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

Part Four: The Ministry of the Church

In the spring 1926, J. Gresham Machen made what turned out to be a very controversial decision. At the meeting of his presbytery, a fellow minister submitted a resolution supporting the federal government’s policy of making the sale and production of beverage alcohol illegal. Machen voted against the resolution and probably thought little about his voice vote.

But at the 1926 General Assembly this vote turned out to be one of the chief reasons why he was denied promotion to the chair of apologetics at Princeton Seminary. Liberals and conservatives in the Presbyterian Church vigorously supported Prohibition, and anyone who gave the slightest evidence of dissent was assumed to be immoral. When Machen explained his action he said that while he opposed drunkenness, he opposed more the mindset which made the church an agency of law enforcement. By supporting Prohibition as part of its formal activities, he argued, the Presbyterian Church was “in danger of losing sight of its proper function, which is that of bringing to bear upon human souls the sweet and gracious influences of the gospel.” Machen added that while the functions of the police and law enforcement were worthwhile pursuits for Christians to support “as individuals,” “the duty of the Church in its corporate capacity is of quite a different nature.”

Machen’s actions flowed from his belief that the church’s task was essentially spiritual. It was not an agency of social welfare, a political lobby, or even an institution for promoting worthwhile cultural or educational endeavors. Instead, Machen regarded the church primarily as a message-bearing institution and looked to the risen Christ’s words to his disciples—“You shall be my witnesses”—as the founding principle of the church. Christianity, in other words,

is not a life as distinguished from a doctrine, or a life which has doctrine as its flower and fruit, but—just the other way around—it is life founded upon a doctrine. It is a life produced not merely by exhortation, not merely by personal contacts, but primarily by an account of something that happened, by a piece of good news, or a gospel.

This conception of Christianity informed Machen’s understanding of the ministry, and it continues to lie at the heart of the OPC’s teaching about the church as an institution. The church has an essential task, one not shared by any other institution, which is to proclaim the good news about Christ. This is a highly propositional and educational task, for it is rooted in the fact that God ordained the preaching of his Word as the means by which he draws his children to himself. This view of the church also puts a premium upon doctrinal instruction and theological understanding. As Machen rightly saw, and as the Reformed faith has historically maintained, the Bible is from beginning to end theological. To understand the Bible is to understand doctrine. For this reason, the OPC has stressed the importance of theology, not just for the ministers, though it perpetuates the Reformed tradition’s pattern of treasuring an educated ministry, but also for all members of the church.

In the chapters that follow on the ministry of the church these themes are developed. The OPC’s commitment to theology is evident in its program of Christian education. The distinctive task or nature of the church is developed in the next two chapters. The highest calling of God’s people is to worship the Lord, and worship is ultimately the direction to which the church’s special work tends. The spiritual character of the church’s ministry is also evident in the OPC’s handling of social matters. While individual members of the denomination have been properly concerned about many of the political and cultural struggles that vex American society, the church has shied away from taking a corporate stand on issues which lie properly within the spheres of the state or the family. The OPC thus bears the stamp of Machen’s vision for the church, an institution whose unique purpose and privilege is to proclaim the good news about Christ and bring souls into sweet communion with the living and true God.

Chapter 10: A “Full-orbed and Consistent” Christian Education

The covenant theology that lies at the center of the Reformed tradition makes education a solemn obligation for God’s people. Repeatedly throughout the Old Testament God reminds believers of the chief importance of instruction in the faith. The education of children in the ways of the covenant is an especially prominent theme in Scripture. For instance, in Deuteronomy Moses reminds the Israelites of the awesome responsibility of instructing their children in the truths of God’s Word:

And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates (Deut. 6:6–9).

Psalm 78 reiterates the importance of this duty. Not only were God’s people to know the law, but they were also to know and teach to their children the great and miraculous deeds of God’s redemption. “We will not hide them from their children,” the Psalmist writes, “but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders which he has wrought.” So important is the teaching function of God’s people that Scripture often explains the apostasy and infidelity of Israel in terms of their failure to instruct their children in the ways of the covenant (Judges 2:10).

When the OPC was formed in 1936, the church was well aware that the errors of the mainline Presbyterian Church stemmed from a failure to conduct faithfully its educational responsibilities. According to the Christian Education Committee’s report at the OPC’s Second General Assembly:

The triumph of unbelief in the old organization was due in no small measure to the prostitution of existing education agencies through compromise with unbelief on the one hand, and to the lack of a full-orbed and consistent system of Christian education on the other.

For this reason, the committee recommended that if the OPC was to be “a truly Reformed church,” efforts to construct a comprehensive program of Christian education be started immediately.

The OPC’s efforts in the sphere of Christian education have in many ways been remarkable, both for the quality of materials and for the dedication to nurture a deeper understanding of the Christian religion, both in children and adults. And the history of the OPC’s educational publications gives further evidence of the denomination’s unwavering zeal to propagate and defend the Reformed faith. Yet this story not only reveals the difficulties that confront a small church which strives to undertake a “full-orbed” system of Christian education. It also reflects the obstacles that confront believers who strive to follow the ancient principles of God’s covenant while living in a modern society whose values and structures of authority make those very principles unusual, if not implausible.

The Informal and Irregular Curriculum, 1936–1942

When the OPC was founded, the denomination was unified behind the conviction that the mainline Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) had capitulated to the un-Christian theology of modernism. J. Gresham Machen and other OP leaders had made the missions board of the old denomination the focus of their concerns. But they could have easily singled out the mainline denomination’s Board of Christian Education, for the signs of liberal theology were equally evident in the literature and programs of that denominational agency.

Machen himself had experienced difficulties with Presbyterian officials responsible for Christian education almost years before the founding of the OPC. In the years just prior to World War I, he wrote A Rapid Survey of the Literature and History of the New Testament Times. This book has been reprinted as a general introduction to the New Testament (The New Testament: An Introduction to Its Literature and History, Banner of Truth, 1976), but was originally part of the Presbyterian Church’s series of graded lessons. This particular course was designed for teenagers in senior high school and came complete with student lesson books and teacher’s manual. Machen experienced a number of frustrations with the denominational officers who edited the project. His editors were less concerned with the historical and theological content of the New Testament, seeking instead approaches to the material that would inspire the students to be good citizens. Consequently, well before the outbreak of the fundamentalist controversy in the 1920s, Machen detected in the church’s education program the characteristic liberal Protestant understanding of Christianity as a system of ethics and good will.

In 1923, in an effort to streamline and centralize denominational activities, the Presbyterian Church created the Board of Christian Education. It took over all the educational endeavors of the denomination, from Sunday schools to denominational colleges. Soon there followed a curriculum for Sunday school that was designed for the education of church members from childhood to old age. This curriculum borrowed heavily from educational theories of the day, many of them derived from John Dewey’s philosophy of pragmatism. The goal of such an education was for individuals to realize their full potential as human beings, though the curriculum dressed this aim up with the phrase, “the fullest possible self-realization in Godlikeness.” A related aim of the new curriculum was to develop a Christian character, again borrowing from the popular public school notion of “character education.” The liberal tendency of this program of study became especially evident in its treatment of the Bible as “the best religious experience of the race” that provided “effective guidance to present experience.”

Had Machen and other conservatives wanted to make an issue of such materials, they undoubtedly could have mustered a fight as feisty as the one which took place over missions. Nonetheless, recognition of the state of Christian education in the mainline church is useful not just to see how deeply liberalism permeated the old denomination but also to understand the peculiar difficulties the OPC faced when, at its founding, its leaders sought materials to use in their congregations. Evangelical publishers had a good deal of material to offer. But for a church dedicated to the Calvinistic theology and Presbyterian polity of the Westminster Standards, there were few places to turn for solidly Reformed curriculum and lessons.

To this end the OPC at its First General Assembly established the Committee on Christian Education, which undertook a number of initiatives to provide for the genuine need in the new denomination. Yet its powers at first were primarily advisory. Budgetary demands for home and foreign missions and the economy of the Great Depression left little money for the personnel, publishing, and distribution costs that a full-fledged Christian education program would require. Consequently, the committee recommended to pastors for use in their churches various evangelical and Reformed educational materials that were already available. It also advised pastors and families to form organizations for the purpose of establishing Christian day schools. And recognizing the need for a learned ministry, the committee asked that congregations support Westminster Seminary with prayers and gifts.

One sees in the committee’s initial recommendations the breadth of Christian education as understood by the OPC. Christian education concerns more than merely Sunday school. It also involves the so-called secular education of children as well as the theological training of prospective ministers. For this reason the general assembly regularly recommended pastors and church members to form Christian day school societies with a view toward founding Christian schools. While the OPC has always insisted that education is the responsibility not of the church but of the family—and therefore has refused to establish parochial or church schools in the way that Roman Catholics and Lutherans have—the church has also contended that education in the arts and sciences needs to be conducted in a Christian context. Hence the education of covenant children involves not just instruction in the Bible and theology but in the other areas of learning as well. A number of thriving Christian schools exist throughout the United States today because of OP efforts, such as Philmont Christian Academy in Philadelphia and Trinity Christian School in Pittsburgh.

