Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church

Part Two: Missions

As the previous section showed, missions was at the heart of the OPC’s founding. The early leaders of the denomination were not only concerned to send out missionaries who would proclaim a Christian message; they also wanted missionaries who would not be afraid to preach the whole counsel of God. And for the early generation of Orthodox Presbyterians, the whole counsel of God meant Presbyterian theology and polity, not a broad evangelicalism.

Some may have wondered about Machen’s intentions during the controversy over missions. After all, he could have been using the storm over the “Layman’s Inquiry” and Pearl Buck merely to prove his point about the corruption of the Presbyterian hierarchy, while not being all that interested in the cause of foreign missions per se.

But Machen’s interest in missions, and particularly in the way that liberalism was undermining the effort to take the good news of the gospel to non-Christian lands, was evident well before the 1930s when he helped to found the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. In Christianity and Liberalism (1923) Machen wrote,

The missionary of liberalism seeks to spread the blessings of Christian civilization (whatever that may be), and is not particularly interested in leading individuals to relinquish their pagan beliefs. The Christian missionary, on the other hand, regards satisfaction with a mere influence of Christian civilization as a hindrance rather than a help; his chief business, he believes, is the saving of souls, and souls are saved not by the mere ethical principles of Jesus but by His redemptive work. The Christian missionary, in other words, and the Christian worker at home as well as abroad, unlike the apostle of liberalism, says to all men everywhere: “Human goodness will avail nothing for lost souls; ye must be born again.”

The contrast Machen drew between liberal and Christian missions, between emissaries of Western culture and stewards of the gospel, is one that has characterized the OPC’s mission effort both at home and overseas. For whatever reason, whether in reaction to the missionary endeavors of liberal Protestantism or because of zeal for faithfulness to Scripture, the OPC has always been wary of substituting American cultural norms and values for the proclamation of the Word. As the following chapters make clear, the OPC has not always practiced what it preached. But in the main the denomination has been mindful of the differences between the work to which Christ called the church, that is, the ministry of word and sacrament, and the functions which God ordained other institutions to perform.

Thus, the stories in this section of the OPC’s labors in establishing churches in the United States, the Far East, and Eritrea testify to the church’s commitment to obey Christ’s command to take the gospel to the lost. Of course, we tell only a fraction of the full story of OP missions. The OPC has been Christ’s witness in Philadelphia, in America, and to the ends of the earth. Space prevents us from mentioning many home and foreign missionaries, and many places, such as Portland, Oregon, and Abilene, Texas, or the Middle East, Suriname, and the Philippines. Though necessarily selective, these chapters capture how the OPC’s Reformed convictions apply to the challenge of missions and render the church’s efforts distinctive. Unlike liberal Protestants who abandoned the proclamation of the gospel for the establishment of culture, and unlike evangelicals and fundamentalists whose zeal for the gospel was sometimes betrayed by a weak view of the visible church, the OPC maintained a high commitment to reaching the lost with the good news of Christ through the God-ordained means of establishing churches characterized by the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of discipline.

Chapter 4: Home Missions

At the founding of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, only three congregations who engaged in battles with the PCUSA over property rights won the right to retain their property. The prospect of losing their property kept many churches, otherwise sympathetic toward Machen, from joining his cause. Those that did left beautiful and historic buildings to worship in unusual surroundings. Orthodox Presbyterians in Middletown, Pennsylvania, met in the Post Office. The Hamill, South Dakota, church met in the hayloft of a barn. In Leesburg, Virginia, it was the Police and Fire Department building, and in Gresham, Wisconsin, a former saloon. Others found space in hotels, American Legion Halls, movie theaters, private homes, or rented storefronts. Far removed from the popular image of Presbyterian churches, where the stately edifice of “First Presbyterian” sits prominently in the town square, these humble beginnings confirmed in the new denomination a sense of cultural disenfranchisement.

During this time the Presbyterian Church in the USA had launched an ambitious program in home missions. Its Board of National Missions employed a full-time church architect and poured millions of dollars annually into new churches. In contrast to this, the OPC embarked on a concerted effort to establish new churches despite extremely modest financial resources. Among the first acts of the inaugural general assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was the creation of its Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension (CHMCE). The diligent work of the committee in those trying circumstances prompted Robert Marsden, in his early history of the OPC, The First Ten Years, to label it the “backbone of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.”

The Franklin Square Story

New York was among the most liberal presbyteries in the PCUSA at the time of Machen’s departure, and so it was not surprising that none of its congregations left it for the OPC. Yet establishing a congregation in the New York metropolitan area was a priority for the new church’s Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension.

The denomination was less than a year old when evangelistic meetings began in New York City in January of 1937. Area surveys indicated that the most strategic location would be in the Long Island community of Franklin Square, in the middle of Nassau County, three miles east of the city border. The first service was held on January 29, 1939, in the American Legion Hall, with twenty-one people in attendance. Among the worshipers were Robert and Elizabeth Wallace, recent immigrants from Northern Ireland. Ten months later the church was received into the Orthodox Presbyterian Church as a particular congregation, with twenty members and two ruling elders, including elder Wallace.

Largely relying at first on Westminster Seminary faculty and students for pulpit supply, the church called Bruce Coie as its first pastor in 1942. In 1943, through the assistance of the denomination’s Home Missions Committee, property was purchased on Franklin Avenue, a main artery that connected the northern and southern shores of Long Island, one block south of the Hempstead Turnpike, a major east-west route. The property included a brick and concrete building with full-length basement, as well as four additional lots. Soon afterwards the church purchased a manse.

Long Island would change rapidly after World War II as automobile travel prompted massive urban exodus. Franklin Square was suddenly transformed from a fanning community into a densely populated suburb. In 1945 Robert Vining was called; his gifts matched well the growth of the area in the baby boom era. Gradually, the church would gain greater financial stability. In 1948, it completed payments on its five-year building loan from the Home Missions Committee. By 1950 it had become entirely self-supporting.

Elmer Dortzbach, noted for his rapport with young people, was called as pastor in 1952. The church continued to grow in attendance, requiring larger worship space. In 1955 a new building was completed on the north end of the property, connected to the existing facility. The red brick sanctuary with laminated wooden arches in the interior was both simple and attractive. When the balcony was completed it provided seating for 250 persons. Six years later the church added a nursery wing.

In 1957 it called its fourth pastor, and John C. Hills began his twenty-two year tenure as pastor of the Franklin Square church. With his extraordinary preaching gifts, Hills led the church into a deep maturing of its love for the Reformed faith. In 1971 a number of families living in Westchester County, north of New York City, expressed a desire for a Reformed work. In response, Hills began a series of weekly Bible studies in New Rochelle. Eventually, that effort would become a particular congregation of the OPC in 1983. Franklin Square has also sought to extend its witness to eastern Long Island. In 1984 worship services were started in a chapel in Lindenhurst in Suffolk County. Although services were suspended after a couple of years, the church still hopes to start a work in Suffolk County in the near future.

After Hills’s death, Franklin Square called William Shishko in 1981. Under his leadership an annual fall Bible conference was begun. A parent-controlled Covenant Christian School was formed in 1984 and began to meet on the church property.

From its founding, the Franklin Square church has experienced a pattern of slow, steady growth. From twenty members at its founding, it grew to about one hundred by 1955, and in recent years it has maintained steady levels around 150. Its reputation for solid biblical preaching, a strong teaching program, and commitment to the nurturing of the covenant youth is well established in the denomination. Included among its covenant youth are two great-grandsons of Robert and Elizabeth Wallace.

“Preserving the Results of Local Evangelism”

In 1942 the general assembly formed a committee to instruct the church on the methods of establishing new churches. The result was a series of wide-ranging studies on local evangelism, which included reports on survey work, group evangelism, circuit missions work, radio preaching, and other topics. One of the most illuminating aspects of the committee’s work was its report entitled “Preserving the Results of Evangelism,” which was its description of a successful church extension work.

In order for the fruits of evangelism to be preserved, the report suggested, individuals and families must be nurtured and edified in the faith. Full instruction in the faith should take the form of four to eight membership classes that precede a credible profession before the church’s session. The last membership class did not end the work of evangelism, however. Instead, the report argued, the evangelistic task needed to be followed with a systematic program of Christian nurture. New Christians must establish habits to encourage godly living, including Christian fellowship and reading sound Christian literature. The Christian faith must be firmly established in the home, and the whole family must be under the ministry of the church. “Essential supplements” of an evangelism program included congregation visitation, a Christian school, faithful exercise of church discipline, and the establishment of a church lending library.

Particularly noteworthy were two features of the Christian life “which the average young Christian is in serious danger of neglecting.” These were the keeping of the Christian Sabbath and the daily discipline of Bible reading and prayer. The report was unambiguous and forthright in its sabbatarian convictions: “The proper keeping of the Lord’s Day by the young convert is probably the most important single element in truly preserving the results of evangelism.”

