I have previously discussed the concerns that exist about the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Liberated). These are the sister churches of the Canadian Reformed Churches. The other day, an important letter was posted to a website entitled Gereformeerde Kerken Blijven. The letter is an appeal to the upcoming synod of the RCN. It appears to have been prepared by a number of Dutch ministers, including the well-known Prof. J. Douma. You can find the Dutch original here. Thanks to Arjen Vreugdenhil, I can also provide an English translation below (along with his brief introduction). This is a good reminder to continue in prayer for our Dutch brothers and sisters.
This website, “Gereformeerde Kerk Blijven” [“Remaining a Reformed Church”], is representative of a group of members within the Reformed Churches (“vrijgemaakt”), who are concerned about various developments within these churches in the past two decades. The page states the intention to submit this letter to the General Synod in Ede, which is to meet early 2014 concerning several of the issues. The website invites visitors to sign the letter electronically. Note that this procedure is not in accord with the church polity (which requires appeals to come through consistories, classes, and regional synods), so the synod could reject the letter without further discussion on technical grounds; see the remarks at the end. I have no data about the number of signatures gathered at this moment, but I expect that there will be many (at least a thousand), because this website is well-known among the “concerned”, and the letter is written to reflect the common denominator of this group, while avoiding individual hobbyhorses.
Dear assembly, brothers,
You have been called, as having received authority from those who sent you, to discuss and take decisions in the name of the Reformed churches concerning matters brought to the synod by the churches—“as if the churches in their entirety were themselves present at the synod”. We realize that you must execute your task in a time when the division in the denomination is growing ever greater. That division also increasingly touches upon the foundations of real Reformed church life: the authority of God’s Word and the binding to the Three Forms of Unity.
Concerning this we have much concern and sorrow, and we turn to your assembly to ask for clarity in matters that brought division in the churches. From the churches and through the committee reports various matters lie before you in which that division surfaces. Concretely, we wish to ask you the following questions:
1. Binding to the Reformed creeds
We assume that all Reformed churches and all her ministers, in whatever way that are active for the church(es), must know themselves to be united through their binding to the Reformed creeds. Perhaps this appears unnecessary to state this, for this obligation is clearly documented and generally has been met as long as the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands have existed. But naturally this is no guarantee that this is how it is experienced in the practical life of the church today. Nowadays, a minister like Rev. W. van der Schee can write on his website that “the time of maintaining creeds and church orders is inescapably over.” If he had said that there is more than a formal obligation, then nobody would object. But he did not say that.
Another signal of dwindling interest in strict binding to the confession was the difficulty surrounding the missionary congregation Stroom in Amsterdam. They had indicated that they would not require their office bearers to assent to the creeds. Yet (initially) they wanted to be given a place within the federation of the Reformed Churches (“vrijgemaakt”). They also wanted to wait for the discussion that is held within the classis of Amsterdam-Leiden regarding the Form of Subscription.
These two situations give us boldness to ask you for clarification: Are the Reformed churches still churches that may and must be reminded of their duty to fulfill the vows given to one another in regard to their Reformed foundation?
2. The authority of the Holy Scriptures
In the churches questions have been asked concerning the authority of the Holy Scriptures, and especially their historical reliability. Several parties raised objections to the appointment of Dr. S. Paas as professor at the Theological University in Kampen, in the basis of statements in his dissertation Schepping en Oordeel [“Creation and Judgment”] and elsewhere. None of these parties ever received a material response to the theological-exegetical objections they brought forward against the views of Dr. Paas. The rector and clerk of the Theological University had promised in De Reformatie of April 28, 2009 that a declaration was forthcoming that would deal with these objections. But that declaration did not come. The University organized a conference that suggested that professors at this University would address the objections. In the lectures of these conferences no direct answer is to be found.
The situation became even more complicated when in 2010 Koert van Bekkum defended his dissertation, From Conquest to Coexistence, at the University. According to the author, the miracle of Joshua 10, of the lengthening of a day, need not actually have taken place. But that view was never defended by Reformed theologians. They all took their starting point in the fact of this miracle, as for instance H. Bavinck states in his Reformed Dogmatics (II, §271). It was remarkable that after the ceremony two professors at the University publically dismissed Van Bekkum’s view on exegetical grounds.
