Moderator's Comments - Posted 1 June 2017
Thursday 22nd June marks forty years of a refocused and refreshed church. The Presbyterian Church of Australia (PCA) is almost unrecognisable from what it was in the 1960s. I suggest each congregation might pause during the week of 22 June … to pray for the PCA and thank the Lord for all the fruit of our renewal. We belong to a blessed church.
Four decades represents a significant milestone. We learn from the Scriptures that God required Moses to spend forty years in the wilderness country of Midian before engaging in his life’s mission. Moses needed to learn to be a faithful provider for his own family and to care for his father-in-law’s sheep prior to the trust of looking after God’s flock. It was a probationary period for Moses. Are we emerging from forty years probation?
If so, what has the Lord released us to do?
Listen for a moment to our ‘fathers’ of the church. It didn’t all start when we joined the church in the 90s, or the 00s.
Rev Ken Gardner, at the pivotal moment in the 1974 church union debate, laid down a protest at the General Assembly, declaring that the PCA continues to exist (even within the undivided assembly). His protest for recognition to continue was based on three solid commitments:
- unchanged belief that the Scriptures (Old and New Testaments) is the Word of God and the only rule of faith and practice;
- ongoing allegiance to the Westminster Confession of Faith as the way in which we understand the Scriptures;
- understanding that best practice polity holds that the office of elder is central to local church governance.
Later, at a 2nd pivotal moment during the same 1974 General Assembly, Rev Neil Macleod and a few dozen others, laid down their protest and walked out to re-form the same assembly, but across the road.
The protest declared that the continuing PCA will be a church that seeks:
- the promotion of the glory of God;
- the extension of the gospel throughout the world; and
- the building up of the people of Christ’s church.
And all this will be done:
- in humble dependence on God’s grace and the Holy Spirit;
- while maintaining the Confession of Faith; and
- according to the Word of God.
This month, forty years on, we honour what the Lord did through Ken Gardner and Neil Macleod and their co-signers. One group protested yet remained, the other group protested and left. I wasn’t at this 35th General Assembly, but was observing Presbyterianism from nearby – as a young member of Reservoir Presbyterian Church. Today is the day to re-visit this moment and thank the Lord for the wonderful opportunity to start again and to ask ourselves whether we’re still true to the commitments of this momentous event?
To complete the story: both groups of dissenters joined forces for the 36th General Assembly on 23 June 1977 – and now, forty years on, the Lord has given us the responsibility to be a church still promoting the glory of God, the extension of the gospel and the building up of the people of God.
I’ve been a keen observer of the PCA since 1970 and an ordained minister since 1981. Permit some personal reflections on the things PCA does well. We have:
- a palpable sense of loving God – a love that’s evident within every congregation; this passion for God leads to the consequential desire that we promote God’s glory above ours;
- an unbreakable conviction that God’s Word written is the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and that these Scriptures are God-inspired, inerrant and perspicuously applicable for our faith and life – a conviction that is leading to changed thought and practice through convincing preaching and sound teaching;
- a warm embrace of the Confession of Faith by all in PCA leadership, in that we believe it still to be one of the best articulations of biblical faith with its outline of doctrine and its integrated framework of reformed teaching;
- an irrepressible zeal for saving souls, in that:
- PCA churches are eager to express Christ’s gospel message of salvation in words and terms that speak to 21st century Australians;
- we are aware of the opportunities for the gospel in multi-cultural Australia (which we’re keen to develop) and the boundless opportunities for overseas mission;
- a love of the reformed principles of corporate worship: that worship is Godward in direction and biblically-driven in expression – such that we can walk into any PCA church other than our own and, while sensing difference, recognise the direction of worship, sense the presence of God and the honour given to Jesus Christ and his gospel, all undergirded by the authority of Scripture; and
- an expertise in delivering biblical, practical and effective training for the ministry, and training and encouragement of the next generation to grow into PCA leadership – especially focused on the excellence of what’s offered at our three eastern-seaboard Bible colleges, youth training programs and other local ministries.
