“Many never realize they always had the key in their pocket, so they die at the locked door, never reaching deep inside to pull it out.” ― Anthony Liccione link
I was contacted by a reader who spent many years in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. She offered to submit a post to help us all to understand some of their core beliefs. Her name shall remain anonymous for a number of reasons. However, the Deebs know her identity.
I was surprised to see that the OPC sounds like many super conservative Reformed and SBC churches. They believe that:
- the pastors are anointed,
- that the church holds the keys to the kingdom which means they can judge whether or not a person is a Christian
- that when the pastor preaches. he speaking the very word of God.
It appears the leaders do not think too highly of the priesthood of the believer and are not really big into revivals. It is the pastor's responsibility to do the Great Commission stuff like teach and baptize. Basically, pastors were born to speak and the church member was born to listen, agree, and give money.Also, I bet TWW readers can guess what their views on women after reading that list.
SHAME ON THEM
After spending upwards of twenty years in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) also known sardonically as the Only Perfect Church (OPC), I think I have seen a new low in the denomination with the conviction in North Carolina of a pastor for not getting his disabled wife to church often enough. This is really incredible.
The minister [mentioned in Dee’s previous article] who was defrocked in 1977 had taken vows to uphold the strict subscription of the Westminster Confession and Larger and Shorter Catechisms’ Sabbath view. He may have disagreed, but he probably should have known better than to organize sports on Sunday given his vows. Ditto for one pastor who privately “spoke in tongues” in 1976, another well-known no-no in the OPC. Similarly, neither the secondary subscription documents nor the Bible, seem to favor an evolutionary view of humanity, so it comes as no surprise that such a view is strongly discountenanced by the denomination. But convicting someone for not forcibly hauling a disabled family member to church to partake of means of grace? In such a scenario one wonders, What Grace?
ALL YOU EVER WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT THE OPC BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK
If you want to really understand the culture of the OPC, your best bet is to read (or at least peruse parts of) a very long article by John Frame, a fair-minded, sensible, and most importantly, peaceable Reformed professor and church musician. He wrote “Machen’s Warrior Children” and it may tell you more than you ever wanted to know about Reformed denominations. Please be sure to read his closing “Observations” and “An Unrealistic Dream”. Although he posted the “Warrior Children” article on his (and Vern Poythress’) website in 2012, it was actually part of a book that was published in 2003, so it’s not really up-to-date with current controversy (controversy being the gist of the article and the raison d’etre, it seems, for the OPC). This “warrior” complex explains much of what is wrong with the OPC, and Frame has said it well.
Despite what you may think of Frame’s own take on doctrine and practice, he’s still too “liberal” for some of the OPC and URC (United Reformed Church) people. He’s had his share of grief from Westminster Seminary in California https://www.wscal.edu/ and was blessed enough to escape it. He also wrote another book well worth a read, The Escondido Theology, which Westminster Seminary, California vociferously protested and bashed.
INSULARITY AND THE FAMILY FEEL
Another element that contributes to the denomination’s problems is its insularity or parochial mentality. It is a small denomination. Wikipedia notes:
“270 churches, 49 mission works, and 30,555 members and 534 ministers”
and also largely white. Small churches draw people who are disenchanted or neglected by larger and more flourishing one–let’s face it, small churches are desperate for members, and OPC churches are no different in that respect from other small congregations. A person of moderate wealth can immediately become a big fish in a small pond, or a person of deep Reformed theological persuasion can likewise rise to the “top” most easily. Small churches have a tight, family feel and this is comforting for many people. In many if not most OPC congregations, everybody gets to know everybody’s business, if inclined to do so, and many are so inclined.
Depending on the congregation you may find lots of little friends for your children, or you may be in a church with an elderly demographic. The OPC published an article by Jeffrey J. Ventrella warning Reformed churches not to adopt a “hyphenated “identity. I have been in congregations that varied in their hyphenation, be it holding to the republication of the covenant of works, two kingdom theology, theonomy, framework Interpretation (of creation), amillennial, postmillennial, and panmillennial (a joke, as in “it all pans out in the end”). I have never heard of a premillennial OPC, however.
A THEOLOGY CLUB
To be a part of a denomination for nearly 20 years and never see a conversion is so disheartening. It’s downright deadening to one’s spirit. Anglican John R. W. Stott advised that congregations feature testimonies of converts as an encouragement to the flock, but when no one is converting to Christ, this is an impossible task. Having left the OPC and become part of a flourishing, evangelistic congregation, I cannot stress enough how much of a faith-builder it is to hear people say things like, “Five years ago today I was an atheist but I had no one to thank,” and then hear of her conversion to Christ (not to “the Reformed faith”). It sounds so much like the early Church, experiencing the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
Instead, many Reformed churches, the OPC among them, tend to grow almost exclusively by children born to members, and by membership transfers from other Reformed churches either because someone moved residence or because of disenchantment with one’s current congregation. The Church becomes more like a theology club than a living organism, the Bride of Christ.
