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Presbyterianism and Gospel Prosperity in Australia – AP

Presbyterianism and Gospel Prosperity in Australia

Last weeks article in AP – you can get the original here – 


“We don’t do denominationalism in Australia” – was the somewhat encouraging comment I was given upon arrival in ‘the lucky country’. Having come from tribalistic Scotland – where the clan system seemed to have been spoon fed into us with our mothers’ porridge – I looked forward to a new era of evangelical co-operation, unity and joy in the service of Christ. But is it true? Maybe hanging loosely to the idea of denominationalism is a good thing – but not if it is replaced with networks, fashions and inter-denominational politics. That is to jump out of the frying pan into the fire!

Of course, someone coming from a Scottish Presbyterian background would not dare to tell his Australian brothers and sisters how to do things – but we can give you some advice about how not to do them! A Scottish Presbyterian was once shipwrecked and stranded on a desert island. Several years later when he was rescued, his rescuers marvelled at his hunting, engineering and spiritual skills. Amongst other things he had managed to build two churches. Why two? “The first is the one I go to, the second is the one I don’t go to!”. Sometimes we define ourselves by what we are not.

What we are not

So, when people say that they are an Australian Presbyterian I hope it is not a way of saying that they are not Anglican, Baptist or Charismatic! Does it matter what label we have? In one sense no – there is only one Church, one Family, one Bride of Christ. She is the sum of all believers, through all ages, in all the world. We are but a tiny part of that. But the church militant (that is, the church on earth) is not yet the church triumphant (in heaven) and so on this earth we are organised into local fellowships. Yes, we are one in Christ – I have far more in common with a Christian of another denomination than I would with a non-Christian in my own. My predecessor (by several generations) in my old church, St Peters in Dundee once stated in the local newspaper that he would rather “have pastor Martin Boos, preacher of the Church of Rome though he was, in my pulpit, than some frigid evangelical from my own denomination!”. But it is also the case the denominational distinctives do matter.

The best/worst system

I happen to think that Presbyterianism (the form of church government by elders in local congregations, and congregations working together in presbyteries) is both biblical and suitable for today’s Australia. Presbyterianism is at one and the same time, both the best and worst form of church government. At worst it is a dream for bureaucratic formalists who love church law and politics and who manage to use the Presbyterian system to prevent change and stifle initiative. At best it is a system where diversity and unity go together; where godly tradition and contemporary biblical application unite; and where passion, purity, practicality and proclamation are combined.

What went wrong with Scottish Presbyterianism?

Scotland is often thought to be the mother of modern Presbyterianism (although Geneva, Ephesus and Jerusalem might have a larger claim!). The Australian Presbyterian church was a daughter church of its Scottish mother. The daughter needs to realise that her mother is very sick. What’s gone wrong?

Traditionalism, liberalism, legalism, pettiness, confusion, lack of leadership and inability to cope with a changing culture, are all words that could help describe where we have gone. But it is best summed up in this – the Church of Scotland (and much of the Church in Scotland) has largely forgotten its central doctrine – that Christ is the head of the Church, and that he governs his Church through his word. When the church moves away from the word of God then it destroys itself. As Dean Inge put it: ‘he who marries the spirit of this age, will end up a widow in the next”!

I don’t know the Presbyterian church in Australia well enough to make any kind of judgement. But as an outsider who is seeking to work with you – all I can do is plead that you don’t follow the path of the Scottish Presbyterian church. Any Presbyterian church which makes its aim to survive and maintain what it has – will die. Any church which decides to become like the society around and go with the tide will die. Any church that seeks to circle the wagons and hold on until the Saviour returns will die. Only a church which is prepared to die to self and live for Christ, will live.

I believe that these are great days of opportunity for the church of Christ in Australia as a whole – and the Presbyterian church in particular. We can be Christ-centred, radical, biblical, contemporary, charismatic and catholic (in the best sense of those words). If we strengthen what remains and is about to die (Revelation 3:2); If we walk through the door that Christ has opened (Revelation 3:8) and if we are earnest and repent’ (Revelation 3:20); we will yet know great days of Gospel prosperity in Australia.

David Robertson
Third Space.


  1. The Tribalism in Scotland was partially the fault of the largely Irish – descended, Roman Catholic population who insisted on segregated schools and rewarded the Labour Party with political fealty until quite recently.

    Even the contemporary , if nominal RC, writer , Irvine Welsh depicts Freemasons as an anti – Catholic hate group ( in his novel , ‘Filth’) , ignoring the fact of considerable Masonic numbers in Catholic countries like France and Italy .

    The Vatican outlawed Freemasonry , while the Lodges have never banned Catholics from membership.

    1. Did the Irish bring Christianity (and whisky) to the West of Scotland and Hebrides? The Celtic Church is now associated with Iona, and with a few ruins (e.g. The Temple Church Chapel ruin in South Harris). Whisky certainly seems to have done rather well in Scotland. Christianity has had an impact but the institutional Churches are in difficulty. Saturday nights may be much busier than Sunday mornings in many Scottish urban communities.

