Why Machen Left the OPC

He died (on this day eight decades ago).

Machen’s reasons for being a critic of the PCUSA — to the point that some thought he was impossible and failed to show Christian charity — were clear in his testimony before the Presbytery of New Brunswick (you know, the one that the Synod of Philadelphia created to make the revivalists feel welcome), the body that tried, found him guilty, and excommunicated him from the mainline church:

Suppose a minister obtains his ordination by promising to support the boards and agencies, as he is required to do by the plain intent of that addition to the manual of the Presbytery of New Brunswick and by the plain intent of the action of the 1934 General Assembly. Suppose he later becomes convinced that the boards and agencies are unfaithful to their trust. Let us even take an extreme case. Let us suppose that he has become convinced that those in charge of the boards and agencies are guilty of actual embezzlement. That case, is, of course, entirely hypothetical, but an extreme case does illustrate plainly the principle that is involved. Let us insist upon putting that extreme case. Here is a minister who has promised that he will, as long as he remains a minister in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., support the boards and agencies as they are established by successive General Assemblies. He he has become convinced that those boards and agencies are positively dishonest, even with the kind of dishonestly that is contrary to the criminal laws of the land.

What course of action is open to such a minister? He is convinced that the boards and agencies are dishonest. The general assembly is convinced that they are honest. What shall he do in such a situation? . . . Only two courses of action are open to a minister who is in such a quandary.

In the first place, he may continue to support boards and agencies which he holds to be dishonest. That course of action would plainly involve him in dishonesty. An honest man cannot possibly recommend to people that they should give to agencies which he hold to be dishonest.

In the second place, a minister who is in such a quandary may withdraw from the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. That plainly means evasion of the solemn responsibility which he has as a minister. I really wonder whether those who advocate this action of the General Assembly have ever thought this thing through. Do they really mean to tell us that just because a majority in the General Assembly has made a mistake one year and has placed in charge of the missionary funds of the church men who are dishonest, therefore a minister should withdraw from the church and allow that dishonesty to go on? I say that such conduct is an evasion of a solemn responsibility. No, it is the duty of a minister in such a situation to remain in the church and to seek by every means in his power to bring about a change in that policy of the General Assembly which he regards as involving dishonest. Meanwhile (and this should be particularly observed), he cannot for any consideration whatever give a penny to what he regards, rightly or wrongly, to be a dishonest agency; and still less can he recommend to any other persons the support of such an agency. . . .

I could never promise to support any human agency as a condition of my being ordained. I could not promise to support the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, which I believe now to be sound in the faith. . . . It is at the very heart and core of my ordination pledge, in accordance with the law of the Presbyterian church, that I should repeatedly examine any agency that appeals to me for support in the light of the Word of God, and support it only if it is in accord with that blessed Word. Moreover, in determining whether it is in accord with that Word, I must be governed by my conscience, as God may give me light, and not by the pronouncements of any human councils or courts.

If that is contrary to Presbyterian law, then I should certainly be removed from the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. But all the glorious history of the Reformed faith should teach a man if the Word of God does not teach him, that it is not contrary to Presbyterian law but is at the very heart of Presbyterian law. (Statement to the Presbytery of New Brunswick, 347-48, 349)

Those in fellowship with the Bishop of Rome, eat your hearts out.


15 thoughts on “Why Machen Left the OPC

  1. Darryl,

    A couple of questions since I’m quite ignorant regarding Reformed ecclesiology.
    1) Wouldn’t this be the fruit of not believing that you’re part of the historical/physical Church that Christ founded? I don’t mean this as a criticism at all. But if you belong to a body that attempts to get the Bible right and said body stops getting it right, then you just create a new body to get it right. If one believes there is no historical/physical Church Christ founded, then one is free to create new churches that abide by whatever confession one believes best represent the biblical witness. But I don’t think that’s quite what’s going on above. So . . .

