Retrospective and prospective (2): Isolation

This is a translation of chapter 2 of Prof. Dr. J. Douma’s essay “Bezinning en uitzicht” in “Het vuur blijft branden” (1979). See here for an overview and discussion.

Conviction of faith

It cannot be denied that the liberated-Reformed churches are in an isolated position. There are many things in which we don’t participate. We do not seek this isolation. We, too, like to agree with many people. If we can participate, we do so. We do not desire the small circle. In a multitude of the people is the glory of the king (Prov. 14:28). Christ’s church consists of a crowd that no one can count, and the more this is visible on earth, the better we like it. If our own congregations grow (as is thankfully still the case today), we rejoice. The church is not the church becasue she is small, even though we know from Scripture that she is often small.

If there are opportunities to exercise the communion of the saints, then we grab hold of these opportunities, even if we have to travel far. If in spite of this we find ourselves in an isolated situation, we view it as a result of our conviction of faith. We cannot walk together with many people, sometimes even with brothers and sisters, because we take seriously what the Scripture says about the church.

Everyone will understand this in connection with our relationship to worldly people. With those who don’t confess Christ, we cannot have deep unity. Nowadays most people no longer go to church; we do. Sunday is for us the greatest among the days of the week. But what we consider joy—the communion with Jesus Christ—leaves others unmoved. Then it is not strange that we go our clearly separate ways.

This is also clear when we are dealing with false teachers. They want to be considered church people, but aren’t. Today this may sound harsh; but if you know how Scripture deals with false teachers, you cannot expect us to have fellowship with them. Today it seems as if there are no false teachers left. Anything that calls itself “church” can find a place in the World Council of Churches. We would also be welcome. But then we are expected to have, in some diluted form, solidarity with all who participate in it. Then we must stop speaking the harsh words against false teachers and false churches that we find in Scripture. Us joining the World Council of Churches can, of course, never imply that they must leave. There, standing side-by-side always takes priority over standing over against each other.

Now we have no problem with this isolation. Membership in the World Council of Churches has no attraction for us. It is clear to us that we don’t belong. And the reports we read confirm our conviction that the World Council is impotent to preach the gospel to the church and to the world.

But what does bother us is the division among those who are sincere Christians, often even with the same confessions as we have, with whom it has not yet been possible to pursue ecclesiastical unity. We also stand in a perpetually isolated position relative to them. It is, of course, rather wry when they blame us for this isolation, while in this case we also formulate our objections to certain forms of collaboration from a conviction of faith.

This we must explore further.

Invisible church?

There are a number of seductive escape routes people want us to take, but we cannot do so. They tell us: you are hammering too forcefully on the anvil of the visible church, but you should appreciate the invisible church better. What is essential for a person is to take part, not in the church but in Christ. If a believer shares in Christ then he belongs to the congregation of the elect. This congregation we can’t see comprehensively, but Christ knows her. She is the invisible church, as Christ gathers her from a multitude of church federations. Whoever believes is part of the invisible church, whatever church on earth he may belong to.

It stands to reason that such a view greatly relativizes the issue of ecclesiastical unity. The true unity in Christ already exists; the real church is the invisible church, and no one should worry too much about the unity of the church on earth. That is, at best, a secondary issue. If we cannot sit around one Lord’s Supper table, what can we do? Aren’t there other organizations and associations in which we can collaborate? Why should we stand on the sideline if, united in faith, we can work together in the realms of school, politics, social life, and science?

This reasoning is not only seductive, it also contains an element of truth. The distinction between visible and invisible church has validity. You find it in Calvin and you can read about it in more than one Reformed confession. For instance, the Westminster Confession in Article 25 defines as the invisible church that which “consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all.” Certainly, one may object to the use of the visible/invisible terminology (as for instance K. Schilder did). But the distinction between the full number of the elect on one hand and the church on earth with its physical address on the other hand, is rooted in the Scripture (Eph. 1:4; Acts 13:48; John 15:2; 1 Cor. 1:2).

Our Dutch confessions do not know the visible/invisible terminology, but they definitely contain its Scriptural substance. Lord’s Day 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism speaks of the church in its fullness, as the congregation chose unto eternal life. And Article 29 of the Belgic Confession says that the are people in the church who are not of the church: In the church, as it has an address here below, known to people; yet not of the church, as she is known to God alone as the congregation of his elect.

In fact, the Belgic Confession begins its exposition on the church by describing that congregation: “We believe and profess one catholic or universal church, which is a holy congregation and assembly of the true Christian believers, who expect their entire salvation in Jesus Christ, are washed by his blood, and are sealed by the Holy Spirit.”

