Rev. denHartog is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Redlands, California.
It was my privilege and joy, along with Pastor Richard Smit from our church in Doon, Iowa, to make another visit to the Philippines. We made this visit as representatives from the Foreign Mission Committee of the Protestant Reformed Churches and in harmony with the decisions of the 1998 synod. It was another exciting and eventful visit, about which we can write only a very little in a short Standard Bearer article.
The FMC planned that our delegation should spend most of the time in two places: the first, a city called Cagayan De Oro, which is on the Island of Mindanao; the second, a city called Bacolod, which is on the island of Negros. The two places are very different the one from the other.
In Cagayan De Oro we visited with a Bible Study group called “The Independent Bible Study Fellowship.” This is the same group we visited with last year. The word “independent” in this name was chosen to emphasize the desire of this group to have a self-supporting work, one that is not financially dependent on a Western church, as are so many Protestant churches in the Philippines. This we considered to be commendable. Though with much struggle, with meager resources, and a very humble meeting place, this group is self-supporting in the work it is doing.
Originally we had planned to give a series of messages to this group. For various reasons which we will not go into, our plans were changed after we arrived in Cagayan. Looking back we can see the leading of the Lord in this. Instead of the planned series of formal messages we visited in various homes of the members of this Bible Study group. We had a good opportunity to meet with and get to know the members of the group in the settings of their own homes and families. Especially in the provinces of the Philippines, one sees immediately that the standard of living is much lower there than in America. Cagayan De Oro is a city of some 600,000 inhabitants, most of whom live in what by American standards are most humble dwellings. Some of these homes do not even have running water. Water has to be laboriously hand carried every day from quite a distance away. We got firsthand experience of the great difficulties of day-to-day living in a country such as the Philippines. We were again deeply moved by the realization of how much we in America have in comparison to other peoples of the world.
At each home that we visited we read a passage of Scripture and spoke with those in the home about spiritual things, somewhat as we do when we make family visitation calls in our home congregations in the US. We talked about the involvement of the family members in the life of the Bible Study and the various problems which they face as Christians in a culture as difficult and economically depressed as the Philippines. We observed family life and learned something about the spiritual character of the homes. We were very well received. Those we had met on our first visit last year became more dear to us as we got to know them better. The people we visited appreciated very much our readiness to come into their homes, and they spoke of the encouragement of our visits. Each visit was ended with a time of prayer.
Though it is not a formally organized church, the Bible Study Fellowship regularly holds worship services on the Lord’s Day. On Sunday morning I was given the opportunity to preach in one such service. The audience was made up of about 50 people, pretty much of all ages, including families and a goodly number of young people. Pastor Smit was asked to speak at the evening meeting, which had fewer people in attendance. This evening meeting was really more of a Bible Study than a worship service. We were not in Cagayan for the Wednesday evening Bible Study, though we had attended this meeting on our visit last year.
During the course of our six-day stay in Cagayan we had three somewhat more formal visits with the three leaders of the Bible Study Fellowship. In these visits we talked with the men about various aspects of what it would mean if the PRC would send a missionary to the Philippines to work among them. We asked them to consider whether they would be interested in such a prospect. We had three very good discussions and were left with some good impressions of the three leaders of the Bible Study Fellowship. We concluded that if the Lord should open the door for our churches to begin a mission work in the Philippines, Cagayan might be a good place for us to start, especially if the Bible Study Fellowship would desire us to come and help her to establish a Reformed church among them.
The six days spent in Cagayan enabled us also to see some of the city and experience the culture. We had opportunity to consider a little what it would be like for a family from the USA to live there, the particular hardships they would face, and the sacrifices they would have to be prepared to make. We met with two missionaries who had been living there for some time already, and we learned some things from them that we believe will help us to guide future decisions regarding possible mission labors in the Philippines. I could easily write a lengthy article detailing all the interesting experiences we had. We hope to be able to relate some of these later in slide programs.
Our second stop was in Bacolod City. The men with whom we met in Bacolod have united in a small society which they call “Conveners of Historic Christianity.” Some of the members of this group attended the conference last year in Daet. Some are pastors in various churches in Negros and surrounding islands. The Conveners are reading books and literature published by the Reformed Free Publishing Association and in our churches. These men have varying degrees of knowledge and understanding of Reformed truth. Some of them in fact can discuss Reformed doctrine on a very high plane. Our fellowship with these men in the truth of the Word of God was very encouraging and blessed. On the Lord’s Day that we were on the island of Negros, both Rev. Smit and I preached in small churches some distance away from Bacolod. We had a wild taxi ride for more than an hour through the countryside and saw many interesting things along the way. The churches to which we were brought are led by men involved with the Conveners.
