Evangelicals, social justice, and their future in the Uniting Church

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Anne Hibbard completed a 65,000-word thesis on the experiences of Uniting Church evangelicals in NSW for her 2023 Doctor of Ministry degree through Tabor College. She kindly agreed to be interviewed for The Other Cheek. Hibbard formerly was a minister at Liverpool Uniting Church and Annandale Uniting Church in inner west Sydney and now Pastors an online ministry Southern Cross Online Worship in the Diocese of the Southern Cross. Hibbard’s thesis is titled Reconciling_Faith_and_Action_for_Genuinely_Christian_Mission_An_Ethnographic_Analysis_of_Evangelical_and_Reformed_Congregations_in_the_Uniting_Church_NSW

1) Did you find distinctly evangelical/reformed congregations in the Uniting Churches in NSW? What determined your description of their evangelical/reformed character?

Thanks, John. Yes, I did find that a few distinctly evangelical/reformed congregations still exist in the Uniting Church (UCA) NSW. But there is also evidence that the evangelical/reformed voice has diminished significantly in the UCA councils over the last couple of decades. 

First, in terms of my description of evangelical/reformed character, I want to dissociate from the way “evangelical” is currently used to describe right-wing politics in the US. My background definitions of evangelical/reformed faith have more of a historical understanding based on Chris Walker’s work and David Bebbington’s. [1]Walker identifies that the “Evangelical” from the Greek Word euangelion (gospel or good news) came to use in the Reformation to distinguish Protestants, with beliefs in both “justification by grace through faith” and “the supreme authority of scripture.” [2] Later usage, such as in Wesleyanism also identified “personal conversion leading to a changed life.” [3] Such usage highlighted not only justification but sanctification with a social element.  

In my qualitative research, I interviewed the leaders of 8 UCA congregations in NSW, and one non-UCA congregation (Baptist) for contrast. A criterion for selection was that they self-identified as either evangelical and/or reformed. Three strong themes emerged from these congregations that were consistent with Walker’s and Bebbington’s definitions. Firstly 7 out of the 8 congregations had a strong belief in the authority of scripture in all they did. Secondly, their understanding of Jesus as Saviour was core to their faith. And thirdly, they believed in sanctification including a social element.   

2) How did leaders describe the life of their church?

Thanks, John, for that question. I want to clarify for a moment the focus of my research. I wasn’t looking at the life of a congregation in general but rather specifically how the evangelical/reformed faith of the congregation interacts with their social ministry. My secondary question was also missional, looking at the relationship between their evangelism and social practice in the eyes of the leaders. So, my answer to your question will not try and answer all the life of the congregations interviewed, but specifically a missional – core faith focus, describing motive and empowerment. 

All but one of the congregations named God’s or Jesus’ love as the motivation or root of what they did in the mission, whether by word or deed. The love of God flowed out from the congregation, through faith in Jesus as Saviour and the resulting sanctifying work by the Holy Spirit in their lives.  

  A leader in one congregation explained his own transformation by God’s love:   

When I learnt as a brand-new Christian about God’s kind of ridiculous love for me and his mercy for me, and that he looked upon me with longing eyes, I think that really shaped my worldview of other people. So, before I was a Christian, I just disliked people in general. But after I became a Christian, when I thought about God’s love for me that I clearly don’t deserve, how could I hold onto grudges against people? How could I hate people? I saw people as individuals that are radically loved by God. And that would be my motivation, oftentimes, to be a helpful presence in their life. 

A leader of another congregation further elaborated. 

I know that what keeps me going in turning up into difficult situations and helping people is the Spirit of God. It’s the renewal of faith. It’s the energy that comes in interaction with a God who loves us with an unconditional, … powerful, and wonderful love. And that the overflow of that in my life keeps me engaged. And I observe that people who do not have that infilling tend to burn out because they give and give and give, but they don’t have a source as their core that’s renewing them – not all of them. I’m just making a general observation that a lot of people I know, who have been long-term in the business of serving, it’s a really powerful relationship with God that fills them. As in 2 Corinthians 5, “God’s love compels us.”

So, a verse to sum up the motivation and life of these congregations from the leader’s perspectives is “We love because God first loved us.”  [4]

3) How did these churches treat the social justice emphasis of the Uniting Church? Did they oppose it?

