Prof Dekker of the synodical Reformed Churches of the Netherlands has written a book1 in which he traces the recent developments within the liberated Reformed Churches (GKv). He draws a parallel between these developments and the earlier developments in the synodical churches. What follows is a speech held by Rev S de Marie on June 28, 2013, to a meeting at the Liberated Reformed Church of Abbotsford, Canada, in which he outlines the developments Prof Dekker identified in the GKv. They offer instructive warning.
Dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
My speech on Prof Dekker’s book on the developments within the liberated Reformed Churches (GKv) in the Netherlands has 3 parts. In each part some key questions will be answered.
1. Why are the developments observed by Dekker within the liberated reformed churches characterized as being a revolution? Why is this ‘revolution’ still ongoing?
The title of Prof Dekker’s book refers to a change, a revolutionary transformation within the Liberated reformed churches—a complexity of developments that could be observed during the last 30 years of his 40 year study period. Prof Dekker observed these revolutionary changes not only in commonly held views, general opinions and lifestyle, but even in fundamental principles which were put aside over time and replaced by other principles. That which was initially preached and proclaimed as being God’s will and God’s commandment was later withdrawn.
Dekker’s starting point for his study was his hypothesis that the Liberated Reformed Churches would walk in the footsteps of the synodical Reformed Churches.
Already in 1992 Dekker had published a book on the developments within the synodical churches. He characterized these developments as a ‘silent revolution’. Crucial elements of that revolution were openness to other churches and openness to the world, resulting in adaptation of other opinions on doctrine and lifestyle and a shift from the emphasis on doctrine to emphasis on life. That was evident in synod decisions of the synodical churches showing dramatically changed views on, for example, the authority of the Holy Scripture and the position of women. But also in the wide tolerance of views that contradicted the still officially maintained reformed confession. It appeared to be a silent process—silent because it occurred almost imperceptibly for many members, who adapted their views gradually over time.
Dekker’s expectation was that the liberated reformed churches (GKv) would go the same way as the synodical reformed churches. He expressed his hypothesis already at a symposium in 1994, one year after [the GKv’s] Synod Ommen 1993 which initiated historical changes to views on liturgy and women voting. At that time changes in views on the cooperation with other Christians were already observable, especially in the editorial board of the Nederlands Dagblad and in the Gereformeerd Politiek Verbond. It was most remarkable that Dekker, as an outsider, could identify these developments already in 1994, while most of the church members were dismissing alarming articles on these issues in Reformanda at that time.
To prove his hypothesis, Dekker undertook his study and presented the results in his latest book. Therein he indeed showed evidence of similarities in the developments between the two federations of churches – despite the different period of studies – although there were of course also differences recognizable in speed and scale of the changes.
Ongoing revolution as opposed to ongoing reformation
Dekker also calls the process within the liberated reformed churches (GKv) a “revolution”. Even an ‘ongoing revolution’. Ongoing, because he expects even further decline in the liberated reformed churches on the basis of what he had observed in the synodical churches. Dekker’s choice of the word revolution in his title also has another significance. Revolution is the direct opposite of reformation.
Dekker describes the very early years of his study, the 1970s, as being characterized by “ongoing reformation”. Ongoing reformation is what characterised church life in the fist decades after the Liberation of 1944. The word ‘ongoing’ signified that the reformation of the church should not only address the actual federation as such, not only indicate a return to the Scriptures in doctrine and church government, but that this reformation should also address the hearts of the church members resulting in a life style that was according to Scripture. The reformation of the church should have its fruits in all areas of doctrine and life. This total reformation should be evident in a humble obedience to God’s Word in all respects.
That reformed life also applied to co-operation with other Christians. One should not pretend to have a brotherhood and communion in society with those who had earlier thrown them out of the church. In social and political parties and societies based on Christian principles, members of the church had also to show antithesis towards those who did not share the same sound doctrine, and did not share the table of the Lord’s Supper.
This consequence was called the ethical conflict in those days. It resulted in leaving societies and parties of former reformed nature, and in instituting own societies, own separate organizations and own schools, and the publishing of an own family paper. Only liberated reformed brothers and sisters in the Lord who were one in faith in the one body of Christ were participating in these organizations. They were all instructed and edified by the same sound preaching of the pure Word of God and all shared the treasures of Christ promised to his faithful church.
This ‘ongoing reformation’ after 1944 was not agreed to by all members. Groups of those who were against this ongoing reformation left the liberated reformed churches (GKv) mainly because of this isolation from other Christians. In the beginning a large group with Rev B A Bos went back to the synodical churches and later an even larger group left the churches in 1967 to form the Netherlands Reformed Churches. They desired a greater openness towards other Christians, a greater independence and freedom, and a less strict adherence to the Church Order and to the adopted Confessions.
