, we were more attuned to the Protestant Reformation of 400 years before than to civil freedom; we were concerned with men's immortal souls and what would be preached to them. A church was going to be founded. It was June 11, 1936.
The PCUSA and Princeton Seminary
More than two generations earlier, in 1869, the conservative "Old School" and the more liberal "New School" branches of the PCUSA had reunited under one ecclesiastical umbrella. It was officially an inclusivist, pluralistic church. Until that spring day in 1936, inclusivism and compromise had been our heritage. Through the years, modernist thinking had increasingly infested the Church, and then in 1924 nearly 1,300 ministers and elders signed a challenge to the Church's stated beliefs, called the Auburn Affirmation. It stated that key doctrines of the faith (the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, Jesus' bodily resurrection, and his miracles) were only "theories" and should not be required as "tests for ordination or for good standing in our church." Those ministers were never disciplined.
During this time, Princeton Theological Seminary was the only seminary of the Church to retain a firm commitment to the Reformed faith. But that was going to change. The General Assembly of 1929 reorganized the 117-year-old seminary to bring it into line with the broader thinking of the Church as a whole. At that point, J. Gresham Machen, a well-known professor at Princeton, knew that something definitive had to be doneand immediately. Within three months, under his leadership, Westminster Theological Seminary was established in Philadelphia, drawing faculty members from Princeton itself and from the kindred Dutch Reformed heritage.
They knew that the theology that men learn in their seminary training is usually the theology they preach and teach in the churches, and even affects how they vote in presbytery and general assembly. The liberals knew that, too, and that was why they changed Princeton. It was obvious that while seminaries can be a great blessing, they can be very dangerous also, and must be watched diligently by the church.
Machen and the Church
But there was still a problem. The Church's inclusivism caused compromise of conscience. And Machen, who saw the issue, was no mere academic. He was devoted to the life of the church and especially to foreign missions. He was aghast that many of his church's missionaries were spreading false gospels around the world. So when, after years of trying and failing to persuade the Board of Foreign Missions to remove false teachers from its rolls, he and others in 1933 established the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, outside the Church's authority, to support missionaries who would preach the biblical, Presbyterian faith. That did not solve the problem of theological compromise, but it did provide a temporary means to support biblical missions.
That did not sit well with the liberal authorities, and within three years they developed a three-part cluster bomb in response, which they dropped in 1936. The liberal General Assembly took three conclusive actions that year. First, it allowed false teaching to continue. Second, it ruled that Church members are as obligated to support the agencies of the Church (regardless of what they might preach) as they are to partake of the Lord's Supper. Third, it deposed Machen for disturbing the "peace" of the church, without permitting him to plead the central issue, the dominating unbelief in the Church.
These actions sent a clear message to the members of the Church: we are going to continue preaching what we have been preaching; you must obey us, just as you must observe the Lord's Supper; you may not divert your money from our support, and if you do, we'll discipline you. With that, the reform effort was finished. To remain in the Church, members would have to sin, and people across our nation said, "Enough!"
Separation from Unbelief
A new heritage would be established. God had put rhetorical questions to his church (2 Cor. 6:14-17): "What communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever?" To that he gave the answer: "Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers.... 'Come out from among them and be separate.' " Belief in Jesus Christ and denial of him must not coexist in a church of Jesus Christ. As people converged on 126 South 12th Street, they were already anticipating separation. The events of June 11, 1936, would not be forgotten.
As members of a relational church, as is a Presbyterian church, they were members of the same body and thus shared responsibility for the actions of their whole church (which Prof. John Murray called "corporate responsibility"). The PCUSA was "their" church; its sin was their sin. But now there would be a bright side to all this conflict. From now on, the gospel would be proclaimed with one voice and without equivocation. The new church would have one message: the gospel of the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. Wherever you would go to worship in this new church, you would hear the genuine gospel of Jesus Christ, God's eternal Son, the sufficient Savior, the only Mediator between the holy God and sinful mankind, redeeming a people to worship God perfectly and eternally in heaven. Wherever our missionaries would go, the crucified Savior would be their message, and our publications would say the same thing. What a heritage to pass on to the next generation!