HIGH CHURCH PRESBYTERIANISM
This is a recent trend in the OPC. The OPC is all about ecclesiology and this is its latest manifestation. Keep in mind that no pastor is going to proclaim, “We are having a new focus and it’s called High Church Presbyterianism.” This focus is, I am sure, the basis of the conviction of the North Carolina pastor whose wife supposedly had no access to the means of grace because she wasn’t regularly at church.
One of my friends used to tell me that the OPC “is getting like the Roman Catholic Church” and I used to tell her she was nuts. But now it seems that churchmen in the Southeast Presbytery of the OPC do view themselves as grace-dispensers. I should not be surprised. The move to High Church Presbyterianism has been promoted by one D.G. Hart, OPC elder, “religious and social historian”, and name-caller extraordinaire. This is the man who promotes respect for Reformed ministers (he claims he does, because they hold the keys of the kingdom) yet he dares refer to George Whitfield as “Boy George”. I suppose under Hart’s paradigm Whitfield didn’t have his ordination right, or his preaching ended in revivals. Revival is another no-no for the high-minded OPCers.
So take all Hart says with a grain of salt and a small glass of sherry. High Church Presbyterianism is spreading through Reformed churches like measles at Disneyland. Consider this analysis your vaccination. Hart presents the pieces of what he calls “the mosaic” of High Church Presbyterianism. I will enumerate them and call them pieces of the High Church Presbyterian “puzzle”. We should not be surprised either than Hart relies strongly on Calvin, Calvin, Calvin. If you do not, and try to rely on the Bible, he will call you a Biblicist, Biblicist, Biblicist. You need a strong stomach to endure the dish that this OPC elder serves up. (Ed. note For any interesting discussion on Biblicism, see this article at First Things.)
Puzzle Piece 1: An order of worship (i.e., a liturgy).
Most churches have a set list of elements of worship and most print them in a bulletin to make the service easier to follow. But that is not enough.
Puzzle Piece 2: Written prayers.
There’s nothing wrong with written prayers. After all, a written prayer is just a prayer with a lot of thought behind it, set down on paper ahead of time. It helps the nervous person who is in a dither, come prayer time. There is nothing wrong with formal, written prayers. But a person who prays spontaneously or maybe with a bit of forethought but who is not referring to a form is not to be despised, either.
Puzzle Piece 3: Weekly communion and the Real Presence.
This is our Christian battery charger. Weekly charges are the best way to stay energized spiritually. The Roman Catholic Church goes further with daily communion. If their theology was right, maybe daily communion is the way to go. That’s for High Churchers to answer, not Low Churchers like me.
The Lord’s Supper = the visible Word.
With this I agree. It shows forth the Lord’s death, something we should be focusing on—the Cross, the provision of Christ to renew us and later to renew the world when New Jerusalem comes down from heaven. The push for weekly communion is not necessarily bad, but not needed, unless one wants to avoid the moniker “Low Church Presbyterian.” The Real Presence is a doctrine that rebuts the idea that the Supper is merely a memorial. Thus, if Christ is really present (not physically, but spiritually) then communion is a big thing. Thus the infirm, homebound are in big trouble for not taking it. But why can’t the Lord’s Supper be brought to the infirm? Give a short sermon, read the Bible and pray, and then share in Communion. It seems like the gracious, loving and common sense thing to do.
Puzzle Piece 4: The Word should be preached.
This is a no-brainer. But, the preached Word carries far more weight for High Church Presbyterians than the Word read at your house or favorite coffee shop. Why? The Second Helvetic Confession says in its first chapter: “THE PREACHING OF THE WORD OF GOD IS THE WORD OF GOD.” Here we see a problem—a reliance on creeds and confessions (written by men and therefore subject to error).
Wisely, the Westminster Confession of Faith itself says that creeds and confessions “may err and many have erred” and are therefore not to be made the rule of faith and life. But if you are a Biblicist (bad, remember) you may tell me that “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God and how will they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:13-17) Good question. Back in the days of the New Testament it was probably very hard to know God’s Word without a scroll to read or a preacher to preach, and scrolls were not widely available. Also, the whole Word of God was not written at that time. And even then, the Ethiopian eunuch could not understand what he read. He needed help. I agree.
But if this verse is used to mean that faith only emerges when one hears a preacher at a church service, then I think we have pushed the logic too far. In fact, and I know my sample is limited, I know more people converted by reading the Bible on their own, than converted by the preaching in a church. And, to push the matter further, if the Word preached = the Word of God, then when we hear differing interpretations of Scripture by pastors of the Gospel (even pastors in the same denomination), who is right? I am puzzled.
Puzzle Piece 5: Pastors rightly ordained hold the keys to the kingdom ("On the meaning o rightly ordained: that’s the subject of another paper that I am not qualified to write, but trust me, you won’t find a lot of Scripture references in the answer). They let in and let out; they tell who is a Christian and who is not a Christian. It is the pastors’ job to do the Great Commission which involves teaching and baptism. You are snarkily warned by D.G. Hart that next time you deign to go spread the Good News, take a bottle of water with you for baptisms.