Finally, the report urged that the new believer be inoculated from the threat of secularism by establishing a Christian world and life view: “A robust Christian theism is our heritage. We are to set forth the God who is sovereign in all dimensions of life. There is no possible area of life that is neutral. All of life owes its true meaning to God the Creator and Sustainer.”

In this report, the OPC defined an Old School approach to evangelism in contrast to an evangelical one that reduced evangelism to decisions for Christ. It understood evangelism to be a complex process with elements that merged with Christian nurture. The purpose of evangelism was not merely conversion, but the development of Reformed and Presbyterian sensibilities in new believers. Without these steps, the church could not expect to survive as a genuine expression of Presbyterian piety, and the work of evangelism would prove unfruitful. The very language of the report was revealing. Rather than employing the (now familiar) term “church growth,” the report spoke of the “establishment” of churches, a phrase suggesting more spiritual depth than numerical growth.

As young churches such as Franklin Square would implement these programs, a certain ethos would develop in the OPC. Congregational piety took on a self. consciously Reformed shape in the early history of the church, as members participated in Machen Leagues for young people, Women’s Missionary Societies, Vacation Bible Schools, mid-week prayer meetings, catechetical instruction, and presbytery-sponsored summer Bible camps.

The New Life Story

If the OPC had established a model of Presbyterian piety in its home missions efforts, did it come at the expense of fuller and more aggressive outreach? Did it have an “ingrown mentality” that targeted white, middle-class suburbia and failed to communicate, for example, with the disillusioned younger generation that was alienated from the established church? These questions prompted a group, under the leadership of C. John Miller, to form New Life Presbyterian Church in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, in 1973.

New Life had some similarities with Franklin Square. Both featured strong preaching ministries, led in each case by a minister with a reputation for public eloquence. Both churches had a strong commitment toward missions, with heavy financial support for both home and foreign missionaries. But these aside, two more different churches are difficult to imagine.

New Life adopted a nontraditional approach to worship and ministry intentionally targeting the disenfranchised. Worshipers clad in blue jeans would gather in a rented gymnasium to sing to guitar accompaniment praise choruses from overhead projections. Stressing the need to establish strong interpersonal relationships, the church enrolled its members in small group ministries, called mini-churches, that met during week nights. New Life immediately attracted large numbers. Within a year it had 100 members; ten years later, the numbers swelled to nearly 500. By 1987, it had grown to over 650 and had planted two daughter churches. Quickly it had become one of the largest congregations in the denomination.

Another important distinctive of New Life was its pragmatic understanding of Presbyterian polity. In 1987 New Life of Jenkintown and its daughter churches (in northeast Philadelphia and suburban Fort Washington) formed a “New Life Network” in order to create “vital fellowship beyond our local church boundaries.” The network was to feature joint worship services, pulpit exchanges, staff coordination, and mutual prayer and financial support. Curiously, all of these were normally the functions of a presbytery. Many in the Presbytery of Philadelphia, already disappointed at New Life’s lukewarm support for presbytery efforts, saw the “New Life Network” as divisive—in effect, a “presbytery within a presbytery.”

Not long after the formation of the New Life Network, the member churches withdrew from the OPC and “voluntarily realigned” with the Presbyterian Church in America, believing that the PCA’s more aggressive church planting programs were more conducive to the “outgoing” philosophy of New Life. In a letter to the congregation, the session of New Life of Northeast Philadelphia posed the question, “where does our church ‘fit, most strategically, in light of our ministry, our location, and the times in which we live?” The session’s answer was that “our affiliation with the PCA is clearly the better option for us.” Such options were possible because of New Life’s independent mindset that falsely contrasted Presbyterian polity with higher commitments, as evidenced in their claim, “Our loyalty is not ultimately to any denomination, however good it is: neither the OPC nor the PCA. Our loyalty is to Christ and his kingdom.”

A comparison between the New Life and Franklin Square congregational experiences is instructive because it demonstrates the dilemma that confronts the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. How can new churches express a dynamic evangelistic thrust without losing their denominational identity? For New Life, the former came at the expense of the latter. For Franklin Square, theological and denominational commitments guided the church to the path of slow growth.

CHMCE: Marketing the Church?

Rather than remaining an isolated case in the church, the innovations of New Life grew increasingly influential in the OPC. An implicit endorsement took place with the appointment of Lewis Ruff to serve as the general secretary of CHMCE in 1982. New Horizons described Ruff as “reformed in his theological commitment,” yet “willing to examine nontraditional approaches to see if they were helpful in reaching unbelievers.” In short order Ruffs nontraditional methods would both gain popularity and produce strife within the church.

Beginning in 1984, Ruff and CHMCE published “Seedtime” as a four-page quarterly insert to the New Horizons in order to promote and encourage evangelism in OP congregations. A survey of its contents indicates CHMCE’s ambivalence about the Reformed distinctives in evangelism. In addition, “Seedtime” was full of suggestions for maximizing the comfort of church visitors. It reminded members of the congregation to smile at them and it urged ushers to make good first impressions. Bulletin covers should be “exciting,” and the facility should appear attractive. “How many have you lost,” the editor inquired, “because of appearance?” All of these methods begged the question of whether the unchurched ought to feel comfortable in the presence of a company of believers worshiping an Almighty God.

“Seedtime” advice stressed new techniques. The successful church will exhibit flexibility and spontaneity and “embrace faith in a new future.” One contributor urged that Sunday schools should be redesigned as outreach tools, dismissing those Sunday schools that “generally serve only our covenant youth.” Other outreach activities included soccer evangelism and church-sponsored recovery programs.

Another strategy for church growth was the introduction of two different worship services—one traditional, the other contemporary. “One of the major barriers to growth in middle-sized churches is their unwillingness … to include two different Sunday morning worship experiences . … Rather than having to choose another church because of such preference, people can now choose another service.”

Furthermore, “Seedtime” advised, the church should work toward avoiding jargon, especially in its advertising: “Most ‘outsiders’ won’t understand terms like glorify, covenant, or triune God, or even fellowship. Why risk misinterpretations of your message?” One way to entice outsiders, it suggested, was to change the congregation’s name. “Orthodox” was removed and substituted in its place were the comfortable phrases associated with upscale subdivisions. “Seedtime” also instructed churches to spell out their distinctiveness in the form of “philosophy of ministry” statements. In the examples it cited, congregational distinctiveness was characterized by worship style and the “personality” of the ministry. Entirely lacking was any reference to the denominational or confessional heritage of the church.

In all of these suggestions, the implication was clear: congregational growth was predicated on maximizing its appeal to the unchurched. Whereas former church plants were self-conscious in belonging to a denomination, new efforts were deliberate in muting an OPC identity. CHMCE’s ideas proved popular among many in the OPC. A pre-assembly workshop with the church growth consultant Frank Tillapaugh in 1985 was well attended, while a preaching workshop a few years later was canceled due to insufficient registration.

Yet there also emerged growing criticisms of CHMCE’s new emphases. The tensions between CHMCE and the church peaked in 1987, when a CHMCE-sponsored advertisement ran in an issue of Eternity Magazine with the bold headlines, “She Wants it All!” and featuring an attractive young woman on an exercise machine. The ad copy, which solicited contributions for a program called “Mission America,” boasted that the committee was employing “street smart workout techniques” to plant new churches.

Objections to the advertisement prompted a five-hour debate at the general assembly on the strategies and tactics of CHMCE. Some challenged the prudence of soliciting money from outside the denomination for “visionary evangelistic efforts.” Much of the debate was deflected towards the allegedly provocative nature of the ad. Another offense, which regretfully few of the commissioners dwelt on, was the commercialization of the church. By establishing the analogy between church membership and the trappings of American consumerism, CHMCE was selling the church like a commodity.

However one interpreted the advertisement, and the work of CHMCE under Ruff in general, it was clear that, fifty years after the founding of the church, CHMCE was far from the “backbone” of the denomination. For some, it became an embarrassment to the church; for everyone, it was the source of confusion over denominational identity.

Church Growth Reevaluated

Ruff’s controversial tenure would end in 1987 when he resigned to accept a call to plant a church in the PCA. In response to a general assembly directive, CHMCE produced an extensive report to the 1988 Assembly that outlined the “Principles, Policies, Methods, and Vision for Church Growth” of the committee. The report identified some strengths and weaknesses of the church growth movement. Among the former, it appreciated the challenge to see the church grow and the understanding of diverse ways in which growth is experienced. Weaknesses included a “numbers-only orientation” and the application of the “homogeneous unit principle” that encouraged churches to segregate according to social, economic, and cultural differences.

