The Theological Cultures of the Uniting Church and Social Justice


Dr Mark Zirnsak

About the Author

Dr Mark Zirnsak is the Senior Social Justice Advocate with the Uniting Church in Australia, Synod of Victoria and Tasmania.


There is not one theological culture in the Uniting Church. There are theological cultures. So, any reflection on the theological cultures of the Uniting Church can only ever capture a partial view. It is just like standing outside one of our church buildings. What you will see is dependent on where you stand.

That said, there are undoubtedly some dominant theological cultural strains in the Uniting Church. Starting with some of the positive aspects, we are a church that tries to take theological integrity seriously, at least most of the time. I remember being pleasantly surprised when a government minister I was meeting with on a social justice issue said that one thing that made the Uniting Church stand out was we advocated for the well-being of people other than ourselves. We were not a church that only spoke to the government on issues aligned with the institution’s self-interest.

For the most part, we pride ourselves on inclusivity while lamenting that more members of the broader Australian community do not take up the invitation for us to include them.

Social justice is seen to be a vital part of the theological culture of the Uniting Church. However, there is not one theological underpinning to social justice within the Uniting Church. There is also no agreement on the church’s role in pursuing social justice. For all the talk and commitment to social justice within the Uniting Church, there has never been an agreed definition of “social justice” within the church. In the way “social justice” is used by different parts of the Uniting Church, it can include:

  • Structural change in society to make society more just and fair to promote the well-being of people and the natural environment;
  • Advocacy in individual cases of injustice, exploitation and oppression; and,
  • Community service and charitable works.

In recent years, as congregations have felt social expectation within the church to be involved in social justice, there has been a broadening of activities defined as “social justice”.

Just as there is no one definition of social justice within the Uniting Church, there is not one theological underpinning to social justice. The Statement to the Nation from the 1977 Inaugural National Assembly meeting set broad social justice principles for the Uniting Church to pursue its mission. However, it did not provide a detailed theological explanation for its adopted principles. Resolutions of the National Assembly and Synod meetings often take positions on particular social justice issues. At the same time, they rarely prescribe the theological pathway to the position adopted. There are usually several theological pathways to arrive at each position. The Councils rarely assert a single theological pathway to reach the position.

The Uniting Church in Australia allows for a wide range of theological beliefs and positions. Fortunately, the diversity in such positions usually still allows the Councils of the Uniting Church to reach agreed positions on important social justice issues. Even more impressive, such positions on social justice issues are often adopted by consensus.

There are still parts of the Uniting Church that wish the church to play a prophetic role in our society when it comes to social justice. However, data from the 2021 Australian Community Survey run by the National Church Life Survey found that only 28% of Australians believed churches had a role in challenging societal injustice.1 Further, only 11% thought that churches should give public comment on political issues.2 These pitifully low figures mean that churches that manage to speak through mainstream media are already starting at a disadvantage in trying to influence public opinion. What is being said needs to be more persuasive than if a more respected body were making the same comment, as churches need to overcome a perceived lack of legitimacy in commenting on social justice issues.

The alternative is for the Uniting Church to support the voices of those with lived experience of the injustice that needs to be addressed. The church can help such people to speak on their own behalf rather than speaking for them.

Further, the church needs to earn its place in offering views on social justice issues that decision-makers or the broader community will seriously consider. For churches to be effective with persuasion, they need to be able to provide evidence to back their position or show insights that others lack. Churches cannot speak with government decision-makers and expect those decision-makers to be persuaded simply because it is representatives of a church speaking.

The Uniting Church’s theological culture leads to an orientation towards compassion. Culturally, the Uniting Church is less likely to be judgemental of people in the many difficult situations they may end up in.

The Uniting Church’s embracing of discernment processes as part of its theological culture aligns with its social justice orientation. Allowing for the possible participation of all people within the church in the discernment of the direction of the church, a message is sent of a belief that God is accessible to all and everyone can have God act within their lives. Such large-scale decision-making processes are increasingly rare within our democratic society. Most corporations and civil society organisations have structures and decision-making processes more aligned to medieval fiefdoms than democratic processes that value the contributions of all.

In my experience, the central Uniting Church theological culture is highly intellectual. Sometimes, it seems that salvation will only be accessible to those with a tertiary education level. Such a cultural orientation contradicts the Uniting Church’s desire to be inclusive. I reflect upon my teenage daughter with autism, who appears incapable of intellectually grasping basic faith concepts. As she will not be able to intellectually meet the belief standards that often appear to be required in the Uniting Church’s theological culture, I am left to ponder where and how she could fully fit within the Uniting Church.

Further, the intellectual nature of the Uniting Church theological culture also runs the risk of feeding the bias that those with formal tertiary education in our society have against people with low formal education. As pointed out by Professor Michael Sandal, one of the most significant prejudices and sense of superiority held by educated people from Northern/Western cultures is against those they regard as uneducated.

