Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Presbyterian Reunions and Divisions of the 20th Century

Elsberry A.R. Presbyterian Church, est. 1911
In my last post, I described the history of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which was formed by those who left the northern mainline church, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, in 1936 due to the PCUSA's actions against those who opposed liberalism in the church. I also mentioned that in 1937, the Bible Presbyterian Church departed from the OPC. The Bible Presbyterians held to Premillennialism, abstinence from alcohol, and support for the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. The rest of the 20th century saw multiple reunions and divisions among American Presbyterians. This account is adapted from a lesson I gave in my lesson series on American Presbyterian history, available here.

Developments in the North in the 1950s and 1960s

The Bible Presbyterian Church divided into two groups in 1956. They came to be named the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Bible Presbyterian Church.

In 1965, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church united with the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Synod (a “New Light” Covenanter denomination), forming the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES).

The PCUSA and the United Presbyterian Church of North America (UPCNA) united in 1958, forming the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA). The UPCNA had been formed in the 1800s from several northern denominations in the Reformed Presbyterian (“Covenanter”) and Associate Reformed (“Seceder”) traditions. The Covenanter and Seceder traditions originated from groups that left the Church of Scotland in 1662-1689 and 1733, respectively, before coming to America. Two other denominations, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (in the north) and Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (in the south), remain independent representatives of those traditions.

In 1967, the UPCUSA produced the Confession of 1967 (strongly influenced by the “neo-orthodox” theology of Karl Barth), a “Book of Confessions,” and revised ordination vows that redefined and basically eliminated confessional subscription and a commitment to biblical authority, although the full implications of the change would become evident later.

Developments in the South, 1930s-1970s

The Presbyterian Church in the United States (the southern Presbyterian church) resisted liberalism longer than its northern counterpart, but controversy began to heat up in the late 1930s, when major confessional revision was narrowly avoided and attempts to discipline several high profile liberals failed. Liberals had organized a secretive organization to advance their cause in the PCUS (“The Fellowship of St. James,” later replaced by “The Fellowship of Concern”).

Confessional members in the PCUS formed four organizations that would prove important for the later formation of the Presbyterian Church in America: (1) The (Southern) Presbyterian Journal, est. 1942, edited by L. Nelson Bell 1942-1959 and by G. Aiken Taylor 1959-1987; (2) The Presbyterian Evangelical Fellowship, est. 1958 by Bill Hill, (3) Concerned Presbyterians, est. 1964 by Kenneth Keys as an organization for ruling elders, and (4) Presbyterian Churchman United, est. 1969 by John Richards as an organization for ministers.

Reunion with the northern mainline church was defeated in 1954, but looked likely by 1970. Delegates from the four organizations formed the Conservative Caucus in 1970. A steering committee was formed to organize a withdrawal in 1971. The first general assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America met on December 4, 1973. At its founding, the PCA had 260 church with 41,000 communicant members. Initially it was called the National Presbyterian Church, but when the church by that name in Washington DC challenged them in court, they changed the name to the Presbyterian Church in America.

In their "Message to all Churches of Jesus Christ throughout the World," the PCA said, 
We declare, therefore, that the Bible is the very Word of God, so inspired in the whole and in all its parts, as in the original auto-graphs, to be the inerrant Word of God. It is, therefore, the only infallible and all-sufficient rule of faith and practice. … Deviations in doctrine and practice from historic Presbyterian positions as evident in the Presbyterian Church in the United States, result from accepting other sources of authority, and from making them coordinate or superior to the divine Word. A diluted theology, a gospel tending towards humanism, an unbiblical view of marriage and divorce, the ordination of women, financing of abortion on socio-economic grounds, and numerous other non-Biblical positions are all traceable to a different view of Scripture from that we hold and that which was held by the Southern Presbyterian forefathers.
More Departures from the Mainline

Meanwhile, the northern mainline church was going more liberal. In 1975, the judicial commission of the UPCUSA overturned the ordination of Walter Kenyon, who had informed his presbytery that he would not participate in the installation of women ministers. This prompted some churches and ministers to leave and join the PCA, including R.C. Sproul (both he and his friend Kenyon had been students of John Gerstner, a confessional professor at the UPCUSA seminary in Pittsburgh). In 1979, the UPCUSA’s general assembly ruled that all congregations must elect both men and women to the office of ruling elder. About 40 churches departed, including Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, which joined the RPCES.