A New Heritage
Those who were present at that meeting on June 11 had been in the inclusivist church. That was their heritage. But no more! Now there would be a new heritage. Falsehood and inclusivism would be out. Truth only, and all of it, would be in. There would be one rule of faith and practice, the Word of God. There would be one voice, the Reformed faith, set forth in Scripture and summarized in the Westminster standards.
No record was made of the number present that day, but the attendance was not large. This author's recollection is that about 150 were present. That relatively small number should not have been unexpected, given the complete silence on the issues maintained by the Church's official press, and considering that few supporters could be there from the West (though later there was one from China!). The numbers were not discouraging, however. Those who know the Bible are well aware that "nothing restrains the Lord from saving by many or by few" (1 Sam. 14:6). They remember Gideon's victorious little band and the dozen apostles who established Christ's church. They know about Martin Luther standing alone at the Diet of Worms, and about multitudes of martyrs and others whose steadfastness has been indelibly stamped upon the history of the church.
Of those present, 125 stood and confessed their assent to historic Presbyterianismclearly, forthrightly, and unequivocally: "The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice." "The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms contain the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures." "The principles of Presbyterian church government [are] founded upon and agreeable to the Word of God." Of the 125 founders enrolled, 34 were ministers and 17 were ruling elders. Those ministers and ruling elders then declared their acceptance of the Bible and the Westminster standards, and constituted themselves as the First General Assembly. The new church initially called itself the Presbyterian Church of America. It began with a commitment to proclaim the truth and oppose falsehood. That was the heritage it would hold out to those coming after, for them to enfold in their bosom.
There the Church stood, rejecting a former heritage and beginning its own. There stood the Church, confessing that the Bible is the infallible Word of God, the truth without error, the final answer to all questions of faith and practice. The Reformation-age Westminster standards were acknowledged to be the best statement of the Christian faith in the English language, containing the Bible's system of doctrine, at the heart of which is Jesus Christ. The other gospels that had been taught in the inclusive church were firmly rejected. The new church would proclaim unequivocally that Jesus Christ is the only Redeemer for sinners who believe in him. There the Church would stand, preaching God's sovereign grace. From that, all else in the Church's faith and practice would flow.
Challenges to the Heritage
In the early years, basic doctrines of our new heritage were challenged and upheld, even at the cost of some leaving to start another church. An attempt to "premillennialize" the Confession and Catechisms was rejected, as were several proposals to substitute commandments of men for freedom in Christ. Scripture was affirmed as the only infallible rule of faith and practice. In one of God's strange overpowering providences, the Fifth Assembly overcame an unintended consequence of the name that the First Assembly had given to the Church. The name "Presbyterian Church of America" had failed to give the small church an identifiable identity among Presbyterians, but by court order the Church was required to choose a new name less like that of the PCUSA. That gave us a singular opportunity for witness. After prolonged debate and six ballots, the name "Orthodox Presbyterian Church" was chosen from among eleven proposals. The new church was now clearly distinguished from its liberal counterpart.
Our heritage has been strengthened and shaped by events, some principial, some practical. Controversies, which have shaped basic doctrines of the Christian church for ages, have played their part in our heritage, clarifying our understanding of the Word on such matters as the incomprehensibility of God, the free offer of the gospel, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Judicial discipline has brought a commonality to important issues like the Sabbath, charismatic gifts, and evolution. Study committees have gathered biblical wisdom on many subjects, leading to deeper understanding of Scripture. They have even demonstrated that it is better for a divided committee to present majority and minority reports instead of one compromising consensus. Ministry committees have established ministries of missions and education for the whole church, while avoiding a top-down bureaucracy like the one we left. Presbyteries have created innovative ministries that have brought the whole body together. Congregations have instituted new approaches for outreach and fellowship. At every level, we have seen the value of initiative, as well as the need to use our Presbyterian system to counsel and govern one another.
On the seventieth anniversary of our churchJune 11, 1936, remember?we need to ask ourselves a question: How will the heritage that we leave to our heirs in the faith, formed by all of us together in the years since, compare with what was given to us in Scripture and creed on June 11, 1936? If the answer is "not very well," then correct it. If it is "well," then thank God and continue to "fight the good fight of faith" (1 Tim. 6:12). Our goal should be that the basic heritage of June 11, 1936, will still be our heritage when Jesus comes again.
The author, an OP minister since 1937, has served the OPC in many capacities. He quotes the NKJV. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2006.