Several articles have been published on this site about the decline in the GKv, including some first-hand accounts based on personal observations. The most recent was by Rev Jack Moesker published here last month.[i] We can glean much from these observations, learning to recognise warning signs in our own churches. This article draws attention to some pertinent impressions by Prof. Arjan de Visser on his recent visit to the Netherlands[ii] and uses them to engage in some self-reflection on our churches.
Shocked at how rapidly things changed in the GKv, Prof. de Visser says he was a student in the GKv’s theological seminary in the 1980s when “there was not even a hint that the question of women in office might become an issue”. At that time the GKv men were still “strong and solid in their reformed convictions” and he finds it “scary” that they have changed so quickly to now hold or accept an opposite view. He sees a “complexity of factors involved” and offers the following six possible answers:
Overriding influence of a secular worldview
“First, the secular worldview that is so prevalent in the Dutch society (and by the way, in Canadian society as well), has had a big influence on the thinking of the membership of the GKv, especially the younger generation. People live in a society where gender equality is the norm. They see that capable women (also Christian women) hold positions in government. They cannot understand why it would be wrong for the church to have women in leadership positions as well. If women have leadership abilities, shouldn’t their gifts be used? Never mind what the apostle Paul says in 1 Timothy 2 and other passages.”
Letting cultural norms determine what the Bible says
“Second, theologians at the seminary in Kampen have argued that the instructions of the apostle Paul in passages like 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 should be understood against the cultural context of his time. If Paul had lived in our time, he would have said something different about the position of women, they suggest. In other words, we can put Paul’s instructions between brackets and/or re-interpret them for today. The problem with this approach is obvious: the apostle Paul did not appeal to cultural norms when he wrote about the role of women in the church. Rather, he referred to the creation of man and woman (Gen 2), to the fall into sin (Gen 3), and to the relationship between Christ and the church (Eph 5).”
Compromising for the sake of unity with another federation
“Third, although the GKv Synod never mentioned it, it is suggested that the Synod’s haste in opening up all offices at once should be explained against the background of the desire to reunite with the NGK (Nederlands Gereformeerde Kerken). The schism of 1967 that led to the formation of the NGK is seen by many as a schism that should not have happened, and so there is a strong desire to reunite. But since the NGK had already opened up the ecclesiastical offices for women (including the office of minister, in 2011), the GKv had to catch up with them as quickly as possible.”
No solid instruction in preaching and teaching
“Fourth, during the last few decades, there has been a general decline in preaching and catechetical instruction. While sermons in the GKv used to have a strong expository quality, this is no longer a given. Afternoon services are not well attended. Even if there is an afternoon service, you will not necessarily hear a Catechism sermon. Something similar has happened to the Catechism instruction of the youth. There seems to be a general feeling that the young people should not be taught doctrines but that they should rather be allowed to discuss their own questions. As a result, the younger generation grows up without receiving solid instruction. This general weakness in preaching and teaching has resulted in lack of knowledge and insight. To quote the apostle Paul: ‘People are being tossed to and fro, carried about by every wind of doctrine’ (Eph 4:14). The foundations have been eroded.”
Undermining the antithesis
“Fifth, the GKv has always wanted to be a church that is with the times. I remember from my own youth in the GKv that we wanted to be in the world without being of the world. We believed that it was possible to maintain the antithesis with the world without having to live in isolation from the world. We looked down on those churches where women were wearing hats and black stockings (‘zwarte kousen kerken’). We prided ourselves in wearing the same clothes that the world wears while being different from the world at the same time. Now, looking back at this after so many years, I’m wondering: Maybe we were too naïve in thinking that we could be in the world without being affected by the world.”
People want ‘positive’ messages without focus on sin
“Sixth, one of my co-presenters at the conference in Bunschoten, Rev Henk Drost, suggested that there is an underlying spiritual problem. People get cranky when you preach about sin, he said. People want ‘positive’ messages. What is behind this? Rev. Drost observed that GKv members in general have lost the humble attitude of the true believer who realizes that it takes the miracle of regeneration for a sinner to be saved. We would do well to study the Canons of Dort as a confession in which believers humbly speak about regeneration as a wonderful and powerful work of the Holy Spirit in the human heart.”
