The previous instalment referred to an article of H Oosterhuis in which he evaluates the reasons given by those who claim they must remain in the RCN. He shows that it is unsound to claim that ‘one may never leave the [RCN]’ and ‘the RCN still allows freedom of doctrine’. This article looks at some more ‘grounds’ one hears to justify staying in what has clearly become an unfaithful bond of churches. It again draws heavily on Oosterhuis’s wise comments.
One of the marks of the false church is that it “persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke the false church for its sins, greed and idolatries” (BCF 29). Now it has been said by some that since the RCN has not persecuted anyone it can’t be a false church. No one has been kicked out of the RCN, no member has been disciplined for rebuking the RCN, no one is being suspended or censored because they are propagating the truth. Hence, it is claimed, until the RCN persecutes its members it must be the church of our Lord and one should not leave it while it is possible to hold to the truth without persecution. But let’s consider the matter of truth and persecution. Regarding the matter of truth, Oosterhuis says:
“But what is truth? And who will determine that? And which view is the right one? By making every matter open for discussion, and especially by leaving room for all kinds of different views, how will one know which view on a matter is the right one? By making all sorts of matters of faith and doctrine debatable ‘the truth’ has for many become an elusive notion. In fact, thereby the truth of the Bible is completely eroded.
For example, one of the reasons for the Liberation of 2003/2004 [by those who have now formed the DGK] was the RCN’s synod decision on the 4th commandment. The RCN says Sunday rest could be based on a command by God, but it could also be merely a human formality. Similarly, the RCN give two ‘opinions’ on homosexuality. On the one hand it is said to be wrong but on the other hand it is said that if it concerns a relationship that is embedded in love and fidelity, who are we to prohibit that? Then there is the matter of women in the office, forbidden for centuries by the church. Now the RCN reads the Bible differently and makes it acceptable. But whether one is for or against, the most important thing, they say, is not to let go of one another. Just keep talking, listening to each other and trying to understand one another […] Absolute truth apparently no longer exists; and neither is anyone definitely wrong. Hence, disciplinary action can no longer be applied.
The consequence was that those who do believe in the one truth had to liberate themselves, even though they were not suspended or placed under church discipline.”
Regarding the matter of persecution, I’d like say this: First, it is questionable whether all the marks of the false church (BCF 29) need to be evident before a church loses its status as legitimate church of the Lord. When the Lord Jesus says to some of the seven churches of Asia Minor (Rev. 2 & 3) that they must repent or lose their position as church (by having the candlestick removed), persecution of faithful believers is not mentioned. So we must conclude that persecution is not a precondition for a church becoming false. Second, when faithful members of the church write appeals based on God’s Word to a synod, and these are dismissed—as happened for example at Synod Zuidhorn 2002/3 when some 1100 appeals or overtures with over 3000 supporting documents were virtually all dismissed—then that is a form of persecution. In fact, it is worse: for a synod to reject or dismiss an appeal clearly based on the truth of God’s Word is not only an insult to the God-fearing person who submitted it, but an insult to God whose Word of Truth was being appealed to.
- Local differences
There’s another reason concerned RCN members give for staying. They admit that things are wrong at the federal synod level, and even in other congregations, but then go on to say that they themselves are in a conservative congregation unaffected by what happens elsewhere in the bond of churches. The claim that ‘things are still good’ in their congregation raises the question, says Oosterhuis, of what we understand by ‘good’.
“Is it ‘good’ because in that local congregation they don’t have women office bearers? And that they still have two sermons on Sunday? But what is the congregation’s position on all those widely accepted synod decisions? Is little known about them because hardly anyone takes an interest in reading synod’s decisions about the 4th and 7th Commandments; about hymns and liturgy and sacraments; about the modern Bible translation and talks of unity with the [wayward] NGK; about the theological seminary and overseas relations? Which congregational member can truly say that all the wrong synod decisions have been rejected by the local congregation? No-one! For such a local congregation would stand outside the RCN federation since none of their ministers could be admitted into their pulpit and since there would be countless appeals that had been rejected and dismissed. Anyone who says, ‘In our congregation everything is still fine’ deceives himself and others. Moreover, such a person fails to see, or else ignores, the value of the church federation. The body of Christ manifests itself not only in the local church, but also in the church federation.”
