The metaphor, “struggle”, is indeed appropriate for the long and chequered history of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa. It brings to mind Paul’s admonition in his letter to the church in Philippi:
“Live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ, … standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel. … For he (God) has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well – since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have” (Ph 1: 27-30, NRSV).
The Christian identity of congregations, understood in a trinitarian, missional way (as Paul does in his letter to Philippi), indeed implies struggle. This struggle should always be rooted in the gospel, and be guided by proper spiritual discernment. In the many struggles of the DRC penultimate concerns often led the church astray. We need to continually pray Paul’s prayer at the outset of the same letter:
“And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God” (Ph 1: 9-11, NRSV).
Let us then endeavour to enquire discerningly about the Christian identity of the DRC and it’s past, present and future struggles.
1. The Christian Identity of Congregations
How would one describe the Christian identity of congregations?
Alan Hirsch, asking why the early Christian church (and the Chinese underground churches) grew so remarkably, answers: “All genuine Christian movements involve at their spiritual ground zero a living encounter with the One True God ‘through whom all things came and through whom we live’ (1 Cor 8:6)…. A God, who in the very moment of redeeming us, claims us as his own through Jesus our Savior” (Hirsch 2006:84).
Hirsch explains how underground Christians movements are stripped form religious clutter, e.g. institutional conceptions of the ecclesia, and are forced back to the core of the message, which they then are able to communicate along primarily relational lines. The core is found in the “substance of genuine biblical monotheism – an existential encounter with the one God who claims and saves us” (2006:86).
Hirsch argues that the confession of Jesus as Lord and Saviour is grounded in Israel’s belief that Yahweh is Lord. Shema Yisrael, “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut 6:4).
The incarnation informs and restructures the practical monotheism of the Old Testament around the central character of the New Testament, Jesus Christ. Our loyalties are now to be given to the Revealer and Saviour. Jesus’ message of the kingdom is the triune God’s claim upon us. It is expressed in by confession: Jesus is Lord. This has serious implications for the identity of the church:
Our identity as a movement, as well as our destiny as a people, is inextricably linked to Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity. That is what makes us distinctly Christ-ian.
At its very heart, Christianity is therefore a messianic movement, one that seeks to consistently embody the life, spirituality and mission of its Founder. We have made it so many other things, but this is its utter simplicity. Discipleship, becoming like Jesus our Lord and Founder, lies at the epicentre of the church’s task. … It also means that in order to recover the ethos of authentic Christianity, we need to refocus our attention back to the root of it all, to recalibrate ourselves and our organizations around the person and work of Jesus the Lord. It will mean taking the Gospels seriously as the primary texts that define us. It will mean acting like Jesus in relation to people outside of the faith…” (2006:94)
This thumbnail summary provides us with a hermeneutical framework to guide us through our discussion of the past, present and future struggles of the DRC in relation to its Christian identity.
2. The DRC as Christendom church
As technical term, Christendom Church refers to the privileged position of the church at the centre of power in society, a position the church in the West enjoyed since the Christian faith became the official state religion of the Roman Empire in 391 A.D. The reformation did not change this basic position (Keifert 2006:30v).
The Dutch Reformed Church came to South Africa with Jan Van Riebeeck in April 1652. It was the only church allowed in the new Dutch outpost, and remained in this position until 1795, when the colony fell into British hands. In the case of the Dutch, the state was the senior partner in the Christendom-fusion and regulated the church in no uncertain terms. Even after 1795, government continued to appoint a political commissioner to attend all church council and other governance meetings to ensure that government’s interests and policy prevailed. This situation came only to an end by 1843.
The Christendom-partnership meant that the Christian identity of the church remained subjected to the political interest of the Dutch governor. This is an important factor for an initial lack of organised missionary work by the church.
With the rise of Afrikaner nationalism in the 20th century and the gaining of political power by the Afrikaner, the DRC once again enjoyed the de facto status of a Christendom state church. During this period the church failed the gospel once again.
The ministry of the DRC was therefore traditionally that of a typical Christendom church, far removed from the ecclesia as a missional Jesus movement. It was powerful, and did not need:
● to cross boundaries,
● to build relationships with outsiders, or
● to cultivate apostolic leadership.
The new political dispensation from 1994 led to a radical and sudden disestablishment of the DRC. Because of its close ties to the previous government, e.g. its
● role in the formulation of government’s racial policies,
● involvement in the formulation of numerous apartheid laws, and
● chaplaincy of military action, aimed at maintaining political power,
the DRC had to endure tremendous shame when the full extent of state sponsored violence, crime and thuggery surfaced during the truth and reconciliation process.
The struggle to come to terms with this disestablishment still defines present reality in the DRC. A loss of membership, social status and financial hardship, illustrated by congregations struggling or dwindling and dying in areas where the church once flourished, underlines the painful reality of its marginalisation. The loss of the power to shape public reality in partnership with government remains a bitter pill to swallow.
One way of coming to terms with new realities is to completely disengage regarding public responsibility by fleeing into faith as a privatised, individualised spiritual-religious experience. There is also a loss of confidence regarding public witness. What guarantees do we have we will not get it wrong again?
A responsible church will embrace its liminality in a time like this, deliberately allow itself to be stripped of its institutionalised Christendom view of the church, and rediscover its identity as serving messianic movement. It’s a time to willingly embrace the dessert-experience, where we can re-connect with the gospel-story, can rediscover the missional God, can be refreshed by a renewed calling, and from where we can be sent into the world on a newly discovered mission, true to the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Lord.
