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The Myth of Influence

D. G. Hart and John R. Muether

Were J. Gresham Machen and the other leaders of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church wise to leave the Northern Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) when they did? The small size and meager influence of the OPC suggests to some historians of American Presbyterianism that Machen left too early. At roughly 20,000 members the OPC pales in comparison to other Protestant endeavors; for instance, a regular Promise Keepers rally will draw more men than two OPC's put together. Meanwhile, after contributing mightily to the world of evangelical scholarship through the figures of Ned Stonehouse, E. J. Young, John Murray, and Cornelius Van Til, the OPC has few theologians or biblical scholars who command the attention of an academic renaissance among evangelicals. This set of circumstances has prompted some to consider that if conservatives had stayed in the PCUSA longer perhaps either the mainline denomination could have been Reformed or more conservatives would have left, thus leaving the OPC with a better and bigger witness.

Influence, however, is hard to evaluate; in the fiefdoms that comprise modern evangelicalism it is hard to conceive of any one particular individual or institution speaking for and to the whole movement. Does the popular James Dobson of Focus on the Family, or D. James Kennedy of Evangelism Explosion fame, or the prolific historian at Wheaton College Mark A. Noll have the sort of influence that the investment firm of E. F. Hutton once did ("When he speaks, people listen")? Even within American Roman Catholicism, where one voice is supposed to command the allegiance of church members, not even the immensely popular Pope John Paul II had the influence that some Reformed believers wish they had.

But to ask about the long-term influence of Machen and the Church that he helped to form is to raise the wrong question. For him and other conservative Presbyterians the choice was not how best to have a larger and more influential church. If the founding of the OPC were simply done for strategic reasons, then history might conclude that Machen and other conservatives were unwise to leave the PCUSA. Still, the issue wasn't one of strategy or influence. Rather what led to the founding of the OPC concerned the very heart of the struggles that led to the Protestant Reformation itself. Sometimes called the formal principle of the Reformation, the question that faced Machen was whether the Word of God was ultimate in judging the work and witness of the church. Was the norm for the life of the church the wisdom of God or the wisdom of men? Faced with this question, Machen and others looked past matters of influence to the more germane issue of Christ's lordship over his church.

The Strategy of Influence

One important piece of Presbyterian history to remember about the origins of the OPC is that the denominational struggle did not begin in the 1930s. In fact, it began sixteen years prior to the formation of the OPC. For the first fourteen years of that struggle the most important issues facing conservative Presbyterians were ones of strategy and influence. With liberalism in the church, how best should conservatives respond? Put another way, how should the PCUSA be Reformed? The answers were not always clear, as is usually the case in the arena of denominational politics, where prudence and discernment are just as important as biblical imperatives and confessional requirements.

One strategy was that pursued by Machen when in 1923 he wrote Christianity and Liberalism. Here conservatives used arguments regarding the nature of Christianity and the character of the church to persuade Presbyterians that liberalism should not be tolerated within the PCUSA. On the one hand, Machen argued, liberalism and historic Christianity differed on all the classic verities of the faith, from the doctrine of God to the nature of salvation, so much so that liberalism was another religion altogether. On the other hand, Machen defended the confessional basis of ordination in the Presbyterian Church and tried to show that liberal Protestants were unfaithful to their ministerial vows. Machen's book successfully defined the issues in the church but failed to persuade the majority of Presbyterians that liberalism existed within the denomination, as subsequent events would show.

Another strategy concerned the annual gatherings of the General Assembly and the business of the Church handled at those meetings. Here conservatives strove to elect other conservatives to positions of leadership, whether to the office of moderator or the composition of denominational committees. The most successful campaign came in 1924 when conservatives elected Clarence Macartney as moderator, the only conservative elected during the 1920s and 1930s. But, when it came to committee and board membership, conservatives were clearly in the minority. (For instance, in 1923 the Overtures and Bills Committee was charged with deciding upon the Presbytery of New York's ordination of two men who would not affirm the virgin birth; the Committee could muster a minority report opposing that presbytery's action with only one conservative signer.)

Overall, conservative efforts at denominational politics were ineffective. The Special Committee of 1925, appointed to study the controversy in the denomination, reported to the next year's General Assembly that liberalism, as Machen had defined it, did not exist in the Church and blamed conservatives for starting the struggle in the first place. This report only paved the way for the 1926 General Assembly to call for the investigation of Princeton Seminary, the source of so much conservative opposition to liberalism. When that investigation recommended the reorganization of the denomination's oldest seminary, the die was cast. In 1929 that recommendation took effect and conservatives lost control of the only denominational agency that voiced their views.

