Presbyterianism, whose bodies are also called Reformed Churches, share a common origin in the 16th-century Swiss Reformation and the teachings of John Calvin, and today is one of the largest Christian denominations in Protestantism.

The OPC, PCUSA and Roman Catholic Church

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  • The OPC, PCUSA and Roman Catholic Church

    Question:

    I am a member of the Presbyterian Church/USA; however I was a member of the Episcopal Church and was baptized a Roman Catholic as an infant. My question: Is the OPC less suspicious of the Roman Church and willing to refer to it in less historically pejorative language?

    I cannot hope to live long enough to see a rapprochement between the OPC, Presbyterian, Reformed and the RC; nor, for the Roman Church to rescind its anathematization of John Calvin, and publicly affirm the Reformed as equal churches. For all parties concerned to view each other as legitimate Christian churches, guided the Holy Ghost, would be reassuring to behold; however, life is not like that, and often the good must be sacrificed for the better.

    Answer:

    We are grateful for your submission to the OPC Website. I will try to offer a few thoughts.

    Perhaps you know that the OPC separated from the PCUSA in 1936.

    To provide a short summary of that historical development, here is a quotation from a helpful online publication at the OPC website entitled "What is the Orthodox Presbyterian Church?". You may want to read it in its entirety.

    During the nineteenth century, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. was largely a strong and faithful church. But liberalism began to creep in from Europe, and little was done to check its spread. In 1924 about 1,300 (out of 10,000) Presbyterian ministers signed the liberal Auburn Affirmation, which denied that the Bible was without error and declared that belief in such essential doctrines as Christ's substitutionary atonement and his bodily resurrection should not be made "tests for ordination or for good standing in our church." Unbelief was taking over the church.

    Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey, remained a bastion of Presbyterian orthodoxy. But in 1929 its Board was reorganized with a mandate to put liberal professors on the faculty. Four Princeton professors resigned and (with the support of others) established Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia as an independent institution to continue teaching biblical Christianity.

    The leading opponent of liberalism in those days was J. Gresham Machen, a Presbyterian minister and professor at Princeton (and later Westminster). When he exposed the modernist unbelief that permeated the foreign missions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., the General Assembly in 1933 refused to do anything about it. Because he and others would only support missionaries who were actually preaching the gospel, they established the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. The 1934 Assembly condemned their action, and they were soon deposed from office. In response, 34 ministers, 17 ruling elders, and 79 laymen met in Philadelphia on June 11, 1936, to constitute the Presbyterian Church of America. (Because of a lawsuit brought by the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., the name of the new church was changed to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1939.)

    Machen and the newly formed OPC were in much the same situation in relation to the PCUSA as John Calvin and Luther and the other Reformers were in relation to Roman Catholicism. The PCUSA defrocked Machen in much the same way that Calvin and Luther were under the anathema of the Roman church. Conversely, the OPC believes the PCUSA has abandoned historic biblical Christianity.

    Since its beginning, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church has been committed with integrity to the Scriptures as the inspired, infallible Word of God. Counting the cost of standing for truth, we are persuaded that the Word of God is without error and that the teaching of Scripture is not bound by cultural limitations. We wholeheartedly subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechism in its entirety. Ministers and elders are required to subscribe to those documents and to uphold their teachings.

    This in itself is a radical difference from the PCUSA where the Westminster Confession and catechisms are more looked upon as historical documents that summarize what the church used to believe. Ministers and elders in the PCUSA are not required to subscribe to those confessional statements. In fact, I myself experienced first-hand in 1979-1981 in what was then the UPCUSA, the courts of the church upholding a minister who openly denied the deity of Christ and who would not affirm either the bodily resurrection of Christ or the blood atonement. That is what led me to join the OPC shortly thereafter. The PCUSA has condoned denials of the Biblical faith and disciplined those men like Dr. Machen and others who have sought to hold her accountable to the Word of God.

    In the OPC we believe that the marks of the true church are the faithful preaching of the Word of God, the faithful administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper, and the faithful administration of church discipline. In all things the Scriptures are the rule of faith and practice. Those who are delinquent in doctrine or life are subject to the discipline of the church.

    In adopting the Westminster Confession of Faith, the OPC has made a part of its constitution a document that was written in the crucible of the separation that occurred between the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England and the Presbyterian and Reformed churches.

    If you are familiar with the Westminster Confession, you already know what the OPC believes and confesses differently than the Roman Catholic Church. The differences are neither small nor few in number, but I could summarize a few things that we consider to be differences in essentials.
    • The OPC does not accept the books known as the Apocrypha as the Word of God.
    • The OPC believes that the Word of God in the Scriptures is the supreme authority.
    • The OPC believes that church councils and tradition are not on a par with the Scriptures, but are required to submit to the Scriptures.
    • The OPC believes that salvation is all of grace, persons being justified by grace through faith alone.
    • The OPC believes that good works do not merit salvation but flow out of having been saved.
    • The OPC believes that even those who attain to the greatest height which is possible in this life fall short of much which in duty they are bound to do, which is to deny that “Saints” have done works of supererogation (that is, works above and beyond the call of duty).
    • The OPC believes that Jesus Christ died once for all for the elect, who were predestined before the foundation of the world.
    • The OPC believes that Jesus Christ is the only Head of the Church and that the Pope of Rome cannot, in any sense, be head thereof.
    • The OPC believes there are only two sacraments ordained by the Lord Jesus for the church: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
    • The OPC believes that the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper remain bread and wine and that the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation is superstition and idolatry.
    • The OPC believes that the popish sacrifice of the mass is most abominably injurious to Christ’s one, only sacrifice, the alone propitiation for all the sins of His elect.
    • The OPC believes that heaven and hell are the only two places men go in death, and purgatory is denied as being an interim place.


    We might ask, can God bring reconciliation between the churches? Of course, he can; and we may certainly pray to that end, and we can be sure that there will be one perfectly united church in heaven. But it must be understood, as the Scriptures make plain, that true reconciliation can only be a reconciliation in the truth. Unity at the cost of the purity of God’s word is not real unity. As Jesus himself said, “The truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).

    Or as the apostle Paul wrote,

    Do not be bound together with unbelievers, for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, "I will dwell in them and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate," says the Lord, "and do not touch what is unclean; and I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me," says the Lord Almighty (2 Cor. 6:14-18).

    I hope the answer has been helpful, although I suspect it might not be what you were hoping for.
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