For the Sake of Christ's Kingship in the Church The Significance of the Doleantie, especially from an Ecumenical Point of View
It happened on February 2, 1886, that the Church at Kootwijk on the Veluwe broke with the Synodical organization of the State Church in The Netherlands. It was the first church of the so-called Doleantie. This event took place a hundred years ago. It was the beginning of a great Reformation movement in The Netherlands of the nineteenth century. An earlier Reformation, the Secession, had taken place more than half a century before this, in 1834. This first Secession was not only of local significance, but also of national, international and even ecumenical importance; we may say the same of the Doleantie. The consequences of this second Secession were farreaching, and I will point especially to three aspects of the ecumenical importance of this nineteenth-century Reformation.
Maintenance of Reformed Doctrine
In the first place I want to point to the struggle in the church for the maintenance of the Reformed doctrine and confession over against modernism and liberalism. Of course, that did not start in the year 1886, but considerably earlier. We can say that this struggle had started already forty-five years before, in 1841. It was the year that the young statesman and historian, G. Groen van Prinsterer, started his fight for the restoration of the church. Groen van Prinsterer was a contemporary of the "father of the Secession," Hendrik de Cock; they were born in the same year, 1801. Although Groen van Prinsterer rejected the Secession, which he thought to be premature, he did recognize the fact that the men of the Secession had a right to the name "Reformed." They confessed the Reformed faith and they wanted to hold on to that faith. Groen van Prinsterer defended them, in 1837, against repression by the government, and he published fundamental criticism of the new Regulations of the State Church of 1816. Groen van Prinsterer saw the spirit of revolution behind these Regulations. For this reason he, together with some friends, entered upon a struggle for the restoration of the church. He fought that struggle during the rest of his life, i.e., for a period of thirty-five years (he died in 1876, just ten years before the beginning of the Doleantie). Groen van Prinsterer wanted to enforce the Three Forms of Unity (the historic confessions: The Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort) within the church.
Was the situation in the State Church so bad?
It was indeed. In these years the Netherlands State Church started to force the issue of doctrinal liberty. The only thing the churches were told to ask from their new ministers was that they should "serve the interests of the Godly Kingdom." No longer was there any formal link with Scripture or with the Reformed confessions. These were not even referred to. Another requirement was that a candidate for the ministry had to "serve the interest of the church, adhering to its Regulations." In other words, no obedience to God's Word as the infallible Word, but a servile subjection to the rules of a Synodical board. It became very clear that the struggle for the restoration of the church within the State Church had very soon come to a dead end.
However, through the unceasing struggle of Groen van Prinsterer, and through the mighty call of Abraham Kuyper, since 1870 a minister of the Church at Amsterdam and since 1880 a professor at the Free University, many churches started to resist the degeneration of the church.
It was high time to expose the impudent denial of the truth of the Scriptures. Modernism seemed to be supreme in the church. Fundamental criticism of the Bible declared in its sham-wisdom that there were no miracles as the Bible speaks of them. Actually the Bible was placed on the same level as other religious books. As far as the life of Jesus was concerned, this modernism said that we only know about Him that He once lived, that He was baptized, that He used to preach in various places, and that in the end He was killed. That is all — a course of events not very different from what happened in the lives of many persons who lived after Him. There is then no "bodily resurrection" of Jesus, and it would, therefore, be total nonsense to regard Him as the Son of God...
One of the poets of that time put the following words in the mouth of a modernistic minister of the State Church: "I have the freedom to preach and to teach all I think that is proper, either right or wrong..." But he has the members of the congregation answer: "We have the freedom to be frequently absent; therefore you have to preach in an empty building!" So on both sides, freedom was stressed. One minister referred to the doctrine of the Trinity as "ancient twaddle." Small wonder that some ministers refused to baptize into the Name of the triune God. Some of them baptized into "faith, hope, and love." It even happened that they baptized into "liberty, equality, and fraternity," the slogan of the French Revolution! The Revelation to John was called "a book full of Jewish dreams," and the gospel was actually said to be no more than "a wasps' nest full of fables." All that could not be reasoned out by common sense had to be rejected as unnecessary ballast.
