A recent ‘Letter to the Editor’ in Clarion[I] asked why Dr A de Visser, in an earlier edition of Clarion[ii], said he would not call the GKv (RCN)[iii] a false church. Dr de Visser had visited the Netherlands and written about what he saw as the likely causes of the decline in the GKv which led to the CanRC[iv] breaking the sister ties with the GKv. He concluded that, although the GKv “has become a church that is in serious decline” he would not say “it has become a false church”. Reacting to this, the letter writer[v] astutely asked whether we are not “in danger of creating an in-between ‘in serious decline’ church category”. Scripture and confession, of course, do not speak of such an “in-between” stage. Nor does Dr de Visser. A church is either Christ’s (true) church or it’s not. But the question of whether the GKv is a false church (federation) is important and we do the members of the GKv no favours by not drawing the logical conclusion that it has become a false church federation.
The reason Dr de Visser gives for saying the GKv is not a false church is that he has seen no evidence of persecution in the GKv. We confess in Article 29 BCF that, in addition to wrong doctrine and wrong use of the sacraments, the false church persecutes those who live faithfully and who rebuke the church for its errors. Dr de Visser says that although there is “ample evidence that true believers have a difficult time” in the GKV, that they “grieve over their Synod’s decision regarding women in office”, and that they “see signs of deformation all around”, yet (to the best of his knowledge) “they are not being persecuted”. So here we have a situation where a church federation “in serious decline”, which has repeatedly ignored or rejected calls to repent, is said by Dr de Visser not to be a false church because he sees no evidence of persecution.
This raises the question whether all three marks of the false church need to be clearly evident to all for it to be a false church. Consider for example Christ’s letter to the churches of Asia Minor (Rev 2 and 3). Five of those churches were admonished for things that were wrong within them. And to some of these Christ said: repent or the candle stick will be removed. If the candlestick was removed, they might continue to have their worship services and all the usual practices but they would no longer be the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Here, in Christ’s letters to the churches in Asia Minor, there is no mention of persecution, yet churches are told that if they do not heed the admonition or warning they will no longer be Christ’s true church.
Evidently those churches in Asia Minor were in serious decline but were still addressed as Christ’s churches. They were not false churches because they were ignorant of their errors. But once they were warned they would have become false churches if they ignored Christ’s warnings and refused to repent. Christ would then remove the candlestick. So failure to repent is the issue. The Roman church of the middle ages was ‘our church’ even though there was much wrong with it. But when the errors were pointed out to it and it rejected the admonitions and clung to its wayward ways it became a false church. The candlestick was removed, and Christ’s church continued as the church of the Reformation. When scriptural admonitions are ignored, and false teachings are perpetuated, and wrong practices are clung to, then that church has become a false church. It may have all the religious practices – preaching, sacraments, Bible study, consistory, etc. – yet, by rejecting scriptural admonitions, it demonstrates that it “assigns more authority to itself than to the Word of God” (BCF:29), something that is not characteristic of Christ’s true church.
And is that not the case with the GKv? As I said previously: “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.”[vi] By placing their own views above God’s Word they submit God’s Word to man’s word. That cannot be characteristic of Christ’s church.
Moreover, is it true that the GKv are not engaged in persecuting faithful believers “who rebuke the false church for its sins, greed and idolatries”? For what is persecution? Persecution can take on many forms. Job speaks of his friends as persecuting him with their words (Job 19:22). David says his enemies persecute his soul. Persecution is not restricted to physical oppression such as being beaten and tortured or unjustly excommunicated. There is persecution when someone is no longer considered for office, or is shunned, because he has rebuked the church for its errors. There are accounts of this having happened to members who have liberated themselves from the GKv. Persecution takes place when appeals based on Scripture are ignored and the concerned members are not taken seriously. There were certainly examples where justifiable appeals were dismissed in the GKv, as the GKv’s Acts of Synod show. Persecution is not limited to physical acts such being slapped into prison, thrown to the lions or tied and burnt at the stake, terrible as they are.
