In Search of a Label

16

Recently a Dutch friend sent me a news article[i] showing that the bond of reformed schools[ii] of our Dutch sister churches (RCN/GKv)[iii] is in the process of merging with evangelical schools. The members realise that such a bond can no longer use the label ‘reformed’, a label which even the government recognised as signifying a particular type of education. Hence there is now a search for a new label to cover this bond of evangelical, reformed and orthodox-protestant schools. It’s to be a label that everyone feels comfortable with.

I suppose we should not be surprised at this further development. We have seen how, in order to attract more members and also to promote unity with other church federations, the RCN have compromised the truth. Now, as the Dutch news article notes (uncritically), in the field of education theological differences between reformed and evangelical have been bridged in order to promote unity. The news article acknowledges that there is quite a difference in view between adherents of infant baptism (the reformed view) and those who say that you can’t be baptised until you believe (a common evangelical view). Reformed teachers would have a different view of the children of believing parents and that view would impact their teaching.

How would teachers overcome this difference? Well, the article points out that these different views about baptism are considered to be no obstacle to the ‘reformed’ members because in practice, they believe, it is difficult to see this difference. They say that in practical day-to-day teaching the approach between reformed and evangelical schools can hardly be distinguished.

So now they seek a new label for this new amalgam of different bonds of schools with a new identity, a different label as an umbrella term for this new association of schools with their different theological backgrounds. But what label for this new combined identity should one use?

Various nice-sounding terms are suggested. For example, the new bond is to be characterised by ‘faithfulness to the Bible’—a familiar sound to both reformed and evangelical people, though there are differences in the way both interpret the Bible. As for the teachers, they are to be ‘believing Christians’ who ‘speak lovingly about God, about the world of God, and what it means to follow Jesus Christ and let yourself be led by the Holy Spirit’. These teachers are ‘as Christians’ to be ‘an example to their students’. No doubt, concludes the article, many parents and children will consider that very important.

When I read all this I am reminded of some articles by Dr C van Dam (elsewhere on this website) illustrating the difference in focus between reformed and evangelical worship services. He shows that, in contrast to the evangelical worship services, the reformed churches emphasise the covenant relationship between God and His people. That covenant is the reason why in reformed churches, unlike in many evangelical churches, infants are baptised. We believe that they also belong to the covenant, not on the basis of what they have done in choosing to believe, but on the basis of what God has promised to them.

That covenantal focus also applies to teaching. It affects the way reformed teachers view the child. As Rev C Stam says, reformed teachers:

“regard their pupils as CO-HEIRS of the covenant who are to be instructed in the way of the covenant, one with them in sin and sinfulness, one also in Grace. The teachers are fellow-workers, whose combined goal in the different classes and subjects, is to bring about covenant awareness and responsiveness in the pupils.”[iv]

That emphasis on the covenantal relationship between God the Father and His children will cause the teachers to see themselves and their students as sinful and undeserving of God’s grace but as having been reconciled to Him through the saving work of Jesus Christ. Reformed teachers will focus on preparing the children for a life lived to God’s honour by obeying His commandments – the covenant law which is weekly proclaimed in the church services.

The reformed teachers apply what they hear on Sunday where they and the students submit to the Word of God and worship their covenant God in the unity of the true faith. Dr van Dam says that for the reformed worshipper:

“Sunday worship means coming into the presence of God. As the Psalmist exhorted: ‘Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for He is our God and we are the people of His pasture, the flock under His care’(Ps 95:6-7). As the psalmist indicated, worship involves humbling oneself before God: bowing and kneeling. God after all is our Maker, our Creator, and we are but creatures. Approaching God must therefore be done in awe and reverence. ‘Guard your steps when you go to the house of God.” After all, he is God who “is in heaven and you are on earth’ (Eccl 5:1, 2).”[v]

Notice here how in reformed worship the focus is first on the vertical relationship between God and His children, that wonderful covenantal fellowship whereby God is our father in Jesus Christ our Saviour. The worship of evangelicals, on the other hand, tends to focus more on the horizontal relationships. Says Dr van Dam:

While the stress in a Reformed worship service is on the vertical relationship with God who is worshipped and who ministers to us, evangelical worship often puts the stress on the horizontal dimension of worship. Critical to a successful evangelical service is a sense of warm personal fellowship with others as well as the feeling that you are involved and contributing something to the service.[vi]

Dr van Dam adds that critical to the evangelical worship is the “feeling that you are involved and contributing something to the service”, the “participation and emotions of a worshipper” tending to be “more front and centre”, and the heavy focus on catering “to the expectations of the unchurched or marginal members of another church”. Evangelicals, he says, tend to come to the church services “as consumers with expectations that need to be met”. They ask themselves, “What’s in it for me? Is it relevant to my feelings and needs? Will it enable me to achieve my goals in life?”

If in evangelical churches there is, as Dr van Dam says, a tendency “to avoid topics like sin that can turn off nominal or non-Christians” why wouldn’t that also be the case with evangelical teachers? If in evangelical churches there is an avoidance of “anything that sounds judgemental” and an emphasis instead on being “unrelievedly cheerful”, wouldn’t the same apply in evangelical schools? And if in the worship service, as Dr van Dam observes, “downplaying the issue of sin is an affront to holy God”, why wouldn’t the same hold true in the school where an evangelical teacher downplays sin in order not to offend the students or their parents? Just as our church services are to be “all about God and what he wants” (van Dam) so should the education of our children.

There is tragically plenty of documented evidence to show that the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands (GKv) have compromised the truth and their reformed identity in many ways. Now their national bond of schools is doing the same by uniting with evangelical schools. No amount of search for a Christian label for their new identity can hide the fact that, in the process, they are devaluing their reformed heritage. Evangelical and reformed teaching is as different as evangelical and reformed worship. It is not surprising, yet sad, that the bond of GKv schools is further eroding its reformed identity – not to mention the cost to the Truth and the reformed education of the children – by uniting in a bond with evangelical schools and, in order to reflect that unity, sacrificing its reformed label in its search for a more all-embracing label.

J Numan
[i] Sjirk Kuiper, “Christelijk als Merklabel” in Nederlands Dagblad, 6th February 2016, p.3

[ii] Landelijk Verband van Gereformeerde Scholenverenigingen (LVGS)

[iii] Reformed Churches of the Netherlands (Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland – vrijgemaakt)

[iv] J Numan, “Rev C Stam and Covenantal Education”, https://defenceofthetruth.com/2016/03/rev-c-stam-covenantal-education/

[v] C van Dam, “Should we accommodate to a more evangelical style of worship?” https://defenceofthetruth.com/2015/10/should-we-accommodate-to-a-more-evangelical-style-of-worship-by-dr-c-van-dam/

[vi] C van Dam, “Evangelical and Reformed Worship: What’s the Difference?” https://defenceofthetruth.com/2016/03/1026/