Mr Gardner, Mr Macleod … how are we doing? Pastor, take these six thoughts from just one experienced pastor and write your own version. Let them circulate at Session and ask yourselves: ‘In the light of these … how are we doing?’
Six for six … six things we can do better, or even correct. Permit my surmising of what I consider to be faults that we as the PCA should be concerned about and work harder at. Permit me to express these with bluntness and don’t take personal offence with me (I’m not talking about your church in particular):
- PCA is proud and appears arrogant. We have this tendency towards theological pride and we can too easily allow self-sufficiency to predominate over humility and godly dependence. We’re proud that we have our doctrine right (with a suspicion that other churches don’t) … a sense of theological smugness.
Qn. Has our strength become a weakness, and does this show to the world as lacking compassion, mercy and love?
- PCA doesn’t read the signs of the times correctly – as Jesus speaks about in Luke 12:54-56, where he rebukes his disciples: ‘you don’t know how to interpret this present time.’ Evangelistically, we don’t make the gospel clear enough, urgently enough or often enough in our locality – where we worship and where we live. We’re probably not bold enough.
Qn. Have we lost the sense of the urgency of the hour and the shortness of time before the coming of Jesus Christ? Is there a gap between our theology and practice on this?
- PCA engages in societal/cultural matters reactively – i.e. we give our best responses following crisis, or we react constructively to changes because they’re thrust on us under the cover of new legislation. This means we’re not world’s best practice at speaking into culture, nor providing best answers for a world lost in ignorance and racked with pain.
Qn. Are we slow to read and understand our culture?
- We fight among ourselves – see Paul’s rebuke in 1 Cor 3:1-3 ‘for there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly?’ … Throughout the PCA, there’s much relief that we no longer fight against theological liberalism at our theological colleges, or deism of masonry from the ranks of the eldership, or unbelief from the pulpit. But the danger is in-fighting, of squabbles and disputes between reformed and Presbyterian parties, and of not trusting one-another. It’s always in the nature of mankind to cause division and maintain disputes. The theological spectrum has been rescued from the extremes, but the narrower spectrum doesn’t protect us from division brother against brother.
Qn. Have we lost sight of how ugly in-brawling between Christians looks to the world, how de-stabilising it is for the gospel and dishonouring to Jesus’ name?
- We are nominal Presbyterians. Individualism is often to the fore, expressed subtly under the guise of a Presbyterian form of congregationalism. We don’t make the best use of the Presbyterian form of church government, in that we don’t readily submit to elected eldership, we don’t always encourage elders to rule, and we don’t respect all decisions of church courts as we used to. We’re too focused on things going on in our own patch and fail to value and be strengthened by the connectionalism of Presbyterian polity and seeking ways to secure the weaker cause at the same time as we strengthen our own.
Qn. Do we still see the Presbyterian form of government to be founded on the Word of God and agreeable thereto? Are we really committed to the strength of one becoming the strength of all?
- Notwithstanding our generous giving to support cross-cultural work here in Australia, world mission and relief of the poor, the PCA is not free from the love of money. Somewhere … between our personal wealth and congregational accounts and our denominational resources … we have enough wealth within PCA to securely fund 600 first-inducted ministers and then 600 assistants to the ministers and then to fund 600 church plants. (Spending time working alongside our colleagues and friends in India and Africa has shown me that). But we have our wealth tied up in seldom-used property, worldly investments, material comforts, insurance safety nets and superannuation nest eggs. We still have a holding mentality (holding reserves for a rainy day) instead of releasing funds for expansion, church planting, new works and different works for the kingdom (refreshing our memory of my point 2 above).
Qn. Can we be content with less, for the advancement of the kingdom (1 Timothy 6:7)? Are we really free from the love of money (1 Timothy 6:10).
Please remember with all of the above – I LOVE the Presbyterian Church of Australia. I think we’re a great church and the best church to belong to. I offer these reflections for discussion, improvement and for the promotion of the glorious gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The number forty in Scripture often has something to do with testing … a period of probation. The number forty represents transition or change; the concept of renewal; a new beginning.
So, as we emerge from our probationary period … where to now, for the PCA?
John P Wilson