In the footsteps of the synodicals 1
‘The ongoing revolution’ - an analysis
In 1992 sociologist Prof. G. Dekker wrote his book ‘The silent revolution’. It caused quite a stir. The book analysed the developments in the synodical-Reformed Churches (GKN) during the 1950-1990 period. Dekker concluded that nothing less than a revolution had occurred in these churches. They had totally changed, both in doctrine and life.
Last year, dr. G. Harinck, professor at the liberated Theological University in Kampen and at the Free University in Amsterdam, took the initiative in consultation with Prof. Dekker to conduct a study of the developments during recent years in the liberated-Reformed churches (GKv) in comparison with the earlier ones in the GKN. This resulted in a new publication by Dekker: ‘The ongoing revolution’ . The book describes and interprets the developments in these churches in sociological terms. It tries to answer the question whether the changes in the GKv in the period from 1970 to 2010 are comparable to those that previously occurred in the GKN. In brief: are the liberated going in the footsteps of the synodicals?
The book was presented on Friday, March 1, 2013 in the auditorium of the Theological University in Kampen. After the presentation the audience was addressed, interspersed with a brief opportunity to ask -
- Prof. dr. George Harinck about the reception in 1992 of ‘The silent revolution’
- Prof. dr. M. te Velde about ‘The ongoing revolution’
- Dr. K. van Bekkum about The future of the Reformed Churches
We have read the booklet with great interest. It is easy reading, and contains much that evokes recognition. His evaluation at the end of the book is revealing, and invites further comment and research.
Are we going in the footsteps of the synodicals?
Professor Dekker answers this question in the affirmative. But on what basis? Which arguments does he use? And are these always correct and applicable?
We will try to follow his line of reasoning, and provide comments in later articles.
The facts, opinions and conclusions in Dekker’s narrative are quite intertwined.
We will therefore try to present the factual information on which his reasoning is based and draws conclusions, systematically for each subject under the following headings:
- General remarks
- Facts from the GKN
- Facts from the GKv
- Dekker’s conclusion
Using this format, Dekker’s (partial) answers to the central question: Are the liberated following in the footsteps of the synodicals can be better placed. We follow the sequence in which professor Dekker introduces the topics, and refrain for the moment from offering any comment or conclusion.
The greater part of Dekker’s information facts and quotations comes from the manuals of the GKv, and from the description of the history of these churches in Vuur en Vlam. For those who have read that material, very much in his book will have a familiar ring.
In a lecture, held in 1994 in Kampen, Prof. Dekker said among other things:
"This brings me to a conclusion which, for now, I would put forward as not much more than a hypothesis: In the coming years the liberated-Reformed will demonstrate radical changes. They will (have to) adjust themselves more and more to the developments in general society, precisely because they (want to) apply their faith to all aspects of life. During the coming decades they will therefore develop in the direction in which the synodical-Reformed have developed, and they will in future also begin to look more like the synodical-Reformed."
Today, after some twenty years, Dekker thinks that the following questions can readily be answered:
- Have the churches changed?
- If so, which changes have occurred?, and
- Do these changes reflect those in the former GKN?
Dekker posits that the liberated chose ecclesiastical isolation. That isolation does not make it self-evident that they would change. But over the years that isolation was demolished by the emergence of a new generation and the influence of the young intelligentsia. The perspectives were substantially widened and led to major changes.
There was also noticeable apathy. Community involvement declined. There was decreasing understanding of what the church is.
Opinion within their own circles is that the churches are experiencing an extremely exciting transformation from a fairly closed to an open church community. Several typical liberated organisations have opened their doors for other christians. Many view the increased openness positively, seeing it perhaps as a reformation.
In short, the churches are changing. And that at an accelerated pace.
The starting position
To allow comparison a starting position must be selected, and a time slot over which the changes are measured. The choice fell on two periods of 40 years: 1950 to 1990 for the GKN, and 1970-2010 for the GKv. The starting situations in 1950 and 1970 are very similar.
It should be noted that some developments are difficult to compare because they had been finalised in both church communities during the 1950-1970 period - thus prior to the period selected for the liberated churches. Birth control was mentioned as an example, which in liberated circles had been accepted already by 1970.
The schism of 1944 was still fresh in people’s mind. Numerous members, striving after deepening beliefs and renewal had left the churches. A period of peace ensued, displaying certain traits of having arrived, possibly also of rigidity. A process of integration and acceptance of the churches in Dutch society began. An open attitude made the churches receptive to developments in general society. These stimulated the changes in the churches.
