Rev Dr Benji Callen

About the Author

A congregational minister since 2010 with a passion for helping to lead Uniting Church congregations that have healthy, disciple making cultures for all generations. Currently in placement at Burnside City Uniting Church, Adelaide. He has loved serving in both rural and urban communities with an unshakable interest in youth ministry, engaging creative worship and a belief that the why informs the how. He has served on various committees at local, presbytery, synod and assembly levels. Prior to full time ministry, he thoroughly enjoyed research science particularly in the field of molecular biology which included a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Adelaide University.


Why talk about the gospel in context of Act2 and the Uniting Church in Australia?

The Gospel or Good News is foundational to all we’ve done, are doing and will do. The Uniting Church’s foundational documents all align to build a comprehensive argument that any future directions regarding the polity and renewal of the organisation of the church need to first be grounded in an understanding of the Gospel.

The Uniting Church Statement to the Nation made at the inaugural Assembly states: “In the Uniting Church our response to the Christian gospel will continue to involve us in social and national affairs.”

In our first public statement to all those who would listen, we said that it’s the Christian Gospel that compels us to act in the public sphere. So what is the Gospel?

A precursor document to Union entitled “The faith of the church”, written in 1959, envisaged an Australian church that would have a special global responsibility. The authors wrote, “Whether in her own industrial or rural society in Australia, or in the fulfilment of obligations undertaken towards the Aboriginals within her borders, or in the edification of the Church overseas, the Church in Australia needs a fuller and clearer grasp of the gospel, and all that that implies.1 So over 70 years later how well have we gone in reaching a fuller and clearer grasp of the gospel?

The Basis of Union (BoU) instructs that each of the councils of governance within the Uniting Church are to give heed to each other “so that the whole body of believers may be united by mutual submission in the service of the Gospel.”2 Thus the starting point of a conversation around renewal of our government structures should then be around what “in the service of the Gospel” means.

Further to this, Paragraph 17, titled “Law in the church”, is the paragraph with the most references to the word “Gospel”. Including: “The Uniting Church will keep its law under constant review so that its life may increasingly be directed to the service of God and humanity, and its worship to a true and faithful setting forth of, and response to, the Gospel of Christ.” It’s in response and service to the ‘demand’ of the Gospel of Christ that we keep our law under constant review and revision.

The Basis of Union compels the Uniting Church of today to begin with a clear and unifying understanding of the Gospel. Only from this grounding can any further Act2 conversations and any future thoughts of renewal, particularly regarding our governance and law, hope to achieve the vision set out for the Uniting Church as pilgrims along the way.

So what is the Gospel?

Firstly, it should not be unique or new but ancient and universal. The Gospel is both universal and deeply personal. It’s the ancient truth that brings a new creation. Contrary to Bill Hybels, I believe it’s the Gospel and not the church that is the hope of the world. To be relevant and meaningful, the Gospel should always be expressed in language that keeps the context in mind. It is primarily Good News for people about Jesus and just like the birth of the church at that first Pentecost event, the hope is always that people will hear the Gospel in their own ‘native tongue’. The Gospel should cut to the heart, engage the mind and free the spirit. Its language and presentation should adapt to the people of the time. However, whenever the Gospel is starting to sound like something innovative then it’s probably not the Gospel.

Unsurprisingly and wonderfully, there are some helpful clues of how we are to understand the Gospel in the BoU.

Paragraph 7 gives a very clear command from Jesus to his Church that we are “to proclaim the Gospel both in words and in the visible acts of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.”3 These sacraments are “effective signs of the Gospel set forth in the Scriptures.”4 The first task listed for Minister of the Word and for those called of God to particular ministries (including ministers, elders, deacons and lay preachers) is to “preach the Gospel”.5 So, the Gospel is to be found in scripture, in what we preach and hear and what happens in Baptism and Communion. In these it is very clear that the Gospel is all about Jesus.

Speaking to one of those who co-authored the first Uniting in Worship there was much discussion around how to best distil the Gospel into a few words that would become the centre point of the communion liturgy. To this they concluded with the following three lines:

“Christ has died.

