In Nederlands Dagblad (18 April 2017) Kees de Ruijter, emeritus professor of the GKv’s Theological University at Kampen, writes that he recently met someone at a (GKv)[i] church service who hadn’t attended for 20 years.
“Reverend,” the man had cried from the heart, “this church is not my church anymore!” And then he proceeded to relate why he had stayed away. He spoke of what offended him in church, of how he felt alienated, of the church services in which he no longer felt at home, and about his loss of trust.
Although the man was some 30 years older than de Ruijter, and could remember the Church Liberation of 1944 and what followed, de Ruijter says that he could identify with the man’s feelings. Such feelings come over you, he said, when you find that hardly any psalms are being sung anymore, when the church services are filled with so many extras that there’s barely time for a sermon, when the service is made up of improvisations, when as many as three unknown hymns are sung in a service, when the sermon is reduced to a ‘feel-good’ story, when there is talk at synod of accepting women office bearers and you are confronted with how little the children learn at catechism.
However, whilst de Ruijter could understand the man’s feelings, discussions with various church members led him to comment that, despite these ongoing changes in church life, the unity with Christ is not threatened. He disagrees with the man who says, “This is no longer my church”. And to think about leaving and to ask, “Lord, where to then?” is wrong, says de Ruijter. He concludes that, “The church is of Christ. And Christ is of God.”
Thus far the news article in Nederlands Dagblad.
Is de Ruiter’s response right? I raise this question here because the issue of whether and when people should leave a wayward church – one that has rejected admonitions and doggedly follows a path of deformation – has plagued people through the ages. Some people see matters clearly and leave immediately, thereby being instruments of God to bring about a reformation (return to the Truth) and liberation (from wrong doctrine and practices). Others digest what is happening more slowly and leave somewhat later. But there are also those, usually the majority, who ignore or downplay the seriousness of the errors and/or don’t want to move out of their comfort zone.
In the above-mentioned news article, de Ruijter says it’s wrong to think about leaving the GKv. That would only be true, of course, if the GKv was a true church federation. But is it? When, in the GKv, Bible words, which throughout church history have been accepted as clear and transparent, are now being put in the fog of uncertainty through a new way of reinterpreting Scripture (see https://defenceofthetruth.com/en/2017/04/more-than-a-synod-decision/); when the preaching of God’s Word is replaced by improvisations or reduced to ‘feel-good’ stories; when admonitions (from GKv members and from overseas sister churches) about unscriptural doctrines and practices are ignored, one cannot escape the fact that the GKv is no longer maintaining and proclaiming the truth of God’s Word—that first mark of the true church. And when the sacraments are opened to those who practise unchristian lifestyles and to members who promote wrong doctrines, we must conclude that the GKv is no longer applying church discipline or using the sacraments in accordance with God’s Word—the second and third marks of Christ’s church. Such a church (federation), since it no longer submits willingly to Christ its Head, cannot be the church of Christ.
However, de Ruijter would have us believe that it is not right to leave the GKv and he concludes, therefore, that it is wrong to ask, “Lord, where to then?” Yet that is precisely the question that needs to be asked. For we confess that “we ought to discern diligently and very carefully from the Word of God what is the true church, for all sects which are in the world today claim for themselves the name of church” (BCF 29). We are to be guided, we confess, by the marks of the true church—faithfulness in preaching, use of sacraments and church discipline.
Remaining in a church (federation) which, in the face of admonitions, continues to deviate from God’s Word in doctrine and practices[ii] is the easy way out but it is the way of disobedience. You might try to console your conscience by continuing to splutter about the changes and to express concerns about deviations. You might argue that each change seems so incremental that you feel unjustified in leaving. You might hope, while you remain cosily with relatives and friends, that you can still do some good to stem the tide of deterioration. But you would be deceiving yourself. And meanwhile things go from bad to worse.
This has happened time and again in church history. Generations of descendants were lost because their forebears remained in a church that had gone astray. It also happened in Bible times. Think of what happened in the time of King Jeroboam. When he encouraged the people of Israel to stay in their territory and serve the Lord through the golden calves at Bethel and Dan, rather than in Jerusalem, there were undoubtedly many, including prophets, who realised that what Jeroboam had introduced into the worship services was wrong. At first, they may well have voiced their concerns. But eventually they became silent and, instead of making the journey to Jerusalem as God required, they stayed comfortably where they were and got used to the wrong practices. K Schilder illustrates how this happened in his article “The concerned prophet who just wouldn’t show obedience” (https://defenceofthetruth.com/en/2013/04/the-concerned-prophet-who-just-couldnt-show-obedience-by-dr-k-schilder-2/). Slowly but surely God’s people become used to the wrong doctrines and practices and eventually reap the bitter fruits of unfaithfulness.
De Ruijter says: stay in this church even though there’s barely time for sermons and those that are brought are feel-good stories, etc.; you’ve got to go with the times. But Christ says, “Come out of her, my people” (Rev. 18:4); He is referring to the need for His people to leave Babylon—that symbol of deviant culture and deviant religion. Obedience to Christ’s command must spur true believers on to fight the good fight and simply to trust Him. Leaving a church that has many members but has become false through persistent disobedience, and joining Christ’s true church – however small and insignificant it may appear – is simply a matter of obeying Christ, the Head of the Church. Such obedience reaps rich dividends – the fruits of faithful preaching and spiritually healthy church life.
To be sure, joining Christ’s true church is no holiday cruise, no walk in the park, no easy street; it brings difficulties. But it is a matter of simply submitting to the command of Christ who requires obedience in every area of life—especially His church. It is part of the continuing reformation of our lives which Christ requires in subservience to Him our Lord and Redeemer. He seeks wholehearted service: no synthesis, no compromise, no easy way out by blurring the distinction between obedience and disobedience, between true and false church. It’s all or nothing.
Such a position will likely be opposed – as de Ruijter does – and may lead to mocking contempt, as is shown throughout Biblical and later church history. Look at how the prophets were mistreated and many Christians have lost livelihoods, friends, families and even their lives for the sake of the true gospel of our Saviour Jesus Christ. And it continues today. The age-old antithesis God pronounced in Paradise manifests itself there where His people confess Christ and try to live in faithfulness to Him, because Satan can’t tolerate such obedience. Yet for Christ’s followers it is the only way, a way with a glorious assurance: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt 5:11,12).
[i] GKv – Reformed Churches of the Netherlands (Liberated 1944)
[ii] See, for example, Acts of the 2012 Synod of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, Article 142.