The church does not end at its physical boundaries. This confession has been a comfort to thousands throughout the history of the church. Over against the monumental visibility of the Roman church, the Reformed consoled themselves in days of persecution with the essence of the church: her bond to Christ, to his Spirit, her faith, her election from eternity. Elijah thought in his despair that there was no one left; he considered the outward appearance. But in God’s eyes there were seven thousand who had not bent their knees to Baal.

Certainly, the church has an address. Everyone is obliged to join her on earth, and how could that be possible without the church being visible and localized? But that does not mean that the church has one address. Our confession distinguishes between the true church and the false church. But it never says that there is only one address of the church in every location. Over against the Free Reformed (CGK) deputies for church unity, our deputies responded in 1969/70: “Who told you that we brand all other churches as false?”

The marks by which one can know the true church are these: that she practices the pure preaching of the gospel; that she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; that she exercises church discipline for correct and punishing sins. In short, she governs herself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and regarding Jesus Christ as the only Head (Art. 29 BC). The question of “true” or “false” must be decided on the basis of these marks, not on the basis of the argument that, since there is a true church here in X, therefore the other churches are false and illegitimate.

This message makes us humble. We must not be enchanted by externality. Not only Roman, but also liberated-Reformed bulwarks will be leveled as soon as we cry out: “The temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD is this!” (Jer. 7:4) Boldly we confess that we are the church of Jesus Christ. Boldly we also say that there are church communities that adorn themselves with the name of church, but are not truly the church. But it is Christ who gathers his church. He knows the goats in the true churches and the sheep in the false churches. He will bring even the wandering sheep into the one pen of the one holy, universal, Christian church. When they are united with Christ, they also partake of his body, which is his church. We remember this not only at the deathbed of our non-liberated-Reformed family members, and when our name is also listed on their obituary, which testifies that they “sleep in Christ”. Also before that they are our brothers and sisters, which we should not shun but seek.

Only… they so often get annoyed when we speak about the church. Because we openly say that what must be distinguished should not therefore be separated. The confession may speak of the church as the congregation of all the elect. It impresses on us that Christ gathers his congregation and we are not holding the reins. But it also tells us that we must seek the one, universal church; that we may not remain alone; that we all are obliged to join the true church and to separate from the false church; that we must maintain the unity of the church and be living members of it.

Therefore it is not our house speciality, but a Christian call when we admonish our brothers and sisters outside the liberated-Reformed churches that the first item on our program of collaboration should be the pursuit of ecclesiastical unity. If you are willing to talk about Monday concerning school and politics, but are unwilling to have a discussion about Sunday first, you turn the issue of Christian unity upside-down.

I believe that, in the thirty-five years of our history, we have often been too afraid of collaboration, because that first point was not always relevant (see the section on “Isolationism” below, in chapter 3). But even if we were afraid, it was because of what was and remains a weighty matter to us, even though others brush it away quickly: the necessity to sit in church together on Sunday, before we work together in activities during the rest of the week.

That is why we criticize the concept of a Reformed community that is content with the status quo of “ten times Reformed”, and therefore renders itself unable to build the one Reformed church. If you claim that the ideal of one Reformed church is no more than an illusion, you sadly are probably right. But that will be the consequence of saying that we stand on the foundation of the Three Forms of Unity, while this is not really true. Otherwise we should be more on fire for one another, but now it seems that everyone is content to seek his own people. Obviously, that has nothing to do with the love that longs for the communion of the saints.

The (house) congregation?

Fine, says another person, you long for the communion of the saints. So do I, but I don’t seek it in the institution called “church”, with its synods and the like. I rather look at things from a more directly Scriptural point of view. In the course of time so many frills have been added. The Bible does not speak about a national church with synods and similar assemblies. At best, it speaks over voluntary contact through people (apostles) who were filled with the Holy Spirit. I rather emphasize the local congregation and some institute called “church”.

This is the position of Rev. W. Glashouwer, president of the EO (Evangelical Broadcast), in an interview with Kerknieuws (March 2, 1979). He sees in all churches a converted remnant, while the majority of so-called Christianity is under the influence of modernity. The churches have been hollowed out, but thankfully they still contain some regenerated people. We should not try to pull them out; rather, we should promote fellowship among them. The role of the EO is to help them recognize each other. The work of the EO creates a visible unity of God’s children. Within the EO and among people nationwide we see a growing communion of the saints.

That is how Rev. Glashouwer thinks, and many with him. Find a local congregation and don’t worry about the church. Find a home church and remember that this was the true form of the church in the New Testament. Find the EO and experience the communion of the saints. The EO—more than a broadcast company!

