From Reformed to secularised churches? (1)

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The following book review is of particular interest because it relates to the concerns Synod Armadale 2012 expressed in its letter of admonition to the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (RCN, in Dutch GKV). Since we are ourselves so weak and dependent on God’s grace, let us learn to identify the danger signs, testing the spirits and clinging to the truth of God’s holy Word.

 

A book review of “The ongoing revolution; the development of the Reformed Churches in perspective” by S. de Marie translated from De Bazuin.

We want to devote a number of articles to a broader discussion of the recently published book of G. Dekker, Emeritus Professor in sociology of religion at the Free University of Amsterdam. The book is based on his research into the development of the Liberated churches [Free Reformed Churches in the Netherlands – RCN] from 1970 to 2010. He compares these developments with the way the synodical churches (which merged into the PKN [Protestant Churches in the Netherlands] in 2004) developed in the earlier period from 1950 to 1990.

Synodical churches 1950-1990
This emeritus professor published a book in 1992 called The Quiet Revolution in which he traced developments in the (synodical) Reformed Churches from 1950 to1990. In it he showed how over a period of forty years these churches increasingly conformed to the world. This process of secularisation led to a decline in membership, a course that has continued much stronger after 1990. How did it happen? It occurred, says Prof Dekker, because of a desire in these churches to be open and to adapt to the world. This led them to alter their views of the Bible. They felt the need to adopt other views of the Bible in order to achieve that openness.

This had far-reaching consequences. It meant an official rejection of the decision of Synod Assen-1926 which had condemned a tampering of Scripture. Prof. Dekker, at that time himself member of these churches, suggests that for the synodicals the Bible became a human book. Furthermore, they abandoned the doctrine of the church, as shown by their desire to join the World Council of Churches.

Eventually this led them to undermine the Scriptural doctrines of reconciliation and of election. True, nobody formulated a new doctrine, but they tolerated alongside the ‘official’ Reformed Confessions views that were diametrically opposed to them. Although they subscribed to the confessions on paper, in practice they relinquished them and thereby church discipline was no longer applied either.

By adopting heresy the synodical churches also developed a different view about God. They saw Him more as a God who joins in with the people than a God who governs and directs everything and who gives plenty of room for human experience. A clear sense of sin disappeared and with it an antithetical Christian lifestyle in, for example, Sunday observance, married life, and leisure activities—although synodicals did become increasingly involvement in social issues (helping development, armament, apartheid).

Prof. Dekkers’ conclusion in 1992 was that by their openness towards society, the synodical churches had gradually but steadily engaged in a ‘quiet revolution’ of adapting to the world. This occurred at the expense of their orthodox doctrine of Scripture and resulted in a loss of their reformed identity.

1994
We hear from Prof Dekker again in 1994, now as an invited speaker at a [Free Reformed] Kampen symposium, organized by various Free Reformed organizations and institutions, including the Theological University in Kampen. The symposium was dedicated to “the reflection on various aspects of the Liberation and 50 years of Free Reformed church life”. The lecture of Prof Dekker, which is included in the book 1944 and after: Ten readings about fifty years Liberation (edited by G Harinck and M teVelde, published by deVuurbaak, 1994), had the loaded title: “Are the churches on the slippery slope?” Note the date: about a year after the general synod Ommen 1993, ten years before the [recent] Liberation of 2003.

It is important to first pay a bit more attention to this lecture because Professor Dekker, as
‘outsider’, had already identified a number of issues within the RCN. He opened his speech with a reference to a ‘historic decision’, namely the decision by Synod Ommen 1993 to give women members active voting rights—15 years after Synod Groningen-Zuid 1978 had decided exactly the opposite.
We quote: “At that time the fear was expressed that such a decision would place the churches on a ‘slippery slope’. That is understandable because in the same period other important decisions in the Liberated churches were being made which blurred the church boundaries: Nederlands Dagblad, a Free Reformed daily newspaper, now employed non-Free Reformed editors; Synod Ommen 1993 decided on less stringent standards in its contact with foreign churches; and membership of the Reformed Political Union (GPV) was no longer restricted to members of the Free Reformed Churches. This was done at a meeting at which the leader of the GPV, Mr. Schutte, said: ‘We must recognize that we too are exposed to the influence of secularism ‘.”
Prof. Dekker responded: Hereby we touch on the problem facing the Free Reformed Churches in the current era.

Warning
Prof. Dekker pointed out in his 1994 lecture that the RCN [Free Reformed Churches] faced the great danger of adapting to the world just as the synodical churches had done. He noted deterioration in life and lifestyle in the RCN and saw the RCN increasingly adapting to the world, even though their doctrine was still orthodox.

As a result of his sociological approach, his assessment failed to focus on the Scriptural antithesis. This antithesis requires that the cultural mandate be implemented in such a way that although we are in the world we show that we are not of the world, that in our lifestyle and behaviour the name of Christ is not denied but gloried, and that we live as a shining light. That’s not something uniquely Free Reformed but simply the Scriptural way of life that Lord of asks of His people and for which He prays (Matt. 5: 13-16; Joh. 17: 14-19; Jam. 4: 4; 1 Jn. 2: 11-17; Rev. 3: 4, 8).

For Dekker, being a sociologist of religion, you could tell a man by the company he keeps. He saw the failure to distance oneself from the world as risking world conformity. However, the fact that our faith needs to be applied also to our life in the world is not in itself risky but becomes risky when we don’t apply that (antithetical) faith. Despite Prof Dekker’s failure to see the antithesis clearly, he nevertheless sounded this serious warning:
“The Free Reformed will in future give evidence of having undergone drastic changes. They will increasingly adjust to society around them, precisely because they want to involve their faith in all areas of life.
Therefore in the next decade they will go in the direction in which the synodical reformed have gone and will increasingly look like the synodical reformed.”
It was this statement that Prof Dekker sought to demonstrate in his latest book.

More about that in the next episode.
* G. Dekker, De Doorgaande Revolutie: de Ontwikkeling van de Gereformeerde Kerken in Perpsectief (The Ongoing Revolution; Development of the Reformed Churches in Perspective), Ad Chartas series No. 23, De Vuurbaak, Barneveld, 2013.