    2) Or is it that Machen believed his Presbyterian body HAD it right but then got off track and thus was no longer acting as the Church Christ founded and so had to put it back on the right track. So a sort of reformation within the reformation (semper reformanda). What’s interesting to me is that there is a clear sense of history here; it’s just not a history that attempts to go back that far in Christian history (to Scripture, yes, but not to how that Scripture was necessarily lived out in the first 15 centuries). You have confessions that one is supposed to abide by (hence Greg’s repeated invocation of various articles of confession) because they best represent biblical teaching. But biblical teaching has to be lived concretely, and I would assume that this means within a physical/historical church. I would think that you’d claim that the OPC embraces the teachings/salvation narrative that Christ founded, but somehow you seem hesitant to claim that it’s the Church Christ founded. So then it’s simply a body that proclaims the true Gospel that Christ gave to us but is not the Church He founded?

    That is such a compelling quotation. Thanks.


  2. Justin, not sure I can do justice to your comment in a commbox but here are a couple thoughts.

    I think Machen is more #2 than #1.

    The claims of historical continuity may be Protestantism’s weakness, but those claims might also be a construction of false superiority. I continue to be baffled by the “this is what Jesus set up” or this is what George Washington set up. So? What does that solve today when you and I are a long way from Jesus and George. If someone wants to go back to Jerusalem and the bishop there, fine. That makes sense. Or if someone (like me) wants to go back to the original 13 states, fine. But the stand upon origins always strikes me as odd coming from Americans who in the big picture are pretty rootless and recent to boot.

    Plus, the Pharisees claimed historical continuity. Christianity introduces something new to the church God founded (the Israelites).

    So what is the bond of continuity? The way I read the New Testament, it’s the teaching of the apostles. Think Paul to Timothy. It’s not about “this is the church Jesus founded” and make sure to check in with the bishop of Constantinople (anachronism, I know) twice a year. It’s the word and preaching of it that Paul urges.

    So yes, that makes Protestants logocentric. And yes, we can be short of affect, atmosphere, images, and beauty. But then I hear Paul saying, “how shall they be saved without a preacher.”



  3. Darryl,

    “The claims of historical continuity may be Protestantism’s weakness,”
    ***I don’t know that it is, but it’s certainly not at all what I was implying with my questions.

    “What does that solve today when you and I are a long way from Jesus”
    ***The only brief response is this: if access to Christ is an eschatological reality in the here and now (which it is, of course, in Orthodox teaching–primarily through the real presence in the Eucharist–but let’s not get sidetracked by this sort of idolatry), then we aren’t a long way from Jesus. My sense is that the Reformed don’t do the already-not-yet eschaton but only linear history so that the eschaton is situated only on a not-yet historical plane. So we say, Jesus has come and is still present, most readily in the Church, and will come again; you say, He has come and will come again, and his Apostles left us teachings that communicate both of these promises–that He came and will come again. I’m not claiming the Orthodox sense of history/time is correct, but am just typing out the way in which in Orthodox self-understanding Jesus really isn’t a long way away.

    Ultimately, what you’ve written in your response is my sense of it; I’m just trying to get my head around OPC’s (or, really, any Reformed body) self-understanding of itself as a church.

    Logocentrism gets filtered through some means, yes? So what is that means and how does it understand itself, especially when it comes to reforming and/or preserving itself.

    What Machen writes above seems to say that certain confessions (and these would be borne from biblical understanding, apostolic teachings, right?) are correct and can be corrupted. These certain confessions must be maintained (which is why he founded and then died in the OPC). So then there has to be a body which preserves such things (you are a member of the church Machen founded and I assume try to stay faithful to it and its confessions/teachings). That body may be logocentric and may not need claim any bishop anywhere at any time, but that body is needed to preserve specific confessions borne out of scriptural understanding, teachings handed down from the apostles. Isn’t this part of Machen’s point in the original excerpt? Isn’t this why he died in the OPC, because he believed it best represented apostolic teaching? Isn’t this why you stay in it? These questions aren’t argumentative at all. I really am just trying to get a sense of OPC’s self-understanding as a body. It’s a logocentric body, I get that, but it’s also a historical body that attempts to maintain apostolic teachings within historical time. I assume that if there are arguments about OPC teaching, you go back to confessions/articles. So do we (ecumenical councils). I guess I’m not trying to find where we’re different theologically or ecclesiologically (that’s pretty obvious) but where we’re similar structurally in trying to maintain historical orthodox teachings (whatever they may be and however they may differ).