The report expressed commitment to biblical church growth principles, stating, “We must choose the evangelistic methods and goals that best glorify God.” It defined evangelism in a way that distinguished the roles of both the general office of believer and the special office of minister. Finally, it encouraged the church to engage in methods of a “presbyterian orientation.”

In evaluating the report, the assembly’s Advisory Committee had some important critiques. It felt that CHMCE failed to identify Reformed distinctives fully. The Advisory Committee said, “We want to see self-consciously Reformed and Presbyterian congregations growing under our church planting efforts.” Specifically, it rejected the report’s qualified endorsement of “assessment centers,” which employed psychological testing to evaluate a candidate’s gifts in church planting. According to the Advisory Committee, CHMCE’s report confused winsomeness with spirituality, as when it described “personableness, dynamism and friendliness” as “important gifts” in a church planter. The assembly agreed with the judgment of the Advisory Committee, and it instructed CHMCE to “cease to utilize assessment centers.”

In 1990 CHMCE appointed Ross Graham as its new general secretary. Soon after he assumed the post, he published in the New Horizons a series of ten propositions on “The Bible and Church Planting.” Together, the propositions provided a reassessment of church growth and outlined a Reformed approach to church planting. “Too much of the [church growth] literature,” Graham wrote, “deals with the church as if it were merely another social organization whose purpose is to grow, develop a myriad of programs, and grow some more. Our Reformed heritage tells us that very often people and size are not the issues.”

New churches should be planted with a “fully Presbyterian structure.” Both CHMCE and the presbyteries should provide supervision of and support for young churches. Graham was clear that the goal of church planting was a Presbyterian and Reformed product—covenant communities that focused on God-centered worship. While less specific than the earlier study, “Preserving the Results of Local Evangelism,” Graham’s propositions were a helpful clarification of Reformed principles to a church confused over church planting goals and strategies. Rather than seeking to be “culturally relevant,” Graham urged, “let’s patiently teach the beautiful doctrines of the Reformed faith.”


In summary, the history of the OPC’s home mission philosophy reveals a turn toward and a subsequent withdrawal from the pragmatism of American evangelicalism. How fully the church has returned to a self-consciously Reformed and Presbyterian orientation still remains to be seen.

The tension between market-oriented evangelism and Reformed evangelism is one that OP congregations will continue to experience. Much of OP piety is out of step with both American culture and American evangelicalism. Consider, for example, how many evangelical churches sponsor “evangelistically-oriented” leisure activities on Sundays (such as Super Bowl parties) in the interest of convenience. OP churches can mimic these techniques only by jettisoning a sabbatarian consciousness that a previous generation regarded as essential for evangelism.

As New Life experienced, this tension may pit a young church’s desire for “outward” community identity against its “inward” denominational identity. The “outwardly-minded” church plant would do well to reflect carefully on the consequences of its approach. Do psychological enticements and sociological techniques replace prayer and providence? Is the message so seeker-sensitive that it gives no offense? Do churches advertise peace and joy by downplaying sin and judgment?

The OPC is not without some success stories, from a numerical point of view. Some churches, like Cedar Grove in Wisconsin, seemed to be engaged in constant building and expansion programs. The Silver Spring, Maryland, church planted a daughter church in Burtonsville in 1969, which went on to plant a granddaughter church in Columbia in 1979. As a whole, however, the OPC has not grown as a denomination into the size that its founders had hoped and prayed. From its founding size of about four thousand members, it has only gradually grown to its present number of nearly twenty thousand.

Growth of the OPC, 1939-1989




































If these numbers are discouraging, the church planting statistics may be even more so. From the founding of the church in 1936 through 1989, over forty percent of the congregations have either closed or have withdrawn from the denomination. Some plants are like “shooting stars”: they burn brightly for a short time, then burn out. Some are victims of our social mobility, as key families face job relocations. Others find that disputes develop before mature eldership can be established. Still others find themselves constricted in a Reformed denomination. Whatever the reason, America has proven to be rocky soil for the OPC.

It has been suggested that these statistics should prompt the denomination to engage in “corporate repentance” over its failures in evangelism. Perhaps instead, the church should qualify the assumption in the 1988 CHMCE report that the OPC should expect quantitative growth. Perhaps a confessional church should not focus on numerical growth in a narcissistic and therapeutic culture. Can the church sacrifice confessional fidelity for the sake of size?

In the end, the OPC must not lose focus on the true nature of church growth. In a 1957 article in the Presbyterian Guardian, Harvie Conn put it well: “How does a church grow? It grows by its conformity to God’s truth, and that is not measured by numbers, but by the yardstick of growth in grace. … Growth is measured by standards, other than numerical ones. Growth is in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Chapter 5: Missions to the Orient

When J. Gresham Machen and other conservatives founded in 1933 the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, the controversy about theological liberalism within the Presbyterian Church in the USA shifted from doctrine to polity. What was the status of the new board? Denominational leaders questioned the constitutionality of an independent missions agency and brought charges of disloyalty against Machen and other board members. From the other side came claims that church leaders who prosecuted Independent Board members were maneuvering the procedures in such a way as to violate not just the rules of Presbyterian polity but also all common-sense notions of fairness. Lost in these questions of legality and procedure were the theological issues which Machen had brought to the fore in his famous book, Christianity and Liberalism. Was liberalism, which according to Machen was “an entirely different religion” from Christianity, being taught on the missions field? And if so, wasn’t such teaching leading precious souls astray? Again, it was not merely a case of who was right. The theological controversy ultimately concerned how sinners are made right with the holy and righteous God of the universe.

Evidence of the perils that liberalism presented was especially apparent during the 1930s. What had been true of some American Protestant missionary efforts for decades was now being brazenly displayed and defended. Reaching lost souls with the good news of Christ’s gracious death and resurrection was no longer a sufficient motive for missions. Increasingly, mainline Protestants were making Western advances in medicine, education, politics, and business the task of missions under the guise of ministering to the “whole man.” Ironically, theological liberals ended up becoming as captive to the culture of liberal democracy at the same time they claimed that the authors of the Bible, whose message they discounted, were bound by the norms and assumptions of ancient, pre-modem cultures. And by embracing the patterns of Western society, liberal missionary efforts also proved to be no better on the score of cultural imperialism. While they accused conservatives, who preached absolute devotion to Christ, of being intolerant and insensitive to the claims of native religions, liberals, who were keen on equality, freedom, and democracy, rarely appreciated the social arrangements and cultural traditions of non-Western peoples.

As we saw earlier, one indication of liberalism’s increasing influence upon foreign missions came in the infamous report, Re-Thinking Missions (1932). Here representatives of mainline Protestant missions boards argued that missionaries should be willing to abandon preaching and evangelism in favor of education and other philanthropic initiatives. The message of Re-Thinking Missions was soon echoed by Pearl Buck. She applauded the report and criticized older rationales for missions. The traditional emphasis upon conversion, sin, and grace needed to be replaced by medicine, agriculture, education, engineering, and the like. For her, Christianity was essentially the amelioration of human suffering and social injustice. And Christ was not a savior from sin, but the inspiration for the ethical ideals which would bring the triumph of human happiness and social progress.

J. Gresham Machen, well before the missions controversy of the 1930s, articulated a dramatically different idea of the missionary enterprise. In Christianity and Liberalism he contrasted the fundamental difference between liberal missionaries and true evangelists—between emissaries of Western culture and Christians who proclaimed the good news of Christ and him crucified. But just when Re-Thinking Missions was being debated and Pearl Buck was seconding the report’s sentiments, Machen wrote an essay entitled “The Christian View of Missions” which drew the proverbial line in the sand between liberal and Christian missions. One particular paragraph bears repeating:

One thing is perfectly clear—no missionary work that consists merely in presenting to the people in foreign lands a thing that has proved to be mildly valuable in the experience of the missionary himself, which he thinks may perhaps prove helpful in foreign lands in building up a better life upon this earth, can possibly be regarded as real Christian missions. At the very heart of the real Christian missionary message is the conviction that every individual hearer to whom the missionary goes is in deadly peril, and that unless the message is heeded he is without hope in this world and in the dreadful world that is to come.

These, then, were precisely the issues which led to the founding of the OPC. In fact, it is not at all an exaggeration to say that the denomination came into existence because of a profound desire to see the Word of God proclaimed faithfully in foreign lands. It is also not surprising that the OPC’s original work in foreign missions would be shaped by the disputes within the Northern Presbyterian Church about liberalism. While the Presbyterian Church in the USA would continue on the path of reducing the gospel to virtues of American society, the OPC would make every effort in its missionary work to keep the proclamation of the gospel central and free from the dictates of culture, whether American or that of the foreign land. This is not to say that OP missionaries upon entering other lands assumed an altogether different identity, one completely separate from American patterns. But the OPC’s commitment to the spiritual and other-worldly character of the gospel meant that its missionaries understood their chief loyalty as being to Christ, not to the expectations of Western or non-Western societies.