The liberated regarded 1944 as reformation. They were the continuation of the Reformed churches. It leads to conflicts about the relationship with other churches (B.A. Bos) and about 'ongoing reformation’. There are signs of a radicalisation of the Liberation. Cooperation with other christians causes disunity. Opposition is formed towards Dutch general society. The consequence is that the influence of developments in society is much delayed.
After the split in 1967 there is a period of rest, consolidation and development, during which the churches’ isolation is reinforced. The churches are characterized as orthodox in doctrine and homogeneous in faith and behaviour. They form a cohesive group and are in their own way involved with society.
From the growth or loss of members we may with caution say something about the nature and strength of a faith community. Factors are: numbers baptized, deaths, and admitted and departed members.
The book shows the development of the memberships of both church communities. These are (graphically indexed) strikingly similar. After initial growth the figures show the onset of a steep decline. Recent figures for the liberated confirm this observation.
Initially there was a high birth rate, and membership figures still increased. However, the excess of births over deaths was decreasing already back in 1970. After the turning point in 1975, a steep decline sets in. Membership in 2000 is equal to that in 1950.
Family planning has been a hot issue.
Missionary activity has declined since 1970. More and more members leave the church, later on in very large numbers. Since 1970 the excess of church leavers over those who join has been accelerating.
Initially there was a high birth rate, but this declined sharply after 2000. Church growth was mostly by birth surplus. Family planning has quietly taken over and is hardly talked about.
Already in 1980 the number of church leavers exceeds that of those who join. This difference is increasing and accelerating.
Membership in 2012 is similar to that in 1995. Research by the Reformed College in Zwolle shows a decrease in membership to an estimated 98,000 - 108,000 members in 2025, which is 15-20% less compared with 2008.
The data indicates that the GKv is experiencing a demographic development similar to that of the GKN.
Church and Dutch general society
The synodical-Reformed recognized the legitimacy of other church groups and adopted more and more an open attitude, especially towards the Nederlands Hervormde Kerk (the original state church). Contact with other Reformed groups was therefore becoming more tiresome and weaker. Their initial antithetic position changed into cooperation and eventual unity. In 1970 the synodical-Reformed participated enthusiastically in the formation of the Council of Churches.
Although synodical organisations are christian, they are not ecclesiastically bound. The Kuyperian distinction between the church as institution and the church as organism is strictly observed.
Over time, the bond between churches and organisations became looser and was finally completely abandoned. The christian character of organisations has in many respects suffered damage.
By regarding themselves the true Church these churches position themselves automatically over against other churches, in particular the GKN. With the GKN’s increasing loss of Reformed character, there is less and less attention for them.
Unity with the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken (CGK) is constantly being hampered by the tough preconditions set by the liberated-Reformed for talking and uniting. Are the CGK not also following in the footsteps of the synodicals? The subsequent appeasement between the churches does not lead to unity; the CGK are not yet ready. But their universities do work together. Dr. S. Paas is the first CGK lecturer at the TUK. The relationship with the synodical-Reformed University in Kampen is also good.
Slowly but surely the liberated churches become more open and abandon their self-imposed isolation. Contacts are established with the Nederlands Gereformeerde Kerken (NGK). Members of NGK and CGK can join organisation ‘Evangelisatie & Recreatie’.
Around 2000, fifty percent of the congregations cooperates in one form or another with another church, under national guidance and stimulation.
The changed open attitude shows up in all kinds of cooperation, such as the Council of Churches, spiritual care for the military, inter-church consultation in government affairs, a Liaison Committee for Reformed believers, membership of the Dutch Missionary Council, participation in the National Synod. There is ongoing research into a possible association with the Council of Churches.
‘Ongoing reformation’, and the loss of christian identity of then-existing organisations, led to exclusive liberated organisations, and in that way established ‘liberated life’. But during later years that exclusive liberated-Reformed character disappeared, or was weakened by other opinions, lack of enthusiasm and commitment.
Examples: Nederlands Dagblad (ND) and the Reformed Political Federation (GPV).
Meanwhile, voting for the ChristenUnie is no longer a matter of fact. There is even sympathy for GroenLinks and PVV.
A network of Reformed schools was created based on the triangle idea of family-school-church being one. But during the nineties difficulties arise with the Reformed identity. The involvement and motivation of parents and members also wanes. Admission policy for members and staff is quickly adjusted. The Gereformeerde Scholengemeenschap Randstad (Reformed Schools-community Randstad) asks only whether its employees can be credible bearers of the Reformed identity. In 2012 the LVGS  seeks revision of the ecclesiastically defined basis, and advocates reconciliation with evangelical schools. Exemption used to be sought from the legal requirement to establish ‘participation councils’ in schools, but nowadays most schools have that kind of council.
