In 2010, the Committee for Contact with other Churches (CC) sent Professors R. Dykstra and B. Gritters to visit Reformed believers in Namibia who requested a visit from the PRCA. The believers there were very displeased with their denomination— the Reformed Churches of South Africa—and hoped the Protestant Reformed Churches were of like mind with them. What they had read of our churches gave them such hope. These saints in Namibia had heard of the PRCA through literature recommended to them by a minister in South Africa, Rev. Slabbert LeCornu. One couple, the Duvenhages, had asked his advice for a good Reformed book to give to their hunting clients. The Reformed minister recommended Rev. Ronald Hanko’s Doctrine According to Godliness. That book began contact that resulted in an official request by six Namibian churches to visit them.
During that visit some six years ago, we gave speeches introducing the PRCA: PRC history; the unconditional covenant doctrine we embrace; the error of the doctrine of common grace; and Reformed worship. We learned of the Namibians’ commitment to the Three Forms of Unity, Reformed worship including Psalm-singing, the Church Order of Dordt, and their determination to give church office only to men. To read more about that visit, see the Standard Bearer editorials of December 15, 2010, and January 1, 2011. To learn a little about the family that made original contacts with us, google “Kalahari Trophy Hunting.” This will give you the Duvenhage’s family website that gives almost as much testimony to their faith as it does about hunting in Africa.
After our initial visit, the hope of official and formal contacts dimmed. These saints and their six churches remained a part of their large denomination. Communication between churches goes through denominational committees answerable to synod; and it was the decisions by their synod, which they believed were unbiblical, that motivated them to contact the PRCA.
But informal contacts continued. A few Protestant Reformed members or families visited both in Namibia and their southern neighbor, South Africa. Some of our ministers also maintained correspondence that resulted, late last year, in an invitation to speak in South Africa on the Protestant Reformed view of the covenant; specifically, for Prof. R. Cammenga to give lectures summarizing his thesis on Herman Hoeksema’s view of the covenant.
In the providence of God, as the Contact Committee was contemplating that invitation to visit South Africa, the churches in Namibia informed us that five of the six churches we visited in 2010 had now separated from their denomination and would like us to visit them again. This made another delegation from the CC not only possible but almost obligatory. For the Constitution of the Contact Committee speaks of our “sacred duty to manifest the true unity and catholicity of the church on earth in as far as that is possible.”
The Contact Committee asked Professors Cammenga and Gritters to visit in May and June of 2016.
The first week we visited the churches in Namibia, this time limiting ourselves to the central part of the country near the capital, Windhoek, and the Kalahari Desert in the east near Botswana. In 2010 the travel was more extensive, for we spent three weeks in Namibia, visiting all six churches. These congregations are widely scattered—from the Namib coast on the Atlantic to the border of Botswana almost 500 miles east; and from the capital of Windhoek in the center of the country to a pair of churches about 250 miles north toward Angola. None of the six churches is closer than an hour from another (only one) and most are at least three or four hours of travel from their nearest neighbor. In 2016 we visited only two areas, and members from the other churches travelled to see us at an all-day Saturday conference.
Before the conference, of course, we had opportunity to spend many hours in informal discussions with leaders in the Namibian churches. We answered many questions and set forth the Protestant Reformed viewpoint on significant issues.
At the conference this year the topics were of their choosing. The saints wanted to know the PRCA’s viewpoints on four matters: how properly to celebrate the Lord’s Supper; marriage, divorce, and remarriage; the place and authority of the seminary professor; and the use of Article 8 of the Church Order when ministers are in short supply.
It may be surprising that the Reformed Christians in Namibia are first of all interested whether the PRCA use a common cup or little individual cups (kelkies) in celebrating communion. But one of the signs of departure in their former denomination was an apparent carelessness regarding the proper administration of the sacraments, the second mark of the true church. Vitally important to the Namibians is the unity of believers in the supper, manifested by the one cup. “The cup of blessing…” is Jesus’ own instruction for commemorating His death. Not cups, many, but cup, one. At the same time, they use one loaf of bread, from which each breaks a piece. Symbolizing, of course, that the people of God as the family of faith are united in the body and blood of Jesus. Most of history is on their side. In the PRCA in generations past, as our older members will recall, a common cup was used. Unity! We heard the brothers’ (and sisters’) plea that unity be expressed in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Even if a congregation is too large to use one cup, they urged, let the members sit at many tables and share one cup and one loaf at each. We are one, as the Form for Administration of the Lord’s Supper emphasizes:
Besides, that we by this same Spirit may also be united as members of one body in true brotherly love, as the holy Apostle saith, “For we, being many, are one bread and one body; for we are all partakers of that one bread…one meal is ground, and one bread baked, and out of many berries…one wine floweth…so shall we all… be altogether one body, through brotherly love.”