The Ecclesiastical Conference of 1883
In April 1883 a number of Reformed people (about 250 members of consistories) came together and bound themselves to the Three Forms of Unity. They unanimously accepted six "resolutions concerning difficulties raised in the present situation." They declared therein that the new formula for the admittance of candidates to the ministry "is to be considered as a triumph for those who deny the revealed Truth, a triumph at the expense of the confession of the Reformed Churches. This formula has to be condemned because it is a breaking away from the tie which in Jesus' Church ought to connect the office of the Word to the Word of God." They confessed at the same time that the resulting indignity endured by the church, was a just retribution of the LORD of hosts for the crying debt of unbelief, worldliness, and lack of love which had crept in among the people of God.
They also considered it their duty to lead the people of God back to the way of obedience to King Jesus. They acknowledged that they were obliged to take heed of the flock according to the promise sworn before God at their ordination. That promise also included the obligation to watch diligently that no wolves should enter the sheepfold of the Good Shepherd. They stated that the consequence of this promise was that the elders of the church would only be faithful to the King of the church and free from revolutionary arbitrariness if they decided not to allow anyone to preach the gospel unless he gladly-agreed to the Reformed confessions by signing them publicly. Only those ministers were allowed to preach in the church who bound themselves to steadfast proclamation of the pure Word of God.
They further decided that if the Synodical Hierarchy, which had been imposed on the church in 1816, prevented the Reformed people from honoring the King of the church as Sovereign, the union of churches under this Hierarchy had to be terminated.
They resolved that if in any church or churches the Reformed people were actively opposed by their consistory or consistories in their recognition of Christ as Head and King of the church, such Reformed people would, after earnestly warning the consistory, decline to recognize such a consistory or consistories and would choose their own elders and deacons, not in order to secede definitely from the State Church but, as in the time of the difficulties with the Arminians, to appear as grieving (or mourning) churches, in the hope that the State Church would return in confession and polity to the Reformed standpoint, in which case the mourning churches would return to the fold. The conference also designated the Amsterdam consistory as the body to call another conference in case one or more churches became entangled in difficulties with the Synodical Hierarchy as a result of their obedience to the King of kings.
Christ's Kingship at Stake
It was very clear that Christ's Kingship was at stake. That appeared in the first place from modernism and liberalism in the State Church as far as the doctrine of the church was concerned. But that was also evident from the fact that the organization of the church, as established in 1816, gave all the power and authority in the church to the synodical, provincial and classical boards, instead of recognizing Jesus Christ as "the only universal Bishop and the only Head of the Church," according to Article 31 of the Belgic Confession. So also in church polity, it was very clear that the confession of Christ's Kingship in the church was attacked.
The final resolution of the conference of 1883 declared, We give our case into the hand of the LORD and admonish the churches, of this country to awake from sleep. We admonish the churches, as churches called by the LORD, to put no store in man, to give honor only to God, to strive for the willing submission to the Word of the LORD, which is never to be made ineffective by commands or ordinances of men but which is a fruit of the working of the Holy Spirit, and therefore pleasing to God. May the Chief Shepherd of our souls, the glorified Head and only King of His Church, inspire and confirm us in these things. To Him as the eternal Son with the Father and the Holy Spirit be the honor, praise and thanksgiving! Amen.
That was the impressive end of the conference of April 1883. The split with the Church Organization of 1816 became almost inevitable. This would have to take place in the local churches whenever they were prevented from recognizing the rule of Jesus over His Church. The Church at Amsterdam started the definitive action towards throwing off the "synodical yoke."
In the procedure at Amsterdam almost the same happened as at the time of the Secession of 1834: the organized church tried to prevent the conflict from being decided on the issue at stake: doctrinal freedom and behind that the denial of Christ's Kingship in the church. In both cases they tried to hide these issues behind matters of Church Order and administration. This is typical for a worldly organization which still knows how to use the ways and means of the church but no longer recognizes the aim for which the LORD has given them, which is the sovereignty of King Jesus Christ, and therefore also the sovereignty of the Truth within the church.