The early liberated churches had no sympathy for the Council of Churches, but the GKv is now thinking about joining it; and there is enthusiastic participation in the so-called National Synod.
Nowadays the liberated play an important role in new orthodox-protestant organisations.
The defensive attitude towards the government has disappeared: invitations to interdenominational services held on royal occasions are no longer an issue. The once radically rejected subsidy for the TUK was accepted, and granted; financial support for theological students likewise. The TUK adapts increasingly to academia, and professionalises all the time.
Social welfare legislation was initially rejected on principle, but government assistance is now accepted instead of diaconal support.
There is similar openness in both church groups. This can be seen in the changed attitude towards ecumenism as it has taken shape in the Council of Churches. In both church groups within the Dutch world of churches, similar developments have taken place.
This also applies to the social situation. First there was significant difference: the liberated had their church organisations. With the synodicals the relationship between church and organisation was indirect, with the liberated direct. But both of them remained Kuyperian, and so in practice the difference is not so great. Was it not the idea to influence the world? Thus the ecclesiastical character of the liberated organisations had to change under the influence of that world.
Will the disappearance of the exclusive ecclesiastical relationship and the involvement with christian organisations lead to organisations like those of the synodicals? At the moment the christian character of the original liberated organisations is still better maintained. But there is real concern that these too will not escape a development process as with the synodicals.
The general picture is one of decline. It seems that the liberated world has been longer able to resist degenerative developments. But the direction in which it is moving does show correspondence with that of the synodicals.
During the past fifty years the churches developed organisationally from a collection of local churches which met together once every three years, to a church federation in which the national synod with its well-equipped administration centre, employing dozens of exempted officials, occupies a permanent place. The service centre in Leusden employs 150 people.
There is professionalisation, centralisation and bureaucratisation. There is growing distance between leaders and members, also in local congregations. This professionalisation is not consistent with the original presbyterial church model.
From about 1980 there is strong organisational growth. There are new agencies and institutions with exempted employees: a Reformed Missiology Training - later Institute of Reformed Theological Training with additional employee, full time tutor of potential missionaries, development workers and evangelists; a national agency with a coordinator for evangelism activity, a diaconal support centre with full time practitioner, an office of De Verre Naasten in Zwolle with a ‘director abroad’, an Archive- and Documentation Centre, a communications consultant, a policy adviser for church personnel, a support centre for congregation development.
Synod Harderwijk 2011/12 approved the creation in 2013 of a new practice centre for theology and congregation development - a joint project of TUK, GH and the Centre for Support Services.
In Zwolle 10 liberated organisations with 27 employees are housed under the one roof.
The professionalisation of ministers and synod work is ongoing. A vocation profile is under (further) development.
Upon the close of synod, its president becomes the face, contact point and representative of the churches. There is a desire for more centralisation.
A support association was established for church workers within the GKv, NGK and CGK.
Ecclesiastical practice and church-orderly commitments are causing tension. A new model Church Order should provide a solution.
Diversity is evident from three Baptism- and five Holy Supper Forms.
Church boundaries are less and less being observed. Office-bearers who move home sometimes remain attached to their congregation, because of a shortage of office-bearers. The classic elders’ visit is under pressure from alternative pastoral care.
Interest in national church affairs is decreasing, for example the Schooldag.
The liberated churches have grown considerably both organisationally and professionally, with emphasis on the pastorate.
There is general development in the centralisation of tasks and services.
The adopted compromise between hierarchy and independentism will over time undoubtedly lead to a looser relationships between national and local church life, and to increased diversity.
In all of the above the GKv are developing after the GKN model. Also in the various local changes mentioned above there is no difference with the GKN, who experienced them at an earlier time.
The work of office-bearers
Comparison between the church groups is not easy because not much has been documented. Therefore only a few lines can be drawn.
During the course of time greater equality has developed between the offices, and the difference between office-bearer and non office-bearer has become less important. There is no longer a difference between elders’ and elders-and-deacons’ meetings.
The pastorate has in certain respects become like other professions.
Some of the work can also be performed by non-ministers, for example: curator of the University. The minister is no longer always chairman of the consistory. The church worker threatens the position of the minister.
The distinction between office-bearers and church members is diminishing.
It is no longer thought honourable to become an elder. In more than half of the congregations it is difficult to find enough office-bearers.
In some of the churches the elders no longer pay the annual home visit, but have become more of coordinators of pastoral work.
