NORTH WILDWOOD – Finding one’s place in the world is difficult. The same applies to people of faith, as they practice their beliefs, often under scrutiny and even opposition.
Friends, colleagues, and family members can turn on the one seeking the truth. At the end of the day, it’s easy to doubt and find an easier path. For the Orthodox Presbyterians of Cape May County, the journey to truth began with turmoil yet still endures today.
“The problem is not with unclarity in the Word of God, but us,” Jon Stevenson wrote, in an email, Aug. 7, “but must we give up and sail to heaven as kindergarten students of God's Word?”
Stevenson, an elder at Central Bible Church, in North Wildwood, understands the fine line between tradition and presenting the timeless Gospel message. Stevenson grew up in California before his parents answered the call to serve as missionaries, in Guam.
“I’m still a California boy,” Stevenson said, in a phone interview, Aug. 8. His roots in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church run deep, due to his mother’s connection to a church in Vineland.
After attending Dordt College, in Iowa, Stevenson found his way back to South Jersey, where he met his wife, Marian. The couple married in 1969.
For three years, the couple served as “lay-missionaries” in Puerto Rico; Stevenson operated a Christian radio station, while Marian put her nursing degree to use.
Stevenson later found his niche, as a social studies teacher, at Wildwood High School. He also served as director of the Boardwalk Chapel for over 30 years.
“By God's grace, alone, the OPC (Orthodox Presbyterian Church) has sought to stick to the Bible in all its controversies,” Stevenson said. Controversy is part of the human experience – a fact well known by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s founder, John Gresham Machen.
How did Orthodox Presbyterians Come to be?
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1881, Machen grew up in a scholarly household. Machen’s childhood was shaped by his Presbyterian mother and Episcopal father. At 17, Machen briefly studied at Johns Hopkins University before opting to study theology and philosophy at Princeton, in 1902.
According to historical records, Machen struggled between his childhood faith and new ideas coming from Europe. Modernism questioned the major tenets of Christianity.
Is the Bible relevant to modern problems? Was Jesus Christ born of the Virgin Mary? Is the Bible accurate?
Machen’s intellectual thirst led him to Germany, where he met several prominent modernists, namely Professor Wilhelm Herrmann. Herrmann, a Lutheran theologian, taught his students to find “a space free in the middle and hopes that God, himself, will intervene.” In short, the truth can't be entirely discovered.
Machen separated from Herrmann, despite deep respect of the professor’s knowledge. In 1906, Machen joined Princeton’s ranks, as an instructor in New Testament studies, until America joined the Allies in World War I.
Serving with the YMCA, Machen experienced the horrors of modern warfare at the front, in France. He questioned the motives of his friend, President Woodrow Wilson, and opposed the war.
After the war, Machen returned to Princeton and continued teaching, protesting the wave of modernist thinking in the seminary. He stood by his convictions and eventually parted ways with the mainline Presbyterians, in 1933. The Orthodox Presbyterian movement spread across New Jersey, the nation, and beyond.
How did Orthodox Presbyterians Come to Cape May County?
According to Stevenson, Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church began under Rev. Leslie Dunn in the mid-1940s. Presbyterians operate under a presbytery, a council of ministers and elders, and Dunn came to Wildwood under their “auspices.” Dunn also founded the Boardwalk Chapel.
Calvary Orthodox existed, in Wildwood, until recently, moving to Court House. The church currently meets in the American Legion until a new building is constructed.
The second Orthodox Presbyterian congregation occupies Central Bible Church. Central Bible originally functioned under the Union Sunday School movement, in 1907.
“All Christians were welcomed to participate in the activities of the school without respect to denominational affiliation,” Stevenson wrote.
In 1926, Rev. Dr. Charles Hunter accepted the call as pastor, and the church officially organized, in 1928. Central Bible did not become Presbyterian until the 1960s, and was known as Faith Bible Presbyterian Chapel. Pastor James Allay is the current pastor.
Central Bible and Calvary Church participate in community outreach through the Boardwalk Chapel, and in hosting summer events. Despite COVID-19, both churches are “successfully dealing” with government restrictions and guidelines, said Stevenson.
What Makes Someone an Orthodox Presbyterian?
Orthodox Presbyterians hold to historic Protestant beliefs, with an emphasis on the Westminster Confession of Faith and the teachings of reformer John Calvin.
“God has chosen his elect from out of our fallen human race from all eternity and that those he chose he calls to himself through the hearing of the gospel message,” Stevenson explained.
However, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church does not contend that they are the only group that follows the Word of God.
“We, in the OPC (Orthodox Presbyterian Church), don't say that only 'reformed' believers are saved. There are, in many other denominational groups, where God has His true people,” Stevenson said.
Controversy and disagreements still arise, but the love of God and his people provides strength and guidance for life and its challenges.
Faith Matters is an ongoing series exploring the connection between individuals and their faith, impacting their families, community, and beyond. Those with a story of faith to share should contact the writer at email@example.com.