Thanks, John, for the question.  Again, I’ll begin with a clarification.  One of the criteria for congregations to be participants in the research, along with self-identifying as evangelical/reformed was to be involved or want to be involved in some sort of social ministry. So, it wasn’t surprising to find that the congregations I interviewed encouraged either a lifestyle of Christlike social engagement in every aspect of a Christian’s life and/or organisational engagement as a congregation in a ministry program. Quite a few of the congregations, in fact, worked hard at holding evangelical faith and social engagement together. One congregation summed it up.   

“Yes, we’ve got the Great Commission, but we’ve also got the parable of the sheep and the goats. If we didn’t seek to help the prisoners or the person who has no clothes, then we’re in the goats. And I think there’s always a struggle to keep a balance, but we’ve got to hold the two together somehow. Otherwise, we’re not really following Jesus. We’re following half of Jesus or … the comfortable bit.” 

Therefore, the importance of social care or social justice wasn’t necessarily opposed by evangelical/reformed congregations. However, that does need some further explanation.  

Although the congregations interviewed didn’t identify a negative attitude toward the disadvantaged, two of the UCA evangelical scholars/missional experts I interviewed did specifically name such a critical stance in evangelicals in the UCA NSW, at least historically. Alan Russell stated that “part of the problem of our evangelical witness” is that sometimes it has been in “a judgmental way … to burden people rather than lift the burdens from them” (Mat 23:4). Likewise, Noreen Towers in her long ministry at Wesley Mission said that “the poor don’t feel comfortable with a … traditional church service” because “they think people are going to look down on them.” She explained from her own ministry 

“Once the homeless started coming to church, seven of them took off and said … they weren’t going to go to a church with those hobos.”    

Another clarification is that some congregations, while not negative towards social responsibility as such, found it very difficult to work with UCA agencies because of the different foundations underlying them. One evangelical congregation began a community ministry several years ago that was taken over by Uniting, and the congregation still tries to be involved.  

A leader of this congregation noted. 

The Uniting Church is becoming a social services organisation that once was a church.… The tail’s wagging the dog. It’s the behemoth of Uniting with all the government money behind it, making decisions … at a synod level.…. 

When I asked, “And so how does that come together in a way that’s authentic for Christian Mission?”  He responded.  

Well, it doesn’t really come together, does it? … It’s an uneasy alliance, and we sort of agree to put up with it.… What we’re seeing is a … fundamental clash of opposing worldviews that are mutually exclusive.… We can paper over them and look past them as much as we want, but it’s coming into sharper and sharper focus all the time.… It’s disappointing that we have to deal with it within our own denomination.

So, rather than being opposed to social action per se, this congregation found it difficult to work with social justice in Uniting because their goals came from such different, even incompatible worldviews.  

4) What sort of theology forms UCA evangelicals?

From my research, the answer to your question is that there are definite patterns of theology for UCA evangelicals but also exceptions. Of the eight UCA congregations I interviewed, six had similar theology, one had a mixed theology, and one had quite different theology than the majority. 

A large percentage of evangelicals in NSW share a protestant theology, which believes in what I mentioned before: scripture as an authority, Jesus as saviour or justifier, and transformation through sanctification of a believer’s life, including a social dimension. 

The differences in theology focused primarily on why Jesus died. Was he just an innocent man who was dealt a harsh injustice, or did he come and die, as one congregational leader attested “for the ultimate purpose which is to save us from our sin?”  The majority (7/8) personally believed that Jesus is the “Saving Saviour” who died “for us” and that “it is only in Jesus that life is to be found where we can be reconciled” to God. They believed that “if we want to spend eternity in his presence, we do have to accept Christ as Lord and Savior.” Such a belief motivated them out of “care” for others, to want others to “know Jesus” and the “splendour of the grace … he’s got for us.” Their passion was “to know Jesus and to make him known.”  One congregation that didn’t name such a belief as Jesus as Saviour focussed more on Jesus’ life. They were reluctant to evangelise and even felt it was wrong, saying, “I won’t do that,” unless somebody brought it up themselves.

Fifty per cent of the congregations I interviewed also demonstrated a unique historical evangelical approach to integrating faith and action, focusing on transformative discipleship of new believers empowered by God’s love. As one congregational leader says: 

I think the connection between word and deed has only come about as we’ve had to work at it. … So, it doesn’t just happen automatically. There has to have been that fundamental seed of a belief that the good news of Jesus Christ is life-changing and that it affects their downstream action

5) What is the way these churches are thought of within the UCA councils?

Thanks, John. That’s a good question. First, I want to say that the evangelical theology and practice that these congregations have, fits very well with the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church. This primary belief they have that Jesus died to save us from our sin and that we need to make some response is consistent with the central paragraph of the Basis, paragraph 3. 