      I think the Anabaptist tradition has much to commend it. Being welded into a denominational system brings both benefits and headaches. Ernest Gordon came to faith while a prisoner of the Japanese in WWII. He returned to Scotland but perhaps found the CoS-a bureaucracy rather than a fellowship. Many people have come to faith but found the denominational Church a heartless refrigerator.

      The Moravians had many good features in the past-promoting para-Church midweek fellowship or prayer activities, disciplined daily scripture reading, seeking revival in prayer, a commitment to the poor, missionary expansion. If we were heavier on prayer, and more flexible on fellowship, would the Western Church be in a better position?

      The other thing we miss desperately, is commitment to serious apologetics. I was in dialogue with a professional group recently. Many were amazed to see someone defend the faith. Some atheists or agnostics thanked me.

      A great mass of western people live and die without any sense of how good the evidence for Christ actually is. It is great to be electronically active on social media; and to be communicating on abortion or euthanasia, but it is good to present the gospel, too!!!

  2. Please pray for Scotland to come back to life that the church’s Will repent that we will we see a revival that the light of the Lord will shine through the darkness. Such need, so sad.

  3. The Irish in Scotland insisted on schools where they could pass on the Catholic faith because the other schools that existed determined to make Catholic children into Protestants. The Irish immigrants were anything but welcome in Scotland, apart from the employers, of course. Several General Assemblies of the Church of Scotland passed resolutions deeply hostile to the Irish population. (Basically accusing the Irish of all sorts of degenerate behaviour and telling them to go back to where they came from.) Many years later a General Assembly passed a resolution expressing regret for the earlier, hostile resolutions.
    There are indeed many Freemasons in Italy and France but anti-Catholicism in both countries is deep-seated and goes back many centuries. Witness the large number of priests and nuns sent to the guillotine during the French Revolution. Not many people know this, but the Catholic churches in France are all owned by the state. That includes Notre Dame of Paris. An anti-Catholic French Government ‘nationalised’ them. Incidentally, the Catholic objections to Freemasonry go well beyond its hostility to the Catholic Church.
    In passing, I suppose I have to recognise that the inability of Catholics to get a job at the Harland and Wolfe shipyard in Belfast was all the fault of the Catholics insisting on their own schools.

      1. Alastiair,
        Conflict betwen Church and State goes back many centuries. St Thomas a Becket and Frederick Barbarossa are just two notable examples of people involved in that conflict. But pre-revolutionary French Governments weren’t in the habit of sending thousands of priests and nuns to the guillotine. But either way it fits in with what I was saying (or trying to say). You said that Irvine Welsh ignored “the fact of considerable Masonic numbers in Catholic countries like France and Italy .” My point that there is no contradiction between describing Freemasonry as an anti-Catholic hate group and acknowledging that there are considerable numbers of Masons in Italy and France. There have always been large numbers of non-Catholics in both countries. Voltaire is a prime example.
        As for the ‘over-weaning’ power of the Pope, well that’s just one opinion. Henry VIII didn’t like it either so he just got Parliament, including the Bishops, to declare him Supreme Head of the Church of England. St John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, wouldn’t support the Act of Supremacy so the king just had his head chopped off. (Pretty ‘overweaning’, wouldn’t you agree?) Similarly, many of the kings and princes of Germany supported Luther because he was in favour of giving them power over the Church in their territories.
        Just as an amusing (?) side note there are Catholics who believe that Pope John XXIII was a Freemason. I know a couple of them. And also Annibale Bugnini, the prime mover behind the creation of the new Mass (Novo Ordo) in 1970. At one time he was a very significant figure in the Catholic Church but in 1976 the Pope sent him to Iran as papal nuncio. Not exactly a highly prestigious posting. Some say that this was his ‘reward’ once the Pope was told of his Freemason

  4. David when I read your “I looked forward to a new era of evangelical co-operation, unity and joy in the service of Christ” I thought to myself “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”. The truth is that people are the same wherever you go and as Dostoevsky rightly says the line between good and evil runs down every human heart and who would cut out a piece of his own heart?

    It would be so easy to dismiss the church in Scotland as having lost its way and you may be able to endear yourself to your current hosts in doing so. But stay long enough in Australia and with respect, you will be saying similar things about the church in Australia. There is no doubt in my mind about this.


    Because I have thought similar things in my own walk, going from one church to the next in Scotland and from what I can gather in churches I have visited in the world it’s just the same elsewhere. There is a cliche – there is no perfect church and even if there were it would cease to be prefect as soon as you join it.

    So yes you are absolutely right in saying “only a church which is prepared to die to self and live for Christ, will live.” I whole hardheartedly affirm that. A church without Christ where God has had enough and his judgement has been to leave the church to go their own way is an oxymoron.

    So what do we do with these truths and with the “word of God” which is the sword of the Spirit, and as we know in the beginning the word being with God and was God i.e. Jesus?

