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.
The new Presbyterian church never really took off. The OPC began as a small band of 5000 committed communicants with a remnant mind-set—a drop in the bucket compared to their competitor, the PCUSA, which then had upwards of 2.5 million members. Today the OPC’s rolls include slightly under 30,000 members. For the past twenty years the PCUSA has been losing more members each year than the OPC’s total membership. Obviously, evangelically minded PCUSA members have not been looking to the OPC as an alternative to their mainline church.
Meanwhile, many born-again Protestants in the United States seem to prefer congregations whose membership is bigger than any of the OPC’s presbyteries. For instance, in one new membership class, Rick Warren’s Saddleback Community Church trained 2400 new members. The OPC as a denomination is lucky—wrong word for Calvinists, of course—if it receives 2400 new members in an entire calendar year.
Many inside and outside the OPC have speculated about why the denomination has stayed so small. Some argue that the church has fought too many theological battles and driven away worthwhile members by being wary of Protestants who are neither Calvinistic in theology nor Presbyterian in polity. But Dean Kelley’s 1972 book Why Conservative Churches are Growing indicates that such religious strictness does not generally retard a church’s growth.
At the sociological level, the OPC provides religious services (what used to be called “the cure of souls”) in settings that some find too intimate. Worshiping with just sixty other persons can seem invasive or demanding to someone used to the comfortable anonymity of the 500-member congregation a couple miles away.
One of the problems facing the OPC also confronts Calvinism more generally. Yes, a few of the doctrines associated with John Calvin—such as divine sovereignty (but what Christian doesn’t affirm that?)—have received a new lease on life among charismatic and Baptist Protestants calling themselves Young, Restless, and Reformed. But when it comes to the entire set of Calvinism’s five points, including limited atonement or predestination, many follow H. L. Mencken, who arranged Calvinism next to cannibalism alphabetically in his cabinet of horrors.
The other factor working against the OPC is its Presbyterian polity. Orthodox Presbyterians generally follow the debates of presbyteries and assemblies, and support the various agencies of the denomination in ways that seem strange to many congregationally minded Americans.
The very fact of belonging to a denomination is often hard for Americans to swallow. Denominations once were the backbone of mainline Protestantism, but as more and more have lost their way while trying to function as an informal ecclesial establishment, Americans seem to have concluded that denominations are either inherently corrupt or ineffective. As such, when denominations do make the news these days it is generally due to sexual or financial scandals, not to the deliberations of their appointed committees on hymnody or on foreign missions.
But denominations were also the expression of a robust, faithful American Protestantism that had both morning and evening Sunday worship services, provided a roster of Sunday-school classes for kids and adults, organized Bible studies for men and women, held a mid-week prayer service, and sponsored Vacation Bible School in the summer.
The OPC is a throwback to this kind of Protestant church life. Most of its congregations offer all of the above. If it fails to attract newcomers the reason may be that the routine and expectations are suffocating to folks who attend Sunday services sporadically and look for a congregation with devotional aerobic classes.
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.
D. G. Hart is visiting professor of history at Hillsdale College and the author of Between the Times: The Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Transition, 1945-1990 (2011).