The work of the deacons is shifting sideways because of civil legislation; and it is also moving into the field of other office-bearers, for example marital problems and divorce. The deacons run their own committee, and also meet separately.
The churches’ involvement with foreign development assistance runs via its organisation De Verre Naasten (Distant Neighbours).
All this strongly suggests that there is a fairly high degree of similarity in the changes in both church groups. Only the position of the deacons is quite different from that in the GKN.
The position of women
The woman in office is one of the most important issues. The changing position of women in society has over the study period caused significant changes in all of church life.
In the early fifties synod decided to allow the churches freedom to grant women the vote. In 1965 synod decided that the woman is also allowed to participate in the work of office-bearers. This was followed by opening up all the offices to women. Without their contribution, many churches would suffer a great lack of workers. In the meantime the number of female theological students is increasingly starting to dominate.
The vision on the position of the woman in marriage has also changed radically. The 1990 Marriage Form makes not a single distinction between the duties of bride and groom.
In the early nineties women are given the active vote. After the turn of the century passive suffrage is frequently raised in a variety of situations.
There seems to be sufficient support for female deacons. The draft Church Order offers that possibility as an option. A minority wants to admit women also to the other offices. The woman already occupies an important position in catechesis, pastorate, and the secretariat of the church council. A synodal investigation is ongoing whether women can also be admitted to the offices.
The vision on women has changed significantly. More recent Marriage Forms no longer speak about authority and leadership of the man, nor of obedience of the woman to the man.
A revolutionary development has occurred in this area of the GKN. And given the speed at which opinions are currently developing, it is only realistic to expect that also within the GKv women will be admitted to the offices.
The views on the office and the position of the woman are not independent.
Because no fieldwork was done for this research, and it is based only on what others have written, not much can be said about it here. A broadly outlined sketch is all that can be given.
At the end of the eighties Synod decides that "on the Lord's day the church council shall, if possible twice, but at least once call the congregation together in a church service". But church attendance drops significantly, both in the morning and afternoon services. The latter is attended by only a small part of the members. Alternative children’s services were introduced.
Holy Supper is celebrated more frequently. Non-confessing members are also admitted; in most churches also the children.
After the nineties the afternoon service loses attraction. Its format becomes the subject of much discussion. The end of this service has been predicted.
The Synod of Harderwijk 2012 decided that the church council calls the congregation together "as a rule twice on Sunday".
A church book is published with the churches’ own rhymed versions of the psalms; a book with hymns’, the text of the Confessions in contemporary Dutch, etc. The target was a completely own design of the liturgy. This produces much tension and division.
In the mid-eighties Synod adopts a final version of the psalms and hymns. But still more songs are added all the time. Despite many objections work is continuing on yet a new book of hymns.
The Songbook for the churches was initially vigorously rejected, then adopted. The churches also decide to participate in the new Hymnal-project 2012.
Alternative children’s services were unacceptable, but then quietly introduced.
Here and there an open (more open) Holy Supper celebration is introduced, so that also guests from outside the churches can attend. Short Forms are designed for more frequent celebrations.
It is normal that a liturgical process as in the GKv produces tensions. Changed times call constantly for innovation, which not everyone can accept.
The attitude towards the Songbook for the churches changed radically from antithesis to cooperation. Distance to the GKN was reduced partly because of this.
The format of church life and of the church services has become enormously different. Without further research it may be concluded that in practice many more, and more drastic changes have taken place than is known or thought. At this point the GKv are growing closer to the synodical-Reformed churches. For also in the GKN there was great variation in design of form.
Dr. Wiersinga promoted an alternative doctrine of atonement, but it did not lead to his suspension.
During the seventies there are many doctrinal issues. But afterwards it is the ethical issues that command the attention, and doctrine is secondary. There is a certain freedom of doctrine.
The knowledge element has become much less important; trust is now of more interest.
By the end of the study period church discipline had virtually disappeared.
In the GKv doctrine and life are considered important. Do they not believe themselves to be the true church?
During the study period synods did not have to deal with many doctrinal issues, apart from baptism of adopted children. The question about the value of infant baptism is being raised with increasing emphasis. There is much discussion about the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
There are regular requests for revision of the formulated doctrine.
The emphasis shifts from doctrine to ethical and practical applications.
In the beginning there was still disapproval of the alternative doctrine of atonement in the synodical-Reformed church. But also in the GKv professor dr. G. Harinck (TUK) made highly critical remarks about various doctrines – also the doctrine of atonement. However, this is not raised at synod level.
There are regular reports about church discipline being applied, but the question is justified whether this concerns the enforcement of doctrine.
