What Led to the Changes in the Reformed Churches in The Netherlands (GKv)?

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I’m no expert, I’m just an old minister who still knows Dutch and has family in The Netherlands and has visited The Netherlands numerous times over the past fifty years. As member of the Committee for Relations with Church Abroad (CRCA), I attended the last four synods of the GKv. As you know, the Subcommittee for Relations with Churches in The Netherlands recommended to Synod Edmonton this May that we discontinue the sister church relations with the GKv, a recommendation which has been adopted by synod. The following are some personal thoughts on what has happened in those sister churches leading to this.

Changes in worship

If you recently worshipped in a GKv church, you likely noticed that the worship services in most of those churches have undergone some big changes. Many churches, for instance, have become pretty free in the musical part of the worship services – there is a much-increased collection of songs. And besides organ or piano, there are also bands and solo singers in worship. The use of projectio0n screens has become fairly standard – useful, since there are now multiple songbooks and churches are no longer bound to songs approved by a synod.

The law isn’t always read from the Bible in the morning worship services, but often simply a kind of modernized summary. There is increased congregational participation in worship services. Male and female, young and old often participate in Bible reading, collecting, making announcements, giving presentations, or proffering personal testimonies. There is a fairly casual atmosphere in most worship services, reflected in the casual dress of the worshippers, as well as office bearers, including ministers. In many churches there are also “child moments”, when younger children are called to the front and the minister sits with them on the podium and gives a child-friendly summary of the sermon.

Afternoon worship services are much more sparsely attended than morning services. Some churches combine afternoon services with a neighbouring church. Some churches no longer have exposition of the Reformed doctrine in the afternoon services. You can hear some good sermons, but sometimes they are very topical. There are often outlines on the “beamer” and pictures or videos to try to make things more interesting and relevant. And the ministers occasionally also make use of props or even short plays to make a point. There are many special services focussed on inclusiveness in the church or on youth or other causes. There are also combined worship services with Christian Reformed Churches and Netherlands Reformed Churches, as those churches have been accepted as sister churches. On special occasions such as Reformation Day, GKv churches participate in combined services with most of the local Christian churches, including Roman Catholic churches.

The administration of the sacraments has changed in many churches. Baptism usually takes place now with the children of the congregation gathered around the baptismal font and often with photos and a short speech to the parents afterwards. Recently we noticed that baptism by immersion is also taking place. The adopted forms for baptism and Lord’s Supper are not always made use of. And after the verbal warning, the Lord’s Supper seems to be open to guests from various churches. The reason is not to cause offence to visitors from other churches. As well, a number of ministers have recently asserted they see no reason why the profoundly handicapped and also children should be excluded from the Lord’s Supper. Profession of faith is often accompanied by an extensive ceremony with much symbolism and giving of personal testimonies. Special occasions have become quite elaborate celebrations, with much of the attention focussed on the people involved.

The GKv have become quite missional. I have also noticed that various church groups cooperate in outreach programs such as inner-city mission projects. In those churches worship is quite informal, and many liberties are taken with the adopted church order. There is much heart for “faithworks” type projects in third world countries with all kinds of interchurch organizations. As well, a lot of money flows from the GKv to the third world. There is much heart for works of charity abroad.

Some profound changes

A change which is now becoming more noticeable involves seeing female office bearers in church. Synod Meppel 2017 decided that the Bible isn’t clear about the role of women in the church and there are examples in the Bible of women giving leadership. Since there is no clear prohibition in the Bible against women serving in the offices, it was decided that the church cannot forbid them from being ordained to any offices. This is a deviation from the historical Reformed interpretation of the Bible. A new hermeneutic has been accepted among the church leadership, in particular at the Theological University in Kampen.

Visitors to GKv churches may also learn that couples who cohabit are, in general, being embraced as members in good standing. At Synod Ede, it was said that official marriage is recommended but can no longer be required, as the state recognized cohabitation as marriage. And there are questions about the institution of marriage in the Bible, reflected in the renewed marriage form used in the churches. More recently, same-sex couples are being accepted as members in good standing in many churches. Synod Meppel established a committee to see if there needs to be a change in how same-sex relationships are dealt with in the churches.

Emotionalism

Why have these changes happened in the GKv? I believe that this has taken place because of the pressures of contemporary western culture on church members. Contemporary post-Christian and post-truth western culture in Europe is very man-centred and hence emotion-centred. And the choices of a majority of people today are based more on their individual feelings than on any truth outside of themselves, such as in the Bible. This is called emotionalism. Contemporary culture is very much about feelings. Think of how – in spite of being born male or female – if you feel that you aren’t what you were born as, then that’s what you can be. Or think of the LGBTQ lobby. You need to follow your feelings. Or think of how many people try to escape the reality of their lives by using drugs like marijuana to feel good.