Christ is risen.

Christ will come again.”

This is a helpful summary, though some would be left wondering why Jesus’ life before his death doesn’t get a mention.

The communion liturgy in Uniting in Worship 2 just after the “Holy, holy, holy Lord” and right before the narrative of institution has a wonderful, expanded version that’s well worth dwelling on:

We thank you that you called a covenant people 
to be a light to the nations.

Through Moses you taught us to love your law,
and in the prophets you cried out for justice.
In the fullness of your mercy
you became one with us in Jesus Christ,
who gave himself up for us on the cross.

You make us alive together with him,
that we may rejoice in his presence and share his peace.

By water and the Spirit
you open the kingdom to all who believe,
and welcome us to your table:
for by grace we are saved, through faith.6

This liturgy highlights there is a great rejoicing to be found in the Gospel. The footnote for the second paragraph references thanksgiving for the work of Christ as based on Ephesians 2:4-8; which is a beautiful passage that warms the soul.

Some may note that the communion liturgy is careful to exclude references to being “all dead in our sin” (Ephesians 2:5). Though, it does clearly talk about salvation by grace, and grace by definition of unmerited love can only be given if we have done something un-loving, un-worthy or sinful.

Paragraph 3 of the Basis of Union is also known as “the basis of the Basis”7. It’s all about Jesus. It’s the Gospel, and personally, is the one paragraph in all Uniting Church documentation I’ve ever read that still calls me to affirm deep within my spirit that I am in the right place as a Minister of the Word. And yes, for those who go looking for it, sin is mentioned. Here it is in part:

The Church preaches Christ the risen crucified One and confesses him as Lord to the glory of God the Father. 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.

Jesus of Nazareth announced the sovereign grace of God whereby the poor in spirit could receive God’s love. Jesus himself, in his life and death, made the response of humility, obedience and trust which God had long sought in vain. In raising him to live and reign, God confirmed and completed the witness which Jesus bore to God on earth, reasserted claim over the whole of creation, pardoned sinners, and made in Jesus a representative beginning of a new order of righteousness and love.8

So is this Gospel unique?

One of the defining characteristics of the Uniting Church is its active uni-ting-ness rather than the static uni-ted. We’re ‘tingly’ rather than ‘tedly’. That means we began with, have continued to be and always will have a heart that beats for ecumenism. Do we have an ecumenical approach to our understanding of the Gospel? It seems like this would be a foundational basis for any type of ‘tingly’ relationship. According to the ‘Desiring God’ website, a well-used website for many churches globally, “The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died for our sins and rose again, eternally triumphant over his enemies, so that there is now no condemnation for those who believe, but only everlasting joy. That’s the gospel.”9 I wonder how well this statement resonates with the people of the Uniting Church?

As a student of Andrew Dutney we were taught that our churches’ worship is an expression of our churches’ theology. One of the papers in this series submitted by Rev David MacGregor is titled “Tell Me What You Sing, and I’ll Tell You Who You Are!”. The transition to live church from COVID-19 lockdowns gave us this experimental phase of worship without congregational singing. For many of us, this was about as inspiring as drinking decaffeinated coffee! We discovered just how much we need to sing together in worship to feed our spirit and lift our hearts. So then, how do the lyrics of songs we love to sing today help us clarify the Gospel?

At the time of writing, CCLI reports that the top songs played in a broad cross-section of Australian churches are the Psalm-based praise song “10,000 reasons” at number 1 and “King of Kings” at number 2. In an interview with the writers of King of Kings they explained the purpose of the song was to summarise the Gospel. “We hope and we pray that the song articulates the heart of the Gospel and the story of the church, starting with the birth of Jesus and through Pentecost essentially and then placing ourselves within that story, with the birth of the Church and our salvation stories.”10

The song includes the lyric: “Now this gospel truth of old/ shall not kneel, shall not faint”. They comment:

“I love the declaration that the Gospel is not swayed or diluted by any new philosophy that comes along. In the culture we are living in now, to remind ourselves that the Gospel does not grow tired or weary or less relevant is a cool thing to remind ourselves of…Look at Christ, the Son of God, bloodied for your sin and the sin of all humanity, repent and believe and take your place in the story of all stories, the story of the King of Kings.”