The vision lives that faith has more to do with a proper way of life and responsible behaviour than with acceptance of certain doctrines. This allows the conclusion that while it is generally believed that there is agreement, very many church members have difficulty with doctrine. Formal precepts play a less important role in liberated church life, as is shown by the treatment of Harinck’s criticism on (among others) the doctrine of atonement.
There is therefore clearly a relativisation of the role of doctrine, comparable to that in the GKN.
After an initial rise in the number of baptised members making confession, the figures are decreasing all the time. Although the content of the confession has not changed and is still officially maintained, there is great freedom in application and interpretation. The Confession and making confession of faith, are becoming less important in daily life. After 1965 the number of members that make confession declines considerably and at a growing rate.
The core of the Confession still stands unshaken. But the ecclesiastical culture has radically changed and is still doing that. There is a shift from mind to feelings.
Prof. dr. E A de Boer (TUK) spoke of a ‘historical and theological boundary to the confessions.’
In the new Form for making profession of faith, the question about assent to the doctrine has moved from first to second place. The emphasis is now on personal faith instead of on the Confession as a summary of the faith.
After 2000 the number of baptised members that makes confession is in steady decline.
The decline in the number of baptised members that makes confession of faith coincides with the turning point in the development of the membership numbers of the churches. The figures indicate a decreasing involvement in church life.
It makes sense to regard the reduced significance of the Confession and the decreasing numbers in making confession both in GKN and GKv as similar developments.
View on the Bible
Is the Bible a collection of interpretations, or a clear revelation of God to people of all times?
It is Reformed to put the Bible as God's Word in the centre. It is seen as the source of truth and the guide of life.
A fundamentally and radically different vision on, and attitude towards the Bible have developed. These changes have been clearly articulated in the report 'God with us'.
Initially, one of the major objections against the GKN is that the doctrine of Scripture is becoming more and more the subject of discussion. But even within the GKv gradual changes occur regarding the view on the Bible. There are critical noises about the providence of God; there is an ongoing discussion about the authority of Scripture.
At the official level, too, the Bible is used differently, for example with respect to divorce and re-marriage. These are now approached from ‘the whole of the Bible’.
There is more attention for the human factor in the origin of Bible books.
The Bible is at bottom ‘a secret’; and is therefore over-asked if we let him say all kinds of unrevealed things about the creation of the world.
Disapproval of Bible criticism practised elsewhere has died. There is eager desire to make the great progress of the sciences of literature usable for Bible reading. It is recognised that culture also plays a role in the question about woman’s right to vote.
With many subjects one gets the feeling ‘to be standing on the threshold of a new understanding of Scripture.’
The rapid acceptance of the NBV shows that the Bible is held in high esteem.
The Bible still continues to play a great role in the liberated-Reformed Church. But how one looks at the Bible and uses it has changed indeed. Perhaps the changes are not as radical as in the GKN or not so clearly expressed. However, all recent airings show that the changes in practice are more advanced than appears on the surface. These changes point in the same direction and show great likeness to those in the GKN.
The rapid introduction of the NBV is an example showing that the liberated should sooner be characterised as orthodox than conservative.
When churches change, the result is almost always a variety of opinions and behaviours. We distinguish:
Pluriformity: ‘many church forms in spiritual unity', and
pluralism: 'a system which acknowledges the side by side existence and cooperation of different guiding principles or beliefs.’
A distinction can also be made between local formats and national trends and movements. The latter are of greater influence for the (continued) existence of a church community.
The openness in these churches led to organised unrest, especially on the conservative right. Several associations and magazines were established. Later on they amalgamated. But the left also organised itself to applaud the developments.
At the unification with the Nederlands Hervormde Kerk part of the GKN separated and continued under the name (translated) Continued Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (vGKN)  .
After initial uniformity, diversity gradually arises in local congregations. Besides acceptance, concern also arises about the trend towards more openness. Concerned members established their association, magazine ‘Reformanda’ was published, as was ‘Bij de Tijd’ which applauded more openness.
A synod decided with respect to difference of opinions about the Sunday to maintain the existing situation.
Starting in 2003, several small groups of liberated members leave the GKv.
In 2005, a two-day closed emergency meeting is held, but it does not provide a solution to the problems.
The extent of tolerance of differences is in practice not always equally clear, as shown by the cancelled inclusion of 'Stroom' in the bond. 
A general tolerance article is included in the new Church Order, authorising a church council to acquiesce in someone’s deviation from the Biblical doctrine.
In autumn 2012 a group of members writes a statement in which concern is expressed about the developments.
Overall trends show a remarkable similarity to those in the synodical-Reformed church. Something of which people are very well aware.
