Dr. Torlach is a member of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia and a student in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. * Address at the RFPA annual meeting, held September 25, 2008. Previous article in this series: January 15, 2009, p. 187.
Two ministers in the Baptist churches in Tasmania, Revs. Rodman and Lyons, had been openly rejected by the assemblies of the Baptist Union in Tasmania. A Union, by the way, is similar to a Classis. This Union had said, in part, that it “calls upon the associated churches of the Baptist Union of Tasmania to resist the presentation of unconditional election, limited atonement, and kindred doctrines.” These ministers were forced to leave their churches and to take up their positions amongst the fellowships.
In the meantime, others had been busy spreading the new truths into the college of the Worldwide Evangelization Society. This had caused a huge stir, and eventually many left that college, including the president of the college.
These believers were convinced that they needed to be organized into congregations of the Lord Jesus Christ, and that they needed to be members of an instituted church. To that end, they called a conference in July of 1960. The purpose of the conference initially was going to be their organization into a Baptist church. But then the Lord opened their eyes to the Reformed truth concerning the doctrine of baptism also. And, at that conference, they adopted the Westminster Standards as their creed. It was particularly in examining the matter of paedo-baptism that the group started to come to an understanding of the covenant.
Having adopted a creed, the group then sought to become united to another denomination. This was when they sought contact with various Presbyterian churches and various Reformed churches. They encountered difficulties with the Reformed churches, particularly as they were somewhat Kuyperian, including the doctrine of presumptive regeneration of children. And with a number of Presbyterian churches they also found difficulties.
It seemed for a little while that union with the PCEA was perhaps going to be possible, but there were problems there also. The PCEA thought it was going to be like putting new wine in old bottles because of the zeal and enthusiasm of these folk in Tasmania. So they petitioned the PCEA, who then granted their request, to organize them into a separate denomination. This occurred on the 28th of September, 1961.
The groups from Winneleah, Penguin, and Launceston (names of three of the towns in Tasmania) came together in Launceston to witness the ordination of three ministers by an authorized presbytery of the PCEA. The following evening these three ministers met in presbytery. They were inducted into their charges, and previously called elders were then ordained as well.
Thus the “Reformed Evangelical Church” came into existence. This was the name of that denomination originally. How ever, general society in Australia understood “Reformed” to mean reforming delinquent children. Therefore, within a short time, they changed their name to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia.
There was growth. In October of that same year another fellowship group in Taranna became a congregation, and in January of the following year a fellowship group in Hobart applied to become a congregation of the EPC also. So there were five congregations formed within six months. There was contact with another group of believers in Rockhampton in Queensland (the top right state in Australia). The group there had commenced in 1960. After some visits and preaching of the doctrines of grace, this group desired to become a congregation of the EPC also. This occurred in February of 1963. There was a fellowship group in Brisbane also (in Queensland) for about ten years, from about 1962, before they became a congregation also in 1972. Finally, a congregation in Sydney (NSW), who had split away from the PCEA, became a congregation in 1991.
But it has not all been easy and smooth sailing for the denomination. As is the case with all true churches, there is always the Evil One who gets in and causes schisms, trials, difficulties. That has been the case for the EPC also. The Lord, in His providence, has inflicted a number of controversies upon us.
The first came about not long after the inception of the EPC in 1961. In 1963 we had a couple of student ministers who were studying in the seminary of the PCEA. This seminary was being partly supported by the EPC. But a false teaching arose there: the teaching of common grace and the well-meant offer. This teaching was discussed at presbytery and was rejected—but not without disagreement. Disagreement continued in the church to such an extent that there was one minister and a congregation that left the denomination and went back to the PCEA.
In addition, our students were withdrawn from the college and our support of that college ceased, which made it difficult for the PCEA to continue to maintain that college. This did not help our relationship with the PCEA.
After our students were withdrawn from the college, the training of our ministers became somewhat broken. It was difficult to get good training. A variety of colleges were utilized, together with different correspondence courses.
In 1996 another major controversy broke out concerning the teaching of one of our ministers with regard to the natures of Christ. He was teaching that, because Christ had two natures, it was possible for Him, in His human nature, to love all men, even though in His divine nature He did not. This came, once again, to the presbytery, where that teaching was rejected. But the problem was that there was a lot of political intrigue that went on, a lot of problems with clashing of personalities, as there often is in difficulties in the church. This caused a very major falling-out within the denomination. It resulted in the loss of two congregations and a significant number of members from the other congregations.