They did so in a letter to the Nederlands Dagblad of April 9, 2010, and in an article titled “De langste dag” [The Longest Day] in De Reformatie of April 9, 2010. It is disappointing how one of them, Dr. E.A. de Boer, responded later (in 2012) to another assault on the historicity of Scripture’s narrative. In their Christelijke Dogmatiek, G. van de Brink and C. van der Kooi presented a rather objectionable image of the Fall. They suggest (p. 278) that there was a first human race of about 5000 to 10 000 people, who became aware of their divine destination, with the possibility “to deviate from it deliberately”. Those first people must have had “a primitive moral consciousness, in which they (however vaguely) were aware of good and evil in the light of God’s commandment.” De Boer’s reaction: “You can think of Adam and Eve as clan leaders of the first group of people. I consider this a beautiful example of the dialogue between theology and natural science, and of the debate within theology to find answers to questions of today. Whether you accept the direction in which the solution is sought or not, dogmatic thinking may be given room.” (De Reformatie, December 28, 2012, p. 127)
It is telling that the sister churches both in Australia and in Canada complained that they received no material response to the objections they formulated to these two dissertations. Thus the General Synod of the Canadian Reformed Churches writes in its letter of rebuke (!) of May 2013, that in the response of our committee they found not a single indication that their concerns were recognized or answered.
In regard to this second topic, our question to you is this: Are you prepared, not only upon our request but also of the sister churches abroad, to promote the formulation of a clear response to the objections that were raised? Surely, you cannot think it sufficient merely to state that the committees have given serious consideration to the objections but found them wanting? The churches have the right to ask for clarification regarding how Kampen thinks about important issues, such as the historicity of the exodus out of Egypt, the entrance into Canaan, the miraculous fall of Jericho, and the miracle of the lengthened day in Joshua’s days. We would also ask you to confirm the reliability of the Holy Scripture, as our creed expresses it in the Belgic Confession, Articles 3-7.
3. Women in office
The questions concerning the authority of the Holy Scriptures have become the more urgent in light of the majority proposal of the committee “M/F” submitted to your assembly, regarding women in office.
The vast majority of the church from the first centuries until today, in a wide variety of cultural contexts, always rejected on the basis of the teaching of Scripture the possibility of admitting women to the ecclesiastical offices. Now your assembly has to consider breaking this catholic consensus. We mention a number of arguments that lead us to ask you to dismiss this proposal:
a. The Reformed have rightly distinguished between temporal correlation (“tijdbetrokkenheid”) of matters, such as the apostolic instructions for the life of the church, and their temporal determination (“tijdbepaaldheid”). This distinction is not accounted for in the committee report.
b. The committee cannot escape the fact that Paul denies women the ecclesiastical office. Their main argument for admitting women to the offices today anyway is mostly based on their sketch of the alleged cultural background of Paul’s prescriptions. What used to be of service in that culture for the sake of the gospel, is supposedly no longer serviceable in our current cultural circumstances. Meanwhile, many doubts have been raised, also in the minority report of Br. D.A.C. Slump, about the soundness of the assertions about that past culture, as the majority of the committee presents it. Are we not in danger to subordinate the authority of the word of revelation from the LORD to our judgment of the time in which that word was written?
c. Does not the report isolate Paul’s teachings too much from the accumulated teaching of all Scripture regarding the relation of man and woman, as the LORD has given it in various contexts? Is that not the reason why in the report the distinction between the equivalence of man and woman and the inequality of their positions is no longer functional?
d. Serious questions are raised when the committee relativizes Paul’s appeal to the history of Creation as no more than “a memory of a historical event”. Does this mean that this history can no longer function as a “normative appeal to God’s precepts”? What consequences will that have for the relationship of man and woman? Scripture appeals to creation in the context of this relationship, not only in 1 Tim. 2, but also in other places (1 Cor. 11:8ff, or when dealing with divorce in Mat. 19:4ff).