There are other interpretations of the “keys of the kingdom”. One involves the use of one key for the Jews and one for the Gentiles. See Acts, Romans, and Galatians. That makes a lot of sense to me, but then again, I am Low Church. High Church believes pastors hold the keys and it’s a scary thing to be shut out of the Church by them. You may ask, but wasn’t the man convicted in NC for not taking his wife to church also a pastor? How was he wrong, but the others right? I cannot solve this conundrum for you.
Puzzle Piece 6: This states: “the priesthood of the believer has been much abused”.
I heard a sermon in a ‘high church’ OPC on 1 Peter 2:9,
” But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
The verse was read in its entirety and the sermon covered every part of the verse except “a royal priesthood.” That was totally left out. Odd, wasn’t it? The work of ministry is for ministers, not individual laymen. And again, in Ephesians 4: 11, 12, the KJV (not normally used in this church) includes a useful comma when it says: “And he gave some… pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry. The pastor and teachers perfect the saints and do the work of ministry. Other Reformed and even other OPC ministers think otherwise. They believe that pastors and teachers equip the saints to do the work of ministry (no comma). Another OP church puts on each of its bulletins, under the pastor’s name, “Every member, a minister.” This is a case of High Church vs. Low Church in the same Presbytery.
WOMEN IN THE OPC
In one OPC we belonged to the pastor recommended women in the congregation read The Total Woman by Marabel Morgan. Of course, many of the women talked about it as “the totaled woman” and paid no attention. This pastor had many oddities, if one can call them that. He told women that sleeveless dresses and tops were sinful. (Women opposed it with the slogan “A woman’s right to bare arms”.) I first heard the words, “touch not the Lord’s anointed” at this OP congregation. What a useful phrase! It was really sad because the targets of his pulpit tirades were only thinly veiled. Yes, he used the Scripture but in a most unscriptural way. He was a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia.
I heard one female speaker at a women’s retreat at another OP church say “If you are married, you are married to the perfect spouse!” Yeah, what about the woman whose spouse is an adulterer or an abuser? This was such shallow thinking, and poor teaching, possibly a result of believing that whatever is, is right, because God ordained it. It was a convenient but incorrect way to view the world.
Some sessions (elder boards) in the OPC handled marital problems with much discomfort and ineptitude. They were not trained to do effective counseling. I think it is presumptuous of a man, whether he’s an elder or a pastor, to try to counsel women on sexual matters. How difficult would it be to find an older, wise woman who could do this? Even if one is opposed to women’s ordination, utilizing the gifts of unordained women in a congregation is one of the wisest things a church can do.
Case in point: One man we knew well, in fact, a former elder of ours in the OPC, divorced his wife. First, he declared her not a Christian, though she was a deep lover of Jesus and attended church regularly. He left for another large Presbyterian congregation in a different denomination. He then claimed his wife had deserted him, so the divorce was OK. Shortly after the finalized divorce he married someone in his new church. Before long he and the new missus joined other OPC just minutes from the one where his ex-wife was a member. He was given communion without a hitch because (I surmise but have no proof) he was wealthy and theologically “sound” (in knowledge, not practice). The elders at the new church never contacted the ex-wife to hear her side of the story. This was a real tragedy.
One young woman, home from college, noted that in her home OP church the elders talked enthusiastically with her brother, but merely said hello to her. She also mentioned how, for the most part, women talked to women and men talked to men before and after the services. When she ran into an elder after church when her brother wasn’t around, she was greeted and then asked how her brother was doing at college! She couldn’t figure out why her college experience wasn’t worthy of a conversation. I cannot buy the view of the Christian Curmudgeon who says that the way Dr. Valerie Hobbs was treated is just the way people chat in the South. Absolutely not. The elder that spoke so unkindly to Dr. Hobbs was at minimum a boor, and more likely a practiced intimidator.
This article is not an indictment of everybody in the OPC. I have met and been supported and nurtured by some of the godliest people around. They are wonderful and precious people whom I love deeply. That being said, it is difficult for anyone to rise above the church culture, ecclesiology, and governance of the OPC. Since one must take a membership vow of obedience, and since the OPC has been experienced by me as lacking in many ways as “a place of grace” I would advise against membership there.
THE NEED TO LEAVE
My experience in several OP churches mirrors that of those folks in 9Marks churches who experienced so much grief when they decided to leave a church like Capitol Hill Baptist. You must join a new and approved church or you will be hassled. If one is strong minded and perceptive of the inconsistencies and unjust actions of a church, you will eventually run afoul of the powers that be. I did that, and then sought advice from a professional counselor who happened to be Reformed himself. After hearing my story he asked if I had ever been in an OP Church before and I said I had. He asked how that experience had been. I said, “Not good.” He said, “I thought so. You need to leave the OPC,” and offered the name of a nearby PCA. I am now happy to be part of a truly Christ-centered, living, gracious Church. I plan to stay here.
Lydia's Corner: Exodus 35:10-36:38 Matthew 27:32-66 Psalm 34:1-10 Proverbs 9:7-8