Rev. VanOverloop is pastor of Georgetown Protestant Reformed Church in Bauer, Michigan and member of the Committee for Contact with Other Churches.
In the middle of January 1997, during the summer holidays of the southern hemisphere, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia hosted a conference with representatives of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America. They hosted this conference in the church building of their congregation in Launceston, Tasmania. Launceston is approximately as far south of the equator as Grand Rapids, Michigan is north of it. Tasmania was a great place to be if one wanted to escape some of the coldest and snowiest weather to hit southwestern Michigan in 1997. It was also a great place to be to enjoy the blessing of the communion of saints. The invitation for this conference was sent to the “Committee for Contact With Other Churches” of the Protestant Reformed Churches way back in the spring of 1996. A date was set, topics for discussion were chosen, and an agenda for the conference was determined. And Synod 1996 expressed itself in favor of such a conference, willing to bear the cost of just over $5,000, in order that it might fulfill its calling to show the unity of the church of Christ on a broader level.
Contact between the Protestant Reformed Churches in America and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia began in the mid ‘7Os, when Prof. Homer Hoeksema and Rev. Cornelius Hanko of the Protestant Reformed Churches traveled to New Zealand, Australia, and Singapore, and at that time met brethren from the Evangelical Presbyterian denomination. The contact has continued ever since. Delegations from the EPC came to the United States twice, once in 1991 to attend a conference sponsored by the PRC for their sister churches, and again in 1993. During those years the EPC also sent two men who felt called to the ministry to receive their seminary training in the theological school of the PRC. These two men (now Rev. David Higgs and Rev. Chris Connors) attended the Protestant Reformed Seminary for three years beginning in the fall of 1991.
It was at the meeting of its Synod in June, 1994 that the PRC instructed their Contact Committee to continue “to address the issues in which we differ with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, as given by the Contact Committee, with a view to a conference.” That decision and subsequent correspondence led to the EPC’s making plans for and sending an invitation to the PRC to attend a conference scheduled for January 22 and 23, 1997. The PRC Synod 1996 approved the plans made, and at the same time instructed its Contact Committee “to continue to pursue, in whatever ways possible, a good relationship with the fellow- saints of the EPC of Australia.” In its grounds for that instruction, Synod noted that “of all the Presbyterian churches in the world, this denomination is one of the closest to us in faith and life.” To fulfill this mandate of Synod the Contact Committee decided to send Prof. Hanko and Rev. VanOverloop to Australia.
The PRC delegation arrived in Australia nine days before the conference. During those days the two men went in different directions, visiting with the saints in various congregations of the EPC. This provided them with opportunities to become better acquainted with the members of the EPC. Many in the EPC were especially delighted to meet Prof. Hanko, who was one of the men responsible for the seminary training of the two new ministers in their denomination. Prof. Hanko and his wife spent a week in the home of Rev. and Mrs. David Higgs in Brisbane, Queensland. During and after the conference they were the guests in the home of Rev. and Mrs. Chris Connors. In Brisbane, Prof. Hanko led a congregational Bible study, gave a public lecture, and preached two times on Sunday, January 19. A week later, after the conference, Prof. Hanko preached twice on the Lord’s Day, January 26, in the EPC congregation in Launceston, Tasmania.
Rev. VanOverloop’s stay in Australia began with a three-hour car drive north of Melbourne to Cohuna, Victoria, where there is a preaching station (mission) of the EPC. There he was graciously hosted for two nights by Rev. and Mrs. Chris Coleborn. On one of the evenings of his stay there he was introduced to the small congregation as they gathered in the Coleborn home. Rev. VanOverloop gave a brief introduction of the PRC in America and then gave a meditation. After two days in Cohuna, Rev. VanOverloop flew to the large island of Tasmania (about the size of the state of Wisconsin). He was there a guest for three days in the home of Rev. Chris Connors, the pastor of the Launceston congregation. One of those evenings Rev. VanOverloop led a Bible Study for the congregation. On another evening he gave a public lecture in their church building on the “Call or Offer of the Gospel.” On Saturday he was taken on an hour and a half drive to the northeast of Launceston to the beautiful village of Winnaleah, where there is an EPC congregation pastored by Rev. Phil Burley. That night, in Pastor Burley’s home, he gave an introduction of his congregation and denomination, and then a brief meditation. The next morning he preached in their beautiful, quaint country church building. He was driven back to Launceston in the afternoon, to preach for the Launceston congregation.
