There are members of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (GKv – churches liberated in 1944) who continue to be concerned about the decline within their churches but are unsure about whether to stay or leave. An information evening was held for these concerned believers in Nijkerk on October 29, 2015. What follows is a presentation by Rev S de Marie – one of more than a thousand people who liberated themselves from the GKv in 2003 and established The Reformed Churches (De Gereformeerde Kerken – DGK).
Can or may I stay longer?
Current developments within the liberated Reformed Churches (GKv) ought to raise in every distressed believer’s heart the question: Can I stay any longer? Or even: Am I still allowed to stay? Or: Do I in this situation still have to stay? In short: Do I separate or stay, reform or wait?
Although this question confronts all church members, each must answer personally. And to identify the backgrounds and considerations that play a role in answering that question it is necessary to get a few things clear:
(1) Where is the church of Jesus Christ?
(2) How do I know whether I am still in the church of Jesus Christ?
(3) What makes the decision to either reform or separate?
Where is the church of Jesus Christ?
Today we are two days away from Reformation Day when we remember the church-gathering work of the Lord Jesus Christ in the 16th century. It was then that He preserved His church through reformation. The church was brought back to the Scriptures.
Then it also became clear where the church of Christ was – the church a believer was obliged to join, the church that had returned to faithfulness to God’s Word and to that Word alone, to Sola Scriptura.
That’s how it also was with the Secession in 1834 and with the Liberation in 1944.
In the time of the Reformation confessional documents were written that echoed and summarised God’s Word in order to ward off all heresy of Papists, Anabaptists and others. But also to set out the Scriptural doctrine to build up the church and defend its teachings to those outside.
The ‘Sola Scriptura’ doctrine could again get to work in the church! The church defended it again, as pillar and ground of the Truth.
It was then that the Belgic Confession was adopted. This document contains a number of Articles devoted to the church – in particular Articles 27-29. From God’s Word it describes the church of Christ, naming her identity and characteristics. Thus it states clearly that a believer must always make sure where the true church is in the midst of the various institutions that erroneously call themselves church but are not the true church.
Today the Belgic Confession is still part of what we believe and confess. Every confessing member of a church that subscribes to this Confession, has at his or her public profession of faith solemnly declared before God that also this [Confession] belongs to the complete Biblical doctrine of salvation.
Article 29 therefore does not begin with ‘we think’ or ‘we are of the opinion’. We do not just think that great care is required to distinguish on the basis of God’s Word which church is the true church. But we believe that such great care is essential.
The marks of the true church
We also believe that the true church can be recognised by satisfying three characteristics, or marks. You will surely know them: the pure preaching of God’s Word; the pure administration of the sacraments, and the proper exercise of Church discipline.
To see that purity well, the Confession briefly summarizes the identity of the true church: In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and regarding Jesus Christ as the only Head.
This is not just theory, but a matter of crucial reality as the following sentence makes clear: Hereby the true church can be known with certainty and no one has the right to separate from it.
To this, we all said ‘yes’. To this, all of us are bound and accountable.
This distinctiveness of the true church works in two directions. It works a careful searching for the true church after God’s Word. It works also the firm conviction of having to remain in the true church.
So the true church is the church that follows the Lord Christ as her only Head, at His voice alone, at His word alone: Sola Scriptura.
The true church is not a perfect church. Also in the church of Christ all members are sinners. And there are also hypocrites, people who pretend to be god-fearing, but are not. No church on earth is perfect. No, the true church on earth is the faithful church, the church that follows her Lord, keeps His Word pure and is desirous of doing God’s commandments.
This requires an ongoing struggle. For if any heresy arises – and this will always happen in the true church – that heresy will have to be rejected. The church will have to exercise discipline and administer the sacraments in accordance with Scripture.
In short, in the true church Christ reigns with His Word and Spirit. He alone.
There God is served in spirit and in truth. That is: in the church services God’s Word stands central. There is reverence in the meeting with holy God. And images – whether or not moving – or personal ideas are not found in worship. And if there is living in sin, Church discipline is applied.
Now, we believe that we can distinguish that kind of church with certainty (Article 29 BC). But only if our search is done with great care. This demands ongoing activity whether we’re members of the GKv or DGK.
Does the church to which we belong still satisfy the characteristics that Scripture outlines? Or have these already been damaged or perhaps even been lost?
What if the marks are no longer there?
Article 28 BC says that if the marks are lost we have to separate from that church. Regardless of your position and of who you are you shall, in accordance with God’s command, have to join the true church and so separate from those who do not belong to the church.
If you do not then join the true church, you will place yourself and your children in danger. Article 28 says that outside of her there is no salvation. Which means: outside of the true church the full communion with Christ, with His Spirit and His body is not found. But by joining that true church, you keep the unity of the body of Christ.
You will then again submit to the pure teaching and discipline.
You bend yourself – so we believe with Article 28 – again under the yoke of Jesus Christ. And you serve again the wellbeing of the brothers and sisters.