e. The committee’s emphasis that Paul adapted his teaching to social norms has very little support. Instead, in his instruction about man and woman he always fends for the wholesome intention of Scripture over against the culture of that time. It appears to us that Br. Slump in his report rightly asked “whether in the matter of the relationship M/F, the Bible might perhaps have a message for today, which provokes some amount of tension with the gradual development that has taken place in the Netherlands. That cultural development is not morally neutral.”
f. Should not the synod account for the consequences the hermeneutical approach chosen by the committee might have for other issues, in which the church until now has taken a moral stance over against the dominant social moral position? We mention the important question regarding our attitude to homosexuality.
g. The committee makes a plea for further ecclesiastical study. Meanwhile, however, they ask for the clear decision that promoting women office bearers falls within the spectrum of what might be called biblical and theological. But whether their view falls within that spectrum is precisely the theological difference that is currently under discussion!
h. Therefore, is it not strange that the role of women as office bearers should be no obstacle for ecclesiastical unity with the Nederlands Gereformeerde Kerken, or in the establishment of missionary congregations?
4. View of the church of Jesus Christ
Perhaps the change in the “vrijgemaakt” Reformed world is nowhere greater than in the view of the church of Jesus Christ. There used to be a continual and comprehensive criticism of virtually all non-“vrijgemaakt” Reformed churches. In contrast to this sometimes unlimited criticism of the past, the opposite is the case today. He that mentions the liberal theology in the Protestantse Kerk in Nederland (PKN), is told by the president of our Committee for Ecclesiastical Unity (DKE) that this liberalism quickly loses ground. Meanwhile, it has become difficult for us to talk with our sister churches abroad concerning points of disagreement. But there seem to be hardly any obstacle to acknowledging even the PKN as a true church.
We have recently engaged in intensive new contact with many Dutch churches within the National Synod of Dort. The spiritual basis for this was found in a short creed that resembles the Apostolic Creed. But what about our Reformed confession, which demands a conscious choice for the true church and against the false church? How can we be enthusiastic about the current development toward unity, when it is not clearly visible why we are, and ought to remain, Reformed churches?
Our concrete question concerning the view of these new ecumenical contacts is this: Would you make clear to us that this view does not imply a breach with our ecclesiastical past, in which we — with all our failures in appreciating God’s work outside our church boundaries — wanted to heed the demand of Holy Scripture to discern what may and may not be called church?
5. Church services and Catechism preaching
Church services are subject to much criticism among us: some think they are too old-fashioned, others find them too modern. The local churches have much freedom to follow the wishes of (part of) the church members. One can hardly speak any more of unity in worship in the Reformed Churches (vrijgemaakt). Moreover, we all know that church attendance is declining nearly everywhere, because many think it sufficient to attend one service per Sunday. There are even some churches that removed the second service partially or completely, or consider doing so. Although many questions could be asked in this regard, we wish to call your attention to one issue.
For more than four centuries, the Reformed churches have linked the instruction in the Christian doctrine to the exposition of the Heidelberg Catechism. Besides the proclamation in the morning service, instruction in this Catechism took place in the afternoon service. However, lately many no longer experience this instruction as a blessing. The preaching of the Catechism is viewed as “merely” a form, and may be replaced by something else or simply discontinued. Others do not go so far, but they take the liberty to replace the preaching of Catechism by forms of worship in which especially the ministers determine what elements of doctrine are being discussed.
In doing so, we believe, people forget how in the New Testament the missionary proclamation of the gospel is followed by a further exposition of the message of redemption. Along with the task to proclaim there is the lasting task to instruct and proclaim to the congregation “the full counsel of God”. To this end, the Heidelberg Catechism provides an ecclesiastically approved, and therefore objective, selection of the main doctrines of the Christian faith, with references to the Scripture.
Therefore our question to you is this: both in the new Church Order and in your decisions in liturgical matters, will you show clearly that the instruction in the Scriptures on the basis of the Heidelberg Catechism (perhaps on occasion alternated with thematic treatment of one of the other Forms of Unity) continues to be mandatory for the churches, and therefore cannot be left to the individual churches? This will also require that the rule that the congregation is to be called together twice on a Sunday, is not weakened by saying that this ought to be done “as a rule,” as is the case in the first draft of the Church Order. Otherwise, the instruction in doctrine will disappear along with the second service!
