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1927 - The General Assembly rescinded the five-point deliverance of 1910, 1916, and 1923 on the grounds that the assembly had overstepped its authority.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 - The only two 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.

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