The Scriptures

    The Bible, or scriptures,  is the collection of writings that is the source of all authority for faith and life in the church. It consists of sixty-six books of history, law, poetry, tradition, literature, biography, prophesy and personal testimony.

It is in two sections. The Old Testament, written before the coming of Christ, records God’s dealings with his people, the Jews, and their ancestors, the Israelites. The New Testament contains accounts of Jesus’ life, a history of the growth of the early church, letters that explain the significance of his ministry, and prophetic writings. They are seen as one unit, the Old Testament looking ahead to Jesus’ coming and the New Testament looking back.

Differing Views
It is worth looking at a range of views commonly held on the holy scriptures.

One view, closely associated with Fundamentalism, is that the Bible is an accurate historical record of God's dealings with humankind, and, consistently from cover to cover, sets forth God's will for the world. Its contents are seen as being divinely revealed to the writers and true for eternity. To adherents of this view, the Bible itself is the Word of God and is inerrant and infallible in every detail. 

To others this perception of the scriptures is unacceptable, perhaps even idolatrous. They see it as diminishing Christ (in that it can replace a relationship with Jesus with blind obedience to the words of scripture) and belittling the Bible.

These people prefer to understand the Bible as a diverse record of human experiences, perceptions and understandings of God, miraculous to the extent that it has been preserved over time in order to speak to us today. They see it as containing oral traditions, prophesies, poetry, stories & other literature, eyewitness accounts and second-hand reports, exhortations, historical records and commentaries, all of which need to be looked at in the context of the times in which they were written and the purposes of the writer.

Upholders of this moderate view would claim that the Bible is no less authoritative for them than for those upholding the other viewpoint. The extent to which they can be “inerrant” depends on the perception of inerrancy.

For people who hold this view, the Word of God might be better understood as what is revealed inwardly from the Scriptures by the Holy Spirit.

The perceptions of many people, including ministers and elders, lie somewhere between these two schools of thought. It should not be overlooked also that individuals change and develop in their opinions as they mature and  the views they hold in five years time may be very different from their current positions.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, the doctrinal statement of the Presbyterian Church, does not specify how the scriptures are to be interpreted, although it makes the following statements.

“ The authority of scripture … dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God …” (Ch.1 Par. IV)

“  … our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth … is from the work of the Holy Spirit ..” (Ch. 1 Par.V)

“ … we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God …” (Ch. 1 Par. VI)

“The infallible rule of interpretation of scripture is the scripture itself …” (Ch. 1 Par IX)

   With views in common on the nature of Jesus Christ, who is the centre of our faith, there is no reason why the two views outlined above can’t sit side-by-side in our church.

The Westminster Confession of faith

The Westminster Confession of Faith is Presbyterianism’s traditional statement of belief. Adopted by the Church of Scotland in 1647, it contains the sense in which the Christian faith is understood by the church from the scriptures.

It is always referred to as the “subordinate standard” because the scriptures occupy the status of the “supreme standard”.

The Australian church has made qualifications to the Confession in the Basis of Union of 1901. This is called the Declaratory Statement. It explains some of the church’s lesser doctrines and brings them closer to 20th Century life. Furthermore it guarantees liberty of opinion on matters not essential to the Christian faith. 

Every elder and minister must, on ordination, declare that  he/she accepts the Subordinate Standard as the sense in which  he/she understands the scriptures.

     It is a long document of thirty three chapters stating points of doctrine ranging from the Holy Scriptures to the Last Judgment.
The Presbyterian Church
at North Starathfield and

Click here to read a copy of the Westminster Confession of Faith


Click here to read a copy of the Declaratory Statement which amends the Westminster Confession of Faith within the Australian context.

The Peter Cameron Heresy Case

On the 2nd March 1992, the Rev. Dr Peter Cameron, Principal of St Andrew's College at the University of Sydney, preached a sermon at a Dorcas Society Rally in the Ashfield Presbyterian Church entitled "The Place of Women in the Church". As well as supporting the principle that women should be ordained to the ministry, it argued a case that the Bible had to be understood within the context of the times in which they were written.

It was an address that was bound to be controversial and it would appear that a small number of people who attended or heard about it were sufficiently disturbed to complain to their ministers. The result was that the Presbytery of Sydney, the court which held jurisdiction in this case, decided to pursue a charge of heresy.

The Process
The Rules of the Presbyterian Church require a long process for such a charge to be sustained. “Brotherly conferences” with the alleged offender needed to be held. The advice of the Procurator, the church’s barrister, needed to be obtained. A libel or charge needed to be framed and agreed to by the Presbytery.