Yet we must conclude that this, too, is an attempt to escape. It certainly is important to start close to home and find a local congregation. That is clear from Scripture. But the Apostle Convent in Jerusalem (Acts 15), the collections for other congregations (1 Cor. 16:1ff), the exchange of letters between congregations (Col. 4:16), and the walking of Christ among the seven candlesticks of the seven churches in Asia Minor (Rev. 2:1) leave no room for misunderstanding about the fact, that the many churches must also be one church. Without synods (at that time), but not without bond. In the New Testament, comforting and admonishing one another does not stop at the boundary of one’s own congregation. Therefore it is unthinkable to have peace in one’s own congregation and passively watch the ruin of the rest of the church. A home church like that in the New Testament is a beautiful thing, but it should not become an asylum where one can retreat when the church in the city and in the country has become a wilderness. Such home churches are foreign to the New Testament. If the church is in decay, there must be a call to reformation. And if that call is not received, one must separate from what is no longer the church.

The EO does much good work, but it is a broadcast company and not a congregation. Nor is it a communion of the saints in the sense of the Apostles’ Creed. For there the church and the communion of the saints are mentioned in a single breath: I believe in one, holy, universal Christian church, the communion of saints. And again we would avoid our ecclesiastical responsibility if we ignore the question of ecclesiastical unity and find in broadcast company, around “One Name is Our Hope”, the sense of belonging that we no longer find and no longer seek in the church. We understand that people separate from another broadcast company, the NCRV; but we do not accept that the word “separation” should be removed from our ecclesiastical vocabulary.

No division but healing?

There is yet another voice testifying against us as we ponder our isolation. It is the voice of the Reformed Bond in the Dutch Reformed Church. (Tr.: This is a group of more conservative churches that were formally still part of the large Reformed “state church”, which had become more liberal of the centuries.) This Bond does not want to ignore the issue of ecclesiastical unity, but gives a different answer than we do.

The Reformed Bond tells us that the Secession did not solve the problem. On the contrary, it led to one split after another. Over against this repeated fraction they posit faithfulness to the Dutch Reformed Church. That church may be ill, dangerously ill even, but she is not dead. She has not got rid of the confessions and retained the right to be called the church. The Secession and Doleance took away good blood from the Dutch Reformed Church; instead, the separatists should have stayed to continue the fight within the church. If the Reformed Bond were to separate, they claim, the same phenomenon would appear as in the seceded churches: split after split. Rather, one should stay in a church if it has not been forsaken by the Lord. The Dutch Reformed Church is the old national church, and God promised to be faithful to the thousandth generation. Is that faithfulness not clearly visible? If the Secession and Doleance were able to draw so much good blood from this church, isn’t that clear proof of the fact that it is not yet dead? Real spiritual life keeps springing up in the Dutch Reformed Church. It is a testimony of the ever-returning miracle worked by God, which obliges believers to stay with such a church. No division by healing. No separate, self-contained room within the hotel that is called Dutch Reformed church; no separate church outside of that church; but heal the church so that it is once again a Reformed church. No division, but stand in the midst of the church, as the Reformed Bond does. Just as a spider extends its web in all directions, the Bond must cover the whole church with its strings. No liberation, but “spreading and defending the truth in the Dutch Reformed Church” is their program.

These views can be found in the commemorative publication of the Reformed Bond, Delen of helen? (“Divide or heal?”), edited by J. van der Graaf, about “church life in and with the Reformed Bond, 1906-1951)” , or in other publications within this Bond, especially in the magazine De Waarheidsvriend.

Do we consider the Secession a failure? Have we sterilized ourselves and isolated ourselves unnecessarily? Is our actual calling to join the Dutch Reformed Church and to return to the “old national church”? Let us consider the arguments mentioned above.

It is true that the Secession was followed by multiple splits. As late as in 1967, when the conflict within the liberated-Reformed churches led to a separation. The claim is made that if the Reformed Bond were to separate from the Dutch Reformed Church, it would meet a similar fate. Supposedly the lack of a secession leads to less strife and conflict. But if you read the book Delen of helen? you soon learn about the supposed unity during the first forty years of the Reformed Bond’s brief existence. Read the farewell letter by dr. J.G. Woelderink to find out how within the Bond two worlds opposed each other. Does it really make a difference in divisiveness: a Bond within or a Bond outside of the Dutch Reformed Church?

Clearly the Secession did not solve the issue of ecclesiastical unity. Neither did the Doleance, nor the Liberation, nor will the Reformed Bond ever be able to do so. As long as there is sin, there will also be separation. Cracks will continue to form until the last day. No one but Christ himself will effect the infallible separation between sheep and goats. Until then, the word of 1 Cor. 11:19 remains in effect: “There must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.”

