This editorial is the story of a delegation from the PRCA’s Contact Committee, two books from the Reformed Free Publishing Association (RFPA), two Reformed believers (husband and wife) who zealously witness to their business clients, and how these all intersect in six small churches in the desert country of Namibia, Africa (which to most Americans is still the “Dark Continent.”) The story is an editorial because it is more than the story of a fascinating trip in a beautiful land teeming with wild animals.
The story is a report of a denomination seeking out other true churches in the world, in obedience to Jesus Christ, in order to show both the unity and catholicity of the church. The Protestant Reformed Churches believe that this is their sacred duty. The Constitution of the Contact Committee (the official name is theCommittee for Contact with Other Churches) expresses the PRC’s conviction that “it is their sacred duty to manifest the true unity and catholicity of the church on earth in as far as that is possible, not only in their denominational fellowship but also in conjunction with all churches which have obtained like precious faith with us, both domestic and foreign.” (See the sidebar for the entire Constitution that governs our work.)
When Professor Russell Dykstra and the undersigned (“Oom Russell” and “Oom Barry” to the Namibians) travelled to Namibia in June and July, 2010, it was in response to an official request from six small and scattered churches there in a relatively large Reformed denomination. These six churches have withdrawn from what they judge to be an apostatizing classis in their departing denomination, and have joined a more conservative classis in South Africa, the country bordering theirs to the south and east—in the same denomination. After some deliberation and some months of informal contacts, these churches wrote to the Contact Committee: “We therefore ask the PRCA to…send delegates to our churches to discuss the following issues….” Then followed not only a list of grievances regarding doctrinal and liturgical departure in their classis and denomination, but a heartwarming statement of “our common confession and calling for closer ties on the basis of that confession, Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 21.” What attracted these churches to the PRCA, in addition to the officialconfession of the PRCA, was “the testimony we have from all of the literature and pamphlets of the PRCA, sent to us by certain members of the PRCA….”
In response, the Contact Committee commissioned us to spend three weeks in Namibia to determine what may be the possibility for ecclesiastical relations. Although one visit is not sufficient to make such a determination, what the delegates heard and witnessed was most encouraging. A small group of believers is determined to maintain the Reformed faith embodied in the Three Forms of Unity, Reformed liturgy as we know it, and Reformed church government according to the Church Order of Dordt (indeed, the very same Church Order that the PRCA uses). This certainly is a good start for seeking proper ecclesiastical contacts.
On June 17, after a nine-hour flight from Washington DC to Africa’s northwest coast (Dakar in Senegal), it took another nine hours to get to Johannesburg in South Africa, so massive is the continent. South Africa is the southernmost country in the continent of Africa.
June is winter in the southern hemisphere, and the Antarctic cold was pushing up into these otherwise moderate climes. We spent three cold days in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital, warmed by the hospitality of both old and new friends who asked us to stay a few days with them and give public lectures. Saturday morning Prof. Dykstra lectured on the doctrine of the covenant, and I on Sunday night on the doctrine of common grace, to two very interested audiences. This short stay in South Africa was an unexpected bonus, and the contacts made there may be as promising as those in Namibia.
Because Namibia was our goal, early Monday morning we left Johannesburg and flew north and west about 800 miles to Windhoek, Namibia’s capital. Windhoek’s airport is some 30 miles outside the city in the “high desert,” so our plane landed in a place as barren and desolate, but as strikingly beautiful as any in the southwest United States. It was also much warmer than South Africa—sunny and comfortable for three weeks.
The six churches in Namibia have only two ministers, and one of them, Rev. Niel Prinsloo, met us at the airport. He immediately put us at ease with his fluent English—accented, but fluent. Even though English is Namibia’s official language, the daily language of most of the people we met is Afrikaans, a language very similar to Dutch. But almost all of them are able to communicate well in English, which they graciously did for us. Afrikaans is similar to Dutch because the Reformed folks in Africa have Dutch heritage, both nationally and religiously. In the same era when our Reformed forefathers emigrated from Holland to North America, they also emigrated to South Africa, settling there and establishing Reformed churches already in the 1600s, shortly after the Synod of Dordt. This explains their language, so similar to Dutch. It explains their Reformed heritage, which they are so determined to maintain or restore. It also explains these settlements of white Europeans in a country we usually think of as black.
Rev. Prinsloo serves as pastor for the three northern churches. So after lunch in Windhoek, and after picking up some of their literature for evangelism from a printer, we began our four-hour drive north to his home. During drives like this through their beautiful country we were able to have very profitable theological discussions and learn both the history of their churches and their current struggles to maintain the Reformed faith and proper worship. Interrupted at times in our conversations by sightings of warthogs, baboons, kudus, or other bucks, we learned about their protests at broader assemblies against apostasy, their rejection by former friends and acquaintances, and other suffering for their commitment to the old paths. These discussions taught us much more than letters could do.
