The word “pilgrim” is one that 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 pilgrim through this world until we arrive at the heavenly city, new Jerusalem, the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God (Heb 11.10). While we as a corporate people pilgrim together, each one of us travels a different road. For many who read this issue celebrating the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s (OPC) 75th anniversary, they have traveled a road that started in the OPC from the very beginning. For others, like myself, their road began in other corners of the church and their journey has brought them into the OPC. In my own journey I sought to find a solid 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. For those, however, who come from the outside, what is there to commend the OPC?
In the eyes of the world and perhaps even the sympathetic universal church, many see little 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, if not more, what might one find appealing about the OPC? The answer lies, at least for me, in her history, particularly her founding patriarch, J. Gresham Machen (1881-1936).
When I first heard of the OPC, a trusted colleague told me that she was founded by Machen, who was a stalwart defender of Reformed theology. That immediately set me on a course to find out more about Machen, and in so doing I knew I would find both the impetus and raison d’etre of this tiny denomination. As I began to explore Machen’s life and doctrine, I found 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.
As OPC lore has it, Machen took his stand against the mainline Presbyterian church because it failed to undergird its foreign missions with the gospel. He formed an independent mission board, which eventually led to his expulsion from the church and to the formation of the OPC. That Machen and many other ministers, elders, and congregations were willing to stand for the gospel losing jobs, pensions, and church buildings, was truly a testimony of the OPC’s willingness to stand with Christ no matter 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 devotion not only told me that the OPC was passionate about the gospel but that her churches would also bear the three marks of the church, the right preaching of the gospel, the right administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline (WCF 21, 27, 30). Though the OPC was concerned about orthodoxy, right doctrine, this did not mean, however, that she was unconcerned with orthopraxy, or right practice.
That the OPC was concerned with orthopraxy was evident because of the ground upon which Machen’s battles took place: the debates over doctrinal orthodoxy at Princeton Seminary and in foreign missions—the training ground for shepherds of God’s people and the message that the church carried into the world. In this two-front battle, one can easily see Machen’s outward-looking engagement of liberalism. Machen did not squabble over insignificant matters but engaged radical unbelief, most evident in his Christianity and Liberalism, The Origins of Paul’s Religion, and 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 against the best the liberal academy had to offer. Machen was not a pitchman for the so-called moral majority but harkened back to Paul at Mars Hill. Moreover, the orthodoxy that Machen brought to bear at the battlefront was no dead orthodoxy. Machen could write, “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 obscure pedantic interests.
Finally, it was Machen and later the early OPC’s concern for Christian liberty that greatly impressed me, as one coming out of a Baptist environment, one marked by the presence of fundamentalism. Towards the end of Machen’s days in seminary he once 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 think such an admission great sin and reason to avoid a denomination rather than rationale for wanting to join it. What I saw in Machen’s statement as well in the OPC’s ethos was a commitment to Christian liberty, namely that “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has 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). Often people will 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 marginal do’s and don’ts.
It was Machen’s commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ, an outward-looking engagement of liberalism, and Christian liberty, which was manifest in his devotion to Scripture and the Westminster Standards, that drew me out of the world of evangelicalism into the confessional presbyterianism of the OPC. In Machen and the history of the OPC I saw a commitment to the Scriptures, not merely lip-service, but a robust faith in Christ, regardless of the consequences. As I have now been in the OPC for close to a decade, I have had some time to reflect upon my initial observations.
While I have seen a continued commitment to Machen’s original vision for the OPC, I have also witnessed what I can only describe as an ignorance of our treasured history. There are those who seek out the OPC because they see its orthodoxy, and apart from 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 mindset can lead to legalism, forsaking the gospel of Jesus Christ. Or, others believe that if only certain peripheral doctrines can be maintained, one can maintain orthodoxy. Fundamentalism, whether in doctrine or 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 looking to Machen’s own practice 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 75th 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 those interested in joining her ranks, would see both the devotion to Christ and the doctrinal genius in the theology of her founding patriarch.