Small Is Beautiful

If Google is a reliable search engine, the anniversary of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church on June 11 passed without any mention by the press. The reasons are not hard to fathom. The OPC is small, and it lacks a celebrity. In an era when megachurches rival Walmart and Home Depot in square footage and pastoral fame generates worshipers, the OPC usually slips under the media radar.

The OPC’s lone celebrity was J. Gresham Machen, a professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary who fought liberalism in the mainline Northern Presbyterian church throughout the 1920s and 1930s. In 1929 he took the lead in starting Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, which he hoped would counteract the liberalism of the Northern Presbyterian seminaries.

In 1933 he continued to fight liberalism, this time on the mission field, by creating a rival Presbyterian missions board. Finally, after a Presbyterian church court tried him for his competitive ways in 1936—a trial that received significant press coverage—Machen found peace and quiet in the new Presbyterian denomination he helped establish on June 11, 1936.

Just six months later he died, on January 1, 1937. The faculty at Westminster Seminary tried to fill the vacuum, but as familiar as the names of Cornelius Van Til, John Murray, and Ned Stonehouse may be to Orthodox Presbyterians, to outsiders they garner only confused stares. At the time, even some of those who knew the names didn’t care for Dutch and Scottish theologians giving direction to an American denomination.

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D. G. Hart | “Small is Beautiful” | June 23, 2011


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  1. Is it an error to say that the OPC has intentionally remained small? If not intentional, does not the Church planting model limit its ability to grow?

    • I don’t know that it’s been entirely intentional, considering the OPC has almost voted itself out of existence not once, but twice (once to merge with the CRC, once with the PCA). Both attempts at J&R failed. D.G. Hart has some insights into why in his book Between the Times. I don’t recall the exact details enough to tell you offhand, but the book is worth reading anyway and may answer your question re: church planting. I believe the relevant chapters are 7 and 10.

    • William,

      I don’t think that the OP (or the URCs) are seeking to remain small.

      The PCA is not quite 10x larger than the OPC. The typical OP congregation is working class and funded much less generously than a typical PCA of the same size (in my experience). The OPC has an organized and disciplined program to plant churches. They have regional home missionaries but planting a church is a time and money intensive. Is there a core group or is the planter starting from scratch? It’s not a matter of just sending a man to a field to see what happens.

      Further, the confessionalists in the USA are on foreign soil and they are small and underfunded. This means that the evangelicals with whom we come into contact, who might be interested in our work, come with a lot of baggage. Helping evangelicals to become Reformed is slow work.

      Remember that there are only about 500,000 confessional (more or less) Reformed folk in North America. That’s a small fraction of the total population. Most people have never even heard of the Reformed faith.

      God is big and he is able to overcome the challenges but those challenges are real.

  2. “But the gloomy pitcher’s count facing Protestant denominations did not prevent Orthodox Presbyterians from celebrating their seventy-fifth with humility and gratitude. Because God works in mysterious ways and because appearances are genuinely deceptive in matters spiritual, Orthodox Presbyterians believe what most religion reporters cannot: Instead of being down to their last out, conservative denominations like the OPC are always taking the field in the top of the ninth, up a couple runs, with their ace on the mound. The gates of hell will not prevail. Indeed.”

    No place I’d rather be… this side of Heaven.

  3. Thanks Jay,
    I’ve always wanted to read that book. I did hear someone say recently, that some of those men who wanted to come into the PCA through J&R eventually took their congregations into the PCA anyway. I actually love the OPC model, though it makes it hard to stretch the Home Missions folk to plant in the deep south.

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