A number of ministers in our Dutch sister churches during the 1960s were no longer reformed in their thinking. Through their writing and speaking they showed that they were unthankful for the Lord’s work of Liberation, were no longer faithful to Scripture and confession and promoted unity at the cost of the Truth. The extent of this unreformed thinking was reflected by the number of ministers who signed the infamous ‘Open Brief’ (open or public letter).
And now a disturbing possibility arose. With a general synod scheduled for 1967 there was the distinct likelihood that one or more of these unreformed ministers could be delegated to synod. What would then happen?
Consistories appoint delegates to classis, which in turn appoints delegates to a particular regional synod (something we don’t have in the FRSA because of its smaller size), and the regional synod then appoints delegates to the general synod.
Aware of the possibility that ministers who had become unreformed might well be delegated to the general synod, one concerned classis (Hoogeveen) tabled the matter at the particular synod (Drenthe). Drenthe shared Hoogeveen’s concern and gave its delegates to the general synod a letter of instruction which they were to table if it became evident that unreformed ministers were indeed at that general synod. Their precautions were justified because one of the unreformed ministers, Rev Schoep, had been delegated by the churches of North Holland.
Synods commence with the delegates standing up to indicate their agreement with the Three Forms of Unity. Could Rev Schoep do this? He had written the Open Letter which had called into question the Three Forms of Unity, promoted tolerance with regard to the interpretation of Scripture and reduced God’s reformational work in the Liberation of 1944 to “a squabble between brothers”. Elsewhere he had promoted an ecumenical confession of just three words: Jesus is Lord. There was therefore an unacceptable contradiction between what Rev Schoep wrote and the Three Forms of Unity. Would he stand up to indicate his agreement with the confessions?
He did! Along with the other delegates at synod he rose to show complete agreement with the “confessions of the churches, namely the Three Forms of Unity, promising to conduct all his labour at synod in subordination to Holy Scripture and bound to the adopted confession” (Acts, 1967, art.7). How could Rev Schoep indicate that there was confessional unity when he had clearly acted so differently? The tension, particularly among the delegates from Drenthe, must have been great indeed. They now had to table the letter of objections given them by their particular synod.
Rev Schoep, however, refused to discuss the matter or in any way remove the discrepancy between his agreement with the confession at synod and his agreement with the Open Letter (Acts, Art 10). Synod then appointed a committee to investigate the concerns listed in the letter of Drenthe.
The following day the committee tabled its findings and recommendations. It referred extensively to passage in the Open Letter and demonstrated that they were in conflict with Scripture and confession.
Synod, after some amendments, adopted the committee’s findings. It judged that
“the Open Letter calls into question the catholic or undoubted character of the reformed confession; it calls into question whether it is a summary of the true and complete doctrine of salvation. The Open Letter says it is in line with the thinking of the so called ecumenical movement, but that thinking has consistently been rejected by the reformed churches who have accepted and maintained the confession as a summary of Christian doctrine” (Acts, Amersfoort-West, 1967, art 16).
Synod also judged that what the Open Letter said about the Liberation was not according to the Scriptural-confessional foundation of the churches of the Liberation as confessed in articles 27-29 BCF. Synod concluded that there was an unacceptable contradiction between Rev Schoep’s agreement with the confession and his support of the Open Letter. The logical consequence of this was the proposal by the delegates of Drenthe that Rev Schoep should not be accepted as delegate to synod. Synod agreed and informed the churches of North Holland which had delegated him.
As you can imagine, synod’s decision not to accept Rev Schoep as member of synod caused quite a stir. Several churches in North Holland rejected the decision out of hand. They bluntly stated that, as far as they were concerned, synod did not represent them and that they had no intention of accepting any of synod’s decisions as binding. This response was supported by their classis Alkmaar-Zaandam (Acts, Hoogeveen, 1969/70, p.501). There were also other churches in the Netherlands which refused to acknowledge the decisions of synod, churches which defended ministers who had signed the Open Letter and which sought greater tolerance for the (false) teaching of the likes of the Revs LE Oosterhoff, B Telder and JO Mulder.
Of course, by refusing to accept the binding character of major assemblies, they were effectively divorcing themselves from the bond of churches. After all, the churches had agreed to be bound by the Church Order and thereby to the decisions of major assemblies – unless these conflicted with God’s Word or the Church Order (art. 31). In a sense, a number of churches had already divorced themselves from the bond by seeking unity with the reformed (synodical) churches and by allowing a spirit of tolerance for those who were not faithful to the confession. Here, however, the response was more radical. Indeed, they effectively broke with the RCN, the federation of Liberated churches, although many of the members of these churches broke with these rebellious churches and remained in the Liberated churches. Those who broke away (about 30,000 from the RCN population of about 100,000) became known as the ‘buiten verband kerken’ (churches outside the bond) and later adopted the name Netherlands Reformed Churches (with which the present RCN are now, ironically, seeking unity).