    “But then I hear Paul saying, “how shall they be saved without a preacher.”
    ***I’m missing the joke here. Sorry.


  4. Machen—“A large part of the New Testament is polemic. The enunciation of evangelical truth was occasioned by the errors which had arisen in the churches. So it will always be…”

    Left the PCUSA or the OPC? Machen was frustrated to have not been “removed” by the “other”? Because “removing yourself” sounds too much like “take eat” instead of having the clergy put Jesus on your lips for you? It sounds too much like those circumcised folks who took it on themselves to ask John Baptist for water (even though water is the fulfillment of circumcision they already had?)

    Did the PCUSA even do any post-facto removing of Machen after he left? Or did it follow the policy of the OPC with Norman Shepherd?

    I mean, despite the confessional standard, we don’t know, it could be the case that there is some “visible church” somewhere which has no members who believe the gospel. I say this, not to deny the inevitability of the visible/ invisible distinction, but to be as realistic as possible…

    A Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol 2 “The church is a congregation of true believers. The unconverted, even though they have made confession of faith, have been accepted into the fellowship of the church, live without offense, and have been admitted to the use of the sacraments, the unconverted, I repeat, are not true members of the church. This is so whether the church is viewed in her internal, spiritual condition or in her public gatherings whereby she manifests herself externally to the world. The unconverted are not members of the external, visible church. Believers only constitute the true church. They alone are members of the church, regardless of how one views them. (articles 27 – 29 of the Belgic Confession) The acceptance of men as members is performed by men, who see only what is before their eyes and cannot judge according to the heart, leaving this to Him who knows the hearts… Therefore they are no members, even though men view them



  5. Justin, the joke is that Paul’s teaching seems to underwrite logocentrism. Preaching and proclamation were a big deal. Christians who make a big deal of beauty or sacraments don’t do justice to Paul. The joke’s on them. (sorry for a touch of self-superiority.)

    Actually, the OPC is big on the already-not yet eschatology. Paul’s two-age construction is an important part of the biblical theology that informs many pastors — they get this from Geerhardus Vos, John Murry, and Meredith Kline.

    My perception as a historian is that this eschatology makes the history between Jesus and us less important — so the church that Jesus founded argument is not terribly compelling in OPC circles. It’s fidelity to the Word as summarized in the confessions. The general historical understanding exalts the founding moments of Reformed Protestantism — Calvin and then the Westminster Divines, and then 1936. The messy bits of church in between the Westminster Assembly (1649) and the founding of Westminster Seminary (1929) are much less interesting. And I agree to a point since the Word trumps history (tradition). But I also think history teaches a few lessons that believers should carry around with them.

    The folks who convert from Protestantism to Rome, in contrast, seem to be impressed by all the history (the age) of Rome. When did the true, good, and beautiful make room for “age”?


  6. Darryl,
    Thanks. Helpful.
    “Preaching and proclamation were a big deal.”
    ***I think I’ve already laid out for you the Jewish and early Christian liturgical structure that would affirm what you say here. But preaching isn’t all there was (or is). I think you’d also affirm this since you participate in the Lord’s Supper, Christ’s “gracious presence” 9I think that was the phrasing) amongst all your preaching. I’m assuming some of that preaching points to Christ’s “gracious presence.” Well, then, welcome to the club. I think you and I would both agree that it’s not ONLY sacraments or preaching but both. Every aspect of the Liturgy is a proclamation of the Word, from the literal scriptural passages that color the liturgical prayers to the actual homily delivered by the priest. So I’m kind of in agreement with you here: all of Liturgy is about preaching the Word. And then we consume Him (the Word).