The reorganization of Princeton led to the last strategy of conservatives, namely, that of institution-building. Machen and other conservative faculty left Princeton to form Westminster Seminary so that the education of conservative Presbyterian ministers could go on. In fact, with the founding of Westminster, conservatives began to recognize that the strategies of persuasion and denominational politics were not going to be successful. If a truly Reformed witness were to survive it would depend on creating their own institutions that would give visibility and momentum to that witness.

Missions and the Mandate

The institution-building strategy continued in 1933 when, in response to a report on Protestant foreign missions (Re-Thinking Missions) that denied the uniqueness of Christianity and argued for cooperation with indigenous religions, conservatives, again led by Machen, formed the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. Conservatives had sent overtures to the General Assembly that sought the reform of the denomination's official Board of Foreign Missions. But once those failed, they founded another agency to voice dissent from denominational policies and to stand for the Reformed faith.

Not surprisingly, the Independent Board looked to denominational leaders like a rival organization. To squash it, denominational officials drew up the Mandate of 1934, passed by the General Assembly the same year, which declared that the Independent Board was unconstitutional and ordered Independent Board members to resign or else face trial by their presbyteries. At this point strategy was no longer the issue. Instead, the question facing conservatives was whether they would obey the Church's ruling. And this question bore directly upon the matter of authority in the church. Were Church officials acting lawfully or were they usurping the authority given them by the Word of God and the Church's constitution? If conservatives were convinced of the latter then they had a solemn obligation to make that case in the courts of the church. Machen said that because he believed the official board of missions was "unfaithful" he could not support it nor urge others to support it. Neither could he simply withdraw from the Church because such evasion would be "a violation of my ordination pledge to maintain the purity and peace of the Church, whatever 'persecution or opposition may arise' unto me on that account."

This was the heart of the struggle that led to the foundation of the OPC. Conservatives did not leave the PCUSA (of course, some were kicked out) because liberalism was in the denomination and church officials tolerated it. This was indeed a grave situation and Machen led the charge in arguing that conservatives and liberals could not exist in the same communion. Still, he knew the church militant would never be perfect. The OPC was not formed to be a pure church. Instead, it was founded because the PCUSA was unlawfully binding the consciences of ministers and church members. By requiring ministers to swear allegiance to the boards and agencies of the church as a condition of ordination, the PCUSA had put the word of man above the Word of God.

The Real Influence of Christ's Church

Did the OPC lose influence within the most prominent circles of mainline Protestantism when it was formed in 1936? To be sure it did. And did the formation of the OPC deplete the witness of conservatives in the PCUSA? This question is harder to answer since by the estimates of conservatives who remained in the Northern Presbyterian Church there were many more sound ministers and congregations than the small number (i.e. 5,000) of Presbyterians who left to join the OPC. Blaming the woes of the PCUSA on the OPC will not exonerate the responsibility of those conservatives who did not leave.

But these are the wrong questions. The real issue was whether Christ's headship was readily evident in the life and witness of the church. That is, was his prophetic office visible in the preaching and witness of the church? Was his priestly office evident in the worship and liturgy of the church? And was Christ's rule as king visible in the government of the church? These were the questions that led conservatives to found the OPC because these are the ways in which Christ displays his lordship and by which he has promised to bless his church and make it effective. To be sure the OPC has never been a pure church. But Orthodox Presbyterians have recognized that the church's calling is not to transform the culture or be influential. Rather, it is to live obediently under the lordship of Christ. As the Belgic Confession puts it, the true church is known as the place where Jesus Christ is acknowledged as head. The false church, however, "ascribes more power and authority to herself and her ordinances than to the Word of God." In the end, this is the only way to evaluate the influence of the church.

D. G. Hart and John Muether are coauthors of Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Both are ruling elders in the OPC: Mr. Hart at Calvary OPC, Glenside, PA and Mr. Muether at Reformation OPC in Oviedo, Fla. Mr. Hart is the Director of Partnered Projects at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Mr. Muether is the Historian of the OPC. Reprinted from Ordained Servant 7.1, January 1998.

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