Br D J Bolt is the editor of the website www.eeninwaarheid.info which for the last decade has been highlighting and warning about deviations from the Scripture and the confessions in the Gereformeerde Kerken Nederland (Reformed Churches of the Netherlands – RCN). In a series of articles “Choose or Lose” he has illustrated why it would be wrong for him and his wife to remain members of these churches. Twelve years ago over a thousand people liberated themselves from the RCN. They instituted De Gereformeerde Kerken (DGK). More recently another group liberated themselves and formed the Gereformeerde Kerken Nederland (GKN). In this latest article Br & Sr Bolt discuss these two liberated bonds of churches and explain why they joined the DGK.
Choose or Lose[i]
We want to try to evaluate the information we have collected in recent times, and have classified it in the following five main topics:
- Choice of church
The text of each topic is structured as follows:
- First some private general comments
- Observations by federation
- Finally some evaluation
We want to make some preliminary remarks.
The evaluation of our ‘research’ and the conclusions drawn from it is a sensitive matter. For it concerns two church federations which still find themselves more or less in a phase of development. Thus whatever is being observed at this moment may at a later date easily turn out to again have changed.
The two federations are also small. They lack the extensive knowledge and expertise of larger federations.
Moreover, not all members have separated themselves from the GKv or joined these churches from the outside for the same reasons.
In short, the churches are fragile and we should not forget this.
The short history of these churches saw problems that have led to breaks. The effects of these breaks are, also emotionally, still noticeable. Wounds suffered in the church do not heal quickly. They often need time and rest.
Our knowledge of the federations is also limited. Although we have observed them intensively in their ups and downs, and have at times been closely involved, we are nevertheless still outsiders.
We will therefore exercise some restraint in this evaluation, and limit ourselves to the things that can help us gain sufficient knowledge to make an informed choice.
As we saw last time both federations base themselves on Scripture and the ecumenical and Reformed Confessions. During the time we observed these churches and attended their services we were able to notice that with joy. The preaching is fully Reformed. Two services each Sunday is the standard, and as far as we have seen, they are well attended. In one of these services part of the Reformed doctrine is dealt with, namely as this is confessed in the Heidelberg Catechism. There is a frequent need for reading sermons because not all (ward) congregations have their own minister, although the number of (young) pastors is growing. Modern means (the internet) are used at times whereby a (ward) congregation can share the preaching in another congregation.
There is sincere Reformed congregational life in these churches, characterised by a complete focus on Christ crucified, and obedience to His Word in all aspects of human life. Much attention is paid to the full application of Scripture as summarized in the Reformed Confessions. Church life in the DGK is a reminder of ‘the orthodox period’ of the GKv. The Reformed doctrine of the church is boldly professed and not hidden in a corner. The tense climate of the first years which more or less had the characteristic of ‘the crisis of youth’ seems to have become ‘milder’ without having damaged the Reformed character of the churches.
For a more detailed presentation of the church see: www.gereformeerde-kerken-hersteld.nl
In these churches Christ and His work in suffering, death and resurrection stand in the centre. These churches display a somewhat more experiential slant. The bond of churches and its organisational arrangement has, also because of the small size, less attention and is second priority. The focus is on devout living and support for especially the youth in a secular society, and not on ‘true church thinking’. Some pastors participate in reformational oriented meetings as the Haamstede Conference or the Leusens Conference, where unity in Christ is experienced over ecclesiastical division. For a more detailed presentation of the church, see: www.gereformeerdekerkennederland.nl/beknopte-presentatie.
Someone compared the relationship between DGK-GKN with that of the GKv-CGK. Sometimes they look a bit alike. Within the small church federations different views and dispositions are found also because some GKN congregations are offshoots from DGK.
Sometimes the term ‘radical’ is used: when doctrine is applied one-on-one to church situations, or the reverse: un-confessional and un-ecclesiastical behaviour is defended by an appeal to Scripture.
There is a degree of traditionalism in the churches. Because of the extended process of changes in the GKv which left not much in place, many have become wary of developments such as the use of a projector, new songs, adaptations of the liturgy (Kampen / Middelburg). Yet in recent years greater tolerance seems to be possible for a degree of (scriptural) freedom and relaxation in church life. It should also be remembered that not everyone has left the GKv for the same reasons. Sometimes the motive lay in the overall decline, sometimes the decisive factor was the introduction of the ‘Liedboek’ and ‘Opwekkingsliederen’ in the worship service. To be church together requires much love, patience and scriptural tolerance.
The federations are small. Only a few congregations have more than one hundred members. Such small uncluttered living together is fine but also vulnerable, as we noted earlier. When the leadership is in a few hands the churches are easily sailing the cliffs of hierarchy and independentism. Strong personalities can exert disproportionate sway and disrupt good relations.
