What is an “Old School” Presbyterian Church and how are they built?

I’m glad you asked! That is after all what this blog is concerned with.

First, the term “Old School” in the title is not specifically a reference to the pop culture phrase “old school” which, according to Wikipedia:

“is a slang term referring to an older school of thinking or acting and to old objects in general, within the context of newer, more modern times. Rather than carrying the negative connotation of obsolete, it may be used to refer to a time of perceived higher standards or level of craft. The term “old school” may be effectively equivalent to “They just don’t make ’em like this anymore”

Having said that, there are elements in the definition above that would be applicable to the term “Old School” as we are using it. Old School Presbyterianism is indeed an older school of thought which reached its zenith in the 19th century, Old School Presbyterian churches do indeed stand out in the modern context, and we would argue that they are the product of a commitment to the highest possible standard. However, where we would diverge with the above definition is in that this blog is committed to the idea that when it comes to Old School churches, “they just don’t make ’em like this anymore” doesn’t need to be the case. Since we believe that God is the builder of these churches, and his unchanging Word is the blueprint, there is no reason we shouldn’t be able to build new Old School churches either by building them from scratch via Old School church planting or by reforming existing churches along Old School lines.

While there are many ways we might define the term Old School, and a lot of the posts on this blog will inevitably be discussions of what Old School Presbyterianism is and isn’t here are a few principles that might be considered foundational to an understanding of Old School Presbyterianism:

1) Old School Presbyterians are committed to the idea that the Bible, which is the Word of God, is entirely sufficient for everything in our faith, life, and practice and we do not need to add anything of our own, nor should we. Therefore our worship is to be ordered according to God’s instructions, and not according to our imaginations or traditions or in any way God has not prescribed for us. This formulation is sometimes referred to as the Regulative Principle of Worship, which refers to the idea that our worship is entirely regulated and ruled by the teaching of scripture. This means that Old School Worship is neither “contemporary” nor “traditional” but simple and biblical.

2) In Church Polity Old School Presbyterians are committed to the idea that Presbyterianism is the form of church polity the bible teaches.

3) In Theology, Old School Presbyterians are committed to the Calvinism of the Westminster Standards, and believe this is the system of doctrine that the Bible teaches. They further believe that when men are ordained in Presbyterian churches, their subscription to the standards should be full and complete, and that any exceptions that a man has to the standards should be minimal.

4) Old School Presbyterians are also committed to the doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church and believe that the Church is not to embroil itself in party politics, nationalism, or anything that Christ has not commissioned his church to do. Dr. Morton Smith explains further what the spirituality of the church entails:

“There is a twofold work for the Church to accomplish. It is the gathering of the elect through the preaching of the Word, and then the instruction of those thus gathered in the full teaching of the Word. In other words the mission of the Church is to evangelize the lost, and then to teach the whole counsel of God to those who have been evangelized. We see the Church in Acts also ministering to her poor, but ultimately this was to the end that they could be taught the faith. This and this alone is the mission of the Church. R. B. Kuiper says, “The church’s task is to teach and preach the Word of God. Whatever else it may properly do is subordinate and subsidiary to that task. This is its supreme task.” He concludes his chapter on this subject by saying:

Just because the preaching of the Word is so great a task the church must devote itself to it alone. For the Church to undertake other activities, not indissolubly bound up with this one, is a colossal blunder, because it inevitably results in neglect of its proper ask. Let not the church degenerate into a social club. Let not the church go into the entertainment business. Let not the church take sides on such aspects of economics, politics, or natural science as are not dealt with in the Word of God. And let the church be content to teach special, not general revelation. Let the church be the church.

We may add further that since this was the only task given to the Church by her King, the Church should confine herself to carrying out this task and this task alone.”

5) Old School Presbyterians also believe in preaching that is warm and aimed not merely at the intellect, but at mens hearts and convictions. They are interested in and pray for genuine biblical revival within God’s churches.

Examples of Old School Presbyterian Theologians might include men like Dabney, Thornwell, Palmer, Peck, Girardeau, Cunningham, Bannerman, Brown, Alexander, Miller and a host of others from Scotland and the United States would fit into this category.

More could and will no doubt be said about this subject, but this should be suffice as a brief introduction..

About Andrew Webb

I was converted out of paganism and the occult in 1993 and while I was initially Charismatic/Arminian in my theology, I became Reformed and Presbyterian through bible study and the influence of ministries like RC Sproul's. After teaching in local bible studies, and taking seminary courses part time, I began to feel called to the ministry in 1997. I was Ordained as an RE at Christ Covenant PCA in Hatboro, PA in 2000 and as a TE by Central Carolina Presbytery in 2001 when I was called to be the Organizing Pastor/Church Planter for Providence PCA Mission, Cross Creek PCA's church plant in Fayetteville, NC (home to Ft. Bragg and Pope Airforce Base). In 2005 when the Providence PCA Particularized I was blessed to be called by the congregation to be their Pastor
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19 Responses to What is an “Old School” Presbyterian Church and how are they built?

