Previous editorial in this series: December 15, 2010, p. 125.
Our delightful journey to beautiful Namibia in Africa last summer took place because of the PRCA’s commitment to manifest the unity of Christ’s holy, catholic church. In the providence of God, two books written by PRC ministers, and two believers (a husband and wife wanting to witness to their faith) influenced six small churches in Namibia to invite the PRCA to visit Africa to inform them of the faith and practice of our churches. For that story and a summary of our journeys, see my editorial of December 15, 2010.
The Contact Committee responded with a decision to send a delegation, with the mandate to inform these churches about our doctrine, worship, history, etc., and to learn the same about them. Included in the mandate was to discuss the “four points of their request,” namely: 1) “our common confession,” 2) the “background of events that led to the current situation in these churches in Namibia,” 3) the “churches’ unique circumstances and needs relating to ministry and our calling to be church of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and 4) “other issues relating to ministry.” This fourth point was explained later in their letter: “…unscriptural decisions regarding protests against new rendering of the Psalms, the admission of women in the office, the way of celebrating the Lord’s Supper, and the different ways wherein Scripture is interpreted… (and) preaching Christ from the Old Testament.” I promised last time to give a preliminary evaluation of the visit and contacts. No one supposes that a three-week visit to two ministers and six churches spread over a country twice the size of California, intense as the visit may have been, is sufficient time to get to know the people or the churches well. Yet a preliminary report is possible as well as beneficial, if only to avoid either the overly optimistic view of future relations some may be tempted to adopt, or a pessimistic view toward which others might lean. In fact, the Contact Committee instructed our delegation to publicize the visit among theSB readership for just those reasons. One way to introduce the saints in Namibia is to let these Afrikaners speak for themselves. In his opening remarks at our major meeting, the chairman, speaking for his fellow Namibians, said soberly but with emotion that was moving:
In gratitude to the Lord it is noted the wonder of the way God, as expressed in Lord’s Day 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism, gathers, defends, and preserves a church chosen to everlasting life, agreeing in true faith. That is the reason we are all here today—to rejoice in the fact that, although everything is changing in this world in which we live, onething never changes: the love of Christ for His elect, His church. It is also our calling to put into practice this love for each other, and that is the reason for us being together here today. Therefore we want to warmly welcome in our midst Prof. Dykstra and Prof. Gritters particularly. We also want to thank the PRCA, which has sent them here, for their love shown to us in the way of having them in our presence. We ask you to please communicate the sincere appreciation and gratitude of our churches here to the Contact Committee of the PRCA, the PRCA as a whole, and also to your families…. We thank God for this, and may He be honored for His love so distinctly visible in the realization of this occasion. (* The rest of his opening remarks you can read at the end of this article.)
The meeting in which these words were spoken took place toward the end of our three-week visit. We had already driven hundreds of miles with the two ministers. At times, after talking for hours, we thought to ourselves: “I cannot believe that there are Reformed people who worship and believe so much like the PRCA.” When we verbalized these sentiments, the Afrikaner’s response was the same—as though they had just discovered that a thought-to-beextinct species was in fact yet alive: “We had no idea there were Reformed believers in the US like us.” Now, on the heels of those experiences came these opening words from an elder we did not yet know well. But he knew from reading our books that, although differences would certainly appear, we were beginning with significant unity.
The similarities between the PRCA and the Reformed believers in Namibia—wonderful to behold—include their staunch commitment to the Three Forms of Unity. These believers hold the creeds officially. They also use and love them. The chairman’s opening statement appealed to the Heidelberg Catechism to explain the reason for our meeting. More importantly, their public worship includespreaching the Catechism, because of their unswerving maintenance of the 86 articles of Dordt’s Church Order. And when we spoke, opposing common grace and the conditional covenant, they listened very sympathetically because they understand and cherish the doctrines of sovereign grace taught in the creeds.
Among the similarities between our churches is a comparable worship— including singing the Psalms faithfully versified. They have officially protested a modern translation of the Psalter that takes Christ out of the Old Testament. They have no patience for modern innovations in worship; have no choirs or special numbers; stand (males do) while the pastor prays; and make preaching central.
No women serve in the offices there. In a question and answer time after a morning worship, we were grateful to hear an elderly lady ask, “Do your churches allow women to serve as deacons?” She would have been satisfied with nothing less than a firm “No.” We learned later that her daughter was serving in office in another Reformed church.
As we observed one Sunday morning when a new elder was installed, the men who serve in office sign the Formula of Subscription, which binds them to the Reformed creeds.
The marks of the true church, as the Belgic Confession spells them out, are dear to them, with special emphasis given to the proper administration of the sacraments. I will explain that further in a moment. They hold to the old Afrikaans Bible translation, so the PRCA’s use of the King James meant something to them. And, although we must check further, it appears that even their “minor creeds” (the forms for Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, discipline, etc.) are the old Dutch forms we have inherited from the Netherlands.
So much is their tradition our tradition, that one Sunday morning after baptism, to our delight, the congregation automatically sang the fourth and fifth stanzas of Psalter #425. That is not how they announced it, of course; but it is what they sang from their Afrikaans Psalmboek. Their response to the covenant sacrament of baptism is the confession, “Jehovah’s truth shall stand forever, His covenant bonds He will not sever….” On one 80-minute drive to church on another Sunday morning, I had a five-year-old girl on my lap in the front seat because the Land Cruiser was crowded. This family’s practice is to sing Psalms on the long drive to church. When the little girl, Isabella, was told to “sing Psalm 105 for Oom Barry and Oom Russell,” she sang it—even with the same melody that we use in Psalter number 425—by heart. At five years old. I have most of it on video. Some of you have seen it already in our presentation in the churches.