In 1981, the UPCUSA’s general assembly upheld the reception from the United Church of Christ of a minister, Mansfield Kaseman, who refused to affirm the deity of Christ, his sinless nature, and the bodily resurrection. The ordination vows were interpreted in the decision as no longer binding officers to a confessional system of doctrine, but to a general willingness to be guided by the confessions. This decision, on top of other concerns, prompted more churches to leave, including those that founded the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

The Evangelical Presbyterian Church was formed in 1981 by churches that left the mainline churches, both the UPCUSA and the PCUS. It is a confessional Presbyterian denomination, although it allows for churches to decide whether to have women elders and deacons and for its presbyteries to decide whether to have women ministers. It also allows for different views on the gifts of the Spirit within certain parameters. It rejects the practice of abortion and homosexuality.

North and South Unite

The RPCES joined the PCA in 1982 by the Joining and Receiving Act. With the RPCES came Covenant Seminary, Covenant College, and Francis Schaeffer. (Initially the OPC was going to be a part of this, but the PCA presbyteries did not approve its reception.) By receiving churches from the mainline denominations in the 70s and 80s, receiving the RPCES in 82, and its own church planting efforts, the PCA grew rapidly and spread throughout the USA.

The mainline denominations, the UPCUSA and the PCUS, united in 1983, forming the Presbyterian Church (United States of America). At the time, the PC(USA) had 3.2 million members. Evangelicals in it had obtained the guarantee that Southern churches could have eight years after the reunion to leave with their properties to another Reformed body, a provision which a number of churches used during those years, many of which joined the PCA. The PC(USA) has only continued to grow more liberal in this century, especially on sexual ethics. As churches left it, the EPC doubled in size from 2007 to 2012. The PC(USA) has declined to an aging membership today of 1.1 million.

In 2012, another denomination was founded by churches leaving the PC(USA), called ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. Their departure was prompted by the PC(USA)’s decision to ordain practicing homosexuals. The formation of a new denomination, rather than joining an existing one, was prompted by ECO’s egalitarian commitment to women’s ordination. ECO’s loose practice of confessional subscription is guided by its “Essential Tenets” and it did exclude the Confession of 1967 and the PC(USA)’s 1991 Brief Statement of Faith from its Book of Confessions. Meanwhile, the PC(USA) is considering at this year’s general assembly whether to require the affirmation of homosexuality and transgenderism of its officers.


American Presbyterian Denominations, by Membership
Members of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council marked with an asterisk. These statistics are taken mostly from 2021, so growing churches like the OPC and PCA have more today, while shrinking churches the PCUSA have less. This does not include denominations from Dutch or German Reformed traditions.

Presbyterian Church (United States of America) 1,245,354 members, 8,813 churches
Presbyterian Church in America* - 386,345 members, 1,932 churches
Evangelical Presbyterian Church - 145,000 members, 627 churches
ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians - 127,500 members, 391 churches
Korean American Presbyterian Church* - 80,000 members, 650 churches
Cumberland Presbyterian Church - 70,810 members, 685 churches
Korean Presbyterian Church Abroad - 55,000 members, 302 churches
Orthodox Presbyterian Church* - 31,112 members, 328 churches
Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church* - 29,317 members, 264 churches
Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America - 15,142 members, 113 churches
Korean Presbyterian Church in America (Kosin)* - 10,300 members, 135 churches
Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America* - 7,076 members, 100 churches
Bible Presbyterian Church* - 3,500 members, 29 churches
Vanguard Presbytery - 26 churches
Free Presbyterian Church in North America - 22 churches
The Reformed Presbyterian Church, Hanover Presbytery - 17 churches
The Covenant Presbyterian Church - 12 churches
The Reformed Presbyterian Church General Assembly - 11 churches
Free Church of Scotland (in North America) - 9 churches
Presbyterian Reformed Church* - 7 churches
Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) (in North America) - 6 churches

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

A History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church

“I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.” (Revelation 3:8)

I thought this verse was appropriate to accompany a history of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and not only because it is in the letter to the church in Philadelphia. Even though the OPC began as a small group who had lost their buildings and resources when they left the mainline church, it has worked diligently to keep the faith, maintaining its profession of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And slowly but surely, the Lord has sustained and blessed the OPC over the years. 

You can listen to my recorded lessons on the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy and the History of the OPC. To accompany these lessons, here is a timeline of OPC history. (You can find the reports to the OPC General Assembly here and the minutes of the OPC General Assembly here.)

1910 - The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (PCUSA) affirmed the “five fundamentals” - biblical inerrancy, the virgin birth, penal substitutionary atonement, Christ’s bodily resurrection, and Christ’s miracles - as among the essential and necessary articles of faith. This was also reaffirmed in 1916 and 1923. 

1921 - J. Gresham Machen becomes known for his role in the defeat of the proposal to form a federal union of 18 denominations known as the United Churches of Christ in America on a meager creedal basis. B.B. Warfield, of Princeton Seminary, also died the same year.

