‘Reformed Politics: An Important Lesson from History’ by H Ballast

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Politics continues to be an area where, within the Australian Free Reformed Churches, we have difficulty working from the same page. For many years there have been discussions, at times quite intense, about whether this activity should limit itself within the Free Reformed Churches or whether it is OK to combine forces with people from false churches. After all, many people ‘out there’ value the same morals and objectives as we do. Would it not, therefore, make sense to be pragmatic about this and unite the forces the best we can to make at least some restraining impact on the flood of secularisation and immorality engulfing public life in Australia?

However, before we roll up our sleeves and get into it, let’s have a quick look at some history and find out what made our forefathers, who came to Australian and established the Free Reformed Churches, so reluctant to do just that: combine forces with fellow Christians from different churches to create a political force to be reckoned with.

What follows is a brief overview of the development of political thinking in the Netherlands. As you know ‘our’ churches have their roots in that country and it will be interesting and helpful to take a look at what happened there in years gone by and how our forefathers struggled with the same issues! So what follows is a sketch of some of the more relevant parts of this history.

The beginnings of the Anti Revolutionary Party (ARP) in the Netherlands.

We begin our story in 1879 when the well-known Dr Abraham Kuyper established the first ARP (Anti Revolutionary Party.) His main incentive for setting up this party was to try to get equal rights for the private (Christian) and the public schools. Public schools were subsidised, private schools were not. The basis for this Anti Revolutionary Party was NOT – take note – the Bible and the Three Forms of Unity! Neither was it a closed party which would only allow members of the Reformed Church. The basis of the party was simply a platform which listed a number of principles/objectives very much like the Australian Christian Party has today.

The choice for a political platform with objectives was made on purpose: they sought to get as many people as possible to support them. Therefore any reference to Bible or confession was left out of it. Not the basis unites but what the Party stood for, the objectives. This illustrates the point that the ARP was not exclusively the voice of the Reformed Churches; it was to be the voice of anyone agreeing with those principles.

For Abraham Kuyper, this position was not a problem. A clever man and very prolific writer, Kuyper was also a great thinker, a revered and a highly respected person and often the final authority on a given issue. He had designed a view of the church which could easily accommodate working together with people from various churches. Let’s have a look at that next.

Church Pluriformity

One of Kuyper’s ideas which had an impact on the political thinking was his view on the church. I am sure most of you are familiar with that view. In a nutshell, Kuyper taught the pluriformity of the church whereby the church was made up of members from all kinds of churches. Pluriformity of the church was a view which held that there are differences between those churches but that those differences were part of a greyscale with some of these churches more pure than the others. It was a view that held that many different denominations were part of the same worldwide currency, together forming the one world-wide church. Not true or false, as the Belgic Confession states, was to determine what Christ’s church was but the acceptance of churches as being pure or less pure.

Anyway, the party was set up for the purpose of political activity not ecclesiastical activity. Hence, from which church a person was a member was hardly relevant. This was evident, for example, in the promotion of an interdenominational student organisation (NCSV) by theological students in those days. It was also evident when Prof Hepp, a theological professor, initiated a ‘League of Calvinists’ in which he tried to unite all Calvinists worldwide into an organisation to present a united front to the world. These ‘Calvinists’ were drawn from many different churches. Church boundaries were considered somewhat irrelevant; as long as the basic tenants of the faith was agreed on, this was sufficient to express unity.

The result was that whilst the one baptismal font ‘competed’ with the next church up the road and one Lord’s Supper table with the church down town, within their organisations the members were all hailed as ‘brothers of the same faith’ . In those days very few people had a real problem with that. At times they were even proud of the fact that they didn’t know to what church their fellow political ‘brother’ belonged. Ecclesiastical sensitivities were carefully avoided. To be a Christian was almost completely divorced from being a member of the church.

Some ministers (Hoedemaker, Lindeboom, Faber) voiced their opposition to this but they were soon drowned out. This changed when Prof K Schilder started writing in the church magazine De Reformatie. He pointed out the very dangers of ignoring or relativising the dogma of The Church in the Christian organisation. He showed his readers that the doctrine of the pluriformity of the church was not in line with Scripture and confession. “You cannot ‘park’ the church in a little garden, outside the city with its political hustle and bustle.” Others also pointed out that the unity in the Christian organisation above unity around the Lord’s Supper table presented a very shaky basis for exercising the communion of saints.

