“All through the history of the Church of Christ, there has been a ceaseless struggle to maintain the truth.” That is a quote from Allan MacRae. He was a twentieth-century Presbyterian churchman and a biblical scholar. He learned that quote firsthand. He was with J. Gresham Machen as a student at Princeton Seminary in the late 1920s. When Machen left Princeton and went across the Delaware River over to Philadelphia to found Westminster Theological Seminary, MacRae went along with him. A few years later, in 1936, Machen, who was ousted from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) formed a new church, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. And MacRae went along with him again.
So what was the issue in the 1930s, specifically in 1936, that MacRae was talking about, this “ceaseless struggle to maintain the truth”? Broadly speaking, the issue was liberalism and cultural progressivism. These had been at work in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and many other denominations from the 1890s on through the roaring twenties. Machen battled liberalism at Princeton, and he was battling it within the denomination.
Narrowly speaking, the issue was missions. In the fall of 1932, a report was issued titled “Re-Thinking Missions.” This report was published fully by Harper in 1933 in no fewer than seven volumes, again under the title Re-Thinking Missions. This project was funded by John D. Rockefeller. It had representatives from seven key positions on mission boards, and seven denominations participated. This document had two major parts. One was based on a fact-finding mission and just spoke of the state of missions and the conditions of places. Three places in particular were studied: China, India, and Japan.
The second part raised new ways that missions should be done and challenged the old ways that missions was being done. In a nutshell, what this document wanted to promote was to advance spiritual idealism, social brotherhood, economic welfare, and cultural unity. The rethinking part means that to think of missions as simply the Great Commission, the proclamation of the gospel to every tribe and every nation, is too narrow and, in fact, has been wrong-headed. We need a different mission, a different approach that represents the realities of the twentieth century. And so, missions needs to be rethought.
This deeply troubled J. Gresham Machen. He saw in this a denial of the gospel. He couldn’t believe that not only did his own mission board of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) not refute this document, but it had key representatives who were part of it and were promoting it. This was also the time of the missionary Pearl Buck. In 1932, she had just won the Pulitzer Prize. She was a significant figure in American culture. And she was a Presbyterian missionary who denied the atonement of Christ, the deity of Christ, and the authority of Scripture. All of this perplexed Machen.
So he challenged his denomination. He wrote a 110-page pamphlet to go along with an overture that he introduced in his presbytery. And he wanted the Presbyterian Church to refute the “Re-Thinking Missions” document. They didn’t. So in 1933, Machen formed the Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions. This eventually led to his ouster from his denomination. Then in 1936, once he was defrocked, he formed a new denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
Six months later, on January 1, 1937, Machen died. But his
commitment to the church and his commitment to the gospel was evident. He stood
against the tide of his denomination, and he stood for the gospel. He did not
want to “rethink missions,” but rather in the twentieth century he wanted to reaffirm the mission of the church and
the Great Commission.