Although Dekker rightly showed the ongoing reformation as characterising the liberated churches in the 1970s, the starting years for his study, he did not appreciate this process as we do. He did not value ongoing reformation as a faithful, Scriptural consequence for a lifestyle in antithesis. No, he called this attitude of reformation rather a radicalisation of the liberation and unnecessary isolationism.
Therefore it is understandable that Dekker’s concept of revolution also has another meaning. For him it is only a process that leads to an abandonment of ongoing reformation. For him isolation as a result of ongoing reformation has now turned towards openness. The so called ‘ongoing revolution’ is therefore not judged by Dekker to be wrong in itself, although he has another way for the church in his mind, as he reveals in the last chapter of his book.
So Dekker’s view is that the revolution is a development away from traditional positions—traditional, not in a sense of reliable, but in a sense of conservative. In his view revolution does not have the sinful and culpable notion we have in mind when we use the word ‘revolution’ with the Holy Scripture and Confession as our standards. Dekker’s judgement of the developments within the liberated reformed churches (GKv) is biased by his own erroneous view on Scripture and Confession, although he made many striking observations and sound remarks in his book.
2. What changes could be observed in the last 30 years in the Liberated Reformed Churches (GKv)? And what are their origins?
We will now give a list of the changes Prof Dekker has observed. By doing so, we ourselves should consider whether these changes are unrelated features or are all signs of a common revolutionary movement, symptoms of an underlying disease.
What kind of disease could we expect? Well, for that we have to go to Scripture where we read in 2 Tim. 4: 3 and further:
“For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.”
So the disease Paul is warning against can be called “self-willed religion”. It originates from own desires. And it results in rejecting sound doctrine, making the people sick, and making them turn away from the truth and so from God Himself. Paul is therefore indicating a very serious disease to Timothy and to us. It will even appear to be a fatal disease if life-saving treatment is refused.
Hence we have to answer the question whether the developments we will list are pointing to symptoms of this disease of self-willed religion of which Paul is speaking.
For every issue I will only mention the most recent changes and add a brief comment.
First: The position among other churches:
Dekker mentions the participation of the liberated reformed churches (GKv) in councils in which the PKN (Protestantse Kerk in Nederland, with which the synodical churches have merged) and the Christelijke Gereformeerden (CGK, sister-church of the Free Reformed Churches in North America) are participating, besides other groups such as Baptists and Pentecostal churches. Examples of that ecumenical drive are the membership of the interdenominational Netherlands Missionary Council having the slogan ‘one in mission’, the participation of the National Synod assembly, and a requested partnership with the Dutch Council of Churches that even includes the Remonstrants and Roman Catholics.
Further federative approaches have developed towards Netherlands Reformed Churches (NGK) and CGK, including the emergence of joint congregations with either NGK or CGK congregations. There is already collaboration with CGK in the theological training and many other activities. Although Dekker mentions the different view on women in office and on binding to the confession in the NGK, he does not mention the increasing evidence of Scripture criticism in both partner churches.
In short, the increased openness towards other churches has led to an enormous weakening of the power of discernment, resulting in tolerance of an almost unrestricted variety of heresies in order to accommodate relationships and contacts with others. The exclusivity of the confessional doctrine of the true church has deliberately been thrown away. And most members of the GKv enjoy their new ‘freedom’.
Second: the position in the general society
Dekker observes the loss of the reformed character of many G-organizations, probably most evident in the Nederlands Dagblad, the political party and the schools. The conclusion is that the concept of ‘ongoing reformation’ has already totally been discarded. Liberated reformed people are now on the front line for ecumenical activities.
Third: Church organization
Dekker sees organic growth in a series of national centres for support for congregational edification and missionary activities. This centralization and professionalization leads to undermining of the offices within local churches and of the involvement of the individual members. The increasing gap between national centres and local churches promoted indifference and independentism.
Fourth: Church offices
Dekker notes that the ministry has become more and more a profession like other professions. The special position of the minister, as minister of the Divine Word, is adversely affected by placing it on the same level as other professions, and by the introduction of church workers.
In some of the congregations the yearly home visits, prescribed in the Church Order, are no longer made. Sometimes congregations proceed to mutual pastoral care by members or mini-wards. So, the office-bearer is becoming more and more a co-ordinator responsible for the organization of pastoral care, instead of being personally responsible and active as shepherd in the name of Christ.
Fifth: Position of women
After accepting the active voting rights for women in 1993 a discussion started on the issue of women in office. Dekker mentions a major shift in that discussion, quoting articles in which room for female deacons is suggested. He himself concludes on page78, that – I quote: ‘given the speed with which the opinions are developing at present, one can hardly expect anything else than that in time women may also become office-bearers in the liberated reformed churches (GKv)’.
