Thursday, October 28, 2021

Stand firm in your freedom!

Earlier this week the Eastern Ministerial Conference was held where many Canadian and United Reformed ministers and their wives were encouraged by speeches, devotions, scripture, prayer, song, and sweet fellowship. I was asked to give a presentation about the biography I wrote on my father

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

My COVID19 project was to write a biography on my father. I was invited to speak a few words to you about it.

You might wonder how it came about that I should write a biography on my father. I have Dr. John Smith (OT professor at CRTS) to thank as he encouraged me to write it. I was telling him about how two of my sisters had recently downsized and had both come across envelopes and files of letters and other personal items that my father had left behind when he died unexpectedly and suddenly in 1968. After a brief discussion on our siblings’ email group it was decided that the stuff would come to me. When I told John about this, he urged me to write my father’s biography saying that the stories of the early Canadian Reformed immigrants needed to be told by my generation, while the memories are still alive.

My father was the first Canadian Reformed minister when he came to Edmonton, Alta., in June of 1951, at the age of 35. My parents made the ten-day sailing from the Netherlands to Quebec City and then the transcontinental journey to Edmonton. He exchanged a small village pastorate, where he could make his visits by bicycle, for a parish that effectively was the provinces of BC, Alberta, and Manioba. No sooner was he installed in Edmonton a few days upon arriving there and he was off to the Bulkley Valley and the Fraser Valley, and then to Southern Manitoba. He traveled throughout the vast Canadian West by rail visiting the far-flung churches and house congregations, preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, helping to institute churches, and visiting the immigrant saints. It would be later that year and the next before three colleagues came to share the load of the work that needed to be done.

 The book is mostly historical and somewhat thematic. I wrote about my father’s family roots, his youth in IJmuiden and his education in the Free University of Amsterdam, WW II, including his father’s arrest for his work in the resistance against the Nazis, both German and Dutch, and his eventual death in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Then I wrote about my father’s church struggle in the ecclesiastical liberation of ’44, his one Dutch pastorate in Mussel, Groningen, his immigration to Edmonton, his decade there with its troubles that led to a total burnout that lasted at least six months. Then about his recovery and the call five years later to Cloverdale, BC.  He served there happily and fruitfully, but for a short period since he died 2 ½ years after we moved to that small and lovely town.

 The book consists of 11 chapters, in which I tell my father’s story, and 11 appendices. Eleven appendices seem to be a lot, but I included them since I wanted my father to be heard in his own voice. My father was first of all a pastor, but he was a scholarly man. The appendices cover topics related to the Dutch church struggle of 1944, Unionism, immigration, space travel, Sphere Sovereignty, the relationship between faith and science, philosophy, and include three sermons: an OT, a NT, and a catechism sermon.

 As I read my father’s documents, I discovered that he often referred to Gal. 5:1—For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. I do not know that he was conscious that he made reference to that text across the different issues he dealt with, but it is a text that seemed to tie things together for him.

 My father, born in 1916, was bred in the context of the Réveil, of the first and second secessions, and in a church milieu which proclaimed freedom in Christ. He underwent his primary and secondary education in a confessional Reformed school in IJmuiden, North Holland.

 My father’s first existential crisis was WW II, which broke out when he was 22 years old. Germany invaded the Netherlands and established Nazi rule. The Netherlands was occupied territory and was made subservient to national socialism, which militated against the reign of Christ. This became critical to my father when Germany started rounding up young Dutchmen and transporting them to German factories to serve there as slave labour for the war effort. He had to go into hiding.

 The crisis became more poignant when my father’s father was arrested because of his resistance work and was eventually shipped by rail in a cattle car to a concentration camp, Sachsenhausen, near Berlin. My Opa would have passed under the gates of the camp which cynically proclaimed Arbeit Macht Frei (work sets you free). This was a Nazi slogan which stamped the so-called “Deutches Reich.” In his letters to his family, which he wrote from Camp Vugt in the south of the Netherlands and then ultimately from Sachsenhausen where he died of dysentery, he encouraged his wife and children to keep believing that as Christians they were free in Christ no matter what their temporary circumstances may be, and to stand firm in that freedom.

 The second major crisis, which tested his faith that we are free in Christ, was the ecclesiastical liberation of 1944. In the late 30s and early 40s certain theological opinions were given confessional status in the church. The General Synod of the GKN had placed a yoke of slavery upon the churches. The flashpoint was the doctrine of presumptive regeneration. The teaching that the children of believers were to be baptized on the basis of the presumption that they had been or would be born again was bound upon the pulpits of the churches.  Many, such as my father, had no issue with some holding to that theological opinion, but the sticking point was that it was made binding, at pain of suspension and deposition. And indeed, many faithful preachers and elders were deposed because they would not toe the line of the synod. Office bearers, even some whole churches, were expelled for teaching that we are to baptize our children on the basis that God has a covenant with believers and their children. My father, and many others, liberated themselves from a synodocratic church. With tears stinging their eyes they set themselves free to remain in the freedom with which Christ sets us free.

