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New Horizons

Reflections on the Last Ten Years of the OPC

Donald J. Duff

When the Forty-third General Assembly met in 1986 to celebrate the semicentennial anniversary of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the church was considering whether to join the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and be received as part of that denomination. This process was known as joining and receiving, or J & R.

The proposal to join the PCA failed narrowly. The General Assembly commissioners voted 78 to 68 in favor of it, but approval required a two-thirds affirmative vote.

As a result of the failure of J & R, several churches (including many "New Life" churches) voluntarily realigned with the PCA. In the years 1987-1990, twelve churches (and most of a thirteenth) left, and overall membership declined from a high of 19,422 in 1988 to a low of 18,164 in 1990. Giving was significantly affected as well.

But since 1990, the trend has been reversed. In recent years, whole congregations have come out of the PCA and elsewhere to join the OPC. By the end of 1995, the total membership stood at 21,056 in 189 churches and 36 mission works.

There were 355 ministers in twelve presbyteries at the end of 1995. From 1985 to 1995, 102 men were ordained in the OPC, 11 of whom are no longer ministers in the church. Sixty-six men were received during the same period of time from other churches, 36 of whom came from the PCA. There was also a loss of 126 ministers. Fifty-five went to the PCA, 10 were dismissed to other churches, 3 were divested, 3 were deposed, 14 demitted, 25 died, and 16 were erased.

All of this loss, as well as growth, has meant that a lot of change has taken place in the OPC in the past ten years. The vote taken in 1986 was crucial. For several years before that, it was unclear whether the church would even continue to exist. Planning for the future was difficult, and a lot of energy was expended on either promoting or resisting the proposed J & R. Then came those four difficult years in which churches and individuals left, sometimes with some bitterness on both sides. J & R is now effectively dead, and it no longer takes up the church's time or energy. With her continued existence no longer in question, the church has been able to move forward.

The last decade has been a time of transition for the OPC. It is hard to analyze recent events, yet certain trends and characteristics may tentatively be put forward and analyzed.

Administrative Changes

In 1986 the administrative offices were located at 7401 Old York Road in Philadelphia, where they had been since 1960. The building was sold for $500,000 in 1990, and the offices were moved to rented space in Horsham, a suburb north of Philadelphia. Then in December 1994 an office building in nearby Willow Grove was purchased. The offices were moved there in February 1995.

When one reads the Minutes of the general assemblies of 1987-1990, one finds each of the program committees of the church (Christian Education, Foreign Missions, and Home Missions) going through a rough transition period. Two of the general secretaries, the Rev. Lewis A. Ruff, Jr., and the Rev. Roger W. Schmurr, had promoted J & R and attended New Life churches which left for the PCA (although Mr. Schmurr urged his church not to leave). In September 1987, Mr. Ruff suddenly resigned as Home Missions general secretary and soon went into the PCA. In April 1988, Mr. Schmurr resigned as the general secretary of the Committee on Christian Education to work for Great Commission Publications (he has remained in the OPC).

In anticipation of J & R being completed, the financial reserves of the Committee on Home Missions were dangerously depleted. After Mr. Ruff left, the Rev. George E. Haney (his predecessor) took his place until a bout with cancer forced him to step down in June 1990. Later that year, the Rev. Ross W. Graham was installed as the new general secretary. It took these two men and the Committee several years to regain its financial stability, with several mission works and home missionaries undergoing very difficult times.

The Rev. Thomas E. Tyson took the position of general secretary of the Committee on Christian Education in July 1989. Under his leadership, New Horizons has gained wide acceptance, the intern program has been vigorously pursued, and several publications promoting the church and the Reformed faith have been printed and distributed.

The Committee on Foreign Missions and its general secretary, the Rev. Donald G. Buchanan, had to wrestle with some difficult financial problems. This was partly due to the fall of the value of the dollar relative to other currencies. The Committee had to reduce the number of missionaries, and the church had to struggle with how best to raise additional funds to support those who remained. This led to revisions in the concept of the combined budget and ways were invented to get around the cap in that system (which stopped the distribution of undesignated giving to a committee that had reached its goal before the others)—ways that are still being used and debated.

In 1990, once the financial situation had stabilized and new methods of finance were in place, Mr. Buchanan returned to the pastorate. In July 1991, Mr. Mark T. Bube, a ruling elder from First OPC in Portland, Oregon, took the position of general secretary. He has been able to aggressively push the foreign missions program of the church. As a result, the OPC now has missionaries in several new fields.