1922 - Harry Emerson Fosdick preaches, "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" He argued that the Fundamentalists were illiberal and intolerant, trying to kick out those who were seeking to adapt the faith to the “new knowledge” that had been discovered in the modern age.

1923 - J. Gresham Machen's book Christianity and Liberalism was published, in which he argued that “The great redemptive religion which has always been known as Christianity is battling against a totally diverse type of religious belief … called ‘modernism’ or ‘liberalism.’”

1924 - In reaction to the previous year’s reaffirmation of the five fundamentals, a group of PCUSA ministers signed the Auburn Affirmation, denying inherency and protesting the use of these “theories” as tests of orthodoxy. 150 ministers signed it by January, and 1,273 ministers had signed it by its reprinting in May. 

1927 - The General Assembly rescinded the five-point deliverance of 1910, 1916, and 1923 on the grounds that the assembly had overstepped its authority. It also determined to reorganize Princeton Seminary.

1929 - The PCUSA reorganized Princeton Seminary, and four of its professors, including J. Gresham Machen, and four of its alumni moved over to found Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. 

1932 - The release of Re-Thinking Missions: A Laymen's Inquiry After One Hundred Years, which promoted a more liberal approach to foreign missions. 

1933 - After the General Assembly failed to act to reform its foreign missions board, Machen helped to establish the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, “to carry on truly Biblical and truly Presbyterian Foreign Missionary work.”

1934 - McAllister Griffiths, Murray Thompson, and Gordon Clark attempted to defrock signers of the Auburn Affirmation in the Presbytery of Philadelphia, but the charges were dropped by the presbytery. The General Assembly also directed its presbyteries to discipline all those who refused to resign from the Independent Board.

June 1, 1936 - The General Assembly upheld the censures against those who remained on the Independent Board, 7 suspensions from the ministry (including Machen) and 1 admonition. Carl McIntire was the only one who also suspended from the communion of the church, and Wheaton College President Oliver Buswell was the one who was admonished. 

June 11, 1936 - Those who were suspended, and other ministers, elders, and lay members who supported them, gathered in Philadelphia to found a new denomination. Its original name was the Presbyterian Church of America, and its first General Assembly was held with 44 ministers and 17 ruling elders. The suspensions were lifted. One of its founding lay members was Thomas Hodge, grandson of Charles Hodge. Thomas Hodge came to the next General Assembly as a ruling elder.

November 12, 1936 - The second General Assembly was held, with over 100 ministers enrolled; 64 ministers and 23 elders were present. The same month, Machen lost reelection as president of the Independent Board for Presbyterians Foreign Missions.

January 1, 1937 - J. Gresham Machen died from pneumonia during a trip to encourage the churches in North Dakota.  

1937 - The third General Assembly distanced itself from the Independent Board (due to its shift away from being distinctly Presbyterian) and declined to commend abstinence from alcohol and "questionable amusements," reaffirming instead the position of the Westminster standards on Christian library and the sins of drunkenness and lascivious entertainment. Therefore some led by McIntire and Buswell left and formed the Bible Presbyterian Church, which also proceeded to amend its confession of faith to affirm Premillennialism.

1938 - The new church had 4,225 communicant members in 60 congregations with 99 ministers.

1939 - After the PCUSA brought a lawsuit in 1936 and won it against the PCA in the Common Pleas Court in 1938, the PCA renamed itself the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The lawsuit had claimed the name of the new church was too similar to the PCUSA. 

1942 - Report to the General Assembly on Freemasonry (“Masonry is a religious institution and as such is definitely anti-Christian”).

1942 - The Christian World Order Conference held by Westminster Seminary.

1944-1948 - The controversy over the ordination and teachings of Gordon Clark. 

1945 - The OPC had 7,412 members (5574 communicants) in 73 congregations, around 100 ministers.

1946-1947 - Report on song in worship, setting forth the regulative principle of worship, debating exclusive psalmody, and setting a framework for the production of a new hymnal.

1948 - A committee was established to begin revising the Book of Church Order, beginning with the Form of Government. A revision of the Form of Government was finished in 1957.

1961 - The OPC published The Trinity Hymnal.

1961 - Report to the General Assembly on the teachings and practice of the Peniel Bible Conference, which declared Peniel’s doctrine of the guidance of the Holy Spirit to be erroneous.

1970 - The OPC had 14,300 members, 190 ministers, 116 churches.

1972 - In response to the previous year’s report on abortion and to an overture from the Presbytery of New Jersey, the General Assembly adopted a statement on abortion. It began by stating: “Believing that unborn children are living creatures in the image of God, given by God as a blessing to their parents, we therefore affirm that voluntary abortion, except possibly to save the physical life of the mother, is in violation of the Sixth Commandment.”

