CLTC Aerial view by Philip Church

Some Reflections on a Visit to PNG after 48 Years

In 1970, as a newly married couple, my wife and I visited New Guinea, as it was then known.

The island was divided into three parts: the western half was known as Irian Jaya, now West Papua and the eastern half was divided into New Guinea in the north and Papua in the South. [1] With self-government, followed by independence from Australia, in the mid-70s, the two eastern parts were united to form Papua New Guinea. Indonesia adopted the name West Papua for the eastern part of the island, making clear its aspirations for control over the entire island, a message that is somewhat muted today. We went sometime around Easter 1970. After arriving in Port Moresby, we flew to Mt Hagen via Goroka by DC3, stayed with a young John and Ann Hitchen. John was Dean of the Christian Leaders’ Training College (CLTC, This was before they went to Aberdeen for John’s PhD Studies. We travelled by truck down the Highlands Highway to Lae with Norman Bartlett, and after a few days there we flew back to Port Moresby (again by DC3) and home again.

 Only a few memories of that trip are clear in my mind. I was at the time in the process of escaping from my Exclusive Brethren upbringing. I had no idea of Christian scholarship, and John was the first person I ever met with a degree in theology, a BD. My journey in Christian scholarship was not to start for another four years when Neville Taylor, the then Principal of the NZ Assembly Bible School, now Pathways College of Bible and Mission ( allowed me to join his New Testament Greek evening classes. I was ignorant of what was going on at CLTC and didn’t take the time to ask. I do recall the name of the one indigenous person I met in PNG, a CLTC staff member by the name of Joshua Daimoi. Joshua was the College’s first indigenous Principal and is now Principal Emeritus. Later he completed a PhD at the University of Western Sydney, investigating the relationship between Melanesian beliefs in ancestral spirits and the Christian gospel.[2] He now lives in Port Moresby and I was unable to encounter him again.

The road between CLTC and Lae was unsealed and very rough – the 433 km journey took about 12 hours. Google Maps tells me that it would take about eight and a half hours today. My abiding memories are the people. We would stop the truck in the middle of nowhere and almost immediately twenty to thirty people would appear out of the bush. They wore simple clothing, a sort of belt around the waist with a narrow apron hanging down the front and a small branch of a tree with leaves (“as-gras”) tucked in the back. The women were all bare breasted, like the pictures I had looked at in the National Geographic as a boy. The people would let you take a photo for ten cents (Australian currency), but, alas, all the photos are long since gone. Lae was the hottest and most humid place I had ever experienced, and the ceiling fans were totally ineffective. The only other thing I remember about Lae was the swimming pool at the Hotel Cecil, known locally as the “Cesspool.”

I recently returned and spent eighteen days at CLTC. Things have changed in the last forty-eight years, and I offer a few reflections on my more recent visit.

I travelled several times along the Highlands Highway between CLTC and Mt Hagen, the third largest city in the country (population around 45,000). PNG has a population of around eight million and is predominantly rural, with maybe less than half a million living in urban centres. That section of road did not exist in 1970. Now it is a sealed road, although every few hundred metres the seal has broken up and been left unrepaired. There are massive potholes and all the vehicles have to slow to a crawl. The side road to the town of Banz and CLTC leaves the Highway at Kudjip where there is a large market selling everything from fruit and vegetables to clothing and live hens. One night somebody felled two large trees between Banz and Kudjip, and left them lying right across the road. It was closed for about three days. That sort of thing happens from time to time, apparently as a money-making scheme for the locals. They block the road, and then charge a fee to help vehicles through the roadblock. This illustrates the lack of law and order in the country. I am told that it is too dangerous for tourists to drive between Mt Hagen and Lae, with the danger of being hijacked and robbed by the local “raskols”, the Tok Pisin (pidgin) word for criminal gangs. There are still people everywhere, walking along the road or selling their produce from makeshift stalls, or just hanging around. They all wear western clothing now.

