When the topic for discussion at Bible Study Club is Church History, many young people, and also many not so young people exclaim with horror, "Church History – how boring!" It's often difficult to get a good discussion going at Club; after all, it's just dry facts of events that took place in the dim and distant past! But perhaps it is seen as boring because it is often presented as names and facts and dates, instead of real stories relating to God's dealings with real people. Perhaps we learn more Church history from historical novels based on factual accounts of real and imaginary people.
How my ears tingled as a young teenager when my father or mother sat down and told us of what they experienced during the Second World War and the events around the Liberation of 1944. And I clearly remember the difficulties my mother experienced when her only remaining sibling in the Netherlands went along with the "Buiten Verband" (Outside the Bond of Churches) group in 1967, that saw a large group of churches from the Dutch Reformed Churches Liberated leave the bond of churches over, amongst other matters, inter church relationships. The issues of Confession and Church Order were studied and discussed and tensions and emotions were high; highly charged letters of admonition and appeal zipped back and forth across the oceans. Ought we to be totally oblivious to these birthing pangs of our Bond of Churches here in Australia? Ought we not to pass on these accounts from of old to our children and grandchildren? Are these matters still taught at our John Calvin High Schools and at the higher levels of Catechism instruction? Do questions on Church History still feature when candidates for Public Profession of Faith are examined by Consistory? Let it not be said of us what was said of the people of Israel in the time of Judges 2:7 & 10:
So the people served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great works of the LORD which He had done for Israel. ... When all that generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation arose after them who did not know the LORD nor the work which He had done for Israel.
We pray that our teachers are able to teach Church History by relating the stories of the wonderful and gracious dealings of God with His people in the past; telling it with the same interest and enthusiasm as primary school teachers relate the stories of Scripture to their spell bound audience of young students during Bible story time. Let the teachers also experience that they are carried by the prayerful support of the Congregation members.
There's an old saying: "Those who do not heed the lessons of history are forced to repeat its mistakes." This is also very true of Church History! Ecclesiastes teaches us:
That which has been is what will be,
That which is done is what will be done,
And there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which it is may be said,
See, this is new?
It has already been in ancient times before us.
Eccles 1: 9 & 10
A working knowledge of Church History will also teach us that Satan uses the same range of tactics over and over again in his desperate attempts to destroy the Church. He is a master tactician and he knows in minute detail what the weaknesses of God's people are – the temptations and distractions which have so successfully driven a wedge between God and His people throughout the ages, time and time again. And so it is perhaps timely that we briefly delve into the past, assess the present and consider the future of the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ in a series of Nuts and Bolts articles in an effort to draw renewed attention to the crucial need for studying and understanding our Church History, as well as laying the groundwork to come with a measured response in a round about way as promised to a letter insisting that we have an obligation to personally seek out faithful churches to spend our Sundays with when on holidays. Let's begin by having a closer look at why we study Church History and what Scripture teaches us about the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Many pre-confession students are (still?) expected to memorise Rev C Stam's summary of why we need to study Church History. He states in his book Everything in Christ, (1979, p88) that "...we therefore study Church History for 3 basic reasons:
- to praise God in His glorious deeds,
- to understand our own time and be more aware of possible dangers,
- to discern between the true and false Church.
Stam again teaches us that "this history especially shows us two major elements:
- the weakness of God's people, falling away time and again from the foundation laid by God – deformation
- the grace and power of God, bringing back His people time and again to the one foundation and service, because of His Name and Covenant oath – reformation." (p87)
Our Church History starts of course with the creation of Adam and Eve. The Old Testament gives us a detailed account of God's dealings with His people how He guided them and established His covenant with them; how time and time again He delivered them out of the hands of their enemies, situations that had developed because of their own unfaithfulness to their LORD. That's why Scripture is so comforting! It deals with real people just like us who are unable of themselves to fulfil the requirements of the Covenant and who go into paths of deformation with seemingly inevitable regularity. But wonderfully and thankfully, it also gives us insight into the dealings of our faithful Covenant God, Who continues to work out His plan of salvation despite the unfaithfulness of man.