This is a song sung by many people today in the wider church of Australia. Our ecumenical friends are singing:

To reveal the kingdom coming
And to reconcile the lost
To redeem the whole creation
You did not despise the cross
For even in Your suffering
You saw to the other side
Knowing this was our salvation
Jesus for our sake You died

I wonder if this expression of the Gospel resonates with our Uniting Church congregations as much as it does with a majority of churches in Australia? Or do we prefer another song? Maybe Craig Mitchell’s modern classic, God of Creation, is the more preferred style? If we focus on the verse about Jesus:

Jesus, Companion
teacher and healer
friend of the grieving,
suffering, the poor
Stand with your people
whisper among us
promise of mercy
goodness for all11

These words fill in well the gaps of the life of Jesus before the cross. However, they are not about the cross or the resurrection. I have found it a challenge to find “Uniting Church” lyrics about the risen, crucified one. So, in our singing we are already seeing both the unity and diversity of the Gospel focus. I invite you to examine your last few worship services. Did you sing more about Jesus’ life or the risen crucified one?

When it comes THE Gospel, it’s the ‘THE’ which can cause both great unity and great division. THE implies a singular Gospel, but according to whom? In the Uniting Church we are in danger of claiming that unity is the Gospel. Unity is not the Gospel, but the Gospel is surely what unifies us, or is it? We all affirm Jesus, however there have often been controversies around exactly what he said and did. All would agree Christ has died but we differ on why. All would agree that Christ has risen, but we differ on how. When it comes to Christ’s return, I’m not sure we talk about it very much except to confer with the scriptures that no one knows when, but we better get ready. It’s understanding how we get ready that the differences arise.

I also wonder about differences in our common understanding of humanity. We all agree humanity needs saving by Christ, but we would disagree as to what we need saving from: sin, shame, diminished image of God, captivity, addiction, personal immorality, community oppression, disease (physical, spiritual, psychological, societal), broken relationships (with God, ourselves, others and creation) or being lost and lonely. Perhaps we would tick all the above.

We all agree with the need of salvation, but would we agree that humans are fundamentally sinful or good? What’s our starting point? If we all agree that God’s grace is big rather than small, then surely the starting point of humanity is low rather high. I would hope that we can all conclude that salvation is in Jesus the crucified risen one and that the beginning point to our response to the gospel of Christ is one of humility. Also, that the end point is unity with Christ which is full of love, joy, peace and abundant life.

Although the end result of the Gospel is a unifying hope, church history is coloured with differences in opinion about how one receives salvation and when that hope, light, life will appear and who’s responsible for it. All would agree that the Gospel is transformative, but how, and who’s responsible for that transformation? When we pray “your kingdom come” does the Gospel say it’s up to Jesus’ sovereignty or the responsibility lies with the church today? Of course, the best theological answer is that it is a co-working with the risen Jesus, empowered by the Spirit. Though I see differences within our Uniting Churches as to whether that co-working is equally weighted or not.

So where is the point of unification for our Uniting Church? I hope it is at the least the Gospel that Jesus Christ came, died, rose again and will come again and that this will ultimately give humans an eternal right relationship with God. Jesus by the power of the Holy brings a transformation towards love, joy, peace and abundant life (ie. the reconciliation of all things through Jesus). Do we perceive the other differences as fundamental or periphery?

What the Gospel is not.

To be provocative, the Gospel is not about inclusivity. Yes, Jesus reached out to all, especially the oppressed and marginalised. But like it or not, his message was one of exclusivity within the context of welcome and love to all. Everyone is welcome and not everyone will make it. He used many metaphors to say a similar thing: there will be sheep and goats, edible and inedible fish, wheat and weeds, vine branches attached or pruned—and dare we mention the weeping and gnashing of teeth? We don’t want to think about it too much, but these are not messages of everyone is accepted and included. We believe in a God who loves justice and equally rails against injustice. That same quality of God is seen in the Gospel.