  1. A very good opening post, Andy. You’ve set out the basic parameters well. This should give folks a good idea as to the direction and content of your blog. I hope Reformed people (and any non-Reformed who happen to pop in) will be encouraged by what they read here.

    See? You’re not that much of a Luddite after all!

  2. Well said, Brother!

    I look forward to reading more on this vital topic. May God grant His Church insight and repentance in this area! And then great power to go out and accomplish the work of the Gospel.

  3. Andrew Webb says:

    Thanks brothers, I just hope the site will:

    a) Be useful to those involved in Old School Church Plants
    b) Encourage others to start new Old School Plants.

    BTW – I think of myself as more of a Lollard than a Luddite.

  4. Steve Trigero says:

    I don’t see a difference between what is described as “Old School” and today’s confessional Presbyterian and Reformed churches. What am I missing?

  5. Andrew Webb says:

    Hi Steve,

    I would agree that the confessional basis is the same but the application is very, very different.

    Generally speaking most Presbyterian churches today do not draw their philosophy of ministry from “Old School” Presbyterianism. Most are either following what might be called a seeker-sensitive model which has more to do with the movement brought in during the 70s and 80s by Willow Creek, Barna, C. Peter Wagner, etc. Others follow what might be called the traditional model that developed in first half of the 20th century. The traditional model is actually a blend of Episcopalian worship (and worship philosophy) with elements of Presbyterianism. Both models draw heavily on traditions (although the Episcopalian tradtions are older) but both are alien to Presbyterianism. For instance, handbell choirs, soloists, holy days, advent wreaths, choirs, call and response readings, and the high church liturgical style are all as antithetical to the Presbyterian view of biblical worship as praise bands and flag dancers.

    The elements of worship are just one example, but other elements of the Old School approach that aren’t commonly found would include frequent pastoral visitations, an eschewing of party politics (no voter guides, no political messages from the pulpit, no reclaiming America centers) a lack of programs that aren’t directly associated with Word, Sacrament or Discipline, no demographic separation in the church, An emphasis on keeping the Sabbath, Family Worship, Catechizing, etc. These are all elements that one can find in our Constitutional Documents, but which are only infrequently found in our churches.

  6. Reed DePace says:


    Not to put you on the spot, but in terms of worship (i.e., order, elements), could you post an example from your church?

    I’ve grown quite a bit in my appreciation for the notion of simplicity, especially in light of the evidence of the Early Church. I’d like to get a feel for how someone whose been at it for a while applies this principle.



  7. Glenn says:

    At SRPC in Boise, ID, our worship presently looks like this:

    Call to Worship
    Apostolic Greeting
    Psalm or Hymn
    Words of Assurance
    First Scripture Reading
    Second Scripture Reading
    Pastoral Prayer
    Sermon Text
    Invitation to Give
    Psalm or Hymn

  8. Andrew Webb says:

    Hi Reed,

    I’m actually planning on doing a series on the foundations and elements of Old School Presbyterian (OSP) worship. I had intended on doing them in order with the foundations first and then the elements, but I’ll do them concurrently instead.

    – Andy

  9. Glenn says:


    Thansk for starting this blog. We need to communicate with and encourage others who share this view of the church.

    Glenn Ferrell
    SPRC, Boise, ID

  10. mdiber05 says:

    Isn’t this what we call the ‘OPC’? I haven’t figured out how to tell someone why an organ is a perfectly acceptable musical instrument in a worship service and a guitar is not. Sure, that is an old war, and probably an un-winnable one either way. Probably all the churches I have gone to are what you would call ‘Old School’, but I am convinced that a lot of what any church does is cultural and/or preferential. My dear dad’s church came up the the ‘no soloist’ thing and when he heard something good at our church , he would eat it up! I find that the more I particiapte in a church service, as far as praying and reading aloud and maybe even two whole songs in a row (!), the more heavily the act of worship sits with me.
    I am not sure why you feel the need to come up with another term. Seems like there ought to be one out there that would suit you!!! :>)
    And as far as Glenn’s comment goes, why is it so necessary to communicate with people who think just like you do? Where’s the growth in that?

  11. Andrew Webb says:

    Hi Mdiber,

    Thank you for stopping by and commenting, the gracious mention we got from the PCA Updates mailing has indeed sent a lot of new visitors our way and godwilling that includes a few present and future OSP church planters.

