Don’t Turn Away

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Would the outcome have been different had delegates heard this plea?

SYNOD 2006. There I sat—a minister of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PCN)—tucked away behind the faculty advisers from Calvin Theological Seminary.

During the two months of my sabbatical I had interacted with these professors, and we had talked a lot about the Christian Reformed Church in North America. My family and I were deeply involved in First CRC, Grand Rapids, Mich. What surprised me so much was the spiritual unity we experienced with our congregation as well as the seminary. We share roots in Scripture, and we drink from the same Reformed well.

On Sundays I felt as though I were sitting with my home congregation—not only because of some shared names and faces with my brothers and sisters in the Netherlands, but more importantly because of similarities in the ways we live out our faith and worship God. We experience the same struggles with how to be Christians in this society, how to live close to God in the midst of daily busyness, how to raise children to be disciples of Jesus, and how to be the salt of the earth where we live and work. The many conversations I had in these months were genuine heart-to-heart talks.

With these wonderful experiences in mind, I sat in on the CRC’s annual meeting. I had been invited to synod to listen to the discussion on the relationship between the CRC and the PCN. It promised to be exciting and tense because there has been, since the recent creation of the PCN, hardly any serious contact between our churches, and some wanted to keep it that way. Others longed for more intensive conversations with their Dutch counterpart.

The CRC-PCN agenda item was scheduled for Wednesday, so I sat attentively in the auditorium, waiting for the topic to come up. However, it quickly became evident that discussion of the Heidelberg Catechism’s Q&A 80—concerning the Roman Catholic Mass—would keep emotions running high for a while.

After several hours not even half the 21 scheduled speakers had taken the floor. In the meantime I encountered a number of people in the hallways, and when they heard I was a minister in the PCN, they immediately began talking about our churches’ relationship. They described their image of the PCN—homosexual preachers, theologians adrift, break-away congregations. They painted a picture of the PCN as a liberal and un-Reformed bulwark. I listened with increasing surprise and dismay. That’s not my church, I thought. It was a caricature of my church, and it was painful for me to hear it.

A New Fire

I am a minister in the PCN and belong to the orthodox Reformed wing. When the merger between the two Dutch Reformed churches (the Hervormde and the Gereformeerde) and the Lutheran churches began taking shape, I wasn’t happy about it. Parts of the Hervormde church would probably become more liberal through the arrival of the Gereformeerde church, which would be a difficulty for those of us from the orthodox Reformed tradition.

But now, two years after the merger, I have to honestly say that, to my surprise, another wind is blowing in the PCN. It appears that the scripturally orthodox, confessional wings of both the Hervormde and Gereformeerde churches are finding our way to each other. We have raised our voices together, and slowly but surely we are influencing the entire PCN.

As a result the church has produced a report titled “Learning to Live Out of Wonder,” in which the PCN expressly tries to be a witnessing church in our society. In this testimony Christ stands central. Also, a council for Reformed theology has been set up to give advice—solicited and unsolicited—to our synod in theological matters.

At the grassroots level, in the congregations of the PCN, a new fire has been kindled. Many people, including youths, are consciously choosing to attend church and are calling for a clear gospel message and a life rooted in Jesus Christ.

An Invisible Majority

While these changes may be noticeable at the local level, we have yet to see them at the synodical level. Because each congregation has equal representation in the PCN’s decision making, a theologically liberal congregation of 30 members carries the same weight in a vote as a congregation with 300 conservative members. That’s how a denomination in which two-thirds are confessionally Reformed can adopt decisions that run contrary to the Reformed tradition.

It is therefore of great importance for the orthodox Reformed wing within the PCN to increase in strength and get all the support we need. That’s why it was all the more painful for me to hear delegates to the CRC synod calling for distance from the PCN. I understand their difficulty with some of my church’s decisions—this difficulty is shared by many within the PCN. But we are trying to transform our church from the inside out, trying to put it back on a biblical track. It doesn’t help us if our American and Canadian brothers and sisters in the faith turn their backs on us just when we need their support and prayers more than ever. “Strengthen what remains and is about to die,” says Revelation 3:2. I missed this attitude in some members of synod.

I would have liked to have shared these thoughts with Synod 2006. But the discussion finally began only a few hours before my departure to the Netherlands. So I’m asking the CRC now to wrestle along with us, to search out a way with us, to pray with us for a renewal in the church in the Netherlands, for growth of what is slowly taking shape in a new spirit of biblical evangelism.

Instead of restricting your relationship with us, join us in looking for a way to be Reformed in our postmodern world today.  ¦

About the Author

Rev. Ron van der Spoel, a PCN pastor, is planting a church in Harderwijk, the Netherlands.

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