From Dort to Today (9): The Development of the Reformed Faith – A Time of Decline (1619-1834)

A TIME OF DECLINE (1619-1834)

The reader will recall that we were discussing the causes of the spiritual decline in the Churches of the Netherlands in the period between the Synod of Dordrecht and the Schism of 1834.

We had come to a discussion of the role that the State played in this decline.

The Netherlands Churches were not free from government interference as the Churches of America are today. The Reformed Church in Netherlands was rather a “State Church”. The secular government had considerable to say in the affairs of the Church.

At the time of the Synod of Dordrecht and in the years following this Synod the State had a voice in the following matters. (It ought to be noticed that this voice which the State had in ecclesiastical matters was not always the same. A lot depended upon who was in power; how strong any given congregation or classis or synod was; how important the State considered a matter in which to interfere. Thus, at one time in this period the State exercised greater influence than at other times.)

1) The State had the right to approve all candidates for the ministry (or disapprove of) before they could be ordained into office.
2) The State had the right to approve of all ministers that were eligible for a call: and a minister could not accept a call elsewhere and move to a new location without the State’s approval or, at least, without notifying the State.
3) The State had the right to appoint two members who were not office bearers in the Church to attend all Consistory meetings. These appointees had advisory vote and spoke for the government. The same was true of broader ecclesiastical assemblies. Always there were representatives of the State present. This was even true at Dordrecht in 1618.
4) No provincial (particular) or National Synods could meet without first securing approval from the State.
5) The financial support of the Churches, the salaries of ministers and the support of the schools came in whole or in part from the State. The financial support of the students studying for the ministry also came from the State.
6) No minister could be suspended and deposed from office without the State being notified: and, during certain periods, it seems as if the State could even overrule the decision of an ecclesiastical assembly.

But even with all this authority that the State wielded, it still was not satisfied. There were constant attempts made to increase it. In fact, it is possible that this resentment on the part of the State towards what it considered its limited authority in the Church led the State to refuse to call a National Synod. For one of the astounding facts of this period is that for over two hundred years there was no National Synod. From the Synod of Dordt in 1618-1619 until shortly after the schism of 1834, the State would permit no National Synod to convene.

The result was that there was a constant tug of war between Church and State; the State trying its best to increase its authority and the Church trying its best to resist these tentacles of state control.

There was brief respite from this struggle in the latter part of the 1700s and in the early part of the 1800s when the Churches almost succeeded in gaining a complete separation between itself and the State. But when the Netherlands turned from a federation into a monarchy around 1810, the State once again secured its jurisdiction over the Church and brought the Church into closer union with the State than ever before.

In fact, the State all but took away from the Church the authority of its broader ecclesiastical assemblies by reorganizing the entire Church in a way that was totally different from the principles of the Church Order adopted at Dordrecht. The Churches were told that their ministers could gather in classical and synodical sessions not to discuss and decide upon ecclesiastical matters, but to “cultivate a fraternal spirit” amongst themselves. The classes that resisted this intrusion were disciplined; their decisions ignored; and the State ran roughshod over all that the Church stood for.

It is not difficult to imagine what a tremendous effect this had upon the development of the Churches during this period. A few of the more obvious results we can mention.

1) For one thing, at certain times in this period, a measure of religious tolerance was forced upon the land, so that the Roman Catholics, the Lutherans and even the Arminians were given the right of existence. Even though the Reformed Churches remained the “State Church” and received special privileges, these other groups were tolerated and allowed to engage in propaganda for their views. Although all these groups (and especially the Arminians) had been condemned by the Church not only, but also by the State, they were once again given a free hand in the country. And, because they were not the “State Church” they enjoyed a measure of freedom that was denied the Reformed Churches which had always to contend with a State poking into their affairs.
In fact, the State (towards the end of this period) even made several attempts to persuade the Reformed Churches to combine with the Roman Catholics, the Lutherans and the Arminians into one large denomination. The State pushed this matter strongly.

2) Secondly, the fact that the State had to approve of the meeting of Particular and National Synods gave the State some measure of control over these bodies. In fact, as we already noticed, the State refused to call a National Synod for over 200 years. The result was that any unified action on the part of the whole Church was next to impossible. If the Churches as a whole wanted to act concertedly in such matters as discipline, missions, settlement of doctrinal disputes, the only way they could to this was through correspondence between the classes or the particular Synods. This was tedious, time-consuming and led to all kinds of misunderstandings between the various ecclesiastical gatherings. Oftentimes it was impossible to get anything resembling unanimity of opinion or even a majority vote on fundamental questions when all the particular Synods had to meet separately and only had contact with each other by way of correspondence. This is not difficult to see. It is like a Consistory trying to conduct all the affairs and business of a congregation without ever meeting together and only writing letters to each other.

3) Thirdly, the result of all this was that doctrinal questions went unresolved, ministers who taught heresy often went undisciplined, matters concerning the missionary calling of the Church and the theological schools went unattended. It was not long before the epitaph could be read over the Reformed Churches: “And there was no king in Israel; and every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”

4) Finally, although the State never succeeded in actually taking away from the Church her key power especially as it applied to the suspension and deposition of unfaithful ministers, even here the State had considerable influence. If a minister was disciplined in one congregation, (and there was plenty occasion for it with every heresy running rampant) the State could see to it that he was given a position in another congregation where the people were more willing to tolerate his views. And if he could be given no position elsewhere, the State would often pay his salary until he died and make it possible for him to propagate his views in other ways. There were even times when the State overruled the deposition of ministers by their Consistories even when such depositions had been approved by the Classis: and the State tried to force congregations to retain their ministers. All this made the discipline of false teachers intolerably difficult. And it was a means to encourage heresy to run rampant in the Churches.

The result was that by the time the schism came in 1834, the Church had become little more than a rubber stamp of the State.