He sees this as a direct consequence of society’s changed views of the position of women and for that refers to the changed form for marriage. The earlier form said that man ‘as head, has authority over his wife’ and that the woman is to ‘accept his leadership in obedience’. However, the new form for the solemnization of marriage no longer speaks of ‘authority’ and ‘leadership’; the position of the man and that of the woman are now being more equal. He quotes: ‘When God’s Word speaks of the relationships and responsibilities in marriage it is first the unity that is accentuated.’
Dekker does not refer to the huge tolerance towards living together of couples as an alternative of marriage. In his introduction of Dekker’s book, Prof. G. Harinck refers to the phenomenon of cohabitation, not to blame it, but to consider it rather as a sign of ‘broadening the horizons’ of the churches within society.
Sixth: Worship services
Prof Dekker did not investigate the character of the worship services. However, he does pay attention to the synod decisions about liturgical innovations, including the introduction of the Songbook (Het Liedboek voor de Kerken). Dekker recalls an earlier remark of Prof J Kamphuis that the Songbook (Liedboek) had to be considered as a collection of songs of the ‘false ecumenical movement’ which played ‘a major role in establishing an unscriptural ecclesiastical unity’. Nevertheless, the introduction of the Songbook, which initially met with hundreds of appeals to Synod Zuidhorn, was maintained. The last action as a result of synod decision is the active participation in a new Songbook 2013, together with other denominations including Remonstrant, Mennonite and liberal communities.
Prof. Dekker also mentions a notable decline in church service attendance. In the new proposal for the Church Order, deputies had tried to give room for different thoughts about the need to have a second church service and catechism sermons’. They decided to ‘formulate this in a more open manner’. Further, Dekker observes church services for children, and ‘open’ Holy Supper celebrations in which guests from outside the churches may participate.
We see in all these developments the marks of the true church at issue: the corruption of sung prayers and sung sacrifices of praise with unscriptural texts; the corruption of the integrity of the communion of saints affecting the service of the Lord and the listening to His Word; and the violation of all marks of the true church in an open celebration of the Lord’s Supper through an absence of discipline resulting in an impure administration of the sacrament, characteristic of a doctrine of false ecumenism.
Prof Dekker concludes form his observations that there is a steady shift away from doctrine (orthodoxy) to life (ethics). For a long time it was said within the churches that they continued to be true to their heritage in matters as church, Scripture and Confession. But meanwhile a change over time was quietly taking place, a change that could no longer be denied even by the deputies ‘Dienst en Kerk’ (Office and Church) in 2008.
Dekker mentions the critical remarks made by Prof Harinck about the doctrine of reconciliation, as well as his remarks concerning the Roman Catholic mass, women in office and homosexuality.
According to Dekker, doctrine is nowadays put on a lower level, as is church discipline.
On this issue we could add a number of other developments, like the uncritical use of the doctrines of Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as well as the teachings of the lecturers Paas and van Bekkum,
Dekker also observes a position shift in respect to the Confession. Prof Dr E A de Boer (and others) spoke about the ‘historical and theological relativity of the Confessions’. Prof Dekker therefore considers that for practical purposes it is possible ‘that one easily comes to doing profession of faith’, because one realizes that one is not bound to express agreement with the literal meaning of the text. The confession, thereby, takes a less important position in the life of the churches.
Ninth: View on Scripture
Dekker mentions the discussion about the providence of God and the continuing discussion on the authority of Scripture. Developments in the area of literary theory are now welcomed and applied to the study of the Bible. He concludes that recently there is acknowledgment and acceptance that the spirit of the times does play a role in the time in which we live, which has to be involved in the explanation and application of Scripture. Dekker does not give a critical assessment of this and is rather superficial in addressing this fundamental issue.
I will formulate this very important change in the view on the Holy Scripture within the liberated reformed churches (GKv) as follows: In the past the view within churches was that Scripture, being the Word of God for all times, also speaks directly to us in our times with words God already had in His mind when He inspired the human writers of the Bible.
But nowadays it is said in a postmodern way: The context and environment of the texts within The Bible are asking for new hermeneutic approaches to the explanation and application of Scripture in order for them to become relevant for our times.
Such a new hermeneutics may include the use of metaphors in historical passages in Scripture and the abandonment of the literal significance of God’s words in favour of making it only a narrative message. Through this change the churches have left their former sound Scriptural view and have succumbed to false doctrine. We have to see that as one of the most important consequences of the new openness and tolerance.
Tenth: Marriage and divorce
Prof Dekker points to the link between changes in church life on the one hand and changes in daily life, ethics, on the other. We already mentioned the phenomenon of ‘Living together’ which nowadays is considered quite normal. Church discipline on divorce is also adjusted to accommodate the changing practice. Dekker mentions the report of deputies at the Synod Zuidhorn 2002 in which they will implement, in the judgment on divorce and re-marriage, the issue of ‘understanding of the hardness of heart’. Sometimes, they said, there is just no other way than to divorce.’
