Are we following the reformed churches in the Netherlands? 2
Rev. J. Moesker
Contemporary post-christian western culture in Europe is very subjectivistic, man-centred. And the choices of a majority of people today are based more on their subjective feelings than on any objective truth as in the Bible. The advertising world uses emotion. The film
|Rev. J. Moesker
world is very much about emotion. Protest groups and political parties also make more use of emotional slogans than logic. People allow their feelings to interpret their circumstances and their choices in life rather than any eternal truths or in many causes even reason. This is called emotionalism. Contemporary culture is very much about feelings. People want to feel good, and want to feel part of things. Think of how the drug culture of today has come about. So many people try to escape the reality of their lives with drugs which give good feelings at least for a time. People today apparently even vote for their political leaders by feelings, which is the reason for the rise of populism. I believe that the emotionalism of modern western culture has affected the RCN. There are other factors too, but from what I have heard and seen and read of the RCN is that many allow their feelings to interpret their circumstances and to form their thoughts about God more than the Word of God itself.
This might be an overreaction to the opposite problem in the past, namely a kind of stoicism, where faith is strongly rooted in theology but was without much feeling. Cold orthodoxy. And while good doctrine is critically important to the health of the Christian and the church, that doctrine also ought to lead to emotion. You confess with the mouth but also with the mouth (Rom. 10). The substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ isn’t only something we ought to affirm and defend, but it also needs to be something in which we rejoice.
However, our western culture has led many Reformed people to judge things more by their feelings than by the knowledge of the Word in the first place. And as Paul shows in Rom. 10, zeal without knowledge leads astray. That’s because, as we confess from Scripture, our nature which includes our emotion is still inclined to all sin. So we can’t depend on our feelings to interpret who God is and how He wants to be worshipped and served. Our emotions are poor judges of what’s good and not good in God's sight. His Word needs to remain the supreme norm of our faith and life and worship as we confess in Article 7 Belgic Confession. For people who hold to the sola Scriptura of the Reformation not feelings but the Bible is the measure of life and faith and worship. And if we keep the Bible as the basis of our faith and life and worship, the emotions will come too, as so many of the psalms show us. Good emotions, weeping as well as joy.
But I’m afraid that this is where the Dutch have become drawn by the contemporary culture. I recall the words of a relative in the RCN about 25 years ago who was critical of worship in those churches. He said, I need to feel good in my skin in church, otherwise what am I doing there? I heard similar words more often when visiting in the Netherlands. Emotion is slowly becoming the measure of what is done in many RCN worship services and what is accepted in those churches. People want to feel God, want to experience Him, want to feel good. This is the measure of quite a bit of evangelical and charismatic worship. It is designed to bring on emotions, which are then seen as evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence. I noticed in a number of worship services in the RCN that some people lift up their hands and faces when they sing and during prayer or song, as in many evangelical churches today. Many of the songs sung in RCN worship services are what are called “Opwekkingsliederen.” In other words, songs meant to give positive emotion. For instance, Opwekkingslied 488 has the chorus:
Hold me firmly, close to your heart
I feel your power and rise up like an eagle
Then I float on the wind, carried by your Spirit
And by the power of your love
That chorus is repeated three or four times. It’s about feeling close to God. There are also quite a few churches in the RCN which have special Taize services during the week, some once a month. A Taizé service involves sung and chanted prayers, a period of silent meditation, liturgical readings, and icons. There is no preaching.
One of the arguments that has come to the fore a few times in the reports of Deputies M/F is that many gifted women in the church feel strongly called by God to bring the gospel and to show mercy and they ought to be given the room to do so by being ordained to church office. I have been communicating with another relative and his wife who felt God was calling them to a certain children’s ministry in Africa which they visited in the past. That feeling that God is calling you to something often trumps Bible teaching and also reason. In spite of the feeling that God was calling those relatives to that project, the project itself failed and they never ended up at that ministry.
I also see emotionalism behind the so-called “ecumenicity of the heart” in as it’s called, a readiness to accept and work with and worship with Christians from all kinds of different churches and sects. There is a feeling of unity with them. This “ecumenicity of the heart” has long been promoted by the Evangelical Broadcaster (EO) which pretty well all RCN people support and watch on television. I don’t deny that EO can do good, but the “ecumenicity of the heart” it promotes has caused many of the organizations with roots in the RCN to give up their confessional distinctiveness and become absorbed by other interchurch organizations. Also many Reformed schools have become open to membership of people from various evangelical strains.
This ecumenicity of the heart shows clearly, I believe, how feeling and emotion have become more important than Scripture and confessions for many in our sister churches in the Netherlands. I already mentioned that this is I believe due to the man-centred and emotion-centred culture. And I think that there was vulnerability to that because of the soberness of the past decades when feelings were not expressed and even suppressed. A dyke has burst and there is now a hunger for emotion, for feeling things, for feeling God. And sadly, all that seeking of feeling in worship and ecumenicity has also led to a steady decrease in membership in the RCN(lib) after 2003. In 2003 there were 127,000 members in total, in 2016 that had declined to 119,400. And other evangelical churches attract most of the people who withdraw according to Handboek 2016.
To be continued
Rev J. Moesker is Minister emeritus of Owen Sound, Canada. He held this speech in Smithville ON, November 2017.