Machen’s ecclesiastical trial

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This Day in Presbyterian History:  

 A Question of Jurisdiction

It seemed to be a mere administrative matter between presbyteries.  Anyone who has been a member of these this lower court in Presbyterian churches has gone through such changes dozens, if not hundreds of times.   A teaching elder has changed ministries.  In so doing, he had come under the spiritual oversight of a different presbytery.  So he requests a change in his presbytery membership.  That usually is a normal administrative move which has little, if any, controversy to it.  But this case in the year 1935 was not a normal time, nor was the individual who sought to change his connection a normal teaching elder.

John Gresham Machen was the leader of the conservative wing of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.  For decades as a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, he had been a member of the New Brunswick Presbytery, of New Jersey.  Princeton Seminary, as everyone knows, is located in Princeton, New Jersey.  The new independent seminary with which Dr. Machen was associated with after 1930, namely, Westminster Theological Seminary, was located then in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  And so it was logical that Dr. Machen wished to change his membership from a presbytery in New Jersey to one in Pennsylvania.  And indeed such a change was made, with a vote of 78 in favor and 48 in opposition to such a move.

The question can be asked, why was there such a large number of negative votes for what was seemingly an administrative move?  Usually these votes get passed by a unanimous vote.  Remember the times.  Dr. Machen was not just a seminary professor, but also the president of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, after 1933. The increasing liberal denomination could abide, at least on the surface, with an independent seminary.  There were already those within the confines of Presbyterianism.  Union Theological Seminary was an independent seminary, still sending its graduates into the Presbyterian Church.  But the creation of a conservative mission board reached right into the local Presbyterian churches themselves, with money going away from the denominational missions board into this independent board.  So thus the Mandate of 1934 from the General Assembly sought to put a stop to the Independent Board, Dr. Machen, and all those who supported it.  The Presbytery of New Brunswick was a more favorable presbytery to do that, to try Dr. Machen for disobedience to the Mandate.  His transfer to the Philadelphia Presbytery is the fly in the ointment.

In the midst of all this, in the midst of the trial of Dr. Machen, the Presbytery of Philadelphia on April 1, 1935, votes 66 – 32, to adopt a memorial to the Synod of New Jersey that John Gresham Machen is under the jurisdiction of the Presbytery of Philadelphia.  However, the Presbytery of New Brunswick has already  appointed a Judicial Commission of seven members who ruled that the jurisdiction issue of Dr. Machen and his attorney, will not be handled by the commission.  As in other dates on this historical devotional, which relate the facts of this trial, the presbytery of New Brunswick finds Dr. Machen guilty, with his appeals to the higher courts  denied for redress.  He is suspended from the Presbyterian ministry.

Words to Live By: The apostle Paul reminds us in 1 Thessalonians 2:4 that those entrusted with the gospel should speak “not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.” (ESV)  God, not man, is the One whom we must endeavor to please in all things.

Through the Scriptures: 1 Samuel 21 – 24

Through the Standards: Natural liberty

WCF 9:1
“God has endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that it is neither forced, nor, by any absolute necessity of nature, determined to good, or evil.”

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This Day in Presbyterian History:  The Strange Church Trial of a Spiritual Giant.

It all happened around seventy-seven years ago.  Back in March of 1935, Dr. J. Gresham Machen was before a church court of his peers seeking to defend himself against the serious charges of denying his ordination vows, disapproval of the government and discipline of the church, advocating a rebellious defiance against the lawful authority of the church, and we could go on and on in the charges leveled against this spiritual giant.  You would think that he was guilty of the most aggravated doctrinal error or moral shortcomings.  But in reality, it came down to a single issue—that of refusing to obey the 1934 mandate of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. to cease and desist from supporting an independent board of missionaries, of which board he was the president.

The trial itself was a farce in every sense of the word.  Machen’s defense first tried to challenge certain members of the judicial commission itself as biased, seeking to have them recuse themselves, since at least two of these men had signed the theologically liberal Auburn affirmation.  That was denied.  Then the question of jurisdiction was argued, but that also was not sustained.

At the third session, upon hearing Dr. Machen declare himself “not guilty,” the Commission ruled that certain matters were out-of-bounds in the arguments of the defense case.  Those included questions which surrounded the existence of the Auburn Affirmation, signed in 1924.  They next ruled out any question concerning the nature and conduct of the official Board of Foreign Missions, which had prompted much of the problem when it gave its endorsement to the book entitled Rethinking Missions.  Further, arguments stemming from the reorganization of Princeton Seminary and the founding of Westminster Theological Seminary were also outlawed by the commission.  All of these were part and parcel of Dr. Machen’s defense, since they provided the background of the origin of the Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions.

All these rulings paled into insignificance, so to speak, however, when we consider the last ruling of the judicial commission.  It stated that the legality of the Thirty-Fourth General Assembly’s Mandate for the ministers, members, and churches to cease supporting the Independent Board and only support the official Board of Foreign Missions could not be questioned.

It was obvious that with all of these rulings, that there was only one verdict which could come forth from this judicial commission, and that was guilty.  And so on this date, March 29, 1935, the judgment of “Guilty” was rendered by this seven member Judicial Commission of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.   Appeals to the higher courts were in vain, and J. Gresham Machen was suspended by the church.

Words to Live By:  In whatever issue which confronts us inside or outside the church, we must remember that God is Lord alone of our conscience, with the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments the  only infallible guide of faith and life.   Let us hold to those, not fearing what man can do to us.

Through the Scriptures: 1 Samuel 11 – 13

Through the Standards: Christ’s Exaltation in the Second Coming

WLC 56 — “How is Christ to be exalted in his coming again to judge the world?
A. Christ is to be exalted in his coming to judge the world, in that he, who was unjustly judged and condemned by wicked men, shall come again at the last day in great power, and in the full manifestation of  his own glory, and of his Father’s, with all his holy angels, with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God, to judge the world in righteousness.”

Image source : News clipping from one of seven scrapbooks gathered by the Rev. Henry G. Welbon. Image scan prepared by the staff of the PCA Historical Center.

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