    Sometimes the hardest thing to do I find is to be the change I want to see – to come face to face with my own shadow, imposter syndrome, sin – call it whatever you want. And it’s not about being “nice” it’s about loving the enemy within with the love of God, and it being overwhelmed by God’s power. Then this impostor with his aggression, mojo and attitude in Christ can be put to good use, doing the good works that God has prepared in advance to do.

    And it’s a case of not trusting in my own understanding but acknowledging God in all things and following his direction. Imitating Jesus in what he did in only being involved in what he saw the Father doing, in the Spirit of love, power and sound mind, knowing that all things work for good for those who love God and are called to his purposes.

    Then having done that and knowing the Greek word for church “ekklesia” said to mean “a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place; an assembly” This occurring wherever 2 or 3 are gathered (or more) in Christ’s name with him central and sometimes this happening in a building on a Sunday morning. It’s not dissimilar to Martin Luther’s idea of the invisible church.

    Of course he had his problems with his experience of church in his time just as you have David with Scottish Presbyterianism with the claim you make with your “what’s gone wrong?.. it… has largely forgotten its central doctrine – that Christ is the head of the Church, and that he governs his Church through his word.

    1. Adam – just a heads up – to be fair I have to limit the number of posts that people put on here – so that it is not dominated by a couple of people. So sometimes if one of your posts doesn’t appear that is the reason.

      In terms of this recent one please try to avoid the personal smears and attribution of motives. I did not write this in order to ‘endear’ myself to my hosts. Thats a cheap and snide shot. You should know better. I have been critiquing (and praising) the Church in Scotland for decades. Please be more careful in your accusations in future.

      1. Hey David,

        Thanks for your reply.

        I respect that this is your bog and it’s no problem to me if a post of mine doesn’t appear. Generally speaking I enjoy engaging because I find much of what you write resonates with me and I like wrestling with what you put forward.

        I’m sorry to see that you perceive there has been a personal slur in the comment. It was made in a kind of light-hearted way – certainly that was my intention, for banter just as you and Steve have been showing to have. But nevertheless, I hear that you have taken offence to the particular alleged “slur” and I will be considerate of that.

        Kind Regards.

  5. I’m not convinced “a new era of evangelical co-operation, unity and joy in the service of Christ” will be an unmixed blessing. Of course we should welcome evangelical co-operation, unity and joy, and as the culture even in Australia becomes increasingly hostile towards Christ and His Church, we need to stick together.

    However, focusing on unity above all else runs the risk of evangelicalism degenerating into a form of “Moral Therapeutic Deism”, as evangelicals water down their theological differences for the sake of unity. For example, coming from a Presbyterian background, I have differences with Baptists on infant baptism; with Anglicans on church structure (and the Westminster Confession vs. Thirty-Nine Articles); with Methodists on Pre-Destination; with Lutherans on the nature of the Lord’s Supper etc. Now, none of these differences are essential to salvation, but my worry is if we ignore these differences, then our saltiness will start to become diluted and we run the risk of becoming increasingly accepting of theological differences that are bordering on heresy, until at the end we only have a wish-washy faith with few core beliefs

    1. No one was talking about ‘focussing on unity above all else’. Perhaps better to comment on what was said – otherwise you run the danger of introducing red herrings.

      1. Probably should clarify – in my experiences of evangacelism in Australia, there is a tendency to focus on unity above all else, which while grounded in good intentions, can lead to watered down theology with little distinctive from the world.

  6. I think Scottish tribalism long predates the arrival of the Irish, or maybe not, as the tribe that gave the country its modern name were of course the Irish Scotti. But from about 1850 the influx of both Roman Catholic and Protestant Irish from the North of Ireland really transformed the demographic. These communities also tended for years to marry within their respective diasporas. I suspect but don’t know that the vigour of the Brethren assemblies (gospel halls!) in Glasgow and the West until quite recent decades was often due to the large numbers of post-1859 Revival Christians from Ireland. Of course there weren’t many jobs and not much money where they were coming from, from small tenant farms that could hardly support anybody. Or else they were landless labourers fed up with being hired (or not hired) at hiring fairs and working for a whole season for a pittance. I sometimes wonder what the west of Scotland would have been like but for them.

  7. I don’t think the Presbyterian Church in Australia looks back to Scotland either for ecclesial relationships or the latest theological thinking, certainly not to the Church of Scotland. Yes to some degree to the Presbyterian Church in America and perhaps also the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (and here I’m thinking more of their theological seminaries). Our primary relationships are with the Presbyterian Churches of Vanuatu, Timor Leste, Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, Reformed Presbyterian Church of India and other bodies in Myanmar, South Sudan, etc.

    I grew up Sydney Anglican and value much of that heritage, but the reasons why I am Presbyterian make me very grateful for the Presbyterian Church of Australia in its return to biblical and confessional Christianity. I see more positives than negatives in its polity, but that does depend upon essential unity within what we call the courts of the church.

    1. Thanks David – it is ministers in the Presbyterian church in Australia who have told me that they certainly used to regard the Scottish Presbyterian church (and Irish) as their mother church. But I’m sure you are right that there is far less influence now.

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