New Horizons

Chronicles of a Reforming Church: Part 3: Choosing the OPC

Paul Viggiano

There are thousands of Christian denominations, and many of them are Reformed. With so many options, why did Branch of Hope Church select the Orthodox Presbyterian Church to affiliate with?

Once the elders and the vast majority of our church members were on board with Reformed theology, the value of connecting to a denomination became clear to us. There was biblical precedent in Acts at the Jerusalem Council, and connection to a denomination gives church members security in knowing that there is a body to which the session is accountable.

"Being part of a denomination protects you from us" was the answer given by one of our elders when a member asked why we wanted to join a denomination. It's not a grab for power, but just the opposite.

Still the question remained: which denomination? Picking a denomination is similar to picking a church. There are certain nonnegotiables, but in the final analysis there are no perfect churches. The old adage applies: "If you find a perfect one, don't join … you'll ruin it."

Having narrowed down our potential denominations to those holding to the Westminster Confession of Faith, we entered into discussions with representatives from various denominations. Upon learning of our background in the Foursquare Church, they generally sought to assure us of their flexibility, especially as it related to the regulative principle (governing what constitutes proper worship). But we were not necessarily interested in too much flexibility. We had seen firsthand where human imagination and innovation could lead.

What we were looking for was a denomination with a biblical philosophy of worship, knowing where lines should and should not be drawn. This narrowed the field. We discovered that some people find it difficult to distinguish the objective from the subjective: organ, yes, but piano, no; piano, yes, but drums, no; drums, yes, but red drums, no. I'll pause here while you read this paragraph again. Okay, now moving on, the regulative principle wasn't the only factor.

Another emphasis we desired to maintain was the evangelistic heart and positive impact in the world that had always characterized our church (a positive attribute of many charismatic churches). Keep the baby; throw out the bathwater. We had found that interaction with the world and its issues goes hand in hand with evangelism. For example, neighbors with marital problems may be searching for someone who can help their marriage. This inevitably leads to a discussion of what constitutes proper behavior and who, or what, is worthy of our trust—which naturally leads to a discussion of the Scriptures, the gospel, and Christ.

We had also found that even though many churches were touting the Scriptures as providing the proper system of ethics to guide families and culture, when it came right down to it their theological systems promoted a sort of political and ethical relativism. Our desire to avoid this was a major factor in turning to the OPC.

The Dispensational portion of our brain was telling us that the law (especially as it relates to culture and the civil magistrate) was simply an old covenant phenomenon. The charismatic portion of our brain led us to ethics by impulse—feeling comfortable or uncomfortable about certain moral codes or principles was regarded as a message from the Holy Spirit. We also found that many within Reformed circles simply avoided the issue altogether; there was almost a commitment to cultural insignificance—which we viewed as tragic, since an understanding of the law of God naturally leads to an understanding of our need for the gospel.

Getting down to brass tacks, there were six people and issues settling us into a decision to join the OPC: J. Gresham Machen, Greg Bahnsen, Ken Gentry, Roger Wagner, Rollin Keller, and a matter of church discipline.

First, from a Reformed perspective, it's hard to beat J. Gresham Machen. Christianity and Liberalism, which he wrote in the 1920s, should be required reading for any person considering the pros and cons of today's Emergent Church movement. That book is as important today as it has ever been to protect orthodoxy within the church. Machen's commitment to biblical Christianity in the face of the tide of liberalism within his own denomination reminds me of Martin Luther—a biblical, defiant nobility of questioning the spirit of the age and resisting the intimidation of men in powerful ecclesiastical positions.

Machen was a major influence in our decision. This shows the power and influence of the written word. Indeed, we might never have heard of the OPC, if not for the published works of Greg Bahnsen and Ken Gentry. Early on, our church had benefitted from the coherent and dynamic writings of Francis Schaeffer. Bahnsen and Gentry brought a rich clarity to those efforts. Their published works addressing the eschatological target of the church cleared the bugs off the end-times confusion that was endemic in our culture.

Their insistence that Reformed theology (especially eschatology) does not compartmentalize the Christian faith was refreshing in the midst of all the doomsday end-of-the-world books. We had also noticed that many churches within Reformed circles de-emphasized God's work in the material world. It was important to learn that God is redeeming the whole of creation. It was also appealing to hear their argument that God has not left men to determine their righteousness through their own sinful hearts.

When Bahnsen taught that the Old Testament was not "the word of God emeritus," it struck a chord with us. God has not left his civil ministers without a standard. It appeared to us that Bahnsen and Gentry presented historic Reformed theology as they addressed relativism in the political, cultural, and personal arenas. In terms of contemporary theological influences, the works of these OP ministers won the arguments and persuaded us to choose their denomination.

As we began the process of entry in the OPC, an issue of church discipline pushed us along with confidence. We were about to enter the OPC during the discipline of a pastor who, to put it mildly, was coming up short in showing proper respect for the law of God found in Scripture. As we observed this process at presbytery, one presbyter repeatedly asked us, "Are you sure you want in?" But as heartbreaking as discipline can be, we also considered it a necessity for the health of the church. We were watching a denomination fight for the law of God. This was indeed a denomination with which we would want to affiliate.

On a more personal note, while I was taking a class at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido, another elder and I attended a chapel service. The message the pastor gave was sound, comforting, and challenging. The disposition of the preacher was firm, yet winsome. My fellow elder and I agreed that we would both cherish having a man like this as our pastor. It came to our attention later that Roger Wagner was a minister in the OPC.

Finally, on an even more personal note, there was Pastor Rollin Keller. He was right in our neighborhood, and once he discovered that we had an interest in the OPC, he pursued us like a young man courting the girl of his fancy. Our church was a fairly young church in every way—we had only been around about fifteen or twenty years, and most of our members were young people. Having access to "Rollie" was like having a godly father or grandfather. He would answer our questions lovingly, yet truthfully, without holding back.

Pastor Keller came and preached at our church and gave our members a feel for the rich wisdom of godly men who would be taking accountability before God for their souls. Machen, Bahnsen, Gentry, Wagner, and Keller—it was like the perfect theological and ministerial storm. And here we are.

This article is the third in a three-part series. The author is pastor of Branch of Hope Church in Torrance, Calif. Reprinted from New Horizons, Oct. 2010.

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