Few would deny that confessional Reformed churches today face enormous challenges. What confronts the church today is not simply a secular culture, whose roots are of course centuries old, but a militant secular culture, seemingly intent on silencing the church and pushing her to the margins of society. The proud march of secularity under the banners of tolerance and inclusion fills the street and those who refuse to walk in lockstep are not simply categorized as primitive, but opposed as villainous.
How does the church relate to an increasingly militant culture of secularity? The question preoccupies the Reformed churches in the Netherlands (GKNv) and is the impetus for changes in the theology, worship, and practices of the Dutch churches. These changes concern a small minority in the Dutch churches and a vast majority within their Canadian and Australian “sister” churches.
One colleague has asked me for my assessment of the “Dutch churches” and I will happily provide it, but not without some disclaimers. First, I am not privy to all the discussions that have occurred between the representatives from our respective committees for ecumenicity, and am not conversant with all the areas of concern. Secondly, my time in the Netherlands was short, my conversations with Dutch leaders few, and my exposure to Dutch churches was limited (I did not attend worship services in highly secularized Amsterdam or Utrecht). Lastly, I comment as an outsider, and outsiders are not always fully sensitive to the dynamics of a culture.
On the other hand, I attended church twice every Sunday and experienced worship in multiple places, including Kampen (Eudokia), Dronthen, Wezep, Assen-Zuid, and Zwolle (Plantage), and spent a month at the Theological University in Kampen, the institutional heart of the Dutch churches, where I conversed with both students and professors.
My overall assessment of the worship of Dutch churches is very positive, and here’s why: (a) In all of the worship services I attended the votum was sung, though the melodies varied. Reformed worship prizes congregational participation and the arguments for a sung liturgy are strong, and so I applaud this improvement; (b) The basic elements of the Reformed liturgy were untouched and the services progressed from confrontation with sin towards proclamation of the gospel towards (when Lord’s Supper was celebrated) communion with Christ; (c) The songs were appropriately mixed and included psalms (often to Genevan melodies), hymns, and contemporary praise songs, and though the pipe organ was the dominant musical instrument (and Dutch churches have such wonderful organs and organists), worship services sometimes featured other instruments, including acoustic guitar. It’s great to sing God’s praises with a variety of instruments and genres because it underscores the catholicity of the church and the diversity of musical tastes and talents; (d) Though children in every instance were excused for the sermon, they were welcomed back prior to the benediction. The corporate blessings of Jesus are for children and not just adults! (e) In every service I attended, Scripture was read by a lay person (in every instance, a woman). I really like the notion of including lay members at particular moments in the liturgy, not least women.
Small criticism: I prefer a more predictable and liturgical worship. Some of the worship services I attended included presentations (from youth leaders) or introductions (of elders) that seemed to interfere with the flow of worship, if not worship itself. I prefer a worship service without "commercials."
The Dutch churches get very high grades for their preaching. I especially enjoyed hearing sermons by Dr. Burger, Ds. Jos Douma (Zwolle) and Ds. Slotman (Zwolle). Dr. Burger preached an exceptional sermon from Ezekiel that was expositional, pastoral, and winsome for believers and seekers alike. I heard Ds. Douma preach a number of times and found his thoughtful Christocentric sermons connected to an attentive and appreciative congregation. I marveled at Ds. Slotman’s ability to interact with the congregation through his doctrinal catechism preaching in a way that wasn’t cheesy or pedantic. I’m told that it’s largely the influence of Dr. Kees de Ruijter, the now retired homiletics professor, that Dutch preachers have become so adept at relating to people in the pew. In nearly every service, power point was used in the sermons and, though I have some quibbles about it, its use was tasteful and helpful. In each instance, the worship services were full of attentive members, young and old.
Small criticism. I wonder if the pendulum has swung too much towards the listener and away from the text. While I really appreciated the accessibility of the Dutch preachers, I would have preferred a little more exposition.
The Theological University in Kampen is staffed by an extraordinarily competent faculty of theologically erudite and culturally informed scholars. In some ways, it is a dream team of teachers and those who study there will be exposed to the best of Reformed scholarship. I personally appreciated the friendliness of the faculty and found them without exception to be humble and thoughtful, desiring the best for their students and the churches.
The professors in Kampen read widely and eagerly harvest insights from those beyond the narrow confines of Reformed confessional orthodoxy, perhaps more so than those who teach at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary. I was heartened to see familiarity and engagement with radical orthodoxy (John Milbank, Graham Ward, Catharine Pickstock et al), for instance, the British evangelical Oliver O’Donovan, and the American ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, all of whom have tremendous insights for theologians in secular contexts.
Theological education is not what it used to be in the Netherlands. The historic faculties of theology in Utrecht, for example, and Leiden, have essentially been shut down. The faculty of the seminary for the PKN (the united Protestant church) in Amsterdam, at the behest of the government, works with other churches (and even other religions) in shared education in shared space.
The future of the theological university in Kampen is questionable and pressure from the government, the source of significant funding, will likely require the university to relocate and merge with other theological universities to avoid duplication and excess spending. While I was there, Dr. Roel Kuiper was installed as rector to replace the retiring Dr. Mees te Velde. Though a philosopher by trade and neither a minister nor a theologian, Dr. Kuiper brings a wealth of experience, leadership, and influence to the table. For years a member of the First Chamber in the Dutch government, Dr. Kuiper is a dignified and wise individual, and has the capacity to offer meaningful leadership for the institution in coming years. Though it will be extraordinarily sad to see the Theological University leave Kampen, an historic city for Reformed theological education, there may be advantages in a merger with, for instance, the theological university in Apeldoorn. Here you would have complementary visions for Reformed theological education under one roof and a place for cross-fertilization between scholars of different Reformed theological inclinations. Iron sharpens iron.