I believe that the emotionalism of post-truth western culture has deeply influenced the GKv. Other factors certainly also play a role. But from what I have experienced and read of the GKv, many allow their feelings to interpret their circumstances and to form their thoughts about God more than the Word of God itself. This might be an overreaction to the opposite problem in the past, where faith was strongly rooted in theology but was without much feeling. And while orthodox doctrine is critically important to the health of the Christian and the church, that doctrine also ought to lead one to emotion. For example, the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ isn’t only something we ought to affirm and defend, but it also needs to be something in which we rejoice.

Western secular culture, however, has drawn many people who call themselves Reformed to judge things more and more by their emotions than by what the Bible says. And as Paul shows in Romans 10, zeal without knowledge leads astray. Our feelings are affected by sin and so we can’t depend on them to interpret who God is or how he wants to be worshipped and served. His Word is the authoritative and sufficient norm of faith and life and worship, as we confess in the Belgic Confession. As long as we truly keep the Bible as the basis of our faith and life and worship, then the emotions will certainly also come. Think of the deep emotions – joy as well as sorrow – shown in the Psalms as the psalmists contemplate the truth about who God is and his justice and his covenant love! But those emotions come in response to the truth of God’s revelation.

Emotionalism and the GKv

I’m afraid that this is where the Dutch sister churches have accommodated to the contemporary culture. Emotion has more and more become the measure of what is done in many GKv worship services and what is accepted as norm in those churches. The emphasis has shifted from God-centred worship and church life toward more man-centredness. There is a sense that many only want to experience him, want to feel good, and want others to feel good. But this comes at the cost of some of the sober and difficult things the Bible speaks about, such as self-denial and the fight of faith.

This happens to be the measure of quite a bit of the contemporary evangelical worship we know in North America. No one can deny that good things are said and done. But evangelical worship is generally designed to bring on emotions, which are then interpreted as evidence of the Spirit’s presence. I noticed in a number of worship services in the GKv that some lift up their hands and faces when they sing and during prayer or song, as in many evangelical churches today. Some songs sung in GKv worship services are what are called “Opwekkingsliederen”. In other words, songs meant to give positive emotion.

The matter of women in office wasn’t something suddenly discovered in the Bible. I believe that that change in Bible interpretation has come about over time because of the same emotionalism. The report on Men and Women in the Church to Synod Meppel 2017 emphasized that many gifted women in the church feel called by God to minister in church office – and how can a church deny those feelings? The feminist push for equality with males in all roles in society have caused people in Reformed churches to feel uncomfortable about denying church offices to women. Maintaining such a position hardly seems inclusive and welcoming in a church today.

Many good works of mercy abroad taking place among GKv members are, I’m afraid, more based on human emotion than sober biblical reason. People feel that God is calling them to join certain ministries in the third world. Helping out in third world countries is a wonderful thing. However, the feeling that God is issuing you with a special call to a certain ministry can sometimes trump sober biblical reason.

There is also a strong current of emotionalism behind the so-called “ecumenicity of the heart”. That means a readiness to embrace and work with and worship with Christians of many stripes. There is a feeling of unity with them which transcends most theological differences. For instance, Baptists and even Remonstrant Brethren have been included in a so-called ecumenical conference called the Synod of Dort. This “ecumenicity of the heart” has long been promoted by the Dutch Evangelical Broadcaster (EO), which pretty well all GKv people support. One cannot deny that the EO can do good. But the “ecumenicity of the heart” it promotes has caused many of the organizations with roots in the GKv to give up their confessional distinctiveness and become colourless among all the other interchurch organizations.

I do not deny that there are also good things happening in the GKv. However, the changes that have taken place show a big shift of attention from the Bible towards man. This is evident with the general acceptance of same-sex relations. How can anyone deny those people what they feel? We certainly need to empathize with the struggle of those with same-sex attraction. But acceptance of those relationships requires a radical re-interpretation of the Bible. Recently there was a great outcry throughout The Netherlands concerning the “Nashville Statement”. This statement was drawn up in North America to promote the biblical teaching that men and women are designed by God to perform different, complementary roles in society. Sadly, this statement was strongly condemned by many in the Dutch Reformed circles, also by many in the GKv.