By the time of the Fifth General Assembly in 1939, the Committee on Christian Education obtained the power to receive and disburse funds for the purpose of promoting its work. The committee’s beginnings were truly modest. Receipts for the first year amounted only to approximately $300, while expenditures were roughly $180. Clearly the frugality demanded by the Depression era kept the committee well within its budget.

The work which the committee did was also humble but nonetheless impressive for such a small operation. With no general secretary, the burden of conducting Christian education fell to the committee members themselves. Lawrence Gilmore devised summer Bible school materials and Burton Goddard took over singlehandedly the preparation, production, and distribution of lessons for young people. This was in partial response to an overture at the Fourth General Assembly in 1938 which proposed the founding of a young people’s group throughout the entire denomination called the Machen League. This overture reflected a clear sense of the need for material for teenagers. This need was also evident in the pages of the Presbyterian Guardian, the monthly publication which began before the OPC’s founding and which was published independently of the denomination, but which functioned as the denominational magazine. In 1938 the Guardian started a young people’s page which was regularly supplied by Edward J. Young, professor of Old Testament at Westminster Seminary and chairman of the committee on young people’s work. His lessons featured instruction on biblical topics such as the person of Christ and messianic prophecies. Later lessons were written by different pastors and professors at the seminary.

Without denominational officers or administrators who specialized in different features of the church’s outreach, work such as that required by Christian education had to be picked up by everybody in the church. The experience of the fundamentalist controversy in the mainline Presbyterian Church had also taught Orthodox Presbyterians to be suspicious of denominational agencies which, it seemed, always created more problems than they were worth. Consequently, ministers and elders alike pitched in with the efforts to provide a system of Christian education for the fledgling denomination. The lack of a well-established administrative structure and limited resources gave Christian education in the early years of the OPC an ad hoc quality. A mailing with summer Bible school lessons would arrive here, and a different topic and author for the young people’s page in the Presbyterian Guardian would appear there. Yet, even in its organizationally underdeveloped state, the work of Christian education continued to grow and to be of a remarkably high quality.

For instance, the Committee on Christian Education early on decided to publish a series of long tracts which were intended for adults and young people. These tracts ranged from apologies for the OPC which explained why the mainline Presbyterian denomination was in error and why the new church had to be formed, to explications of the Bible and the Reformed faith. In the former class belonged John P. Galbraith’s Why the Orthodox Presbyterian Church? and Murray F. Thompson’s The Auburn Betrayal. Galbraith’s tract expounded the Calvinistic theology for which the OPC stood and delved into the history of the liberal takeover of the mainline church, thus requiring the founding of a new denomination dedicated to God’s Word. Thompson’s booklet refuted the Auburn Affirmation, a document written in 1923 which became the rallying point for liberals in the Northern Presbyterian Church.

As unusual as these tracts might seem to readers at the end of the twentieth century, they were nevertheless quite essential to the OPC because they staked out the new denomination’s identity and reminded church members of the great sacrifices and principles involved in the forming of the OPC. In fact, the Committee on Christian Education hoped that these publications would assist in the recruitment of other pastors and congregations and build alliances with other Reformed denominations. Consequently, the committee decided to have them distributed to seminarians at specific mainline Presbyterian institutions and to pastors in the Christian Reformed Church and the Southern Presbyterian Church. Whatever the merits of this strategy, the early publications of the committee are still valuable for readers today who have questions about the OPC’s historical and theological origins.

The other type of long tract sponsored by the Committee on Christian Education featured sound material on Scripture and Reformed theology. One of the first published in this vein was Is the Bible Right About Jesus? by J. Gresham Machen. It was a reprint of three lectures he gave during the mid-1920s and contained a solid defense of the historical truthfulness of the New Testament’s witness to Jesus Christ. In addition, the committee sponsored The Covenant of Grace, by Calvin Knox Cummings, and The Sovereignty of God, by John Murray. Each of these tracts developed key themes of Reformed theology and, like the pamphlet by Machen, are still worthy of study and reflection.

As these tracts indicate, the OPC was extremely blessed by a well-educated pastorate, and the work of Westminster Seminary was crucial to this dimension of the denomination’s work. Not only did the professors at the seminary regularly write pamphlets for the church, or the young people’s page for the Presbyterian Guardian, but they often served on church committees and, perhaps most importantly, educated almost all of the OPC’s pastors. In this way the early days of the OPC were a throwback to an era before specialization, when professors at seminaries labored for the church as well as in the classroom, and when the levels of education and specialized knowledge did not separate the theological faculty from the clergy, or the clergy from the laity. If the early publications of the Committee on Christian Education are any indication, OPC members, from young people to the Westminster faculty, were all expected to be on the same theological page. In fact, the expectations for uniformity in theological understanding throughout the denomination were especially evident in the minutes of the Eleventh General Assembly, when the Committee on Christian Education not only recommended that congregations support the publication of the Westminster Theological Journal, but also that ministers and elders throughout the denomination regularly read the journal “as a means of Christian education.” In an age when most theological journals were becoming extinct because of the perception that theological and biblical scholarship had little relevance to people in the pews, the OPC, either courageously or naively, depending on one’s perspective, was recommending that its officers study one of the few scholarly publications with genuine Reformed substance.

Early Efforts to Organize, 1943–1955

In 1943 the work of Christian education achieved a measure of stability when the general assembly approved the appointment of Floyd Hamilton as the first full-time general secretary of the Committee on Christian Education, a position which he occupied until 1947. In an effort to have a more systematic program, the committee in 1944 also devised general principles “of Christian education and pedagogy” which would guide the OPC’s work. The committee’s report, submitted to and approved by the Twelfth General Assembly (1945), said a good deal about the Reformed identity of the OPC and the way in which a Calvinistic church should conceive of its educational functions.

The report starts with the doctrine of the covenant, distinguishes between covenant and non-covenant students within the church, and affirms the priority of educating those included in the covenant community. The committee wrote, “We must place before even the command to evangelize the lost this prior responsibility of bringing up the children of the church in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” The doctrine of the covenant also taught that the church should devise a program with the specific needs of covenant children in mind. Having established the aim of Christian education, the report went on to outline the methods for such instruction of covenant youth.

On the one hand, the demand to conform to Scripture required that education “emphasize the God-given authority and responsibility of the parents and church officers in training the youth.” It also included a proper use of and reverence for the Sabbath. “Some methods of teaching perfectly proper on other days ought not to be used on the Lord’s Day.” On the other hand, the report distanced the OPC from much of the pedagogy and psychology that dominated public school and mainline Protestant Sunday school education. The OPC’s materials would be God-centered, not child-centered. “The material of our teaching,” the report stipulated, “cannot be subordinated to the child, for, unlike the curriculum of modern pagan education, it is not prepared from sociological considerations for utilitarian goals, but is God’s eternal truth.” This did not mean, however, that the church should be indifferent to the needs of children. After all, the report reminded, it was “Christ who set the child in the midst, warning against causing such to stumble.” In fact, no greater concern for the student could be found than one that stemmed from zeal “for fruit to the glory of God in the life of each pupil.”

Despite such an inspiring and biblically informed rationale for Christian education, the committee’s work continued to operate on a shoestring. Various individuals, such as Lewis Grotenhuis, Betty Colburn, Edmund Clowney, Calvin Cummings, and Dorothy Partington, provided yeoman service in the production of Bible and Sunday school materials, church bulletins, and short and long tracts. Often these individuals were underpaid and overworked, and their product, while professionally done, rarely rivaled in slickness what larger publishing houses could produce. Nevertheless, like the principles which informed the work of the committee, the lessons and instructional materials which in 1951 became known as Great Commission Publications were solidly biblical and Reformed.

The Age of Expansion and Uncertainty, 1955 to the Present

With the appointment of Robley Johnston as general secretary of the Committee on Christian Education in 1955, the publishing initiative of OP instructional materials entered a new era, one much more ambitious and driven by demands outside the denomination. A paragraph from the fifty-year history of the OPC reveals the change of tone and shift in orientation of the Committee on Christian Education.

The early Sunday school materials and young people’s materials were largely parochial. They involved much labor of love and a sincere attempt to provide doctrinally sound instruction for the churches in the OPC. Their mimeographed format, however, did not commend them to congregations outside our denomination. Many even of our own congregations seemed to prefer the slick, commercially acceptable publications of the major evangelical presses to the homegrown product.

