Bethel Presbyterian Church stands a little more than a mile from Wheaton College, long considered the combined Harvard, Yale and Princeton of evangelical higher education. The church's proximity to the college is not simply geographic, however. Bethel is no mainline Presbyterian church but a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), an evangelical, historically Calvinist body which split from the much larger, more liberal Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA) during the controversies over fundamentalism and modernism in the early twentieth century. The OPC was formed under the leadership of J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937), a leading Presbyterian conservative intellectual. Like many strict Calvinists, he had grown increasingly disenchanted with the PCUSA in the wake of a revision of its Confession of Faith in 1903 that softened the so-called "fatalism" of the Westminster Confession, thereby raising the specter of creeping Arminianism. The PCUSA ultimately put Machen on trial and suspended him from its ministry; he and a handful of followers responded in 1936 by leaving the denomination altogether to form what came to be called the OPC.
Machen died only six months later on 1 January 1937, but the denomination he helped found has endured, if not exactly flourished. The OPC was, and remains today, a conservative and evangelical church which considers itself Reformed rather than fundamentalist in doctrine and practice. Its website (www.opc.org) continues to underscore its adherence to historic Reformed dogma, notably the five essential principles known by their acronym "TULIP": total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints. According to the website, the OPC has more than 255 local congregations, 63 missions, and some 28,000 members. When account is taken of the number of years it has existed, and the explosive growth in recent decades of other evangelical churches and megachurches, however, the growth and present size of the OPC must be considered comparatively modest.
The history of the OPC is a complicated one; it reflects the ruptures and bitter schisms in the national, i.e., northern Presbyterian Church. In addition to the OPC, other conservative evangelical Presbyterian bodies emerged in the twentieth century, including the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (two unrelated denominations have taken this name, of which one has survived), the Korean-American Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church in America, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, and the Bible Presbyterian Church, the last representing a schism from Machen's schismatic group.
Within this context, Bethel Presbyterian Church has its own history of doctrinal dissension, rupture and departure. The local church was founded in the late 1950s as an OPC congregation by five families as an alternative to evangelical churches in the area which espoused strict dispensational beliefs rather than orthodox Reformed doctrine, and which steered too close to the holiness movement by imposing prohibitions against attending movies, dancing, playing cards, drinking alcoholic beverages, using tobacco, and other "worldly activities." By the 1980s, Bethel had expanded to include approximately 300 members. But then conflict arose among the membership over the role of women in the ordained offices of the church. Most of the members-including the senior pastor and the entire board of elders-decamped in 1989 to form Immanuel Presbyterian Church in nearby Warrenville, Illinois, now affiliated with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, which ordains women and permits their participation in all church offices. The story of this split is recounted from the point of view of the withdrawing membership on Immanuel's website, www.irnrnanuelpresbyterian.net. Meanwhile, the remnant of fifty members remaining at Bethel regrouped and then attracted an augmented membership, which today numbers some two hundred members. Even today, all the elders and deacons at Bethel Presbyterian Church are male, although one of the seven trustees is female.
A pamphlet introducing Bethel Presbyterian Church to visitors explains that the word Bethel "means house of God." Yet architecrurally, the church is plainly a house of the people of God rather than a house of God in any ecclesiastical sense. Bethel's present home, built in 1969, lacks a steeple and similar symbols of church identity. Centered in a campus-like setting, the church resembles a suburban office building rather than a house of worship. Rectangular in form and constructed of earth-tone brick, the building reflects a subtle Prairie School influence. In fact, the pastor will explain to a visitor, the church was purposely built not to look like a traditional house of worship but rather as a simple gathering place within which the Gospel could be proclaimed.