In Jesus Christ ‘God was reconciling the world to himself’  (2 Corinthians 5:19 RSV). In love for the world, God gave the Son to take away the world’s sin … To God in Christ, all people are called to respond in faith.”  [5]

Secondly, the evangelical and reformed voice in the Uniting Church has been seriously reduced and dismissed as irrelevant in most UCA Councils over the last couple of decades. From what I have read and my own experience, it seems to be now only a whisper of a voice in the wings rather than part of the main drama on centre stage.  

There are two main areas in the UCA councils where the evangelical/reformed voice has been radically diminished: the evangelical reading of scripture for decision-making; and the loss of the central doctrine of justification.                

The UCA came into being with an understanding from the Basis that “her faith and obedience” would be “nourished and regulated” through the Old and New Testaments. [6] However, during the Assembly decision-making on same-gender marriage in 2018, only a predominantly contextual interpretation of scripture was allowed. A previous UCA President, Professor James Haire, lamented that “the plain meaning of the text of the Basis of Union” was not able to be considered. [7] Only an elite minority reading of both the Scriptures and the Basis were weighed in the decision-making, and evangelical/reformed interpretations were silenced. While “contextual theology” is “necessary” for the church, says Haire, there is “danger of the church simply following the spirit of the age.” [8] Such a dismissal of more evangelical/reformed interpretations of scripture has led the UCA deeper into syncretism.

Secondly, the key evangelical/reformed belief of Christ as Saviour, and justification by grace through faith has had little mention in the major Assembly UCA Act2 review process to date. This omission is in spite of the doctrine’s central place in the report from the first commission on Church Union in 1957 and the Basis (see paragraphs 3 and 10). The First Commission on Church Union warned of the death of the church if they neglected this foundation of Christian faith. They wrote: 

We would offer this message of justification by faith to a needy world … the message of reconciliation as a finished work, through the atonement made once for all in the death of Jesus Christ … By this gospel of grace the Church lives, to turn from it is to die—however whitened be the sepulchre in which the corpse may lie. [9]

In the balance between context and universal faith of the church, the “pendulum” for the UCA, warns David Withers has “swung far to the local, ‘contextual’ side, with a consequent neglect of a theology that is intended to speak for (and to) the whole church.” [10] The UCA is in danger of permanently losing her moorings in the faith of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church by swinging around the only centre left when context is divorced from universal faith – diversity. The evangelical/reformed voice reminding the church again and again of “the grace which justifies them through faith, of the centrality of the person and work of Christ the justifier, and of the need for a constant appeal to Holy Scriptures” is little heeded by many UCA councils. [11]

6) How healthy are the evangelical churches in the NSW UCA? 

Thanks, John, for this final question. I will answer by asking you a question. If an apple on one side looks healthy but on the other side has visible disease, is the healthy part really healthy?

I did observe some congregations that had some beautiful ministry going on right from the heart of Christ, integrating well their evangelical faith and action. The people were faithful to the scriptures, they had living relationships with God through Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit they reached out in love to the world in both word and deed, making disciples of all nations. I also hear of fruitful ministry happening further afield in the Evangelical Generate Presbytery in South Australia, and the churches that have been planted.

However, the question that must be asked is: How long can they exist and keep their distinctive evangelical/reformed nature as a congregation of the UCA, especially considering that the Assembly determines matters of faith and doctrine? Because of how the UCA works, decisions about the congregation’s life, mission and faith are decided by councils that are not evangelical or reformed and who have little understanding of the core evangelical beliefs despite them being in the Basis. As one congregational leader said, there is a clash of worldviews happening. Both sides may believe what the other is doing is wrong, and although still trying to work together, the divide is becoming wider and increasingly incompatible and potentially hostile. 

Secondly, the evangelical/reformed unique missional way of bringing together faith and action, word and deed, is not well understood or valued and is becoming more difficult in the UCA context. Evangelicals have felt robbed by the pulling apart of the unique evangelical integration of word/deed for mission through transformative discipleship. This is evidenced in the history of the forced takeover of agencies by Uniting.  The birthing congregations struggle to recognise the mission that evolves as genuinely Christian. 

