Twenty years ago, in 1994, the 50th anniversary of the Liberation was celebrated in our Dutch sister churches—the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands (RCN)—as well as in the Free Reformed Churches of Australia (FRCA) and in our sister churches in Canada and South Africa. They celebrated that the LORD had liberated them from what had become false churches because these insisted on maintaining false doctrine and a hierarchical synod which deposed faithful ministers (which is why we called them synodical churches).
As part of the 50th celebrations, a conference was held at the RCN’s Theological University at Kampen. Ironically, one of the invited speakers was the sociologist Prof Dr G Dekker of the synodical churches and he spoke about a study he had done comparing the developments in the RCN with earlier developments in his own churches. He challenged the conference with the prediction that the RCN would go the same way as the synodical churches, from which they had broken away in 1944, by adjusting themselves to the world.
In response to this challenge, Dr J Douma, of the RCN, expressed the hope that Dr Dekker’s prediction would not come true. “But,” Dr Douma concluded, “if we [RCN] no longer come to see that we must stand in the world as those who are not of the world, then the theology will automatically adjust itself to this.” In other words, if the members of the church compromise their unique position by feeling at home in the ways of the world then the professors at the theological university will adjust the doctrine of God’s Word to suit that.
Was Dr Dekker’s prediction fulfilled? It’s a question Dr C Janse[i] answered six years ago when he observed that 14 years after the conference we must conclude that Prof Dekker’s predictions are coming true. He backed up his claims that the RCN were adjusting to the world by referring to reports of synod deputies[ii] who observed that there had been a significant changes within the RCN.
These deputies referred to changing attitudes towards the office of minister, the watering down of church regulations, emphasis on a personal relationship with Christ, and a desire for inspirational leadership including the use of leaders from outside the bond of churches. Moreover, he observed that church members increasingly felt at home in modern culture with the result that often their life during the week seemed little different from that of the unbelieving world.
The deputies also noted that the doctrine of the church was giving way to a focus on contacts with other churches and these contacts focussed on what we had in common with other Christians rather than dwelling on differences. Members of the RCN no longer wanted to accept that the differences between the RCN and other church federations were principle (biblical and confessional) differences; they claimed it was wrong to see one’s position as the right view and impose it on others. That, they felt, only led to tensions between the minister, consistory and members of the congregation.
Dr Janse said that these developments within the RCN showed that the prediction of Prof Dr Dekker had come true: the shifts in thinking within the RCN were indeed going in the same direction as those that had earlier been evident in the synodical churches. And just as the changing attitudes had led the synodical church members to become involved in all sorts of ‘interdenominational’ Christian organisations, so too the shifts in thinking led to an opening up of the social and political organisations in the RCN. Moreover, instead of confessing Biblical values and norms, RCN church members became more open-minded towards other views.
Prof Dekker saw the influence of the late Abraham Kuyper on RCN thinking. The result was that instead of shunning the world there was a focus on witnessing in all areas of life. The practical result, however, was that worldly society influenced their faith and convictions. Kuyper had emphasised the calling of the church in the world but in practice it had led to the world finding its way into the church. To use biblical terms: whilst people wanted to function as the salt of the earth, the salt increasingly threatened to become tasteless. It was a pattern that had earlier been witnessed in the synodical churches which had also been influenced by these ideas of Kuyper.
Janse had more to say and not all of it is, I think, valid. However, it’s hard to refute his conclusions that Dr Dekker’s predictions are coming true: that which happened in the synodical churches is manifesting itself in the RCN. At the same time, he adds, we shouldn’t be surprised to discover that in other ‘reformed churches’ the same developments are becoming evident.
Is there a warning in all this for us?
And what about us, FRCA sister churches of the RCN; are we just a few steps behind? Are we finding ourselves more at home in the world’s culture, for example by the films and other forms of worldly media entertainment and socialisation? If feedback from school students is any indication the answer for many of us is, lamentably, yes. Are the gods of this world—such as the movie stars and sports stars—increasingly being followed with deep interest by us? Again, the answer appears to be yes. Hereby the values of the world, like a dripping tap, wear away and replace our holy resistance to these values.
What about our confession regarding the true church and the need for everyone to join that church (BCF 28)? Is it not true that here too we let our actions be governed by experiences and human reasoning, rather than by the Word of God as we confess it? Like the synodical churches and the RCN we too are increasingly active in so-called interdenominational kingdom work. On Sundays we cannot serve the Lord together in His house but during the week we work in tandem with other Christians as though we are one in the faith. There have been instances where people have been excommunicated or have turned their backs on the FRCA, yet FRCA members find themselves “serving the Lord” together in Christian action. We should say, first be obedient to the Lord and join His church; then we can work together in kingdom causes as brothers and sisters of the household of faith.
As for our task in this world, do we have the task to confess Christ and the authority of His Word in all of life? Yes, in our daily work or wherever the Lord places us (LD 12). Our godly walk of life should be such that others may see it and so be won for Christ (LD32). Should then we seek to make friends with the world in order, in this way, to ease us into witnessing and should we reinterpret the gospel to make it more acceptable to the world? No, because “what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever” (1 Cor. 6:15). God says “friendship with the world is enmity with God” (James 4:4) and God set enmity between the seed of the woman (Christ and His church) and the snake (Satan and the world) in Genesis 3:15. Moreover, God forbids us to modify His Word in any way (1 Cor. 4:6; Rev. 22:18). Does that mean we have a fight on our hands? Yes, it is a fight against sin, the devil and the world (LD 52).
The prophets of old and the apostles repeatedly warned against compromising with the world, including false religion. The false church and the world operate in tandem (Rev 17). Just as the Lord who called us is holy so we must be holy in all our conduct because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 2:15,16) and because we “are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9). Let us see our rich privilege as the people of God, dedicating ourselves to Him in all holiness, testing the spirits to see whether they are of God (1 John 4:1), rejecting what is evil and holding fast to Christ our Lord, lest the candlestick be taken from us and we are slowly but surely swallowed up by the world.