It is hard to imagine a body of believers closer to us than these six small churches in Namibia.
And I would be remiss if I failed to mention the losses these believers have suffered for their commitment to the Reformed faith and life. They have not merely held the traditions, they have had to fight to retain them. They have been criticized and ostracized, suffered financially, and are threatened and belittled. Their following Christ has come with a price. By grace, they have “counted the cost” and have been willing to pay.
Whatever may come of our relationship with these churches, let us hold these believers before God. “O Lord of the church, keep these saints in the faith. Preserve the congregations in the truth. Give wisdom to their officebearers. Watch their covenant children for good.” They love the Lord.
The differences between us stem partly from existing in a country with a very different history than the Reformed faith has had in America. More, they are the result of membership in a denomination that has been in decline for some decades. These differences will be laid on the table and openly discussed in future meetings.
As a Reformed church, they hold to the traditional Reformed view of divorce and remarriage. We discussed this with some of the officebearers and left literature with them explaining the PRC’s view. This was new to most of them and they need to ponder the matter further as they study our writings. But we were grateful that they were willing to hear us.
Because they read and speak mostly Afrikaans, most had not read our literature describing our view of particular grace and the unconditional covenant. They listened with interest, as I mentioned; did not oppose the instruction; but must be given time to reflect and respond. These things do not happen overnight, or even in a year.
Other differences will appear, too. The Contact Committee will not wink at any of them. How to deal with each of them is the hard work of the committee. It takes wisdom and grace.
The Namibians will also want to talk about weaknesses they may see in us. We do not want them to wink at anything either. First on their agenda would be the proper administration of the Lord’s Supper. Their history includes a lengthy battle over the common cup in the Supper. So they were disappointed to hear that we usekelkies—”little cups,” individual cups. They have a thorough exegetical and historical defense of the common cup as a very important biblical symbol of the unity of those who partake. We heard them explain it, though not at length, and asked them to translate their paper on the matter that they had presented to their synod. We must ponder and respond to this carefully. The common cup over against thekelkies is more serious to them than would be a proposal among us to substitute grape juice for wine.
Given their love for singing Psalms, and their battle against a new Psalter with a looser versification of God’s Word, they may have questions about our Psalter.
Will there be more things about each other that we will discover? We must talk openly.
I counsel both the PRCA and the Namibian churches, as I have always counseled prospective new members of the congregations I served: “Proceed slowly. Ask good questions openly and prayerfully. There must be no surprises for either party.” Church unity and ecclesiastical relationships demand our utmost care before the Lord.
* After reading from I John 5, and singing “Skrifberyming 27:1 en 5″ the chairman of our meeting exhorted the gathering:
You and I and all of us together here today have something in common. Something caused each of us to record this day as such an important day in our diaries, that no effort, time, distance or money were spared to be here together. [Remember, these men gathered in their capital city from many miles around for our meeting. Ed.] But what is it that brought us together with our brothers from USA here today? Compared to the great gatherings in the world such as the big sporting events of our times where people in the thousands come together [we met during, and just north of, the great World Cup Soccer games. Ed.], this seems like an unimportant and small gathering in vain. And yet, despite our small numbers we are here for a reason…a reason to rejoice in much greater joy than any of the joys that this life can afford.
Beloved, just imagine this meeting today…without Jesus Christ. Imagine this life with all the work and effort to earn money, the reality of illness, pain, suffering, and violence which inevitably leads to death…, if we haven’t had faith in the love of God. Think how different the joys of each day would have been if we haven’t had faith in the promise of eternal life.
“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity” (Eccl. 1:1).
But now: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
And: “He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life. These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God” (I John 5:12, 13).
Do you believe in the Name of the Son of God, Jesus Christ? Do you “love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might”? Then you are born of God and then you have eternal life. And then you also love them that were born of God—your fellow brothers and sisters in faith.
This is the reason why we gathered here today.
This is the faith which we have in common. It draws us towards each other and binds us together in one community.
This is predestinated by the grace of God. This is a gift from heaven. I want to end with the words of Ef. 6:23-24 which sums it up:
Vrede vir die broeders en liefde, met geloof, van God die Vader en die Here Jesus Christus! Die genade sy met almal wat onse Here Jesus Christus in onverganklikheid liefget! Amen.
Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. Amen.
* Rejoice in the spiritual unity of all God’s people in the truth, and in the presence of believers worldwide— like a little second-grader who rejoiced after I showed the pictures to 400 children in one of our grade schools. She wrote me after the presentation: “If you ever go to another missionary journey tell them that even a little girl in Zeeland loves God too.”
* Pray that God will provide pastors for these churches. The saints in Namibia are in a unique situation because pastors would normally come from South Africa, where their seminary is, but Namibia is very slow to grant permission to South Africans to take jobs from Namibians. Also, pray that a particular member of the northern churches, a man not too many years from a normal retirement age, could become an “article-8 minister.” See our Church Order for a definition of an “article-8 minister.”
* Pray for the ministers and elders to make good decisions about whether they may remain in their denomination, even if they have joined a more conservative classis.
* Consider supporting the translation efforts of Rev. Prinsloo in Namibia (Doctrine According to Godliness) and Rev. LeCornu in South Africa (Saved By Grace). The folks we met commented repeatedly on how clear and helpful these books were. A definite figure is not known at present, but upwards of $10,000 will be needed for translating and printing. If any readers are fluent in Afrikaans, they may be able to help in the translation. For donations or translation assistance, please contact the secretary of our Contact Committee, Rev. Garrett Eriks, firstname.lastname@example.org.
* If you travel to South Africa or Namibia to hunt or sightsee, please make contact with the believers there. I will be glad to give you their contact information. Write me at the seminary, or e-mail email@example.com.