Under Johnston’s leadership the materials produced by the Committee on Christian Education would remain biblically and theologically sound while becoming more appealing in design. The committee would also seek to produce material useful for Reformed and evangelical churches beyond the OPC.

The decision to produce materials to be used by other churches was tied to the decision to design a total curriculum for the OPC’s congregations. The denomination was, after all, a small one and of modest means. It did not have the resources to subsidize, nor did it represent a large enough market to pay for, a comprehensive curriculum. By 1962 a staff had been assembled to complete a three-year-cycle Sunday school curriculum. The goal was a curriculum “full of Bible content, Reformed in doctrinal outlook, attractively printed, and teachable.” Yet the OPC did not have sufficient funds for such an undertaking. Consequently, the general assembly approved in 1962 the Sunday School Publication Loan Fund which was designed to raise sufficient capital to finance the development and publication of a Sunday school curriculum.

The move to serve other Reformed churches through Great Commission Publications encouraged in some the desire for the OPC to become a bigger church with a larger national presence, and for a merger with other conservative Presbyterian churches. As the new curriculum came off the presses, more and more non OP congregations began to use the work of Great Commission Publications. By 1971 the entire curriculum had been produced a grade 1 through 12 sequence—and the number of non-OP churches using it totaled 435. The OPC itself in 1972 included approximately 140 congregations, 133 of which used this curriculum.

The size of the market outside the OPC, however, was still not sufficiently large to finance Great Commission Publications in full. By 1973 the debt for the Sunday school curriculum was a staggering $134,000. The need for an even larger outlet for the OPC materials was met in 1973, when conservatives in the Southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS) withdrew because of the rising tide of liberal theology in that denomination and formed the Presbyterian Church in America. At the very first PCA general assembly a committee met which included members of the OPC’s Committee on Christian Education and whose task was to provide the framework for a joint publishing venture. By 1975 this goal became a reality. Great Commission Publications, which had been exclusively the publishing arm of the OPC’s Committee on Christian Education, became the publisher of Christian education materials for both the OPC and the PCA. It is a corporation which includes six trustees (usually three ministers and three ruling elders) from each denomination. Such cooperative endeavors, no doubt, planted and watered the seeds for a merger between the OPC and PCA (see chapter nine). While the content of the material continued to be Reformed and biblically based, less prominent were tracts and publications which focused on the specific history and character of the OPC, a natural result of an agency which serves two denominations.

The new configuration of Great Commission Publications has freed the Committee on Christian Education to undertake other responsibilities. In 1980 the committee began to publish New Horizons in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the monthly news magazine for the denomination, filling a gap left in 1979 by the termination of the Presbyterian Guardian. The committee has also prepared materials and led seminars in the areas of worship, evangelism, fellowship, service, and Christian schooling. In addition, the Committee on Ministerial Training, historically a special committee of the general assembly which oversees the training of ministerial candidates, was in 1980 incorporated into the Committee on Christian Education.

Yet despite these newer efforts, the work of Christian education in the OPC still reflects the original vision that informed the founders of the denomination. The committee has been committed to the Reformed understanding of education. Christian education is not something just for Sunday school or only for ministers. It involves, like the Lordship of Christ, all areas of human knowledge and is required of all believers as a means of loving God, as Christ commanded, not just with our hearts and souls but also with our minds.


The work of the OPC in the area of Christian education is no doubt impressive. For such a small denomination to undertake such a wide variety of materials and projects is indeed a tribute to the courageous leadership of many individuals, the willingness of church members to make financial sacrifices, and ultimately to God’s faithfulness to his covenant people. Yet, the history all too briefly covered in this chapter raises a number of questions about the nature of Christian education and the way it has been practiced not just in the OPC but also within American Presbyterianism more generally.

One such question concerns the reliance upon Sunday school as a medium for instruction and the effect of this reliance on the institution of the family. Few American Presbyterians realize that Sunday school is a recent innovation within the history of Christianity. The Sunday school movement began around the time of the American revolution and was designed to instruct poor children in urban areas in the “three Rs”—reading, writing, and arithmetic. In other words, Sunday schools were originally concerned with so-called secular subjects, not with instruction in the Bible and doctrine. Over time, however, Sunday schools gradually assumed the form they have today. They provide a time on the Lord’s Day where children learn about the Bible and the doctrinal teachings of the church. Given this history, one should be aware of the limits inherent to a Sunday school program. Obviously, the Sunday school cannot do the job alone, nor can it assume the responsibility of parents to raise their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.

In fact, present difficulties in Christian education programs may stem from an overestimation of the importance of the Sunday school and an underestimation of the importance of the family. J. Gresham Machen himself traced the decline in biblical and theological knowledge within the Northern Presbyterian Church of his day to the decline of the family as a teaching institution and the neglect of the catechisms. He believed that denominational agencies, try as they might, finally were ineffective in educating church members, compared to the robust efforts of parents and families. To be sure, he believed that ministers and ruling elders were also responsible to instruct church members in the faith. But, as was true in his own experience, a lasting and meaningful education did not exist without the work of the family. The family, combined with a repeated and substantial acquaintance with the catechisms, Machen argued, was the best means of Christian education.

We who rely upon large-scale bureaucratic institutions such as schools, government, banks, hospitals, and chain stores for most of our basic needs tend to forget about the importance of the family. But we need only to consider the prominence of the family in premodern societies, including the covenant community in the Scriptures, when the family performed almost all of the functions necessary for existence. Only with the rise of modern patterns of social organization has the task of Christian education shifted almost exclusively to the church. While the church has always had a responsibility to the covenant youth, i.e., to instruct them in the meaning of their baptism for proper participation in the Lord’s Supper, it would do well to remember the experience and the practice of ancient societies.

If, as we now know, parents need to be involved with primary and secondary education for children to learn adequately, how much more is this the case with instruction in the Bible and doctrine? In fact, many sociological studies of twentieth-century Protestant families indicate that children are more likely to make a credible profession of faith and remain active in the church if their parents spend time instructing and talking to them about what they believe.

In addition to asking questions about the adequacy of Sunday school, we also need to examine the curriculum used by our churches. One of the hallmarks of the practices of Reformed and Presbyterian churches is catechesis. John Calvin as early as 1536, only three years after his conversion, produced a catechism for the youth in his congregation. Also, the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) served as the chief instructional aid for educating children in the Reformed churches of Europe. And the Westminster Assembly produced two catechisms, the Shorter and Larger. Yet the history of American Presbyterianism is one marked by remarkable silence about catechesis. Still, the Shorter and Larger Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly continue to rank among the best educational materials available, the former being designed for children and early teens, the latter for adults, young and old.

This is not meant in any way to diminish the accomplishments of the Committee on Christian Education or its publishing arm, Great Commission Publications. The substance of the materials produced by these agencies has been soundly Reformed and biblical. In fact, the OPC and GCP over the years have helped the church in the area of catechetical instruction—from Everett DeVelde’s Covenant Children’s Catechumen Course, to Dorothy Partington Anderson’s excellent catechetical course, Bible Doctrine, to Paul Settle’s Memory Work Notebook, to the more recent efforts of Tom Tyson, general secretary for the Committee on Christian Education, to promote catechism instruction and memorization in the church. However, is it possible that catechesis could have an even more central and effective place in the OPC? This question the church may do well to consider.

Chapter 11: Worship and the OPC

It used to be that spotting a Presbyterian worship service was a fairly easy task. Just as it was possible to identify a Roman Catholic service because of its mass, or an Anglican service because of its use of The Book of Common Prayer, so Presbyterian and Reformed worship was characterized by metrical psalm singing and expository preaching. But such brand name recognition is no more. Just as Roman Catholics have begun to experiment with guitar and polka masses, and as Episcopalians have begun to lift their hands into the air as much as they open their prayer books, so Presbyterians have started, as one publication has put it, to “expand their worship repertoire.” On any given Lord’s Day, Presbyterians will either be led in worship by their pastor or by a “worship team”; will sing praise to God either from hymnals or from overhead projections; will hear special music performed either by a robed choir or crooning singers and a rock band; and will either witness a short skit or sing a hymn to illustrate the point of the sermon.

The confusion of contemporary Presbyterian worship stems largely from the idea that worship is more or less a matter of taste, with the assumption being that there is no disputing about taste. Old forms of worship no longer seem plausible; they appear to be ineffective and, above all, boring. If we are going to retain our covenant youth and be effective in proclaiming the gospel in this culture, some argue, we need to keep pace and contextualize our message and worship, thereby making the Christian faith understandable to contemporary culture. And increasingly, effectiveness has come to mean abandoning a manner of worship that dates from the past and seems distant or alien. Many believe that as long as the content of our worship is sound, the form really does not matter. So the changes in worship appear merely to be alterations of form, dropping the style of an older generation for that of the boomers and busters.

