Over the last few decades developments within the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands (RCN, in Dutch GKv), have shown a steady deterioration. The latest official sign of that deterioration is RCN synod’s decision to allow women in all the offices in clear contradiction to God’s Word. If earlier deviations failed to convince concerned members to leave, this clear violation of God’s Word should certainly have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Yet again we see RCN members going into damage control, urging people not leave the RCN for various reasons. But are their reasons for not leaving the RCN valid? H Oosterhuis, a member of the DGK [i] who liberated himself from the RCN, looks at the arguments used to persuade concerned RCN members to remain.[ii] I add some comments of my own.
1 Never leave the Church
Oosterhuis says that the most frequently heard reason for remaining in the RCN is that one may never leave the church. And it is of course true that one may never leave the (true) church of our Lord Jesus Christ. The question is, however, whether a church which hardens itself in maintaining errors contrary to God’s Word is still His church. As Oosterhuis points out:
“It’s true, you may not leave the church. Art. 28 BCF is clear: ‘All therefore who draw away from the church […] act contrary to the ordinance of God’. Therefore, never leave the church. It is not even a choice; it is a command of God.
We know from church history of many who did not voluntarily leave but were expelled. For example, Calvin and Luther engaged in a great struggle for the church but it almost cost them their lives. They were persecuted, banned, banished. And what about Hendrik de Cock in 1834? He was also suspended and expelled. What happened in 1944? Schilder, Greijdanus and others were suspended, censored and put out of the church.
But that raises the question: Did they really leave the church? [In other words, is it still the church of our Lord Jesus Christ when this happens?]
To determine that well we must know what, exactly, the church is. Well, we can find the answer in art. 27-32 BCF. The church is not always that which we call church. If someone steps out of the Roman ‘Catholic Church’, does he or she really leave the church? For a religious body to be the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ, it must have the characteristics of the church, namely, the pure Word of God is proclaimed and everything that is contrary to it is rejected. If those characteristics are evident, no one has the right to separate from this church. That’s what we confess in art. 29 BCF.”
We read in Scripture that a church does not become a false (i.e. illegitimate) church when it begins to go astray. The church at Corinth, for example, had things wrong with it. Likewise, some of the churches in Asia Minor (Rev. 2 & 3) had errors but were still the churches of Christ the Lord. The point is, however, what do these churches do when the errors are pointed out. The Lord Jesus says: repent or I shall remove the candlestick. That is: if you don’t repent from these errors, you will no longer be my church. The RCN have had their errors pointed out to them by concerned members and concerned congregations (not to mention overseas federations) throughout the past two decades, but appeals have been rejected. The RCN have doggedly and officially continued to maintain their errors. They have assigned more authority to themselves, through their wayward decisions, than to the Word of God. So let’s have the courage to speak with the words of the confession. By rejecting the errors pointed out to them, the RCN have become false (i.e. illegitimately called) churches.
We appear to be losing the frankness to speak confessionally about the church. A religious body of believers is either the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, or it isn’t. Either it’s a true church or it’s a false church. We confess: “These two churches are easily recognised and distinguished from each other” BCF 29). Yet there are those who, on the one hand, leave the RCN because of their errors, their unfaithfulness, yet who on the other hand refuse to call them false churches. One of these is the well-known Dr Jochem Douma. On the one hand he left the RCN because they are in a degenerative decline and have become unfaithful; on the other hand, he refuses to call them false churches.[iii] But of course, as Oosterhuis points out, and as we confess, one may not leave Christ’s church. If the RCN have not become false, but are still true churches, Douma and others had no right to leave. As we confess about Christ’s church: “no one has a right to withdraw from it” but “all and everyone are obliged to join and unite with it” (BCF 28). Douma appears to ease himself out of this by embracing the concept of the invisible church, saying that he has found it “a delight to meet many non-liberated people” with whom he “feels united in the invisible church of Jesus Christ”.[iv] However, the notion of an invisible church is not the language of Scripture and confession and can be an excuse to stay in the false church.
2. Doctrinal freedom
Another reason given to encourage concerned members to remain in the RCN is the claim that, for a church to be a false church, ministers must be forced to proclaim a false doctrine, as happened in the 1940s leading to the church Liberation of 1944. They say that this is not the case in the RCN today because, whilst the RCN federation of churches may officially have embraced wrong teachings at the synod level, there are still faithful ministers who are free to continue to proclaim pure doctrine. However, as Oosterhuis says:
“There should be no pure and impure preaching existing next to each other [in a church or church federation]. Art. 29 NGB says that very beautifully: ‘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’. Wrong doctrine may not co-exist with truth but must be rejected, eradicated, eliminated. If pure and impure teaching exists side by side, then the one breaks down what the other builds up. Here we touch on another characteristic of the church, namely discipline. If no discipline is exercised on impure preaching, then sin is not punished and church discipline, that second mark of the church, suffers shipwreck. Whilst it may sound so beautiful: ‘in our congregation the pure doctrine is still preached’—it is actually very selfish, as if only we need that pure doctrine, and the other churches in the bond do not. Moreover, one deceives oneself (and others) by implying that there’s no real problem, but that all is well with us!”
Hence to argue that concerned members should remain in the RCN because there are still some faithful ministers or some faithful congregations within a federation of churches ignores the fact that churches within such a federation are mutually responsible for one another. It’s why we have a church order and church visitations. They function to keep us faithful, so that as bond of churches we continue to reflect the marks of the (true) church. Truth and falsehood may not co-exist in Christ’s churches, nor in a federation of His churches. Where it does, and churches obstinately refuse to repent, true believers are duty bound to leave.
(to be continued)
[i] De Gereformeerde Kerken (The Reformed Churches) were instituted by those who liberated themselves from the RCN (GKv) in 2003.
[ii] H Oosterhuis, “12 redenen om NIET uit de GKv te gaan”, De Bazuin, Vol. 11 No. 24, 13 December 2017, pp. 339-342.
[iii] Dr Jochem Douma, Afscheid van de Gereformeerde Kerken (vrijgemaakt) [Departure from the RCN], Bookhandel Heijink, Hardenberg, 2014, p. 69.
[iv] Ibid, p. 42.