    Anyway, let me try to answer your questions. First, “Old School Presbyterian” (OSP) isn’t actually a new label. It dates back to the early 19th century and was used by Conservative Presbyterians in the North and South to distinguish themselves from Presbyterians who were pushing for new measures in worship, a liberalizing theology that tended towards Arminianism, and greater ecumenical endeavors. Eventually this produced a split and the opposing camps became known as the Old School and New School Presbyterians. While the name “Old School” only became commonly used in the 19th century, the theology it espoused could be traced back through the Scots and Puritans and forward through the Southern Presbyterians and Princetonians to the present day. It is that continuing (but by no means well-known) school of Presbyterian theology that this blog is seeking to promote.

    While there are OPC churches that are “Old School Presbyterian” OSP is not synonymous with OPC neither is OSP simply a conservative or reactionary position. There are far more OPC churches that would be associated with the Redemptive Historical, High Church or “Episcoterian”, or Traditional schools. There are even a few OPC churches that fit into the Contemporary or “blended” school. While there is some cross-pollintation between the Old School and these other schools, they draw heavily from traditions outside of or even opposed to the OSP such as Anglicanism.

    As far as music in worship is concerned, that is a separate conversation which we will eventually have, but I can’t think of any contributors to this board who would hold that an organ is inherently superior to a guitar. Most of us believe that an instrument is a circumstance designed to help the congregation sing decently and in order, and whether that is a flute, a piano, or an organ, is incidental. Similarly, as long as the tune supports the words (hey you can sing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of Gilligan’s Island, but it obviously doesn’t carry the weight of the words) being sung a 16th century tune is by no means better than a 20th century tune. As I said, its not simply conservatism and a “whats antique is better than what’s new spirit.” Old School is about principles not preferences.

    For instance, my worship preference would be very high church worship, I love the symbolism, the smells, the sounds, etc. but I acknowledge that this symbolism I prefer is just the imaginations and creations of men and is not how God tells us He wants us to be worshipped. Therefore I mortify my preferences and adopt a simpler more biblical worship.

    As far as communicating with others, there are plenty of resources to help those in other movements to plant churches, but as far as I know, this is the only OSP church planting resource around. We want to communicate what we view as a biblical vision for church planting to others as well, but the “iron sharpening iron” and “encouragement” components are necessary as well. As far as talking to “others who share your beliefs” all Christians do it, its called fellowship and is intended to exhort one another and “to stir up love and good works” (Heb. 10:24). To a certain extent, after all, every Presbyterian publication (such as ByFaith) is designed to reach those of like belief AND persuade those who are “near” to come into the camp.

    Hope this helps…

  12. mdiber05 says:

    You know, I think I am with you, but I am not sure why, in so many terms. Years ago, when I questioned our commitment to never send our kids to public schools, I wanted to know that it wasn’t just because it was the way I was raised. Lots of people do things ,because that was the way things were and that doesn’t validate the lifestyle. I had had in my bookshelf Machen’s book called ‘Education, Christianity and the State’ (catchy title, huh?) for several years and I took it off and read it. He is a wonderful answerer of questions which, for me, are many. I felt like I had a biblical and well-presented thesis for doing what we were doing, and you have to understand I needed this after all the modeling and preaching I had growing up. So when you talk about Old School Presbyterianism I visualise “Three hymns and a sermon” about as quickly as you can say “three hots and cot” , both being something you can be sure of in certain circumstances. My husband and I are plannning on being part of an inner city church plant and our pastor-to-be has been taking us to different churches to visit their worship services and dialogue with them on how they have worked things out. They were all different, although you would probably call them all contemporary. Can you see OSP fitting into these situations?
    BTW, I have heard my uncle use this term (OSP) before on himself, and I just thought he meant he was old, and not likely to change his seasoned pattern much!
    You did give me good answers, and I’m sorry if I sounded a bit cheeky. When I was a kid I went through a phase when someone would come to visit I wonderded how long they were going to stay and i would ask when they were going to leave. I was young enough to be taken humorously, but I knew i was asking the wrong question, I just couldn’t think of what the right one was.
    I really have not read anything on worship where anything stands out to me. If I get the “we do it from the historical Presbyterian perspective ‘ line, I am afraid that I have checked out. I am not sure what that looks like. Can it take different shapes in different churches?

  13. Andrew Webb says:

    Hi Again Mdiber,

    Thanks for the interaction, and for sharing the stories from your past – they are both illuminating and entertaining. Also, please don’t worry about cheekiness, I was a cheeky monkey growing up myself and as a Pastor one either develops a thick skin or changes churches every 3-7 years. I think one of the problems that we have is that we grow so accustomed to talking to people who share our perspective and understanding that we forget how to begin communicating important concepts with people who don’t share either.

