Church moderator 'humbled' by role

News Letter churches correspondent BILLY KENNEDY meets the new Free Presbyterian Moderator the Rev Ron Johnstone and explores his religious calling and vision for life

The Rev Ron Johnstone is a man very comfortable in his role as Moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church.

A big man, but not quite as towering in height as his predecessor the Rev Dr Ian Paisley, the Armagh-based cleric is "quite humbled, and honoured" to be elevated to the leadership of a church he has served faithfully for upwards of 40 years.

"I have been greatly encouraged by the many messages of support I have received from people within the Free Presbyterian Church, and in the wider sphere of society, since my election last week-end and I will continue to do my best to serve the Lord in His ministry and the church. That is my calling in life," he said.

The 58-year-old Belfast-born pastor (he's a proud Sandy Row man) was elected unanimously as Free Presbyterian Moderator by more than 200 ministers and elders, some of them representing congregations on the British mainland, and he said he was heartened by the "great unity that exists in our presbytery".

"As a denomination we will continue to stand without compromise for Jesus Christ and will vigorously oppose any betrayal of His gospel and departure from the Biblical faith and truths.

"We are unashamedly Protestant, following in the footsteps of the Reformers," said Mr Johnstone, describing himself as a Calvinist and a fundamentalist on the teaching of Holy Scripture.

"The Free in our name refers to our total disassociation from those major Presbyterian denominations of the world, which, in our view, have repudiated the historic Christian faith.

"We reject the erroneous teachings of ecumenism, Roman Catholicism, modernism and the Charismatic Movement. but on an individual, personal basis, we extend the love of Jesus Christ and the true message contained in the scriptures to all people," he said.

In a fulsome tribute to the former Moderator and founder of the Free Presbyterian Church, he said: "Dr Paisley has been a faithful leader of the Church for more than 50 years and he has really been blessed in his ministry.

"I have always looked up to him and still do. His name will always be synonymous with the Free Presbyterian Church. He is a very gracious man and he has given me great encouragement and support during my own ministry.

"Dr Paisley will continue to have a prominent role in the Church, and in the presbytery."

He refused to discuss Ian Paisley's current political role and his involvement as First Minister in the power-sharing Assembly Executive.

"I am not a member nor involved in the DUP; my work is in the church and in the spiritual aspect of life, in relation to my congregation in Armagh and wider society.

"There has always been a misconception in the media about the relationship between the Free Presbyterian Church and the DUP.

"We are totally different organisations, and apart from the fact that the Free Presbyterian Moderator had also been the DUP leader, there is no official connection."

Stressing the democratic structures that are the traditional mantra of Presbyterianism: "Democracy is the genius and greatness of Presbyterianism and we operate these principles to the full in the Free Presbyterian Church."

"Dr Paisley had to stand for election every year of his long moderatorship and, undoubtedly, it was his charisma and leadership qualities that afforded him great respect from his ministerial colleagues and elders in the Church," said Mr Johnstone, a former missionary with his wife Raema in Papua New Guinea, which lies to the north of Australia in the Pacific Ocean.

The new Free Presbyterian Moderator has enjoyed his 11-year ministry in the ecclesiastical city of Armagh and, while conscious of the theological differences between his Church and other local denominations, he does enjoy a cordial relationship with other Protestant clergy.

"We have a very faithful congregation of around 300 in Armagh and we were the First Free Presbyterian Church in Co Armagh, established back in the mid-1960s, prospering under the ministry of the now retired the Rev Dr Bert Cooke."

The Johnstone church ministry brings a hectic 24 by 7 schedule, and he fully accepts that there will be an increased workload with his promotion to Moderator.

"We are a sizeable church with close on 15,000 members in 60 congregations spread across Northern Ireland; there are also two congregations in the Republic (Convoy in Co Donegal and Coragarry in Co Monaghan); five in England, three in Scotland, two in Wales, one in Australia and mission stations in Spain and Africa.

"In North America, where an associate presbytery has been established, there are 28 congregations - 20 in the United States and eight in Canada. We also have a worldwide radio outreach operating under the theme Let The Bible Speak (LTBS).

"We have five missionaries working in Kenya; several in Spain and in the Republic of Ireland. I have been invited out to Kenya over the summer to meet with the missionaries there. Happily, our mission is situated in a peaceful part of Kenya and I am looking forward to this visit, to renew fellowship with our folk out there."

The four and a half years spent as missionaries in Papua New Guinea in the 1970s left a deep impression on the Johnstones and it was a solid foundation for Ron's ministry.

"After missionary and linguistics training in the United States, my wife and I were the first missionaries or outsiders to live among a remote Stone Age tribe in the Serpik region of Papua New Guinea. Cannibalism had been practised by the tribe up until a few years before we entered the area.

"It was a traumatic experience dealing with very difficult situations, for example when mothers did not want to accept new-born twins. We had to learn the very difficult language, in a country of three million people with as many as 700 languages, some of which were not written down.

"However, we had a fruitful ministry, financially backed by the Free Presbyterian Church, and that work is still being carried on today by other missionaries from various denominations."

When he returned to Northern Ireland, Ron Johnstone studied theology and Hebrew and Greek at the Free Presbyterian Whitefield College of the Bible in Co Down and moved into parish ministry at Carrickfergus Church; then to Clogher Valley Church in Fivemiletown for five years and Moneyslane Church, Rathfriland for six years. He arrived in Armagh in 1996.

His father Cecil was a Baptist pastor and his sister has been a missionary in Colombia for almost 40 years; Her husband is minister of a church in Bogota with 250 worshippers in attendance.