Historic Calvinism in the Orthodox Style Bethel Presbyterian Church, Wheaton, Illinois Sunday, 1 October 2006

By Nelson, David Hart | Anglican and Episcopal History, June 2007 | Go to article overview
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Historic Calvinism in the Orthodox Style Bethel Presbyterian Church, Wheaton, Illinois Sunday, 1 October 2006


Nelson, David Hart, Anglican and Episcopal History


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.

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