However, these articles will deal in the first place with the New Testament Church living in the last days in expectation of the return of her risen and ascended Lord and Saviour. I'd like to take my starting point on this overview of the New Testament Church from what we read in 1 Peter 2:4-5:
Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
This metaphor is also worked out by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians Ch 2:19-21:
Now therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.
These Scriptural examples show us the close relationship there is between Christ and His Bride, the Church. It paints a picture of a skilled stone Mason, carefully selecting and shaping each rock to make it fit perfectly into a wall growing under His hands. The walls rest on a solid foundation of reinforced concrete, which is unmovable and unshakeable. The rocks and the walls are knit together to form a unique building, a masterpiece! These are living stones, not uniformly manufactured bricks which a bricklayer lays into a house wall! And so it is with the Master Architect building His Church with its individual members.
Other Scriptural examples which illustrate that close relationship between Christ and His Church and which demonstrate different aspects of that relationship are:
- Christ is the Head, and we are the body. (1 Cor 12:27)
- Christ is the Shepherd, we are His flock. (John 10:11)
- Christ is the Vine and we are the branches. (John 15:5)
- Christ is the Groom and we are the Bride. (Rev 19:7)
Each one of these examples gives us a wonderfully rich insight into the love and care of Christ for His Church and a deep sense of the intimate relationship between Christ and His Church. They help us not to look at the pitiful efforts of men, the divisiveness and unfaithfulness within the Church throughout the ages, but to keep our gaze fixed on Christ our Lord. As He Himself stated in Matt 16:18: "... and on this rock (i.e. Peter's confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God) I will build my Church and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it." It is this relationship that gives us comfort and encouragement that no matter how bleak the future looks for the Church, Christ will continue His plan of salvation; He will gather His people from the ends of earth and from the beginning till the end of time until that building is complete. The Bible and Church History is the story of His Church gathering work and He will never forsake the work which His hands have begun.
It was mentioned at the beginning of this article that Satan's tactics do not really change; they just come disguised as something different every time. One of his first weapons is persecution, preying on the fear and "little faith" of the believers. It's still one of his main weapons today, used against the persecuted Christians in China and Moslem countries. But he also uses that against us with a slight twist, preying on our fear of being ridiculed by our unbelieving neighbours and colleagues or labelled as scabs when we refuse to join unions because such membership is incompatible with the service of our Lord. In this way too, he seeks to drive a physical wedge of fear or false shame between Christ and us. But Church History teaches us that physical persecution is often the way in which God not only purifies His Church, but also gathers her. It has been said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, i.e. physical persecution often resulted in witnesses being moved by the Holy Spirit to curiosity and eventually to acknowledging Christ as their Saviour by the steadfast faith and testimony of the martyrs, as well as strengthening the faith of the believers. We need only remember how our members were harassed by the unions in the 1950's, but richly experienced the comfort and encouragement of their King and Saviour when they publicly testified of their faith – of why it was necessary to be more obedient to God than to man, even if this meant loss of job and income. Is that still known by us today? By God's grace, they prevailed and the courts granted them exemptions.
Satan's favourite and most effective weapon is false doctrine. With this weapon he is able to lead whole generations of people astray. When the Church's focus slips away from Christ and the pure, faithful preaching of a Christ centred Gospel, based on the infallibility of Scripture and the unshakeable validity of the Confessions as the Church's amen to the riches of Scripture; when it places more value on a man made gospel or on man's personal interpretations of Scripture to accommodate "modern theology" or so-called "scientific truths" rather than tenaciously holding on to the truth of Scripture from Genesis 1:1 to Revelations 22:21 with a child-like trust and a faithful acceptance, then the Church will gradually lose its reason for existence, and eventually drift away into oblivion, as also happened to the Churches in Asia Minor and North Africa over the first centuries after Christ. Satan will then have achieved what he set out to do. An unfaithful church will result in Christ removing His lampstand from its place within their midst! (Revelations 2:5)
Let's tease out some of these above indicators a bit further to gain a deeper understanding from Church history of where we need to be particularly on guard today as well. It can be seen that when the Church goes into deformation, the three "pillars" of the Church are undermined. They are:
- The Doctrine contained in Scripture and summarised in the Confessions;
- The Sacraments and Church Liturgy;
- The Government of the Church and Church Discipline.
