Is there a Road between Acquiescence and Secession?
A response to Dr. J. Douma – by John Vantil

I read with interest the submission on “The Road between Acquiescence and Secession” based on a translation of material prepared by Prof. J. Douma, as printed in the March 9, 2011 issue of Reformed Polemics (Volume 11, Number 7, pages 11-14) and in the March 25, 2011 issue of Clarion (Volume 60, Number 7, pages 162-164).

No Secession

Prof. Douma expresses many concerns over the direction of the liberated Reformed Churches (GKV) of which he is a member, however he does not wish to secede.  In this submission we read that “He wants to walk a path between acquiescence in the present situation and secession from the churches.”  He also states that, “There is decline, but that ought not to lead to secession.

When Prof. Douma claims that he does not want to secede, I am certain that we can all empathize with him.  Who, in his right mind, wishes to separate himself from his fellow Christians?  Who would want to go through such a struggle?

Is this the correct attitude we are to have when we confront apostasy in the church?  Does this attitude do justice to the church-gathering work of Jesus Christ, who “gathers, defends, and preserves for Himself, by His Spirit and Word, in the unity of the true faith, a church chosen to everlasting life” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 21, question and answer 54)?

If our forefathers had this attitude in 1944 would there have been liberation at that time?  Was not the Liberation in 1944 also secession from an apostate church?  Then also general synods had bound both office-bearers and members to unscriptural doctrine.  And like today, all appeals fell on deaf ears.

Dr. Douma is correct in his statement that “Those who believe that they must leave the GKV must demonstrate that these churches have lost the marks of the true church….”  He is supported in this position by Article 28 of the Belgic Confession where we read that “all and everyone are obliged to join it and to unite with it, maintaining the unity of the church.

However the question must be asked, how can Dr. Douma claim that there are no grounds for reproach based on Article 29 of the Belgic Confession and that the evidence is unclear?  Based on his own evidence, how can Dr. Douma maintain that the GKV shows the marks of the true church?

The Marks

To begin with, Dr. Douma does not believe that the GKV lacks the pure preaching of the gospel.  However some of Dr. Douma’s own examples indicate that this is actually the case.  As Dr. Douma writes, there are significant concerns over the toleration of scripture-criticism at the Theological University at Kampen, the failure to address the individualistic attitude prevailing upon the membership, an emphasis on personal emotional experience rather than the explanation of God’s Word, the replacement of the Psalms with evangelical songs, and a general decline of knowledge of the reformed religion, specifically in the areas of covenant and baptism.

What Dr. Douma fails to recognize is that the repeated failure to address these concerns by the consistories and general synods, has discredited and corrupted the preaching of the Word.  When the GKV enters into a sister church relationship with churches that, for instance, permit women in office, that even accelerates the decline in the churches.  Instead of working reformation and repentance, the preaching is instead giving license to continued deformation in the church.

Dr. Douma also rejects concerns regarding the second mark of the church.  He ignores the fact that for many years the GKV has had an open Lord’s supper table.  With the blessing of the General Synods, the GKV has admitted guests to the Lord’s Supper who have not professed the Reformed faith and about whom they have no assurance that they live a godly life.  He ignores the fact that permission is being given to delay the baptism of infants and to allow practicing baptists to be admitted to the Lord’s supper.

Regarding the third mark, Dr. Douma questions whether the evidence is “so clear and so widespread” that the exercise of discipline is not being maintained in the churches.  However Dr. Douma himself admits that, “weakening of faith will inevitably lead to weakening of discipline.”  How else does Dr. Douma account for the increasingly apostate lifestyle of many members of the church?  What does Dr. Douma think of the ethical damage done by unscriptural decisions on keeping the Lord’s Day, marriage and divorce, and homosexuality?  Why does Dr. Douma not see how the concerns with the first two marks have seriously impacted the third mark?

It is noteworthy that while Dr. Douma acknowledges that there is a decline, he does not identify a cause for this decline.  Neither does he indicate what should be done about it.

Dr. Douma fails to mention that it is the consistories, as the highest authority in the church of Christ, that have permitted this decline to happen.  The consistories have the responsibility over the conduct of ecclesiastical life in the congregations.  It is the responsibility of the consistories to lead and instruct the members of the congregations to profess their faith and live in accordance with His Word.  He does not acknowledge that the acceptance of the General Synod decisions by the consistories as settled and binding, is the major reason for this decline.