In an evaluation of this period in church history Prof J Kamphuis concludes that: “this interdenominational thinking has been a curse which hampered the biblical unity of faith around the same baptismal font and supper table”.

Sphere sovereignty (a concept launched in 1880 in a public lecture at the Free University of Amsterdam)

Sphere sovereignty is another concept which was very important to Kuyper. He thought that it was possible to carve up life into different areas, each with its own set of goals, parameters and guiding principles. He created a sphere for education, arts, politics, business, church, yes, even one for the family and more. Each of those areas had its specific goals and guiding principles. What’s important for church life is not necessarily important for politics and vice versa. One could develop a conflict of interest in church life but in the area of politics be the best of buddies; after all it was a different sphere of life!

Initially this concept was met with very little opposition and it was not till many years later that Prof K Schilder critiqued this idea of sphere sovereignty. The bad outcome of this concept became very much evident at the time of the Liberation, 1944.

Here is an example: Just prior to the Liberation many of our grandparents and great grandparents were withheld from the Lord’s Table—or suspended from their office if they happened to be a deacon or an elder—simply because they didn’t want to accept erroneous synod decisions. However, if the person who suspended the brother and the brother who was suspended met again at the local ARP committee meeting they were fully endorsed and accepted. Why? Because politics was a different sphere to that of the Church! They were two different circles and the hardly interrelated. The result was that in politics a person could be recognised as a brother and a great asset to the work in God’s kingdom but on Sundays he failed the test and was withheld from Holy Supper.

Another bad outcome of this Sphere Sovereignty concept was that it blurred the antithesis. In effect it diminished or denied the overarching authority of ALL of Scripture to ALL of life. Thereby the barriers to worldly living were broken down and a worldly culture began to develop within the churches. For example, within the sphere of art and recreation principles were interpreted differently than within the church. It was argued that when it came to art and recreation a person entered a different sphere or area with its own dynamics, principles and guidelines, and Scripture was moderated and adapted to the possibilities and objectives of Art.

Prof Schilder summarised the situation of those days with these words: ‘All spheres are sovereign within themselves with the result that people can do what they like, set their own parameters within that sphere and, consequently, the respective church councils have got to keep their mouths shut because of the sovereignty which exists in that sphere’. In other words, the view in those days was that a consistory only has authority within its own sphere and not outside of it.

How the rejection of these views from Abraham Kuyper also changed our views on politics after the Liberation.

Let’s tie this together briefly and explain how this development influenced the political thinking of our grandparents after the Liberation of 1944.

From the 30th of March till the 1st of April a conference was held in Amersfoort. This conference is often marked as the birth of the GPV (Reformed Political Party). The question we need to briefly look at is this one: why did our grandparents begin a new political party. What was wrong with the old ARP from Kuyper? OK, in church matters there had been a big upheaval but surely this didn’t have to reflect in the area of politics?

One development which encouraged the set-up of the GPV is the so-called ‘Ethical conflict’. We touched upon this already. The Liberation caused a lot of hurt, tension and distrust amongst the members of the newly liberated churches and the synodical Reformed churches. Some very nasty things happened at that time. When, after the Liberation, the Free Reformed and Synodicals met again in the various political committees it often proved impossible to work together. This tension is referred to as the ‘Ethical Conflict’. The ‘Ethical Conflict’ does not first of all refer to the doctrinal differences, although they are at the basis of it, but more so to the tensions which arose from these differences. To get a good ‘feel’ of these tensions you need to study this episode in church history.

Separate from this ethical conflict was the growing conviction amongst our grandparents that they should not make the same mistake which the old ARP had made: look for political unity on the basis of a political platform only, ignoring Scripture and confession as a sole basis for unity. They had learned the lesson that sooner or later such an approach would have disastrous consequences for Christian politics. They again realised that it is impossible to pursue Christian politics without scripture and confessions as the basis. Those confessions summarise in very clear language the service God requires from us in all of life. Yes, every article of faith has a political dimension.

