The OPC was established in 1936 largely through the labors of J. Gresham Machen. Machen (1881-1937) was known throughout the United States as a formidable defender of the Christian faith in the 1920’s and 1930’s when the tide of modernism was sweeping into churches of all stripes. Baptist and Presbyterian churches alike were influenced by this new approach to Christianity, but Machen stood squarely against it.
As a young man Machen became a New Testament professor at Princeton Seminary. In 1921 he published an outstanding scholarly work, The Origin of Paul’s Religion, which refuted those who desired to drive a wedge between the teaching of Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul. His most popular book, Christianity and Liberalism (1923) drew the line in the sand between Biblical Christianity and the modernist counterfeits that denied the redemptive character of the Christian faith.
In 1929 the modernists took over Princeton Seminary and Machen was no longer able to teach there in good conscience. He and others formed Westminster Theological Seminary, which continues today to faithfully train men for the Gospel ministry.
The modernist influence had also infected the Presbyterian Church and Machen realized that he could not support denominational missionaries that did not even believe in the deity of Jesus Christ. He therefore helped form the independent board of foreign missions in 1933. This action led to his expulsion from the now modernist Presbyterian church in 1936. With other ministers he helped form the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
The churches that left the mainline Presbyterian Church had their buildings stripped away from them. Ministers lost their pensions. The congregations were greatly reduced in size. These churches met wherever they were able: in a buss, or a bar, or on a farm.
Weary of the corrosive effects of centralization, the OPC determined to protect the liberty of conscientious Christians and would not compel churches to support the ministries of the denomination. They also determined that congregations would own their own buildings.
Early on the OPC faced an identity crisis. Would it be a typical American church or would it remain faithful to the Protestant Reformation? The majority was determined to be a faithful Protestant Church. Some left because the OPC did not stand for prohibition and because it allowed ministers to hold to various traditional views on the end-times.
Our church has the reputation among some as being doctrinally narrow. It is true that we will not allow truth to become a casualty of ‘unity’ and I don’t doubt that there are some ministers that are too narrow. But there are also some who think the church is too broad. There is truth in this too. In my judgment the OPC responds to controversies with moderation. There is room for plenty of diversity combined with a firm stance on fundamental issues.
Today we are witnessing the rapid erosion of evangelical churches and institutions. Sometimes this is due to a charismatic leader who wields his influence in such a controlling way that the church takes on cult-like status. Other times the creed of a church is so broad and there is so little accountability that congregations rush out of the bounds of Christian unity (often these two things go hand in hand). In this environment, the moderate yet faithful character of the OPC is a breath of fresh air.