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Reformed Churches in the Netherlands

Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.doc


A Bit to Read


Reformed Churches in the Netherlands

Perhaps it’s with the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands (RCN) that the Canadian Reformed Churches have the closest historical and emotional ties.  A very large proportion of the members of our churches trace their ancestry to the RCN, and our history in the past is intimately bound up with what happened in the Dutch churches.

It’s this strong historical and emotional tie that also explains the existence of much concern within the CanRC about developments in the RCN.  The recent Synod held in Smithers had on its agenda letters from a full one quarter of the churches within our federation (13 out of 53), all expressing concern in some way about developments happening in the Dutch sister churches.  The Australian churches even sent a letter pleading with our churches to do more to help the Dutch churches with their struggles.  The Dutch sister churches also sent two delegates to explain developments in Holland, to answer questions the brothers of Synod might have, and even to plead for more involvement on our part with their struggles.


Concerns

As it turns out, the brothers of Synod Smithers were united in sharing the concerns expressed by the churches.  See Article 133 of the Acts for details (www.canrc.org, and follow the links).  After listing some of the recent developments, Synod said,

“in light of the above, there is reason to monitor the situation in the Netherlands.  A church federation must be given time to work through the issues confronting it.  If deviation is present, it will manifest itself eventually in the official decisions of churches.  By carefully following the developments in the RCN in terms of the issues being dealt with by various deputies and in Reports, the Committee should be able to keep a finger on the pulse of the RCN.  While the Committee can be encouraged to read more than just the official documents to get a sense of what is happening, judgments about situations must be based on the official documents.” 

To accurately “monitor the situation” requires more manpower than the Committee had in the past.  Accordingly, Synod increased the number of brothers appointed to the Committee for Relations with Churches Abroad, and mandated them to “hold joint meetings at least every two years with Deputies of the [Dutch churches] to discuss proactively matters of mutual concern and interact with requests for advice or feedback about issues coming before Synods.” 


Mandate

Most of the concerns raised by our churches about Holland remain on the list our Committee must monitor, investigate, and/or discuss.  They are

  • To express the concern that the vast multiplication of hymns does nothing to advance the priority of Psalm singing,
  • To pay attention to the content of the hymns;
  • To monitor how the recent Dutch decision re the fourth commandment (by God’s command Sunday is distinctly a day of rest and worship) works out in practice;
  • To discuss the new approach the Dutch churches have taken to divorce.  There are concerns that this new approach is rooted in a new way of reading the Bible – a matter which, if true, can have far-reaching implications; and
  • To “monitor the situation in the RCN, keeping in mind the concerns expressed by the Churches about the situation in the RCN.”
    All in all, if the brothers of the committee do their work well, they will be busy men.


A Good Thing

This mandate strikes me as a good thing.  We understand that within the congregation here in Yarrow we have an obligation to care for one another as the brother’s keeper; it’s part and parcel of the communion of saints that we use our gifts for the advantage and salvation of the other.  The same is true also of sister churches.  So Rule 1 of interchurch relations reads:

“The churches shall assist each other in the maintenance, defense and promotion of the Reformed faith in doctrine, church polity, discipline, and liturgy, and be watchful for deviations.”

Precisely because it’s generally recognized –also by the delegates from the RCN– that something is astir in the Dutch sister churches, it is simply proper and responsible that Synod gave our committee the mandate to involve themselves intensively with developments in these churches.


The Other Church

The concerns that our churches (and our previous synods) have raised about the sister churches in the Netherlands echo the concerns that many brothers and sisters in the Netherlands also have.  In fact, for some brothers and sisters in the Netherlands, the concerns became so weighty that about 1200 members left the RCN (beginning in 2003) to form a new federation of churches – known as the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands Restored.  This federation of churches claims to be the true continuation of the RCN.  Synod Smithers received a letter from these churches requesting sister church relations, and hence agreement that they were the true continuation of the RCN (and therefore that the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands were in fact no longer true churches of the Lord).

Synod Smithers did not agree with the “Restored” churches’ self-analysis as the rightful continuation of the RCN.  On the contrary, Synod emphatically disagreed that the RCN had become a false church.  Since Synod could not find evidence that the RCN (despite her struggles and weaknesses) had become a false church, Synod concluded that those who left were in fact guilty of “schism” – for we confess in Article 28 of the Belgic Confession that “all therefore who draw away from the church or fail to join it act contrary to the ordinance of God.”  Our committee even has to “admonish the [‘Restored’ church] in a brotherly manner for its unlawful separation” (see Article 143).


Revisit

The decision concerning the ‘Restored’ churches was the last decision made on a given evening.  The Acts show that first thing the following morning a motion was made to revisit this decision (Article 146).  Several grounds were mentioned, including the use of “excessively strong language with words as ‘schism’ and ‘admonish’”, as well as the risk of “creating further unrest in the CanRC.”  The motion carried.

In due time a new proposal was tabled that would, if adopted, replace the decision earlier taken about the ‘Restored’ churches.  The new proposal (see Article 164) maintained the drift of the earlier decision, but sought to be less condemnatory in the language used as well as relieve the committee of needing to “admonish” the ‘Restored’ churches for schismatic action.  Instead our committee would be mandated to “facilitate reconciliation” between the RCN and the Restored churches.  This attempt to alter the earlier decision did not gain the support of Synod, and so the decision of Article 143 remains.


Analysis

The fact that an attempt was made to alter the initial decision demonstrates that the brothers of Synod were not of one mind about the developments in the Netherlands.  To be clear: there was full agreement on the fact that there are worrisome trends in the Dutch sister churches; hence the strengthening of the committee and its detailed mandate.  There was also full agreement that we in Canada could today not declare the RCN a false church (as the ‘Restored’ requested), and so terminate our relation with them.  The disagreement arose on the question of just what to say of the fact that some brothers and sisters had broken with the RCN.  Could we in Canada rightly judge their actions as schismatic – and hence sin?  Did we really want to pontificate from our distance what brothers and sisters under duress in the Netherlands ought to do?  On this point there was disagreement.


Soft?

I read somewhere that the decisions of Synod Smithers about the Dutch churches show that the Canadian Reformed Churches have become soft.  I disagree.  I know well that synods in Canada (as well as in Australia) have expressed concerns about particular developments in the Netherlands.  I also know that people have left our sister churches because they could no longer stomach the same issues that our synods have mentioned in the past as points of concern.  But does acknowledging the existence of concerns give one the ability to judge accurately –despite the width of the ocean to judge accurately that leaving the RCN is necessary before God?  Conversely, do I have from my distance across cultural and language divides the ability to judge that leaving is schismatic before God?  From where I live today, I simply do not know how I would act before God if I actually lived in the Netherlands.

Being modest in our language does not mean that one has become soft.

C Bouwman
22 June 2007