J. Gresham Machen and the Reformation of the Church

In 1935 J. Gresham Machen was tried by the Presbytery of New Brunswick of the Northern Presbyterian Church for violating his ordination vows, renouncing and disobeying the rules and lawful authority of the church, advocating rebellious defiance against the lawful authority of the church, showing contempt of and rebellion against his ecclesiastical superiors, and refusing subjection to his brethren in the Lord. This judicial proceeding was the outcome of Machen’s protest against the policies of the Presbyterian Church’s Board of Foreign Missions, policies which prevented the agency from condemning liberalism and promoting Reformed beliefs and practices. When this protest failed to receive an adequate response Machen then led in the formation of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign MisI sions, an alternative missions agency dedicated to sending out missionaries committed to propagating the Reformed faith. In 1934 church officials, however, deemed the new missions board a breech of Presbyterian polity, ordered the Independent Board’s members to resign, and instructed presbyteries to bring to trial those members of the board who would not comply. Machen’s trial turned out to be the final showdown in the controversy over liberalism that had rocked the Northern Presbyterian Church since 1920. It also became the decisive moment for the founding ofa new Presbyterian denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

For Edwin H. Rian who offered legal counsel to Machen during the trial and who eventually became a minister in the OPC, the judicial proceeding against his mentor possessed all the drama and significance that had characterized Martin Luther’s trial in 1521 before the Diet of Worms. According to Rian, the issues in Machen’s trial were “almost identical” to those Luther raised. “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 truth to the Bible.” The issues that prompted the founding of the OPC, by Rian’s insights, were as monumental as those that in the sixteenth century had split the Western church.

On the surface Rian’s comparison of Machen and Luther appears exaggerated. After all, the division between Protestants and Catholics has had much greater social and political significance than the split between the OPC and the Northern PresbyterianChurch. Yet, upon closer inspection the similarities between the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century and the Presbyterian conflict over liberalism are much greater than we might think initially. In the end the stakes for Machen were just as high as those for Luther. Even though Machen’s life was not in danger, his spiritual existence was very much in the balance. Would he be faithful to his Lord no matter what the consequences? Or would he equivocate for the sake of winning greater influence in the church? And even though the denomination that Machen helped to found would not merit much space in the annals of church history, the issues that brought the OPC into existence were the same as those that contributed to the Protestant Reformation. For this reason Machen’s trial and conviction by the Northern Presbyterian Church is instructive for twentieth-century descendants of the Reformation who endeavor to carry on the reform of the church that is always needed.




Two crucial issues contributed to the division between Catholics and Protestants, sometimes called the material and formal principles of the Reformation. The material principle refers to the doctrine of justification by faith alone, by Christ alone. The substance of the divergence between the Reformers and Rome concerned the doctrine of how sinful men and women are made right with God. Unlike the teaching of the Roman Church, formally codified at the Council of Trent which attributed part of the work of salvation to the individual believer, Protestants stressed the total depravity of mankind and the consequent need for God’s free grace. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it: “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he freely pardons all our sins and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ, imputed to us, and received by faith alone.”

The formal principle of the Reformation was the authority and sufficiency of the Bible, or what we call sola Scriptura. It is directly related to the question of justification if only because that theological debate raised the issue of how to settle theological controversies in general. While Rome stressed the authority of tradition, or the teaching capacity of the church in addition to the authority of the Bible, the Reformers rested their case for the doctrine of justification on the Bible alone. The doctrine of sola Scriptura did not compel the Reformers to disregard the nature and authority of the church. Indeed, the Westminster Confession teaches that the courts of the church have been given by God for “the better government and further edification” of His people. Nevertheless, the Westminster divines went on to say in chapter thirty-one that “all synods or councils since the apostles’ times…may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice.”

