Fighting the Good Fight

A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church


Members of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and many interested in this expression of the visible body of Christ have waited years for the production of a more thorough treatment of OP history. As far back as the 1960s, a call was heard in the general assembly for something to be done—and not without reason, since nearly everything written to that point concentrated on the church's formative years.

Since the sixties, the church has established the historian's position and celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. Beginnings were made by the historian, not unconnected to that celebration, to gain a more comprehensive picture of the church's life and significance.

What has become clear from these efforts, at least to this writer and the authors of this book, is that the OPC's identity is bound to her origins. In other words, the OPC was born a certain type of church. This means her identity is not tied so much to her collective self-understanding as it is to her existence as such. She has an assigned identity, one that is Reformed to its very soul, one that the church denies to her detriment and loss.

The OPC, by the grace of God, stands out as a remarkable chapter in the chronicle of church history. She is a statement against the insidious drift of mainline Protestantism, a challenge to an often misdirected and theologically weak evangelicalism, and a clear rejoinder to fundamentalism. She has been a positive, although not always consistent, testimony for Presbyterianism in the orthodox Calvinistic sense.

The authors of this book understand these things and are especially well-suited to write a history of the OPC. They know the church—John Muether because he was raised in it, and has loved and studied it; Darryl Hart because he chose it after a long journey through seminary and graduate school that included the detailed investigation of J. Gresham Machen's life and OPC beginnings. Here is sound assessment—to be sure, not without evaluation and criticism as in all historical writing; but a valuable reading of the OPC's story meant for the church's edification, the communication of the truth, and the glory of the triune God of the Bible.

This book has been written to accompany the 1993 video which provides a visual history of the OPC (see the list of recommended sources for study of the OPC, p. 211). As in the case of the video, the book has been produced by both the Committee for the Historian and the Committee on Christian Education. It was reviewed prior to publication by six readers: James Alexander, F. Kingsley Elder, James S. Gidley, Brian O'Leary, David K. Thompson, and myself. Lawrence R. Eyres, Robert W. Eckardt, and Arthur W. Kuschke, all ministers who have lived through the OPC's history, also read the manuscript and offered helpful critiques. Kathleen Bristley served as copy editor and proofreader. Eric Bristley designed the book.

Not everyone agreed with every detail or opinion in the text; nor will every reader. However, those most directly responsible for the book speak in highest terms about its intention and content and pray that it will be most useful to you in the interests of the "good fight" (1 Timothy 6:12).

Charles G. Dennison,
Historian for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church
May 15, 1995

Introduction: The History and Identity of the OPC

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church is the heir of a marvelous heritage. Its theological and ecclesiastical roots are grounded in the dramatic struggles and remarkable accomplishments of the Protestant Reformation. Among the stalwart forefathers of the OPC are such names as John Calvin, the reformer who established a beachhead for the Reformed faith in Geneva, John Knox, the feisty Scottish churchman who followed Calvin's insights to begin Presbyterianism, and Ulrich Zwingli, the first-generation reformer in Zurich who elaborated many of the truths which to this day the Reformed community continues to hold dear.

The genius of the Reformation was its recovery of the biblical faith of Christ alone, grace alone, the Bible alone, and faith alone. While the reformers of the sixteenth century made significant contributions to the cause of the Reformed faith, the OPC owes a special debt to the British theologians and pastors who assembled during the 1640s to draft the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. For the Westminster Standards not only have become the theological touchstone for the OPC, but in the estimate of many Presbyterians the confession and catechisms embody the fullest and clearest exposition of the insights of Calvin, Knox, and Zwingli. According to Benjamin Warfield, one of the greatest Presbyterian theologians in the history of the United States, the Westminster Standards "mark an epoch in the history of human reflection on the truths of the gospel—an epoch in the attainment and registry of doctrinal truth." For this reason J. Gresham Machen, a central figure in the founding of the OPC, could claim that the Reformed faith, "the creed God has taught us in his Word," was "glorious." The OPC, to the extent that it continues to uphold this magnificent line of Christian truth, is indeed a grand church.

Yet the OPC is not the only Presbyterian or Reformed church whose origins can be traced to the Reformation. There are, in fact, fourteen different Presbyterian denominations in North America, including the mainline Presbyterian Church in the USA, the Presbyterian Church in America, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, and the Korean Presbyterian Church. So what makes the OPC different from these other Presbyterian bodies?

Spokesmen and apologists for the denomination have offered different answers to this question. For Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, the basic identity of the OPC is what binds it together with "all churches built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Jesus Christ himself as the chief cornerstone." According to John P. Galbraith, a man with many years of service in the OPC, the denomination is grounded in the belief "that God's Word is Truth," and that "the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms interpret that Truth most truly." In The Presbyterian Conflict, a book that chronicled the events that led up to the founding of the OPC in 1936, Edwin H. Rian wrote that the OPC "is what its name implies, truly Presbyterian.... It is a church devoted to the Bible as the final authority for faith and practice and convinced that only through the sacrificial death of Christ upon the cross can men be saved."