In 1990, a minister who was supplying one of our pulpits with a view to becoming a minister in our denomination, made some very strong accusations against one of our ministers. This concerned the doctrine of the covenant in particular, the view that we are to have with respect to the children of believers. He said that we had departed from the Presbyterian and Reformed faith and that we ought to view children as unbelievers until they come to faith in their more adult years. This minister at that time was merely stood down, and the matter came before presbytery. But his standing down caused a good deal of disruption because of what he had previously done in “getting in” with various people in a couple of different congregations. The result was that a large number of people left from two of the congregations of the EPC.
Finally, in 2002, following a case of discipline in a congregation where a serious sin occurred, there was a great deal of disunity within that congregation. Having been asked to intervene, Presbytery attempted to bring harmony and unity there. There was a lack of cohesion between the congregation and the denomination in general. The minister and most of the congregation left the denomination as well.
All of this has meant that the EPC has remained fairly small. Even today we number only four small congregations and one small domestic mission work. The total membership of all of our denomination is, in fact, smaller than one of the PRC’s larger congregations. Currently we have about 320 members. There are three active ministers. We have one minister who is unwell at the present time, and we have two who are retired. We also support a Christian school in Herrick, Tasmania.
Our standards are, obviously, the Scriptures, and our subordinate standards the Westminster Standards, which include the Confession, catechisms, directories, as well as other standards adopted by the Church of Scotland. As such, as a matter of interest, one of our subordinate standards is in fact the Heidelberg Catechism (the Church of Scotland adopted that also as one of its creeds).
We meet for worship twice on the Sabbath. And there are similarities between our worship services and the services of the PRC, with the preaching of the Word being central. We also have mid-week Bible studies held in members’ homes, as well as young people’s studies and activities. There are other sorts of meetings as well, when men and women get together for fellowship as well as Bible study. The young people of the denomination get together for a kind of convention, which we call a camp, every two years. This has also been attended by some of the PRC youth on occasions. Each of the congregations has a bookshop associated with it. The members form a committee and then they oversee the running of the bookshop. From this, members may obtain good Reformed literature.
What about contact with the PRC? Initially, the EPC heard of the PRC through Rev. Malcolm McHugh, who was a Presbyterian minister in Nova Scotia, Canada. I’m not sure how the contact there came up, but he put the EPC on to the Standard Bearer. There also had been some informal contact through a relation of the Kleyn family who had visited the United States and the Protestant Reformed Churches. Correspondence was commenced with the Standard Bearer, and then Pastor Rodman, from our churches, visited Grand Rapids in August 1974. Subsequently Prof. Homer Hoeksema and Rev. Cornelius Hanko made a visit to New Zealand, Australia, and Singapore in 1975. At that time, they made recommendations that the PRC investigate the possibilities of closer relationships and ties between our denominations. Since then both of our denominations have been working on that, which has culminated, only 33 years later, in the establishing of a corresponding relationship between our denominations. Who can possibly accuse church courts of working slowly?!
I know that contact with the PRC has been of great benefit to the EPC, not the least of which has been the training of three students in the seminary here, myself being the fourth. We also have had the benefit of Protestant Reformed ministers visiting and preaching for us and even leading our studies in some of the youth camps. We also have benefited from their advice on occasion and have benefited from a number of Protestant Reformed folk coming out and spending time with us in fellowship. The EPC has contact with a number of other churches also. There are some Presbyterian churches here in the United States, in San Diego and Dallas. There are also churches in Singapore, particularly the Pilgrim Covenant Church of Rev. J.J. Lim, besides other churches at home in Australia.
I hope that, perhaps, this presentation has given you a bit of a handle on the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The Lord (we must confess and praise Him for it) has led us in wondrous paths. He has brought us out of the darkness of Arminianism and into the glorious truth of His Word as it is found in the Reformed faith. We are now entering into the fourth generation of members of our church, as the first generation is passing into glory. We are very grateful for what the Lord has wrought for us and in us. And we pray that He will give us His grace, that we may be able to pass it on to our children—pass on that same truth and remain faithful in the days of apostasy. And, accordingly, we ask for your prayers for our denomination as we remember you all in our prayers as we strive to be a help to one another.