How Are We, 40 Years On?

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Where were you on Thursday 22nd June 1977? No, it’s not the date of moon landing or the dismissal of Gough Whitlam. After years of discussion and two nation-wide votes, two-thirds of the Presbyterian Church of Australia left the denomination to join the new Uniting Church in Australia.

Union with other churches was on the agenda of the PCA since its own formation by the federation of state-based Presbyterian Churches in 1901. At the first meeting of the new national church in 1901, our first Moderator-General Rev. John Meiklejohn said, “Through Union we have placed ourselves in the position in which we can consider the question of a wider Protestant union without the risk of further disunions among ourselves… Our Church looks with longing eyes towards a larger union of Protestant Churches in the noble service of God and His Christ.”

Discussions about uniting with the Methodists and Congregationalists failed in the following decade because the Presbyterians also wanted to unite with the Church of England (though the inclusion of bishops in the united church proved an insurmountable difficulty). A renewed attempt in 1920 made it to a national vote of members, but failed as less than 50% of Presbyterians voted at all. The negotiations which resulted in the Uniting Church began in earnest in 1955, with pivotal meetings of the Joint Commission on Church Union held in 1957, 1959 and 1963. The first congregational vote for Church Union was held in 1972 with another in 1974.

In the intervening years, sectarian divisions in Australian culture had become less pronounced, which was a good thing. However, the push for organisational unification misrepresented Jesus’ prayer for unity among His people. The unity Jesus prayed for is a spiritual unity based on a shared commitment to the truth of His teaching (John 17:6, 8, 11-12, 14, 17-21; 1 John 2:18-27).

The doctrinal basis of the Uniting Church was a compromise document aimed at minimising areas of disagreement and ultimately undermining the authority of the Scriptures as the Word of God. Davis McCaughey (who before Union was a Presbyterian and later became the Governor of Victoria) said that the church “must be prepared to live without guarantees, without the guarantee of an infallible book, or infallible creeds, or an infallible church.”

The position of the Uniting Church on a range of moral, ethical and doctrinal issues has met and exceeded the warnings of continuing Presbyterians against the theological compromise that the Basis of Union represented.

But we must hear Jesus’ warning against presuming to remove the speck in our brother’s eye when we may have a log in our own (Matthew 7:1-7). How has the Presbyterian Church of Australia fared since 1977?

The determination of the ministers, elders, and congregations which continued as Presbyterians was outlined by Rev. Neil Macleod in a protest at the 1974 General Assembly (which took the decision to unite). They declared that the PCA would seek:

  1. “The promotion of the glory of God;
  2. The extension of the gospel throughout the world; and
  3. The building up of the people of Christ’s church.”

And all this would be done:

  1. “In humble dependence on God’s grace and the Holy Spirit;
  2. While maintaining the Confession of Faith; and
  3. According to the Word of God.”

This much has been true, and we should be very thankful to God for that. As John Sandeman writes in the July edition of Eternity, the Presbyterian Church of Australia is “a church that, like its members, has been born again… Rather than 40 years in the wilderness like Moses, the PCA has had 40 years of rebuilding in which it has transformed into a (nearly) completely evangelical church.”

The present Moderator-General, Rev. John Wilson, describes the PCA as “almost unrecognisable from what it was in the 1960s.” A recently published book of essays entitled Burning or Bushed: The Presbyterian Church of Australia 40 Years On (edited by Paul Cooper and David Burke) describes the transformation. Some states have struggled and turned the corner, others languish, and others seem self-assured of a strong future.

What challenges remain?

John Wilson boldly identifies six characteristics of the PCA today:

  1. A tendency towards theological pride and self-sufficiency;
  2. A failure to appreciate the shortness of the time until Jesus’ return (especially in our evangelistic efforts);
  3. A reactive (rather than proactive) stance to cultural changes;
  4. A tendency to fight among ourselves (including with other Reformed and Presbyterian groups);
  5. A nominal commitment to Presbyterianism, which is actually strongly individualistic rather than connectional (both in our understanding how people relate to God and one another, and in how congregations work together);
  6. A love of money, with many of our resources dedicated to maintaining property and programs as they are rather than taking the Gospel to the lost.

Well, what about us here in the Parish of Benalla? Have those features of the wider denomination been seen here among us in the last 40 years? Please permit me as a relative newcomer to say that I’m afraid that all six have been, and still are today.

  1. We can recognise the theological faults of other believers, but we are slow to see our own (or the ways in which we fail to live out what we say we believe);
  2. Our evangelistic efforts are rare (recognising that inviting people to church events is not the same as telling them the good news about salvation in Jesus Christ);
  3. We decry the changes around us but do little to encourage the good things which remain;
  4. Each of our congregations has been diminished since Union, not so much by theological differences, but by the failure to repent, forgive and be reconciled. This has brought shame on the Gospel and damaged the reputation of the church before the watching world (John 13:34-35 & 17:21);
  5. Our ideas of what it means to be Presbyterian often don’t include taking an interest in or praying for the spiritual life of others in the same congregation, let alone those in the other congregations of this parish, of the Presbytery or the wider church. Our commitment to being ruled by elders (the literal, grammatical definition of ‘Presbyterian’) often fails when their decisions could be unpopular, even when they are made with the word of God and the best interests of His Church at heart. A notable instance of this is the lack of preventative and corrective church discipline (see also the previous point);
  6. We have yet to make the Gospel our highest priority in all decision-making, and are instead committed to maintaining our bank balances. This doesn’t mean we should have an irresponsible attitude to the financial resources, but we need to be more generous and deliberate in using what God has given us to ensure that we are serving His work of evangelising the lost and strengthening His people.

In his essay on the history of Church Union, Rev. Peter Barnes quotes historian Manning Clark: “He asked whether we are ‘bored survivors, sitting comfortless on Bondi Beach, citizens of the kingdom of nothingness, who booze and surf while waiting for the barbarians?’ That is the question that the PCA has to answer.

Well, what about it, brothers and sisters? Are we simply glad to have survived 1977, resigned to the ineffectiveness of our present methods, and waiting to be wiped out by a hostile culture?

What will the next 40 years hold for us? That’s a question for next time.

Yours in Christ’s service,

Stephen McDonald

Published by Stephen McDonald

Christian, preacher, broadcaster

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