April 10, 2011 Q & A

Why didn't Machen go into the Southern Presbyterian Church in 1936?


Why didn't J. Gresham Machen go to the Southern Presbyterian church instead of founding what became the OPC? Wouldn't the Southern Presbyterian church have welcomed Machen and his colleagues? Machen was, after all, Southern Presbyterian in background. By starting a new denomination Machen seems to have chosen a much more difficult road. From what I've read, the new denomination was plagued with division and conflict. Yet it somehow survived.


To begin with, although he had a Southern Presbyterian (PCUS) background he apparently had been a communicant member of that church only from 1896 (Stonehouse's J. Gresham Machen, p. 58) until he joined the Princeton Seminary faculty in 1906 and joined the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA). He chose the quality of the training he would receive at the PCUSA's Princeton over that of the PCUS's Richmond Seminary. And certainly he was joining the preeminent theological faculty in the United States and the preeminent conservative one in the world. From then on his work involved him wholly in the life and work of Princeton and its church.

By the time the conservative-Reformed/liberal conflict reached its crisis at the 1936 General Assembly in Syracuse, N.Y., he had been absorbed by the contrasting early and late history of the PCUSA. He had seen its great heritage and had mourned and resisted its loss as liberals in the 1920s challenged the General Assembly's affirming basic doctrines of the gospel. A group of over 1,300 of its ministers adopted the "Auburn Affirmation" which denied the need for ministers to believe and preach such doctrines required by the church's constitution. The General Assembly reorganized Princeton Seminary so as to make it more "representative" of the increasingly liberal character of the church. The boards and agencies of the church continued to pour out blatant heresy through their ministries, and Presbyteries began to require support of those agencies for ordination. Machen was personally involved through those 30 years and was committed to restoring its former glory if in any way possible. Later, when that goal had proved unattainable he spoke of the new church's goal as being, in these precise words, "the true spiritual successor" of the PCUSA. Finally, those who stood with Machen in the conflict would have been, without any doubt, entirely northern Presbyterians (PCUSA), and they would have felt no inherent pull toward the PCUS which would have led to them pushing Machen to go in that direction. Nothing was being done that was having any effect on restoring the witness of this formerly great church—his church for the past two-thirds of his life—back to its roots! His "successor" aims would have been lost in a merger with some other church.

By 1936, then, the PCUS was far away. But further, both a general evangelicalism and liberalism had begun to worm their way into that historically Reformed church and it would not have been an entirely desirable home for Machen himself nor for those who stood with him, having just come through a draining and discouraging decade and more. This however, is not to say that the topic of joining the PCUS did not come up in private conversations. I am not aware that Machen was involved in any of these, but in the Westminster student body it was mildly suggested from time to time, never zealously discussed, to my knowledge. Of this I am certain: no such move was proposed in any official way anywhere that I know of. It may be of interest to you that similar thoughts were expressed here and there about uniting with the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America ("Covenanters") with similar results.

Yes, a more difficult road was chosen. I am convinced nevertheless, and now more than ever, only a few months short of 75 years since the church's June 1936 founding, that this was his—and his associates'—only road. Only by means of a new church could a true spiritual succession to the PCUSA's Reformed heritage be established. See what has happened since then in some churches we might have considered joining.

I think the OPC is still a Reformed church and that we are striving to be a better one, and I doubt if we could be saying that under other options then before us. Let me add that personally, I am not opposed to church unions as such if God's providence lays a biblical possibility before us, i.e., agreement on doctrine and practice. I believe in the unity of the church, that Christ's body is one. As with Machen, the deciding factor must be adherence to the Word of God regardless of the difficulties that adherence may entail.

That leads me to comment on your observation that the OPC was "plagued with divisions and conflict. Yet it somehow survived." Yes, we did have various problems. But I cannot call them plagues—difficulties, disturbances in the church, yes. But rather, they were means of ultimately bringing about a united witness to the truth on the matters under contention, and that has been seen and followed by churches and individuals around the world in spite of our small size. In other words, our conflicts, just as in the ancient church, not only enabled us to survive at that time but also strengthened our future as a Reformed church. Again, It was because of them, not in spite of them, that I say we took the right road; they have served the OPC as the conflicts and divisions of the ancient church served it and today's church millennia later.

Those conflicts (resolved by Nicea, Chalcedon, etc.) served as a form of official church discipline, most of them long, labored, and disturbing, brought out the truth, and when many were won to that truth those who were not won over either left the church or were judged as heretics and excised from the church in one way or another. They were essential to the church's place as "the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). So, although those heresies may have crept back in, and others added over hundreds of years, there was a great body of God's people ready to start all over again at the Protestant Reformation, and we seek to do that for Presbyterians with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Those conflicts, in short, served, in God's grace, as purifiers. Now it has been our duty over the last 75 years to try also to discern and maintain all the truth and nothing more nor less than the truth of God's revealed Word, as it is the responsibility of the generations that follow. Not to boast that we have filled that responsibility; only to say that we have tried, and even that not as we ought. Lord, help us!



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