Recently Synod 2012 decided that a second marriage of a divorcee is allowed to be solemnized in the church if the consistory agrees with that marriage. While a previous synod had still refused this.
I think this issue does not require any further comment here.
Prof Dekker observes that a recent synod decision maintains the official position that the living together of two homosexuals in an active relationship is wrong. However, he fails to mention that in the same decision (Zwolle 2008), the synod refused to declare (in response to a request for an answer) that this living together, under promise of excluding sexual relationship, would be worthy of discipline.
In addition, the liberated reformed churches (GKv) have developed, jointly with the Nederlandse Gereformeerde Kerken, a special website for homosexual members, .
Twelfth: Sunday observance
Dekker is very brief in his comment on Sunday observance. In my opinion he is not rightly assessing this issue. He is too optimistic and for that he was corrected in Kampen, when the publication of this book was celebrated. Perhaps the absence of fieldwork and the one-sidedness of his sources is to blame.
The conclusion of Prof Dekker is that the liberated reformed churches (GKv) are indeed walking in the footsteps of the synodicals on a wide scale, although at a different speed.
We must now also answer our own question which we put before enumerating the list of developments, namely whether these were all symptoms of one underlying disease. And we have to conclude very sadly that indeed there is a fatal spiritual disease corrupting the liberated reformed churches (GKv).
On the basis of these and other observations, we have to say that these churches do not fulfil the marks of the true church anymore. They have not listened to the call that the restored reformed churches (DGK) addressed to them. They have now even widened the gap between themselves and us as Reformed Churches restored.
As churches they have now become fully estranged from their confessional roots and are disobedient to Scripture in many respects. They have become a self-willed federation following their own desires and up to now refusing life-saving treatment, which would include sincere repentance and a return to the Lord and His Word in humble obedience.
The question about the cause, the origin of the diagnosed disease, can be answered partially with: they followed their own desires. But now we can also answer what the nature of these desires are. And that is an ecumenical desire: to become larger in number, to become accepted by others, and to be able to share in the treasures of this world. In fact the liberated reformed churches (GKv) reflected a trend after 1980 which the Netherlands Reformed Church already showed after the sixties. They are both now meeting each other as partners with the same nature.
Dekker is right in pointing in the direction of more openness as the core issue for the revolution. But he fails to analyse the nature of this openness correctly because he did not use Scripture or the Confession for his judgement.
3. What should the proper confessional attitude of the church toward other churches and to the world be? What are the dangers we are exposed to as church in our present time? And how should we cope with these trends?
We have to address these questions knowing the origin of the decline of the liberated reformed churches of the Netherlands (GKv) which is similar to that seen in the synodical churches. They were following their desires, becoming greater, having more power.
We also know the seriousness of this disease and its symptoms. Therefore, these symptoms may function as alarm signs for the future for all of us.
This revolutionary process is not restricted to the Netherlands. It behaves like an infectious disease that spreads not only over time but also from country to country, because the real origin is Satan who is animating our own old flesh and provoking it all the time.
We can see the same process being activated in the Canadian Reformed Churches. We have spoken about it already this week. The time in which we live is particularly challenging as to this very issue, especially because we ourselves are such small churches.
Therefore, it is very important to put on the whole armour of God, as we have read in Eph. 6. Only in that way we will be able to withstand the evil day, and having done all, to stand. So we have to put on that whole armour of God now, before it is too late.
We must not seek isolation itself, in a sense that we should refrain from every contact or approach towards others. That is in contradiction to what the Lord is saying about the unity of all true believers. But we should read and listen to God’s Word very carefully in such contacts because unity should only rest on truth. Unity itself should be part of the Truth. In all possible contacts we therefore have to use the Holy Scripture and our Reformed Confessions and should pray to God for wisdom.
The road the Lord has indicated to us will be a narrow road. The way we will go ahead as church, protected and preserved by the Lord, will be a difficult way. But still a safe way. Let us therefore use the sound doctrine of the Word God has granted His church, and which is summarized in our Confessions. Let us instruct our children in this sound doctrine. Let us edify each other in this sound doctrine, so that we will not be overwhelmed by false teachings and not infected by dangerous diseases.
We cannot, however, do it ourselves; we should trust our Lord. He will give us the power we need in answer to our prayer. So with His Word and Spirit we will survive, yes we will overcome. That is the promise of the Lord to all who follow Him wherever He goes.
Thank you for your attention.
1. G. Dekker, De Doorgaande Revolutie: de Ontwikkeling van de Gereformeerde Kerken in Perpsectief, Ad Chartas-series no. 23, De Vuurbaak, Barneveld, 2013.