Somebody asked Rev. E. Heres, of the DGK,[i] to write an article about “the dynamics of Christ’s church gathering work” in line with Article 28 BCF. The reason is that whilst Article 28 is about everyone’s duty to join the true church, there are church members who speak in a way that suggests they believe in an invisible church made up of believers from all over the world. They imply that BCF Art. 27 speaks about this invisible church while Articles 28 to 32 speak about the local visible church. But that, says Rev. Heres, is wrong.
To be sure, Article 27 speaks about the catholic or universal church. There we confess that: “This church has existed from the beginning of the world and will be to the end. This holy church (..) is spread and dispersed throughout the entire world. Yet it is joined with heart and will, in one and the same Spirit, by the power of faith.” But as Rev. Heres points out, Art. 28 continues to speak about that same church. For there we confess: “We believe, since this holy congregation is the assembly of the redeemed … no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, no matter what his status or standing may be.” The fourth word of Art. 28: ‘this’, shows the ‘seamless connection’ between these two articles.[ii] Art. 28 tells us about our responsibility towards that worldwide church that has spanned the ages.
Rev. Heres says we must remember that we find the catholic church in that local church – no matter how small it may be – which faithfully clings to the Word of God: the teaching of Christ. Article 28 calls us to:
- Keep the unity of the church;
- Submit to her teaching and discipline;
- Bend our neck under Christ’s yoke;
- Use the gifts God gave us to serve the upbuilding of the communion of saints as we are members of the same body. [iii]
This calling, that responsibility, applies to everyone. All true believers who faithfully confess the name of Christ in truth are called to this task.
Article 28 appeals to believers who do not yet uphold spiritual unity by attending the true church. Rev. Heres, quoting Prof. Trimp, writes: “Article 28 is typical of things written during a reformation period. Many true believers, especially in France, had not yet dared to leave the hierarchical Roman Church. After all, such an act could have serious personal consequences! Art. 28 reflects that tense atmosphere when it says we must join the true church “…though rulers and edicts of princes were against it, and death or physical punishment might follow“.
Not so long ago our former Dutch sister churches, the GKv, ceased to exist; they were absorbed into the NGK (Netherlands Reformed Churches – a more liberal group which had left the GKv in the 1960s). In light of this, Rev. Heres says: When we apply what we confess in Art. 28 to today’s ecclesiastical situation [in the Netherlands] you could say many members of the NGK (into which the GKv have been absorbed) simply want to remain reformed. But they don’t leave, because to leave the church with which you have become so familiar and to join an unattractive small bond of true churches (the DGK) can lead to nasty consequences, like tensions in relationships with family and friends.
A true church can become a false church through the influence of people who no longer believe the true and complete doctrine of salvation, says Prof. C Trimp. Then God moves the candlestick to a church where the authority of His Word is restored. The church can fall into such disrepair that it imposes a yoke of error and human rule on the faithful, which prevents them from functioning as true believers. The believers’ calling is then “to separate from those who do not belong to the church” (Art. 28). False doctrine and imposing a human yoke cause the church to lose its legitimacy. Separation is essential to remain the Catholic Church of Christ! As we confess in Article 28: “It is the duty of all believers (….) to join this [true] assembly wherever God has established it.”
We reject the human yoke of false doctrine and practices; instead we bend our neck under the yoke of Jesus Christ (Matth. 11: 29.30). The yoke of Christ is that easy yoke of simply believing the Truth and accepting the glorious gospel proclaimed by the church which has returned to the riches of all Scripture.
Rev. Heres adds that the “yoke of Christ” also refers to the connection that exists because of the unity of true faith we have when living together in one bond of churches. Indeed, all of Article 28 strongly emphasises unity. It cannot be different! All of God’s Word emphasises that (Acts 2:46; John 17:20, 21; Eph 4: 1-6 etc.).
But what do we see in reality? After the Reformation of the 16th century, Anabaptism (religious individualism) threatened the church. After the 1834 Secession, Satan again attacked with many different errors. The 1886 Secession didn’t immediately lead to a union with the First Secession group; this took another six years! When this union finally occurred in 1892, some decided they could not join it and formed the Christian Reformed Churches.[iv] The 1944 Liberation showed a similar picture: many threatened the renewed unity by motions and proposals to rejoin the churches they had earlier liberated themselves from. Many ended up rejoining those synodical churches!
And today? Rev. Heres points to how the Lord gave reformation in the GKv some 20 years ago by a new liberation in 2003 which led to the institution of the DGK. Many church orderly steps have since been taken in different areas of the Netherlands in the years after 2003, which continue today. Small numbers of brothers and sisters continue to leave the bond of the GKv churches to join the newly established churches. A second exodus from the unfaithful GKv occurred in 2008/2009 and so another small bond of new churches arose. They are now called the Reformed Churches Netherland (GKN). [v] Both liberated groups (DGK and GKN) claim the Word of God and the Three Forms of Unity as their basis. That includes Art 28 BCF. However, applying those norms in practice can be very difficult.