Yet, the distinction so often drawn between form and content in worship appears to neglect the idea that theology and worship fit together like a hand in a glove. One Reformed scholar, G. van der Leeuw, has wisely observed that “whoever takes the little finger of liturgy soon discovers that he has grabbed the whole fist of theology.” The point here is that it is impossible to divorce the form and content of worship. The tone and order of a worship service are not merely the husk of our theology but rather flow directly out of our conception of who God is and who we are as his people. So, for instance, if we take seriously the distinction between the Creator and creature that lies at the heart of biblical Christianity and the Reformed faith, how could the worship of Reformed believers ever suggest anything other than timidity, humility, and gratitude on the part of creatures? Along the same lines, if we think much about the doctrine of total depravity or original sin, with its implication that idolatry is the natural tendency of fallen men and women, will we ever try to devise God-honoring worship of our own making without consulting what Scripture says about how God desires to be worshiped? And if we are persuaded by the doctrine of divine sovereignty, would we ever tolerate a pattern of or practice in worship which implied that the triune God of Scripture was anything less than Lord of his church? Such questions demonstrate that the teachings of the Bible, as summarized in the Reformed faith, at countless points have a direct bearing on our worship. As T. David Gordon has written, “The distinctive principle of Presbyterian worship is nothing less than the consistent liturgical expression of its distinctive principles of theology, polity, and piety.”

The Genius of Reformed Worship

An axiom of John Calvin’s theology was the importance and centrality of worship for vital and genuine Christian faith and practice. In fact, Calvin put worship ahead of salvation in his list of the two most important facets of biblical religion. The Christian religion maintains its truth, he wrote, by “a knowledge, first, of the mode in which God is duly worshipped; and secondly, of the source from which salvation is to be obtained” (italics added). Calvin also observed that the first table of the law—the first four commandments—all directly related to worship, thus making worship “the first foundation of righteousness.”

The prominence of worship in Calvin’s theology led to his formulation of the regulative principle, one of the hallmarks of the Reformed tradition. This principle teaches that public worship is governed by God’s revelation in his holy Word; whatever elements comprise corporate worship must be directly commanded by God in Scripture. The fact that a congregation has always worshiped in a particular way or that a certain practice stems from sincere piety are not sufficient reasons for ordering the worship service. According to Calvin, God not only “regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates” whatever does not conform to his revealed will.

The regulative principle did not mean, as is sometimes alleged, that Calvin or others in the Reformed tradition advocated a set order of worship. Although Calvin followed a regular pattern in worship services at Geneva, he did not believe it was possible to prescribe all matters of worship. He acknowledged that there were incidental matters or circumstances (e.g., the time of the service, type of building, the use of pews) which Scripture did not determine. In such matters churches had freedom under the general guidelines of the Bible to implement practices that would honor God and edify his people. But Calvin did teach, and the Reformed tradition has maintained, that God does prescribe the elements of worship, that is, that preaching, prayer, the sacraments, songs of praise, and the reading of the Word are necessary to worship.

Not only did the desire to obey God inform Calvin’s conception of the regulative principle, but just as important was the reformer’s understanding of human depravity. The principal effect of Adam’s first transgression was to turn all people into idolaters. All individuals, Calvin believed, even after the fall possessed a seed of religion, or a sense of God in their souls. But after the fall this religious sense no longer led to the true God but instead forced men and women to create gods of their own making, ones that conformed to their own selfishness and vanity. This temptation made Calvin especially suspicious of practices in worship which were said to be pleasing or attractive to members of the congregation. He said, the more a practice “delights human nature, the more it is to be suspected by believers.”

Even though Calvin and other Reformers hesitated to prescribe a specific liturgy for all churches, throughout western Europe from the sixteenth century until well into the eighteenth century there was remarkable agreement among Presbyterian and Reformed communions about the nature and manner of worship. The Westminster Assembly’s Directory for Public Worship reflects that general consensus and is instructive for understanding the worship practices of the OPC. The assembly, which met from 1643 to 1648, is best known for the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, documents which constitute the doctrinal standards of the OPC. Yet the assembly was charged with reforming all aspects of church life in Britain and so, in addition, it produced two documents with direct relevance to worship: a guide to corporate worship and a psalter.

The Directory for Public Worship carried forward many of the distinctive practices and convictions of Calvin regarding worship. Indeed, the directions for worship crafted by Reformed churches from Calvin’s time up through that of the Westminster Assembly suggest several principles that have historically governed Presbyterians in worship. The first is the centrality of the Word of God. God’s Word not only directs the form or manner of worship but also comprises the content of worship. It is read, sung, seen (in the Lord’s Supper and baptism), and preached. The centrality of God’s Word is especially evident in the Reformed emphasis upon preaching. In contrast to Roman Catholic worship where the focus is on the mass and the altar is the centerpiece of church architecture, the Reformers made preaching the central part of the service and put the pulpit front and center in the sanctuary.

A second principle of Reformed theology, very much related to the first, is that worship is theocentric. Worship is God centered and its aim must be the glory of God. It is the highest form of fellowship between God and his people and must be done in spirit and truth. In fact, there is nothing that God hates more than false worship. Worship is absolutely necessary to faith and practice, for God commands it and has so constituted us that worship is essential to the strengthening of our spiritual life.

The dialogical character of Reformed worship is the third principle. Corporate or public worship is the meeting of God with his people. Believers come at his invitation and are welcomed into his presence. God speaks through the call to worship, the reading of the Word, the sermon, and the benediction. Worshipers respond in song, prayer, and confession of faith.

The fourth principle of Reformed worship is simplicity. The fuller revelation of God in Christ in the new covenant means that Christians are not dependent on the childish and fleshly elements of the old covenant. Because of the work of Christ, believers already sit with him in glory, and this aspect of Christ’s work greatly diminishes the church’s need for visible or material supports in worship. Simplicity in worship, therefore, is closely related to spirituality. In the new covenant God is more fully present with his people than in the old covenant. But this presence is spiritual, not physical. Christ’s command that his followers worship him in spirit and truth declares the new arrangement between God and his people.

The fifth and final principle of Reformed worship is reverence. According to Calvin, “pure and real religion” manifests itself through “faith so joined with an earnest fear of God that this fear also embraces willing reverence.” Worship should be dignified and reverent, but it does not achieve these qualities through elaborate ceremonies or complex liturgies. In fact, Calvin believed that “wherever there is great ostentation in ceremonies, sincerity of heart is rare indeed.” This does not mean that worship has no room for joy or emotion, as some critics of Reformed worship have charged. Joy, along with a full range of emotions—i.e., grief, anger, desire, hope, and fear—should be a part of worship. But the need for reverence and decorum dictates that any expression of emotion in worship should be tempered by modesty and self-control. And to insure that every aspect of worship is conducted decently and in good order, the Reformed tradition has insisted that every service be supervised by the elders, who bear responsibility for corporate worship, and that the minister, who speaks for God and for God’s people, lead and direct the service.

American Developments

When Presbyterians migrated to the American colonies in the eighteenth century, there was some reservation about the Westminster Assembly’s Directory for Public Worship. At the synod of 1729, for instance, the Presbyterian Church “recommended” the directory but was unwilling to take a stronger stand. The reason for this apparently cool reception was the desire to avoid another lengthy conflict like the one which had plagued the church over creedal subscription. But by 1786 the Synod “received” the directory “as in substance agreeable to the New Testament.” And in 1788 the church adopted a revised directory that formed the basis for Presbyterian worship in America until the twentieth century.

Some changes in Presbyterian practice did make themselves evident following the Second Great Awakening, when American Presbyterians divided into New School and Old School parties. The Old School, the party which opposed the Arminian theology of revivals, stood for Puritan practices in worship. For them, every element in worship had to have biblical warrant (according to the regulative principle), and the service had to be characterized by decorum and solemnity. Worship for the Old School was an act that Christians directed toward God. In contrast, the New School, the party which promoted revivals, regarded worship more as a means to preach to and convert the lost. Consequently, the criterion for New School worship became evangelistic effectiveness, with the result that worship services began to look more like revival meetings. From the New School perspective, Old School worship was too intimidating to would-be Christians.

By the late nineteenth century, New School practices had been abandoned by most Presbyterians, but this did not mean the triumph of the Old School. While Presbyterian worship tended to be more formal, its formality reflected more the aesthetic tastes of polite society than the simplicity and reverence that had characterized Puritan and Old School worship. Choirs sang and organs played refined music, but the introduction of choirs and musical instruments into worship services were much debated matters, since they signaled a departure from worship convictions championed by Calvin and his followers.