Someone likened the developments in the GKv to the forming of a sinkhole, says Prof. de Visser. On the surface everything seems fine but underneath a process of erosion takes place until one day, suddenly, there is a collapse into a huge sinkhole.
We have published earlier articles on this website about the GKv letting go of God’s Word (e.g. through a ‘new’ hermeneutics). Ultimately it leads to letting go of Christ Jesus as the only foundation and chief cornerstone of the church (Eph. 2:20; Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:6,7; Ps 118:22; Mt 21:42) and His sacrifice on the cross as atonement for our sins (Rom. 5&6; 2 Cor. 5:18 to 21; Is. 53:5; etc). The GKv’s Dr Hans Burger, following the influential Dr NT Wright and others, undermine this work of atonement through Christ’s suffering and death.[iii]
We ‘migrant churches’ do well to engage in some self-reflection. Are we, perhaps, just a few steps behind? Is everything fine on the surface while beneath us the foundations of our church life are being eroded so that one day our churches too collapse into a sinkhole? Let’s use Prof. de Visser’s “impressions” of the GKv as basis for some self-analysis.
To start with his first ‘impression’ of the GKv, above, we ask: Is a secular worldview also influencing our thinking? We may not be ready for women in office but does, for example, the way society fails to discipline children affect our discipline, our insistence that our children honour and obey their parents, and our own obedience to those in authority? Do our Sundays still reflect the sanctity of that day by our dress and behaviour, or are we following the casual attitude of the world? Do we uphold the holiness of the church services, or do we introduce secular elements to make them more ‘user friendly’ to outsiders? Is there a growing ‘taking it easy’, a ‘having heard it so often’ that it no longer touches and inflames the heart, a lack of deeper appreciation and understanding of the riches of God’s Word through a lack of Bible study and of being diverted by less noble interests, particularly secular entertainment? If so, let us repent!
Closely linked to the first, consider point two: The GKv, says Prof. de Visser, reinterpret Scripture to match the norms of society. Is our view of the positions of man and woman in marriage still governed by God’s Word, with man as head and woman as his helper in accordance with the vows of self-sacrificing love, or is it perhaps governed by prevailing attitudes each ‘partner’s rights’ shaped by secular views? Moreover, have we, like the GKv, perhaps found more ways of tolerating divorce than Scripture permits?
As for compromising in order to promote unity with another federation of churches (de Visser’s 3rd impression) we are not, like the GKv, pursuing unity with the NGK (buitenverbanders). However, have we not let our desire for unity override the clear norms of God’s Word? For contrary to God’s Word the RCNZ exchanged its so-called sister relations with the CRCA for a relationship of ecumenical fellowship in what is essentially a relationship of convenience that tolerates disobedience. The CRCA had complained about being continually admonished by the RCNZ, so a new relationship was formed[iv] whereby the CRCA has pretty-well all the benefits of a sister relationship with the RCNZ without the need for mutual admonitions, without the need to exhort one another (Hebrews 10:25).
And we, the FRCA, have approved this, established unity with the RCNZ and gone back on our word. We have not let our yes be yes and our no be no (Mt 5:37). We have not held to the Scriptural position, namely that the RCNZ must break its relations with the unfaithful CRCA before FRCA contact with the RCNZ could be established (as FRCA Synod 1985 decided). It is a unity at the cost of the truth and the spiritual safety of our own church federation.