There are brothers or sisters who are aware that others in the RCN have identified and sought to correct errors, but these brothers and sisters dismiss the concerns with the comment: surely that is their business and responsibility. It’s as if this is some peculiarity of those who express concern but that this has little if anything to do with the others in church. However, this is a way of palming off the responsibility for what happens in church onto others. Says Oosterhuis:
“In Biblical Terms this is like saying: Am I my brother’s keeper? Whilst it is true that everyone is responsible for their own sins and not for those of others, this is no reason to say that it is to be left to everyone in church how he/she thinks about certain things?
The same applies to the church federation. What is happening in other congregations is not something we can do anything about, so it is claimed. You may not interfere, it is said, often with a wrong appeal to the Church Order. Yet we know that the Bible speaks clearly about how the Church of Christ should function. It is compared to a body, in which the hand cannot say to the foot: I do not need you. It is also compared to a shepherd looking for the one lost sheep, because otherwise the flock is incomplete. And the teaching in Matthew 18 also applies: if your brother sins, go and rebuke him. Why? To meddle with someone else? No, but because one who remains on a sinful path ends up being excluded from the kingdom of God. Never can anyone in the church say that sin (by others) is not his/her own responsibility.”
- Church Schism
Then there are those who say: It’s sinful to leave because that is causing a schism in the church, so we’re staying put. Oosterhuis responds:
“Church schism is indeed sin. It is the tearing, the destruction of the body of Christ. After all, Christ is the head of the church and the church is His body. Whoever tears the Church, tears Christ. Therefore, you must be aware of what you are doing.
However, here too it is good to distinguish well. For the one who tears and seeks to destroy the body of Christ is the devil, Satan. And he does so by means of all kinds of devices. By unscriptural decisions, large and small. By deception, implying that a particular error is not serious. By questioning what exactly the truth is. By saying: Isn’t the Bible written by many different people, and wasn’t it written in a context quite different to ours today? So let’s just discuss our different views on various issues without ever claiming that there is an absolute truth, for that would be loveless and inflexible. Then you’re not helping your brother in his difficulty.
Anyone who truly rejects all that is contrary to the Bible, who maintains the truth of God’s Word as absolute truth, will ultimately only be able to do so by turning away from error, from sin. That may mean having to leave a church community because the error is tolerated and maintained, even if you’re not forced out by disciplinary action. And hence the one who maintains the error is actually the one who causes schism in church, while the one who rejects the error by going away actually maintains and remains with Christ’s church. That often leads to such a person being reviled and slandered. But is that not suffering for Christ? And therefore it should even be endured with joy!”
Staying in the RCN is also justified with the claim that thereby you can continue to warn others about the errors, whereas if you’re out you can’t warn anyone anymore. Oosterhuis responds to this:
“Certainly, if you are an RCN member you can warn your brothers and sisters, speak with them wherever you meet them: at the meetings and on Sunday at the church. It’s also true that by staying you can correspond with the Church Council or talk with office bearers. But let’s be honest: haven’t the people taken their positions long ago on such matters as being for or against women in office, or whether to join with the NGK [‘buitenverbanders’]? Of course, that should not be a reason never to talk about and testify to the truth about such issues any longer, for it’s certainly true that the Spirit can do wonders. But let’s face it: in reality there is far less warning and speaking about these matters going on than is suggested. For who is really speaking up? Who sends out appeals? Who is raising concerns at the broader assemblies? And in the long run, what’s the use of doing so if the decisions have been made and appeals against those decisions have been dealt with or dismissed? Despite all the protests, which are fortunately still heard, all the (wrong) decisions were eventually implemented.
The excuse not to leave the RCN but to stay and warn others is made all to readily and, whilst the reasons may sound laudable, are such people not forgetting their responsibility to their own family? Young children, for example, are not at an age where they can understand the issues and will grow up experiencing wrong things, such as learning unreformed hymns or experiencing female office bearers as normal. Do we not have a first task there? We stay in order to warn others but meanwhile we expose our own children to all kinds of dangers. As for the older children, if they hear the parents grumble about one thing and another happening in church they will not develop an appreciation and love for the church. And then, when you finally decide to liberate yourself, you may get the younger children to come along but the older ones sometimes don’t even want to be involved with a liberation. Moreover, one does not have to remain in the RCN to continue warning those who remain.”
(To be continued with a final instalment next time.)