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There were divisions among the members of the Mission Committee and among the members of the committee appointed by First PRC of Grand Rapids. The Lord had now provided our churches with two missionaries who were to work together in the labors of home missions. In 1948 there were two possible places to perform their work: in Lynden, Washington and in Ontario, Canada among the Dutch immigrants who had been members of the Liberated Churches (LC) in the Netherlands. Some men on the Mission Committee and First PRC committee wanted to keep our missionaries together, focusing their labors in Lynden. Others wanted to send them to labor in Canada among the immigrants there.

There were a few obstacles standing in the way of a possible work in Canada. First, there was the language barrier. Our missionaries were not fluent in the Dutch language. Second, the immigrants were scattered, with no central location in which to labor. Third, there were the obvious doctrinal differences between the LC and the PRC on our view of the covenant. The LC believed that God’s covenant was conditional. The PRC were wobbling in their view. The prominent leaders of our churches strongly taught that the covenant is unconditional. Other ministers insisted that the difference between a conditional or unconditional covenant was not all that important and ought not hinder us from working among the Liberated immigrants. There was also debate over whether we ought to divide the labors of our two missionaries, sending one to Lynden and the other to Ontario. Both the Mission Committee and the committee of First PRC were deadlocked. The decision was made, therefore, to take the whole matter with all its pros and cons to the 1948 Synod of the PRC for resolution.

Synod of 1948 did not help. It became evident from the lengthy discussion on the floor as well as from the advice of the committee of pre-advice that there were differences among the delegates on the issue of whether the Mission Committee and First PRC ought to separate the missionaries and permit each of them to labor in a different field. The committee of pre-advice came with this recommendation to synod: “a. To do missionary work in Canada. b. That Synod consider to seek to obtain a Holland-speaking missionary in the place of one of our present missionaries” (PRC Acts of Synod 1948, p. 97). This advice implied the desire of some on synod to replace one of the present missionaries and divide their labors, sending one of them to labor in Canada while the other labored in Lynden, WA. This advice was rejected, however.

A substitute motion was made on the floor of synod and passed. “A. That synod reject the proposition of Committee I (the committee of pre-advice)…but to continue with our present missionaries. B. That synod advise to send our present missionaries to Lynden, Washington. C. That Synod advise that we continue our missionary endeavor in Canada and make provisions to do so” (Acts 1948, pp. 50, 51). By these decisions synod confirmed that the Mission Committee must continue its labors in Lynden with both missionaries. That was helpful. However, how was the Mission Committee going to continue our “missionary endeavor in Canada”? What provisions could be made to assist the Mission Committee and First PRC in this endeavor?

This decision of synod was made on June 4. A few weeks later at its meeting on June 28 the Mission Committee made the following decision.

To present the following recommendations to the consistory [of First PRC]:

  1. That one missionary labor in Canada and the other in Lynden, WA.
  2. That the man who labors in Canada be assisted by Holland-speaking ministers of this community, and the consistories be asked to relinquish their ministers for the purpose as the occasion demands.
  3. That the missionary laboring in Canada seek a centrally located place of residence.
  4. That Rev. E. Knott labor in Lynden and Rev. W. Hofman labor in Canada and that they take up their work as soon as possible.
  5. That it be left to the discretion of the two missionaries whether or not they should do the preliminary work in Lynden together for a period of approximately six weeks.
  6. That the missionary at Lynden investigate the West coast, as for example, Ripon California, as possible fields of labor, as the opportunity presents itself.1

These recommendations were presented to the Consistory of First PRC and were, in turn, adopted by the Consistory too.

Rev. E. Knott protested this decision to the next meeting of the Mission Committee. It was decided to have a joint meeting with First PRC Consistory. A motion was made to “comply with the request of Rev. Knott,” but this motion failed. Knott then expressed his willingness to comply. This was not the end of the matter. Rev. G. M. Ophoff lodged another protest of a much more serious nature against the Consistory of First PRC. In this lengthy protest Ophoff contended that the Mission Committee and First PRC had violated the Church Order, Articles 31 and 84. Article 31 addresses the settled and binding character of decisions made by the broader assemblies of the church. It was Ophoff’s contention that the Mission Committee and First PRC were militating against the settled and binding decisions of the previous two synods, in particular Article 83 of the 1947 Acts of Synod, which reads, “The synod further decides in regard to Mission work that the calling church call two missionaries to labor together in the work of home missions.”

The matter brought up by Ophoff at the conclusion of his protest would later become a matter of major doctrinal debate on every level in the churches. It is clear from the protest that this is what truly lay heavy on the brother’s heart. We quote several paragraphs:

It is a mistaken idea [that our churches have an exceptional opportunity in Canada] in the point of view of the doctrine of these people. Like the people in the Christian Reformed Church here in America, they have a double-track theology. Hence, they have no more in common with us in the point of view of doctrine than the members of the Christian Reformed Church here. They too have the doctrine of the three points [of common grace] though not, of course, in the form of the words of these three points. Also, through their theology runs two lines—the Arminian/Modernist line and the Reformed line. Their heretical line of thought is set forth in the following two propositions.

    1. The reprobated in the covenant as well as the elect objectively possess Christ and all things with Him. They too have the legal right to this spiritual good. This right is given them of God in the promise and is sealed unto them, the reprobated, by baptism.
    2. The promise of the gospel is always conditional—if you believe, you will be saved. This conditional promise comes to all, elect and reprobated. The Scriptures do not contain an unconditional positive promise to the elect only.