What about preaching and teaching (4th point)? We may thank the Lord that we don’t see the same decline as in the GKv. But when was the last time you heard the term ‘false church’ (BCF:29) mentioned? Have we become afraid of using the language of the confession about the church? Even Prof. de Visser concludes his article by saying: “I still love the GKv. I won’t say it has become a false church” even though it is “in serious decline”. Not a false church? For years the GKv have been admonished about falsifying God’s Word in relation to the fourth commandment and to marriage and divorce. They have permitted the administration of sacraments to non-church members in military service, adopted a proliferation of questionable hymns, changed church services to incorporate faddish elements, applied a ‘new hermeneutics’ using post-modern literary theory to twist God’s holy Word, established unity with churches with wrong practices (the latest being the NGK—formerly ‘buitenverbanders’—who left the GKv in the 1960s because the Three Forms of Unity were too restrictive and who now have women in office and accept homosexuals at Holy Supper) and, lately, the GKv have ordained female office bearers. And they’ve thrown the admonitions from concerned members and overseas sister churches to the wind. But Prof. de Visser will not call them a false church. Doesn’t that imply that the GKv are still Christ’s true church (albeit in serious decline)? For the Confession knows only of Christ’s true (faithful) church and the false (disobedient) church. And we confess that the true church “governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it”.[v] It’s as plain as day that the GKv have not governed themselves according to the pure Word of God; instead, they have resolutely rejected calls for them to do so. That is why faithful members had to leave and sister churches had to break the sister relations with them. So let’s not slap on the whitewash, but call a spade a spade: the GKv have, lamentably, become false churches and we need the boldness to speak confessionally.
As for undermining the antithesis (point 5), I like Prof. de Visser’s frankness when he says: “Maybe we were too naïve in thinking that we could be in the world without being affected by the world.” Yes, we can identify with that comment. The mantra of being “in the world but not of the world” is not unfamiliar to us and is often used to imply that we can endanger ourselves and our children because we “should not be governed by fear” but “trust in the Lord”. Meanwhile we place ourselves at risk and ignore the antithesis God set in Genesis 3:15. The fact is that there is a battle going on—a spiritual battle against our sworn enemies the devil, the world and our own flesh who “do not cease to attack us” (LD 52). Let’s remember the two roads, two gates: a broad one leading to hell and a narrow one leading to heaven. And two kingdoms: Satan’s and Christ’s. That battle, that antithesis between the two, is continually being compromised by Satan’s insidious allurements. Christ says: he who is not for Me is against Me; My mother and brothers are those who do My will. This radical language of Christ and Scripture gives no room for compromise in relation to His Word.
Lastly, as Prof. de Visser said in his 6th impression, GKv people want positive messages. We read that GKv members don’t want their ministers to talk about sin. Do we hear similar sentiments? True, we must be ‘positive’, ‘encouraging’, ‘empathetic’, ‘supportive’ when people are in trouble; but not when they persist in sin. Avoid mentioning sin and especially its consequences, it is said; just speak positively: we’re all going to heaven and God forgives us our sins. People today want positive messages, with a heavy focus on a social gospel – doing good to others. Jesus is seen more as an example to follow in helping others than as the Lamb of God who has come to reconcile sinners to God by paying on the cross for their sins and granting His children the Spirit of renewal. Indeed, many modern theologians see the doctrine that God caused His Son, Christ Jesus, to die on the cross in order to pay for our sins as reprehensible. It would not fit the character of God to do such a thing, they say. Christ did die but that was because he did what was good and the people at that time did not accept that, and so they crucified him. Let’s be alert to those same sounds and expose them for what they are: a hollowing out of the doctrine of redemption through Christ alone.
Stop and consider
The value of reading Prof. de Visser’s ‘impressions of the GKv’ is that they are clear warning signs to make us stop and think: Are we seeing some of these notions in our midst? Are we perhaps just a few years behind the GKv? Is our church life also being undermined by a steady erosion of reformed principles, a straying from the clear lines of God’s Word, the forming of our own sinkhole? May God grant us continued vigilance in the awareness that ‘friendship with the world is enmity with God’ (Jas 4:4). Let’s exploit opportunities for personal (and combined) Bible study, study of the confessions and church history. And let’s couple these to earnest prayer for the church, for our brothers and sisters in the faith. Let’s not neglect to educate our children, to test the spirits, to fight the good fight, to defend the truth – identifying and exposing heresies. Reformation is not something to relegate to mileposts in church history; it is a constant warfare involving daily, continual return to God’s Word in every facet of our lives.
[ii] Arjan de Visser is Professor of Ministry and Mission at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary. He published his “Impressions from a Visit to the Dutch Churches (GKv)” Clarion (Vol. 68 No. 15, July 26 2019).
[iv] See the Deputies Report to FRCA Synod 2015.
[v] BCF Article 29.