(Editor’s Note: I received the following letter for publication in our magazine. I publish it in the belief that it will foster our contacts with the OPC of New Zealand and of Christchurch in particular. Mr. Andrew W. Young, the writer, is an elder in the Session of the, Christchurch congregation. You will also be interested to know that he has recently turned down a professorship in Lincoln College at Christchurch in order to begin training for the ministry at our seminary. He and his wife, Nola, hope to arrive in Grand Rapids, the Lord willing, during May.)
21st December, 1978
Dear Professor Hoeksema,
Greetings in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Out of my study window, I can see heavy rain clouds scudding across the sky. I am reminded by them that the weather was exactly like this at this time last year. I have occasion to remember that well. You see, it will be exactly one year ago tomorrow since a number of folk from our congregation gathered in dull, cloudy conditions at Christchurch International Airport to welcome the VanOverloops to New Zealand.
That reminds me, too, that you have not heard very much from us over the past months. Perhaps the anniversary of the arrival of the first Protestant. Reformed ministers to come and help us in the Christchurch Orthodox Presbyterian Church, affords a fitting occasion to reflect upon what has transpired over the past year.
Let me say at the outset that I am only too well aware of the difficulties there are in trying to assess progress in the life of a church. Much of what is really significant passes unnoticed, and there is always that temptation to want to measure things in terms of numbers. But mindful of these and other obstacles, I shall do my best to present to you and the people of your churches some impressions of this first year of help.
In order that you might fully appreciate what it has meant to have one of your ministers in our midst, let me tell you of the conditions in which many of us grew up. As in your own land, the mainstream Protestant churches in New Zealand have been thoroughly leavened with the heresies of modernism for some fifty years. That means that the majority of us were brought up hearing that the miracles were fables, the virgin birth a lie, and the resurrection of Christ a simple, spiritual, rather than physical phenomenon. For many of us, the extent of our formal religious education consisted of a few years spent at Sunday Schools or Bible Classes of questionable worth. Family worship was a rarity, even in the homes of office-bearers, and such a thing as a catechism unheard of, let alone learned.
Sadly, for many of us it was only when we left our homes to study at university or work in larger cities that we learned anything of the gospel. There, through contact with Christian Unions and other para-church organizations, we first heard about regeneration and true, saving faith. And then what was learned was almost invariably from the Arminian point of view. Certainly, the popular, so-called “evangelical” churches .to which one was introduced were thoroughly of this persuasion. In reality they were self-confessed preaching or evangelistic “centres” rather than true churches. Membership was not a priority, and consequently, congregations tended to be unstable and susceptible to passing whims.
It was into this environment that our Lord reached, and in sovereign mercy, brought us to the knowledge of the Reformed Faith. The years 1973-1974 will always hold a treasured place in our hearts as years of spiritual awakening. Devoid of ministers able to teach us, we were wholly dependent upon the Holy Spirit to illumine personal study of the Scriptures and the works of sounder forebears that had providentially come to hand. You can well imagine our delight as we discovered for the first time the rich truths of. Scripture professed in historic Presbyterianiam, and our grief, too, as we beheld the church that bore that name in our day. It was the desire to see once again a church in our land that was truly Presbyterian in both doctrine and government, that led eventually to the organization of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Christchurch on December 22nd, 1974—exactly four years ago tomorrow!
During those four years, we labored and studied to realize that ideal together with the four other congregations of the O.P.C. in New Zealand. Naturally the work has been slow, and at times faltering. The fact that many of the founding members in our congregation were comparatively young meant we had little experience upon which to call. Furthermore, the fact that we were without the services of a regular minister was a considerable deficiency. But in spite of these things, the Head of the Church has been pleased to preserve us and bless us, and in these days, to provide us with long awaited help.
That, briefly, is the situation into which the VanOverloops and later the Heys family arrived. Coming from churches able to trace an unbroken heritage, back to the Protestant Reformation, it might be expected that they would find many things new and perhaps distinctly “unorthodox” in our fledgling congregation. Whether that was so or not, they are best to tell. Certainly, on our part, we have been blessed with a clearer appreciation of the rich distinctives of the Reformed idea of the church through their presence with us.