Especially with few people it is difficult to establish a properly functioning church federation. More than in a large federation, issues can easily ruin mutual relationships. In ecclesiastical jurisdiction it is difficult to avoid (the appearance of) bias. The good rule that a federation must have at least three Classes, each again consisting of at least three congregations cannot (yet) be accomplished. The result is that in the judicial process you meet the same people again and again. This requires much love, wisdom and mutual trust.
Both federations have expressed the wish to organise themselves ecclesiastically on the basis of the Church Order of Dordrecht. What is the real situation?
The churches have organised themselves into a tight federation. Because of their limited size not everything in the DKO has been realised. For example, there are only two Classes, one of four autonomous congregations and the other of five, and there are no ‘provincial’ Synods. A general Synod of delegates chosen by the Classes meets once every three years. The ecclesiastical judicial system with its appeal procedures has been organised and functions, albeit with the aforementioned limitation.
Much work was made of the review of all synod decisions since 1990. Decisions have been made on what is, and is no longer valid.
Agreement has been reached on the category of ministers in the GKv from whom sermons can be read in worship services.
There is much attention for education, as it is done in the churches’ own training for the ministry, in non-formal additional education of the children, and in (home) catechism classes. The churches’ magazine De Bazuin provides support.
An English-language internet magazine Reformed Continua, magazine of The Reformed Churches (restored) of The Netherlands is published every six months and details can be found via the website of DGK. The federation is not (yet) conducting mission work.
The Acts of Synods are available on the internet, together with Deputies’ Reports.[ii] Ecclesiastical meetings may be attended under the usual conditions. Church services can be listened to via www.kerkdienstgemist.
The federation describes itself as ‘provisional’ as its organisation according to the DKO is quite limited because of the small membership. The federation is now organised around a National Assembly which normally meets every three months. Each congregation delegates three brothers. Control of these meetings rest with the delegates of the convening church.
With only one major assembly there is limited possibility for an appeal process. Appeal decisions are made only in exceptional circumstances. Consultant pastors have not been appointed. An admission procedure for pastors coming from other federations has not been established. An own theology training facility is not in the offing.
There are (still) no missionary activities.[iii]
Monthly magazine Resonance, published by the foundation, offers many constructive and reflective articles.
Church services can be listened to on www.kerkdienstmeebeleven.nu
Because of their small memberships both federations are unable to implement a complete DKO model. The DGK federation gets closest.
Its organisation is also characterised by openness and transparency. Reports of synodal meetings can be found on the site of the churches. Decisions and developments are discussed in magazine De Bazuin. These churches can therefore fairly well be followed in their church life and development. This also makes them vulnerable since everyone can watch what is happening ‘in the kitchen.’ It is at the same time their strength. Being independent churches they show what they stand for and do not shun the public light. DGK do not require a kind of confession of guilt upon joining, but emphasise everyone’s own responsibility for his or her (time of) church choice.
GKN is struggling to find a good church-orderly structure that makes fair and transparent ecclesiastical community living and justice possible. Because of the high frequency of National Assembly meetings in which all the churches participate it does not take long before all the churches become involved in problems and justice is hampered.
Efforts are being made to improve the situation. The proclamation of the gospel has first priority.
Finally, it remains regrettable that at the formation of the ‘provisional federation’ in November 2009 unity was not sought with DGK. As far as we know the reason for this has still not been officially documented.
Problems and questions
The first years of the DGK federation saw many difficulties, disputes, suspensions, and some rifts. We found that the resulting wounds have still not been completely healed. Church problems cut deep. Hurt feelings are felt for a long time. Forgiving and forgetting is also difficult for Reformed people.
Sometimes the events resemble ‘the crisis of youth’,[iv] as in the days after the Secession. Yet ecclesiastical problems should not be decisive in the considerations for choosing a church. Compare it with the Secession which we still regard as a commanded reformation of the church of Christ. Times may have changed, people apparently not essentially.
Our impression is that these churches have gradually sailed into calmer waters. Partly because of the influx of new members an atmosphere has been created over the years that can be characterised as milder. Occasionally you can hear that ‘things in the past could probably have been done differently.’
This is not to say that there are no problems. The federation is still in development. Thus the contact and ecclesiastical relations with churches abroad who do not subscribe to our Reformed confessions have lately prompted extensive discussions up to synod level. Also the sister relationship with the Liberated Reformed Church of Abbotsford, a breakaway group from the Canadian Reformed Churches, has led to intense discussions. But as far as we have been able to observe, in spite of a continuing difference of opinion, informed decisions have been made on the basis of which the churches can continue working. The question has been raised whether magazine De Bazuin should remain a collective church publication for whose content Synod is responsible through its deputies
The federation is somewhat varied in its make up. Apart from the Ichthus congregation in Kampen, it consists of DGK breakaway groups and recent new church plantings / preaching places.
