Fifty years ago, in 1966, an ‘Open Letter’ was published that threatened to undermine the truth of God’s Word and the federation of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands – liberated (RCN). It resulted in a fierce struggle for the truth and hence the preservation of Christ’s churches. Perhaps it’s understandable that many people in reformed ‘migrant’ churches that have their roots in the church liberation of 1944 know less about the church struggle that went on in the Netherlands in the 1960s than about some earlier church struggles. After all, it never touched them to the extent that it touched those who remained in the RCN at the time. Nevertheless, there is a danger that the deviant thinking that led to that struggle infiltrates Christ’s churches of which we are privileged to be members. Since such thinking is an offence to the LORD and His people, and an attack on the truth and on the church, it may be good briefly to relate what happened, to identify the errors and to consider the Scriptural and confessional responses.
The Liberation – God’s work
Throughout the ages faithful believers have praised the LORD for defending and preserving His Church against Satan’s attempts to turn Christ’s church into a false church. Such praise was shown after the Great Reformation of the 16th century when the LORD used Luther and Calvin to lead His people back to the truth. It was again shown in 1834 when the LORD used Hendrick de Cock for another reformation, the First Secession (in Dutch: Afscheiding); again in 1886 in which the Lord used Abraham Kuyper to bring about a Second Secession (Doleantie); and again in 1944, the Liberation, in which the Lord used Prof K Schilder and others.
In each case the church was liberated from the unscriptural teachings (false doctrines imposed on the church) and practices (hierarchy) of a church which had become false. In each case there was a recognition that the LORD had graciously preserved His church in the Truth. Those who were liberated praised Him for setting them free from the yoke of bondage to these unscriptural doctrines and practises. In the Liberation of 1944, this thankfulness was shown in the meeting during the official Act of Liberation when those who gathered at this moving occasion sang Ps 124:
…Blest be the LORD who made us not their prey
As from the fowler’s net a bird may flee,
So from their broken snare did we go free.
Our only help is in God’s Holy Name; …
Attacks on the Liberation as God’s work
However, there were some liberated people who did not see the Liberation as a work of the Lord and as a reformation in accordance with article 28 BCF. Instead they saw it merely as a squabble between brothers and therefore set out to have talks with the synodicals with the aim of ‘healing the breach’. These discussions continued despite the fact that the synodicals showed no sign of repentance, refused to see the church Liberation of 1944 as an act of reformation by God, consolidated their wrong actions with further pronouncements and continued to twist God’s Word.
This minority of liberated people, who saw the Liberation as the consequences of a squabble, persevered in their efforts to seek unity with the synodicals but without focussing on the real issues of truth and falsehood that led to the Liberation. They stimulated a current of dissatisfaction within the Liberated churches. This was brought to a head when, in 1966, eighteen ministers and a few others signed an open letter (the infamous ‘Open Brief’) in which they stated, among other things, that to see the Liberation as an act of reformation based on article 28 BCF, where we confess that believers are duty bound to separate from the false church and join the true church, was a dangerous ‘ideology’. They wanted to focus on God’s love for sinners which, they felt, should lead us to suppress the difference between the Reformed (synodical) church and the Reformed Churches which the LORD had liberated from the synodical hierarchy.
Moreover, the ‘open letter’ stated that although the Reformed (liberated) churches in the Netherlands were based on the Three Forms of Unity we were now living in a modern world and therefore stimulated to think in terms of world proportions rather than in terms of the country in which we live. If you look around the world you see more churches that appear to be faithful and yet these other churches don’t have the Three Forms of Unity and therefore it is time to ask ourselves, they said, whether the foundation of the Reformed Churches (the Three Forms of Unity) in our own small country is the same as that of the holy, catholic, Christian church which is spread over the world. In other words, they suggested that Christ’s universal church had a much simpler confession than the Three Forms of Unity to which the Reformed churches subscribe and that therefore we should be much less fussy when we talk with other churches about unity. Indeed, the writer of the letter, Rev Schoep, had a few months earlier promoted the idea of an ecumenical unity based on a confession of just three words: Jesus is Lord.
Matters were brought to a head when, despite the concerns raised about Rev Schoep, the church of North Holland delegated him to the synod (Amersfoort 1967). A delegate at synod asked whether one who had so clearly distanced himself from the confession could be accepted as a delegate. Synod decided with great unanimity (32 in favour; 2 abstaining) that there was an unacceptable contradiction between what Rev Schoep wrote and the Three Forms of Unity. It therefore refused to accept him as delegate. This decision caused a number of church councils in North Holland to say that the synod no longer represented them. They broke with the bond of Liberated churches, although many of their members from this breakaway group stayed in the Liberated churches. Those who broke away later adopted the name Netherlands Reformed Churches (NRC). (Ironically these two federations are lately promoting unity and have combined church services, but not because the NRC have repented!)
A World Church?
What was wrong with the line of reasoning of the ministers supporting the open letter?
First, it created a false dilemma when it contrasted the Reformed (Liberated) churches in the Netherlands with the world church. The world church then becomes Christ’s universal church as something different than the local reformed churches. But Christ does not have a ‘world church’ in that sense. If you speak this way you must be able to identify it. What is the address of Christ’s ‘world church’? It doesn’t exist. Nor do the Scriptures speak of such a world church. Christ walks among the seven golden candlesticks, each representing a separate church, and the Apostle John on Patmos addresses his letters to individual churches, each having its own address, just as we speak of the Free Reformed Church of Byford, Albany, etc.
Second, what would the confession of such a world church, assuming it existed, be? Not the Three Forms of Unity, say the supporters of the ‘Open Letter’. What then? The Westminster Standards? No, because the Reformed churches don’t have it and concerns had been expressed about the scriptural faithfulness of parts of it. Moreover, there are churches which subscribe to neither. To try and establish such an all-embracing confession results in a process of continually restricting the confession to accommodate more and more churches. You narrow it down to the Apostles’ Creed or the trinity or, as Rev Schoep proposed, the three words: Jesus is Lord. And you leave more and more room for differing interpretations of God’s Word.
(to be continued)