So there is an amazing rich promise in being a member of the true church of Jesus Christ. That promise lies in the presence, the preservation, and the protection by Christ Himself. He does all this because the church is His.
How do I know whether I am still in the church of Jesus Christ?
This question concerns the application of the mentioned Confession. To answer it the spirits must be tested whether they are of God (1 John 4: 1).
To do this for the first mark [the pure administration of God’s Word] we need to decide whether what is being taught, written or preached, actually corresponds with God’s Word. Is it from God or is it from man?
For example, with regard to the new hermeneutics, is God’s Word being echoed in purity? Or do we hear man speaking with an adjusted and twisted reference to the Bible?
What does my church teach about the origin of the earth, of man, of the fall into sin? What error does she tolerate in these teachings?
Is a view that deviates from God’s creation in six days sternly rejected by means of church discipline? Or is there room for it?
What is taught about the atonement through Christ?
What about the obedience to God’s commandments, for example with respect to the fourth and seventh commandments?
Is nowadays, for example, the doctrine of the church not miles away from what we confess in Articles 28 and 29 BC? For how can participation in the National Synod be reconciled with this?
Has the true-church doctrine not been dismissed as outdated? Do people not rather speak of several churches, or possibly of an invisible church?
To what extent are people still held accountable to their own Confession? Has it not become more of a historical document?
And does all this not put faith on a shaky foundation? Has the church in this way not become prey to human experiments? Is she not being tossed around by “every wind of doctrine” (Eph 4:14)? Are the sheep not left without a shepherd?
Let’s consider also the second and third marks of the true church: the pure administration of the sacraments and of church discipline.
If admission to the Lord’s Supper is allowed without attestations and for all kinds of Christians, including those from churches which you may not call true, how then will Christ’s table be kept holy?
The same applies to participation by practising homosexuals, cohabitants, those who do not faithfully attend the church services, those who do not believe the historicity of Genesis.
If re-baptizing of members is permitted, how does infant baptism keep its full meaning? Do you also hold yourself co-responsible for these things?
Much more can be mentioned regarding matters that need to be examined in your research about the true church. Of course you cannot know everything. You are also unable to judge everything yourself.
But you do have access to what others have written and spoken about it. For more than twenty years there have been magazines, brochures and websites which evaluated all these things. Of course, also that material has to be assessed. But if it is left unused, what will become of the believer’s duty to examine such things?
What is the critical factor in the decision whether to reform or separate?
The critical factor is not whether I feel at home in my church. Feeling at home is not most important in the church of Christ. Paul may also not have felt at home in Ephesus. He was there day and night admonishing with many tears.
No, the issue is whether your church is the Home of Christ your Lord, where He calls you.
Then there may be struggles also in that church. You can read about this in all the apostolic letters. You can read about this in Calvin’s Geneva, and in the churches of the Secession (1834).
The decisive factor is also not whether my parents, family, friends, acquaintances are members. The Lord Jesus has always been very clear about this. Relatives and friends can even turn against you when you have to separate. In that situation the Lord Jesus asks you to obey Him and love Him more than your relatives and loved ones, even though separation may lead to great and endless sorrows.
The sole decisive factor is whether in the church the honour and rights of the Lord are violated; whether the lie reigns or rules alongside the truth. There can always be an issue where this happens, but it must not be tolerated and characterise the church. Because then you participate in sin by staying. Then you are disobedient to the Lord. Even if you would still be right in saying that ‘the preaching is still good’. For where is then the preaching that rejects all errors?
In practice the issue may not just be an isolated matter but will have to concern fundamental truths that involve the marks of the true church. As long as God’s Word is still functioning as the pure foundation and as long as it can be appealed to.
There must also have been sufficient and intense warnings. The possibilities of appealing to the major assemblies should have been exhausted – and not necessarily by yourself. Warnings and appeals by others are equally valid.
This appeals process has taken more than 20 years. At Synod Zuidhorn 2002 there were 1500 appeals relating to 11 matters. There were more appeals at later Synods. And again at the Synod of Ede 2014, in a letter with 1500 signatures.
There have been several ‘liberations’ with calls to repentance, as in 2003 and 2010. There were serious letters of objection from foreign sister churches.
What if an appeal is no longer possible
But everything has been cast aside, systematically and without exception.
Now also Article 31 of the Church Order has been removed. You may no longer submit an appeal to Synod against a Synod decision. Synods can now dictate and consistories must obey.
And if it now turns out that all appeals have been rejected and God’s Word no longer works as a ground for appeal? And that the three marks of the true church are no longer found?
It is up to you to personally judge whether this is the case.
Yes, it will have to be a personal judgment. But a judgment of faith. Certainly not a non-committal judgment. Because in order to be and remain obedient to the Lord and to keep building His church, your judgment too must be based on Scripture and Confession,
A judgment to either reform or wait.
This was the question in the great Reformation. It is also the question today.
The above was published in De Bazuin, 2 December 2015, and translated from Dutch to English by J Eikelboom.