The story of the OPC’s missionary efforts in the Orient makes this point emphatically. Especially in the case of Bruce Hunt, the OPC’s first missionary to Korea, we see remarkable evidence of the difficulties which Christ’s ambassadors have experienced when forced to choose between loyalty to their Lord and Savior and the government of the host society. And while the stories of OP missions to Japan and Taiwan lack the drama of Hunt’s courageous stand for Christ in Korea, these efforts also demonstrate tellingly the church’s commitment to put the claims of the gospel above those of culture, no matter what the consequences.

Foreign Missions Committee Established

As we have already seen, the OPC was formed amidst the controversy in Presbyterian foreign missions. It was natural, then, for foreign missionary work to be a prominent concern for the new church. Much of the constituency of the church came from the members of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, who were disciplined by the PCUSA.

Among the priorities of the new church was the right ordering of its missions program. The First General Assembly of the OPC in 1936 appointed a committee on foreign missions. When that committee reported to the second assembly in the same year, it recommended that “in view of the existence of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions … nothing be done by this committee relative to the establishment of an official Board of Foreign Missions.” In commending the Independent Board, the committee urged congregations to support it. However, as we noted, within a year the leadership of the Independent Board moved it in non-Presbyterian directions. The committee reported to the 1937 General Assembly that “it does not find itself able any longer to recommend the Independent Board … as an agency for the propagation of the Gospel as set forth in the Westminster Standards.” Accordingly, the OPC established a Standing Committee on Foreign Missions to oversee its missionary efforts.

The establishment of this committee was significant because it steered OP missions in a non-parachurch direction, setting the church apart from other American evangelical missions agencies. The parachurch character of evangelicalism is perhaps nowhere more evident than in foreign missions. There are over three hundred independent missions agencies in the United States. Many of them are doing important work that supports the church, such as Bible translation and distribution of Bibles and evangelistic literature. Further, many argue that these agencies are more effective precisely because they are independent of the restraints of church bureaucracies and politics. But what this logic ignores is the biblical doctrine of the church. God ordained the church as the means for accomplishing the task of world missions. It was the church that sent forth missionaries in the New Testament. As Paul wrote, it is through the church, not missions societies, that the manifold wisdom of God should be made known (Eph 3:10).

Sharing these concerns over the changing character of the Independent Board, several missionaries from that agency transferred in 1938 to the OPC’s Committee on Foreign Missions. In fact, most of the OPC’s original missionaries came from the Independent Board: the Rev. and Mrs. Richard B. Gaffin, the Rev. R. Heber McIlwaine, the Rev. Egbert W. Andrews, the Rev. Malcolm Frehn, and the Rev. and Mrs. Henry W. Coray. All but Frehn transferred from the Independent Board, and all of them served in the Far East: the Gaffins, the Corays, and Andrews went to China, and Frehn and McIlwaine to Japan.

The case of Bruce Hunt and his wife, Katharine, who ministered among Koreans in Manchuria (what is now northeast China), is especially interesting because it illustrates the OPC’s decisive break with mainline Presbyterian missions. When the Presbyterian Church in the USA suspended Machen from the ministry in 1936 because of his refusal to leave the Independent Board, it also took action against Hunt, then a 33 year-old, second generation PCUSA missionary to Korea. Like his father, Hunt had studied at Princeton Theological Seminary. There he met Machen and grew both in his commitment to foreign missions and in his love for the Reformed faith.

In 1936, at the time of the OPC’s founding, Hunt was on furlough studying at Westminster Seminary, which providentially placed him in the thick of the ecclesiastical struggle. At the April meeting of the Presbytery of New Brunswick, although he himself was under care of the PCUSA Board of Foreign Missions, Hunt protested vigorously the pledge of support to this board which the presbytery required of candidates for the ministry. He agreed with Machen that requiring support of the authorized boards of the PCUSA was an “extra-constitutional question” that the presbytery had no right to ask. The presbytery denied Hunt his right to protest this action and instead charged him with disloyalty.

For Hunt these actions clearly indicated that the PCUSA was no longer faithful to the Word of God, and in fact had put loyalty to denominational agencies above faithfulness to Scripture. He could hardly be called to suffer for the gospel, he reasoned, if he did not represent the true gospel. And so Hunt withdrew from the church and joined the OPC. At the same time, he resigned from the Board of Foreign Missions and came under the care of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. After the controversies within the Independent Board, which significantly changed the character of that institution, Hunt transferred his membership to the OPC’s Committee on Foreign Missions and in 1938 resumed his work in Korea under the new denomination’s auspices.

Korean Missions: Trials from Without and Within

Manchuria and the Korean peninsula below it lie within the range of Japanese, Chinese, and Russian power and, thus, vulnerable to invasion. When Japan annexed these areas early in the twentieth century, its Imperial Constitution at first granted freedom of religion to Christians. Yet, in an effort to coerce the Koreans into becoming more faithful subjects, the Japanese undertook a systematic attempt to persecute Korean Christians.

Ironically, this control helped the growth of the church among Koreans in at least one respect. Because of the common antagonism toward the Japanese invaders, Koreans tended not to view American missionaries as cultural imperialists, reserving that charge for the Japanese. Instead, Koreans viewed Americans as fellow sufferers. In the years before World War II, Hunt was busily engaged in itinerating and church planting. During that time, he witnessed both the growth of the church as well as the growing danger to Christians as the world moved toward war.

The strategy by which the Japanese intended the eradication of Christianity in Korea was that of “shrine worship,” mandating that all Koreans participate in the worship of the emperor-god of Japan. The government pressured the 1938 General Assembly of the Korean Presbyterian Church to declare its official conformity to the demand that shrine worship be obligatory to all Koreans, including Christians. Under orders of the Japanese police, when the question of shrine worship was put to the floor of the assembly, only the affirmative votes were noted and no negative vote was called. Protests by Hunt and others against this illegal action were ignored, and some who protested were arrested by attending policemen.

The church was thrown into a crisis of persecution and apostasy, but the growing threat did not slow Hunt down. He had established a reputation for possessing an inexhaustible supply of energy, traveling regularly to speak to over twenty groups that totaled over seven hundred people. His remarkable pace in itinerating and planting churches was captured in a letter to the foreign missions committee: “I don’t know how much territory I have covered, but it is plenty—walking, cycling, riding on cart, sleigh, truck, bus, and train; yes, even boats.”

In correspondence with family and friends, Hunt expressed gratitude for the growth of the church despite the mounting persecution. In 1939 he wrote that the situation was a test for the church and God’s means of purifying and strengthening it. “We have been saddened by the threats which have caused fear and the constant falling off of numbers of those meeting in some of our groups, but we are rejoicing to see the strengthening of the faith of those who, having been so tried, have nevertheless continued.”

Increasingly, he indicated the growing danger to his own well-being. He was constantly followed by the police, in danger of arrest and imprisonment, occasionally threatened with assassination, and urged by friend and foe to leave the country. He assured his supporters at home “that we are not distressed, that though perplexed, it has not been unto despair, that we have not been forsaken or destroyed, that on the contrary, the work has leaped forward beyond what it had been in any previous year.”

Finally, Hunt’s fears were realized when he was arrested on October 22, 1941. His prison autobiography, For a Testimony, powerfully recollects his sufferings which included the loneliness of solitary confinement, the lack of food and water, and the discomforts of sleeping on a hard floor in sub-zero weather with his cloak as his only blanket. His captors did offer him a way out, if he would recant his testimony. He refused and expected to die in prison. As a 38 year-old father of five children, he longed to return to his family. Naturally, Hunt reflected on the opportunities that he had to return to America as many of his friends had urged. Was it foolish to stay? “During the past two or three years I had been urging them, men, women and children, to be faithful unto death. I had been encouraging them to suffer anything rather than bow to shrines where the emperor was worshiped as a god.” He had witnessed firsthand the beatings and imprisonments of his fellow Christians. “Could we take our family out of it and leave the Koreans to suffer alone with their families, particularly after I had been so strongly urging them to stand fast? No, we felt that as long as we were free to do so, we should keep our family there and continue to stand with our friends.”

Eventually, he settled into the routine of prison life, beginning “to enjoy the period of leisurely contemplation and prayer.” He had a calling while in prison: “prayer—hard, persistent, intercessory prayer—was my work.” He wrote hymns on the walls. He took encouragement from those whose bodies were broken but whose spirit was untouched. Again he was offered the opportunity of release, if he promised to return to America, and again he confounded his interrogators: “As far as my own personal comfort is concerned, I would like to return to the United States. But as a missionary I believe that God sent me to this country, and I want to be where I’m supposed to be. No, I do not want to go back to America.”