 When my parents immigrated in 1951 my father was almost immediately drawn into a debate of whether or not we may join trade unions. This had become a controversy in the New Westminster Church, whose consistory had taken the position that membership in a trade union is incompatible with membership in the church. My father studied a number of trade union constitutions and published an essay on it in the first yearbook of the Canadian Reformed churches. He demonstrated that the trade unions of the day demanded obedience to both past and future decisions of the union. He made the significant point that we owe such allegiance only to Christ. Should we bind ourselves to decisions of a union yet to be made, then, said he, we are allowing ourselves to be put under a yoke other than the yoke of Christ.

 In 1960 my father experienced a severe and sustained burnout. For six months he was sidelined and out of commission. So severe was it that he could not endure remaining in Edmonton. He convalesced, rested, and recovered in Carman, Manitoba, and southern Ontario. His faith was shaken, but he was given the strength to hold on to Christ. Even in the depths of his despair he held on to Christ, for he knew that he had no other recourse but to hold on to the one who had set him free through his death on the cross.

  In the first half of the 1960s the churches were embroiled in a controversy related to the form of subscription. As we all well know a minister has to promise, at both the local church and classis, that his teaching will be in harmony with the Reformed confessions. Should his teaching diverge from this standard, and should he not conform his teaching, he will be removed from the ministry. Rev. Cornelis de Haan of the Winnipeg church refused to sign the classis form, and he was, therefore and eventually, removed from the ministry. By signing this form a minister promises that he will only preach and teach the freedom found only in the teaching that we are free in Christ, and that any other belief is slavery.

 My father’s greatest academic love was the study of philosophy. His introduction to this field of inquiry was born at the Free University as he followed the lectures of Dooyweerd and Vollenhoven. He was given the opportunity to devote himself to this study after we moved to Cloverdale, BC, and he enrolled as a part-time student at Western State College (now University). There he focused on analyzing and critiquing secular western philosophy and, through lectures, benefitted especially the university crowd in the Fraser Valley in the late 1960s. He published several articles in the youth magazine, In Holy Array, two of which are included in my book. The great difference between secular western philosophy and the Christian message is where they both look for freedom. Whereas the former seeks it in man the latter finds it only in Christ. Again Gal 5:1 rose to prominent significance: Christ has set us free whereas human philosophy is an enslaving yoke.

 When my father died in 1968 he was busy with publishing a series of articles on the Open Brief. The Open Brief was a statement signed by twenty-five Dutch ministers of the GKN-Liberated. In my father’s assessment the statement sought to undo the ecclesiastical Liberation of 1944. The signatories wanted more latitude in doctrinal issues than the Form of Subscription, in their opinion, gave them. My father clarified what was at stake in the Liberation of 1944. The signatories called the Liberation nothing but a matter of human ideology rather than yet another example of Christ’s freeing his people—as he had done in the first secession (1834) and the second secession (1886). Signing on to the Open Brief, said my father, led people from freedom in Christ to the slavery of man’s opinion. He ended his unfinished articles by asking: 
Is that the easy yoke of Christ? Is this His light burden? No, not at all. It was and is a yoke of bondage. By this horrible synodical usurpation [of the synodocratic GKN] God’s redeemed people were compelled to ascribe more power and authority to the general synod and its ordinances than to the Word of God.

 Once again, my father set the issue in the light of the gospel of the freedom of Christ. As men called to serve in the midst of the Canadian and United Reformed Churches we can be thankful to serve in the line of the two secessions and the liberation. In all three instances the gospel of Christ who gives freedom was at stake. My father understood that, and I am thankful to serve in this ecclesiastical and historical context. I have had to sign the Form of Subscription several times and always did so gladly. It is not burdensome to promise to proclaim the liberating truths of the gospel.

 I could reflect on more: for example, his involvement with the birth of the Voice of the Church (our evangelistic radio broadcast), our Theological College, Christian schools, his sermons which proclaim freedom in Christ. But let me end by returning to Galatians 5:1—For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

 Often people will say, “Don’t just stand there; do something!” On the basis of this text of Scripture it might be just as good, and perhaps it is even better, to say, “Don’t just do something; stand there!”