This little book, a brief history of the OPC designed for use in adult education classes and church study groups, is written from the perspective that one of the things that makes the OPC different from other churches is its history. The authors believe that a proper understanding of the OPC must include some knowledge of the denomination's past. The church's history reflects the unique emphases and particular concerns of Orthodox Presbyterians.

We also want to claim a bit more for the history of the OPC in the pages that follow. Many Americans show little interest in history. Henry Ford spoke for many when he said, "History is bunk." Then, of course, there is the common American notion, perhaps the result of declining high school standards, that history is just one endless and boring series of names, dates, and political treaties. Since Presbyterians value highly the accomplishments of the Reformers and look to the confessions and creeds of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for sustenance and guidance, they tend to be more interested in the past than the average American. But even Presbyterians do not always see the immediate value of studying history.

For this reason we are convinced that the value of studying the OPC's history lies in the close connection between the church's past and the church's identity. In recent years theologians and educators have explored the ties between narrative and identity. The argument has been made that stories shape the identity of a people. From the plays of the Greeks to the family stories that parents tell their children, narratives powerfully nurture a sense of purpose and allegiance which is crucial to the way a people understand themselves and their relationships to others.

This observation about the importance of narrative is not merely an anthropological truism but appears to correspond to biblical teaching. A common refrain heard in the Old Testament is God commanding the Israelites to tell their children the wonderful stories of the exodus when God delivered his people from the bondage of Egypt. These narratives lay at the heart of what it meant to be part of God's people. Similarly, in the New Testament the Gospels recount the narrative of God's delivering his people from bondage to sin in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. At the same time, the epistles stress the importance of those events, of "Christ and him crucified," for the identity and faithfulness of the early church. In this sense Christians are a people defined by stories just as much as are immigrant groups in the United States who describe themselves by the heroic accomplishments of previous generations.

To carry this analogy further, to be Presbyterian is to tell and live out the gospel narratives in a particular way—not just one way, but the truest and best way. But within the Presbyterian fold there are a variety of differences which separate the diverse denominations, just as within the realm of people who speak English there are differences of idiom, accent, and slang. To put this another way, all Presbyterians subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, but the different Presbyterian denominations subscribe to these theological standards in divergent ways. These differences in subscription can be compared to various ways of following the rules of grammar for a particular language. Some English speakers have been sticklers over the niceties of grammar, while others prefer slang and care little for grammatical precision and correctness.

This analogy between the variety of Presbyterian churches and linguistic differences among English-speakers should not be read in any way as an approval of relativism. For we hold that just as there are rules of English grammar which determine proper usage, so there is a correct way of expressing and practicing the Reformed faith. Thus, while all Presbyterians speak the same theological language, we believe the OPC uses the correct language, the King's English as it were. This book can be read as both the story which gives the OPC its identity and in turn as a primer in Orthodox Presbyterian grammar. For the OPC, though imperfect in many ways, has throughout its short history tried to tell and live out the story of the gospel of Jesus Christ faithfully. In many instances in the life of the OPC, subjects have not always agreed with verbs, words have been misspelled, and vulgarisms have crept in. But the church has also distinguished itself for trying to remove these errors and above all for endeavoring to be faithful to God as he has revealed himself in his Word as summarized in the Westminster Standards.

For this reason, if the OPC is to figure out its identity, it needs to understand its roots. Here a comparison between the OPC and the experience of immigrants in the United States may be helpful. Typically, the first generation of immigrants pays much attention to and takes its identity from the strenuous and courageous efforts which established the group in a foreign land. And this was very much the case with the founding generation of the OPC, who retold frequently the events that led to the founding of the denomination. Second.generation immigrants, however, are less interested in the accomplishments of the past and more concerned to assimilate to the host society. This pattern also seems to be true of the OPC. Second-generation Orthodox Presbyterians have manifested a concern to reach out beyond the confines of the OPC to the wider evangelical community. But just as third-generation immigrants often turn back to recover the achievements of the first generation, so the OPC, as it matures to the stage of a third generation, stands poised to reconsider and recover the accomplishments of the denomination founders. We hope this book will be used to stimulate such an interest, for we believe the history of the church holds the key to the denomination's identity. To that end we also hope that readers will not stop with this small volume but will also work through the suggestions for further reading at the end of this book.