The material principle of the Presbyterian controversy was whether or not theological liberalism constituted an entirely different gospel. Just as the Reformers believed that Rome’s teaching on grace made that communion a false church, so Machen argued in Christianity and Liberalism that liberal Protestantism was antithetical to the Bible and demanded swift and thorough repudiation. Was the gospel primarily a way for men and women to live more moral and spiritual lives as liberal Protestants taught, or was it the only way of salvation that God in Christ had provided for sinners as Machen argued? These contrasting ways of understanding Christianity led Machen to conclude that liberalism and historic Christianity were two entirely different religions. Liberals might be good and decent folk, but their misconception of the gospel made their presence in the church as officers and denominational executives intolerable.

Yet, Machen was not able to persuade the church of liberalism’s errors, In fact, throughout the 1920s the majority of Northern Presbyterians not only refused to believe Machen but also gave the church a clean bill of theological health while blaming conservatives for starting the controversy. Conservatives were stymied at General Assemblies, and lost control of Princeton Seminary. What had started as an effort by conservatives to discipline those ministers whose views did not conform to the Bible or the Westminster Standards, resulted in a successful plan by church bureaucrats, with almost complete disregard for the purity and witness of the church, to muzzle anyone who threatened the peace and programs of the denomination. The refrain that “doctrine divides, but ministry unites” had become, in effect, the official policy of the Northern Presbyterian Church. As the events of the 1920s revealed, organizational unity, loyalty to the church, and giving to programs became the most important features of ministers and churches.


With the unity and efficiency of the denomination being the dominant concern, it is little wonder that authority within the church became the issue of the 1930s. While the debates of the 1920s had focused on theology, hence the material principle of the Presbyterian controversies, the arguments of the 1930s centered on administration, thus, raising the formal principle at the heart of the struggle. The issue was whether the church could coerce loyalty from conservatives. Did conservatives have any right to protest and criticize the activities of the church? And, if so, what form or expression should their protest take? In other words, did opponents of modernism have any legal right to establish rival institutions which would formalize their dissent?

The new missions board that Machen and other conservatives founded in 1933 brought this issue to a head. The Independent Board, it must be admitted, was a controversial move for conservatives, not because it was illegal, but because the board’s independence made the ministry of the Word autonomous from the oversight of the church, a consequence that violated the Presbyterian polity that Machen defended. His defense of this anomalous use of a parachurch organization was that even though independence was undesirable, the emergency in the church required a desperate response.

The Presbyterian Church’s hierarchy reacted to the Independent Board swiftly. The stated clerk directed certain presbyteries to examine graduates of Westminster during ordination exams about their loyalty to denominational agencies. One candidate was rejected because he would not pledge fidelity. Denominational officials increased pressure by declaring that the new agency violated church law. In May of 1934 the moderator of the General Assembly informed Machen that the Independent Board was illegal. Officials followed with the Mandate of 1934; a report received and adopted by the General Assembly, which stated that offerings to the denomination were as much an obligation as the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and that gifts should be given only to organizations approved by the General Assembly. The Mandate also ordered Independent. Board members to resign, or else face church discipline. The tyrannical nature of these measures was not lost on one Presbyterian minister who responded, “If we are to have a Presbyterian Mussolini, give us one with Mussolini’s brains…; if we are to have a Pope, give us one with the wisdom and conservatism of the Vatican.” To Machen the Mandate violated due process by convicting Independent Board members without ever hearing their side.

Machen’s trial made the comparison of Presbyterian officials to the papacy all the more fitting. At the first meeting on March 7, 1935, Machen was ready to present his defense before the judicial committee of the Presbytery of New Brunswick. But before he could begin, the chairman of the committee ruled that all theological and legal discussion relating to the Mandate of 1934 was out of order. In desperation Machen’s counsel asked for a short recess and then again for another until the afternoon. When he tried to argue that the official board of missions was responsible for upsetting the peace of the church and that Machen had been forced to obey an unconstitutional mandate, the judicial commission again ruled him out of order. Machen’s response that the trial was “unfair” was clearly an understatement. Three weeks later the committee found Machen guilty and suspended him from the ministry. His appeal to the General Assembly had to wait until 1936. The highest Presbyterian Court upheld the Presbytery of New Brunswick’s verdict.


