Rev. Higgs is a minister in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia.
In my previous article, by way of an introduction to the life of our denomination, I wrote concerning the history of settlement and early life in Australia. This was to set the scene, so that you may understand something of the characteristics, weaknesses, and sins of Australia as a nation, and of her people, generally speaking, as individuals. There is much more involved in trying to understand us Australians. But the settlement of our country and its early history is embedded in our makeup, and certainly helps to explain why we are like we are.
In this article I want to speak again of things historical. This time, however, I would like to write more directly about how God brought us into being as a visible manifestation of His bride on earth: the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia. To do this I rely heavily on a little booklet entitled “A Brief History of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia.” This booklet was written in 1991, on the occasion of our thirtieth anniversary as a denomination.The origin of our churches really lies in the island state of Tasmania in the early 1950s. The mainline churches were riddled with apostasy. But God had His people in these churches, who chafed under the apostasy and lack of teaching. They were believers with little understanding of, but a hunger for, the truth. Or they were people whom God had yet to arrest by His grace. Most were largely inclined toward Arminianism, believing in man’s ability and free will. All knew that something was wrong, but they did not know what. In their desperation to be fed they talked among themselves, and slowly began to form a loose network of fellowship groups.
The people whom God was so leading came primarily from baptistic churches: Baptist, Brethren, Congregational, and Methodist. There were also those from the Anglican and general Presbyterian churches, and some from the Salvation Army. These men and women first formed evangelical fellowships, and when God had brought them to the Reformed faith they came together to form the EPC.
Due to the fact that most of the people who formed the fellowship groups were from baptistic churches, the groups were baptistic as well. Not only so, but they formed these groups not with any positive understanding of the truth, but due to dissatisfaction with apostasy in their churches. Accordingly, they were still largely Arminian in their beliefs.
In the latter 1950s and early 1960s, however, a number of these “fellowship believers” discovered, in God’s providence, a number of good, solid Reformed books. Included in the number were: the Westminster Confession of Faith; Warfield’s The Plan of Salvation; Pink’s The Sovereignty of God; Watson’s A Body of Divinity; Luther’s Bondage of the Will; and Edward’s Religious Affections.
The truths espoused in these books were discussed and debated. Never had the people come across anything like this before. The more they read, and the more they learned, the more God gave them a hunger and thirst after the truth of His Word. More than this, they realized that they had been ensnared by a faith that had man as the center, and not God. Soon, for many in the fellowship groups, the doctrines of the Reformed faith were their life.
In July 1960 a conference was held with the purpose of moving toward combining a number of fellowship groups, scattered around Tasmania, into a denomination of churches. It was at first thought that this would be the Baptist Reformed Church of Tasmania, using the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. At about this time, however, the fellowship groups had been in contact with Rev. E. Lee, a minister in the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia (PCEA). This denomination has its heritage in the Reformed faith, and this minister proved to be a friend of the fellowship groups. Largely under his guidance those involved came to see that the Westminster standards most faithfully systematized the truths of Scripture.
More study, prayer, and discussions ensued. Many soon became convinced that the original Reformed Church of Scotland was the most scripturally consistent in its doctrine and practice. Approaches were made to several Scottish Reformed churches, as well as some Continental Reformed churches, with a view to becoming part of them. There were, though, always problems of one description or another. The Reformed Churches of Australia, for example, had adopted the Kuyperian doctrine of presumptive regeneration. Despite considerable help and encouragement from various officebearers of the PCEA, the fellowship leaders did not feel able to proceed with an actual union with them. It appears, also, that the enthusiasm and zeal of the fellowship believers was too much for the PCEA, so the latter did not actively encourage such a union.
Nevertheless, the PCEA continued to help the fellowship people. On September 28, 1961, three ministers of the PCEA, including Rev. Lee, formed a special Presbytery, and ordained three men into the gospel ministry. These men were inducted into the ministry in Launceston, Penguin, and Winnaleah. Upon their ordination they constituted themselves into a Presbytery, and the Reformed Evangelical Church was born, later to be called the EPC. At this Presbytery the constitution of the denomination was accepted. Essentially this constitution consisted of the Westminster standards: the Confession of Faith; the Larger and Shorter Catechisms; the Form of Presbyterial Church Government, and the Directory of Public Worship, as originally accepted by the Church of Scotland.
