Are We Following the Decline in the RCN? (1)

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Are Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC) following the decline in Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (RCN)? Rev J Visscher says no. Rev J Moesker says yes. What follows is a somewhat condensed transcription of his speech “Are we following the Reformed churches in the Netherlands?”. [i] He first illustrates what is happening in the RCN and then points to symptoms in the CanRC. This matter is fundamentally important not just for the CanRC but also for the Australian and other churches and we do well to be alert to, and warned by, the trends Rev Moesker identifies.

The ‘no’ case

Rev Visscher says ‘no’. He sees it unlikely that in the next twenty years the CanRC would follow the Dutch decision to allow women in office and believes that this is because:

  1. There is not much support for the RCN in Canada.
  2. The contact with the Netherlands is declining; the CanRC have found their own place in Canada and have relations with churches in North America which have stood firm against ordination of women and have a deeper orthodox scholarship.
  3. The CanRC have more control over their reformed seminary in Hamilton than the RCN have of their seminary.

Rev Visscher is therefore optimistic that the CanRC won’t follow the RCN’s decision to ordain women within the next couple of decades.

The ‘yes’ case

However, Rev Moesker doesn’t share that optimism. He sees the ordination of women in the RCN as merely the tip of the iceberg, as a consequence of deeper developments, fed by the culture around us, and starting at the local church level. As examples he points to RCN worship services that have introduced bands (together with performers in torn jeans, etc), many more songs, solo singers that sound like jazz, projection screens that are also used for advertising social events (including bar evenings), increased congregational participation in the services (church members participating in Bible reading, collections, making announcements, giving testimonials, etc.). Moreover, says Rev Moesker, dress standards, even by ministers and other office bearers, are very casual and afternoon services are sparsely attended. As for the preaching, catechism sermons are on the way out and topical sermons on the way in. Ministers use projectors to show sermon outlines and pictures as well as props or a short play to make a point.

Other changes Rev Moesker noted in the RCN include combined church services with the Christian Reformed[ii] and Netherlands Reformed[iii] churches. He said that on special days, such as Reformation Day, there are services combined with lots of local churches, including the Roman Catholics. Sacraments are more elaborate. Baptism involves children coming to the front, a photographer snapping pictures, a speech and the official handing over of the certificate, etc. Holy Supper is open to guests from non-sister churches. The RCN are also thinking about letting the profoundly handicapped and children attend Holy Supper. Public Confession of Faith has become an elaborate service with those professing their faith placing a flower on the pulpit and giving a testimony of how they came to the faith; they’re also involved in reading the form and bible passages, etc. Moreover, the RCN have become missional by, for example, combining with other churches, promoting the Alpha course, inner city mission projects, interdenominational outreach programs in the red-light part of Amsterdam and involvement in parachurch work for third-world countries. Couples who co-habit and homosexuals are accepted in churches and at Holy Supper. And now, of course, there will increasingly be women preachers, elders and deacons

The basis – new ways of reading the Bible

The RCN justifies these changes by a new way of reading the Bible, says Rev Moesker. This is pushed, he adds, by the influence of present day humanistic culture and legitimised by the Theological University at Kampen in its interaction with today’s liberal theology. Take for example the ordination of women. It was driven by today’s feminism which doesn’t accept that men and women have different roles and which pushes women to have the same positions of authority as men. Churches that don’t have women in office are therefore considered, by church members, to be out of step with society. This led to women taking on a greater role in pastoral and diaconal and societal help in church. That, in turn, led RCN synod 2005 to appoint deputies, including theological professors, to study the position of women in church. The upshot was that by 2017 the RCN synod accepted the deputies’ recommendation that churches be free to ordain women to all the offices. The Bible’s clarity about women in office was reinterpreted to say that the Bible is not clear about this matter and therefore Synod concluded we should not withhold women from being ordained.

Adjusting to today’s culture

Rev Moesker says that the changes we see happening in the RCN occur because they want to accommodate today’s culture. Consequently, the clarity of the Bible and its ‘normativeness’ in many things is downplayed. Right now, the RCN are studying the matter of homosexual relations and once they can say that the Bible is not clear about this they can accommodate this, too, as well as other practices. This reinterpretation of the Bible is legitimised by the Theological University in Kampen. But how could it happen that ‘Kampen’, once a bastion of reformed studies in theology, could become a tool for cultural accommodation in the RCN? Well, says Rev Moesker, this is because it has become a university with government funding and has a certain amount of government oversight. To receive that funding, it must show that it interacts with contemporary theological research. We’ve seen an increasing uncritical interaction at the Theological University at Kampen with contemporary critical Bible scholarship. To give just one example, Joshua 10 (Sun stand still over the valley of Aijalon) was said not to be a factual thing but an expression, a metaphor.

Why is the Bible read so differently in the RCN than in the past? The reason, says Rev Moesker, is to relieve what in the Netherlands has been called ‘pain points’. It’s when people in the churches find that what’s happening in church is at odds with today’s culture. For instance, a church that excludes women from positions of leadership or shows a negative judgement on homosexual practices will not be attractive to a world which does not discriminate on the basis of gender or sexual orientation. Church people start feeling uncomfortable belonging to a church like that. Furthermore, they feel that it becomes difficult to evangelise to your neighbour with teachings that would exclude some people from full participation in the church based on gender or sexual identity. It can also be uncomfortable for a lot of people if the manner of worship is structured in such a way as we have it and in which the music is so different from a lot of contemporary western culture. The reading of the law sounds legalistic; the guarding of the Lord’s Supper table seems ‘exclusivistic’; reformed worship services seem so sober, also on special occasions such as baptism and confession of faith. People want them to be more celebratory and worship services should be more upbeat to make people feel good about the Lord and about themselves. And that, simply put, is where the rubber hits the road. It’s about feeling good; people want to feel good.

This is how Rev Moesker believes the RCN have ended up with an accommodating style of worship and theology. There is intense pressure to be like the culture in the Netherlands where people live so close together. You don’t want to feel left out of it. And as Dutch culture, which was once Christian and even reformed in general, became more and more secular and centred on emotions, the brothers and sisters in the RCN are being drawn along by that culture. They’re not eager to row against the cultural stream, but instead they come to accommodate it.

(to be continued)

J Numan

[i] The following is based on a speech Rev J Moesker held in Canada November 2017. The speech can be heard at https://smithvillecanrc.ca/sermon/are-we-following-the-reformed-churches-in-the-netherlands. A full transcript of the speech can be obtained by emailing jnuman@outlook.com.

[ii] Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken

[iii] Nederlands Gereformeerde Kerken (from ‘buitenverbands’) who left the GKN in the 1960s