June 26 : A Sad Division (OPC/BPC)

This Day in Presbyterian History:  

Sad Schism Among the Saints

They were united in their conviction over the apostasy of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.  A number of the teaching and ruling elders had suffered over expulsion from the rolls of the visible church.  Others had lost church buildings, manses, and pensions.  But in God’s providence, they had gathered in great rejoicing to begin a new church faithful to the Scriptures, the Reformed faith, and the gospel of Jesus Christ.  They were one in coming out of the apostasy, but it was not too long before the members of the Presbyterian Church of America were divided over other issues.  It was at the third General Assembly of the P.C.A. in Philadelphia, as reported by the June 26th, 1937 Presbyterian Guardian, that these divisive issues came to the floor of the assembly.

The first one dealt with the issue of Independency versus ecclesiastical Presbyterianism within the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions.  Obviously, since 1933 at its organization, this mission board had not been affiliated with any denomination.  It was independent of it.  Independent agencies had always had a place within the American Presbyterian Church.  But now with the advent of the Presbyterian Church of America, the majority of the elders desired that a Presbyterian affiliation be adhered to again.  When Dr. J. Gresham Machen was voted off as president of the Independent Board, his place was filled by an Independent Presbyterian, with no affiliation with the new Presbyterian Church of America.  Further, the vice-president’s position was also filled by an individual who was independent of any ecclesiastical relationship to Presbyterianism.  Many members, including the General Secretary, Rev. Charles Woodbridge, resigned from the Independent Board.

The commissioners to the Third General Assembly, meeting in Philadelphia at the Spruce Street Baptist Church, overwhelmingly voted that the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions was no longer to be an agency for foreign missions by the Presbyterian Church of America.  By that same margin, they voted to endorse a new Committee on Foreign Missions by the P.C.A.

The second issue dealt with whether total abstinence from alcoholic beverages was to be the position of the church.  While it was acknowledged that the greater number of delegates to the assembly abstained from alcohol, yet they were  hesitant to make it a rule for the church, but instead leave it as a matter of Christian liberty to its membership.  This position was especially difficult for pastors in the middle west of the country who were fighting the saloon trade in western towns.  Given the national issue then in the country over the temperance issue, it was thought that this would have been a wise decision.  But again the Assembly refused by a wide margin to make total abstinence the only true principle of temperance.

It is interesting that Westminster Theological Seminary, soon after this assembly, stated to its students, that “to avoid any misconception by the public, a rule is established forbidding all beverage use of alcoholic liquors upon the grounds and in the buildings of the seminary.”

At the end of this assembly, those who  had been in the minority on both of these issues, gathered to begin what became the Bible Presbyterian church. (See June 4) What had been a united front before the watching world became two smaller church bodies of Presbyterians.

Words to Live By:   It is easy to look back at a later date and see the “right thing” to do.  But it is obvious that there were unfounded rumors of wild drinking parties on Westminster Seminary grounds as well as  a lack of understanding by some elders of the challenges facing pastors of western churches.  To be sure, the guiding wisdom of a J. Gresham Machen was missing from the assembly with his entrance into the heavenly kingdom earlier that year.  But all elders, both teaching and ruling elders, are to filled with the Spirit.  And working within the framework of love, deal wisely with others who differ from them in points of contention.   Let us learn to do this in our own circles.

Through the Scriptures:  Joel 1 – 3

Through the Standards:  The first commandment: Required duties

WLC 103 — Which is the first commandment?
A.  The first commandment is, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

WLC 104 — “What are the duties required in the first commandment?
A. The duties required in the first commandment are, the knowing and acknowledging of God to be the only true God, and our God; and to worship and glorify him accordingly, by thinking, meditating, remembering, highly esteeming, honoring, adoring, choosing, loving, desiring, fearing of him; believing him, trusting, hoping, delighting, rejoicing in him; being zealous for him; calling upon him, giving all praise and thanks, and yielding all obedience and submission to him with the whole man; being careful in all things to please  him, and sorrowful when in any thing he is offended; and walking humbly with him.”

WSC 45 — “Which is the first commandment?
A. The first commandment is, Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

WSC 46 — “What is required in the first commandment?
A. The first commandment requires us to know and acknowledge God to be the holy true God, and our God; and to worship and glorify him accordingly.”

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  1. Vaughn Edward Hathaway Jr’s avatar

    I wonder if you intend to mention the other two issues that instigated the separation of the eventual Bible Presbyterians from the Presbyterian Church of America. In my opinion, the two issues you have referred to were significant; but not as significant as one of the other two matters: i.e., the millennial question. The fourth issue came to a head a second time later in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the Gordon Clark controversy.

    The Reverend Dr. Carl McIntire misrepresented a theological examination conducted by the Philadelphia Presbytery of the PCofA as an attack upon Premillennialism whereas the issue was specifically Dispensationalism and Dispensational Premillennialism.

    The PCinA Archives at Covenant Theological Seminary has a loss-leaf, photostatic copy of a collection of papers entitled, I believe “The Millennial Question.” It traces the controversy generated by Dr. McIntire resulting in the calling of a separate Assembly which then formed the Bible Presbyterian Church.

  2. Dan Landis’s avatar

    Here is a link giving much background on the premillennial aspects of the separation:


    FWIW, I find this article very accurate with the possible exceptions of the classification of Machen and Murray. Either Wooley or Stonehouse (sorry, I can’t remember which one it was) was quoted in a biography of Machen that he was postmillennial. This, of course, makes total sense given his mentor. And what Murray was in terms of his millennialism at this point is also unknown. After his death, however, his widow was quoted as noting his postmillennialism (referencing his commentary on Romans makes this very clear).

    One thing is somewhat encouraging (in a kind of “left-handed” way, if you will): the BPC has the intellectual honesty to change the Standards to meet their eschatology. Would that conservative Presbyterian denominations would likewise realize more completely the thrust of the Standards on this issue and request that exceptions be taken by those that adhere to a premillennial eschatology. Some sloppy recent scholarship occasionally attempts to paint the Westminster assembly as a mixture of all eschatological viewpoints, minus dispensationalism. This is often based, perhaps oddly, on the friendship of proculator Twisse with Johann Heinrich Alsted. While interesting, the comment ignores two basic facts: 1) Alsted is classified as a postmillennial by at least as many as classify him as premillennial. FWIW, I believe it is anachronistic to classify Alsted as either. I believe his concerns were in other areas and he evades understanding as either premill or postmill. He remains an enigma. 2) Regardless of whatever was HIS millennial paradigm, Twisse had died by the time the assembly got around to debating eschatology. It is not likely his viewpoint, peculiar as it may have been, was championed on the floor at any time during the proceedings. Hence, the Standards remain best understood as promoting a postmillennial or more positive amillennial stance.


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