What Is the OPC?

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) traces its roots to the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. The church, established by Christ in the first century, drifted away from Biblical truth during her first 500 years of existence. During the Middle Ages the truths of the Bible were rediscovered by men like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others. The principals established during the Protestant Reformation remain the pillars of the OPC today.

From 1643 to 1649 a group known as the Westminster Assembly met in London to address the future of the church in England and Scotland. This group produced a confession known as the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Shorter and Larger Westminster Catechisms. These reformed documents became the basis for today's Presbyterian churches by setting forth a Presbyterian form of government. In the Presbyterian system the church is governed by elders (or "presbyters"), including ministers. Each congregation chooses its own elders, who are in turn responsible to regional and national assemblies of their peers. When immigrants from Scotland, Ireland, and England immigrated to America they established Presbyterian churches in the "New World."

During the 1800s and early 1900s, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. was a strong, faithful, and influential church. But liberalism began to creep in from Europe, and little was done to check its spread. In 1924 about 1,300 (out of 10,000) Presbyterian ministers signed the liberal Auburn Affirmation, which contradicted the basic doctrines of the Reformation. Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey, remained a bastion of orthodox Presbyterianism until its Board was reorganized in 1929 with a mandate to bring liberal professors onto the faculty. Four Princeton professors resigned and established Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia as an independent institution to continue teaching biblical Christianity.

The leading opponent of liberalism in those days was J. Gresham Machen, a Presbyterian minister and professor at Princeton (and later Westminster). When he drew attention to the modernist foreign missions program of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., the General Assembly in 1933 refused to do anything about it. Because he and others wanted to support missionaries who were actually preaching the gospel, they established the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. The 1934 Assembly condemned their action, and they were soon deposed from office. As a result, 34 ministers, 17 ruling elders, and 79 laymen met in Philadelphia on June 11, 1936, to constitute the Presbyterian Church of America. The name of the new church was changed to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1939 because of a lawsuit brought by the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. It was hoped this new denomination would attract many conservatives from the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., but this did not happen. Early leaders of the Church included men of Dutch Reformed and Scottish Presbyterian backgrounds, such as Cornelius Van Til and John Murray.

From the beginning, the OPC emphasized mission work, both at home and abroad. As a result of church-planting efforts, the OPC experienced slow but steady growth (which has accelerated in recent years). Today, one may find her approximately 250 churches and mission works in 39 states (and one Canadian province), organized into 13 regional churches, each governed by a presbytery. The OPC, although relatively small, has never isolated herself from the rest of Christ's church. She has promoted the Reformed faith around the world. The OPC is currently experiencing a net gain of about ten churches and mission works annually, and our rate of growth appears to be increasing.

Our doctrinal standards are the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms. The Confession (like the Catechisms) is essentially the one prepared by the Westminster Assembly in the 1640s, but it incorporates a few modifications that have been adopted during the course of American Presbyterian history, notably statements separating the state from involvement with the church. These documents set forth, in systematic form, the basic teachings of the Bible. The documents regulating our government, discipline, and worship follow scriptural principles and are published together as The Book of Church Order. They consist of the Form of Government, the Book of Discipline, and the Directory for the Public Worship of God.

All church officers -- ministers, ruling elders, and deacons -- are required to receive and adopt the Confession and Catechisms as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Bible, and to approve of the government, discipline, and worship of the Church. Other church members, however, are required simply to acknowledge that the Bible, as the Word of God, contains the perfect and only true doctrine of salvation and to accept instruction in doctrine and life.

Our system of doctrine is the Reformed faith, also called Calvinism (because Calvin was the most important exponent of it during the Reformation). It pulls together the most significant doctrines taught in the Bible. These doctrines are set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. A summary of these doctrines can be found on this site in the section "Reformed Theology." The full text of these documents can be seen in the section "Creeds & Confessions."

The OPC uses a Presbyterian form of government. Each congregation is governed by a session, which consists of one or more ministers (teaching elders) and a number of ruling elders (depending on the size of the congregation). Elders must meet the scriptural qualifications for the eldership. They are ordained for life and installed to office. Ministers are licensed and ordained by regional presbyteries and are called by congregations; ruling elders are elected by congregations. Deacons are elected by congregations to oversee their ministries of mercy. They are ordained, but they do not exercise spiritual rule alongside elders. As required by the Scriptures, all officers must be men, not women. Non-ordained people often sit on committees that supervise important areas of congregational life, but always under the oversight of the session.

Members are received into a local Orthodox Presbyterian congregation by the session on the basis of their credible profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Members are not required to adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms as a standard for membership. Believers who have been baptized and who have professed their faith in Christ to the elders of the church are termed "communicant members." They are admitted to the Lord's Supper and have voting rights and responsibilities within the congregation. Their baptized children are received as "non-communicant members" of the congregation but do not partake of the Lord's Supper or exercise voting rights.

The congregations of the OPC are organized into thirteen regional churches, each with a governing body called a presbytery. The presbytery is composed of all the ministers and commissioned ruling elders from within the regional church and cares for the health and well-being of its local congregations and provides help and a place for appeal in resolving conflicts in local churches. It supervises ministers and prepares ministerial candidates, and it spreads the gospel in its region through evangelism and church planting.

The General Assembly oversees the ministry of the whole OPC. It ordinarily meets once each year and is composed of ministers and ruling elders representing each presbytery. It provides training and educational materials for the churches, arranges internship training for prospective ministers, sends missionaries to foreign lands, and resolves matters of conflict in regional and local churches.