The Church and Americanism

I’ve been reading some church history books recently, and one thing that has come up rather forcefully to my consciousness is the degree to which Americanism has affected the church in America. The main question is whether, in the church’s desire to communicate to culture, it has so embraced America that its message is no longer exportable to other nations, thus falling foul of those people who critique the American church of imperialism.

For instance, people who claim that Presbyterianism cannot work in a given context are obviously infected with Americanism. What else could explain how people could claim that a form of church government that has worked in every major cultural context in the world could not work in America? Usually, in the case of urban contexts, the issue is a radical individualism that makes people believe that a connectional form of government cannot work. Maybe the individualism should bow its neck to the yoke of connectionalism, and not vice versa!

A good example of a church that has resisted Americanization is the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. When Carl MacIntire proposed to the OPC that it go with the temperance movement, he was offering the OPC a way of being distinctly American. When the OPC refused, MacIntire left and formed the Bible Presbyterian Church. The OPC refused to be an Americanized church. This (among other factors) has contributed to its appeal being rather limited. But what the OPC lacks in numbers it makes up for in the unity of message, and the singular power of doctrinal purity it has enjoyed over the years.

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6 Comments

  1. Richard said,

    December 23, 2016 at 4:19 pm

    Too true! I have argued for a number of years there is a difference between American Christianity and Biblical Christianity. People are shocked to hear me say I am a christian first and an American second.
    U.S. history shows the growth of democracy and autonomy in America since the 18th century were the primary factors. It is incumbent for the church to be the biblical church today. Thanks for this reminder.

  2. johntjeffery said,

    December 23, 2016 at 7:07 pm

    If my memory from readings in the history of the OPC and the BPC is correct there was more to this decision than a resistance to “Americanize.” What was not involved was any ecclesiastical disagreement over presbyterianism as a form of church government. Other factors that were involved besides whether to align with the temperance movement were abstinence from tobacco, eschatology (premillennialism), fundamentalist radical separatism, and the extent of ecclesiastical political involvement.

    The opposition registered by J. Gresham Machen and many other faculty members of Westminster Theological Seminary to McIntire, Buswell, and MacRae over the prohibition/abstinence issue – and other issues – came to a head in the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America (as the OPC was legally named at the time) in 1937. This opposition to the temperance issue – as expressed in the publications and records from this era – was on exegetical, theological and confessional bases, not over any fear of “Americanization.”

    Another more subtle factor often overlooked that should be considered is that of McIntire’s propensity for control or domination which evidenced itself elsewhere in councils and educational institutions he was involved with.

    See the following:

    D. G. Hart and John Muether, Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia: Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1995).

    Robert S. Marsden, “The First Ten Years: The Orthodox Presbyterian Church 1936-1946,” from The First Ten Years (Philadelphia: Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension, 1946); on The Orthodox Presbyterian Church at https://opc.org/books/FirstTenYears.html [accessed 23 DEC 2016].

    Edwin H. Rian, The Presbyterian Conflict (Philadelphia: Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1992), s.v. Chapter 12. “The Orthodox Presbyterian Church;” on The Orthodox Presbyterian Church at https://www.opc.org/books/conflict/ch12.html [accessed 23 DEC 2016].

    Peter J. Wallace, “Symposium: Revisiting the Division of 1937—The Orthodox Presbyterian Church; The Myth of Old School Presbyterianism in Its American Ecclesiastical Context,” Mid-America Journal of Theology 18 (2007), pp. 193-197; on Mid-America Reformed Seminary at http://www.midamerica.edu/uploads/files/pdf/journal/wallace18.pdf [accessed 23 DEC 2016].

  3. greenbaggins said,

    December 23, 2016 at 7:38 pm

    Yes, there were other factor at work besides temperance. The one that best represented Americanization was the temperance movement.

  4. December 27, 2016 at 7:11 pm

    “But what the OPC lacks in numbers it makes up for in the unity of message, and the singular power of doctrinal purity it has enjoyed over the years.” That seems a bit idealistically tinted, and if you overlook the Van Til controversies, the Shepherd affair, and current conflicts over Westminster Seminary East, the back and forth over joining and receiving the modern PCA. Hardly placid waters easily navigated.

  5. greenbaggins said,

    December 29, 2016 at 11:28 am

    Shawn, while my comments are a generalization, I think you might be conflating some things. For instance, the Shepherd controversy was primarily a WTS thing, not an OPC thing. WTS is not a denominational seminary, and never has been. Besides, doctrinal purity will always be tested. The current WTS conflict is certainly not an OPC thing. Keeping doctrinal purity is a struggle, of course. The OPC has succeeded better than most denominations in the US.

  6. Timothy said,

    January 2, 2017 at 8:16 am

    Hoping to leave the PCA soon, for the OPC. But the LORD may providentially hinder me from such.


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