Time will only tell what future UCA restructuring may mean for the capacity for evangelical and reformed congregations to engage in what they consider an authentic mission. In the Act2 July 2024 report, different options are presented for reducing the number of councils that will be considered in the 2024 and 2027 Assemblies. [12] One official council that could be removed is the congregation. The church council in this scenario may no longer be elected by the congregation and may be made up of other UCA missions in the area. What impact would such changes have on evangelical and reformed congregations to bring together faith and action with integrity? How would the restructure affect the distinctly evangelical/reformed nature of the Generate Presbytery in South Australia? Would the restructure hasten or slow down the establishment of Keith Suter’s secular welfare future scenario for the UCA? [13]

So, in answer to your question, there are some crucial questions to be answered when discussing the health of evangelical and reformed congregations throughout the UCA. On the surface, they may individually look healthy, but they are part of a whole that appears to be on a rapid trajectory of rejecting Christian foundations. 

So, the health of the evangelical congregations needs a theological awareness and critique of culture. While doctrines that help define faith are crucial to prevent drift, for a healthy church, they must not become the centre of the church, replacing the living Lord Jesus Christ himself. As one congregational leader said:  

We have to be quite conscientious about rooting ourselves in Christ and asking the Jesus question at every turn. Is this what he called us to do? Is this part of the culture that he … started? …  Yes, and the root is Jesus …  We have to keep being very, very conscientious and clear and connected and relational with the head of our church, Jesus, and make him the head of our church, and not our processes, and not our polity, and not even our theology. 

To download Anne’s full thesis “Reconciling Faith and Action for Genuinely Christian Mission” on Academia go to https://www.academia.edu/114527097/Reconciling_Faith_and_Action_for_Genuinely_Christian_Mission_An_Ethnographic_Analysis_of_Evangelical_and_Reformed_Congregations_in_the_Uniting_Church_NSW

[1].  Chris Walker, “The Uniting Church and the Reformed Tradition,” in Being & Doing Church (Chris Walker; 222 Pitt Street, Sydney: Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia, 2015); David W Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History From the 1730s to the 1980s (E-copy; London and New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2005), 10.  

[2]  Chris Walker, “The Uniting Church and the Reformed Tradition,” 65.

[3]  Chris Walker, “The Uniting Church and the Reformed Tradition,” 66.

[4] 1 John 4:19 (ISV).

[5]  Uniting Church in Australia, The Basis of Union (1992), Paragraph 3.

[6]  Uniting Church in Australia, The Basis of Union (1971), Paragraph 5.

[7] James Haire, “Facing the Challenges.” ACCatalyst 10, no. 6 (December 2018): 19–22.

[8]  James Haire, “Facing the Challenges.” ACCatalyst 10, no. 6 (December 2018): 19–22.

[9]  The First Joint Commission on Church Union set up by The Congregational Union of Australia and New Zealand and The Methodist Church of Australasia and The Presbyterian Church of Australia, The Faith of the Church: The Report of the Joint Commission on Church Union (Melbourne: Joint Board of Graded Lessons of Australia and New Zealand, 1957), 42.

[10]  David Withers, “The Basis of Union: A Missionary Vision for Uniting Church Congregations,” Uniting Church Studies 2 (2017): 76.

[11]  Uniting Church in Australia, The Basis of Union (1971), Paragraph 10.

[12]  Uniting Church in Australia, Act2: The Gift of the Spirit July 2024, https://act2uca.com/report/gift-of-the-spirit/

[13]  Keith Suter, “The Future of the Uniting Church in Australia: The Application of Scenario Planning to the Creation of Four ‘Futures’ for the Uniting Church in Australia.’” (PhD Thesis. Sydney University, 2013), 161.


  1. Interesting. I am sure the congregations and ministry leaders who are members of the Propel Network would dispute Anne’s point of view that is advocated in point 6. Now that the rabid voices amongst the evangelicals have gone elsewhere, the UCA is well able to “get on with things” with a wide spectrum of perspectives under the one umbrella. This, as I understand it, was a key aim in the Basis of Union and the formation of the UCA. We have so much in common, even if there are some sharp differences.

  2. That comment by Squires is quite inaccurate. The churches who joined Propel network did so in order to be able to function. It is hardly a happy arrangement.
    It is a way of proceeding without losing your property. Church properties now “owned” (once entrusted in good faith) by the UCA have been used to retain congregations large and small. If that were not a factor the UCA would be a tiny fly speck on the national map. Evangelicals remaining do so as a semi-convenient awkward arrangement. It is no happy “marriage”. Only the politically victorious progressives would kid themselves that it is.

    • Well said, and absolutely accurate.

  3. Thanks Anne for your thesis. I’m no theologian but I’ve followed this debate for many years. Interesting reading the comments. We reap what we sow.

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