    Anyway some answers to your questions in no particular order. What is sometimes called “contemporary worship” has become the default worship tradition of America’s evangelical churches and is now being increasingly embraced by mainline (liberal) churches as well as they desperately attempt to appeal to “the younger generation” without actually having to change their core theology. In its current form, contemporary worship can be traced to the 1970s and 1980s. At that point in time many in the church recognized that Christianity was becoming less and less palatable to moderns and they felt that the answer to that was to make worship in particular more interesting, entertaining, and intelligible to the current generation, largely by incorporating elements of the pop-culture, and popular music into the worship. In a very real sense, contemporary worship was a pragmatic answer that saw church as a “product” people were no longer buying. They then asked what does the potential consumer or “seeker” already want and like, and then incorporated as many of those elements into the church as they could. Several authors such as Gary Gilley in his “This Little Church Went to Market” and Udo Middlemann in his “The Market Driven Church” have discussed this development in detail.

    Interestingly though, now we are seeing that as consumer taste has changed, many in the current generation are abandoning the contemporary churches as yesterday’s product. Several churches therefore have opted to start services that look more like the current youth culture, billing those services with names like “alternative” while others have created “new” worship services that are a melange of old traditions with a contemporary interpretation and are billed as “Celtic” or “Emergent” and so on. Others like George Barna have given up the quest to keep the consumer happy by abandoning the idea of the institutional church entirely saying it just can no longer ever be made relevant to the new society. All of these philosophies though, make the “consumer” the master. What does he want, how does he want it, and even when does he want it (with church services on Saturday evening or Monday for instance) are the questions the contemporary church asks first and to be fair, far too often what Grandma was asking in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s was just the same – what do I want? For a good discussion of the errors of that age, see J. Gresham Machen’s “Christianity and Liberalism” and His “God transcendent.

    The Old School Presbyterian, however, starts with an entirely different question: what does God want? (and when does He want it!) and then seeks to find the answer solely from His word. The answer then isn’t based on men’s traditions, old or new, but on the Word of God.

    Can this OSP approach “work?” Even in a city? Yes, and I’ve see it do so. Don’t forget that Apostolic Christianity (which has always been counter-cultural) got started in the cities. It is however, not easy, requires incredibly hard work, puts you at odds with other Christians, and doesn’t allow for any short-cuts. It also isn’t something most people remember, is something most Christians have never seen modeled, and is no longer taught in seminaries, so most people have no idea how one would go about doing it. Most modern Presbyterians have never encountered an OSP ministry. In that sense we are trying to produce something of the kind of Reformation that occurred under Josiah when the Law was rediscovered (2 Kings 21).

  14. mdiber05 says:

    Oh, I think Machen’s C& L is on the shelf too. I need to read in the morning, Otherwise, I fall asleep and can’t remember anything! Now that I am jobless, it is a possibility. Machen, like Brahms, can’t be rushed. Thanks for the recommendations. I’ll be quiet and go read a book for a while. Maybe I’ll see you again at Christmas time!

  15. Joseph says:

    Well I beg to differ about the original Reformed/ Presbyterian liturgy of John Calvin and John Knox If you would do a study on Calvins liturgy it was very liturgical. The Presbyterian faith in America bacme more simplistic during the time of the Pilgrims etc. Original Reformed Worship is liturgical. This blending you say of Episcopal and elements of Presybyterian have always been . Presbyterian has only denoted a form of governement. Thus you have many Presbyterian denominations that are far from each other in worship, belief and pracitce.

  16. Andrew Webb says:

    Hi Joseph,

    I would encourage you to read the two newest posts on why Old School Presbyterians reject liturgies, why the worship of the Reformers was transitional and how Presbyterian worship became “Episcoterian” in the 20th century. I would also encourage you to get back to me with your thoughts and interactions with those essays if you wish.

  17. Pingback: Old School Presbyterianism (An Introduction) « Tchula Presbyterian Church

  18. James Hakim says:

    Andrew, how does one go about applying to be listed as an OSP in the margin? Thanks. James.

  19. DJ Cimino says:

    Thanks for your blog! I know this post was made years ago, but as one who is leaving Sovereign Grace Ministries in search for an old-school church, this blog is a goldmine! I am interested in your comments regarding the OPC and the Old-school. Right now, the only two churches in my area like this is an OPC church and a PCA church. I am leery of the PCA due it the progressiveness found within it. I guess it would be a mistake to think that the OPC isn’t subject to the same thing, huh?

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