Machen’s trial revealed the formal principle at stake in the Presbyterian controversy. As Machen himself argued, it was a question of whether the church would obey the minutes of General Assembly or the Bible. In an editorial for the Presbyterian Guardian, he explained that the Mandate of 1934 made support for the denomination’s boards and agencies a condition of ordination and, thereby, placed “the word of man above the Word of God.” He added, “A church that places the word of man above the Word of God and that dethrones Jesus Christ is an apostate church.”

The issue that forced Machen out of the church was not the toleration of liberalism but rather the lordship of Christ over His church. The question of Christ’s lordship was also what caused the breach between Protestants and Catholics, not simply an erroneous view of justification. This is not to say that the theological struggles surrounding the doctrine of salvation in the Reformation or the Presbyterian controversy were insignificant. But the presence of erroneous or even heretical views in the church was no reason to leave. As Machen also said, “We have no right to demand of the church militant a perfection that will belong only to the Church triumphant.” The Bible did not permit a Christian to withdraw from the church “or any branch of [the] Church just because that Church or that branch of it is not perfect.”

What made the Presbyterian Church unbearable for conservatives was the way the church responded to error. The Reformed tradition has insisted upon three marks of the church, namely, preaching, the sacraments and discipline. The fact that discipline is a mark of the true church means that how an ecclesiastical body responds when confronted with sin or error is crucial to its witness and identity. But the Presbyterian Church did not discipline the various ministers of church courts that either promoted or tolerated liberalism. Instead, it went after conservatives. Thus, the Presbyterian Church, as the Belgic Confession says of the false church, “ascribe(d] more power and authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God…and persecute[d] those who live holily according to the Word of God and rebuke it for its errors, covetousness, and idolatry.” To be sure, good ministers were still in the Presbyterian Church. But throughout the denomination support for and allegiance to the church and its programs had replaced submission to the lordship of Christ as revealed in the Bible.

The lordship of Christ was the issue that led Machen to found the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. A Southern Presbyterian observing the situation had little difficulty seeing the issue that was at stake. But William Childs Robinson, longtime professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, also noted the profound inconsistency of the Presbyterian Church’s action against Machen. Robinson wrote:

Those who enjoy a bit of irony may notice that the same General Assembly of 1934 which laid its iron mandate to bind the conscience of Dr. Machen, passed a resolution commending the German Protestants for refusing to obey those actions of the Nazi church which contravene a minister’s exclusive allegiance to the Word of God. With a much more vague and less adequate understanding of what the Word of God is, Karl Barth is indeed challenging the German church with the same issue that the Machen case has raised in the USA church. Is the voice of the church ultimate; or is it only penultimate, with the Word of God ultimate? Is not the Word of God above the church judging her? Barth rightly declares that the material as well as the formal principle of the Reformed Reformation is neither this or that particular doctrine; but a doctrine that is primal for all doctrine, namely, that God is the sole author of doctrine….Shall we stand for the authority of the Word of God in Germany; and the authority of the voice of the church in America? Or shall we return to the sole headship of Christ in His church, and the sufficiency of His Word as a rule of faith and practice?

It is no exaggeration, then, to compare, the struggles of the 1930s to those of the 1520s. In both cases, the conflict in the church manifested what John Murray called “crux of the Reformation.” In both cases, the hierarchy ofthe church usurped Christ’s authority and “took the crown from the Redeemer’s head.” A passion for the supremacy and lordship of Christ must still guide those believers who would uphold the principles of the Protestant Reformation. Adherents of the Reformed tradition today need courage and conviction to live up to this godly heritage, not simply to be Reformed, but to serve and obey their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Dr. Daryl G. Hart is librarian at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA. He received his doctorate in history from Johns Hopkins University.