Christianity has had a big influence in PNG. The most recent census (2011) indicated that 95.6 percent of the population identified as Christian, although this is hard to square with the lack of law and order. I learn from Daimoi’s thesis that every village in PNG has a church in a prominent place, and that Christian principles are enshrined in the PNG Constitution (pp. 6-7). Nevertheless, from my discussion with students and others I formed the opinion that many people seem to be Christian in name only.

During this visit I went to one of those village churches and it was filled, probably, with everybody from the village in attendance. Some were sitting outside until the pastor went out and “compelled” them to come in. I understand that many were there because “that is what you do on Sunday.” On the other Sunday I was taken on a five-hour drive in the bush to visit several other village churches. In one village there were three churches within 100 metres. Factionalism seems to be endemic and when somebody is unhappy with the status quo it is easy just to start another church.[3]

Ancestors are a significant part of life in PNG. I ought to have recognised this, living as I do in Aotearoa New Zealand, where one’s whakapapa includes mention of one’s ancestors. Several times I noticed graves in a prominent place in a village, sometimes under a shelter and often elaborately decorated. The need to honour the ancestors and maintain relationships with them is central, and they are consulted when important decisions need to be taken.[4]

I was invited to work with the two current cohorts of MTh students at CLTC. (See the image below) There were five students in the first-year cohort and seven in their second year. I taught research methods to the first-year cohort and helped the second year cohort with their thesis proposals. I was ignorant of theological education in 1970 so I can’t say what was happening at CLTC then. But it does seem to have come a long way from its small beginnings in 1965. I don’t need to repeat what has been written elsewhere, rather I refer to two essays by my Laidlaw College colleague, Dr John Hitchen.

Hitchen chronicles the development of the academic side of the College from offering a four year Certificate level qualification in 1965 to the present day, with the College accredited by the PNG Government to offer bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theology.[5] Two statistics stand out. First, over 1,500 graduates of the College are working throughout Melanesia and other parts of the Pacific. Some have served as members of the PNG House of Assembly (Parliament). Secondly, I have a list of almost 200 BTh and MTh theses written at the College from 1979 to 2017. These theses represent a significant achievement both for the students and the College as their work opens fresh pathways in reflection and study of their own cultures and religious heritage, thereby making it accessible to the wider world of biblical and theological scholarship. We welcome and look forward to hearing much more from these distinctive Melanesian voices contributing to global discussion in the days ahead. I note too that CLTC has only two full-time faculty members from Western countries; the remainder are Melanesian scholars, most of whom have MTh qualifications and some with doctoral level qualifications.

The academic programme is only part of the work of the College. CLTC has attempted to be self-sustaining over that time. At present there is a farm with beef cattle and a small abattoir, a poultry business, formerly operated by the College, but now operated by a third party in premises leased from the College, and rice production. Prior to that there was a trucking business and a timber mill, and at other times there has been pig production, supplying pigs to the local communities, an agricultural training programme and technical and trade training programmes.[6] A name that comes to mind in connection with all these initiatives is a Kiwi, Garth Morgan, who has been involved with the College since the very beginning, and who was visiting when I was there, working on ongoing issues with the poultry production. Always self-effacing, Garth will deny it, but to my mind he has had a massive influence on these aspects of the College’s work.

So, what did I learn? Two things come to mind. First, God has been at work in PNG over the past half-century. The development of this College and the work of the graduates is ample testimony to that. Secondly, I learned things about contextualisation in theological studies. Two examples stand out. I have photographs that come up on my computer as a screen saver. At one point a photograph of a house I had formerly owned came up and I explained that I had sold it. The students were incredulous that I should sell my land. They have a connection to land like the Māori and like the Old Testament people of God. Like Naboth they would say, “The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance” (1 Kings 21:3).