In March 1989, Mr. David E. Haney became the controller of the Committee on Coordination and began to set up a centralized accounting system for the three program committees and the General Assembly Operation Fund.

In June 1992, the Rev. Donald J. Duff became the first full-time stated clerk of the General Assembly. For the first time, the stated clerk was given an office in the administrative office building.

Narrowing and Broadening

The battle over J & R, like every battle, forced men to take sides and to see things more in black and white. Men on both sides of the issue took stands which should not have been taken and said things which should not have been said. The departure of a goodly number after the battle meant that the church, which had been in the process of broadening, became more narrow. At the same time, however, the church has become more diverse and broad in other respects.

Denominational Loyalty

One might expect, as a result of the battle over J & R and the consequent realignment, that denominational loyalty would be strengthened. But such has not been the case. Some, but not many, were forced by the J & R process to ask the question, "What is the OPC? Is it something worth preserving?" Ten more years in the life of the church means that the church is ten years further from its origins. The ranks of her founding fathers have thinned dramatically.

Despite that fact that during those ten years, some work has been done on the history of the church, there are an increasing number of pastors who do not know that history very well. Because men have been coming into the pastorate from diverse backgrounds and because they are not required to study the history of the OPC, there is an increasing lack of knowledge of what the OPC has been or is. This has had an affect on denominational loyalty.

Doctrinal Issues

In doctrinal matters, the church has swung to the right and become narrower. At one time the OPC was unique in being conservative, yet allowing for considerable freedom of conscience, practice, and thought. Thus, the church took an early stand for eschatological freedom and for Christian liberty with regard to the use of alcoholic beverages.

Some of this growing conservatism is good. For example, at one time there was an interest among some in the Church Growth movement, but that has largely disappeared.

However, there has also been a rise of what might be called "Reformed fundamentalism" in the church. For example, many candidates for the ministry have in licensure and ordination exams maintained that the six days of creation were twenty-four hours long and that the earth is young. In the past, both this view and other views were allowed in the church. But recently there seems to have developed a dangerous trend toward making the young-earth view an extraconfessional standard. There seems to be an increasing biblicism and an anti-intellectualism that is unwilling to ask the hard questions and face some of the facts of the world around us.

Ecumenicity

The OPC has from the beginning been very interested in ecumenical matters. In 1986 the OPC was still a member of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod (RES). At the Fifty-third General Assembly (1986), there was considerable discussion of whether or not to stay in the RES. Two years later, the OPC resigned from the RES after nearly forty years of membership. The resignation followed the RES's failure to discipline the GKN (a Dutch church) for allowing homosexual officers.

Immediately the OPC began to look at membership in the newly formed International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC). In 1989 the church sent observers to the ICRC, and in 1993 she became a member. In the meantime, the OPC has been active in the North America Presbyterian and Reformed Council.

In recent years, the church's relationship with her close relative (shall we say a dear aunt?!), the Christian Reformed Church in North America, has been the subject of much discussion and tension as the CRC has gone back and forth on the question of having women in church office, and in 1995 opened all offices in the church to women.

Training of Ministers

From 1985 to 1995, 102 men were ordained as ministers in the OPC, and 66 were received as already ordained. When one looks at the seminary education of these 168 men, one finds that 55 went to Westminster Theological Seminary (in Philadelphia), and 27 to Westminster Theological Seminary in California. Eleven went to Reformed Theological Seminary, 10 to Gordon-Conwell, 9 to Covenant Theological Seminary, 5 to Reformed Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, and 3 to Mid-America Reformed Seminary. The rest went to various other seminaries or, in a couple of cases, to no seminary at all.

When the OPC started, Westminster Theological Seminary had been in existence for seven years. Almost all the original faculty joined the new church, and many of the men in the church then, and for a good many years following, were trained at that seminary. But in the last eleven years, only 49 percent of the men entering the OP ministry have been trained at either Westminster in Philadelphia or Westminster in California.

Worship

For well over ten years now, the General Assembly has had a Committee on Revisions to the Directory for Public Worship. In 1989 that committee was reconstituted. Its members have been hard at work, but have reported that they will need to study the regulative principle of worship further before making final recommendations. In the meantime, practice in OP worship services varies greatly from church to church. It seems to this writer that there has been a growing disregard for the Directory of Worship and an increasing experimentation with various forms of worship practices.

Mr. Duff is the stated clerk of the General Assembly. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 1996.

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