Sad Schism Among the Saints
by Rev. David T. Myers
They were united in their conviction over the apostasy of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. A number of the teaching and ruling elders had suffered over expulsion from the rolls of the visible church. Others had lost church buildings, manses, and pensions. But in God’s providence, they had gathered in great rejoicing to begin a new church faithful to the Scriptures, the Reformed faith, and the gospel of Jesus Christ. They were one in coming out of the apostasy, but it was not too long before the members of the Presbyterian Church of America were divided over other issues. It was at the third General Assembly of the P.C.A. in Philadelphia, as reported by the June 26th, 1937 Presbyterian Guardian, that these divisive issues came to the floor of the assembly.
The first one dealt with the issue of independency versus ecclesiastical Presbyterianism within the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. Obviously, since 1933 at its organization, this mission board had not been affiliated with any denomination. It was independent of it. Independent agencies had always had a place within the American Presbyterian Church. But now with the advent of the Presbyterian Church of America, the majority of the elders desired that a Presbyterian affiliation be adhered to again. When Dr. J. Gresham Machen was voted off as president of the Independent Board, his place was filled by an Independent Presbyterian, with no affiliation with the new Presbyterian Church of America. Further, the vice-president’s position was also filled by an individual who was independent of any ecclesiastical relationship to Presbyterianism. Many members, including the General Secretary, Rev. Charles Woodbridge, resigned from the Independent Board.
The commissioners to the Third General Assembly, meeting in Philadelphia at the Spruce Street Baptist Church, overwhelmingly voted that the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions was no longer to be an agency for foreign missions by the Presbyterian Church of America. By that same margin, they voted to endorse a new Committee on Foreign Missions by the P.C. of A.
The second issue dealt with whether total abstinence from alcoholic beverages was to be the position of the church. While it was acknowledged that the greater number of delegates to the assembly abstained from alcohol, yet they were hesitant to make it a rule for the church, but instead leave it as a matter of Christian liberty to its membership. This position was especially difficult for pastors in the middle west of the country who were fighting the saloon trade in western towns. Given the national issue then in the country over the temperance issue, it was thought that this would have been a wise decision. But again the Assembly refused by a wide margin to make total abstinence the only true principle of temperance.
It is interesting that Westminster Theological Seminary, soon after this assembly, stated to its students, that “to avoid any misconception by the public, a rule is established forbidding all beverage use of alcoholic liquors upon the grounds and in the buildings of the seminary.”
We mention in passing a third issue, “the millennial question,” which by many accounts was the major sticking point in this division. But this third issue is somewhat complicated and really deserves fuller treatment at another time. Hopefully we can return soon to discuss this further.
At the end of this assembly, those who had been in the minority on both of these issues, gathered to begin what became the Bible Presbyterian church. What had been a united front before the watching world became two smaller church bodies of Presbyterians.
Words to Live By:
It is easy to look back at a later date and see the “right thing” to do. But it is obvious that there were unfounded rumors of wild drinking parties on Westminster Seminary grounds as well as a lack of understanding by some elders of the challenges facing pastors of western churches. To be sure, the guiding wisdom of a J. Gresham Machen was missing from the assembly with his entrance into the heavenly kingdom earlier that year. But all elders, both teaching and ruling elders, are to filled with the Spirit. And working within the framework of love, deal wisely with others who differ from them in points of contention. Let us learn to do this in our own circles.