We are grateful, says Rev Heres, that the DGK and the GKN are moving closer to unity after a long, arduous process and we are now awaiting the final recognition of each other as sister churches. Awaiting this union with a view to joining is an independent church that recently broke away from the GKv – the HGK in Bunschoten.
Meanwhile three GKv churches did not go along with the other GKv churches in being absorbed into the NGK on May 1, 2022. These congregations say they want to remain reformed, however they are not looking to join the DGK or the GKN. They have formed a committee to mobilise like-minded [former GKv] people, but without establishing a clear path for the future. They have organised alternative church services, but not with the GKN or DGK. Rev Heres asks: How should we view all this in light of Article 28 NGB?
He answers: “I believe that the teaching of Prof. Dr. C. Trimp can help us here. Prof. Trimp, in his book ‘Church under Construction’, draws attention to Prof K. Schilder’s writings on the church. Prof. Schilder worked hard to restore and preserve a confessional approach to church unity. He understood how the invisible church and pluriformity ideas downplayed the seriousness and need for church unity.
The invisible church and pluriformity ideas stopped people from calling the deplorable ecclesiastical disunity a ‘sin before God’s face’ (Trimp, page 81). When there is spiritual unity, it is imperative to acknowledge and show that in institutional unity. Neglecting that essential step leads a church into the doldrums and ignores the instituted church’s dynamic character.
It is deplorable that this confessional teaching of these forefathers has so little attention. Many churches who call themselves Reformed see the Reformed Confessions as respectable historical documents that no longer apply today.”
However, adds Rev Heres, we must remember well that Prof. Schilder was averse to churchism. Whenever we speak about the church, the honour of the living, active, glorious Christ always comes first! Every theory about the church starts with Him! The Son of God is permanently active, gathering, defending, and maintaining His church on earth (Q&A 54 H.C.). K. Schilder explains that this means that Christ can work new life in any place and at any time by His Spirit. Christ’s Spirit is transcendent and not limited by, or restricted to, any institution or boundary. The Holy Spirit can work a reformation in church A and a crisis in church B and church C, making them question their legitimacy if they do not unite with church A (Trimp, p. 84). K. Schilder states that the mobility of the Spirit brings ecclesiastical institutions into the crisis.
Schilder does not believe the church is static but dynamic. That is why we speak about ‘the dynamics in the church-gathering work of Christ’. Rev. Heres says ‘dynamic’ has two meanings: ‘momentum’ and ‘movement’. Both concepts apply to the gathering of the church. Christ, the great Shepherd of the sheep, gathers (congregatio) His sheep by the work of the Holy Spirit. The momentum of the Holy Spirit, working through the Word, makes the sheep move and gather in unity (coetus). Because of these dynamics, the church is always a ‘church under construction’. Let us be careful not to think about the bond of DGK churches as static.
If we observe any new reforming movement, then – with K. Schilder – we say churches need to acknowledge and work with that, says Rev Heres. We may never be found guilty of shutting out children of God from His church. Those children must only ever be able to blame themselves if that happens. Therefore, I believe that we as churches need to extend support to those churches and stand-alone groups who find it impossible to continue their membership of the NGK.
We have often prayed that the Lord would open their eyes to the realities of the deformation in that church. But then we should also offer a helping hand where and when we can, adds Rev. Heres.
We must pray that these things help serve the dynamic church-gathering work of Christ. If it turns out that there is no genuine interest in also speaking about Article 28 BCF, it will become apparent, and the aid given will soon end. If there is no willingness to be truly ecumenical, we say (to ourselves), not just with K. Schilder, but with a word from the Lord Jesus Himself: “Hold fast what you have, so that no one may take your crown” (Rev. 3:11).
- J.C Dee, K. Schilder ecumenist, Goes, 1995.
- Schilder, some articles from Collected Works, The Church, parts I, II, III.
[i] De Gereformeerde Kerken, instituted in 2003 by those who liberated themselves from the GKv (our former Dutch sister churches).
[ii] J. Kamphuis, The Calling to Join the church, in De Kerk, Note 27, Woord en Wereld.
[iii] C Trimp, Church under Construction, Goes, 1998, p. 63. References to C Trimp are from this book.
[iv] Christian Reformed Churches refers to the Dutch Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken (not to be confused with the Christian Reformed Churches in Australia.
[v] Gereformeerde Kerken Nederland, instituted by those who liberated themselves from the GKv in 2009.