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What's So Special About the OPC?

G. I. Williamson

I well remember my own entrance into the OPC. It was in 1955 after I had already faced two crises-the first in the old United Presbyterian Church of North America, and the other in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.[1] When a group of people in the old Rock Street UP Church in Fall River, Massachusetts, called me to return to serve them as founding pastor of an OP church there, I answered the call with fear and trembling.

Photo of G. I. WilliamsonThe "fear and trembling" was due, in part, to the fact that the OPC, at that time, seemed so formidable in doctrine that I was afraid they just might not accept someone like me. After all, I was not trained at Westminster Seminary (which, to me, was the preeminent citadel of the Reformed faith). But when the Presbytery of New York and New England met on that memorable night for my examination, I was in for a big surprise. No one seemed much interested in where I had gone to school. No, what they wanted to know was what I believed! They were not easy on me. The examination lasted into the wee hours of the morning. But it was, to me, absolutely thrilling. Here, at last, was a church that cared about God's truth—about sound doctrine—and my commitment to the absolute authority of the Bible. I still look back on that night as a wonderful experience, and thank God for it. So, that is number one.

And, I might add, it kept showing up all the time. I remember, for example, a vigorous debate that took place in that same Presbytery concerning, as I recall, the legitimacy of doing medical mission work. The late (and, in my eyes, great) John Murray was there. And there were other professors of some note there too. I rather expected that they would be the ones to speak, and that would settle things. But that is not at all what happened. No—and to me this was simply wonderful—men whose names I cannot even remember, now, were not about to keep their convictions hidden. And it soon became evident that in the OPC it didn't so much matter who was speaking, as what he was saying. How very different this was from what I had previously experienced.

Another thing (so this is number two) is the wonderful way that the OPC has been willing, and therefore able, to respect differences (so long as they are within the doctrinal boundaries of the Confession and Catechisms). I came to the firm conviction in 1956 that only the inspired Psalms should be sung in worship. And I still believe the arguments of the minority report of 1948 have not been successfully answered. But I mention it here for another reason, and that reason is that in spite of being out of step with the twentieth-century (and now twenty-first-century) majority, I have never been discriminated against by my majority brethren. To the contrary, I've been treated with respect (more than I deserve). I think this is because it is widely recognized that my view is that of historic Presbyterianism and that, even if I am wrong, I should not be persecuted for it. This is a very rare thing in the Christian church today. Indeed, it has come to the place in some denominations where being out of step with the majority view is the one thing that can bring discipline upon you.

A third thing that has always impressed me in the OPC is the integrity of its Presbyterianism. That may sound strange. But I think it is true. Let me give you a scenario that I have heard about in contrast. The pastor of a certain church is having difficulty with his elders. So what does the Presbytery do? Well, it creates a commission. The commission goes to the church and invites people to come and meet with it so it can hear what they think of the pastor. Some very serious charges are heard by the men of the commission. But they are not heard directly by the pastor. No, they are only relayed indirectly without naming the person who said them. And then the commission determines what should be done—usually by trying the "Solomonic method" of cutting the baby in two (by which I mean dividing the blame about half and half between the pastor and the others). Well, it doesn't work that way in the OPC. No, in the OPC people who make charges are (as a general rule at least) held accountable. And those against whom the charges are made get to face their (known) accusers. The result is that what is done is not the Solomonic solution. It is rather the case that what is usually done is to try to deal with specific sin, and to bring about genuine repentance. I use the term usually because of what our Confession says in XXXI:4. There is no such thing on this earth as perfect justice. No, but the kind of Presbyterianism practiced in the OPC is the nearest thing to it that I know of. I regard this as a very important virtue.

A fourth thing that is unique about the OPC has been its ecumenical outlook. There are Reformed churches that seem to me to be virtually fixated on the particular crisis that gave them birth. They seem to me to know what they are against much better than what they are for. What impressed me from day one of my involvement in the OPC was its lack of such a fixation. The only fixation that I saw was rather for the promotion of the Reformed faith. It is this that has made us a strong, mission-minded church (both at home and abroad). It is this that led us to help build a Reformed Ecumenical Synod in the mid-twentieth century—and then to separate from it when its Reformed integrity was fatally damaged. And it is this that has enabled us to seek—with other churches that seek to profess and maintain this Reformed faith—a new ecumenical body. We have never been (as a corporate body) afflicted with the conviction that "we are the people" and that "the truth will die with us." The OPC, in and of itself, has never been our supreme object of devotion. I believe we've always been willing to see the OPC swallowed up in something greater: if it is truly Reformed!

A fifth distinctive, as I see it, has been our willingness to face vital issues. This was true in the very early days of our existence as a church. Some, just out of the old church, wanted to impose a legislated morality on the whole church (total abstinence from any and all beverages with any alcoholic content). It is not difficult to imagine how painful it was to contemplate the loss of entire churches, in those early days, if this was resisted. Indeed, it did result in such a loss. (And this has been the case in other instances in our history too.) Yet the bottom line was that the OPC was not willing to compromise what the Bible teaches in order to avoid unpleasant consequences.[2] In those days—I was told this some years ago by some of the "old timers" of that era—the following was a popular motto in the church: Resist the beginnings! Well, I thank God that they did resist the beginnings of the path of expediency rather than fidelity to the Bible. This has made a very great difference.

A final point of distinction is the freedom to seek greater fidelity to the Word of God in the life of the church. Don't get me wrong. I certainly don't think I've done much to this end. No, but my whole experience in the OPC is to the effect that I am not only free to seek—but even expected to seek—a more perfectly Reformed church through all constitutional means.

I am not one of those who thinks that all is well in the OPC. I don't think it will ever be. No, that awaits the consummation. But, by the grace of God, we are what we are—and we need to be profoundly grateful for the heritage the Lord has given us. We also need to be on our guard today, so that we "resist the beginnings."

Endnotes

  1. The first crisis came when I came to realize the magnitude of the disaster that came on the UPC when it adopted the 1925 Confessional Statement as authoritative instead of the Westminster Standards. The second came when I encountered the sinister working of the old boy network of the Masons in the ARPC. But I mention this only in passing.
  2. See my little book Wine in the Bible and the Church, made available again by Westminster Discount Book Service.

The author is a retired OPC minister. Reprinted from Ordained Servant 12.3, July 2003.

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