Eventually he was released, on December 5, 1941, after forty-five days of captivity. He immediately began to pack for the States, reluctantly accepting deportation. But the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred two days later, and Japan and America were at war. Hunt was arrested again and sent to a concentration camp.

Unlike his previous experience, Hunt found himself psychologically unprepared for his second imprisonment: it seemed less for the cause of the gospel than for the politics of war. Anticipating harsher treatment and possibly torture, he grew weak and sick from semi-starvation. As inmates from cells around him were dying, Hunt had every expectation to be among them. One day he saw a friend outside his prison window. When he had last seen him, Choi Han Gee had gone insane in jail. But now he was remarkably recovered, and he discreetly signaled to Hunt that he and the church were praying for him. It was a joyful sight for Hunt, more than repaying him, he said, for all his suffering. Finally, six months after his arrest, he was released as part of a prisoner exchange. Despite his desire to stay in the country, the government ordered that he be deported.

Immediately after the war, Hunt went to Korea to serve on the faculty of the new Korean Seminary in Pusan. He found there a nation characterized by both political and religious confusion. The church was divided by the 38th parallel, the post-war settlement that separated Korea into Soviet and American occupation zones. Hunt felt that the confused state of the country provided a real opening for an active missionary program.

But Hunt’s sufferings did not end with his release from captivity. In some respects, his most difficult days lay ahead. He faced ecclesiastical, theological, and cultural struggles similar to those in the United States which had brought the OPC into existence. Probably the greatest difficulty Hunt faced during these years was having to address the sin of shrine worship in the Korean church. Most of the Presbyterian church’s leaders had compromised during the period of Japanese persecution. The post-war church was divided on how to treat those who had renounced professions of faith for acceptance by the government. Many church leaders sought to excuse this sin, following the path of modernist indifferentism. Others argued that such believers should be disciplined by denying them fellowship within the church, even those who had demonstrated repentance. Hunt joined those who urged reconciliation through repentance and discipline.

Unfortunately, the general assembly was controlled by the liberals, including those who took a compromising attitude on the shrine issue. Sympathizers to Hunt remained in Pusan Presbytery. To reform the church, they labored to train committed pastors at the seminary in which Hunt taught. At first the general assembly gave official recognition to this seminary, yet it told the presbytery at Pusan to have nothing to do with Hunt and the missionaries associated with him. It was privately alleged that Hunt belonged to a heretical group. On some occasions he was prevented from scheduled preaching opportunities before groups by what he called “sheer mob methods.” By 1949 the difference became so great that two competing presbyteries had emerged in Pusan—one conservative and one liberal. Finally, in 1951 the general assembly refused to recognize the conservative presbytery, in effect excommunicating its members from the denomination. As a result, a new conservative Presbyterian denomination was established.

The most painful part of this experience for Hunt was the spiritual bankruptcy of the American missionaries from mainline churches. These modernists counseled the Korean church to receive back into the church those who had submitted to the government and participated in shrine worship during the war. Hunt described this as a betrayal of trust, far more damaging than the Korean sufferings of two wars. “So-called Christian leaders from America,” Hunt lamented, “helped to snatch the Bible from the hands of the Korean Christians. People representing the very denominations which first preached the Word of God in Korea are now undermining the authority of that word.”

Throughout these trials Hunt shared in the sufferings with the Korean church. He was deeply respected as a man of faultless integrity. Through his sensitivity to the Koreans, Hunt fostered a close theological relationship between the OPC and conservative Presbyterianism in Korea. It should be added that in the midst of these struggles Hunt resumed his energetic work of itinerating great distances for preaching and other assignments, without the assistance of associates on the field. This pace would eventually take its toll. Overwhelmed by his workload and the tragedies he witnessed as the Korean War broke out, Hunt suffered a breakdown in 1950. The Committee on Foreign Missions arranged for an immediate furlough during which he made a complete recovery. After the end of the Korean War in 1953 he returned to Korea, cementing the ties between the OPC and the conservative churches in that country.

The link that Hunt established was soon strengthened when others joined him in the mission. Ted Hard arrived in 1954, Boyce Spooner in 1956, and Harvie Conn in 1960, together with their families. These and other OP missionaries have contributed to the growth of the church in Korea in several ways. For example, they have been active in church planting but in a manner consistent with the philosophy of the Foreign Missions Committee: namely, that the mission always worked with established indigenous denominations. Hunt lamented the failure of many evangelical missions to exhibit a “church consciousness” and helped to set the OP effort in Korea on a course committed to the church and good church order.

Other important contributions by the OPC to the church in Korea were in the areas of education, literature translation, and leadership training—critical areas for the rapidly growing church. These contributions helped the church to face the threat of modernism and the cults. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, were active and rapidly gaining adherents. Hunt personally believed that his most important work was to help Koreans in evaluating these religious movements, understanding their backgrounds and dangers.

In recent years the Korean church has matured to the point where it is a “sending church,” commissioning missionaries to serve in foreign countries. Under the direction of Young Son, an OP missionary, the Missionary Training Institute of Seoul has trained over 350 Koreans who have gone on to serve in over fifty countries. These and the vital witness of Korean Presbyterianism are fruit of the OPC’s work in the Orient and the faithful labors of missionaries like Bruce Hunt.


At the same time that the Foreign Missions Committee commissioned Hunt to serve in Korea, it also sent out other missionaries to the Orient. In 1938, the year of the committee’s founding, Malcolm Frehn and Heber McIlwaine arrived in Japan and began work in a country whose constitution guaranteed religious freedom. But that freedom came increasingly under attack. In 1940, as the political tensions which would erupt in World War II escalated, the government demanded that all support for foreign missions be stopped. It also pressured all of the various Christian denominations to form one United Church of Japan (Kyodan). At the same time, following its policy in Korea, the Japanese government ordered the church to institute the practice of shrine worship. And as was the case in Korea, the edict had two results: the persecution of the faithful who disobeyed the government and compromise by many of the church leaders. The escalation of war forced Frehn and McIlwaine to return to the United States in 1941.

After the war and with the victory of the Allied Forces, General Douglas MacArthur abolished the Religions Law of the Empire and restored religious freedom to Japan. But the modernists who dominated the United Church of Japan wanted to preserve the union, largely as a face-saving effort to demonstrate that the church had retained its autonomy and integrity. This left conservatives with no choice but to form a new denomination, which they did in 1946 with the founding of the Reformed Church in Japan. Adopting the Westminster Confession as its doctrinal standard, the new church embraced the Reformed faith in its founding declaration: “Today, as one branch of this glorious historic Reformed church that desires to be truly ecumenical and orthodox, our Reformed Church of Christ in Japan has been constituted by the Japanese in Japan, and we cannot but give thanks that this church has come to be founded, as through the deep mercy and leading of God. … The hope of the world is in the God of Calvinism.”

Because the Reformed Church in Japan was so small at its founding—the church had only eight churches and about two hundred members—it welcomed the assistance of foreign missionaries. Leaders of the OPC’s Committee on Foreign Missions were immensely encouraged by these developments and reopened the denomination’s Japan mission, sending in 1951 McIlwaine and George Uomoto, together with their families. Their tasks included literature distribution and radio work, but mostly the mission set out to engage in regular, continual preaching and teaching within and alongside the indigenous church. This patient work has grown for four decades, to the point where Japan now has the highest concentration of OP missionaries in the world.

But the work has met with more intense cultural resistance than any other OP mission. Less than one percent of the Japanese population is Christian. Christianity raises deep Japanese suspicions about Western imperialism. Many Japanese are eclectic in their religious practices and are averse to a faith that makes exclusive claims on behalf of a personal God. Family ties are close, and children are expected to participate in ancestor worship; those who convert face serious opposition from their families. Nevertheless, the Reformed Church in Japan has experienced slow and steady growth. By the time of the church’s twentieth anniversary in 1966, it had sixty-five churches and over four thousand members, another sign of God’s rich blessing upon the patient work of solid Reformed witness. More recent statistics, approximately ninety congregations and six thousand members, again testify to the slow but nonetheless steady growth of the Reformed faith in Japan.


The OP mission to Taiwan, as in the case of Korea and Japan, was conditioned by events, particularly political developments, outside the church’s control. In 1948 the communist revolution in China had forced Chiang Kai-shek to flee the mainland for Taiwan, where he established his government. Chiang’s exile both closed and opened doors for OP missionaries. In his eagerness to cultivate Western connections (especially military support), Chiang invited American missionaries to Taiwan. In response, the OPC Committee on Foreign Missions sent Egbert Andrews and the Rev. and Mrs. Richard Gaffin, who had worked in mainland China before World War II, thus relocating the Chinese mission in Taiwan.