When we apply this template to the Roman Catholic Church of the early middle ages, we see clearly how the Scriptural doctrine of free grace through faith in Christ's redemptive work was gradually erased and replaced by the hierarchal clergy with the false teaching of salvation by good works. The two sacraments given by Christ were increased to seven and gained mystical properties of salvation in their own right whilst the Lord's Supper was misinterpreted and twisted into an idolatrous denial of the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ. (HC LD 30)
The government of the Church as instituted by the apostles, where the local Consistory is the highest authority in the Church with direct responsibility to Christ, the head of the Church, was radically transformed and saw a steady degeneration to the papal hierarchy that ascribed more authority to itself and to the tradition of the church than to the Word of God. The Roman Catholic clergy claimed special insight which the laity who did not know the Scripture could never possess unless they were revealed to them by the clergy. The Bible became a forbidden book for the laity since they could not be expected to understand its hidden truths. Church members were instead taught that they could worship God with the aid of dumb images and enter heaven by buying indulgences, whilst the worship services were largely conducted in incomprehensible Latin. Millions were led astray throughout the centuries by the satanically inspired heresies of a false church that persecuted and killed those who sought to serve God in accordance with the truths revealed in His Word.
Let's now skip a few centuries to the eighteenth century where we see a national Reformed church in the Netherlands with an incredibly rich heritage of such fruits of the Reformation as the Belgic Confession of Faith and the Heidelberg Catechism, as well as the more recent results of the far reaching Synod of Dort with its fierce struggle against the subtle heresy of the teachings of Arminianism. The rich fruits of this Synod were, among others, the Canons of Dort and a Church Order very similar to what we still possess today. But what did this State Church do with such riches? It could be presumed that a Church with such rich doctrinal documents would have a very healthy future! But even the best confessional statements are of no benefit whatever if a church does not adhere to and live in accordance with its confessions.
The decline again began with the leaders. The evil winds of the French Revolution had not left the Netherlands untouched either, and even after Napoleon had been decisively defeated at Waterloo, the bitter fruits of liberty, fraternity and equality and the age of reason were still wreaking their ethically and morally destructive effects on the Dutch Reformed State Church. G Slings notes in his Outlines in Church History (1993, p.88),
The Church of the 18th Century exchanged her living faith for human reasoning. Anything that could not be understood by the human mind was discarded as superstition. Europe was ruled by the spirit of Enlightenment. That was what the spirit of that age was called. This spirit did not halt at the doors of the Church. The professors at the theological colleges taught the young ministers to be that they should only believe what they could understand with their minds.
All this was motivated by so-called tolerance and rationalism. Views that deviated from the "old paths" were tolerated because corrective Church discipline was non-existent. The "straight laced" ways of the time of the Synod of Dort were denigrated and ridiculed and were held responsible for the bitter divisions in the Netherlands that had come close to a civil war between the Arminians and Calvinists in 1618.
Now all men who held any civil office of any description were required by law to be members of the Dutch Reformed Church. Can you imagine then for example, that an elder whose occupation was just a common farm labourer would have to go and admonish the town mayor because of his immoral lifestyle? That just wasn't proper! The ignorant plebeians had to be kept in their place! So much for the slogan of equality – obviously it was only applicable when it served the purpose of the upper class dominocracy! The peace and tranquility within the church and nation had to be preserved at all costs! But when a minister such as Rev. de Cock had the temerity to challenge the prevailing standards on the basis of God's Word he was branded a traitor to the Fatherland and bitterly attacked by his erstwhile colleagues. Everything could be tolerated except faithful obedience to God's Word. Christ had truly foretold that He had not come to bring peace on earth but rather division! (Luke 12:51)
In his book. Church History (2003, p.156) P.K Keizer wrote:
On January 7, 1816, legislation was passed that regulated the organisation of the Reformed Church in the Netherlands. These regulations replaced the Church Order of Dort...