Pluralism as in the PKN is incompatible with the liberated-Reformed view on the church, but also these churches will not escape from it. The issue is greater than about differences in detail. The tolerance in the churches is by now greater than Rev. B.J.F. Schoep advocated at the time (in the sixties).
A degree of parallelism can be seen in the new liberation of liberated-Reformed members in 2003 and the separation from the GKN (the vGKN) in 2004.
Marriage and divorce
There is, generally speaking, a shift from doctrine to practical life. There are indications that this is also the case in the GKv. The attention shifts to matters such as marriage, divorce and sexuality, and questions about life and death. The earlier observed changes have consequences for a variety of opinions of ethical nature. Vice versa as well: a change of ethos signals changes in church life.
Initially, the convictions in both church groups are similar: the monogamous marriage of man and woman is a divine institution for the duration of life. Sexuality is only permitted within marriage and directed at family formation.
The views changed significantly. In 1963 the synod decided that any sexual intercourse before marriage must be condemned as being contrary to God's Word. But 25 years later that statement was factually withdrawn. The marriage Form no longer speaks of an ‘ordinance of God.’ The position of man and woman has been much more equalised.
In 1970 it was stated that because of sin a divorce is sometimes inescapable.
In the early eighties Synod accepted unmarried cohabitation.
The marriage Form calls marriage an institution of God. It also speaks of the evil of adultery. But omitted is that ‘He certainly will not leave it unpunished.’ The Form now sounds milder: It is against God's will that the marriage partners break up.
Sexual intercourse before marriage is condemned because it is contrary to God's Word. There is no official withdrawal of this standpoint. But based on EO research it may be safely assumed that the practical situation has changed. The study, which also involved the GKv, showed that half of the surveyed christians had intercourse before marriage.
Cohabitation is becoming much more common, and receives regular attention from ecclesiastical meetings. Many are inclined to accept ‘cohabitation’ as normal.
The number of divorces increases, and received ecclesiastical attention as far back as the late seventies. Nuances in the ecclesiastical position regarding divorce followed by another marriage arise if the Bible is approached in a different way – no longer starting from the commandments, but from ‘the whole of the Bible’. There is growing understanding for the ‘hardness of heart’. Thus a second marriage after divorce was initially not permitted to be confirmed in the church, but a few years later synod compelled the church councils to do it if a council had agreed with a previous divorce.
More and more cases of sexual abuse in pastoral situations are being reported. In 2004 a cooperative action with CGK and NGK was launched in this area, with 122 counsellors from liberated side.
Development in the GKv shows many similarities with that in the GKN, but is still progressing less fast because of church policy. In 1970 divorce was no longer an agenda item at GKN synods, while it still is a source of discussion and concern within the GKv.
Since 1970 Synod has dealt regularly with homosexual relations. In 1990 Synod called the local churches to full acceptance, also in the offices.
In early 1990, Synod decided that all homosexual intercourse is contrary to God's Word. But still there is pastoral attention for the problems. The association ‘Contrario’, to provide help to homosexuals, is established.
Discussions reveal that there is deep division on this matter. The former clarity: 'you are allowed to be, but not to do’ no longer exists. An affective relationship of homosexuals is officially rejected.
A joint GKv – NGK website was established which is to provide pastoral help. But the GKv again do not join an NGK study committee about homosexuality and the ecclesiastical office.
Within the GKv greater openness and freedom have developed with respect to homosexuality, but this has until now progressed less far than that in the synodical-Reformed churches. The differences among the congregations are (still?) too great, ranging from cautious acceptance or acquiescence to unyielding rejection.
Abortion and euthanasia
At this point there have been no complex developments.
In 1963 abortus provocatus is most definitely rejected. Ten years later it is sometimes considered acceptable, if the mental or physical wellbeing of the woman is seriously threatened. The government is told of disquiet about abortion clinics.
Euthanasia has been discussed extensively only once, in the mid eighties. A study report concluded that from the perspective of christian faith termination of one’s own life may be justified.
The synodical-Reformed position, seen as the result of their new liberalism, is condemned. The protest against abortion and its legalisation continues. A day of penance and prayer is held and the government informed of the negative standpoint. Attempts are made to prevent licenses for abortion hospitals.
In recent years the issue plays a lesser role at official level. To our knowledge the churches remain opposed to abortion.
Euthanasia is simply rejected. Around 2000 a day of prayer is organised against these developments in Dutch society. The churches protest to the government against the easing of conditions allowing euthanasia. In recent years, the issue seems to be no longer a subject of discussion at official level.