Although these churches form a loose bond, they value the ‘freedom to do their own thing’. The one church allows children to attend the Lord’s Supper while another allows people who are not members of the church to attend. Different churches send their theological students to different seminaries or to university. Any decisions that are made by the bond of churches do not need to be heeded if the congregation feels it is not in its interest. Nor, if they deviate from standard practices, do they feel obligated to give an account to their sister churches.
Such ‘independentism’ has rightly been criticised. Whilst it is true that each church is body of Christ and each church council is responsible directly to the LORD, it is also true that together the churches form the body of Christ. As a body they must work together for the well-being of the body. The hand cannot say to the foot; I have no need of you; I will go my own way. The churches have their unity in Christ and want to exercise that unity in obedience to His Word. This was evident already in the New Testament churches. Although they had no classes or synods yet, they recognised their calling towards one another (Acts 15; Rom. 15:25-27; 2 Cor. 8,9). Whether the congregation stemmed from the Jews or whether it was made up of ex-heathens, there was the joyful exercising of the common bond which they had through the blood of Christ. Little wonder the K Schilder once remarked that Christ gave his blood also for the churches bond.
Fifty years have passed since the Open Letter and much more could be written about the church struggle of the 1960s. The general synods of 1967 (Amersfoort) and 1969/70 (Hoogeveen) exposed and condemned the false prophecies contained in the Open Letter. This letter struck at the heart of the confessions, denied the reformational work of the LORD in the Liberation of 1944 and, through its spirit of toleration for the views of Telder, Oosterhoff, Mulder, Schoep and others, was in the process of robbing people of their only comfort in life and death. The Lord graciously used the synod delegates as watchmen on Zion’s walls to keep His church in the truth of His Word as summarised in the confessions.
The watchmen at these two synods did not have it easy. They battled against the spirit of apostasy. This is clear from the closing addresses of the chairmen, Revs Deddens and Kok. Rev Deddens, in his closing address to synod (Acts, 1967, p. 341), said:
“The churches – how they are being attacked! How the LORD Himself is busy with us! How He disciplines us because of our sins. How he makes us small… How hasn’t the spirit of the world worked and how doesn’t it continue to work with increasing intensity among us! Wasn’t and isn’t there a dwindling of real thankfulness for what the LORD has worked in the Reformation, the Liberation and earlier reformations here in the Netherlands? Wasn’t and isn’t the writing and speaking about the confession, and the need to uphold it, done in a way which must sadden Him Who, through the Liberation, safeguarded this confession? Is there not an increasingly strong spirit which—in relation to ecclesiastical assemblies, subscription forms and promises—adopts a freedom which is not in accordance with the freedom of the Holy Spirit? How often did not and do not leaders, called to be examples, give a wrong example?”
Rev Kok, in his closing address to synod (Acta, 1969/70, p.435), said:
“The churches are in peril. They have come into the hour of temptation and are being sifted like wheat. They are being tempted to misuse the freedom which God gave, by way of the Liberation, as an occasion for the flesh. Many are caught up in the spell of the Anabaptist liberation ideology. They want to be free from the oppressive ties of an ecclesiastical organisation, free from the written confessions, free from every letter ‘which kills’, in order to live ‘by the Spirit’. Those forces of disintegration haven’t yet finished doing their work. We have gauged them here in all their horror. We have also exposed and withstood them in our decisions.”
The synod delegates knew that their decisions would be resented by some. They also knew, however, that their duty was, above all, to be faithful to God’s Word and the confessions. The LORD, who has wonderfully protected His Church through a series of reformations, graciously protected us from false prophets in the 1960s. He exposed their heresies and removed them from His church.
That was the situation then. Half a century later we see how the RCN, who stood strong in defending the Truth in the 1960s, have themselves now caved in to the lie. It led to the LORD bringing about a new Liberation in 2003 – a reformation that led to more than a thousand members leaving the RCN and instituting De Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (DGK). The numbers are relatively small, but the LORD does not look at numbers but at faithfulness to His Word. May He continue to keep His people, wherever they gather in the unity of the true faith, thankful and vigilant, in faithfulness to His Word and the confessions.