Further, Dr. Douma does not acknowledge the countless appeals under Article 31 of the Church Order, which were brought to the major assemblies but denied.  These appeals concerned, for example, the 4th and 7th commandments, unscriptural hymns, supervision of the Lord’s supper, unscriptural ecclesiastical unity with other churches, scripture criticism, permission of liturgical innovation, and the acceptance of unreliable Bible translations.

No acquiescence?

At the end of his article Dr. Douma concludes that “The (liberated) Reformed Churches [GKV] are true churches of Jesus Christ, but they are definitely showing signs of decline.

He points out areas of apostasy in the GKV, and on this basis it would appear that he is not acquiescing.

Despite this Dr. Douma does not wish to condemn the GKV as a false church.  He continues to sit under the preaching there.  We may assume that He continues to participate in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper there.  As a member of the church he continues to be co-responsible for the process of discipline that is followed in the local church where he is a member.  He continues to place himself under the authority of the office-bearers there.

Of greater significance is the fact that Dr. Douma does not point to the process of appeal found in Article 31 of the Church Order, in order to challenge the unscriptural decisions, to have them set aside by the major assemblies and to have his consistory set them aside.  Is not this his duty as a member of the church?  Did he not commit himself “to continue in this doctrine in life and death, rejecting all heresies and errors conflicting with God’s Word?” (Form for the Public Profession of Faith).

Why does he not do this?

Is not this the church orderly way for continued reformation in the church?

Further, is not Dr. Douma’s failure to follow the church orderly way here a form of acquiescing in the existing situation?  If the matters about which Dr. Douma expresses concern are not worthy of secession, why have a website devoted to them?  And if these matters do not affect the purity of the preaching, the administration of the sacraments, or the exercise of church discipline, is not Dr. Douma guilty of raising “discord, sects and mutiny in churches” (see 1971 version of the Form for the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper)?

At the end of the day Dr. Douma, and those who share his concerns in the GKV, continue to participate in the consequences of unscriptural decisions.  Regardless of what he writes, he does acquiesce and he does so in disobedience to his Master, the Head of the church.

A Road in Between?

The title of Dr. Douma’s article gives the impression that it is somehow possible for an individual to not acquiesce in unscriptural decisions without separating himself from participating in the consequences of these decisions.  How is this possible?

Is the road in between the road of faith?

As we read in James 2:14 “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save him?

What happened to the leaders of Israel when they failed in their duty to prevent unscriptural practices?  Consider 1 Samuel 2:22-25 where we read how the high priest Eli rebuked his sons for their unscriptural practices in the service of the Lord at the Tent of Meeting.  It wasn’t enough.  We read about God’s judgment in 1 Samuel 3:13, “For I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons made themselves contemptible, and he failed to restrain them.

Later on King Saul was also removed from being king, because he had more fear of the people he ruled, than of obeying the Word of the Lord.

We can also read about this in the New Testament.  In Matthew 7:13 and 14 our Lord calls us to, “Enter through the narrow gate.  For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

The road in between is not an option.  It is an illusion, not based upon God’s Word but on man’s opinion.

An historical precedent

Near the beginning of this article a comparison was made with the Liberation of 1944 to the present situation in the Netherlands.  In 1944 the members of the church were presented with a clear choice – they had to either accept the synod decision or break away from it.  How does the position presented by Dr. Douma compare with the position of those who had to liberate themselves in 1944 from the yoke of an unscriptural doctrine of the covenant?  This unscriptural doctrine that was first considered “less correct” in 1905 became official church doctrine in 1944.

Based upon the evidence provided by Dr. Douma, we alluded to a number of unscriptural decisions by the GKV affecting the marks of the true church from which the general synods have repeatedly refused to repent.  At the same time we are confronted with the evidence from history, how in 1944 the Lord used sinful men to work reformation as a result of one unscriptural synodical decision.

Has Dr. Douma forgotten this?  Dr. Douma also must take responsibility; either accept or reject, acquiesce or secede!

As Rev. Stam writes, “It appears to me that the Dutch churches have fallen into a “mid-life” crisis in which one looks critically at the past and charts new ways for the future….  The way out of such a crisis is to go back to your roots and cherish anew what has been received by God’s grace.  Personally I would like to see a more positive appraisal of what the Lord gave us in the Liberation of 1944.  Was this Liberation an act of legitimate secession or was it schism?”  (“What is the difference between Secession and Schism?Clarion, Volume 60, Number 11, May 20, 2011 issue, page 266).

The members of the church have been given a great responsibility.  Those who are called to office have an even greater responsibility.  Where are the leaders in today’s spiritual war?

We pray that our Lord may continue to gather, defend, and preserve for Himself, by His Spirit and Word, in the unity of the true faith, a church chosen to everlasting life.