The GKV’s Major Leap off the Cliff

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Photo by Sabrina c via Flickr (CC)

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.

This blog post represents my private opinion. I am not speaking on behalf of any other group or person.
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19 thoughts on “The GKV’s Major Leap off the Cliff

  1. Jim Sawtelle says:

    Michel, thank you for writing this. It was clearly a grief for you to do so, but it also provides a very well summarized context to the issues. Everything you wrote resonates with what I encountered at Synod Meppel this April. And earlier in 2010. I visited the seminary both times and saw and heard first hand what you describe. I still met many wonderful Christians each time. But this time especially, I met and talked to numerous deputies of synod who informed me they have already moved to accept practicing homosexuals as members in good standing in the church, that such was the proper conclusion of scripture based on their (new) hermeneutic. They vehemently deny they have a new hermeneutic, but they do. I also talked to deputies who are against this new position and are truly anguished about what will happen to them and their congregations once it passed. Strikingly, most of those against this new position that I talked to were young men. The GKV was utterly failed by the older generation of ministers.

    More than one foreign delegate from Africa expressed dismay and confusion that the very men that discipled them on the mission field about Scripture and church offices were now teaching and supporting something totally different. One minister was from Congo, and was taught in the seminary in Congo by Dutch missionaries who were present at synod. He was floored by what he was hearing and seeing.

    I am saddened at this development and about what will happen among churches and families in the near future.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Michel says:

      What you say about the younger generation is something we’re seeing in the US too. In the PCA churches here in Georgia, at least, it’s the younger generation – the Millennials – who are wanting old-fashioned hymns, hymn books, and organ music while the baby boomers and generation X’ers tend to go in for “praise songs”, worship bands, and smoke machines. Some of the most solidly orthodox pastors I have met are quite young (in their early 30s) while liberal positions are predominantly put forward by those age 45-60.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wes Bredenhof says:

    Reblogged this on YINKAHDINAY and commented:
    Last week, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands decided to open all the offices of the church (minister, elder, deacon) to women. Here’s a reflection from someone who’s seen the downward spiral of the RCN from the inside.

    Like

    • Michel says:

      To be perfectly fair, though, I didn’t witness the decline from the inside. I was a member of the denomination before the decline became visible. There were, in retrospect, fault lines while I was still a member there (until 2002) that I believe widened to produce this development. But the actual decline came after I moved to the US. The GKV was the denomination I would invariably worship in on any visit to Holland. I fear that I can no longer do that and will probably seek out a Gereformeerde Bond congregation (the conservative wing inside the PKN).

      Like

  3. Ben Harsevoort says:

    The offense of Christianity is the cross of Christ, not a church’s views on the role of women. Very well said.

    Like

  4. arjenvreugd says:

    Michel,

    Your part coincides somewhat with mine– I grew up GKv and moved to the US in 2003. Between 1995 and 2003, I was a student in Amsterdam, member of the GKv-based student association there. In that group of young academics, there were many who questioned the Reformed tradition they had grown up with. To an extent I agreed; I, too, recognized symptoms of dead orthodoxy and felt a lack of genuine zeal. In our debates as 20-somethings, I happily mostly the tradition and believed that my peers would come to appreciate the Reformed tradition as they matured.

    What surprises me is the quick way in which the majority of the GKv churches tolerated, accepted, then embraced the rebels. Part of the explanation is that Kampen seminarians already in the late ’90s bought into much of this new thinking, and by their own admission did not receive clear leadership from their teachers. Some of this goes back to the same movement as in the ’60s, when the NGK split off for more theological freedom, yet many sympathizers stayed behind in the GKv. In a way, a contingent of disgruntled people was biding their time and finally got their way. Still, I expected a majority of “regular” church members to be more wary of change.

    And many in the GKV are baffled by these changes and unhappy with them. It is not easy to leave, but some have done it and likely many will follow. Two small denominations have already been formed, who each in their own way wish to recover what was good in the GKV. I hope that they will grow and develop in the right direction, recovering the “child” that was thrown out and not too much of the bath water. In my upcoming visit to the Netherlands I hope to worship and fellowship with one of these groups, called GKN.

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  5. justanotherguy says:

    I grew up with this view and left the church I raised my family in when they made this change in our congregation. To justify the change, arguments were made that just seemed like blatantly dishonest double-speak and seemed to leave everything wide open to faulty interpretation using the same reasoning they used to justify women in office. I still disagree completely with how it was done, how they justified it and still would distrust their leadership.

    Yet 10+ years later I find myself in a completely different, faithful, gospel loving church that has had women in office since as far back as anyone cares to remember at this point. I still don’t know if I 100% agree with it on some level, but they are honest and consistent in how they justify it and it hasn’t seemed to have led to a compromise on every “so called progressive” opinion, but I suppose they are a little more understanding about them, in a good and loving way. Plus I’ve met some wonderful women Pastor’s and leaders along the way that I have to admit bring qualities to the job and church life that too often are often missing, or at least in critically short supply with exclusively male leadership.

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    • Michel says:

      Thank you for your message. I have seen a few such churches as you describe and I know that ordination of women is not necessarily the harbinger of worse to come. But I am very pessimistic in this case, mostly because of the reasoning behind it all. It is clear to the meanest intelligence that the GKV is doing this in an attempt to be more in line with the spirit of the culture around them. Their hermeneutics are a sham. As my friend Jim commented above, the rot goes much deeper and they’re ready to become gay-affirming soon. It’s one thing to disagree about the interpretation of certain verses related to women in leadership but still argue from the Bible. It’s another thing altogether to invent a new way of reading the Bible so that you can justify the things you want to do. This is the dynamic in the GKV and I have no respect for the men who tell us this nonsense with a straight face. Let us pray for them.