Eventually, two million Mandarin-speaking refugees migrated with Chiang from the mainland after the revolution. But the majority of the natives did not look favorably on Chiang’s rule. Especially unpopular was his decision to introduce Mandarin as the national language over the native tongue, Taiwanese. Strong prejudice and persecution extended in both directions, forcing difficult decisions upon the OP mission. Should it minister in Mandarin to younger people (who were learning Mandarin in school) and in the more urban settings, or in Taiwanese to the generally older, poorer, and more rural population? Should the church’s Mandarin-speaking missionaries learn a new language? Should they focus on refugees from the mainland in anticipation of a return to a liberated China? Would a Mandarin-speaking mission indicate support for the unpopular ruling government and compromise its ability to reach the native? Complicating the issue was the presence of other language groups, including the Hokka, one-half million strong, who spoke an entirely different language.

The Taiwan mission debated these issues passionately, since the ways in which Chiang’s rule divided the island threatened also to divide the mission itself. Unlike the missions in Korea and Japan, no clear sense of unified mission goals emerged in the OPC work. In the end, the missionaries determined it was best to operate in a decentralized manner, and established, in effect, three different fields. Egbert Andrews (whose wife Betty, a Christian Reformed missionary, joined him when they married in 1957) worked among the Taiwanese in Taipei and Kaohsiung. John Johnston (who arrived in 1954) worked largely in Hsin Chu among the Hokkas, and the Gaffins served in Taichung among the Mandarin-speaking population.

At first the mission worked alongside the Taiwanese Presbyterian Church. Unlike its Korean and Japanese counterparts, this church was regarded as fairly stable immediately after World War II. Yet it had no distinctively Reformed confessional statement, and many of its younger ministers, trained in mainline American seminaries, brought neo-orthodoxy and liberalism into the church. Eventually the Taiwanese church joined the World Council of Churches and ordained women to special office. In response to the church’s slow doctrinal decline, the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Taiwan was formed in 1971, assisted by the OP mission, along with missionaries from Korea and New Zealand, representatives of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, and the Christian Reformed Church.

Political tensions resurfaced in the late 1970s when the United States government cut off diplomatic relations with Taiwan and officially recognized the communist government in mainland China. Anti-American rioting threatened the safety of the missionaries, again posing difficult questions for the mission. Could they labor effectively without an American embassy? Would they leave if the Chinese invaded? In effect, the OP mission to Taiwan ended up wrestling with questions very similar to those which Bruce Hunt had encountered three decades earlier in Korea. If the missionaries left, what message would such an action communicate to believers who were undergoing profound suffering and persecution? Providentially, the fears of the mission were not realized, as the political situation stabilized. But the problems which politics posed to the OP work in Taiwan highlighted the tremendous barriers that modem missions face. These problems also underscore the missionaries’ utter dependence upon God for spiritual harvest and physical safety.


The history of the OPC’s missions to the Orient is, in a sense, three very different stories: encouraging harvest in Korea, slow growth in Japan, and struggles amid the political and cultural upheavals in Taiwan. Yet there are similarities as well. To a remarkable extent, all three fields paralleled the story of American Presbyterianism a generation earlier. Modernism crept into the churches, and ministers faithful to the gospel were attacked or forced out of the pulpit. New denominations were formed, evidence of the faithful remnant who sought to perpetuate a true Reformed and Presbyterian witness. Like J. Gresham Machen, many of the OPC’s missionaries in the Orient were accused of legalism, of dead orthodoxy, and of splitting the church. In fact, Bruce Hunt was called the leader of the “Machen sect” and a “heretic” because he had been disciplined by the PCUSA. Many also experienced the loneliness of ecclesiastical isolation. But by living through the struggles that led to the founding of the OPC, Hunt, Gaffin, McIlwaine, and others were prepared to persevere through those struggles on the mission field, and to guide the Korean, Japanese, and Taiwanese Christians through them.

The OPC not only served these churches through the missionaries who went to Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, but professors at Westminster Seminary such as John Murray, Cornelius Van Til, Ned Stonehouse, and E. J. Young, all active OP churchmen, were very helpful in the establishment and sustenance of Christian witnesses in these missions. These faculty members not only trained leaders—some of whom actually came from the Orient to study at Westminster—for work in these foreign churches, but through their commitment to Scripture and the Westminster Confession they provided useful tools for ministers and missionaries who confronted imposing traditions such as Buddhism and Confucianism.

Finally, the cultural disenfranchisement which the OPC had experienced in the United States prepared its missionaries well for the difficult cross-cultural work of propagating the faith in hostile environments. As OP missionaries pursued the challenge of communicating the gospel of God’s salvation in Christ in different cultures, they adapted their message to foreign audiences in ways that neither exported Western lifestyles nor embraced cultural relativism. The infallible Word of God was their rule for faith and practice, and the theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith was their banner, not because it was Western but because it was biblical. In the spirit of Machen, they proclaimed a timeless truth that transcends all cultures.

Chapter 6: Eritrea

“It is all over.” Those were the words Karl Dortzbach used on June 18, 1974, to describe the work of the American Evangelical Mission of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Eritrea. They were very discouraging and shocking words for those who supported the OPC’s mission efforts in Eritrea and were earnestly hoping for some good news. Yet Dortzbach had good reason for such an alarming assessment. His pregnant wife, Debhie, a nurse at the mission’s Compassion of Jesus Hospital, had been kidnapped and was now held hostage by the Eritrean Liberation Front. She was a captive in the escalating animosities between the Ethiopian government and guerrilla forces seeking the independence of the Eritrean province.

The most recent communication from Debhie Dortzbach’s captors only reinforced her husband’s pessimism. In repeated letters the kidnappers demanded a ransom for the safe return of their hostage. At first they had demanded $75,000 plus an additional $10,000 in medical and other supplies. Later, the amount was reduced to $12,500. Each time Karl steadfastly refused, not in an effort to obtain a better price, but because he was following the official guidelines of the OPC. Twenty years earlier, the Committee on Foreign Missions had established the policy that no ransom was to be paid. “Under no circumstances,” the committee insisted, “may moneys … be used for the ransom of any of the missionary family.” In the case of the Dortzbachs it was not simply that the Committee would not overturn a well-established principle of foreign missions; the OPC’s austere missions budget did not have sufficient funds for even the smaller ransom figure.

For these reasons it now seemed that Debbie would share the fate of her fellow missionary nurse, Anna Strikwerda, who, just a few weeks earlier on May 27th, had been brutally murdered during a raid on the missionary hospital where she and the Dortzbachs worked. Despite several frustrating efforts to negotiate through intermediaries, the Eritrean Liberation Front remained adamant. In a letter dated June 14, the kidnappers warned that the mission must assume responsibility for its refusal to pay the ransom. Karl Dortzbach was sure that this letter sealed the fate of his wife and unborn child. He would later describe his ambivalent emotions during that long day spent in prayer: “Confusion and uncertainty, discouragement and despair, still riddled me; but almost imperceptibly hope inched into my mind—hope in God’s power.”

On the evening of the 18th another letter arrived with inexplicable and remarkable news. The Eritrean Liberation Front had determined to release Debbie Dortzbach unharmed and without conditions. Four days later she was reunited with her husband and the mission. The ordeal of the 26-day kidnapping, the anguish and hardships encountered, and the peace and comfort in God’s gracious provision are recounted by the Dortzbachs in their book, Kidnapped (1975). But despite this book’s happy ending, Karl Dortzbach’s words, “It is all over,” settled over the Eritrean mission. The mission would be shut down because of the escalating confrontation between the Eritrean factions.

Would God allow this land to be forsaken for long? Before we answer this question, it would be helpful to take a closer look at the origins of OP mission efforts in Eastern Africa.

Churchly Missions

The founding of the OPC’s Committee on Foreign Missions in 1936 marked a radical departure from the missions philosophy that dominated conservative Protestantism, whether evangelical or fundamentalist, throughout the first half of the twentieth century. While conservatives had generally supported a variety of missionary organizations which were non-denominational, dispensationalist, Arminian in theology, and free from ecclesiastical oversight, the OPC’s work was probably the only effort in foreign missions which explicitly rejected theological modernism and at the same time championed Calvinist theology, a high view of special office, and the necessity of connections to and dependence upon a supporting denomination. The OPC, true to the tradition of Old School Presbyterianism, testified to the belief that missions and evangelism were ministries reserved strictly for the church. According to this perspective, the task of proclaiming the gospel is to be carried out only by ordained ministers and evangelists, who depend upon the church for oversight, edification, and financial support.

The Presbyterian polity of OP missions has prevented the denomination from repeating some of the errors that have plagued evangelical missions. Unlike evangelical missions agencies which lack ecclesiastical oversight and are often subject to the sometimes capricious preferences of powerful personalities, OP missionaries are bound by the same set of theological standards which the church sets for its ministers.