Soon the EPC was to grow. Congregations were added from Taranna and Hobart in Tasmania, and Rockhampton and Brisbane in Queensland. Soon also, many were to depart. The most significant early split came in 1964, just three years after the constitution of our denomination. A controversy arose between the EPC and the PCEA. Various ministers of the PCEA and lecturers in their theological school were teaching the doctrine of the well-meant gospel offer. At the time, two of our students were studying at the theological school and became aware of the teaching.
At this stage we had not even heard of the PRC. But God, in His grace, led many of our people to see that the false doctrine of the well-meant gospel offer was just that —false doctrine. This caused much heartache, however, in a practical sense. As a consequence of our ongoing debate with the PCEA on this issue, the vast majority of the Penguin congregation left us to become part of the PCEA, and the Winnaleah congregation was split in two. Those who had once been our friends had now hurt us badly.
It seems, from that time onwards, there has been nothing but hardship, divisions, schisms, and a slow but constant trickle of departures from our churches. People, many in your own denomination, have often asked me why this is so. I believe there are three main reasons for the strife that has occurred in our denomination since its beginning.
In the first place, and ultimately, it is the will of God. This is not some blasé, offhand, “pat” answer. We are denominations who believe that Jehovah controls all things. Not only so, but our God controls all things for the good of His church. We are committed to the scriptural teaching that God is sovereign. This is a commitment that is not confined to a doctrinal head-knowledge. Rather, it is something that we believe in our hearts, and is evidenced by the way we live our lives. When things happen to us, therefore, we accept it willingly, submissively, and joyfully as being the will of God.
Secondly, God’s will for us is always for the good of His church. We are His bride in Christ. He loves us with an infinite love. We are the apple of His eye. He desires to fellowship with us for eternity. His salvation of us, therefore, is not a part salvation but a complete salvation. He will bring us to heaven, spotless, as the church triumphant. And so Jehovah brings trials upon us to prepare us better for heaven: so that we progress in sanctification, as individuals, in other words; and so that we become more pure (continue reforming) as churches.
And thirdly, this is what God did for us as a denomination. You will have noticed that the first beginnings of our churches brought people from many different denominations, most of which were baptistic in nature. You will have noticed, also, that the initial stages of our development were reactionary: people were not satisfied with the teaching in their various churches. Positively, they did not have a unified understanding of the truth upon which to form a stable union. Indeed, at the beginning there was no understanding of the Reformed faith at all!
In God’s grace this situation changed. But there was still an underlying lack of unity, so that there was not total agreement in all matters of doctrine. Different emphases on one point of doctrine or another continued to be expressed. Sometimes these differences would erupt and people would leave—regularly, it seemed; or, on one or two occasions, divisions and schisms occurred. It appeared that peace would never come to Israel, as she was manifested in Australia in the EPC.
The thing is, though, that all the disruptions that God brought about in our denomination, from about 1964 to the late 80s, were the means of purifying us as churches. Due to the different beliefs and emphases of a number of the founding members of our denomination, there was continual bickering among us. As a consequence of this we could not be positive, nor could we move forward. We could not set forth our doctrinal position with vigor and strength. We could not progress. All our efforts were taken up with “infighting” and survival. The more God removed those who were the cause of these differences and disruptions, however, the more we could get about the business of developing doctrine and moving forward.
There is, of course, more to the unsettled nature of our history than I have outlined briefly above. There has been disruption due to personality clashes, and desire for prominence and recognition within the denomination. There has been disruption due to nothing other than a hatred for the truth. There has been schism due to false doctrine and false practices. But in it all God has been reforming us as a denomination.
Not only is this true, but in the last eight to ten years there has been a remarkable peace in our midst. This is not to say that there have not been any problems. But, since coming back from studying in your seminary, I have heard faithful founding-members of our denomination repeatedly and joyously state that they have never known a period of such harmony. More, though, they comment on the positiveness of the courts of the church and are delighted by the efforts to advance in the knowledge of our most holy faith.
And this is all of God. He has brought it to pass, from the beginning to end. In this we may not look at ourselves with any pride. Rather we must praise our great and holy God.