It was a slow process made more difficult by the fact that the Westminster Confession of Faith, the subordinate doctrinal standard of the church, says little about how the Scriptures are to be interpreted. In addition there were a number of questionable legalities about the formulation of the libel.
In spite of the fact that these problems were not settled, Dr Cameron was tried on a charge of “… preaching a sermon which contained statements inconsistent with Chapter I of the Westminster Confession of Faith …”

When the Presbytery of Sydney met in March 1993, it found Dr Cameron guilty of what, in effect, was heresy. It did this in the face of the Procurator’s advice questioning whether Dr Cameron had any case to answer. Further the Procurator warned the church against the danger of a majority imposing its beliefs on a minority.

The case went on appeal before the General Assembly of New South Wales and after a long hearing the appeal was dismissed with voting figures following factional lines.

An appeal was lodged with the final court of appeal in the Presbyterian Church, the Judicial Commission of the General Assembly of Australia. There was arguably a better likelihood of the appeal being sustained because the judicial commission was less factionally weighted.

The Significance
Sadly, before the  matter came to hearing, Dr Cameron resigned from the Presbyterian Church of Australia, eventually returning to Scotland. In doing so, in the opinion of the Presbyterian Fellowship, he performed no good service for the church or his supporters, who were left with a legal fait accompli. His appeal lapsed and the original decision was sustained.

This was the second time that the Presbyterian Church was rocked by a case of this kind.
In the 1930s, because of the influence of Liberal Theology, Professor Samuel Angus, who taught New Testament at the Theological Hall in Sydney, came under intense scrutiny and criticism. The heresy issue was pursued, but never acted upon, over a period of twelve years. The Church at the time was unable to determine exactly what beliefs were essentiall to the faith.

The same Church and the same procedure dealt differently with both the Angus and Cameron cases. The difference was the theological climate in which the matters were considered.

It illustrates the fallacy of trying to determine theological truth by the votes of the majority.
The Cameron Case remains highly significant to the affairs of the Presbyterian Church even in the new millennium. It strikes an anachronistic chord in Australia’s tolerant society, putting up barriers between the church and the people to whom it is trying to speak. It superimposed the rule of the majority over the rule of the constitution and law in church affairs. It left practising ministers open to attack because of the shades of difference in their beliefs from those of the “orthodox” majority. It left the church divided into factions, with one faction convinced of its dominance over the others. The right to liberty of opinion on matters not essential to the Christian faith, guaranteed in the constitution of the church, remains under threat.

It is an unhealthy and destructive climate that exists today.

Social and Moral Cancerns

     In general the Presbyterian Church recognizes that individual Christians must seek to frame their own attitudes to the social and moral dilemmas that occur in their lives and that of the community and nation. They are answerable to God and to their own consciences for their own actions. They can do little wrong when they deal with people with an integrity based on courtesy, fairness, honesty, generosity and empathy.

However the Assembly, or its executive committee, the Church and Nation Committee, from time to time makes public statements or submissions on social issues which seek to advise church members, community members and governments.

The Presbyterian Church has held consistently that:

    • Only sexual relationships between men and women honour God the Creator.

    • Sexual intercourse should only be engaged in by couples committed to each other by marriage.

    • Marriage and the concept of the family are confined to heterosexual couples.

    • Divorce is sometimes a necessary way to end a failed marriage relationship and to enable a fresh start.

    • Remarriage of divorced persons is permitted.

    • Responsible governments must enforce consistent standards that protect vulnerable persons in the community, especially children, from pornographic, violent and exploitative  material in the mass media

    • Gambling is a social evil, church members are discouraged from engaging in gambling, and the practice is forbidden on church property.

    • Temperance should be encouraged in the consumption of alcohol.

    • Euthanasia, in the form of action deliberately taking a human life (as opposed to a decision not to sustain life by artificial means), is a breach of the sixth commandment.

    • Artificial insemination by anonymous donor should be opposed.

    • Ministers, church office holders and members must lead an exemplary moral life and disciplinary action will be taken for breaches of that standard.

    • Abortion should be opposed except in instances where the physical or mental well-being of the mother is at risk.

    • Contraception is an acceptable method of birth control.

    • Aboriginal reconciliation should be supported. The General Assembly has acted to do so and has issued a public apology for wrongs which may have been committed in the church’s name on aboriginal people in the past.

    • The world we live in is a trust held by current generations to be passed on to future generations in a sustainable condition.

    • Prayers are not offered for the dead. Funerals are an occasion to honour the life of the Departed and to minister to the living.

    • The misuse of drugs should be opposed and illegal drug-taking should not be decriminalized

Worship in the Presbyterian Church

    Churches, like all other institutions over time, have developed their own rituals, language and customs. The Presbyterian Church takes some pride in its simplicity but even the most simple customs and terms can be intimidating if the meanings are unclear.
What follows is a brief explanation of some of the things that you may encounter in most Presbyterian churches.