The other example is connected with a thesis that one of the students is writing. He told me of the belief in his culture (PNG has over 800 languages, and therefore over 800 cultures) of a supreme God called Ngin-ndreii art papu su, which translates to the “God of my ancestors.” He will argue in his thesis that God had revealed himself to his ancestors as this supreme God to prepare their hearts to receive the gospel of Jesus Christ.

After spending some time with this student, I bought two Kindle books by former Canadian missionary Don Richardson: Eternity in Their Hearts and Peace Child.[7] In Eternity in their Hearts, Richardson starts with Genesis 14 where the Canaanite priest Melchizedek is identified as priest of El Elyon, the Most High God. When Abraham responds to Melchizedek he identifies El Elyon as YHWH (Gen 14:22). Then Richardson turns to Acts 17, where Paul identifies the “unknown God” of Athens as “the God who made the world and everything in it … [the] Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17:24). Richardson argues that these two texts indicate that God had revealed himself to these two cultures (Canaan and Athens) in such a way as to prepare them for the coming of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I didn’t find the rest of the book very well-written, but Richardson does go through numerous cultures around the world demonstrating the same ideas. None of this had ever occurred to me before, but I think he is right.

Peace Child is much better written. It is a biographical account of Richardson’s work with the Sawi tribe of West Papua between 1962 and 1972, work that was going on when I was in New Guinea in 1970. The book’s title refers to a tribal custom of exchanging two children between warring tribes to make peace, peace that would endure as long as the children lived. Richardson sees an analogy here of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself. It was this custom, which Richardson observed, that enabled him to explain the gospel to the tribespeople in a way that led to the first members becoming followers of Jesus.

God has been at work in PNG (and West Papua) to be sure. But not only in the twentieth century. God was there millennia ago preparing the hearts of these wonderful people for the arrival of the gospel among their many cultures.

Philip Church is a former editor of Stimulus and Senior Lecturer at Laidlaw College. His most recent publication is "Hebrews and the Temple" (Brill 2017). 

[1] I am grateful to Dr John Hitchen for his helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article.

[2] Joshua Daimoi, “An Exploratory Missiological Study of Melanesian Ancestral Heritage from an Indigenous Evangelical Perspective,” PhD Thesis, School of Studies in Religion, University of Sydney, NSW, Australia, 2004.

[3] Cf. John Hitchen, “When different teachings divide the Jesus family: reading First Timothy in context,” in Living in the Family of Jesus: Critical C0ntextualisation in Melanesia and Beyond; Archer Studies in Pacific Christianity (Auckland: Archer, 2016), 173, who comments on the same phenomenon.

[4] Daimoi writes, “At my birth, I was named Kurung after my grandfather. The name Kurung identified me with my primal religion and ancestral background. In a primal society, when I inherited my grandfather’s name I became intimately one with him, our lives merged together. My grandfather represents my history, my belief, and my future inheritance. My grandfather is my guardian throughout my life. As long as I do my best to honour and care for him, he, through his spirit, will protect me and provide for me. Through the concept of reciprocity, we became intractably bound to each other” (Exploratory Missiological Study, 13).

[5] See John Hitchen, “Evangelicals Equipping Melanesian Men and Women: An Interpretation of the Training Ministries of the Christian Leaders’ Training College of Papua New Guinea, 1965–2010,” in Tim Meadowcroft and Myk Habets (Eds.) Gospel, Truth & Interpretation: Evangelical Identity in Aotearoa New Zealand (Auckland: Archer, 2011): 110-136

[6] For the details, John Hitchen, “The Christian Leaders’ Training College of PNG – A Case Study of a Christian Contribution to Economic Development and to Theological Change at Worldview and Social Imaginary Levels for Sustainable Development in Melanesia,” a paper presented at the “Woven Together” Conference on Christianity and Development in the Pacific, Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand June 2016.

[7] Don Richardson, Eternity in Their Hearts (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2005 [1981]); Peace Child (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2005 [1974]).