This was a new sound for many because Abraham Kuyper had taught that if you don’t believe in the doctrine of election you can still be a good Calvinist in politics, but this is not true. The doctrine of election teaches us that God separates the human race between believers and unbelievers. It is the origin of the antithesis. God makes a distinction between church and world. There is antithesis, also in politics. Reject the doctrine of election and one puts dynamite under any ‘Christian’ party. Compromising on doctrine leads to compromising on sound political science and leadership. The history of the old ARP is a clear warning. Once false doctrine was sanctioned by synods the deformation went full steam ahead.

Another reason which encouraged the set-up of the GPV was a growing disagreement with the actual policies of the old ARP. Renewed study also shifted many views on policy issues. It was argued that the renewed understanding of Scriptural truths in church life, a return to Gods’ Word from a road of deformation, should extend into a fresh look at the problems of society. But that was hard work! And it would take many years of intense study and debate before the GPV got a reasonable handle on some of the practical implications of their better understanding of Scripture and confessions for politics.

It is on that point that our forefathers started making the difference. They had learned again that those beautiful confessions are not only ecclesiastical documents, which we apply and discuss within the circle or sphere of the church; no, those confessions are universal documents which need to be applied across all spheres of life. Why? Because those confessions teach us about the omnipresent/universal God, Who created life and the human race and the societies in which they live. Although the link between the confessions and building railroads and highways and airports and social security payments may not be obvious at first glance, our forefathers understood again that faithfulness to those confessions was imperative to understanding God’s will for society and receiving the necessary wisdom and blessing on this work. That was the reason why the GPV became a closed, that is a confessional party. That confessional unity was essential to providing the platform from which they could work fruitfully as God’s ambassadors in His society.

Kingdom work cannot be carved up in spheres, each with its own parameters. If a person is not fit for kingdom work in church, because he subscribes to unscriptural doctrines, he is not fit for kingdom work in politics either, because life is one and God’s law is one. He who sins against one of those laws sins against them all! We cannot affiliate ourselves with a person in politics if he does not want to affiliate himself with us in church and say: “we can do kingdom work in politics but not in church”.

Sometimes it is argued that the confessional basis is too narrow and too exclusive. However, the opposite is true! A confessional basis creates a broad and all-encompassing basis for political action because it includes all of Scripture on which those confessions are based. Ignoring that basis leaves a party with a narrow scope. Any issue beyond what is agreed to in a platform is open to discussion. Our grandparents understood that the right church choice is essential to sound Scriptural politics. The right church choice provides candidates who are subject to faithful office bearers (with the keys of the kingdom) who watch over their doctrine and conduct. When a person bypasses the true church and chooses to affiliate him or herself with heresy, this person scars him or herself for biblical labour.

Of course, what is written above does not imply that it is impossible to work together with non-church people on practical political and social issues. It simply emphasises that in a Christian (Reformed) political organisation one needs to present a confessional unity. Once this confessional unity is established you can look for opportunities to work with others in realising practical objectives. This is how men like P. Jongeling, G.J. Schutte and Dr. A.J. Verburgh did their work in the Dutch parliament. It is within this framework that we echo Groen van Prinsterer’s slogan: “Our strength is in our isolation”.

Evaluation

What do we do with this today in 2013? How relevant is all this for us in Australia? We have a different political system in Australia and our churches are but small in number. These are very valid questions which require a response. Politics is a complex area in modern society. To make some meaningful contribution requires a lot of insight and knowledge of the various aspects involved in a particular issue. This also means that we should not engage in any activity unprepared. It can easily put a slur on the church. What’s required for leadership in the church also applies to leadership in society: age and maturity are essential. We also need to be aware that truth is an increasingly unwanted ‘commodity’ in our society. This means that our contribution could very well create opposition. This also creates the temptation to compromise.

To be clear: this paper does not argue that other political parties cannot make a positive contribution to society. Thankfully they do! The ARP under leadership of Abraham Kuyper can list some great achievements for the benefit of the Dutch society. Our governments in Australia too have made many sound political decisions to the effect that we may enjoy a very prosperous and well organised life with excellent health and social services for many of us to enjoy. We must observe in this God’s goodness and restraining power. However, as members of God’s faithful church we have committed ourselves confessionally to kingdom work. This includes political kingdom work. That commitment, which we have made under oath (!) is jeopardised if we affiliate ourselves with political organisations which call themselves Christian but do not and cannot subscribe to that basis.

H. Ballast