There is a clear contrast between the course of events in both church groups.
In recent years these issues have hardly been addressed at official GKv level. But perhaps the practice of life is changing in the GKv without the official positions being adjusted. The difference with the GKN may therefore be smaller than at first sight.
For the development of a particular group it is necessary that the people’s conduct be observed. But the nature of this study (without fieldwork) does not allow making comparisons at base-level between the two church groups. And a comparison on the basis of documentation does not make sense.
In the fifties the Reformed more than others, appeared to adhere to their own lifestyle (leisure, Sunday rest, etc.). The difference between the liberated-Reformed and synodical-Reformed was small.
Leisure as a topic was quite often raised at synod level. In the early fifties dancing, theatre- and cinema-visiting were rejected.
Sunday rest is still a topic in the fifties and sixties, but then no more.
Later on the former typically Reformed lifestyle had completely disappeared.
The close relationship between church and the Reformed lifestyle preserved the Reformed ethos. Synods did not need to say anything about it. But in the late seventies there is talk of a slump across the board, therefore also in lifestyle.
Around the turn of the century, the Sunday is raised a few times as an important point: where are the boundaries of admonition regarding the fourth commandment and Sunday rest?
The liberated-Reformed have apparently kept the Reformed lifestyle longer than the synodical-Reformed. But it is not impossible that by the change in lifestyle of the entire Dutch population, it holds also for the liberated-Reformed that the typically Reformed pattern has disappeared.
Answers were sought to two questions:
- which changes have occurred?, and
- do these changes reflect those in the former GKN?
The scope of the study was determined by and limited to the knowledge of the changes in the GKN, on the basis of the assumption that after a period of time the GKv would display the same changes. Sociologically, the two groups have by nature much in common. They are Reformed Kuyperian-oriented churches, therefore focused on the world.
The development of membership figures with a time difference of 30 years runs clearly parallel. Also the membership of the GKv will fall quite rapidly because of the decreasing excess of births over deaths and the significantly increasing number of withdrawals. The result is a large loss of members. It indicates a fall in social strength, attractiveness and ability to hold on to members.
Position in church life
Initially there was a large difference between the church groups because of the liberated’s self- imposed isolation. But the ongoing increasing openness to the ecclesiastical world led to more and more cooperation, even a possible association with the Council of Churches.
The position of the liberated-Reformed is increasingly becoming like that of the synodical-Reformed.
Position in society
In the beginning there is a big difference between the church groups. The liberated ‘ongoing reformation’ led to exclusive-reformed organisations. But this proved unsustainable in the long run. The formal situation has become more and more like that in the GKN. However, a difference remains: the relationship between the GKv and the original Reformed organisations has remained stronger, even though many of them are struggling with their identity.
The changed position towards a number of social developments, such as government subsidies, allows the liberated-Reformed to integrate more and more with society.
Developments in church life
Especially after 1980 there is strong organisational growth, professionalisation and centralisation. The relationship between Synod and the local churches weakens, resulting in differences in the format of church life. Overall, the developments are the same as those in the GKN.
As far as can be observed, the work of the office bearers also shows many similarities. There is, however, one difference: the deacons in the GKv are, at least officially, less involved in ecclesiastical government.
The position of the woman in both church federations has changed in the same direction, albeit less rapidly in the GKv. In these churches women have only the active vote, but it may be expected that they will in future also be given the candidature.
Church attendance in the GKv is also in decline, and the second service is in discussion. The variation in format of the services has seen strong growth.
The great efforts in the liturgical field suggests that greater importance is attached to active participation in church services than in the GKN.
Comparison of trends in doctrine and life is difficult due to the general shift of attention from doctrine to practical life. Although the official doctrine has not changed, church members are taking a more liberal attitude towards it.
Great changes have probably occurred in both church communities in dealing with and appreciation of the doctrine and the
From the seventies less and less GKN baptised members made confession of faith. From the beginning of this century this is also the case in the GKv.
In the GKN a radically different view arose on the Bible-conception. That kind of change is not apparent in the GKv, but there is the feeling that they are at the threshold of a new understanding of Scripture, as evidenced for example by the approach to divorce and the status of women. This points in any case in the same direction of the changes in the GKN.
There is clearly a greater plurality. This did and does cause organised concern.
Both groups have over time acknowledged that divorce is sometimes unavoidable.
Synodicals accept in 1980 unmarried cohabitation as a form of society; the liberated are still more cautious and are paying more attention to it in ecclesiastical policy. However, cohabitation is becoming increasingly prevalent, and there is much similarity in the direction in which the churches are (were) developing.