Concerned groups

There are many GKv members who are very concerned about all the changes that have happened, and a group of concerned ministers are working on a last-ditch appeal against the decision of Synod Meppel. However, unless there is a miracle, I doubt they will have any success. More than fifty GKv churches have already taken the step to ratify the decision to open the offices to females, and some already have female officebearers. Some members have separated themselves and two much smaller church federations have been formed – De Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (in 2003) and Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (in 2009), each with around eight or ten churches. They are working on uniting, but with some difficulty. The subcommittee has had regular contact/meeting with both groups and encourage that unity. A large problem the CanRC has with the DGK, however, is that they have recognized the Liberated Reformed Church of Abbotsford as sister church. This group separated from the CanRC ostensibly because of our relations with the OPC which adheres to the Westminster Standards. Synod Edmonton 2019 had decided to mandate the Committee for Relations with Churches Abroad to continue to follow the developments in the DGK and GKN and I expect that we will in time seek closer contact with them.

What about the CanRC?

What should we learn from this? Are we maybe being drawn into a similar kind of emphasis on feeling as so many in our sister churches in The Netherlands? I’m afraid I do see some signs that something similar is stirring in the CanRC. After all, though our culture has some differences with Europe, here in North America we also live in a post-truth culture which finds its direction very much in emotion. And we exist as Reformed churches among all sorts of evangelical and charismatic churches, where faith is often measured by feeling. We interact with people from those churches regularly, and their enthusiasm can cause us, especially the younger members, to question whether the CanRC shouldn’t also be more emotionalistic in worship. Many have left the CanRC for evangelical churches simply because they feel better there.

Our Book of Praise is often criticized for its Genevan tunes, and I suspect that the continual push for additional and more contemporary style hymns is due to a desire for worship that plays more to the emotions. There is also a move underway to involve congregation members male and female, young and old in the liturgy. I see a growing polarization among CanRC members concerning these changes.

Again, I want to emphasize that emotion isn’t bad of itself, as the Psalms show us. But emotion in worship is different than emotionalism in worship. Dr. Ted VanRaalte was asked a couple of years ago at a conference about the place of emotion in worship. He replied that there is emotion and there is emotionalism. Emotionalism seeks to arouse positive emotions. Like happy, clappy worship. On the other hand, emotion is the good benefit of godly worship, but it’s not the aim of such worship. In fact, the effect of biblical worship should also be negative emotion when confronted by one’s sins and weaknesses. The gospel is, after all, an affront to our pride and weakness.

So, there’s also constant and increasing pull on CanRC members to emotionalism, to judge things more by our feelings and emotions than by the plain and sufficient Word of God. We’re affected by the culture we live in too! That’s always a danger to the church of the Lord. Think of what happened with Israel in Canaan. It says that in the time of the judges the covenant people forgot the great works of God and eventually every man did what was good in his own eyes. People followed their own feelings and reasonings more than God’s will as Moses had written for them.

Change isn’t always wrong. CanRC worship services have changed in various ways over the years. Change is positive if we find biblically better ways to glorify God in Christ and to encourage one another in praise of him. The thing is, though, sometimes proposals to change the way we worship are intended to keep people from becoming bored or to attract outsiders to church. Changes ought not to be made on the basis of feeling more than on the basis of Scripture. As we confess in Lord’s Day 35 about the second commandment, we are not to worship God in any other manner than he had commanded in his Word. The focus of worship has to remain God himself.

Concluding thoughts

In light of this, I would urge churches to think of one another when introducing changes in liturgy and worship. We are a federation in which we are all called to care about one another and to take each other along in what changes are introduced. As well, I believe that helping one another as churches and members also means allowing those changes to be tested by one another to see if they meet the standard of Scripture as interpreted in the confessions. Our adopted Church Order emphasizes this. We need to hold each other to the agreements which underlie the federation of churches. Confessions and Church Order have helped the Reformed churches stand through all kinds of cultural changes over hundreds of years. And when we do our duty as churches and members, we need to pray constantly, for it is ultimately Christ himself who gathers, defends, and preserves for himself by Spirit and Word in the unity of faith a church chosen to everlasting life (LD 21). As the apostle Peter writes throughout his epistles, we need to be sober-minded, self-controlled, and watchful. In other words, not carried away by emotion but by the prophecy of Scripture which was not produced by the will of man but through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21).

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Rev Jack Moesker is minister emeritus of the Canadian Reformed Church at Owen Sound, Ontario. This article is a summary of a speech that was given in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia and was published in Clarion, Vol. 68 No. 13, June 28, 2019, pp. 378-381. It is published here with his kind permission.