The Practice of the OPC

When the OPC was founded, the church’s instincts with regard to worship were clearly on the side of Calvin, the Puritans, and Old School Presbyterianism. Its reasons for breaking with the mainline church were precisely those which had an immediate bearing upon worship, namely, the regulative principle and theocentric theology. The mainline church had substituted human ideas for the Word of God and had fashioned its message to win the approval of the surrounding culture rather than faithfully seeking to honor and glorify God.

The Directory for Public Worship adopted by the OPC’s Sixth General Assembly (1939) reflected the new church’s adherence to the theology of the Westminster Standards. Like the Westminster Assembly’s directory, the OPC’s contained no provisions for funeral or marriage services or the visitation of the sick. A number of pernicious notions had surrounded sickness, death, and marriage in Roman Catholicism, and the Reformers sought to purge these elements from ecclesiastical practice on the basis of the regulative principle. The mainline Presbyterian Church had reintroduced some of these practices into its directory for worship, but the OPC returned to the position of the Reformers.

In contrast to the mainline church’s directory, which failed to include a theology of worship, the OPC supplied a helpful chapter on the principles of public worship. These principles repeat the insights of the Reformed tradition—the regulative principle, God’s glory as the aim of worship, worship as an expression of faith in and love for Christ, the solemn and thankful character of worship, and worship as an activity for the covenant community. Also, as the Westminster divines had done, the committee which drafted the OPC’s directory repeated the practice of including advice on how believers should sanctify the Lord’s Day or Christian Sabbath, thus affirming the Puritan-American Presbyterian tradition of Sabbatarianism. Other chapters—there were only six in all—covered the other elements of Reformed worship: the parts of the worship service, the celebration of the sacraments, public profession of faith, and the ordination and installation of church officers.

One of the parts of public worship to which the OPC’s directory gave attention was congregational singing. As in the case of Christian education materials, the new church found itself without recourse to a good hymnal or psalter. In 1933 the Presbyterian Church had issued a new hymnal to which conservatives objected, J. Gresham Machen among them, because of the liberal theology reflected in alterations of older hymns and in the new hymns which had been added. As early as 1943, the OPC appointed a committee to plan for the production of a hymnal. Another committee came before the church in 1946 and 1947 with reports on song in public worship, and in 1949 the general assembly created a committee with the responsibility of producing a hymnal. As committee member Edward J. Young wrote, the OPC “did not enter upon its task lightly.”

The committee’s reports of 1946 and 1947 which studied the use of song in public worship are worth some attention. The majority report, which won the approval of the general assembly in 1947, provided the rationale for the singing of hymns. But the differences between the majority and minority reports show how two centuries of American Presbyterian developments had brought change to original Reformed practice. The majority report on song (Kuiper, Marsden, E. J. Young, Skilton, and Kuschke) started in good Reformed fashion with a straightforward and full discussion of the regulative principle. Although the Westminster directory’s understanding of the regulative principle commended metrical psalms as the content of congregational singing, the report refused to go in the direction of exclusive psalmody. It also said that there were certain areas of worship where the Bible allowed for the “exercise of a measure of liberty as regards the content of worship.” This was especially true in the case of prayer. The Word of God did not stipulate “a set form of words” for prayers in worship, and because New Testament believers used hymns, the majority of the committee concluded that hymns theocentric in character, in addition to Psalms, be used by OP congregations in worship.

The minority report, written by John Murray and William Young, argued for the exclusive use of psalms. It stated that the analogy between song and prayer drawn by the majority report was invalid; and in those cases where the church may not have sung Old Testament Psalms, they sang inspired verse. The conclusion Murray and Young drew was that the Bible authorized only the singing of “inspired songs,” a conclusion which limited congregational singing to the Psalms and Scripture songs (i.e., the songs of Miriam, Hannah, Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon). These reports were sent to the presbyteries and sessions for study.

The Trinity Hymnal, which the OPC published in 1961, presented both psalms and hymns in accord with the majority committee report of 1947. There were 143 psalm versions, providing for a great expansion in OP use of psalms. This encouraged the congregations to implement the position of the OP Directory for Worship that the metrical versions of the Psalms “ought to be used frequently in public worship.” Indeed, the hymnal was a monument to the theological sensitivities of the church, demonstrating the committee’s commitment to present to the church hymns that were theologically sound and psalms and hymns that were singable.

The hymnal was arranged under four main headings—God, The Church, The Christian Life, and Occasional Hymns. The subject matter followed the order of topics covered in the Westminster Confession of Faith. By devoting separate sections to children’s hymns and songs for informal occasions, the Trinity Hymnal also manifested the Reformed teaching that worship should be dignified and solemn. While some hymns may be useful for Sunday school, young people’s meetings, or evangelistic services, these same songs are not necessarily appropriate for corporate worship. Thus the OPC’s position on congregational singing, as expressed by the Trinity Hymnal, may be judged a balanced response to the issues raised by the minority in the church. Furthermore, the original hymnal provides a benchmark for all future efforts. The remarkable sale of this hymnal beyond the OPC was testimony that others recognized its tremendous value.

The Revisionist Impulse

Patterns of and ideas about worship for the first forty years of the OPC’s history were, no doubt, fairly uniform and self-consciously Reformed, at least by North American standards. But in the last twenty years, efforts to change the worship practices of the denomination, spearheaded by the New Life movement and by the appeal of the charismatic movement, have been initiated. Throughout the 1980s, the OPC’s Committee on Revisions to the Book of Discipline and Directory for Public Worship proposed new chapters for the directory. As for the Trinity Hymnal, it was revised thoroughly by a new committee drawn from the PCA as well as from the OPC, a project accomplished in 1990 with the publication of the new Trinity Hymnal. While the proposed changes in the Directory of Worship and new hymnal continue to be informed by sound, biblical, Reformed insights and reflect the OPC’s persistent commitment to traditional Presbyterian forms of worship, the process of revision also belies genuine discontent within the denomination about worship. This discontent was best summarized in the report to the Fifty-Fifth General Assembly (1989) about the Directory for Public Worship:

There is widespread dissatisfaction or at least widespread lack of use in the OPC of the present Directory. There are parts of the present Directory that are so dated (e.g., “the stately rhythm of the choral”) that there must be a rather thorough revision. Yet there is no consensus of where the church wants to go in worship. The current situation in the church regarding worship is diverse from near liturgical anarchy to others who feel that singing uninspired hymns is a violation of the regulative principle.

Other pressures on the worship practice of the OPC have come from two fronts. The first concerns the role of the laity in public worship. In the late 1980s, questions about certain congregations using women and non-ordained men in the leading of public worship provoked controversy in both the Presbyteries of the Midwest and Ohio. In the specific case of the Presbytery of Ohio, the worship policy of Covenant OPC, Pittsburgh, allowing women “to read the Scriptures, give encouragement from the Word, sing, participate in musical events and lead prayer in public worship” prompted members of the congregation in 1986 to complain to the session. Initially the debates focused on the permissibility of women to lead public worship, and both sides offered different interpretations of 1 Corinthians 11 and 14. The one side argued that the apostle Paul’s clear teaching in the latter passage and in 1 Timothy 2 against women speaking in public worship should be the context for understanding 1 Corinthians 11, where he writes about women praying and prophesying. The session of Covenant Church, however, believed such exegesis was forced and thought that Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11 should qualify the apostle’s prohibitions against women speaking in public worship. When the session denied the complaint in 1987, an appeal went to the Presbytery of Ohio.

While the debate appeared to be leading to a consideration of whether women should be ordained in order to lead in worship, the committee appointed by the presbytery to report on the matter recognized that questions about the nature of corporate worship were also at stake. Over the course of the next two years presbytery tried to resolve the matter, but with little success. Problems delaying the adjudication of the matter concerned procedural questions (was the original complaint worded properly?), the practice of other OP congregations (whose worship policies were similar to those of Covenant Church), and ultimately a lack of consensus about the nature of worship and the participation of non-ordained church members in it. During these debates the presbytery heard careful exegesis of 1 Corinthians 11–14, sound appeals to the Directory for Public Worship, and strained arguments about the responsibility of gifted church members to encourage each other. The lack of consensus was so great that the presbytery actually reversed itself a couple of times—initially voting to sustain part of the complaint (which would have prohibited women from leading worship), then in the fall of 1988 voting to deny the complaint, and then upon appeal deciding at its spring 1989 meeting to sustain the complaint.

Uncertainties like these in the Presbytery of Ohio prompted the Fifty-Fifth General Assembly (1988) to appoint a committee to study the involvement of “unordained persons (men and women)” in the “regular worship service of the church.” This committee produced three reports which it delivered to the general assembly three years later. The majority report (Gaffin, Jerrell, and Peterson) argued for the involvement of the unordained. Its position was that the regulative principle does not prohibit such involvement, that the involvement of the unordained should balance Paul’s command that worship be done “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40), and that such participation be done for the edification of the saints (1 Cor. 14:12). And, while recognizing that the assembly should not prescribe one policy for the whole church, the majority report did raise reservations about whether Presbyterian worship, if led only by the ordained, would be overly formal and ultimately sacerdotal, or priestly.