Dr de Visser argues that true believers in the GKv can still “submit appeals against the GKv’s decision”. That may be true regarding the issue of women in office but not regarding other matters already decided upon and where appeals have been denied. Once appeals have been denied, they can only be resubmitted if there are new grounds. If valid appeals to Scripture have already run their course and been denied by a synod, they cannot be resubmitted. For most of the erroneous decisions of GKv synods further appeals are no longer possible.
If the GKv have not become a body of false churches, then they are still Christ’s churches. As the letter writer remarked: “If contrary to the impressions outlined in the article [of Dr de Visser] we conclude that the marks of the true church are still present [in the GKv] then how are we to understand the decisions of the Canadian Reformed Churches and of the Free reformed Churches of Australia to sever the sister church relationship with the GKv [RCN]?” It would imply that it was premature for the FRCA and CanRC to break ties with the GKv. We would have had to keep warning them, ad infinitum, until there was clear evidence of physical persecution. But we could have waited till the cows come home because a church that ignores admonitions and tolerates sin and is influenced by post-modern literary theory to deconstruct the Bible whereby the Truth becomes subjective, is a church that will not persecute through excommunication. It’s simply no longer fussy about doctrine and takes a ‘live and let live’ approach. You want to believe that you may not work on Sunday, fine. On the other hand, if you believe you may work on Sunday, that’s also fine. You want to limit the reason for divorce to adultery, fine; but if you want to broaden the base of reasons for divorce, that’s also permissible. Don’t want women in office? Fine. Do want women in office? That’s also fine. Dr de Visser says, “The churches are allowed to ordain women to the offices, but they are not forced to do so”; so no persecution. But if someone may interpret the Bible one way and someone else a different way, what does this say about the immutability of God and the reliability of His holy Word? We offend our righteous God in this way; the sheep no longer hear the clear voice of the Shepherd and are led astray.
And that’s why it is so dangerous if we refuse to call a church a false church when, despite all admonitions, warnings, appeals and calls to reformation, it persists in its errors. It’s dangerous because its members are called to leave (Rev. 18:4) and join the true church (BCF:28) where they are fed by the pure preaching and hear therein the voice of the Good Shepherd, but are instead lulled into a false sense of security because, after all, no-one is daring to say it’s a false church. If, as Dr de Visser says, the GKv hasn’t become a false church, the logical conclusion is that it must still be Christ’s true church. So why should one leave? However, by not leaving the GKv, its members become infected by the wrong teachings and put their salvation and that of their children at great risk.
Now there are people who say: if you call the GKv a false church you are condemning all its members to hell. But that’s not so. Nor is it the issue. Calvin said there are still many believers living under the pope. However, since their salvation depends on what they believe, they need to leave. It’s foolish to say: if a church is false all its members will go to hell. And it’s equally foolish to say that in the true church everyone will be saved. [vii] There are believers outside (and they are obliged to join the true church – BCF:28) and there are hypocrites within (BCF:29). The question is: where is the true church? Where is Christ gathering, defending and preserving His church in the unity of the true faith (LD 21)? Does the church of which I am a member reflect the marks of the true church—faithfulness to the Word in preaching, sacraments and discipline? Or does it ascribe more authority to itself than to God’s Word? If it’s the latter, I need to leave. “These two churches,” says BCF:29, “are easily recognised and distinguished from each other.” The one seeks to submit to God’s Word in all it does; the other ascribes more authority to itself than the Word and wants to serve God in its own way. And if it’s the latter, as the GKv is showing itself to be, then we need to get out. Refusing to call it a false church does not help convict people of the need, for the sake of their very salvation, to leave and join Christ’s true church.
[i] Clarion 68:20, October 4 2019, p. 583.
[ii] Arjan de Visser, “Impressions from a Visit to the Dutch Churches (GKv)” Clarion, July 26 2019.
[iii] GKv: Gereformeerde Kerken (vrijgemaakt) in Nederland, aka Reformed Churches of the Netherlands.
[iv] Canadian Reformed Churches.
[v] Br Joh Swarts, FRC Darling Downs, Western Australia.
[vii] K Schilder, De Christelijke Religie (notes on the Belgic Confession of Faith), van den Berg, Kampen, undated, p. 95.