Another significant blessing which comes from making the church, as opposed to the parachurch, responsible for missionary work is a clear vision of the nature and purpose of missions. The OPC has insisted that Christ ordained the visible church for the proclamation of the gospel and that the church has been uniquely gifted for this task. This understanding of the gospel and of the church has always functioned as a check upon the temptation to enlarge the work of the missions beyond the proclamation of the Word of God. Only in rare cases, as in the dire circumstances of Northeast Africa, has the OPC included other activities. And this feature of the OPC’s missions has set the denomination apart from evangelical missions agencies which, because of a low view of the church and special office, have ironically repeated the errors of mainline missions. Not only have evangelical missions included activities common to human society in the work of foreign missions, but the blurring of the lines between saving and common grace, or between special and general revelation, has once again raised questions in some evangelical missions circles about the uniqueness of the Christian mission and ultimately about the nature of salvation.

Also, unlike evangelical missions which have sent out large numbers of missionaries to convert as many as possible and as soon as possible because of the imminence of Christ’s return (a motive stemming directly from the teachings of dispensational premillennialism), the OPC has been committed to the more ordinary and deliberate work of establishing churches which will continue to minister God’s Word to many generations of believers. To be sure, the OPC shares the zeal of evangelicals to spread the good news of God’s grace in Christ and convert the elect. This is, after all, the biblical mandate for missions. But the church has been reluctant to abandon the means God ordained for reaching the lost, and it has not seen conversion as the sole end of missions. Rather, its strategy in foreign missions differs little from its aims at home. The goal of foreign missions has been to establish churches committed to Reformed theology and faithful to Presbyterian polity. This goal is the result of the OPC’s belief that foreign missionaries, like American pastors, are to proclaim the whole counsel of God, not merely the bare bones of the gospel. For this reason, the OPC has taken seriously Christ’s command in the Great Commission to make disciples and baptize them. This work involves missionary efforts committed to the long haul.

As is also evident in the case of OP missions to Eritrea, however, this commitment does not come without exacting a high price. Indeed, the OPC’s dedication to the slow and deliberate labor of establishing churches and instructing believers in the wonderful truths of the Reformed faith has often met, as in the case of the Dortzbachs, with what have appeared to be overwhelming difficulties. But despite the trials which OP missionaries have endured, God has richly blessed the work in Africa because he is faithful to his promises.

“A Hot, Barren, Rocky, Mohammedan Field”

In April of 1941, while the war in the Pacific theater was forcing OP missionaries in Japan, China, and Manchuria to return home, the British liberated the nation of Ethiopia from the Italians when they captured the capital, Addis Ababa, from Mussolini’s forces. For Clarence Duff, this provided an opportunity to return to the land where he had labored for eleven years with the Sudan Interior Mission (SIM). Serving at the time as an OP home missionary in Colorado, Duff wrote to the Committee on Foreign Missions proposing that it consider a work in Africa. The committee responded enthusiastically to Duff’s proposal, and in 1943 Duff traveled alone to Africa to survey the field and to gain a permit of entry in Ethiopia.

Duff’s overtures to the Committee on Foreign Missions signaled a major shift in his missionary career. In leaving the Sudan Interior Mission for the OPC, Duff left one of the most prominent of the evangelical “faith missions” agencies (such as China Inland Mission or Africa Inland Mission) that had started around the turn of the twentieth century. These parachurch agencies were convinced that the task of missions was more efficiently conducted outside of the restraints of denominational control. Staff members were characteristically lay people, trained at dispensational schools such as Moody Bible Institute or Philadelphia College of the Bible, and sent to the mission field generally without seminary training. Convinced that the time was short before the return of Jesus, and urged on by a revivalist mentality that sought to win decisions for Christ, evangelical faith missions placed a strong priority on massive evangelistic campaigns to reach the lost. Faith missions were quick to use the latest in technology, such as radio and airplanes, but reluctant to reflect carefully on the nature and purpose of the missionary task. All of these characteristics—the dramatic urgency of its task, the downplaying of potentially divisive doctrines, and the appeal of a technique-oriented ministry—served to win for faith missions large support from fundamentalists and evangelicals.

Formed in 1893, SIM expanded rapidly in the first two decades of the twentieth century, counting five hundred missionaries on its rolls by 1945. But Clarence Duff would not be found on those lists. When he returned to the United States in 1938, Duff immediately left the PCUSA for the OPC, along with his wife, Dorothea, whom he had met and married on the mission field. Although he left many friends at SIM, he chose the less popular route of ecclesiastical missions, fully committed to the cause of the young church.

But the path he chose would prove immediately to be a difficult one. Duff’s initial plans to obtain a permit of entry to return to Ethiopia met with formidable resistance. In a letter to Foreign Missions general secretary Robert Marsden, he outlined his problems: “The fact that I am representing a new organization may make it more difficult. The policy of the Ethiopian government is to allow entry only of personnel of established societies.”

Instead, Duff determined to go to Eritrea, which at the time was under the friendlier rule of the British Military Administration. Through previous work Duff had established friendships with other missionary societies which proved helpful in starting the Eritrean work. Although Marsden had urged Duff to make every effort to enter Ethiopia, he sensed the frustration of the denomination because of the number of delays that Duff experienced, and so he agreed with Duff’s decision to press on in Eritrea. It was increasingly evident that Eritrea held greater promise for the establishment of a church.

Duff described the challenge before him in a letter to Marsden in 1944: “The difficulties are rather staggering—climate, modern prejudice, terrifically rugged terrain in the mountainous parts, difficult language or languages, semi-nomadic habits of many of the people.” The work was far different from his previous missions experience. He called it a “hot, barren, rocky, Mohammedan field” that contrasted sharply with the “green mountains and flowing springs” of southern Ethiopia, and he likened Eritrea’s “extreme heat, scorching winds, and sudden floods” to Israel’s experience in the wilderness.

Yet in that forbidding environment a mission grew. As Duff surveyed the field, he saw the need for many workers and, in effect, two missions—one to the Ethiopic Coptic church and another to the Muslims. In 1944 Charles Stanton arrived; later his wife Fern joined him, and they served until 1949. Francis and Arlena Mahaffy came a year later and would serve there until 1968. The fact that these missionaries and their families traveled to Africa under the perilous conditions of a world war encouraged Duff in the denomination’s commitment to the Great Commission.

The mission needed long periods of laborious plowing before it began to reap any significant fruit. Several different languages had to be learned and relationships of trust had to be established. Several times the mission was frustrated by painful defections of individuals who had made what seemed were genuine professions of faith. The persecution and ostracism faced by new converts were harsh. Ten years would pass before the mission would realize the spiritual harvest of new believers. Gradually, there were encouraging results from their longer-term perseverance. “As the years pass,” wrote Duff, “evidence comes from here and there that some of the good seed thought to have been wasted has much later, often in some other part of the country, borne good fruit.”

As the mission developed, it confronted two issues that engaged the young church at large as it developed basic principles of foreign missions. The first was the issue of control of the mission churches and the second was the role of medicine on the mission field.

The Goal of the Mission: Indigenous Churches

In a 1950 article in the Presbyterian Guardian, Clarence Duff reflected at some length on the goal of the young new mission. He noted how, historically, many other missions faced difficulties from excessive control by the sponsoring American church. He compared traditional missions with a new plan that he found encouraging. The old plan consisted of “foreign support, foreign affiliation, and foreign control.” The new plan consisted of “native finance, native affiliation, and native control.” The goal of missions, he asserted, was truly Presbyterian native churches: “the only hope of discipling all nations is through native churches in each country.” He found biblical precedent for this in the missionary efforts of the apostles. Further, the limited resources of the OPC demanded that the church conduct its missions program most efficiently and not waste any energy or means.

Duff anticipated some resistance to his idea. Could a newly established church take responsibility for its government, support, and growth? Could it provide discipline and mature elders? Duff was confident that it could. In fact, he argued that native Christians were in a better position to exercise discipline, and that their rule was likely to be more effective. The mission developed a three-fold strategy: 1) thorough and widespread evangelism, 2) careful instruction of all converts, and 3) the ordination of elders.

This thinking lay behind the name for the mission, the American Evangelical Mission of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. All three elements of the name were carefully chosen. “American” usefully capitalized on the popularity of America among the Eritreans. “Evangelical” set the mission off from Roman Catholic missions or Coptic churches, although Duff recognized the imprecision of the name: “no doubt much additional meaning can and ought to be put into the word through instruction.” Finally, “Mission” properly distinguished it from the church, which would be established by natives. “Let the mission be foreign,” Duff wrote, “but let the church be native.” Not only was Duff’s reasoning biblical, its stress on local control wisely anticipated the anti-Western attitudes of the decolonization movement that characterized post-World War II Africa.

