Coming in From the Outside
The word pilgrim should characterize all Christians, as the Scriptures say that the people of God from the earliest days and even now are "strangers and pilgrims" on this earth (Heb. 11:13; 1 Pet. 2:11 KJV). As the people of God, the church, we travel through this world until we arrive at the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God (Heb. 11:10).
While we journey together, each one of us takes a different road. Many who read this issue, which celebrates the Orthodox Presbyterian Church's seventieth anniversary, have traveled a road that started in the OPC from the very beginning. Others, like myself, started out in other corners of the church, and their journey has brought them into the OPC. In my case, I sought to find a solidly Reformed denomination, which I found in the OPC. For those born and raised in the OPC, there is an understandable devotion and commitment to one's alma mater. However, for those who come from the outside, what is there to commend the OPC?
Few people see much to commend the OPC—she is a small, doctrinally stubborn denomination of some twenty-five thousand people. In comparison to the Presbyterian Church in America, which has some three hundred thousand members, or even the Southern Baptist Convention, which has a membership in excess of ten million, what might one find appealing about the OPC? The answer lies, at least for me, in her history.
When I first heard of the OPC, I was told that she was founded by J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937), a stalwart defender of Reformed theology. That set me on a course to find out more about him, and in so doing I knew I would find out what this small denomination was all about. As I began to explore Machen's life and doctrine, I discovered three things that greatly impressed me: faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, an outward-looking engagement of liberalism, and a strong commitment to Christian liberty.
Machen took his stand against the mainline Presbyterian church because it had failed to undergird its foreign missions with the gospel. He formed an independent missions board, which eventually led to his suspension from the ministry and to the formation of the OPC. That Machen and many other ministers, elders, and congregations were willing to stand up for the gospel, losing jobs, pensions, and church buildings, was truly a testimony of the OPC's willingness to stand with Christ, no matter what the cost. This was appealing to me and echoed Peter and the disciples' own conduct: "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). This told me not only that the OPC was passionate about the gospel, but also that her churches would bear the three marks of the church—the preaching of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline (WCF, 21, 27, 30).
The OPC was concerned with right practice, as well as right doctrine. That was clear from the arenas in which Machen's doctrinal battles took place: the training ground for shepherds of God's people (Princeton Seminary) and the agency that sent the gospel into the world. In this two-front battle, one can easily see Machen's outward-looking engagement of liberalism. He did not squabble over insignificant matters, but engaged radical unbelief, as in his Christianity and Liberalism, The Origin of Paul's Religion, and The Virgin Birth of Christ. Machen wrote in Christianity and Liberalism that "it may appear that what the liberal theologian has retained after abandoning to the enemy one Christian doctrine after another is not Christianity at all, but a religion which is so entirely different from Christianity as to belong in a distinct category" (pp. 6-7). He therefore engaged liberalism head-on.
Machen's engagement, however, was not the rant of fundamentalism, but a cogent exegetical and theological confrontation of the best that the liberal academy had to offer. Moreover, his orthodoxy was no dead orthodoxy. He wrote, "In such orthodoxy there is life enough to set the whole world aglow with Christian love" (p. 46). In such an ethos, I found not only a denomination concerned with defending the truth, but also one in which the academy served the church rather than its own pedantic interests.
Finally, it was Machen's and the OPC's concern for Christian liberty that greatly impressed me, as one coming out of a fundamentalist environment. As a seminarian, he wrote: "The fellows are in my room now on the last Sunday night, smoking the cigars and eating the oranges which it has been the greatest delight I ever had to provide whenever possible. My idea of delight is a Princeton room full of fellows smoking. When I think what a wonderful aid tobacco is to friendship and Christian patience, I have sometimes regretted that I never began to smoke." Some might want to avoid a denomination with such an attitude. But I saw in Machen's statement (and in the OPC's ethos) a commitment to Christian liberty, namely that "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith, or worship" (WCF, 20.2). People will often affirm that we are freed from the demands of the law in Christ, only to throw a new yoke of demands and prohibitions upon others, about which the Scripture says nothing. Such a commitment to Christian liberty showed me that the gospel was central to Machen and the OPC in its understanding of the Christian life and not a list of peripheral dos and don'ts.
Machen's commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ, his outward-looking engagement of liberalism, and his belief in Christian liberty, which were manifest in his devotion to Scripture and the Westminster standards, drew me out of the world of evangelicalism and into the confessional Presbyterianism of the OPC. In Machen and the history of the OPC, I saw a genuine commitment to the Scriptures and a robust faith in Christ, regardless of the consequences.
I have now been in the OPC for nearly a decade, and have had time to reflect on my initial observations. While I have seen a continued commitment to Machen's original vision for the OPC, I have also witnessed an ignorance of our noble history. There are those who seek out the OPC because they see her orthodoxy, and, having no knowledge of her history, believe that their fundamentalism is compatible with biblical Christianity. Some believe that the gospel of Jesus must be accompanied by certain behavior of which Scripture has said nothing. No matter how well intended, such a mind-set can lead to legalism, forsaking the gospel of Jesus Christ. Others believe that if certain peripheral doctrines can be maintained, orthodoxy can be preserved. Fundamentalism, whether in doctrine or in practice, is a siren that only leads to legalism or a hollow orthodoxy. Still yet, others have expended much energy in internecine battles, rather than following Machen's example of engaging liberalism and unbelief. Machen trusted his colleagues; he did not look upon them with suspicion.
As one who has had the opportunity to look from the outside in, I hope that the OPC on its seventieth anniversary does not forget her history. Those who forget history are doomed to repeat its errors. While this cliché may be well-worn, clichés contain a great deal of truth. In this regard, I hope we all, whether as members of the OPC or as those interested in joining her ranks, would see both the devotion to Christ and the doctrinal fidelity of her founder.
First published in New Horizons, June 2006.
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