The minority reports argued for limiting the leadership of worship to the ordained. The first (Dennison) offered a careful history and interpretation of the Westminster Assembly’s Directory for Public Worship and the OPC’s directory in contending that only ministers should lead public worship. It observed that many of the changes surrounding worship in the OPC departed from Reformed exegetical principles, moved the denomination in the direction of evangelical and charismatic practices and theology, defined the nature of special office in functional rather than formal terms, and deviated from the traditional Presbyterian understanding of the regulative principle. The other minority report (Campbell) argued that only qualified men may lead in worship, thus allowing for qualified ruling elders to assist ministers. It made helpful points about the nature of congregational participation in worship even when they are not noticeably active, and went to great lengths to explain and defend the collective or corporate character of covenant worship.

The church took no action on the reports beyond referring them to the committee responsible for revising the Directory for Public Worship. But if these reports are any indication of the mind of the OPC on worship, it does appear that there is no consensus in the church on such matters, and that what has made Presbyterian worship historically distinctive is in danger of being abandoned. It does seem difficult to ignore the effects of popular culture and the increasing popularity of the charismatic movement on Presbyterian convictions about worship. The desire for entertainment as a chief reason for which people gather today, the demand for greater participation and expressiveness by “the people” in American culture more generally, and the influence of evangelical and charismatic worship through television and radio are factors which have undoubtedly contributed to much of the second-guessing about worship in the OPC.

To be sure, the genius of the Reformation was to repudiate any notion of holding on to tradition for tradition’s sake. But while it is clear that the Reformed tradition is more difficult to defend, it is not clear that it has been bested by its rivals. Nor does it seem wise to make concessions in the area of worship while still trying to maintain and defend the other elements of the Reformed system, since much of the exegesis and argumentation undergirding Presbyterian convictions about worship are also the foundation for such doctrines as God, man, the covenant, salvation, and the church. The question needs to be asked whether it is possible to change one aspect of Presbyterian practice without also affecting the larger set of convictions.

Another area in which the “revisionist” impulse in worship has been felt in the OPC is that of Sabbath-keeping. The Westminster Confession of Faith states simply (21.7) that the Sabbath is to be “kept holy unto the Lord,” the whole time being taken up “in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.” Until this century, much of American Protestantism observed the Sabbath as the Westminster Confession described it. In our century, however, Sabbath-keeping has largely disappeared as a discipline of the Christian life for several reasons. With the rise of leisure activities and professional sports events there is a greater number of things competing for the Christian’s attention. Indeed, the very term “weekend” is a modern one that suggests that both Saturday and Sunday are one run-on period of personal relaxation. Furthermore, the discipline of Sabbath-keeping is foreign to a culture that prizes freedom and spontaneity. Many churches have accommodated by offering several worship services, permitting attenders to choose that day and time that fits their lifestyle.

Generally this decline has not characterized the OPC. Most, though not all, OP congregations conduct both morning and evening worship services on the Lord’s Day, bucking the trend to abandon the latter. Increasingly, evening service is emerging as an OP distinctive. The OPC Directory for Worship states that “the whole [Sabbath] day must be kept holy unto the Lord.” Evening service is a vital tool for following that directive: together with the morning service, it frames the whole day around worship and draws it to a fitting conclusion by bringing together the people of God out of this world and into sanctuary with their God.

On one occasion the OPC engaged in extended debate on the Sabbath. In 1968 the Presbytery of Wisconsin, in the midst of a discipline case over the Rev. Francis Breisch’s view of the Sabbath, overtured the general assembly, requesting that the church “evaluate the teachings of the Westminster Standards concerning the Sabbath.” That assembly declined, however, to render a decision apart from an appeal from a presbytery decision. An appeal would come in the very next year in the form of a complaint entered against the Presbytery of Wisconsin for its failure to discipline Breisch. In response, the assembly appointed a Committee on Sabbath Matters.

In 1973 that committee presented a divided report. The majority report essentially upheld the complaint against the presbytery, denying that the Old Testament Sabbath was a ceremonial practice that was abolished by the work of Christ, and reaffirming the Lord’s Day as the Christian Sabbath. It concluded that a minister’s ordination vows in the OPC required a commitment to the teaching of the Westminster Standards regarding the Sabbath. A minority report took strong exception to this conclusion. The offenses alleged in the trial before the Presbytery of Wisconsin were not, it argued, “contrary, on any construction, to the Reformed system of doctrine.” It went on to recommend that the general assembly “elect a committee to revise the teaching of our Standards regarding the Fourth Commandment.” The 1973 Assembly determined to accept the recommendation of the majority report, thus refusing to revise the doctrine of the Sabbath found in the Westminster Confession.

To be sure, debates about the Sabbath some twenty years old are not necessarily the best indication of current practices in the OPC as it heads toward its sixtieth anniversary. Yet, if the church is continuing to hold the line on Sabbath observance—a remarkable feature in itself, since few Presbyterian churches today think twice about the uniqueness of the Lord’s Day—then there is reason to hope that the OPC will also continue to preserve the distinctive character of Reformed worship. For ideas about worship and the Sabbath mutually reinforce each other and also water the soil from which the Reformed faith grows. At the heart of Reformed worship has always been the conviction that when believers gather on the Lord’s Day, their practices should reflect their confession of faith. In worship we come before the holy and transcendent one, who is the righteous judge of the universe, whom we offend daily, and who has miraculously provided a way of salvation through his son, Jesus Christ. Worship should be a reminder of the gulf between God and sinners and of what he has done to overcome that gulf, lest believers lapse into a false understanding of God.

In sum, worship always reflects a church’s theology. True theology yields true and acceptable worship. Improper or erroneous theology yields false worship. Worship is not a matter of taste; it is a statement of theological conviction. At its best, the OPC has followed this logic. By God’s grace may it continue to do so, not for the sake of favorite hymns, traditional prayers, alternative music, or packed pews, but rather for the glory of our sovereign and saving God.

Chapter 12: The Social Witness of the Church

By any reckoning, the 1960s and 1970s were traumatic decades for American evangelicalism. The encroaching effects of secularism and humanism, manifested in the rise of pornography, drug abuse, homosexuality, violent crime, and abortion-on-demand, crushed any consensus on “Judeo-Christian values” that might have previously existed. Together these evils galvanized conservative Christians to rethink the direction of American society and God’s purposes for it. What was the witness-bearing role of the church in an increasingly secular culture? For most evangelicals, the answer was greater social engagement. In an attempt to recover lost ground, prominent fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson led their followers on aggressive social crusades, programs that ironically mirrored the liberal social gospel that fundamentalists had so often criticized. Fundamentalism and evangelicalism suddenly shifted from world-denying subcultures into movements committed to cultural transformation.

At the same time, subtle yet significant changes in leadership were taking place in the OPC, as many of the church’s original ministerial members died or retired from active service. This is most clearly seen in changes at Westminster Theological Seminary. In 1960 the Westminster faculty still included five members who had been a part of the school since its early days and who were longtime ministers in the OPC: John Murray, Ned Stonehouse, Cornelius Van Til, Paul Woolley, and E. J. Young. All of these professors had been active in the affairs of the church, but by the mid-seventies they were gone from the seminary either by death or retirement.

How would the OPC respond to the cultural dislocations of the sixties and seventies? Would a change in leadership signal a new engagement in social reform? Response to the growing culture war in America was not a mere academic exercise for some churches. In 1979 the OP congregation in San Francisco was called to the front lines. When the church fired its organist, who was a professed homosexual, it was sued for violating the city’s gay rights ordinance. Pastor Chuck McIlhenny described the ensuing litigation in this way: “Two diametrically opposed religions had clashed in the courtroom : secular humanism, the religion of our dominant culture, and orthodox Christianity.” Defending itself on the basis of its First Amendment right of religious freedom, the church eventually won its long and expensive legal battle, but McIlhenny, his family, and the church have had to endure constant threats from gay rights activists ever since.

In light of these changes in the cultural landscape, many in the OPC would propose a more aggressive role in social activism. From 1986 to 1991, Grace OPC in Lynchburg, Virginia, published Journey Magazine. Edited by Richard Knodel, the church’s minister, Journey was a combination of Calvinist orthodoxy and right-wing political ideology, deeply influenced by theonomy or “Christian Reconstruction.” Theonomy holds that the Old Testament civil law was not unique to the theocracy of Israel but represents God’s will for all nations at all times. Thus it sees the church as an instrument for reconstructing within contemporary culture an Old Testament-styled theocracy. God’s blessing, theonomists believe, will come only to the nation obedient to biblical law. R. J. Rushdoony, regarded as the founder of the theonomic movement, was once an OP minister but he left the church in 1970. Another prominent theonomist, Greg Bahnsen, is an OP minister in southern California, where he directs a Christian study center.