6. Is a homosexual relationship possible within the Christian life?
The church also has a task in the area of the Christian life, as is clear from the third mark of the church: She exercises discipline in the congregation to punish sin (Belg. Conf. Art. 29). We all know what the purpose is of this discipline. It punishes sin and calls the sinner to repentance. If this call is heard, then there is great joy because he or she may be received (again) by the church as a member of Christ and of his church (Heid. Cat. answer 85).
It is generally known that this discipline is lacking in many cases, but sometimes is hardly exercised at all. The more the “world” invades the church, the harder it is for the church to exercise discipline.
We present to your assembly one matter, which we may call typical for the current situation. Until recently the biblical norm for marriage and sexuality was clear to the consistories. A homosexual relationship was rejected as repugnant to marriage, as God established it for the experience of unity of man and woman, both bodily and spiritually. According to the Bible, sexual intercourse is exclusively linked to the relationship of man and woman within marriage. (By the way, the difficulty here is not limited to homosexual intercourse, but also relates to heterosexual intercourse before or apart from marriage.)
In cases present to recent synods, these synods pointed to the power of Satan and the enticement of sin. According to the synod, a consistory in its pastoral care for those who plan to cohabitate must warn them, with utmost earnestness, not to underestimate the enticement of temptation, and not to overestimate one’s own ability to withstand it. (Acts of Gen. Synod 2008, art. 52)
The General Synod of Harderwijk, 2011, spoke in the same spirit. He that is not prepared to submit to the rebuke given by the consistory may not be admitted to the Lord’s Supper. Every celebration of the Supper, said this synod, is for the participant a repetition and affirmation of his confession of faith. The Form for the Supper states, among other things, that those who “married or unmarried do not keep their bodies pure” have no access to communion. The Synod of Harderwijk confirmed this. (Acts, 2011, art. 3)
Now it is generally known that, through a 2012 conference at the University in Kampen about homosexuality, the idea has developed that discipline would not be appropriate here (or at least not yet, pending our necessary study on this issue). (See also Dr. A.L.Th. de Bruijne, Open en kwetsbaar [“Open and vulnerable”], Barneveld, 2012, p. 63f.)
We are well aware of the difficulty in exercising discipline in matter such as cohabitation before or without marriage, or cohabitation of homosexuals and lesbians. Has it not been pointed out that we tend to be rather mild in cases of adultery and divorce, while in the case of homosexuals we know immediately that discipline is in order? Yet it is not a solution to become mild in all cases, by not exercising church discipline.
We are dealing with God’s commandment, which demands in all cases compassion for the sinner as well as honesty and decisiveness in pointing out the sin. And obedience to God’s commandment has priority over our respect for sinners who will not break with their sin. The Lord Jesus is our example. He rebuked the Pharisees because of their cold and merciless attitude toward the adulterous woman. But our Savior did not fail to say to this woman: “Go home, and sin no more.” (John 8:11)
Because especially the exercise of discipline (or rather, the failure to do so) has brought serious division in multiple congregations, we would ask your assembly to rule that there is no reason to forego church discipline in the cases mentioned here, in which brothers and sisters, married or not, do not keep their bodies pure?
Two final remarks
To our questions for clarity we add two remarks:
1. Perhaps our questions, signed by individual church members rather than consistories and other ecclesiastical assemblies, are not eligible for further consideration by your assembly. If you look for arguments not to interact with our letter, you will certainly find them. Our letter represents many who have tried to follow the ecclesiastical way in raising their concerns or objections—to consistories, classes, or a [regional] synod. They were not heard. Their signing of this letter to your assembly is a last attempt to be heard after all. But they ask for clarity out of love for Christ, and out of gratitude of what they have received in the Reformed churches during their lives.
2. We realize that your assembly has a difficult task. Be assured that we and many others pray for you for power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ! Our letter is born out of great concern and deep sorrow over the state of affairs in the churches. But at the same time it is our heartfelt desire, that in the path of your decisions we may remain Reformed churches together!
In Christian fellowship,
your brothers and sisters in Christ,