The reasons for this style are rooted in Reformed theology. The building is intended neither to add to nor to detract from the church's unadorned message of grace. The presentation of the gospel and the celebration of the two OPC-recognized sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper are the entire point of the building and the rationale for the gathering of the worshippers within its walls. Bethel's architectural style carefully executes that principle. In actuality, the visitor learns, the overall building design was created from the inside out rather than from the outside in. Form, in other words, has successfully followed function. The interior of the church faithfully reflects the guiding principles governing the church's overall design. The dramatically high-ceilinged but otherwise austere sanctuary was constructed of contrasting woods and bare brick walls. Simplicity and purity are its hallmarks.
The visitor takes his seat in one of the individual yet linked chairs to the accompaniment of a piano prelude. The sanctuary lacks an organ, though this is a choice dictated by financial or aesthetic concerns, since OPC doctrine permits musical accompaniment. The dominating presence of a large pulpit on the right side of the front platform symbolizes the church's strong emphasis on preaching as the central event of the worship service. A comparatively smaller lection stand has been placed on the left of the podium. A communion table and baptismal font used in the celebration of the church's two recognized sacraments are on the platform as well. Their presence emphasizes the means of grace, as understood in the Reformed doctrine of worship.
Bethel's order of worship is structured in a three-part fashion: first, an approach to God; then, the Word of God; and, finally, a response to God. The first portion begins with a responsive Call to Worship led by a member of the Board of Elders. An opening hymn ("The Man Who Once Has Found Abode") from the denominational hymnal immediately follows. As the congregation sings, the visitor notes the diversity of the gathered worshippers. There is a healthy mix of ages. Older worshippers are present, to be sure, but also a healthy sprinkling of young families, many of whom have their children sitting with them. A number of young men and women are scattered throughout the sanctuary; in all likelihood they are Wheaton College students. Although the congregation is largely Caucasian, at least one Asian and a few black worshippers are in attendance as well.
The Invocation (led by the pastor), a reading of the Decalogue, a prayer of confession (led by the pastoral assistant), a hymn of repentance ("Till He Come"), and an extemporaneous Declaration of Pardon then follow. Then, after an Acclamation taken from 1 John 3:1-3, a male soloist concludes this portion of the service with a vocal rendition of "He Was Wounded for Our Transgressions", drawn from the hymnal. No choir participates in the service; the Bethel choir sings only on alternate Sundays, and this is its Sunday off.
The second service segment, the Service of the Word of God, begins with two scripture readings, Ezekiel 24:1-27 and I Corinthians 10:1-23, read by the pastor from the pulpit. They are apparently not prescribed by a lectionary but selected to fit the theme of the sermon. The pastor, a trim, earnest, middle-aged man, then moves immediately into his sermon, entitled "The End of An Era." He appears to preach from notes rather than a prepared text.
The sermon focuses on the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Ezekiel has for a long time, but fruitlessly, prophesied just such an event. Now, the fulfillment of that prophecy is at hand; the truth of God's word is confirmed; judgment looms. The certainty gained from listening to a true prophet, the pastor notes, is to be contrasted with the fools' gold offered up by present-day "prophets." Ezekiel was God's "mouthpiece"; therefore, his prophecy was true by definition. Ezekiel has illustrated his prophecy with a parable-possibly using a jingle or song that was familiar to his listeners-of a supposedly festive and sumptuous meal. Jerusalem and temple are the meat; the Lord is the cook; the meat and even the cooking pot have turned out to be tainted, and the meal is inedible. Clearly, the spoiled meal symbolizes the rise and fall of Jerusalem. Now, Ezekiel's wife dies at about this same time, but Ezekiel cannot mourn her passing publicly because God wants him to go about his work. It is characteristic of Ezekiel that he is sometimes silent. He makes no call for repentance-the time for that has gonebut speaks only of coming judgment. Only upon the fall of the city and the destruction of the temple can Ezekiel finally speak again. Only then, at the end of an era, can he preach restoration and hope.