We explained that the PRCA do not use the common cup, and view this aspect of the administration of the supper to be a part of each congregation’s liberty to judge what is “most conducive to edification,” as the Church Order indicates (Art. 62). Especially in large congregations there would not be room even to have many tables. In these cases, we explained, unity may better be manifested by all partaking at the same time in their pews. Because of their history, not only was it painful for them to hear of the PRCA’s practices in this regard, but they also would regard the one cup and one bread to be part of the “outward ceremonies as prescribed in God’s Word [that may] not be changed,” as the Church Order also instructs (Art. 62). No official decisions were made, of course, but it appears that these churches would not consider it a sin for us not to use the common cup, but would urge us to do so, if at all possible, in order to express unity in the way the church of the past did.
Then we explained further the PRCA’s view on remarriage of divorced persons. Further, because some had heard us in 2010, and some had read PRCA literature. But others heard for the first time, listening with great interest to our exposition of Matthew 19 and related passages. By those who participated in the discussion widespread agreement was expressed. What difficulty any had was not with the exegesis or theology of the position, much less with seeing the practical importance of maintaining marriages in a day of rampant divorce and remarriage. Rather, they wondered how to treat the few members in their congregations who had already remarried. We related the PRCA history on the issue—that those who were already remarried were allowed to remain, but no others were permitted to join, nor were present members allowed to remarry while their spouse was living. We pray these explanations will be helpful for the new gathering of churches to come to one mind on the vitally important doctrine of marriage.
Their other questions related to church government. The third mark of true churches is the proper exercise of Christian discipline, and since discipline is an aspect of church government, their questions relate to a vital aspect of Reformed church existence. First, they asked the PRCA’s view of the ‘office’ of professor. Seminary professors, in their judgment, had become too influential at their assemblies, wielding more authority than ministers and elders. Their professors, they believed, were leading the churches astray regarding the Lord’s Supper and women deacons, for example. So the brothers wondered, “What is the PRCA view of the ‘office’ of professor of theology?” We explained that the PRCA in 2000 had changed Article 2 of the Church Order to read “the offices are of three kinds” instead of four, that the professor of theology was not a fourth office but a labor of the minister, and that in the PRCA, although professors are asked to attend and speak in the assemblies, they do not have a vote.
Finally, they asked our judgment about Article 8 of the Church Order, and admitting men into the ministry who have not had full seminary training. The five scattered churches have a shortage of ministers. When we visited in May, the churches were served by only one minister who lived in Windhoek, a somewhat central location. But remember, the churches are scattered across a country twice the size of California. Thankfully, shortly after we left, the Lord provided for them two more ministers. One minister from South Africa accepted a call from the churches in the north. Another man who had been released under Article 11 of the Church Order was fully reconciled and readmitted to the ministry in the church in the east part of the country. But that still leaves only three ministers for five churches. Thus, they wonder about our view of the Church Order, Article 8.
Church government and the Church Order. Because of misuse of the Church Order in their denomination, this new gathering of churches must work through how to deal with Dordt’s venerable Church Order. As is often the case in movements of reform, as theirs is, a temptation comes to question the wisdom of Reformed and Presbyterian church government. This will be an important part of our ongoing discussions with the brothers.
After the conference, we gave away many dozens of RFPA books and PRC pamphlets. Had we packed our luggage with books alone, we could not have satisfied the desire for good literature. If you want to travel to this beautiful country someday, please reserve a piece of luggage for books. “Bring the books!”
For the second week we flew about 800 miles east/southeast to Pretoria, South Africa, to visit with believers from the same denomination that the Namibians had departed. Most of the contacts in Namibia and South Africa are of Dutch ancestry (many generations past) and speak Afrikaans as their first language, which is a great deal like Dutch. But most are also able to speak English, which is a great help. We spent a week with a young family—the Oosthuizens— whose gracious hospitality paralleled their commitment to the Reformed traditions.
At the invitation of Rev. LeCornu (see above), we spoke for two afternoons at a small Reformed seminary, heretofore unknown to us. We presented two speeches on the theology of John Calvin (Prof. Cammenga) and two speeches on preaching the Heidelberg Catechism (Prof. Gritters). All of them were received with great appreciation. At a small Reformed church Prof. Cammenga presented three lectures on the PRCA’s view of the covenant—an important topic because the covenant views of Schilder are common. Prof. Gritters spoke one evening on the errors of neo-Calvinism and another evening on what makes a church Reformed.
What we found in South Africa was as encouraging as in Namibia. Small groups of Reformed believers are determined to maintain the Reformed traditions, the old paths, and are very keen to hear more about the PRCA. Many are well read and eager to read more of our literature. What we saw of family life—daily family worship, singing the Psalms, antithetical living—was heartening. Although the contacts in South Africa are not as long-standing as those in Namibia, we believe the prospects warrant continued contacts and further visits in the future.
God permitting, the Contact Committee will arrange more visits to Namibia and South Africa. But just as important will be to extend an invitation to representatives of these churches to visit the PRCA in our country. Perhaps as soon as next year. Walking together requires agreement (Amos 3:2), and agreement comes only when both parties know one another. What the Lord has determined for the future is known only to Him. But our calling is clear. We will work to manifest unity—a unity in the truth of the Reformed faith.