Overall, however, Journey, theonomy, and other like-minded efforts have exercised limited influence on the denomination’s thinking. Nor has the church joined the social crusading bandwagon of American evangelicalism. Instead, it has defined itself in distinction from this trend. Two pivotal commitments have helped shape the OPC’s direction: the doctrines of the “spirituality of the church” and sphere sovereignty.

The Spirituality of the Church and Sphere Sovereignty

One of the differences that emerged between Southern and Northern Presbyterianism in the nineteenth century was the role of the church in public affairs. Much of Northern Presbyterianism, influenced by the success of social reform movements like abolition, was of a politically active mindset. Southern Presbyterians, by contrast, generally held that the church in its corporate capacity had no right or responsibility to engage in social reforms. Contending that both the rule and the weapons of the church were spiritual, advocates of the Southern position insisted on maintaining the “spirituality of the church.”

Born and raised in the South, Machen was strongly influenced by the Southern Presbyterian tradition. Moreover, as a civil libertarian, he had little patience with the idealism and Victorian piety that characterized both liberals and fundamentalists in the North. Not all of his supporters, however, shared his political and cultural views. As we saw in chapter three, divisions on social issues partly caused the 1937 exodus of Carl Mclntire and fundamentalists from the OPC.

That split would not empty the OPC of social reformers. In 1941 several Commissioners, led by Edwin Rian, persuaded the Eighth General Assembly to appoint a Committee of Nine in part to map out a social agenda for the OPC. Its mandate was “to study the relationship of the OPC to society in general, and to other ecclesiastical bodies in particular” in order to suggest “ways and means whereby the message and methods of our church may be better implemented to meet the needs of this generation,” and that the church “may have an increasing area of influence and make a greater impact on life today.”

This committee’s ambitious agenda was born of Rian’s particular vision for the OPC. In order to be the spiritual successor of the Presbyterian Church in the USA, the OPC had to become culturally significant. Rian was disappointed in the results of the church’s first five years, and this committee, he hoped, would set it back on the right track. Cornelius Van Til and Murray F. Thompson co-authored a minority report. They recognized the valid intention of the committee to make the church’s witness more effective. But they went on to express sharp criticism of this “super committee”: “There is no part of the work of the church which cannot be investigated and appraised by the Committee of Nine.” They labeled such centralization of power as “bureaucratic and unpresbyterian.” The minority also feared a relaxation of the OPC’s “vigorous proclamation of our distinctive faith.” Swayed by the minority report, the assembly discontinued the Committee of Nine.

Closely allied with the doctrine of the “spirituality of the church” in Reformed thinking is the idea of “sphere sovereignty.” Formally developed by Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch Calvinist theologian and statesman, sphere sovereignty asserts that God exercises his sovereign lordship over all spheres of life. “There is not one square inch of the entire creation,” Kuyper wrote, “about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!’” Because God alone is sovereign, human authority is limited and is derived from God. God delegates authority to the social structures that he has ordained (the family, the church, and the state), and each sphere’s authority is limited to that realm of life which God intended it to regulate. No structure may transgress its sphere and lord it over another. Therefore, just as the church has particular tasks to perform—i.e., preaching, the sacraments, and discipline—so there are also specific duties which are to be carried out only by the state or the family.

The OPC’s relative silence about social and political matters should not be read as an indication of indifference toward social issues but rather as respect for sphere sovereignty. While the church is not to be a political pressure group, individual political activity is a biblically permissible means for achieving social change. Indeed, the Presbyterian Guardian frequently exhorted its readers on the importance of active citizenship. Paul Woolley distinguished between the corporate church and the individual believer in an article in Christianity Today with the provocative title, “Reinforcing the Wall Between Church and State”:

The Bible teaches that faith in God is the foundation for all attempts to meet human need. The Christian Church meets the spiritual needs of men. It teaches them how to face their own relation to God, and it teaches them how the grace of God operates. When that grace has worked in the heart of a man, he becomes concerned about human need. As a Christian citizen he, not the church, goes out to do battle with the social ills of men. The Christian must battle social ills. The church tells him so. They must be fought, and fought on Christian principles. But it is the citizen, not the church, who goes to the war.

Neither the “spirituality of the church” nor sphere sovereignty render the church completely silent on social matters, however. The Westminster Confession speaks of a “humble petition” whereby the church can address the state without transgressing its sphere of responsibility: “Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary” (31.4). On a few occasions the OPC contemplated entering public debate by way of humble petition. For example, in 1960 a resolution was put to the floor of the general assembly urging American citizens not to vote for a Roman Catholic candidate for the presidency of the United States on the grounds that the Vatican is “a foreign power seeking control of the United States.” The assembly eventually defeated this resolution. On other occasions humble petitions were made. In 1965 the assembly adopted a resolution against a proposal before the United States Senate to hold national elections on Sunday. In 1993 the general assembly petitioned President Clinton not to remove the ban against homosexuals in the military.

In that same 1993 Assembly, a debate arose over the nature and extent of “humble petitions.” The assembly was asked to evaluate the propriety of a lawsuit that the Presbytery of New Jersey had filed against the State of New Jersey when the state passed a homosexual civil rights bill. The presbytery eventually persuaded the assembly that acting as a plaintiff in court could be interpreted as a “humble petition” in an extraordinary case. A minority filed a protest challenging that logic and lamenting the presbytery’s “direct and aggressive approach to the state” that resembled “the political activism of both New School presbyterianism and fundamentalism.” It remains to be seen which way the church will go on this issue.

One of the most significant studies on social matters that the OP general assembly commissioned had to do with abortion. In the wake of increasingly liberalized abortion laws, the 1970 General Assembly appointed a Committee to Study the Matter of Abortion. The committee submitted its report the next year. The report cautioned against a simplistic interpretation of Scripture and asserted that one cannot prove from the Scriptures that a fetus is a human being from the point of conception. But it went on to argue that the Bible taught a continuity between fetal and post-natal life. The burden of proof, the report concluded, fell on those who sought to find a biblical distinction between a person and a fetus, a distinction necessary to permit abortion.

Paul Woolley, in a minority report, located the burden of proof elsewhere. It was not clear, he argued, that a pre-born is a human being, and the Bible does not teach that the taking of such life is murder. If God has not prohibited an action, the church must not do so, or else it speaks beyond the teaching of the Bible.

Both reports were sent to the presbyteries for their recommendations and review. In the next year the general assembly passed a statement on abortion that read in part, “voluntary abortion, except possibly to save the physical life of the mother, is in violation of the Sixth Commandment.”

Social Justice within the Church

Beyond the occasional proclamation to society at large, the church has also sensed the need to provide guidance to its own members on social issues. Three recent concerns have been race relations, the principles of diaconal ministry, and the role of women in the church.

OPC discussions of race relations generally arose through its involvement in the Reformed Ecumenical Synod. Throughout the years of its membership in the RES, the OPC had voiced concern over the practice of apartheid in the member churches in South Africa. In 1952, acting on an overture from the Presbytery of Philadelphia, the general assembly requested that the RES, in its 1953 meeting, inquire of the South African churches if they support the government policy of apartheid, and if so, how they reconcile it with the teachings of the Bible. In 1983 the OPC sent a pastoral letter to South African churches urging them “not to live by standards and practices of the world but by the renewing power of the Holy Spirit.”

Early in the 1970s the RES sponsored a series of Regional Conferences on Race. One that was held in Chicago in 1971 reached a series of conclusions that drew fire in the OPC for its social agenda, including recommendations that the member churches promote political and economic justice, provide legal aid for the poor, and combat housing discrimination. The Presbyterian Guardian lampooned the conference as a “hodge-podge of social do-goodism.” At the general assembly that summer, several commissioners protested against the “methodologies of the social gospel” behind the conference that were unscriptural and “therefore inimical to the Reformed faith.” In response, the assembly commissioned a Committee on the Problem of Race with the task of equipping the OPC with alternative proposals. Its report in 1974 consisted of a set of general suggestions, from maintaining Reformed witnesses in urban areas, to encouraging presbyteries and sessions to engage in seasons of prayer and in regional conferences on the problems of race.

The second concern the denomination has addressed is its diaconal ministry. At the 1947 General Assembly, the OPC established its Committee on Diaconal Ministry (then called the Committee on General Benevolence). From its inception, a priority of this committee has been the care of retired ministers and widows of deceased ministers. Among the sacrifices that these men made in joining the OPC was the loss of their insurance and pension benefits, and special funds were established to meet those needs. The committee also ministered to OP members whose physical needs exceeded the provisions of local church diaconates, and it served Christians beyond the OPC, especially working with the church’s foreign missions.