Over time the GKN adopted a more liberal position with respect to sexuality before and outside of marriage. In practice the liberated permit themselves also greater freedom.
Contrary to the GKN, there is in the GKv both in and outside of the offices no complete acceptance of homosexuality. The individual views of the liberated differ much.
This applies also with respect to views on abortion and euthanasia. It is not impossible, even not unlikely, that the attitudes and behaviours of liberated church members have indeed changed.
The liberated-Reformed have generally for longer paid attention to ethical issues. This may indicate that they have longer honoured the Reformed lifestyle.
The foregoing conclusions justify the following answers to the questions:
- the changes in the GKv point in the same direction as those in the GKN at an earlier stage.
- the speed or intensity in which the changes occur in the GKv is lower. This is particularly true with respect to the lifestyle of the members (for example, the Sunday rest) and of the christian character of their original own organisations.
From a religion-oriented sociological viewpoint the development experienced in the GKv is a common occurrence associated with a changing society.
It is necessary to think about this development, lest the message of these churches becomes implausible.
It is also sociologically normal that christian churches first resist the more or less autonomous changes in society; then resign themselves or adapt to them. But because christians appeal to the Bible there is the danger of implausibility. For example: equality of man and woman is first rejected with an appeal to God's Word; while later on their equivalence is based on the same Word. |
This requires reflection.
There are three directions from which the relationship between church and world can be approached and evaluated.
1 - Angle of incidence Secularisation
A world in which secularism pervades everything is no longer operating to standards derived from the Bible or the christian religion. Man is autonomous and acts without God or religion.
This also affects church life because society influences its members. The consequences are a declining membership, less involvement, and undermining of the faith.
The church defends itself against this by maintaining its Reformed character as well as by adapting to the situation.
The GKN have adapted to the extent that they themselves have become more or less secularized. This does not in the same measure apply to the GKv. But many in these churches fear the slippery slope, while others find that the changes do not go far enough.
Regarding secularisation, the Church positions itself negatively over against the developments in the world and tries to maintain the existing situation. The outside world experiences this as conservative and therefore combats the church.
2 – Angle of incidence Reformation
The GKv are Kuyperian churches who constantly seek to reform themselves. They strive consciously for change in religious church life. Theology must be brought into harmony with the times.
The church is therefore positioned less negative, rather neutral towards the world and regards changes as challenges. Developments must be 'Reformed', and the members must learn to deal with them. The necessary changes are experienced as consciously desired changes to living in faith and ecclesial life.
This adjustment process can develop into secularisation of the religion. But that risk should not hamper the necessary adjustment.
Yet many leave the church, either because the changes are not accepted, or the adjustments do not go far enough for modern people.
3 - Angle of incidence Mature man and world
Without accepting everything that happens in the world, the church regards the changes in the world as positive, namely as the consequence of the growing maturity of modern man and world. This need not be regarded as contrary to God and His authority over man and the world, but rather in line with the intention of God, yes even wanted by Him.
The theologian Bonhoeffer can open our eyes to this. According to him, there is one great ongoing development towards autonomy of man and world. He values that positive, while the organised christian religion has always fiercely opposed it because autonomy attacks the authority of God and because changes have an anti-christian character. But on rebound the world then adopts an anti-christian position in order to yet realise its changes. In the current situation the churches will always be the loser.
For that reason the churches should not oppose autonomy and independence, but let the light of the Gospel shine on them. God teaches the church as much by the world as vice versa. However, the church has often taken the lesson to heart too little or too late.
The current and forthcoming changes in the GKv are too late. These churches have never understood the times, and they have not recognised God's work in the world. They are struggling with themselves. Thus many people disengage, because they do not recognise themselves in this church and its struggle.
The three different perspectives cast different light on the developments in the GKv. The first two are familiar, the third is new.
But it should not be, should it, that christianity which in the past began so evolutionary, will now forever be conservative; that every new movement has to clear its way without the church, and that it always takes the church twenty years to realise what has actually happened? (Bonhoeffer).
So much for a first analysis of professor Dekker’s discourse in his book ‘The ongoing revolution’.
It will be clear that this book is asking for comment. Based on the above analysis we hope to make a start next time, involving the three speeches that were given after the book’s launch.
(to be continued)
 ‘The ongoing revolution’, Prof. dr. G. Dekker, 146 pages, 19.90 euros
 Landelijk Verband van Gereformeerde Schoolverenigingen (National Association of Reformed School Societies).
 Not: "Reformed Churches (restored)" as the book erroneously states, djb.
 Stroom withdrew itself before Classis could deliver its judgment. djb.