When asked by a friend for a response to the decision by the Dutch GKV (Reformed Churches (Liberated)) to ordain women in all offices, I felt emotionally numb. As an adult convert to Christianity, the GKV was the church I was catechized and baptized in and where I discovered the richness of Reformed doctrine. Sure, in places that beauty was encrusted with the barnacles of cultural traditions that had arisen out of the peculiar history of the denomination and the cultural and intramural fights that had taken place over the preceding fifty years but the gospel was there.
Since moving to the United States in 2002, however, I have witnessed from a distance the rapid march towards a new hermeneutic and ecclesiology heavily infused with postmodern views of culture. It is hard to diagnose where things started to go wrong, and in any case I am not qualified to make that assessment. All I can do is give some anecdotal observations. The GKV I experienced in the 1990s, at its best, had fantastic preachers and congregations that loved Bible study and the singing of the Genevan Psalter, with a strong sense of community. On the flip side, I also encountered stunning ignorance of major tenets of the faith (people who referred to the Holy Spirit as ‘it’ and ‘a force’) and a community that had turned so inward that it soured their sense of culture and politics. This bred a lot of discontent among those less committed to the somewhat monastic urge to shield the GKV from everything beyond the garden wall. I think these dynamics intensified sharply in the first decade of the 21st century and were major contributors to the transmogrification of the GKV into a liberal mainline church as more and more people, not instructed in anything other than ankle-deep Calvinism, were finding inspiration and influences outside the GKV and even outside the church that they then brought back in.
The whirlwind speed at which the GKV moved towards acceptance of women pastors, elders, and deacons is breathtaking and somewhat confusing. Twenty years ago, such a proposal would still get pastors defrocked. Initiatives to collaborate with the NGK (Nederlands Gereformeerde Kerken, a 1960s split-off from the GKV) were highly controversial. This was mostly because of the lack of uniform commitment to the Three Forms of Unity within that denomination. Simply speaking, while many GKV members felt a close affinity with the NGK in the abstract, attempts on a national level to get closer were constantly hampered by GKV objections to the ordination of women as deacons in the NGK. When the NGK also approved the ordination of women as elders and pastors in 2005, opponents of this move within the NGK commented that it would complicate their talks with the GKV because that denomination considered the ordination of women unbiblical.
Those critics were clearly not in tune with the monumental changes happening within the GKV. A visit to the Netherlands around the same time showed me a GKV undergoing a major make-over: the Psalters that had been near-universal in 2002 had been tossed aside in favor of a fat hymnal, erasing all memory of the painstaking (and even somewhat painful) deliberation over individual hymns to be approved for congregational singing over the preceding decades, though even the smallest and most conservative church building was suddenly equipped with a data projector to deliver the content of the hymnal on big screens. The culture shock I experienced was almost greater than when I had first walked into a GKV church as an unbelieving seeker.
The first substantive sign of the cultural change came out of the GKV seminary in 2009. The appointment of Stefan Paas as Professor of Missiology was a huge leap towards a liberal hermeneutic. Paas – at the time not even a member of the GKV – rejects a literal interpretation of the Creation narrative in Genesis 1-2 and instead speaks of a narrative intended only to transmit the ‘Why’ of creation, not the ‘How.’ The truly deplorable aspect of this situation was not Paas’s appointment but the decision by the 2011 GKV synod to reject the motion by a sizable group of GKV pastors to undo his appointment. By dismissing objections against the defective and liberal hermeneutics of the new professor, the synod signaled to the denomination that the floodgates had been officially opened.
From there on out, any defenses of traditional biblical hermeneutics within the GKV appear, from our vantage point in 2017, as little more than rearguard skirmishes. The most recent few GKV synods were already sending up smoke signals that a growing segment of the denomination regarded the prohibition of female ordination misogynistic and a hindrance to the church’s mission. Study reports requested by those synods were not premised on the Bible but on sociological flimflam: rather than studying the Bible and the voluminous commentary on this topic from the whole of church history, researchers did little more than inventory opinions from members and pastors. In the final analysis, the GKV concluded several years ago that a majority of members favored the ordination of women and that doing so would open doors for their ministries into wider Dutch society. As the Netherlands have been a broadly post-Christian society since the end of the twentieth century, the culture has become strongly influenced by postmodern opinions about women’s rights, rapidly widening the cultural gap between Dutch society and the GKV. By approving the ordination of women the GKV now joins the ever-growing ranks of churches desiring to be culturally ‘relevant,’ the current buzz word in evangelical circles.
Sadly, by doing so they are also on the fast track to making themselves irrelevant to God’s Kingdom. For all the fairy tales the GKV synod has been telling itself and its membership, this step will merely allow them to join forces with other churches that are non-entities in Dutch culture. The offense of Christianity is the cross of Christ, not a church’s views on the role of women. By changing the draperies and rearranging some chairs the GKV has not removed that deeper source of enmity between the world and the church. Therefore, this situation will leave only two options open to them as the next step: retreat to a more orthodox position of the Bible or gradually inch away farther and farther from the Bible until they find that society is finally comfortable with them once they give up the cross of Christ. When you start appointing theologians to your seminary who reject the historicity of Genesis, you’re already well on your way down that second path.
I will continue to pray for the good people in the GKV but my perspective on the denomination is now forever changed. The bond of fellowship has been severed. It is hard for me to contemplate the grief over the next few months and years as churches and families are torn apart. And all for what? The GKV sold its soul for the sake of ‘relevance.’ Within a very few years, it will not be distinguishable from any PKN congregation and it will join that denomination in its rapid downward dwindle into cultural irrelevance, in the same way that other once great denominations became little more than debating clubs and political action committees for progressive causes (women’s rights, gay rights, environmentalism, socialism). I just don’t understand.