What’s In A Denominational Name?

Today, neither the Orthodox Presbyterian Church nor the Presbyterian Church in America bear their first chosen names. Different as the two denominations are, the reasons for their name changes and even their slates of rejected names are quite similar. And the names—those chosen and those passed over—say a good bit about the aspirations and outlooks of the two churches at the tumultuous times of their formation.

The OPC formed on June 11, 1936 when 34 ministers, 17 ruling elders, and 79 laymen met in Philadelphia to constitute the new church as the Presbyterian Church of America. This founding few left the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA), the rapidly-liberalizing Northern mainline church, with their leader J. Gresham Machen, whose 1935 conviction was upheld by the 1936 PCUSA General Assembly. Among Machen’s crimes (besides being irritatingly effective at pointing out the PCUSA’s slide into unbelief) was his role in an independent missions board meant to support only orthodox missionaries.

Though the number of “orthodox” ministers and churches that left the PCUSA with Machen was small, their vision and hopes were large, thus the OPC’s first chosen name was the Presbyterian Church of America.

The fledgling assembly (whose full number would have fit into two or three buses) proclaimed in their Act of Association:

In order to continue what we believe to be the true spiritual succession of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., which we hold to have been abandoned by the present organization of that body, and to make clear to all the world that we have no connection with the organization bearing that name…do hereby associate ourselves together with all Christian people who do and will adhere to us, in a body to be known and styled as the Presbyterian Church of America.

Was the “of” chosen because of some fancy that the eventual OPC was in fact the Only Presbyterian Church for the USA? Probably not, but it must indicate…something. Maybe it was chosen to be as close to their progenitor’s name as possible while still providing differentiation.
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Brad Isbell | “What’s In A Denominational Name?” | April 11, 2023


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