Besides the more formal meetings with the brethren in the Conveners group, we had several extended times of fellowship with them while seeing sites in the city of Bacolod. We also had fellowship times in our room at the hotel. The city of Bacolod has a population of about 400,000. As far as we could tell, this city is more prosperous, though only relatively speaking, than Cagayan. This is due in part to the sugar cane plantations in this area. From our five-day visit we gained a deeper knowledge of, and developed Christian friendship with, the brethren of the Conveners. They have a love for the truth of the gospel we call the Reformed faith, and therefore it is easy to establish a bond with them that even after a short time is hard to break when one must leave again.
We spent our last couple of days in Manila. There we visited with two men who came in contact with our churches through electronic mail and correspondence with one of our ministers. And we also met with the same young Christian man who visited with us last year. He longs for the opportunity to grow in the knowledge of the Reformed faith which he has learned in large measure through reading the Standard Bearer and books from the Reformed Free Publishing Association. He is earnestly looking for a place in which he can worship in a manner consistent with his new found faith and which is not charismatic. We could only wish that already now we could do more for this young Christian and those like him.
While we were in Manila we had the pleasure of an unexpected visit of one of the pastors from Daet whom we had met last year. He traveled for ten hours on the bus just to meet us. Daet was devastated by the two typhoons that struck the Philippines during the very weeks we were visiting. Many of the members of the churches in Daet suffered great losses, though none were injured or lost their lives. The pastor from Daet again expressed his great interest in growing and developing in the knowledge of the Reformed faith. He continues to be very interested in exploring the possibilities of our churches helping him in his own personal development, and helping those also whom the Lord has brought under his instruction and care.
We had time in Manila to visit the Immigration Office to get some preliminary information regarding the possibility of obtaining the right for a missionary family from the PRC to enter the Philippines should one be sent to work there.
The two and a half weeks of our visit left us again overwhelmed with the many experiences we had. We realize that our visits were short and very limited in scope. It would not be wise to draw too many conclusions from these visits. One cannot learn a situation in a significant way in such a short time. We therefore cannot at this point lay out the way we should proceed. We also wait to hear about the lasting effects of our visits on the people with whom we met. Our prayer is that the Lord will give us direction on how to move ahead toward the possible goal of a mission field. Perhaps this will come in the form of a specific request from one of the groups with whom we met—a kind of “Macedonian call.”
Without making premature judgments we can make at least a few observations. The Lord has His saints in the Philippines who have the beginnings of love for the Reformed gospel, and some more than the beginnings. The Philippines is not a heathen country. It is in fact devoutly Roman Catholic. The work of missions in the Philippines therefore involves largely the calling of God’s people out of the darkness of Roman Catholicism. In modern day Protestantism such work would be viewed as unnecessary and even wrong. It is being said that Protestants ought not proselyte Roman Catholics, but recognize them rather as brothers in Christ who are not in need of any conversion to the Protestant faith. We believe that mission work among Roman Catholics even today is true mission work and work that carries on the purpose of the Reformation.
The church situation among the Protestants in the Philippines is much like it is in so many other countries. There are major ecumenical efforts to bring all Protestants together in a liberal and apostate denomination. The charismatic movement has had a broad influence in the Philippines. There is a very great need for a Reformed work and a Reformed church founded on the glorious doctrine which the Lord in His mercy has preserved in our churches here in America. There are groups of Christians in the Philippines who desire such a work. It is our prayer that the Lord in His providence might use us for this work.
The work, we believe, should involve establishing churches that are truly Reformed in doctrine, worship, and Christian living. Such a work will involve tremendous challenges. There will be opposition to it from various sources even from other Protestants. There will be difficulties. We heard comments from some connected with Reformed churches in the Philippines that it is impossible to have worship services in the Philippines that are not charismatic in character. Only this type of worship service appeals to the emotional character of the people of the Philippines. Others told us that Reformed doctrine does not fit in the Philippines. We believe that the Reformed faith, which is the gospel, is culturally transcending and applicable to people of all nations.
Should the Lord use us to establish a Reformed church in the Philippines, our desire and objective would of course ultimately be to witness more broadly in the community in which we labor, in order to help a newly established Reformed church to gather others whom the Lord might by His grace and Holy Spirit bring to the knowledge and love of the truth of His Word. If we could begin a work by establishing a Reformed congregation in one area by the grace of God, we could also better help the other groups with whom in the Lord’s providence we have come in contact and whom we have known for a number of years. These various groups are actually quite far distant from each other. And distance is complicated by the fact that the groups are on different islands of the Philippines.
Let us pray to the Lord earnestly for His guidance. May He use us to strengthen those who already love His Word, and to gather those whom He has ordained to eternal salvation.