The Roman Presbyterian Church

During my walk today, I read chapters ten and eleven of The Presbyterian Conflict by Edwin H. Rian. The key to these chapters is the change of authority within the Presbyterian Church in the USA during the period of the 1930’s. Because of the conflict between its orthodox and modernistic members, the leaders of the General Assembly attempted to force problem members to be loyal to the denomination without correcting the obvious problems first. The end result was that orthodox believers were forced out on charges of disloyalty and disobedience. What was happening?

“The recurring theme and question which divided the founders of the Independent Board and the rulers of the Church and which is really the fundamental difference between Bible-believers and Modernists. When once the sufficiency and infallibility of the Bible and its final authority in faith and practice are denied, the authority that is substituted must be something human and fallible even though it is a church council” (209).

It seemed clear to Rian (who wrote the book about four years after these events) that the leadership was behaving much like the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. And, to take things a step further, the trial of J. Gresham Machen was very similar to that of Martin Luther the Reformer.

Luther declared that his teachings were in accord with the Bible and he tried to prove it. The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, said that it must decide what teaching is true to the Bible. When Luther refused to recant he was excommunicated. The one great difference between the two trials and decisions is that for the Roman Catholic Church the Church is the supreme judge in all matters of doctrine; it is the official and final arbiter for Roman Catholics in spiritual matters. But in the case of Dr. Machen the constitution of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. states emphatically that “the Supreme Judge, by whom all controversies of religion are to be determined . . . can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures.” In other words, the Roman Church was wrong in Luther’s case in its lack of faithfulness to the Bible but right in loyalty to its constitution, while the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. was not only untrue to the Bible in its decisions but was also unfaithful to its own constitution. (213).

This change of philosophy made it impossible to do much of anything from within. You were either loyal or soon to “get the boot.” This has caused me to wonder why these men did not leave earlier. Did they think they could truly make a difference? They did think they could make a difference, and did for a time. But as things grew worse, it became apparent that there was no value to remaining in the denomination.