Prof. Hanko had been in Australia before, and had at that time become acquainted with some of the people of the EPC. Rev. VanOverloop had never before been to Australia, so he was meeting all these people for the first time. The nine days of visiting, speaking, and preaching, then, gave opportunity to become acquainted, or re-acquainted, with many of the wonderful saints of this small denomination. All of this interchange provided a good setting for the conference.
The evening of Tuesday, January 21, the night before the Presbytery constituted itself and the conference began, there was a worship service led by the Rev. Tony Fisk, pastor of the EPC congregation in Rockhampton, Queensland. The Word of God preached and the prayers uttered at that time set the tone for the conference.
It had been arranged that the conference was to be a part of the bi-annual meeting of the EPC Presbytery, the broadest assembly of the EPC. On the morning of Wednesday, January 22, therefore, the Presbytery constituted itself and invited the two representatives of the PRC to seat themselves among them, giving them advisory vote. At that point the delegates of the Presbytery declared themselves a committee of the whole for the duration of the conference, and the conference began.
The conference itself was well arranged, providing good opportunity for the presentation and discussion of the four topics which had been selected. The whole of the first day of the conference was spent with the reading of eight papers, two on each subject, one by a man of the EPC and one by a man of the PRC. The four men who wrote for the EPC were Rev. Chris Connors on Temporal Justification, Rev. Phil Burley on the Regulative Principle and Worship, Rev. Brian Dole on the Establishment Principle, and Rev. Chris Coleborn on Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage. Prof. Herman Hanko presented papers on Eternal Justification and on the Establishment Principle, and Rev. Ron VanOverloop presented papers on the Regulative Principle and on Divorce and Remarriage. [Copies of these papers may be obtained for the copying price ($8.00) from the Protestant Reformed Seminary, 4949 Ivanrest Avenue, Grandville, MI 49418 (616) 531-1490.] The first day of the conference was concluded with representatives of each denomination preparing a list of the salient points on each topic which would be discussed the next day.
The second day of the conference was taken up with a discussion of those points. Each topic was discussed separately. These discussions helped to identify the areas of agreement as well as those of difference. A brief summary of each of the four discussions was drawn up and approved as an accurate description of the discussion.
The evening of the second day of the conference was spent discussing the possibility of a future formal relationship between the two denominations. The discussion was extensive and profitable, dealing with specific areas of difficulty. The discussion concluded with the Contact Committees of both denominations being urged to continue to discuss the possibility of future relationship. Each Contact Committee also agreed to investigate how the Continental Reformed and the Scottish Presbyterian churches established such close relationships when they differed on the very same issues which today distinguish the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia and the Protestant Reformed Churches in America.
The Presbytery of the EPC of Australia met on the following two days. Rev. VanOverloop was able to attend only a couple of hours of the Presbytery meeting before he had to depart for home. Prof. Hanko attended the meeting on Friday. During the time that both men were in attendance, Prof. Hanko addressed the Presbytery on behalf of the Contact Committee and of the Protestant Reformed denomination. He conveyed greetings, expressed thanks for the warm hospitality shown, and presented reasons why the PRC would like to maintain and develop contact with the EPC of Australia. The address also informed the Presbytery of the decision of the PRC 1996 Synod which urged the EPC of Australia to continue to send their prospective ministers to the PR seminary. This address was most warmly received.
The spirit of the fellowship and of the conference was excellent. It was most conducive to open, positive discussion of differences. How quickly those who are total strangers can become comfortable with each other when they recognize themselves to be fellow-saints. It was a joy to find total agreement with respect to the distinctives of Calvinism, of God’s sovereignty, and of particular grace, and with respect to a rejection of common grace and a free offer of the gospel. Although the differences were not resolved, a better understanding of the respective positions was gained. Conferences such as these are very important for furthering relationships. We thank the Lord that such fellowship and efforts of cooperation can be experienced by those who agree on the fundamentals.
The Lord alone knows to what this contact and fellowship will lead. Already however we see evidence of the wisdom of Synod’s having instructed the Contact Committee “to continue to pursue, in whatever ways possible, a good relationship with the fellow-saints of the EPC of Australia.” How clear it is that, as synod expressed it in the grounds for the above instruction, our relationship with the EPC “can be a blessing to our churches.”