This is a terrible heresy, brethren. The undersigned would like to set it forth in all its horrible implications. But for this there is not time. This horrible doctrine the leaders in the Liberated Churches in the Netherlands openly teach and defend in printed published pamphlets. I say the leaders, and this includes Dr. Schilder. It is the very doctrine he expounded on our meetings with him. But he did so in a kind of veiled speech so that we didn’t know what he was driving at.

Verily, brethren, in a doctrinal point of view, we have no more in common with the immigrants from the Liberated Churches than we do with the membership in the Christian Reformed Church here. In their present state, with the above cited heresies dwelling in their heart as embraced and believed by them, the minds and hearts of these immigrants are as closed to what we believe to be the true gospel of the Scriptures as the minds and hearts of the membership in the Christian Reformed Church here….2

Subsequent history reveals that Ophoff was suspicious of the PRC’s dealings with Schilder and the members of the Liberated Churches that immigrated to Canada. Already at this stage he balked at working among them. He felt to do so would eventually lead to a compromise with the conditional theology these immigrants held so dear.

But the Mission Committee as a whole and the men of the Consistory of First PRC were not so convinced. Their answer to Ophoff’s protest reveals that First PRC Consistory believed it was not violating Articles 31 and 84 of the Church Order but was indeed making proper provisions for carrying out “the missionary endeavor in Canada,” as the Synod of 1948 instructed them. Regarding Ophoff’s concern that working among members of the Liberated Churches would be a useless endeavor since there would be no convincing them of the truth of an unconditional covenant, it was felt that this argument was irrelevant to the matter of sending two missionaries.

Ophoff did not agree with the response of First PRC Consistory to him. Having reached an impasse, he appealed to Classis East of October 6, 1948 to uphold his protest against his Consistory regarding splitting the labors of the missionaries between two fields of labor. Classis East of October sustained his appeal. But, the matter still was not finished. At the meeting of Classis East April 6, 1949 the Consistory of First PRC protested the October decision of classis and asked that its protest be sent to Synod of 1949 for adjudication. Classis East drafted a letter defending its position to sustain Ophoff’s appeal, which letter was then sent to the coming synod along with all the supporting material for the case. In the meantime, from October of 1948 to the meeting of the synod in June 1949 the two missionaries labored together intermittently in Lynden, WA in compliance with the settled and binding decisions of the broader assemblies.

An underlying doctrinal disagreement was developing among the ministers of the PRC. This became evident in the lengthy deliberation that took place on the floor of Synod 1949 over the matter of where our two missionaries should labor. Some of the clergy were thoroughly convicted of the truth of the unconditional covenant. Others were of a mind that this was only one view of the covenant that did not preclude Schilder’s view of a conditional covenant. Over the next couple of years these ministers would cast in their lot with Schilder, publicly preaching and teaching a conditional covenant. It is difficult to determine how many of these ministers may already have embraced this error at the time of the 1949 Synod. But it can be said from decisions that were made that they were sympathetic with the view of the Liberated Churches.

Synod 1949 sustained the protest of Ophoff and the decision of Classis East. Article 17 of the 1949 Acts adopted the advice of their committee of pre-advice: “to express agreement with the decision of Classis East sustaining the protest of Rev. Ophoff on the ground of transgressing the Church Order overruling Article 33 of the Acts of Synod 1948.” The two missionaries would labor together in the same place. But, synod was not finished with the protest of Ophoff until it made a second decision: “that the synod refuse to assume responsibility for” the section of Ophoff’s appeal that dealt with the doctrinal error of the conditional covenant maintained by the Liberated immigrants in Canada. One ground was given. “That although we do not express our opinion as a Synod upon the truth or untruth of this part of Rev. Ophoff’s allegation, we believe that the matter is irrelevant to the case.”

This motion passed, in part, because it was true. Even those who might have wanted to debate the doctrinal issue had to admit that it had little to do with two missionaries working together in the same field of labor. However, another unexpressed reason this motion passed was that there were some who simply did not want to make a stand against the conditional covenant. They would rather avoid the issue altogether. The doctrinal divide was developing.

The synodical decisions of 1949 did not contradict the instruction given the Mission Committee and First PRC by the 1948 Synod to continue to develop a mission work in Canada. Though the missionaries now labored together as a pair in Lynden, WA, the Mission Committee and First PRC became enamored with the labors in Canada. The rest of the year of 1949 and the beginning of 1950 reveals a flurry of activity among the Dutch immigrants in Canada. So much so that the two English-speaking missionaries, E. Knott and W. Hofman found themselves without work. By the time Synod of 1950 rolled around, Knott had taken a call to Kalamazoo PRC and Hofman was considering a call from Randolph PRC. The minutes of the Mission Committee reveal no division or strife among its members during these months of labor. In fact, they exude a general spirit of excitement and anticipation on the rapidly developing work in Canada. Yet, we know from other events going on in the PRC that the canker of false doctrine had entered the body of the church and was soon to destroy the mission work of the churches. We will attempt to record these events as clearly as possible in our next article.

1 Mission Committee minutes of June 28, 1948.

2 Protest written to the Mission Committee and First PRC consistory on August 9, 1948. The entire protest of Ophoff is found on pages 24-36 of the Acts of Synod, 1949.