    As far as a focus on beauty is concerned, adornment was always part of temple worship and even synagogical worship. I mean the Holy of Holies has a couple of 10 foot cherubim standing at the door (I’ll just assume that carved cherubim standing outside of the Holy of Holies or on the Ark isn’t a violation of the graven image thing–of the things in the air or the heavens). And perhaps the early Christians wholly corrupted the Jewish community since the Dura-Europos synagogue (ca 250) is covered in icons (frescoes)–58 biblical scenes total (even the hand of God!!!). No one that I know has ever accused the Jews of not preaching in the synagogue. So it appears, at least in this one case (which is not isolated) that they could do both–preach and have beauty. I say this not to argue against what you offer above but simply to point out that expressions of beauty (or sacraments, the Lord’s Supper, for example) need not come at the expense of preaching (indeed, just go read some of the rather lengthy homilies of John Chyrsostom–the Golden Mouth). Indeed these expressions seem to be (and are in Orthodoxy) part of the preaching of the Word.

    “(sorry for a touch of self-superiority.)”
    ***I’ll send you an icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, wrapped in a Greek flag.

    No need to respond. I appreciate your taking the time to respond to my inquiries.


  7. dgh—The trial, conviction and suspension from the ministry of Independent Board members, including Machen, in 1935 and 1936 provided the rationale for the formation in 1936 of the OPC https://opc.org/machen.html

    New Brunswick Presbytery asked Machen for his response. Machen replied that General Assembly’s actions were illegal and that he would not shut down the Independent Board. The presbytery consequently brought charges against Machen including violation of his ordination vows and renouncing the authority of the church. …In October, the split between Macartney and Machen spread to Westminster Seminary, where the faculty, led by Machen, called on the board of trustees to announce their support of the Independent Board of Foreign Missions and the Covenant Union. Thirteen trustees, including Macartney, refused to do so and resigned in 1936. Eight ministers, including Machen, in the General Assembly of 1936, were convicted and removed from the ministry


  8. Justin, not push back but to clarify, Reformed have historically said Word AND sacrament, but that sacrament depends on the word (words of institution, fencing the table). We love words.

    And the beauty of a church is great but if it comes to a fresco or sending another missionary to Uganda, in the OPC — you know where that goes.

    Maybe in the early church art was affordable. But these days? Now you know why we meet in an aluminum building.


  9. Darryl,
    Agreed about words.

    “And the beauty of a church is great but if it comes to a fresco or sending another missionary to Uganda, in the OPC — you know where that goes.”
    ***Again, agreed (shocking!!!). But once there, the Word has various kerygmatic media to help teach the Word (including translation). Beauty need not only be the tool of boutique religions, though this is most certainly often the case. Beauty, in whatever form (translations, even preaching!) can express the beauty of the Word. But so do carved cherubim and all that luxurious gold, and various incense, and frankincense and myrrh, fitting gifts to and symbols of God’s glory. And monks and nuns work for cheap. But we need not discuss any of this further; you’re probably right, and I’m wrong.

    ***Now you know why we meet in an aluminum building.
    Hah! I thought it was because of its proximity to the soon-to-be microbrewery. Here I thought you guys were way ahead of the curve.


  10. Which Continuity? To the extent that you claim Continuity with Machen (or even with Hodge or Nevin), you establish disconstinuity with the simple gospel of Franklin Graham and other evangelicals. But you wouldn’t have this Galatianist sectarian problem if you had been more patient with Rome in the first place. And as Franklin Graham will remind you, it’s the evangelicals who have saved you from Hilary’s godless regime.



  11. Minor point (well known to all readers, but still to be stated): Machen left the OPC for a higher calling. It was the PCUSA that kicked him out.


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