Towards the end of 1886 Amsterdam seceded from the Synodical organization, to be able to lead the congregation in the lawful and free service of Christ. At the same time the consistory complained about the fact that they had been robbed of all their property. For this reason the word dolerend (grieving) was added to the name of the church. But when the court gave the property back to the church, this name was removed.
The Ecclesiastical Conference of 1887
The Doleantie was not merely an act of separation or isolation but a truly ecumenical deed, intended to maintain Christ's Kingship in the church. That is also evident from the three resolutions of the Ecclesiastical Conference, held January 1887 in Amsterdam; there brethren from the whole country were gathered together.
I will only quote a few sentences of the first resolution from the lecture of Dr. F.L. Rutgers, professor of church polity at the Free University of Amsterdam since its founding in 1880:
The brethren of Reformed confession, gathered here together before the LORD, declare that the Synodical Hierarchy which was imposed on the Churches in 1816 has appeared to be incompatible with the recognition of Jesus Christ as Head and King. By the principle inherent in it, the Church is driven, in the direction of becoming a complete hodgepodge instead of showing itself to be the assembly of the believers with their seed, as the Church of Christ should. The consequence is that the authority of the Word of God is replaced by the arbitrariness and the authority of human institutions, and also that the Royal Regiment of the Son of God is repelled by a tyranny which is incompatible with this Regiment.
There was a hierarchical yoke in the church. It belonged to the duty of the consistories and also to the duty of the individual believers to get rid of it!
"And You are Christ's"
In the very same month as the conference of 1887, the consistory of the Church at Hijlaard in Friesland decided to break with the Synodical yoke. The Sunday after that decision, the minister of the church, the Rev. J.C. Sikkel, preached on the text: "And you are Christ's" (1 Corinthians 3:23a). In his sermon, he admonished the congregation to proclaim the Kingship of Christ and the only authority of His Word in His Church without any hesitation or calculation. He pointed to the calling not to preserve these riches for themselves, but to proclaim them everywhere. He finished his sermon with the words:
We who may know Christ are called again to follow Him, to go out again to the (wretched) and those living in darkness, and to bring to them His Word, in order that they might be enlightened! Oh, may He Himself show forth by His Holy Spirit in all His Churches in these countries the mighty Word of the great Reformation, in order that our walls may be build up again: 'And you are Christ's!'
A Truly Ecumenical Attitude
Not only the Rev. J.C. Sikkel had this truly ecumenical attitude; it was characteristic of the Doleantie as such. No wonder that the churches of the Doleantie very soon contacted the churches of the Secession of 1834. This is the third point of the ecumenical significance of the Doleantie. They recognized Jesus Christ again as the only King of the Church, over against freedom of doctrine, and over against hierarchical church polity. This recognition led inevitably to the contact with other churches which recognized Jesus Christ as the only Head of the Church.
Already at the conference of January 1887, the relation to believers who had already broken with the hierarchical yoke was discussed. The question was asked: "How are we to deal with the Christian Reformed, the churches of the Secession?" The answer was,
Attestations from them must be accepted, and they themselves are to be considered as temporarily extraneous members, who departed from our church because of her troubling stand, but now that she has purified herself, have to flourish again with us on one root.
It was not easy to unite with the churches of the Secession. There were several obstacles. Nevertheless, the free Churches found each other within six years. They had much in common. Their common basis was that of the Reformation churches of the sixteenth century: the Reformed confessions and the Church Order which had been decided upon by the Synod of Dort of 1618/1619.
In June 1892 the Synods of the churches both of the Secession and of the Doleantie met in Amsterdam. This combined Synod witnessed the formal consummation of the union between the two groups of churches. The Synod adopted a new name for the combined churches (actually an old name, used already before the Regulations of 1816): The Reformed Churches in The Netherlands. About 400 congregations of the Secession and about 300 congregations of the Doleantie united in a truly ecumenical way in conformity with Article 29 of the Belgic Confession, which stated that they had to govern themselves according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it, and regarding Jesus Christ as the only Head.
Indeed, the main issue of the Doleantie was a truly ecumenical one: Christ's Kingship in the Church!