A plea for unity in the Church during COVID
How the pandemic sheds new light on old quarrels, and what we can do now to forestall divisiveness.
The first Liberation began in Utrecht.
It was August 1944, after the Synod of Reformed Churches in the Netherlands kicked Klaas Schilder out of the denomination. It was a disagreement over common grace. This decision triggered one of the largest Dutch church splits since the Reformation. Over the next two years, 80,000 people followed Schilder out the door. It was dubbed “the Liberation” by those who left for having freed themselves from the authority of Synod.
The other Liberation began in Antwerp.
September 1944. Crops that summer had been terrible. The Nazis were blocking all imports of food. The Dutch had already survived more than four years of occupation, not to mention being caught underneath awful air battles between Britain and Germany. After reclaiming Antwerp, the First Canadian Army moved up the Scheldt river into the Netherlands. Can you imagine how eagerly the Dutch tracked the progress of those Canadian troops? By April, Apeldoorn was freed. Then Groningen. Amsterdam. Finally, the Nazis surrendered. The official Liberation was complete.
The ecclesiastical Liberation, however, continued. Two years of painful splits among the denomination’s two million members. The Reformed community in the Netherlands fractured, while the same debates crossed an ocean to splinter congregations in North America.
When physical survival is so severely threatened – as it was in ’44 by famine on top of war – I used to assume that theology would slip down a notch or two in importance. But this timeline shows that’s not true. While Dutch citizens were literally starving to death, pastors were being shot or imprisoned and many Reformed folks themselves were in hiding or active in the resistance, church members still took an inflexible stand on relatively minor doctrinal issues.
I didn’t know any of this, until my dad mentioned recently that infant baptism was a contentious topic during the war. “During the war?” I thought. Surely not. Then I started digging. It was first time I had heard of the “other” Liberation. How could 80,000 people all decide, during the grief and danger of war, to abandon home churches over doctrine? It seems foolhardy to precipitate more change during a time of such tumult.
But COVID has given me new understanding of these old quarrels. Stress and uncertainty shrink our patience and test our goodwill. Maybe church doctrine felt like one of the only things left within their control.
I see those same dynamics happening now.
Liberation from the virus began in Quebec City.
December 2020. Six thousand Pfizer doses were shipped from Europe to Montreal, offering Canadians freedom from the threat of infection. Now, like the Dutch waiting for the First Canadian Army, we’re all eagerly tracking the progress of vaccine distribution. But a year of pandemic life has changed us. Stress and uncertainty have shrunk our patience and tested our goodwill. I see it in outraged emails, in bristly online comments. I hear it in the weary, leery voices of friends and family, stepping carefully around today’s landmines – masks, restrictions, vaccines. I feel it in the panicky undercurrent of discussions about the Christian Reformed Church’s Human Sexuality Report.
COVID-19 is testing the fabric of our relationships on every level, and the church is no exception. But it doesn’t have to end in schism. I beg you to pause before sending an angry email, before rolling your eyes, before judging, before lecturing, before taking a final stand. This is not the time to pick the hills worth dying on. We haven’t been together in church buildings for more than a year; this is not the right moment to kick someone out or to storm out. Isolation and loss have eroded our sense of perspective. While people choke for breath, fight despair and battle depression, we should not waste our time on disputes within the church.
Thankfully, a move towards unity happened during the war, too. A beautiful impulse for ecumenism led to the formation of the Canadian Council of Churches on this side of the Atlantic. Peace is the core mission of this group – “right relationships between God, humanity and all of creation.” Now representing 85 percent of Christians in Canada, the Council began with 10 member denominations in September, 1944. Today they still seek to follow Christ’s call for unity and peace.
Next June, in 2022, the Christian Reformed Church might split over implications of the Human Sexuality Report. At least, that’s what I hear many people saying. Frankly, the thought keeps me up at night. And I get it: in emergency mode, “exit” seems like the only solution. It’s happening in other denominations too. But this pandemic won’t last forever – and we won’t solve the problems left in its wake with embattled church communities. Can we learn from Reformed church history to find a better way forward than schismatic debate? Can we find some resources for reconciliation to work through our theological conflicts in a healthy way?
In this issue of Christian Courier and beyond, I am committed to trying. Will you join me?
Not only do hostility and resentment undermine our Christian witness, as pastor Carey Nieuwhof said recently, but “a divided culture needs a united church.”
In other words, our divided culture needs our churches to act counter-culturally – to seek unity in Christ now and in the aftermath of our collective liberation from lockdown.
Research for this article came from many sources, most notably George Harinck’s article, “The Reception of the Liberation of 1944 in Christian Reformed Circles,” from the Free University in Amsterdam. He points out that the Netherlands Reformed Churches apologized for deposing Schilder in 1988, forty years after the war. Schilder died in ’52. The churches remain fragmented to this day.
What shall we then print?
What does it mean to seek unity in Christ, in the context of the Christian Reformed Church’s Human Sexuality Report, in the pages of Christian Courier? As Editor, I think about that question a lot. I wonder, in particular, if you as a reader come to these pages with your mind already made up or not. To paraphrase Francis Schaeffer, what shall we then print?
My goal is to bring a few fresh angles and perspectives to CC, ones that you have perhaps not considered. Your respectful feedback is always welcome at ac.reiruocnaitsirhc@rotide.