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Australian Evangelicalism

February 2007 | by Peter Barnes

Snapshots of history have their charms and their dangers. The last forty years
or so of Australian evangelicalism have seen hopes rise and fall, as they invariably do.
The mid-1960s were nothing short of catastrophic — despite the 1959 Billy Graham crusades.

These crusades were considered so successful that many thought Australia came close to revival. Marcus Loane wrote that Billy Graham was ‘God’s man for this century’. The foundations, however, were decidedly weak.

For too many churchmen, evangelism had little to do with theological content, and too much to do with the survival of the church as an institution. In the 1960s Sunday school numbers plummeted, and churches were forced to face the fact that adherence to Christianity was largely nominal.

The age of William Barclay and Norman Vincent Peale was giving way to a more radical decline of the evangelical faith. Forty years later we can ask with Os Guinness: ‘How on earth have we Christians become so irrelevant when we have tried hard to be relevant?’

God is still at work

However, in spite of the downhill slide, God is still at work! A number of Baptists were brought to embrace the doctrines of grace, particularly in Tasmania in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Evangelical Presbyterians also found cause for hope — ironically in the formation of the theologically liberal Uniting Church of Australia on 22 June 1977. The UCA’s position was exemplified by one of its main architects, Dr Davis McCaughey — who declared, ‘Confession is confession of Jesus — not adherence to a system of doctrine’.

Freed from the unequal yoke of liberal fellow-churchmen, the remnant Presbyterian Church of Australia went on in 1991 to reverse an earlier decision to allow the ordination of women and to declare that Christianity and Freemasonry were incompatible.

The following year the Presbyterian Church of New South Wales successfully prosecuted the Principal of St Andrew’s College in Sydney University, after he repudiated the authority of the apostle Paul in a sermon on women ministers. At times one even dared whisper the word ‘revival’.

The Sydney Anglicans

Evangelical Anglicanism continued to thrive in the Sydney diocese under the leadership of successive bishops — Marcus Loane, Donald Robinson, Harry Goodhew and Peter Jensen.

The Anglican communion in Australia is struggling to find some form of identity for itself. Amid this turmoil, the Sydney diocese has flexed its muscles, opening up ‘independent’ Anglican churches outside Sydney, in areas where evangelicalism is weak.

In addition, men like Paul Barnett and John Woodhouse were prepared to take strong stands against Peter Carnley when he was elected as Primate of Australia in 2000, refusing to attend his installation.

A kind of worldliness

Few Australian theological colleges could be called Reformed. The main exceptions — albeit not without problems — are the three Presbyterian colleges (in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne); Moore Theological College (Anglican, Sydney); Ridley College (Anglican, Victoria); and the Reformed Theological College in Geelong.

There is also the influential Sydney Missionary and Bible College, and the renowned Katoomba Conventions where thousands gather several times each year to hear biblical teaching.

Australian evangelicalism is part of an international movement, and it tends to reflect the strengths and weaknesses of its counterparts in Britain and the USA. Evangelicals used to be known as serious people but they seem to have become increasingly frivolous and lightweight.

A kind of worldliness and lack of discernment is evident in the widespread acceptance as ‘evangelical’ of almost anything that does not call itself ‘liberal’. Robert Schuller is popular, as are Philip Yancey, Bill Hybels and Rick Warren.

The head of World Vision is a Baptist minister, Tim Costello, but his evangelical credentials are less than impeccable. Koorong Bookshop began as a Reformed enterprise but has grown to the point where it now majors on soft and innocuous literature with a vaguely evangelical hue.

The long-term evangelical newspaper New life lost its way rather disastrously, but is back in more promising hands as Bob Thomas has returned as editor.

Evolution and creation

The Australian evangelical scene has real signs of life in many places, but there are serious difficulties too. Many evangelical churches attempt to marry Genesis 1-11 with modern evolutionary views — a venture that must lead to compromise somewhere along the line.

The Briefing (the lively and outspoken organ of Sydney Anglican evangelicalism) is typically open to the view that the early chapters of Genesis can be read as ‘figurative history’ and that science cannot be used to prove Intelligent Design — see, for example, its issue of October 2006.

There is a tendency for these evangelical writers to speak on the subject of creation with different voices in the same breath. The Scripture, however, is quite adamant — those who cannot discern the one almighty Creator in his creation are left ‘without excuse’ (Romans 1:20).

Evangelism

Another weakness is a distinctly un-Reformed view of evangelism. Much evangelism that claims to be Reformed actually follows the line, ‘God loves you; Christ died for you; so receive him’.

They think this is the message of John 3:16 but neglect to read on — ‘this is the condemnation, that light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil’ (v.19).

The outlines of evangelism that we find, for example, in Acts 2 and 17 accord with a correct reading of John 3 — ‘You are accountable to God as creator and Judge; Christ is Lord; this is proven by the resurrection; so flee the wrath to come through faith in the Saviour who died for sinners’.

It is often claimed that the church exists only for mission, and thus what matters is its adherence to the basic gospel (1 Corinthians 15:3-4) rather than the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). This has its attractions but makes for a degree of pragmatism that goes far beyond Paul’s concern to be ‘all things to all men’ (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).

Indifferent to doctrine

Evangelicalism has become so indifferent to doctrinal standards that Welshman Peter Jeffery has recently commented, ‘worship is the most contentious issue in many of today’s evangelical churches’.

In some circles, worship is said to be the whole of life and is identified with obedience. Hence we are said to be worshipping when we do the washing up. Yet it is also often identified simply with music — so that Evangelicals who profess that the gospel is ‘the power of God unto salvation’ will in practice put their confidence in a ‘contemporary music ministry’.

For some, public worship may be little more than meeting in a café, hearing some appropriate music and listening to a Bible talk. A Presbyterian elder had good cause to complain that church services now often begin not with ‘Let us worship God’ but with a cheery ‘Good morning’.

There is far too much reliance on giving people a fun time of fellowship and singing only songs of celebration. At worst these descend into those ‘God is my favourite boyfriend’ kind of songs.

Having said that, there have been some significant and thoroughly biblical songs of worship written in modern times, so our criticism must be selective and discerning.

Seeker sensitive

Hesitation about the place of the law in evangelical theology has led to a soft, seeker-sensitive, approach to Christianity. It is difficult to say this without implying that the Bible takes a hard line on everything. That, of course, is nonsense, and legalism is a real danger. Yet the law still has a place in evangelism, as our Lord demonstrated (Matthew 19:16-26).

Peter Jeffery’s comment is instructive — ‘Evangelical Christians today tolerate what they would have rejected forty years ago. It is not that this toleration stems from a more generous spirit — it is rather the result of not adhering, as they once did, to the teaching of Scripture’.

Elijah would have trouble getting his candidacy through many a modern presbytery. In today’s soft times, denunciations of the sex worship of Baal might be seen as lacking sensitivity and betraying a legal spirit.

No firm beliefs

Thirty years ago the historian Manning Clark wrote of Australia as ‘a society unique in the history of mankind, a society holding no firm beliefs in the existence of God or survival after death’.

Are we, he asked, ‘bored survivors, sitting comfortless on Bondi Beach, citizens of the kingdom of nothingness, who booze and surf while waiting for the barbarians?’

So secular has Australia become (along with the rest of the Western world) that Peter Jensen could cite four distinguished Australian scholars who attributed to Abraham Lincoln the saying that ‘a house divided against itself cannot stand’ — without realising that the words go back to Jesus.

Thankfully, as Jonathan Edwards said, revival is ‘a surprising work of God’. We need not despair.