Another consequence of Duff’s mission philosophy—one that has characterized the work of the OPC in general was that the Eritrean mission would support rigorous educational work. Evangelism was not enough. The emerging church had to be strengthened through a program of Christian education, thus heeding Christ’s command in the Great Commission to make disciples. The translation and publishing of solid Christian literature was always a priority in the mission. Francis Mahaffy translated portions of the New Testament into the Saho language and produced over a dozen booklets and tracts in that language. Working among the Coptics, Herbert Bird worked on Bible and catechism translation into the Tigrinya language.

The Means of the Mission: Ministry of Mercy

In the same 1950 article in the Presbyterian Guardian, Duff raised the question about the role of medical work in foreign missions: “Is it merely an auxiliary to evangelism, an attraction to get people to listen to the gospel? Or does it have a sphere of its own, in manifesting the compassion of Christ through the ministry of healing?” These were not merely hypothetical questions for Duff. From the outset of the work in Eritrea, the Duffs were overwhelmed by the country’s staggering medical needs. The little ministry of mercy that they could provide opened many doors for gospel witness. By 1948 Duff appealed for help in a letter to Robert Marsden. “We are more than ever convinced,” Duff wrote, “that a trained nurse would find a most profitable field of work here in Ghinda. Furthermore, if we do not soon have someone who is capable of doing medical work in a proper manner, I don’t know what we shall do.”

The Duffs and the Mahaffys continued to provide medical care, and by 1952 they were treating up to one hundred patients a day. The urgency of the situation was highlighted in the Orthodox Presbyterian Messenger: “The pitiful need for medical help has surrounded the missionaries on every hand and in spite of their lack of special training they have helped [patients] in their need as they have been able to do so.” Meanwhile, the government established higher qualifications for medical workers, and unlicensed workers were subject to malpractice prosecution. The mission was convinced that it had to recruit trained and licensed medical missionaries.

In response to these needs, a nurse arrived in 1949 but she soon left, unable to adjust to the mission field. Again in 1956 a team of English nurses arrived from the Red Sea Mission but their help proved to be temporary. They served in the Ghinda clinic only until 1959. In the 1960s, the Committee on Foreign Missions was finally able to appoint and send doctors to the field. In 1964 Dr. John Den Hartog arrived in Eritrea and the following year Dr. Lyle Nilson, along with several nurses, completed the medical team. In that same year the committee voted to construct a small, fifty-bed hospital in Ghinda. Much of the cost of the hospital was actually subsidized by three Reformed Church in America congregations in Michigan and Iowa.

The decision to build a hospital finally forced the OPC to address the questions Duff had raised in 1950 about the propriety of medical missions. Is medicine part of the Great Commission and is there biblical warrant for the church as the church to practice medicine? Or is medicine, as part of the cultural mandate, something outside the church’s authority which should be left to individual Christians in the course of their vocational responsibilities?

In 1963 the general assembly asked the Committee on Foreign Missions to report on the scriptural principles for the ministry of mercy in the church at the next assembly. That report argued that “the Scriptures not only sanction or permit medical missionary work but also require it under conditions of need.” It went on to argue that Jesus expressed concern for both the healing of the body and the soul, and that the continuing church should follow his example of compassion for both.

The report did not satisfy one member of the Foreign Missions Committee, Meredith Kline, then a professor of Old Testament at Westminster Seminary. In his minority report, Kline claimed that the committee violated the principle of “sphere sovereignty,” which held that different social structures had separate spheres or areas of responsibility. No social institution should perform the work appointed for another. Specifically, Kline argued, the church could not claim for itself tasks that fall in the sphere of general human culture (such as medical work). Instead, the clear teaching of Scripture was that the church should restrict itself to the ecclesiastical functions of the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments.

Herbert Bird responded to Kline on behalf of the majority of the committee. Bird first noted the difficulty that affluent Western cultures have in appreciating the value of mercy ministries in underdeveloped countries. Eritrea was not a place “where the pure teaching of the Word will not be complicated by the demands of human wretchedness.” Bird also agreed in general with the principle of sphere sovereignty, but he felt that Kline drew too fine a distinction between the church’s task in carrying out the Great Commission and individual Christian responsibility in pursuing the cultural mandate. Could the church ever engage in cultural activities? Bird thought Kline’s “never!” was too extreme. Instead, a balanced biblical response was “hardly ever.” Here Bird compared the work of medicine and translation. The medical missionary, he argued, is no less engaged in cultural activities than the missionary linguist who commits an unwritten language to writing in order to translate the Bible. His conclusion—that “a ministry of mercy is a valid expression of Christian concern by the church as church”—convinced the 1964 Assembly, which approved the construction of the mission hospital.

Defeat or Bright Promise?

Despite efforts to establish indigenous churches and the construction and administration of a small hospital, the OPC had no control over the political turmoil that continued to torment the nation of Eritrea. Indeed, the murder of Anna Strikwerda, the first martyr of the OPC, and the kidnapping of Debbie Dortzbach made clear just how much the work in Eritrea was captive to the forces of political intrigue. Consequently, the surprising release of Mrs. Dortzbach in 1974 did not end the dangers to the Eritrean mission. The trauma of war continued to escalate as Marxist rebels sought control of the government. During the civil war, OP missionaries endured the terror of frequent local shootings and exploding land mines. Finally, in 1976 Osman Adem, a dedicated worker in the hospital, was seized and never seen alive again. Immediately, the mission and the hospital closed, ending thirty-two years of service. The remaining missionaries returned to the United States.

No doubt the departing missionaries, along with the home church hearing the news, were tempted to repeat Karl Dortzbach’s words, “It is all over.” Clarence Duff, now in retirement, reflected on the grim events that led to the closing of the hospital in the Presbyterian Guardian: “Is this latest development to spell defeat, or is there promise of a bright outcome? On the surface it must surely seem like defeat. But need it be so?”

Despite the appearance of defeat, the goal of the mission had been accomplished, namely, the planting of an indigenous church. “God has indeed called out a little church in Eritrea through the labors of these missionaries,” Duff wrote. “I do not believe he is about to abandon this branch of the Living Vine. But neither must we! We must remember her! We must daily remind the Lord of his promise to his church, to every true congregation of his people.” There were small groups of believers in Ghinda and surrounding villages, and three strong leaders who had been ordained as elders.

And the work was not finished, Duff insisted. The Eritrean mission of the OPC would need to continue. “As long as present conditions in Eritrea continue, it may not be wise or even possible to have direct communications with the church there. But by way of the throne of grace in heaven we can uphold her and have a mighty influence on her for blessing. The answer to our question, ‘Defeat or bright promise?’ may depend in large measure on our home churches. Are we going to acquiesce in what appears to be sad defeat for the cause of Christ? Or will we rise up in the power of the Holy Spirit to plead God’s promises and to claim victory in Christ’s name? It can make all the difference?” Duff exhorted the church to remain hopeful in the promises of God. He reminded them that God would glorify himself in these events that he was controlling. There was no cause for despair.

New Hope in Eritrea

It has been nearly two decades since the closing of the Eritrean mission and hospital, but the work of OP missions there has not ended. In 1991 the thirty-year war ended when Eritrea finally gained its independence from Ethiopia. Now with one of the most stable of African governments, Eritrea has recently been reopened for OP missionary work. In 1992 a contingent from the Committee on Foreign Missions returned to the hospital that the OPC still owned. The team was shocked at the effects of the war, from the bombed-out hospital to the more than fifty thousand orphans produced by the conflict. The needs were more desperate than ever. Still, they were encouraged by the faith of old friends—the indigenous church had survived.

With the promise of religious freedom from the new government, Don and Jeanette Taws, who served from 1958 to 1961, returned to the field for three years to reestablish the mission. Recently the church sent Charles and Rhonda Telfer and Steve and Jane Miller, who have been astounded by the hunger for the gospel, as Bible studies and worship services meet in overflowing rooms. The Foreign Missions Committee is now exploring the feasibility of reopening medical work.

God has marvelously answered the prayers of the church since the time when Clarence Duff began the mission to Eritrea in 1943. He continued to answer the prayers of the church throughout the Dortzbachs’ ordeal. And he answered the prayers of the church by calling the Tawses and Telfers to reopen the mission. As Foreign Missions general secretary Mark Bube recently wrote while reviewing the history of the work in Eritrea, “It is reassuring to know that our God does not change and that he remains ever faithful to his promises. Yes, our God does hear and answer the prayers of his children. To him be the glory!”

To be sure, the story of the OPC’s mission efforts in other parts of the world lacks the drama and political intrigue of the work in Eritrea. Yet, the Eritrean mission does testify to the denomination’s ongoing commitment to spreading the good news of the gospel around the world, no matter how difficult or dangerous. The OPC was conceived during controversies over the nature and task of missions, and its persistent labors, at home and abroad, demonstrate the church’s deep and abiding concern for the work of evangelism. By God’s grace it shall continue to proclaim the gospel of sovereign redemption to the ends of the earth.

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