1974 - Report to the General Assembly on meeting the problems of race.

1974 - Anna Strikwerda became the first martyr of the OPC, when a OPC-operated hospital in Eritrea was raided and its people taken hostage (she was killed as they were marched away).

1975 - Greg Bahnsen, having been raised in the OPC, was ordained as an OPC minister.

1975 - The first meeting of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC), founded “to facilitate cross-denominational conversation and co-operation,” including representatives from the OPC, CRCNA, PCA, RPCNA, and RPCES. Later the CRCNA would be removed and others added, like the URCNA, RCUS, and ARPC (12 total).

1975 - The OPC and Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod sought to merge, but the RPCES voted it down, due in part to the influence of Francis Schaeffer in the RPCES.

1978 - Report to the General Assembly on the Baptism and Gifts of the Holy Spirit, affirming the cessation of tongues and prophecy. This report was prompted by an 1976 appeal of a minister, Arnold Kress, who had asserted that they may continue in the church today. Kress moved on to the CRC in 1978.

1979 - Another revision of the Form of Government was completed.

1979 - The Presbyterian Guardian (est. in 1935 by Machen) merged with the Presbyterian Journal, which had been established by Southern Presbyterians. In 1987, the Presbyterian Journal was succeeded by World magazine.

1980 - New Horizons in the OPC is founded as a denominational magazine.

1981 - The PCA, RPCES, and OPC were going to merge by the Joining and Receiving Act, but the presbyteries of the PCA declined to join and receive the OPC, leaving them out of the merger (the RPCES did join the PCA). This was in part because of concern in the PCA with the teachings of Norman Shepherd at Westminster Seminary on justification, faith, and works. Shepherd was dismissed by Westminster’s Board of Trustees by the end of the year.

1983 - The revised Book of Discipline was adopted.

1986 - The PCA extended an invitation for the OPC to join them, but the measure failed to get a 2/3 majority in the OPC General Assembly.

1987 - Report to the General Assembly on Paedocommunion, in response to a mission to Ethiopian immigrants in Washington D.C. that had initially been permitted to practice paedocommunion while the presbytery overtured the General Assembly. Its presbytery later rescinded its permission.

1988 - Report to the General Assembly on women in office. This was prompted by an overture that Bethel OPC in Wheaton, IL had sent its presbytery in 1979. The church had been promoting and moving toward greater inclusion of women in church leadership and the leading of worship, but Elder Brinks brought a complaint against the church that was upheld by the Presbytery of the Midwest and the General Assembly. In 1989, most of Bethel’s church, including its pastor and most of its session left to start another church, leaving behind 44 of 300 members. Doug Clawson and Lendall Smith helped bring healing and stability to the church. This situation also prompted a report on unordained persons in worship in 1991.

1989-1990 - Two of the very few years in which the OPC has declined in total membership. This was due to some churches and members joining the PCA after the denominations failed to merge. 

1990 - A revised edition of The Trinity Hymnal was released through the collaboration of the OPC and PCA.

1993 - The General Assembly petitioned President Clinton to stand against the sin of homosexual activity and to not lift the ban on homosexuals in the military.

1995 - The OPC had 21,131 members, 355 ministers, and 189 churches.

2001 - Report to the General Assembly on women in combat. The General Assembly responded by declaring “that the use of women in military combat is both contrary to nature and inconsistent with the Word of God.”

2003 - The trials of Lee Irons and John Kinnaird. Irons was a disciple of Meredith Kline. Irons had been found guilty by his presbytery for denying that the 10 Commandments have binding authority over Christians as the standard for holy living. Kinnaird was a ruling elder associated with Norman Shepherd. Kinnaird had been found guilty by his session for allegedly teaching justification by faith and works (his point regarded the necessity of holiness for glorification). The General Assembly heard both on appeal. It denied the appeal of Irons, so that his presbytery moved to suspend him from the ministry. The General Assembly upheld the appeal of Kinnaird, reversing his conviction.

2004 - Report to the General Assembly on the views of creation days.

2006 - Report to the General Assembly on the doctrine of justification. This was prompted by the Federal Vision controversy and the desire to vindicate the denomination from accusations resulting from its acquittal of Kinnaird. The report contended that aberrant views on justification had been promulgated from within the "Federal Vision" and the "New Perspective on Paul" movements. 

2011 - The revised Directory for Public Worship, including a new membership vow explicitly affirming the doctrine of the Trinity, was adopted. You can find it with the rest of the Book of Church Order here.

2023 - The OPC has 32,720 members (24,073 communicants), 584 ministers, 301 churches, and 31 mission works.