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  6. Nico-Dirk van Loo says:

    I would trace back the changes of last week (that I welcome) back to late eighties and early nineties. When, I believe, the GKV found itself wondering where to go. After 1967 we were building/fortifying a church community: When all institutions where ready the next question was where to go now. I think that answer never really came, not theologically nor sociologically. Since then the formal part of the church community has been trying to figure out where the community itself went. Last week it caught up a bit. And yes, in this matter, I would attribute the movement of the Spirit more to the community of believers then the formal part of the church.

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    • Michel says:

      Thanks for the comment but I have to be honest and say that I don’t really follow you. I’ve been in several churches since leaving the GKV (and leaving Holland) and I don’t understand why a church needs to ask “where it is going.” On a local level, congregations always need to ask how best to serve the community but why should a denomination address such a question at all? Just be Christian, be Reformed and teach the gospel to a lost generation. Churches should not go anywhere theologically or sociologically: they need to stay firmly rooted in the Word and orthodox doctrine. There must always be spiritual renewal and forms may change but theology doesn’t change.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Martin says:

    Hi there, as a minister and GKv synod member and despite having voted against opening the offices for women I feel very uncomfortable with the above comments. As if the inevitable consequence of allowing women in office is a step toward giving up the cross of Christ?!! What a strange reasoning!

    As as a matter of fact, I think the foten so criticized (why??) NGK is a good counterexample. Having allowed women to be ordained for 13 years now, they still did not give up the cross of Christ. Should be the case by now. But: on the contrary. They did not go after the PKN. Just visit there services.

    So even if you strongly disagree with the decision to allow women in office, it hurts when outsiders – some of you have been insiders for some time, I know – say things like this. Who are you to judge us this way? What effect do you think such comments will have when they reach the members of our local congregations where we will have to speak about whether or not to act in this matter and have these conversations in a loving way, showing respect and attempting to (still) find our unity in Christ (yes, the Cruficied One)??

    I think the writer of the blog post realizes all of this unconsciously when writing: “The offense of Christianity is the cross of Christ, not a church’s views on the role of women.” We do know that actually. And I could add: we do know that singing Genevian Psalter accompagnied by organ and not using a beamer do not belong to the heart of the gospel or define ‘true’ worship.

    With brotherly greetings,

    A minister serving in a local GKv congreation (and still devoted to it)

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    • Michel says:

      Martin, thank you for your valuable contribution. I think it is extremely important that we not act as hotheads. As the author of this piece, I weighed very long what exactly I was going to say and, while I stand by my words, I knew that there were certain aspects of the situation I just was not going to be able to convey without writing an impossibly long blog post. Your critical but loving contribution is very valuable to me and I graciously accept your admonition not to judge about certain matters as an outsider.

      I do think you are misconstruing part of my argument, though. I am not claiming that ordaining women is NECESSARILY a step on the road to giving up the crucified Christ. As I commented elsewhere on this post, I have seen churches that ordain women and nevertheless do not go down the road of throwing out biblical inerrancy. I think the NGK is actually a pretty good example. My comments about the NGK are actually not meant to criticize that denomination, but were only brought in to illustrate the general mood inside the GKV in the 1990s and early 2000s. There is an important “BUT” at the end of this, though, and that is that there are already other symptoms inside the GKV that suggest the denomination is going to become much more liberal very soon. There are many people, including theologians and others more eucated and informed than myself, who view the appointment of Stefan Paas as a very dire warning signal about the direction of the GKV.

      And of course I don’t really think that exchanging psalms for hymns (I’m in the PCA and we have only hymns, which suits me just fine) or using a data projector is important in and of itself. But I mentioned it as a symptom of a rapid and big cultural change in a very short period of time. In 2002, hymnals were hardly fit to be discussed in the GKV but within five years, it seemed generally accepted to sing a large number of hymns that until recently would have been considered suspect by many congregations. I’m not necessarily judging whether it was a good or bad move, but only concluding that it was a sea change in the church culture.

      I wish you, your family, and your congregation all of God’s wisdom in deciding how to respond to this decision. While I reject that decision as unbiblical and dangerous, I do not reject people and therefore I greet you no less brotherly.

      In Christ.

      Like

  8. Martin says:

    Michael, thanks for your reply. Much appreciated. Just a quick response. I do recognize many of your observations, but not always your interpretations. I think you should take into account the GKv history in which we had a very clear view on many things, but usually very one sided, narrow minded sometimes even and definitely rationalistic. We were always right, were pretty sure about that in every matter we knew the truth and excluded others.
    Sometimes I think we have exported this to other continents. And part of the responses from abroad seem to reflect this. When sowing wind … (BTW: I am not accusing you; it is just a very general observation and simply a thought that strikes me once in a while)
    Anyway, I think many changes can be explained by a desire to break with a past which we cannot be proud of. And yes, sometimes this happens in a reformed-radical way.
    What I am basically saying is: that I love my denomination, even when I do not like certain things, and ask all brothers and sister who feel related to the GKv to do the same and value in it what is valuable. Which is much.

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  9. Michel van der Hoek says:

    [I did NOT approve a comment by a reader with the username “Marnix”. Please restrict your comments to the topic at hand and don’t engage in speculation about what other readers of this article might or might not do. I do not approve comments that are essentially just ad hominem attacks.]

    Like

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