Prior to visiting Kampen, I had wondered whether the university was becoming too detached from the church and too much of an academic institution (rather than an ecclesiastical school). What I discovered, however, is that the professors are generally invested in the church and that even some who are not ordained (e.g. Dr. Koert van Bekkum) have obtained a license to preach in part to retain a connection to ministry in the church. I also wonder about the model of government funding for the theological university. Though the Dutch government does not interfere with the teaching at the university or its internal governance, there is still a sense that the government is forcing the school to go down a road it otherwise would not choose. I still believe that the best way for a school to be free of government influence is to be free of government funding.
Culture (and Hermeneutics)
I really don’t know that Dutch culture is more secular than Canadian culture. There is little in Amsterdam that you wouldn’t see in Toronto. I do think that the confrontation between church members and culture is far more pronounced in the Netherlands. In Canada, many Canadian Reformed churches are rural and even the city churches tend to be in the suburbs. We don’t have churches in Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver, and Canadian Reformed church communities tend to be isolated from the culture, sometimes with a fortress mentality.
It is undoubtedly true that the Dutch operate with a different hermeneutic, and it’s not all bad. Drawing on N.T. Wright, Oliver O’Donovan, and others, the Dutch see the divine plan of salvation as a trajectory that extends beyond Scripture. There’s of course nothing objectionable about this, and the Dutch Reformed especially have always been sensitive to the progress of redemptive history. Certain human institutions, some divinely prescribed or permitted, are discarded over time as God’s people mature, and so Christians today favor neither slavery nor polygamy. Theologians will correctly allege that though there are no explicit commands to dismantle the ancient institution of slavery, its abolition is clearly envisioned by the trajectory of Scripture.
Where does the trajectory point today? In the drama of God’s activity in the world we have moved beyond the script, the canon of Scripture, and must improvise. Again, there’s nothing objectionable about this. Very little about our lives is explicitly prescribed and so with minds renewed by the Spirit of Christ we use Scripture as a kind of illuminating compass to be oriented in this dark world.
On the other hand, the Dutch believe that the trajectory of God’s redemptive plan calls us today to open the ecclesiastical offices to women. Just as slavery was ended by theologians identifying in the gospel the recipe for its demise, so the traditional prohibition against women’s ordination is opposed by theologians today who identify in Scripture a trajectory in which full equality between men and women is celebrated and ought to be increasingly secured and protected. Though this is true, I’m not convinced it means the endorsement of women’s ordination.
I humbly offer to my gracious Dutch brothers and sisters some thoughts for consideration:
(a) The secular egalitarian error is to equate equality with sameness. Ontological equality between men and women neither assumes nor requires sameness in function. The Christian model of equality is not a parade in which people march in lockstep, but a dance in which equal partners happily embrace different roles, one leading and the other following. No one looks at a dance and says, “how oppressive that the man led and how unfortunate that the woman couldn’t.” For whatever reason, even in the most secular cultures, married men drive the car when couples go out and few women identify in this cultural institution a hint of oppression. Differentness in calling and constitution does not entail ontological inequality.
(b) The liturgical priority of Adam (man) is apparent from the Genesis narrative. In the prototypical sanctuary of the Garden of Eden, Adam is called to lead, to teach, and to build, and Eve is called to follow, to help, and to beautify (Note, for example, how he is given a set of instructions even before the creation of Eve). There isn’t a hint of inferiority or subjugation or oppression in these prelapsarian arrangements. Moreover, the liturgical priority of men is observed without exception in the old covenant priesthood.
(c) Paul appeals to the liturgical priority of men in his prohibitions of women teaching in 1 Timothy 2. Perhaps in Ephesus the Christian believers saw the same trajectory theologians see today when they endorse women’s ordination, and Paul had to say, “No, this is a creational arrangement.” Adam was formed first, to be the liturgical leader, and then Eve, and Adam was not deceived, but Eve was. Adam had shirked his responsibility in the original sin, and that sin ought not to be replicated. To allege that Paul’s prohibition of women teaching was designed to conform to prevailing cultural sensibilities seems entirely unconvincing. There are multiple occasions when Paul has no inhibitions in offending the height of Greco-Roman culture, not least in summoning the worship of Jesus, and not Caesar.
(d) Most theological disputes involve pitting one set of texts against another. Here the Canadian Reformed must remember that there is more in the Bible than simply 1 Timothy 2. There are multiple instances in Scripture of women teaching men, women judging men, and women prophesying to men, and thus an unordained ministry or service of women should be encouraged in Canadian Reformed churches. Relatedly, I sometimes wonder whether the Greek terms episkopos and presbyter apply only to ordained ministers of the Word and sacrament, as some Reformed theologians have argued. If so, most of what the New Testament says about elders actually applies to ministers and the debate about this issue changes. Either way, I would favor seeing women appointed to special and recognizable, though unordained, roles in the ministry of the church. Presently there are women very involved in discipleship, leading Bible study, and teaching catechism classes, and so it’s not a big step to give them formal recognition. Lastly, women often make great theologians, perhaps because of their differentness from men!
I thoroughly enjoyed my time among the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, learned a tremendous amount from my peers, and pray that my new friendships are enduring. I really hope that Canadian Reformed churches keep ties with the Dutch churches, and I hope we are receptive to each other’s correction!