Among the northern churches we met with consistories, fellowshipped with families in their homes, saw the beautiful Etosha National Park, and slept in a guest room with a family’s pet leopard pawing at our door. Surprising and distressing as the leopard was, most impressive and beautiful to us were the convictions of these Reformed believers, so similar to ours. Time after time our hearts leaped as we heard ministers and members quote the Reformed confessions, refer by number to articles in our Church Order of Dordt, and weep with sorrow at the departures from proper worship in their denomination.
After a week with this pastor and the saints in the three northern churches, the pastor of the three churches in the central part of the country introduced us to consistories and members all the way from the west coast (Henties Bay and Swakopmond), to the east border near Botswana, ten hours across the country. The congregation on the west coast, made up mostly of retired folk, is near the famed “Skeleton Coast,” and we saw why it was named so. Many generations ago, trade ships from European nations, bound for India around the southern cape, often shipwrecked along this coast. The sailors usually survived the shipwreck, but did not survive the sand dunes and desert that reach for a hundred miles inland.
A four-hour drive inland is Windhoek, where the largest of the six churches is and where some members express hope for a Christian school. As interested as the saints were in our churches, some were nearly as interested in our Christian schools. In Windhoek we had our lengthy and semi-official meetings with representatives of the churches. We lectured on and discussed at length four major themes: the history of the PRCA, common grace, the covenant of grace, and Reformed worship. In this way, the leaders of the churches could learn of the PRCA, and we could get to know them as they responded to our speeches. In the next editorial I will explain more about these discussions. Here I can say, generalizing only slightly, that they were keenly interested in ourhistory, intrigued by our explanation ofcommon grace, thrilled by our exposition of Reformed worship (one of their major concerns in their denomination, following Calvin, who said that proper worship had priority even over orthodoxy), and surprised by our testimony about the unconditional covenant—surprised, because formerly they had heard only caricatures of the PRC’s rejection of the conditional covenant.
But we take the last leg of our journey into the Kalahari Desert to the “two believers” who are the origin of our contacts in Namibia. Four hours south and east of Windhoek is the little town of Aranos, one of the many very small towns in the middle of this vast desert land. Namibia is the second most sparsely populated country in the world, like four or five Wyomings or South Dakotas joined together. Most of the cities are like Isabel or Forbes, and Aranos is only a little larger than that. One grocery store, gas station, post office, and a small community hospital that fifteen years ago did not have hot water. Eighty miles east of Aranos, over gravel roads and sand dunes, live Michael and Tienie Duvenhage with their three children.
Michael is an elder in the Aranos congregation. By occupation, he is a sheep farmer who supplements his income by guiding big game hunts, as many of the game animals of Africa roam freely on his land. For the last part of our trip, we stayed with these believers, and came to know and love this very kind and gracious Christian family.
Determined as they are to witness their faith to their hunting clients, the Duvenhages constructed a fine website (find their great site by searching “uitspan hunting”) that not only advertises their professional hunting services, but also gives glory to the wisdom and beauty of God in creation. They also asked a minister in South Africa, Rev. Slabbert LeCornu, for a recommendation of a book to give as a gift to their hunting clients. Rev. LeCornu recommended the RFPA’s Doctrine According to Godliness, by Rev. Ronald Hanko—one of the “two books.”
Then, in the providence of God, one of the Duvenhage’s contacts “happened” to live next door to a Protestant Reformed family in Hudsonville, MI. Conversations with this hunter led the Protestant Reformed mother to contact the Duvenhages. And eventually, to make a long story short, Internet friendships were established and boxes of RFPA books and pamphlets were sent to these new friends in the Kalahari. These determined Reformed believers spread the word about the PRCA to the other churches in their fellowship, and last spring these churches sent the invitation that brought us to Namibia.
The value of good Reformed literature, the importance of personal Christian witness, and the sovereign providence of God directing both of them, are wonderful to behold. Next time I want to evaluate the contact, summarize the delegation’s official report to the Contact Committee, and point out what PRCA members can do to promote these efforts. But because this issue of the SB is the last before year’s end, and some believers are looking at tax deductible donations, I may briefly mention a need here. Rev. Prinsloo and Rev. LeCornu are beginning the process of translating into Afrikaans and publishing both Doctrine According to Godliness, and Saved by Grace, (Prof. Ronald Cammenga’s and Rev. Ronald Hanko’s exposition of the five points of Calvinism—the second of the “two books” I mentioned). The Afrikaaners need literature in their own language. According to their judgment, Doctrine According to Godlinesswould be most helpful to their witness of the Reformed faith. And Saved by Grace was most influential to leading Rev. LeCornu to the doctrines of grace.
If a reader has interest in donating to this cause of translating, please write the secretary of our Contact Committee, Rev. Garrett Eriks, firstname.lastname@example.org.