Today (11 August 2022) it is exactly 78 years ago that our Lord Jesus Christ liberated our forebears in the faith from synod decisions which had embraced the lie and forced it upon the churches. The lie was that God’s covenant promises at baptism weren’t reliable; they depended on whether the child had a ‘seed of faith’ hidden within him or her. That lie robbed parents of the comfort of God’s promises. Synod next acted with an authority it did not have: it deposed faithful office bearers who said they could not subscribe to synod’s wrong teaching. In the end, about 10% of the members freed themselves from the false teachings and unscriptural hierarchy and formed the Reformed Churches (Liberated). Those who stayed behind in the synodical churches—particularly the leaders—didn’t accept the criticism levelled at the hierarchical synod. Instead of engaging with the issue, they did what people confronted with unwelcome truth so often do: they counterattacked, and the focus of the counterattack was the main victim of Synod’s decision, Dr Klaas Schilder. If he hadn’t left, they said, all those others wouldn’t have left either! They minimised the seriousness of what Synod had done and claimed Schilder caused the schism in the church. That claim has been perpetuated through the years.[i] There were even insinuations that he engineered the Liberation! Nothing could be further from the truth. The late Rev P vanGurp, in his recently published autobiography, describes his experience of what happened.[ii]
It was 1944, German soldiers still occupied Holland and vanGurp was still a theological student. During the previous decade there were some professors, one of whom was the son of the late Abraham Kuyper, who did not like the way Dr Klaas Schilder and others questioned some of the ideas Abraham Kuyper had developed, such as common grace, pluriformity of the church and presumptive regeneration. So they started agitating against Schilder. They seized their chance when, during the war, Schilder had to go into hiding. He had spoken boldly against the national socialism pushed by Hitler. So the Nazis nabbed him and put him in prison. After some months, in order to curry favour with the Dutch people, they released him. But it wasn’t long before they again sought him, so he went into hiding. While he hid, Synod demanded that office bearers should promise allegiance to Kuyper’s idea about presumptive regeneration. Schilder and Greijdanus, professors at the theological college, would not do that. They were suspended from their positions as lecturers and later deposed from office along with many office bearers who refused to agree to Synod’s demands.
Was all this engineered by Schilder so as to cause a schism? A medical doctor, P Jasperse, at whose place Schilder was hiding from the Germans, describes Schilder’s shocked reaction to synod’s decision. He couldn’t believe his ears and said, “Have they really dared to do that?”[iii] A short time later Jasperse discovered Schilder playing the organ and singing softly:
Turn to me and show your favour;
I am lonely and distressed.
From my troubles me deliver;
save me, for I am oppressed.
Lord, I plead for your support
as I pine away and languish.
Heal the sorrows of my heart
and relieve my growing anguish. (Psalm 25:8 BoP)
“Very moving! Nothing to indicate he was seeking to be a martyr, as was wickedly suggested at the time”, says vanGurp, “as if by being the underdog he could somehow get followers this way! Indeed, as Synod continued, Schilder thought that if there was eventually a liberation, it would only be perhaps the odd minister and some students who might follow him; but never the churches. Asking for revision at a following synod wasn’t an option. He expected to be an unemployed citizen.”
Clearly Schilder was despondent about the future. However, the Lord would continue to care for the faithful. Some brothers formed a committee which distributed brochures about what happened at synod. Together with some pastors this committee then considered what to do next. They consulted Schilder and the elderly Prof. Greijdanus and came to the conclusion that there was no alternative but to call the church people to a reformation of the church.
This led, says vanGurp, to a meeting being organised for concerned people in The Hague. There would be various speakers and a so-called Act of Liberation would be tabled for discussion. It had been drafted with Schilder’s input. Care would be taken to ensure that sufficient copies of this Act were available for any church members who wished to sign it and submit it to their church council. This historic meeting was to be held on 11 August in the building of the Salvation Army. VanGurp, who attended with a fellow student, writes:
“We said to each other: let’s hope that on this day they don’t form a new church. So it was certainly not the case that we went there out of some sort of secessionist zeal. At the end of the day, however, we were both firmly convinced that if we were to act responsibly there was no alternative to follow the course discussed at the meeting: Liberation was what the Lord asked of us.
We arrived in The Hague on time in the morning, and found that the venue had changed. The crowds wanting to attend were so large that there was no room for all those people in the Salvation Army hall.”
This further illustrates that the Liberation was not engineered by Schilder and other concerned people. They had expected only a few people to turn up. As vanGurp says:
“This was further proof that we were not acting out of hubris – expectations were not high.