But beyond ministering to Christians, what role does the diaconate play? As we saw in chapter six, this issue was partially addressed by the 1964 General Assembly when it approved the establishment of medical missionary work in Eritrea. Desiring a fuller study of that issue, the 1980 General Assembly appointed a Committee to Study the Principles of Diaconal Ministry, which presented divided conclusions to the 1984 Assembly. Both affirmed the covenantal emphasis of diaconal work (we must do good first to the “household of faith”) and both refused to limit mercy ministries only to Christians. Yet they differed on the extent of aid to the non-Christian. The majority argued that “diaconal mercy is unlimited in that it seeks to reach out in Christ’s name to all types of needy people in all types of situations.” In his minority report, Leonard Coppes was more restrictive. Christian mercy, he argued, does not extend to all the poor and needy of the world, but temporary help may be provided only to the non-Christians “in dire need and within the immediate proximity of [the covenant] community.” The assembly determined to send both reports to the churches for study.

The third social concern that the OPC has addressed is the role of women in the church. Throughout the history of American evangelicalism, women have played significant roles in the creative use of their gifts, and women in the OPC have been no exception. Increasingly, however, voices of “biblical feminism” have questioned whether evangelical churches have frustrated women from the full use of their gifts by barring them from ordained offices in the church. They have argued that traditional interpretations of Pauline texts such as 1 Timothy 2:12 have misunderstood the cultural setting of an argument that was not intended as a universal principle for the church.

In 1979 the Bethel OPC in Wheaton, Illinois, submitted an overture to the Presbytery of the Midwest requesting that it “establish a special committee to study the biblical teaching of the role of women in the church and to consider its implications for the ordination of women to church office.” Eventually Bethel’s overture was sent to the general assembly, which in 1984 appointed a Committee on the Hermeneutics of Women in Office.

The next year the committee presented a provocative report that challenged the church to examine the historical and cultural assumptions it brought to the issue of women in office: “Could it be,” the report asked, “that we are simply too accustomed to the idea of exclusively male leadership and to the notion that such a position alone is compatible with a high view of Scripture?” The committee’s intention was not to question the OPC’s position on women’s ordination but to urge the church not to assume that its view is the only consistent biblical position. In other words, the committee sought to frame the issue in terms of biblical interpretation. The assembly was clearly uncomfortable with the approach of the committee, and it took the unusual step of excluding its report from the assembly’s minutes.

The next year a reconstituted committee focused more narrowly on the question of women in the diaconate. Affirming the biblical teaching that excludes women from the offices of minister and elder, the committee was split on the office of deacon, with one member arguing for the legitimacy of women deacons. The assembly sent both reports to presbyteries and sessions for study, but by this time the Wheaton church was deeply divided. Complaints were brought to two assemblies against actions of the session which had moved in the direction of women in office. The complaints were sustained. By 1989, over half the church left to form a congregation in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a denomination open to women’s ordination.

A Committee on Church and Society?

Perhaps the most ambitious attempts to engage the church in discussions of social witness began in 1987, when the Fifty-Fourth General Assembly established a special committee to explore the feasibility of a permanent committee on public religious matters. In its report, submitted to the Fifty-Seventh Assembly in 1990, the special committee contended that the historical reluctance of the church to discuss social issues was not “strong enough to resist the need of the church to speak to its own people and/or to the increasingly non-Christian society in which we live, after the manner of the prophets.” And so it proposed the establishment of a Committee on Church and Society.

Challenging the assumption that the Church may not address “public religious” issues, the report argued:

Indeed, there may be instances in which the Church must so speak. The church has the right and responsibility to teach its own membership the whole counsel of God. That whole counsel includes Christ’s claims on social issues. The notion of a church that teaches the principles of political action but refrains from interfering as a church in the political process should not provoke fears of contentless posturing or of abandoning hope of action. It is simply a recognition of the inseparability of the cultural mandate and the Great Commission.

In proposing a Committee on Church and Society, the report was suggesting ways in which the OPC might express the social implications of the gospel in more effective and efficient ways than it had in the past. It was wary of the pitfalls of its proposals, and it urged the church to steer a careful course between pietism and activism. Moreover, its carefully crafted purpose suggested none of the bureaucratic power of the Committee of Nine.

Yet the report failed to overcome challenges of a minority report and of the assembly’s Advisory Committee. Together, these dissenters preferred that the general assembly address social issues occasionally, and only in the content of a judicial case. Further, they objected that the proposed committee would entail the church adopting, in effect, official interpretations of the church’s confessional standards. The minority report also warned the church to maintain the primacy of preaching in its social witness: “When the church in Acts turned the world upside down, it did that not by advising Pilate how to rule Palestine, but by preaching the gospel.” The committee’s recommendation, it feared, was ultimately “a distraction from the church’s primary task of preaching to a dying culture.” The assembly acted on the recommendation of the minority report and did not establish a Church and Society Committee.

The OPC: A Pilgrim People

Throughout its history, the OPC has struggled with defining its task to be salt and light to a post-Christian culture. In contrast to the transformationist vision of other conservative denominations, the OPC, in the words of historian Charles Dennison, “has no cultural or social agenda. She resisted every attempt to so define her.” The church resisted the Committee of Nine’s effort to so define her in 1942, and it declined to establish a Committee on Church and Society nearly fifty years later. This dissent is often viewed as social indifference, and perhaps it helps to account for the church’s lack of popularity.

This mindset has other theoretical foundation s beyond Machen’s view of the spirituality of the church or Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty. The apologetic methodology of Cornelius Van Til, as we saw in chapter seven, stressed the radical antithesis between believers and the world. Under Van Til’s influence, the church has sought to maintain its purity against the threats of paganism, an emphasis that tempers a culture-transforming agenda. The chasm between the way that believers and non-believers think means, in part, that the church should not expect (nor persuade) a godless culture to emulate Christian ways apart from acknowledging Christ as Savior and Lord.

The church is also influenced by the hermeneutical insights of Geerhardus Vos, professor of Biblical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary from 1893 to 1932 (where he taught Kuiper, Machen, Murray, Stonehouse, and Van Til). Vos’s pioneering work highlighted the organic character of the progressive revelation of the Bible, especially the “already/not yet” paradox of the coming of the kingdom in the death and resurrection of Christ. In Vos’s understanding, the kingdom and its blessings are “already” present in believers: in their union with Christ they have died, and their life is “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). Yet the kingdom is “not yet” here in its fullest and most glorious form; this awaits the second advent of Christ. The Christian life is a pilgrim experience, fulfilling its calling while anticipating its final destination. Vos’s teaching was fully in line with John Calvin’s statement that “it is a Judaic folly to look for the kingdom of Christ among the things that make up this world, and to shut it up among them.” Calvin went on to write that the “plainest” teaching of Scripture is that “the fruit we reap from grace is spiritual fruit” (Institutes, IV. xx. 1). In other words, the kingdom of God cannot be located in the politics or social arrangement of the United States. Rather, we look for that kingdom in the work of the church and in the sanctification of believers.

In stark contrast with this Reformed understanding of the kingdom of God, American evangelicals are prone to judge the success of the church in terms of its influence in the world. Accordingly, some of the OPC’s evangelical critics have often dismissed the church as “irrelevant” for its want of a social agenda. Seen from another perspective, however, it is more accurate to say that the OPC is committed to the “irrelevance” of the world to the church. As part of the new eschatological order unveiled in the coming of Christ, the church locates its hope in a kingdom that is not of this world, a kingdom that cannot be shaken. For that source of solid hope and comfort the OPC abandons aspiration for earthly glory, including a “restorationism” that yearns for a return to Judeo-Christian values, a theocratic state, or Christian civilization. Instead, the church longs and waits patiently for the return of Christ at his second coming, when his reign will be completely realized.

Theologian Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., in reflecting on the theological identity of the OPC, likens the church to Israel in its wilderness experience. Like Israel, the church has been delivered from bondage, but it has not yet entered the promised land. Like Israel, the church is traveling toward its Sabbath-rest (Heb. 4:9). “In journeying to its final destination,” Gaffin says, “the church confesses that it is a company of pilgrims, a people on the way. We do not have here an abiding city. We are looking for that city to come. Along the way we are exposed to testing and temptation, to all sorts of mirages and false hopes that inevitably attract the desert traveler. To be faithful to God, the church must maintain its heavenly vision. It must refuse to locate its hope in its desert experience. As the church worships and serves God in the desert, it will go from strength to strength.” And, we might add, from glory to glory.

Back to Index


+1 215 830 0900

Contact Form

Find a Church