Is there not, the pastor wonders, a parallel between the day Jerusalem fell and the day Christ died on the cross? God poured his wrath upon his son on that day just as he had, in Ezekiel's time, visited his judgment without pity upon Jerusalem and its inhabitants. Of course, there is this crucial difference: Christ's death means that those who believe will never have to undergo what the people in Jerusalem had to endure, namely, the first-hand experience of God's righteous anger. Restoration, in other words, is open to believers today; it was not available-at least immediately-to the citizens of Ezekiel's Jerusalem. As a result, the cross, which broke the power of sin, marks an even more significant end of an era. The thirty-minute sermon thus ends on this note of hope.
Bethel observes the Lord's Supper once a month; the service alternates between the church's morning and evening services. Worshippers attending only the morning service thus receive communion only once every other month. Today is the first Sunday of the alternate month, and so communion is administered. Four elders and the pastor sit in hard-backed chairs behind the communion table. The pastor follows the historic Calvinist practice of "fencing the table" by strongly urging that only those worshippers who have publicly confessed Christ, and who are not embroiled in a particular sin, should receive communion.
The communion service begins with a hymn of repose ('"Twas on that Night When Doomed to Know"). An extemporaneous intercessory prayer by the pastor follows, and then two separate offerings are taken. During the offertories, leatherette books are passed from row to row so that the names of those present can be recorded. The visitor is later told that 165 worshippers are in attendance. The elders then distribute unleavened bread to the seated congregation. The worshippers consume the bread only when everyone has been served and after the pastor has offered a short prayer. Individual communion cups are then similarly distributed to the seated congregation; this time, one of the elders offers the bidding prayer, after which all drink from their cups, which contain unfermented grape juice. The pastor concludes the communion service with a few closing words. The congregation then stands for the closing hymn ("Amazing Grace"), the benediction, and a piano postlude.
A compact disc containing the day's sermon is available for the taking at the back of the sanctuary only seconds after the service has ended. As the visitor leaves the sanctuary, CD in hand, a number of worshippers, some of them elders, come up to welcome him. Members of the church, it is clear, not only recognize newcomers but also make a point of seeking them out. The personal warmth of the greetings bestowed upon the visitor as he leaves the service thus marks Bethel as a notably welcoming community of faith.
OPC worship practice cultivates the intellectual apprehension of the faith. Perhaps a particular sign of the denomination's emphasis in this regard is that, although its membership is a mere 0.000183 percent of American Protestants, the OPC has links with two of the most distinguished historians of American religious history and culture, George M. Marsden and Mark A. Noll. Indeed, Noll was a member of Bethel until he left for Immanuel Presbyterian Church in 1989. The visitor to Bethel this morning has been struck by the high intellectual tone and rigor of the service. Although it is not neglectful of worshippers' hearts, the service faithfully hews to the form set out in the Order of Worship; there is none of the spontaneity characteristic of some evangelical churches. This characteristic reflects Bethel's subscription to the Reformed emphasis on logic, reason and the mind. One suspects that James Henley Thornwell, the nineteenth-century Old School Presbyterian who regarded theology as "a positive science grounded in observation and induction, consisting of facts 'arranged and classified according to the necessary laws of the human mind,'" would have felt at home at Bethel.
To be sure, the expression of faith at Bethel is carefully grounded in the Bible, for "the Orthodox Presbyterian Church believes that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God, the only infallible rule for our faith and conduct," as the OPC website declares. At the same time, a secondary emphasis is firmly placed upon the creeds, confessions and catechisms historically followed in the Reformed tradition, particularly in its Scottish, English and American manifestations. To that end, the service bulletin declares that Bethel is "committed to the historic Christian faith as taught in the Bible and summarized in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms." What is more, this is a congregation in which one of the adult discussion groups meeting after worship today will be studying the Scottish Reformation-notably intellectual fare indeed for a Sunday school class.
Bethel Presbyterian Church, the product of schism, and a victim of schism in turn, has endured. It stands today as the faithful embodiment of the Calvinist tradition to which J. Gresham Machen believed all Presbyterians should repair.
David Hart Nelson