Our Church: Looking Back and Ahead

John P. Galbraith

New Horizons: February 2013

Why Christians Need Confessions

Also in this issue

Why Christians Need Confessions

How the Standards Changed My Life

Where is the Orthodox Presbyterian Church going? Where has it been? Where should it be? If these questions are answered correctly, the responses to them will be the same. Let’s have a look.

We are standing fast—not standing still—on the same foundation as we were when the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was founded in 1936. The Word of God tells us that we are in a spiritual war, and he actually commands us to stand fast in the evil day, even providing us with the spiritual armor to do that (Eph. 6:10–18). Be strong! Be courageous! Fight the good fight! Stand fast! Pray!

Some 150 people assembled in Philadelphia on June 11, 1936, to establish a new church in which they could and would stand fast together. So they did. They laid a foundation on which we could stand fast: the unchangeable Word of God, inspired by him, without error or untruth from beginning to end—the first and last authority for our faith.

A Confessional Church

Presbyterians worldwide for nearly four centuries have had secondary standards, derived from the Bible and subordinate to it. An assembly called by the English Parliament, consisting of 121 Reformed scholars and 30 members of Parliament, worked from 1643 to 1649 at Westminster Abbey in London and drew up a Confession of Faith, a Larger Catechism, and a Shorter Catechism, which are together commonly called the Westminster Standards. Every minister, ruling elder, and deacon in the OPC must accept the Bible as the inerrant Word of God and adopt the Westminster Standards as teaching what the Bible teaches, and minister in accord with them.

That is a confessional church. We are a confessional church. So wherever you attend an Orthodox Presbyterian church or see that name on its outdoor sign or hear our missionaries who preach in foreign lands, you will know that their message will be from the same biblical and confessional roots.

Sinners that we are, however, we may not boast. Our sinfulness may lead us astray, as it has others before us. If we are a faithful, confessional church today, it is by God’s grace in blessing our efforts to remain so. We may not be slack in the spiritual warfare that he has set before us to fight in dependence on his Word and Spirit.

So we confess together, we profess together, we stand together, on a common foundation: primarily the Bible, and, subordinate to that, the Westminster Standards. We need such subordinate confessions, and they need to be held by the whole church. We need to be a continuing, confessional church. We need people who will stand fast.

The Presbyterian Church (USA)

Look at what has happened to our predecessor church, now called the Presbyterian Church (USA), during the past forty years. They adopted a set of weakening generalities called the Confession of 1967 and a Book of Confessions, which now contains twelve confessions and theological/social formulations, as additions to the Westminster Standards. Just what responsibility a person taking vows for ordination in the PC(USA) has toward each confession or to them all as a whole is vague, since each confession differs from the others. Their general assemblies have provided funds for communist Angela Davis, have been led in “prayer” by a Hindu priest, and have used a Muslim as an advisory delegate. They have even ordained a candidate for the ministry who explicitly said that he did not believe in the deity of Jesus. All church offices have been open to women for many years. Homosexuality for both members and church officers is officially accepted, and same-sex “marriages” have been performed while a church committee studies the issue. As this has been going on, the membership of the denomination has dropped from about four and one-half million to approximately two million.

The Essential Tenets

Two procedures have been adopted by the PC(USA) that will cement its departure from its original confession (the Westminster Confession) without having to change it one whit. First, their Book of Order has been changed so as to give it authority over the way in which the Confession is interpreted (thus avoiding the need to follow the purposely difficult process of amending the Confession). Second, the ordination vows for church officers now employ vague language, so that, together with their multiple confessions, wide latitude is given to the meaning one gives to the vows. For example, the candidate for ministry is asked, “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed Faith as expressed in the confessions ...?” The catch: nowhere are “the essential tenets” stated; it is left to the candidate to determine what they are to him. This is an open door to virtually any heresy or practice. Combined with this is a constitutional provision protecting one’s conscience in ministry, which in effect removes all limitation on what one may read into the vows. The Confession is still on the books, but it is just a piece of paper; ministers in the PC(USA) can deny almost any doctrine in it.

The continuing decline of the PC(USA) shows what could happen to our church, if we allow it. The PC(USA) has become a broad road, with plenty of room for entrance from many side roads. It is, as it were, Inclucivist Highway—very attractive and easily entered, but a road to destruction. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, however, was born on a narrow road, sometimes rough and having no entering side roads. Its name is Confessional Lane; the Bible and the Westminster Standards alone are our road signs pointing to the city of eternal glory. We have nothing to boast about. God made the road, and by grace set us on it. The PC(USA) got to where it is today by simply letting heresy and immorality, coming from many directions, be included in its teaching and practice. The OPC was born out of that church by the Spirit of God, working grace in the hearts of chosen people and giving them a biblical map that led them at their beginning along Confessional Lane through Calvary to the eternal house of God. Where will our church go from here?

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church

The circumstances of the birth of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church give us an advantage over the PC(USA): we did not begin our life with an inborn organizational virus of inclusiveness, which infected that church from its beginning (though it became much worse). When the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. was born in 1788, it included both Old Side and New Side ministers with their unresolved differences. But when our church was born in 1936, we went directly back to the Westminster Standards, whose witness to the Reformed faith was undiluted. Our commitment to the purity of the church was strong.

Today, as we recognize how inclusivism has devastated the PC(USA), we must never lose sight of the sinfulness of every one of us and our capacity to fall into any of the myriad ways of bringing falsehood into the church. Being the sinners that we are, we can hardly expect that none of us will listen to Satan’s skillful planting of doubts about God’s Word, as the not-yet-fallen Eve listened to Satan’s beguiling words: “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the trees of the garden’?... You will not surely die.” So what will happen to our confessional church when it is challenged to depart from God’s foundational Word in our evil generation?

To be sure, in our short history, Satan has challenged us often, but he has been defeated time and again. He has sought to lead us from the truth on a number of occasions. And, yes, by God’s marvelous grace, we have survived those challenges. But maybe others are gestating among us at this very time.

We have also been tempted to enter into mergers that God wisely prevented. Do we dare take a route on which there may be hidden turns that would take us astray? Church mergers, even cooperative works with other churches that we deem faithful to our Reformed faith, can be paths of danger by which we could be led into unbiblical, unconfessional error; such churches themselves can change, unbeknownst to us.

The wiles of Satan are great. We could succumb to temptation or inadvertently embrace error. We must continue to be a confessional church. From the opposite viewpoint, we need very much to beware of becoming a mere sect, focusing on minor, extrabiblical matters. We are protected from that, however, if we remain faithful to the Westminster Standards.

But be sure of this: temptations will come. Watchmen on the walls are not enough. Every one of us needs to be a watchman who will learn day-by-day from God’s Word and pray diligently for his grace to know false doctrine and immoral practice when we see them—and to reject them.

As I look back over the life of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church from the first day onward, I can only give thanks to God. It is his way. Today it is my hope that the young men who are on Confessional Lane with us will stand fast and pass it on. It is my prayer that this church will still be confessing and declaring Christ in truth when he comes again.

The author, now a retired minister, was a founding member of the OPC on June 11, 1936, and has served the church in many capacities. New Horizons, February 2013.

New Horizons: February 2013

Why Christians Need Confessions

Also in this issue

Why Christians Need Confessions

How the Standards Changed My Life

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