If Jesus and the church accepted everyone and everything then where is the opportunity for social justice? Or moral correction? As a loving parent there are some things I can’t accept from my kids. For example, illegal drugs in the home, or violence towards each other. We are not called to be accepting and inclusive towards murder or oppression or name calling. Likewise, we are not called to be accepting and inclusive towards social and community issues like systematic oppression or abuse of the poor. The difference is that one is societal and the other is personal. It’s God’s justice that calls us to not accept and to exclude ideas and behaviours. The challenge for a Christian and others is to be able to still see this as love, deep love, in a society that would say otherwise. Acceptance and inclusion are not the gospel, but for anyone willing to accept the gospel, they are included.

Wait, isn’t it all about mission?

Certainly, conversations about mission have dominated the chat rooms of our Uniting Church over the last two decades, with very good reason. I have found they often lose momentum when it reaches the point of putting mission into practice. Aside from a lack of boldness and confidence, I wonder if it’s rooted in a lack of clarity and common understanding around what is the Gospel. Mission is what we do, and what we do comes from what we believe about ourselves and who we think we are. The Gospel defines our identity in Christ.

A Gospel focussed primarily on the life and activity of Jesus will naturally lead to a mission that looks like trying to replicate what Jesus read from the unrolled scroll of Isaiah (Luke 4:18-19). Whereas a Gospel focussed on personal salvation, thanks to the death and resurrection of Jesus, will naturally have a missional understanding about other people’s personal salvation. Perhaps, instead of these two options, could the touchstone for our common mission be a common understanding around the Gospel as focussed on the reconciliation of all things through Christ, the risen crucified one who will come again in glory? The only problem is that the word ‘reconciliation’ doesn’t fit well lyrically into congregational singing.

Lesslie Newbigin beautifully expresses mission as the Gospel which leads to an explosion of joy that can’t be contained.

Mission begins with a kind of explosion of joy. The news that the rejected and crucified Jesus is alive is something that cannot possibly be suppressed. It must be told. Who could be silent about such a fact? The mission of the Church in the pages of the New Testament is more like the fallout from a vast explosion, a radioactive fallout which is not lethal but life-giving. One searches in vain through the letters of St. Paul to find any suggestion that he anywhere lays it on the conscience of his readers that they ought to be active in mission. For himself it is inconceivable that he could keep silent. “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16). But nowhere do we find him telling his readers that they have a duty to do so.12


It’s the Gospel that allowed 3 denominations to come together in 1977. The opening statement of the Basis of Union confesses that “none of them has responded to God’s love with a full obedience; they look for a continuing renewal in which God will use their common worship, witness and service to set forth the word of salvation for all people”. We could only enter Union as a humble response to the Gospel of reconciliation thanks to Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and promised return. The Uniting Church has a particular emphasis on the message of reconciliation within that Gospel. We are a people of peace, the peace of Christ has reconciled us and as we walk together in a peace that nothing else on this earth can give us, we walk together as peacemakers blessed by God and empowered by the Spirit in the knowledge that we are children of God. Whatever the future holds for the Uniting Church, I cannot turn away from the Gospel that compels me to work towards reconciliation of all things through Christ.


  1. Theology for Pilgrims, p 39 ↩︎
  2. Basis of Union, Paragraph 15 ↩︎
  3. Basis of Union, Paragraph 7 ↩︎
  4. Basis of Union, Paragraph 6 ↩︎
  5. Basis of Union, Paragraph 14 ↩︎
  6. Uniting in Worship, p 177 ↩︎
  7. Geoff Thompson, “In His Own Strange Way” p 25 ↩︎
  8. Basis of Union, paragraph 3 ↩︎
  9. ↩︎
  10. ↩︎
  11. Craig Mitchell, God of Creation, ↩︎
  12. Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society ↩︎