September 12: Presbyterians in America, Part 5

Dr. Woolley’s series of articles on Presbyterians in America continues today with a focus on the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Bible Presbyterian Church.  Our Monday and Tuesday posts will conclude this series. Do keep in mind that these articles were written in the early 1950s and so much has changed since that time.

V – The Orthodox Presbyterian Church
and the Bible Presbyterian Church

[Reformed Presbyterian Advocate, 86.2 (February 1952): 13-14.]

                    As was true last month, we are again pursuing the history of churches which have grown from the root which became the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.

               War often dims the doctrinal consciousness of church members and leaders. The loyalties and comradeship of the war overshadow other interests and then gradually replace them. The truth of the Word of God begins to be less important than the principles for which the state is, or is alleged to be, fighting. Soon everything is caught up in the enthusiasm for victory for the nation’s cause.

               This occurred at the close of the Civil War in the United States. The result was the reunion in 1869-70 of the Old School and New School Presbyterian Churches in the north. The separate existence of these churches was caused by important differences in their teaching about man’s condition. Was man a helpless sinner needing God’s regenerating power or could he decide his eternal destiny himself? The Old School said the former, the New School the latter. The two churches united without any reference to the solution of this and the other doctrinal divergences between them.

               In this way they gave notice to the world that doctrine was to be a minor matter from that time on it the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and so it has proved to be. We have noted already the ease with which the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. absorbed the Cumberland Church with its divergent doctrine.

               In the 1920’s a number of Presbyterians showed serious concern about the undermining of the authority of the Bible. There was a country-wide expression of it in the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association which, of course, included many denominations. But individual Presbyterians such as Alexander, Allis, Buchanan, Macartney, Machen and Wilson were anxious to maintain the doctrinal loyalty of Presbyterianism to the Scriptures and the Westminster Standards. The effort came to center more and more about Princeton Seminary, until its doctrinal position was altered by the action of the General Assembly of 1929. Then Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia became the heart of the cause.

               Matters were brought to something of a crisis in the 30’s by the conduct of the Board of Foreign Missions. It was maintaining modernist missionaries in foreign countries, supporting educational institutions where little Christianity was taught, and had a signer of the modernist Auburn Affirmation as its Candidate Secretary. When the General Assembly refused to alter this situation, an Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions was founded to send out Presbyterians who could not conscientiously go under the existing board. The General Council threatened the members of the new board with disciplinary action and the next Assembly carried out the threat. It became clear that it was no longer practicable to try to be a true Presbyterian in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. One had either to hold modernist or indifferentist convictions or else refrain from putting one’s evangelical convictions into practice, just keeping them within very small local limits. This put all evangelical Presbyterians before a dilemma. Were they to preach the gospel as they believed it, or were they to accept the restrictions of the ecclesiastical leaders and allow modernists to represent them in Presbyterian courts, agencies, boards and other organizations? Some made one choice and some another.

               Those who chose to preach the gospel without restrictions became the Presbyterian Church of America. It was founded under that name in 1936, a few weeks after a number of them had been disciplined by the General Assembly for various evangelical offenses. One had run an evangelical summer camp for children, one had advocated refusing to give to the Board of Foreign Missions, and a number were supporting the preaching of the gospel abroad by conducting the Independent Board.

               The name of the church was soon changed to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church as the result of a suit instituted in the civil courts of Pennsylvania by the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.

               Today the Orthodox Presbyterian Church has about eight thousand members in nearly one hundred congregations scattered from Maine to California and from Wisconsin to Florida. Contributions for all purposes are about half a million dollars a year. There are fifteen foreign missionaries working in China (Formosa), Eritrea, Japan and Korea. A like number of home missionaries are supported in the United States. A Committee on Christian Education has an extensive publishing program, concerned largely with Vacation Bible School and Sunday Schools materials, but also including booklets on important matters of Christian principle in modern living. The congregations as not evenly distributed over the country and in many areas where one is wanted there are insufficient funds to make it possible.

               In 1937, less than a year after the organization of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a number of its ministers demanded that it adopt a statement concerned with alcoholic beverages which would not only point out the sinfulness of drunkenness but would also state or imply that no Christian should use alcoholic beverages today. Since the Bible is the only binding rule of faith and practice for the Christian and since the Bible does not take this latter position, the Church could not, of course, do so either. It did adopt a statement calling attention to the danger of drunkenness as presented in the doctrinal standards of the Church at several places.

               Because the Church was unwilling to go further, a number of ministers separated from the organization and set up what has become the Bible Presbyterian Church. It was designed to emphasize, in addition to total abstinence, the premillennial return of Christ. A modification of the Westminster Confession which incorporated premillennial assertions was adopted as a part of the constitution of the new Church. The Bible Presbyterian Church has about eight thousand communicants. In 1950 there were sixty-seven congregations. Contributions for all purposes total about $650,000 per annum. The congregations are scattered throughout the nation except for New England. The Church does not conduct foreign missions directly as it channels its missionary service through the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, whose control and policies are now similar to those of that Church. The board has seventy-seven missionaries in 12 different countries.

               The introduction into its standards by the Bible Presbyterian Church of the novelty mentioned above is an indication of the fact that the Church is primarily a Church with a modern fundamentalist emphasis. It has relatively little interest in the historic tradition of Presbyterianism, but is sensitive to the changing currents of American evangelicalism.

               On the other hand, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was founded for a very specific purpose—to carry on the spiritual succession of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. It is anxious to retain all of the values of the study, thought, prayer, experience and energy which have gone into the building of the historic church since the time of the apostles, so long as that tradition is true to the Scriptures. A pertinent question is—Why is that Church then not larger?

               There are probably three reasons for this, of varying importance. One is simple that people are emotional, and many of those who are ruled by emotion prefer to cling to familiar ties rather than to join what is, in many cases, a strange and uncongenial set of people. Secondly, many people believe it is of more importance to be connected with a large organization than a small one. Size and influence outweigh other considerations in these cases.

               In the third instance, the fault lies with the members of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. They have not by life and word made clear enough their allegiance to the ever old and ever new gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ as presented by historic Presbyterianism. They have failed to make plain the gospel testimony of the Church and so it has been misunderstood or neglected.

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