Therefore we do not glorify the separation, but neither do we reject it when Christ makes us face a tough decision. It is easily said: no separation! But it is hard to maintain when the separation already exists, because preachers and professors are being suspended and deposed. Should we just abandon them? Or, if we want to be a church that also understands discipline, should we forego discipline because it could result in a split?

When Rev. Kreck at the beginning of the century refused to record children in the baptismal records who had been baptized in a modern congregation, resulting in the suspension of him and his council—who were the schismatics? Or is it sad that De Waarheidsvriend reported that Rev. Kreck had caused the split and was no victim of “persecution from the governing bodies”? (Delen of helen?, p. 37) Might it be the case that there is no separation when you are passive and tolerates almost everything, and that there will be separation when healthy spiritual life collides with liberal and hierarchical power? Those who separate themselves usually leave behind brothers and sisters who are as principled as they, but do not wish to take the step of secession or liberation. In that scenario, who exactly fails whom? Did Hendrik de Cock leave the remaining orthodox Dutch Reformed people, or did they abandon him? One should not lightly separate from a church federation. Even the slower brothers and sisters must be given time to make a decision. But if you stay you take as much of a decision as when you go. If you stay, you cannot claim: he is a schismatic, but I remained Reformed. For if Christ calls us out of a decayed and undisciplined church, then leaving means restoration of the church, but staying is desertion.

The “old national church”?

Now the Reformed Bond claims that the “old national church” is still the church. God has promised to be faithful to thousands of generations. With this argument we disagree most. It is evident that for almost two centuries this church has not exercised discipline in the way it is required of a Christian church, yet the claim is made that the Dutch Reformed Church is the church of Christ. Those who separated from it were wrong in doing so, and those who remained were faithful. How close this view is to the cry: “The temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD this is!” No discipline for two hundred years; many were removed who faithfully proclaimed the gospel; many others were kept inside who maimed the gospel; and yet you continue saying: here is the church?

God does remain faithful to thousands of generations, but that does not stop him from moving the church’s beacons. If you don’t acknowledge that, you can end up with a dangerous automatism: once the church of Christ, always the church of Christ. But the church of Rev. Spilt is no longer that of Rev. Bogerman. And Gomarus would be angry at the dogmatics of Berkhof, and he would not accept that, next to the Reformed religion, the un-Refomed view could also occupy a central and even authoritative position in the church.

Doesn’t God work miracles, even in the Dutch Reformed Church? We don’t deny that for a moment. God works regeneration and repentance wherever he wants. But the miracle in the Dutch Reformed Church is not the same as the miracle of the Dutch Reformed Church, the church that is facing outward, with her membership in the World Council of Churches, with her lack of discipline and internal division. If I have to be a member of the Dutch Reformed Church because of the miracles in that church, why shouldn’t I also become a member of the Roman Catholic Church? Doesn’t that community contain children of God? Doesn’t that church have some true life? But should that be the criterion? Or should I consider the marks of the church as I find them in my confession (and that of the Reformed Bond): the pure proclamation of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline? Because I use that standard, I am neither Roman Catholic nor Dutch Reformed, even though I am convinced that both churches contain children of God.

A church is not a church of the Reformation if she merely states on paper that she has a Reformed confession. It is also written on paper that she rejects whatever contradicts her confession, but we know how little of that happens in practice. A paper tiger is no real tiger. A church with beautiful confessions and solemn sanctions for contradicting her confession, without really professing that confession and really applying those sanctions, is a church on paper. It is as little a real church as the paper tiger is a real tiger.

The Reformed Bond wants to stand “in the midst of the church”. But in spite of what they say, they are a little church inside the church. They have their own organizations, congregations, districts; they want their own share, even in the pastoral work among students and sailors. Is that standing in the midst of the church, or in the midst of the Bond? In the midst of the Bond which, like a spider who extends its web in all directions, wants to turn the Dutch Reformed Church into one big Reformed Bond? But meanwhile these activities of the Bond are combined with a passive attitude toward many things that are happening in the midst of the church.

Our discussion has become lengthy. But it is good for us to give a clear account of our isolation, also relative to the Reformed Bond. We are not only confronted with the question whether the Liberation was warranted by Scripture, but also whether our ancestors were bad guides when they considered a separation and allowed it to happen.

The Reformed Bond may know that our heart is pulled toward those who, in whatever place, love the Reformed confession. We still hope that one day our roads will converge. And we hope that a Bond that calls itself “Reformed” will say farewell to all that is not Reformed, and enter into fellowship with those who are Reformed in actuality.

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