It should be stated at the outset that the authors write with specific convictions or biases (depending on your perspective) about Reformed faith and practice generally, and about the OPC specifically. We acknowledge that our perspective is not shared by all in the denomination. This book is not intended to silence other perspectives but to contribute to a healthy discussion of the OPC identity and mission. We hope it will persuade the unpersuaded, confirm the already committed, and prompt those who disagree to voice disagreement. Above all, we hope that this book will challenge the church to think hard about its identity. For we believe that a church without an identity will lose its reason for existence.

One theme that stands out in the pages that follow is controversy, hence the title, Fighting the Good Fight. And this theme is prominent for a good reason. The debates, struggles, and inner turmoil that have hounded the OPC have been a vital part of the denomination's history and identity. The OPC was born in the midst of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy and it has continued to experience disputes and strife throughout its history. In fact, the OPC has a reputation for not backing away from controversy. This record of conflict reflects in part the church's commitment to follow God's Word faithfully, a commitment that will always involve opposition to sin and error and will often generate conflict. As Dr. Machen said, "The gospel of Christ, in a world of sin and doubt will cause disputing; and if it does not cause disputing and arouse bitter opposition, that is a fairly sure sign that it is not being faithfully proclaimed." Machen's recognition that controversy "of the right sort" is inherent in Christianity reflects the biblical truth that the Christian life is one of constant warfare against sinfulness and disobedience. Just as individual believers this side of glory will always be prone to sin because of their old nature, so the visible church always has to struggle against disobedience. The OPC has understood this truth, and its history reflects a vigilant effort to be on guard against departures from God's Word. While some may regard this tendency of the OPC as a blemish, we see the church's effort to eliminate error both as a virtue and as a characteristic which distinguishes the church from other Protestant communions. And, in this regard, we believe that the OPC has been especially attentive to the apostle Paul's injunction to Timothy to "fight the good fight of faith" (I Tim 6:12).

Finally, some mention should be made about the general tone of the narrative that follows. Rather than chronicling the OPC's past in glowing and jubilant rhetoric, we have chosen an approach that is best described as understated. Some readers may be frustrated by this choice. Like those who focus exclusively upon the mighty deeds of the Protestant Reformation, some may want to hear only about the success and triumphs of the OPC. But good history should be faithful to reality, and the OPC, over the course of its history, has achieved nothing like a worldly splendor. For that reason it is difficult to write the history of the OPC as one of extraordinary achievements. Like it or not, the stormy and modest past of the OPC does not on the surface compare well with the magnificent accomplishments of the Protestant Reformation. This is indeed frustrating and humbling, especially when we believe we have the truth and want that truth to be reflected in a significant and influential manner. Nevertheless, the OPC has not produced presidents of the United States, it does not have a record of establishing megachurches, and it has no institution of higher learning. Other Presbyterian denominations may be able to point to accomplishments like these. The OPC cannot.

Nevertheless, we believe the subdued history which follows is entirely appropriate. For the denomination is best compared to a small but nevertheless firm presence in American Christianity—easily overlooked, but when confronted not easily ignored. As historian Mark Noll, who compared the OPC to the "pea beneath the mattress," said at the celebration of the church's fiftieth anniversary, the denomination "is very small, but it is rock hard and undeniably there." While some might want to think of the OPC as a jewel of great price hidden away by the forces of darkness, Noll cautioned that Balaam's ass may make for a better comparison. The denomination "has not sold its soul to theological fashion or to the allure of wealth, power, and influence." Rather, "like Balaam's ass, though a thing of naught and the humblest of all God's creatures, it has seen the angel of God and tried to heed his word."

As insignificant as the OPC may appear and as uninspiring as its history may seem to some, the church's past turns out to convey an important Christian truth. The Bible makes clear that God has not often used the mighty and powerful to achieve his ends. Israel was always a minor player in the annals of ancient near eastern history, and the apostles were by no means powerful or famous. In fact, God's people have often been poor, common, and humble. As the apostle Paul wrote, God uses "jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us" (II Cor 4:7).

This is not to say that the OPC should celebrate its inferiority or take its cultural marginality for granted. But this is a reminder that suffering, humility, and adversity characterize God's people. So if the OPC has not produced celebrities or if its methods have not been followed by the rest of the Protestant world, it does not mean that God has not blessed the church in less visible or celebrated ways. God's people have a different measure for success and influence than the world's standards. According to Paul, "we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal" (II Cor 4:18). We believe that this insight is what motivated the OPC at its founding, sustained it at critical periods in the denomination's development, and will be crucial to the church's faithfulness now and in the next century. And we trust that the pages which follow will establish and confirm this truth within the minds and hearts of Orthodox Presbyterians, not for the sake of their denomination's importance, but, as the first question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it, for the glory and enjoying of God.

Back to Index


+1 215 830 0900

Contact Form

Find a Church