In a series of surveys conducted in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Belgium, a team of social psychologists found that tertiary-educated respondents have more bias against less-educated people than they do against other groups that are targets for prejudice. The researchers surveyed the attitudes of well-educated Europeans towards a range of people who are typically targets of discrimination – Muslims, people of Turkish descent living in Western Europe, people in poverty, the obese, people with disability and the less educated. They found that the poorly educated were disliked most of all.3

In a similar study conducted in the US, the researchers offered a revised list of groups targeted for prejudice, including African Americans, the working class, people in financial poverty, the obese and less educated people. The American respondents also ranked the less educated at the bottom.4

The researchers concluded that well-educated people, as defined by Northern/Western education, are no less biased than less-educated people; “it is rather that [their] targets of prejudice are different.” Moreover, the well-educated are unembarrassed by their prejudice. They may denounce racism and sexism but are unapologetic about their negative attitudes towards the less educated.5

The intellectual theological culture of the Uniting Church risks fostering a similar theological prejudice.

Culturally, we are also at risk of institutionalism. There is an intense yearning across most parts of the Uniting Church for institutional immortality. It is a cause of great lament that the number of people associated with congregations is declining. We have a theological culture that says we should be growing in numbers; if we are not, we are failing in our service for God. As the former Anglican Archbishop of Adelaide, Jeffrey Driver has argued, any organisation that seeks to persist forever and pass on its teaching and traditions is, by definition, an institution.6 Driver warns:

If the church begins to treat its institutional expression as primary and indispensable, then it strays into institutionalism….

When institutionalism becomes the church’s primary self-understanding, then the shortcomings and distortions of institutional expression come to the fore. The gift of order becomes coercive. Leadership is possessed by a positional elite. Community yields to jurisdiction. Cooperation gives way to compliance. Structure becomes a rigid end in itself, subjugating all other functions, so that the teaching role of the church, for example, is limited to a defence of the institutional status quo, and an often narrowly defined orthodoxy becomes a criterion for institutional membership and approval.

Driver does not see the church being an institution as a bad thing, but that safeguards are needed:

… to ensure that the institutional model, with its gifts of order and structure, must be taken into, and indeed serve, the communal and organic – the church as a mystical communion, the church as a sacramental and diaconal community – if that institutional order and structure are not to become rigid and tyrannical.

Driver argues that for power in the church to play a positive role, it must be held in check by a constructive critique of that power. He states that power in the church needs to be used for the good of others.

The desire for institutional immortality can lead to a desperate thrashing around in search of the magic formula of actions, projects and programs that will bring people through the doors of our churches. The alternative would be to focus on what it means to exist as faithfully as possible, setting a model of what it means to seek to be a reflection of God’s love in and for the world. By not focusing on the desire to be immortal as an institution, we can also be more open to seeing God’s actions in the world around us. We may need to accept that the Uniting Church will not live forever. However, we can take comfort that God will still break into the world without us. All the more reason to live as faithfully as possible with what time we have left.

My final point is one of concern. The increasing culture of managing risk and compliance with legal obligations is drowning out a missional focus within the Uniting Church. While the church’s financial resources have declined, at the same time, an increasing proportion of those resources available are being directed away from missional activities to activities about managing risks and legal compliance. Such a focus is understandable when poor systems have in the past led to serious harm to people, such as cases of child sexual abuse. There have also been cases of gross financial mismanagement or criminal fraud. There is also an increasing level of legal compliance being required by governments in response to churches and other community organisations having failed to protect the well-being of the people they are supposed to serve. However, taken too far, managing risk and legal compliance stifle the desire of the Uniting Church to be risk-taking in the service of God. It can burden people in the church at all levels with tasks that carry little real value in managing risks while draining the time, energy, motivation and resources of those who would otherwise be using those gifts in the service of the Uniting Church’s sense of mission. In the social justice space, the risk-averse culture leads to frustration amongst some members that the Uniting Church has become too timid to speak up on issues of injustice.

In conclusion, there are many positive aspects to the existing Uniting Churches theological cultures. However, the road ahead has many challenges, especially as the church wrestles with declining formal membership of the Uniting Church. Our challenge will be to discern the most faithful response to the evolving situation we find ourselves in.


  1. “Roles for religious organisations”, National Church Life Survey, accessed 10 April 2023, ↩︎
  2. Ibid. ↩︎
  3. Michael Sandal, The Tyranny of Merit. What’s Become of the Common Good? (UK: Penguin Books, 2021), 95. ↩︎
  4. Ibid., 95 ↩︎
  5. Ibid., 95-96. ↩︎
  6. Jeffrey Driver, Grey Spaces. Searching Out the Church in the Shadow of Abuse, (Cascade Books, 2022). ↩︎