We were referred to the Evangelical Lutheran Church nearby. […] There were several ministers, many students from Kampen and also, to our joy, the professors who had remained faithful: Greijdanus and Schilder. Although Schilder had been forced into hiding from the Germans, he had been assured that he could appear in public again without danger of being nabbed. Finally, he was with us again.”
The meeting was led by Rev. H. Knoop, a faithful minister who had survived years in the notorious POW camp, Dachau (see his book A Theatre in Dachau).
“There were penetrating speeches, not only criticising the Synod, but especially pointing out the spiritual decline within the churches, for which we considered ourselves partly responsible. In short, it was a cry with mouth and heart from the depths of sadness.
The highlight, of course, was the reading of the Act of Liberation by Schilder and the explanation he gave.
Opportunity was given for questions and it was remarkable that there was hardly any criticism of the position taken by the organisers of this meeting. Greijdanus was asked: what should we do now? He gave a very simple answer: do not sin. By this he meant that we were not to have fellowship with the gross sins that the Synod had committed. He said it would be sinful not to liberate from those who adhered to the Synod’s decisions.”
VanGurp relates how he and some fellow students had the great privilege to speak with Schilder in a separate room of the church. They expressed their solidarity with him in this difficult time and showed their loyalty to his reformational work. What vanGurp then relates further illustrates that, far from engineering the Liberation, as was so maliciously suggested, Schilder actually saw the outlook as rather bleak.
“Schilder himself then spoke to us [theological students] and said more or less as follows: gentlemen, unfortunately I have to tell you that I do not see a future for you in the churches. I do not expect that many will go the way of the reformation; at most a few ministers, but hardly any congregations.
This is further proof that there was no triumphalism. It was simply: follow the Lord in obedience and leave the results to Him.
So we went home. We were in a gloomy mood, because all this meant that we might as well put an end to our studies. But what should we do? I remember discussing this with my parents at home. I said: I think I should stop studying theology. My father said: you mustn’t do that. But such advice did not convince me. Then he said: go and talk to your district elder, who was A. Schilder. He was a wise man. He listened to me and then quoted the proverb: never change horses midstream. In other words: first finish your studies and then you can always look further. He was not as pessimistic about future developments as his brother [Klaas Schilder] and it soon became clear that he was right.”
The Lord showed that He was in control and was blessing the faithful work of church liberation. Indeed, looking back we see that it was all His doing.
“Week in and week out we received reports of churches that had decided to make themselves free. Time and again we read the names of pastors who had done the same. In those days, we had a weekly newspaper, De Vrije Kerk (The Free Church), which was the forerunner of the Gereformeerd Gezinsblad. In a short time, there was already a church community of about 50,000 souls. This was to our great joy, but also to the shock of the synodal administrators who had not reckoned with such a mass exodus. They tried in all sorts of ways to camouflage their adherence to the doctrinal statements, but this did not help them. The growth continued and it was not long before we even outnumbered the Christian Reformed Churches.
The [Liberated] churches in the North – and there were many – immediately decided to continue the training for the ministry and to ask Professors Greijdanus and Schilder to resume their tasks.”
Church services were held in all sorts of places – a barn, a hall, a pub, a washing machine showroom and often a gym. “So much joy and gratitude everywhere,” says vanGurp. All kinds of psalms about the liberation of the church were sung with deep sincerity and enthusiasm.
Were Schilder and others with him schismatic? No, they were persecuted because they sought to be faithful to God and His Word and were kicked out of the church, along with other faithful office bearers. There was no alternative but to institute the Liberated churches. In fact, by continuing to be faithful to God’s Word, the Liberated churches were the true, continuing reformed churches in the Netherlands. Did they engineer it for their own benefit and glory? Such scurrilous claims are disproved by the reality of what happened. It was, instead, truly a gracious work of the Lord preserving His church in the Netherlands in the truth of His covenant Word during those dark days of the war. And we, along with so many others, are the blessed beneficiaries. To us is the task to remain faithful to God’s Word. As John says, speaking by the Spirit, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth” (3 John vs 4).
[i] For those who understand Dutch see, for example, the first few minutes of videoclip Het Oversticht: De kerkscheuring van 1944, 2002 (BETACAM690) – YouTube. See also the last couple of minutes of Dutch videoclip Ander Nieuws 100 Jaar Prof dr K Schilder – YouTube.
[ii] Piet van Gurp, Levensboek, Dalfsen, The Netherlands, 2020. See especially pp. 75-80.
[iii] Piet van Gurp, Levensboek, Dalfsen, 2020, p. 77.