The congregation at Kampen takes a somewhat unique position. A long struggle with the GKv led to the official deposition of the minister and the establishment of the Ichthus congregation. Unlike the other congregations in the federation, Kampen has active suffrage and uses its own selection of the Songbook hymns in the worship services. Because of ‘perforation’ of the church boundaries difficulty has arisen between the congregations of Kampen and Zwolle/‘sHeerenbroek. In some GKN congregations sermons are occasionally read from ‘distressed’ GKv ministers. At times a sensitive matter.
Work is being done on improving the ecclesiastical justice system.
The above is just a snapshot. It is quite possible that the image may have to be adjusted over the course of time. But it is sufficient to remember that moving to one of these federations does not produce membership of a perfect church and pleasant rest and peace. It can however be concluded that, owing to the level of church-orderly organisation, the federations are different in their ‘problem-solving abilities’. Without proper ecclesiastical law, problems can easily become lingering issues.
In this context we already sigh: How good it would be if both church groups would unite and strengthen the good in each other.
It remains a great sorrow that brothers and sisters who have separated themselves from the GKv no longer form an ecclesiastical unity. Do they not have that much in common? Not only in a negative sense: the rejection of many unscriptural developments in the GKv, but also positive in standing on the solid ground of Scripture, whose teaching is summarised in the Reformed Confessions. Why then not, in the unity with Christ, also serve Him as church in the true faith? After all, one of the characteristics of the church is its catholicity – she is of all times and all places. The decisive factor here must surely be that it is Christ’s stated will, prayer and commandment, to be one as His body?
Unity could also have many positive effects. We mention a few.
In the first place, a positive witness to the outside. How many calls and emails have we not received in which always again this division was perceived as a barrier to join? How much scorn and mockery has this division not brought about? How painful must it be that even in one village a small DGK and an even smaller GKN congregation co-exist. This undermines the recruiting power of the church and makes ‘distressed’ people seek their well-being elsewhere, as we noted.
But how beneficial would unification be also for the churches themselves. After all, we have seen that the size of the federations makes full realisation of the Church Order of Dordrecht not well possible. How wonderful would it be if that became possible by becoming one. How beneficial to the proper order and peace!
How important also is a new heartfelt unity for young people in the church. Enlargement of scale, to call it that way, also offers more possibilities to find a life partner with whom the Lord can be served.
Above all, it serves the honour of the King of the church. Every unnecessary, sinful diversity of His children is an eyesore to Him. It damages His honour. So there is every reason to seek each other, and if possible find each other.
The question is: what is the real issue? And also: are the brothers and sisters from both sides really willing to find each other? Are there fundamental differences? Again we present impressions from observations and interviews.
We actually noticed in all the discussions a genuine desire for ecumenical unity. This is also evident from the decision of their recent synod to engage in a conversation with the GKN. And that without preconditions.
Nobody has told us that there are doctrinal differences that would preclude unity. In the past there have been suspensions and depositions, and there was separation. These matters will have to be addressed one day, so that reconciliation can take place. But there are no preconditions in that regard for entering into a conversation . [v] There are also local initiatives to meet again and talk through the difficulties of the past. Sometimes there is full agreement to continue on together. But in other situations there is reluctance, or nothing at all.
Apart from an odd exception the desire for unity lives also in the GKN as we experienced in our conversations. There is admittedly a degree of watchfulness, sometimes restraint, with an indication that unity should not be a ‘strategic goal’ and also cannot be achieved by people but must be given from above. Things have to ‘take their time’. Doctrinal issues that would preclude unity were not mentioned. There is indeed a certain apprehension of a radical ‘true-church-thinking’ that people think to be noticing in the DGK. This will have to be a point of discussion. And do the DGK pay sufficient attention to the dynamic nature of Christ’s church gathering work? And is unity across church walls not more important than organisational unity?
Things from the past are here and there still very sensitive. A first reversal of suspensions and depositions was occasionally mentioned as a pre-condition for getting together and discussing things. But there is still no official response from the federation to DGK’s request to talk.
All in all, unification is seemingly not within reach. Many things will have to be dealt with. Yet the push to improve the relationship appears to be strengthening. There is in addition, an (understandable) difference between congregations that did and did not experience a break.
Brothers and sisters who suffered long periods of distress in the GKv and now belong to the different federations dearly love to hold on to each other and fervently wish to again celebrate the Lord’s Supper together. The desire to together live in the unity in Christ and the true faith is the driving force.