Of those distinctives, that which has been impressed upon us most of all, is the vital and central place of the church in the life of the people of God. While that was not entirely new to us, it is true to say, I am sure, that it has been brought into a brighter and sharper focus for us in these past months. There is a strong tendency among Christians in New Zealand to look upon the church as something of a convenient accessory to one’s own personal devotional life, rather than consider it as it is, the essential organ for its well-being. It is often supposed that the individual Christian can function ably as an independent unit, feeding, teaching, counseling, evangelizing, etc. Need I say how helpful it has been to have the beautiful truths concerning the organic life of the church so clearly expounded to us? While it is humbling to one’s pride to realize that we are not able, nor meant to do all these things in isolation, it is also comforting to realize that the church is the God-appointed sphere for the gathering and nourishment of His people, and the realm in which gifts and graces find opportunity for their exercise and cultivation. Indeed, the very presence of a pastor in our midst for the first time has afforded a wonderful illustration of this reality.
That brings me to a second distinctive that has been impressed upon us, namely, the importance of office-bearers in the church of Jesus Christ. In the Presbyterian congregations in which we were raised, almost everything revolved around and depended on the minister. Elders seemed to do little more than distribute communion tokens and stop occasionally for a friendly chat. Deacons (or managers, as they are more commonly called) made sure that the bills were paid, the buildings kept sound and the lawns mowed. Almost inevitably, whether deliberately contrived or not, an hierarchy was established. But more importantly, elders and deacons were recognized in much the same light as the elected officers of any other society or club.
Of course, that is totally different to the Reformed conception. To realize that Christ dwells in His church in a special way through those who represent Him in the various aspects of His mediatorial office, certainly transforms one’s respect both of the office and those that serve in it. One listens to Christ in the preaching, submits to His rule in the oversight and government of the elders; and rejoices in His tender mercies in the ministrations of the deacons. We have gained many new insights into these things in the past year, and can gladly confess that they have been made precious to us. It is as a direct consequence of seeing the need that Christ be represented in all the aspects of His office in every congregation, that we heave moved toward electing a deacon.
Allied to these things has been a growing appreciation of the importance of the means of grace for the spiritual growth of the Lord’s people. Previously, many of us used to shrink a little at the bold statements in the Confessions and in the writings of the Reformed fathers concerning preaching, and the fact there is no ordinary possibility of salvation outside of the church. That has changed. Now we join with the authors of Psalms 84, 122, 137, and others in joyful esteem of the house of worship.
Finally, I think that it is true to say that through the labors of your ministers and their families in our midst, we have come to appreciate the responsibilities of both parents and the church as a whole toward covenant seed. It has been said by the late Dr. Charles Hodge, that the appreciation of the rights and privileges of the seed of believers is always at its lowest ebb when the church is doctrinally weak. That would certainly appear to be true in New Zealand. Baptistic views are extremely widespread, and even in Presbyterian churches children are commonly presented for “dedication” in infancy and only baptized as believing adults. Furthermore, many parents are content to leave the spiritual education of their children entirely in the hands of some Sunday School, and have no qualms whatever about sending their children to be indoctrinated with atheistic dogmas at state schools.
Over against this, we are endeavoring to make sure that Christian parents understand the unique position in which they and their children stand. The matter of school education is a pressing one for us, and in this respect, you have very much to help. Your ministers and their families have provided a grand example.
Perhaps these things may seem to be terribly rudimentary and fundamental to you. But I trust that that in itself .is just cause for thanksgiving. Well might we have spent the year deadlocked in quibbles over points pertaining to our minor differences. Instead, it is evident from the various things I have mentioned, that solid foundations are being built.
Really, that work is still just beginning. It would be wrong to create the impression that the above-mentioned truths have been thoroughly assimilated into our congregation and their practical, implications realized. There is still a long way to go in these things. And besides, there are still many areas of service to be developed and explored. We live in a country where a mere 4% of the population attend churches, and of that number, but a small fraction belong to Reformed churches. Each month we send some 200 or more tapes to believers in isolated pockets who are hungry for Reformed truth. They need to be gathered into churches, taught, and shepherded. To do that we need ministers and elders and deacons. Young men need to be trained for the ministry. And in all these endeavors; we are heavily dependent on your help.
In retrospect, then, it appears that this past year has been a very important one for us both in many ways. Your ministers have come to us willing to serve, and that they have done with unsparing diligence. But more importantly, it is evident that God has been pleased to bless those labors to the upbuilding of His people in the Christchurch Orthodox Presbyterian Church. We are thankful for all you have done and sacrificed to help us, and trust that if not at present, then in the future, we will be able in some way to reciprocate such that, walking together in perfect harmony, we may go on to know the Lord and glorify His Name in the earth.
Your friend and brother in New Zealand,
(w.s.) Andrew W. Young