The highest authority in the church was a national synod. Members of the first synod were appointed by the king. The chairman and secretary of each subsequent synod were also royal appointee...
The new formulation of the form to be signed by ministers, the so-called Form of Subscription, contained a subtle change. Ministers were no longer required to teach the doctrine that was in accordance with God's Word. The new phrasing allowed this interpretation: in as much as (according to one's own insight) the doctrine was in agreement with God's Word. This formulation resulted in an unofficial but nevertheless effective removal of the Three Forms of Unity as confessions of the true and complete doctrine of salvation. This permitted thieves and robbers into the sheepfold (John 10:1)…
It was left to individual ministers which baptismal formula was to be used in the church: I baptise you in the name of the congregation ... I baptise you in the name of faith, hope and love ... I baptise you so that you may be incorporated into Christianity.
And so the sacrament of baptism was again distorted from its rich promise and perspective of the covenant the LORD made with believers and their children, to little more than some sort of initiation ceremony into the church.
As an interesting aside from which we can again learn much, it was a simple overseer of a poor house by the name of Klaas Kuipenga, who became an instrument in the hand of the LORD to sow the seed of the truth of Scripture in the heart of Rev. de Cock. Although nowhere near as learned as his minister, he nevertheless had a simple yet deep knowledge of the riches of Scripture; riches that were hidden from Rev. de Cock. He told his minister that, "if he had to add only one breath to his salvation, he would be eternally lost." These words came as a shock to Rev. de Cock who had been taught that man was generally good; all he had to was to follow the example of the great Teacher, Jesus Christ. Once again Christ's words were hidden from the proud and learned, and revealed to the poor and humble. (Luke 10:21) From then on Rev. de Cock began to study the Confessions and books from the Reformation such as Calvin's Institutes, and God opened his eyes for the deadly deformation within the Dutch Reformed Church. The Congregation in Ulrum was then once again richly nourished spiritually with the full council of God.
Many years later an almost identical situation arose when the liberal Rev. Abraham Kuyper was taught the riches of Scripture by a simple woman in his Congregation by the name of Pietje Balthus. Church history provides us with many serious warnings not to blindly trust the teachings of even the most learned professor but to test everything with Scripture and Confession. By implication therefore, there is an urgent need for us all to study Scripture and Confession so that our knowledge of it is more than just a superficial knowledge. It needs to be a firm confidence and conviction that determines our doctrine and permeates our conduct; we must never fall into the trap of leaving Church doctrine up to the professors and ministers in a misguided trust that "they surely know what they are doing!" At the same time, may our prayers be unceasing for Scriptural wisdom and faithfulness of our ministers and professors – theirs is a heavy responsibility indeed!
Further evidence that the Dutch Reformed Church had indeed become degenerate in teaching and conduct was revealed when the deposed Rev. de Cock was summoned before the Provincial Board. W. Meijer's Young People's Church History Volume 3 (1973, p.16) relates:
"He had to sign a paper which declared that he regretted and had repented from his deeds which had disturbed the order and unity in the Dutch Reformed Church.
"I will do anything" said De Cock, "if it corresponds with God's Word."
"No pour-parler," said the president. This means: don't argue!
"But you cannot ask the impossible of me," said the deposed minister of Ulrum.
"No pour-parler," said the president.
"I will show repentance for all things I have done wrong", said the deposed minister. "Only, you must prove this from the Bible."
"No pour-parler," said the president."
No justice was given to the faithful preacher form Ulrum by the Church authorities. He was not even permitted to defend himself. Surely the unfaithful Dutch Reformed Church had clearly shown its colours here by "persecuting those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke the false church for its sins, greed and idolatries.” (Belgic Confession Art.29)