We also noticed how people in such a short time are in danger of losing sight of each other. Sometimes we noticed that people no longer read each other’s publications and are therefore easily left with caricatures. Someone talked about magazine Trumpet sounds, a funny slip that nicely illustrates the loss of contact, but perhaps is a hopeful sign for the future.
There is to our current understanding every reason to meet again and talk things through and out. Several contacts suggested to not begin with problems from the past but rather to talk with each other about the common foundation and determine from there on what must (still) be addressed. Perhaps, as some have suggested, many people see no need to raise all kinds of personal matters. Could perhaps the Union of 1892 hold the lesson to provisionally accept that there are ‘A- and B-churches’? someone asked.
A committee composed of members of both federations could prepare the discussion. And should a joint conference (of ministers / office bearers?) not be possible to test each other in the loyalty to Scripture and the Confessions? And in that kind of setting meet each other again after such a long time?
Unity in Christ’s church is not enforceable. It is a gift from the Lord of the church. We mention that first.
This should at the same time not lead to inactivity. In personal life and also in the church it is always ‘ora et labora’, pray and work. But it should always be kept in mind that we indeed are able to plant and irrigate, but the Spirit of God must give the increase, must incline the hearts towards one another in love and truth. Otherwise it leads to nothing but the frustration of flogging a dead horse.
These are our impressions from the talks and visits. We know we cannot but be incomplete. And maybe people will sometimes want to stress different accents, draw other things into the limelight or push them into the background. This evaluation of the two of us remains an imperfect but genuine attempt to paint a picture that can help make a responsible choice. We can not do more.
Choice of church
We have noticed that we are heartily welcome in both federations. And frankly, we find making a choice between the two federations quite difficult. After our decision to leave the GKv we would have preferred to simply choose in favour of the one ‘united federation, DGKN.’ But the situation is what it is. So we cannot escape making a choice. Dual membership is not possible, indeed undesirable.
All things considered, and after praying for God’s blessing, we have decided to want to belong to the federation of The Reformed Churches (restored).
We want to briefly explain our choice, partly on the basis of what we have shown above about the discussions and impressions.
All evidence shows that these Reformed churches desire to subject themselves to Christ and His Word. In the preaching Christ and His atonement and grace on our lives stand central. The gospel is preached faithfully with the command to repent and believe. We hear about God’s covenant with His rich promises of forgiveness of sins and eternal life. The demand of a holy life in accordance with God’s commandments is emphasised and His compassion for miserable sinners is proclaimed.
We look forward to celebrate the Holy Supper again after many years with brothers and sisters and to experience therein the true unity with Christ and with each other.
We want to subject ourselves to honest church discipline in accordance with the Word if we should deviate in doctrine or life.
The DGK federation has been set up after the time-worn Church Order of Dordrecht. Ecclesiastical life satisfies the Reformed fundamentals of Reformed church government although the churches’ small size has limited full implementation.
The churches actively seek unity with all who have received and practice the same precious faith.
We do not choose DGK because it is an ideal church community. Sins and failures are no strangers in these churches. But there is indeed the sincere desire to serve the Lord in all respects according to His Word. We believe that despite all the shortcomings and deficiencies DGK may consider itself a true church of Christ.
We do not seek these churches to have rest. Struggle and difficulties will not spare them, especially in this time which is gaining more and more idolatrous and apocalyptic traits. But we do expect that in these churches Christ’s rest can be enjoyed, for His yoke is easy and His burden light.
With this decision the choice has also been made to not join the GKN federation. It does not mean that we brush aside these brothers and sisters. On the contrary! How happy we would have been in meeting them in an ecclesiastical context in which full christian communion is possible. For we do know so many personally who with us share, and have struggled for, the same precious faith, and together with whom we would have liked to await Christ’s future. That is at this moment not readily possible in all respects. We will at the same time promise to devote ourselves, the Lord willing, to work for a new unity that includes all of God’s children who love Him sincerely and desire to walk in His ways, and thus belong together. Let us not mutually let go of each other, but fervently pray for God’s Spirit who is able to incline the hearts to cheerfully and diligently find ways to each other, and go them as well.
We call our liberated-Reformed church council(s) and our fellow brothers and sisters to go with us this path we intend to go. Although it is not the easiest path, it is indeed the narrow path following Christ. On the way to His future.
To be continued
[i] Kiezen of verliezen 4, published on www.ééninwaarheid.inf0 15-5-2015 (translation by J Eikelboom 12 June 2015)
[ii] See www.gereformeerde-kerken-hersteld.nl
[iii] See further www.gereformeerdekerkennederland.nl/beknopte-presentatie.
[iv] Dr. H. Bouwman, Crisis der jeugd.
[v] The GKN website therefore needs an update at this point.