Worship is a gathering of people to honour God in praise, prayer and teaching. In a Presbyterian church, this comprises a balanced blend of hymn and praise singing, prayers spoken aloud , bible readings and, invariably, the sermon.
It is usually the custom to stand up to sing and to remain seated while praying although this may vary with the formality of the service. There is no prayer book and most people leading services of worship make up their own prayers. Generally the whole congregation joins in the familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer at some time in the service.
The sermon is the focal point of the service and bible readings and hymns are usually chosen to relate to its theme. Many worshippers bring their own bibles or use bibles placed in the seats to follow the scripture readings and sermon.
The service ends with a blessing from the minister and a response is often sung which may be in the form of the blessing “Now unto Him ...” or the “Threefold Amen”

In this day and age, dress expectations reflect the informal lifestyle that Australians enjoy. Some choose to dress up for worship but this is strictly a matter of personal taste. Ministers are increasingly less likely to wear gowns  these days. It has not been the custom for women to wear hats in church for well over a generation.

The church pays its costs from freewill offerings given by its members during services of worship. People make a private commitment which goes up or down with their circumstances. No obligations are imposed on them. It is strictly personal.  Most congregations use an envelope system which enables people to maintain their commitment even when they don’t attend worship for a short period. The envelope also ensures that giving is private.

Furniture in a Presbyterian church can be described as Spartan. Apart from the seats for worshippers, the inside of the church is dominated by four items of furniture.
The pulpit is the place from which the sermon is delivered and it reflects the important place given to teaching the Word of God in the church’s life.
The reading desk or lectern holds the bible in a prominent place in the church. The bible is the source of all authority in the life of the church.
The communion table (never an “altar”... sacrifices are offered on altars) occupies the central place in the church. It represents the fellowship enjoyed by all Christians and achieved through the death of Christ. He gathered with his disciples around such a table on the night before his crucifixion and shared a final supper with them. The words “Do this in remembrance of me” are often inscribed on or near the table. The associated chairs are occupied by the minister and elders during the service of Holy Communion.
The baptismal font is used during baptisms, which is the rite of entry into church membership. Children are regarded as sharing the promise of salvation with adults in the church and have as much right to be baptised as adults.

    You may see a cross on the wall. It will never contain an image of Jesus. As the resurrection is the most central fact in Christian teaching, the cross is always displayed as an empty one.
  cheso The church furniture at Chester Hill
is fairly typical of most Presbyterian
churches. Note the prominent pulpit
and the central communion table.
The Sacraments in the Presbyterian Church

    There are two sacraments in the Presbyterian church, the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and the Sacrament of Baptism, both of which are seen as visible symbols of a deeper understanding. They are two of the means of Grace, whereby the worshipper comes close to God. This is achieved, not by the presence of the Sacrament, but rather by the faith of the worshipper.

The Lord’s Supper (Bible reference 1 Corinthians 11. 24-32)
The Lord’s Supper is a symbolic act by which bread and wine, symbolizing the broken body of Christ and his blood shed in sacrifice, are shared out among church members. The bread and wine remain unchanged and impart no special benefits other those brought about through greater understanding. However in the service of Communion there is a special prayer, called the Great Prayer, where the consecration of the elements take place.

There is no right to take communion since the efficacy of a sacrament is the work of God, not of man. A general invitation is always extended  to any visitors who are members of any branch of the Christian church to share in the act of communion.

The elders bring the elements, first the bread and then the wine, from the table to the people in the body of the church. It may be customary for partakers to retain each element in their hands until all are served and then everyone partakes together.

Elders will usually not offer the elements to children but there is no reason why an accompanying parent could not ask for their child to take part. The reason is not that children are barred but that the expectation is that they don’t fully understand, or have not yet reached a point of commitment. In a church which places a great emphasis on the covenantal relationship with God there is no reason why children should not be allowed to take part if they feel that they understand the significance of the event.

Communion is celebrated in a Presbyterian Church only at periodic intervals, perhaps monthly but most commonly every three months, and is regarded as a special occasion.

Baptism (Bible  reference John 4.1-3)
Baptism involves sprinkling water on the head of a new member of the church, whether adult or child, and it symbolizes the washing away of sin. It is always celebrated in a service of worship as the promises made by the parents of the child or the new member are shared by all in the congregation.

Baptism is a sign of a covenant, or agreement, made between God and his people, that they all, including children, are entitled to share in his gift of salvation. Like communion a prayer of consecration of the elements is offered but no special advantages or disadvantages come from being or not being baptised other than those that come about in the mind of the believer.

The Presbyterian Church recognizes baptism in all the Christian churches and will not re-baptise.