3. Church, missionary work and ethnic diversity
It is also true that the DRC understood itself right from the beginning as responsible for missionary work. It was expected of pastors and comforters of the sick to share the faith with heathen. It took, however, more than a century for strategically structured missionary work to start.
At first, individual members took responsibility to instruct the Hottentotte and other indigenous people like the Khoi in God’s Word. The first Hottentot, a woman called Krotoa, was baptised in 1662. Slaves were instructed in the Christian faith at the daily family devotions. Slave-owners were generally not eager to have slaves baptised, for the simple reason that adult slaves were set free after their baptism and public confession of faith (Marais 1984:30v).
For the first two hundred years new converts from the Hottentotte, Bushmen and slaves to Christianity became members of the local church. No special provision was made for separate ministry to them, and they shared in the table community when the Lord’s Supper was celebrated.
Towards the end of the 18th century the dawn of missionary zeal manifested in Europe and spread to the Cape Colony. Local congregations took their missionary task seriously. Various missionary agencies, mostly from abroad, but also a South African mission society (founded in 1799), became partners for the church’s missionary calling.
The first Synod of the Cape Colony (1824) instituted a special missionary office, with an ordination to administer the sacraments to heathen converts in the congregations formed through their missionary endeavours. These converts (all of them people of colour) would now become members of separate congregations. This was not a separate church, for when a member departed to an area where no such mission congregation existed, his membership was transferred to the local DRC congregation. The missionary societies also contributed to this pattern of separate ministry, for missiological reasons.
Since 1824 two ministry strategies towards converts existed: the one was to assimilate converts into existing congregations, and the second one to differentiate – the formation of separate congregations with separate buildings or foundations (Marais 1984:80; Van der Watt 1980:112).
During the 19th century prejudice against people of colour, always present right from the beginning in 1652, rose dramatically. In this vein a few rural congregations asked in 1829 for separate facilities for black converts, especially at the Lord’s table. Synod refused, saying that the Lord’s Supper should be administered to all baptised members “without distinction of colour”. (Smit 2007b:28).
It was at the Synod of 1857 where the principle of separate places of gathering for people of colour became official church policy, due to the infamous “weakness of some”. This “weakness” was the refusal of white people to celebrate holy communion in the presence of people of colour. The decision of 1857 is recognised today as a pivotal point in the development of the DRC’s mission policy, and in the later development of the ideology of apartheid.
The concession of 1857 soon became standard practice, and eventually determined the church order. The policy of separate ministry led to the NG Mission Church (founded 1881) and later the black DRC in Africa (1915) and the Reformed Church in Africa for people of Indian ethnic origin (1970’s).
What started out well – congregations doing missionary work and assimilating converts into their ministry – ended in a nightmare due to racial and cultural prejudice.
Let us fast-forward to present reality. Today, the DRC is involved in a tense struggle to undo these unbiblical choices of the past in a process of church re-unification.
Church re-unification proves to be a very difficult, complex task. The current strategy focus on the integration of formal governance structures, while cultivating organic unity at all levels in a unified church.
The process is under pressure. A recent process of consultation in the DRC (towards the end of 2007) suggests a 50/50 split in support for a unified model of church governance. The Confession of Belhar remains a stumbling block for many members in the white DRC. Huge support for mutual ministry projects exists, and mutual ministry endeavours are steadily growing as normal ministry practise in the DRC-family of churches.
There is work to be done. Because congregations are self-theologizing units, we need to guide and to challenge them to develop a theology of Christian unity. How does unity relate to the very nature of God? What is the link between church unification and the basic plot of the gospel? How does the mission of the church relate to unity?
Church unification presupposes a radical formation of Christian community across all kinds of racial and other barriers. The re-unification of governance structures, is but a small part of the radical transformation involved in being born by faith in the Lord Jesus into the one family of God. A radical unity of being together, of sharing in each other’s lives as we share in the life of the trinity, is what the Gospel calls for.
4. Church and apartheid
The present struggle to re-unify the DRC Family of Churches comes at the end of the period of the unfortunate theological justification of apartheid by the DRC.
Between 1924 and 1938 the ideal of apartheid as total segregation was formulated. It was a period of social upheaval. The poor-White problem was increasing. Urbanization caused social and psychological dislocation for formerly rural Afrikaner people and a sense of rivalry with black people also flooding to the cities and mines.
Local Afrikaner theologies developed to support and popularise nationalistic notions. Particularly important was the role of neo-Calvinism. The emphasis on pluriformity in creation, stressed by Abraham Kuyper, a Reformed theologian in the Netherlands, played a major role. Each race had a God-given responsibility to maintain its identity. Each “people” was “chosen” for a specific “calling”. Accordingly each people also had a natural right to survival and self-determination.
A series of church, ecumenical and missionary conferences from the 1920’s to the 1940’s dealt with the challenge to organise Afrikaner political and economic power. Representatives of Afrikaner churches increasingly appealed to government for laws to protect the rights to cultural, ethnic and national survival and self-determination. Scriptural “proofs” were provided to legitimate the ideology. There was a clear development from pragmatic support for segregation and separate churches for missiological purposes to a full-scale theological framework giving biblical sanction to a total ideology. Gradually “nation” was used as a hermeneutical tool. The church was seen in terms of the nation. The unity of believers was regarded as a spiritual reality only (Smit 2007:27-39).
Once again, we meet a church which compromised its Christian identity.
A long and hard church struggle against apartheid ensued, in which Reformed churches played an important role. The DR Mission Church rejected the ideology of apartheid in 1978 as in conflict with the gospel’s message of reconciliation. In 1982 the DRMC declared a status confessiones and drafted the Belhar confession, confessing God as the God of one church, of reconciliation and of justice. In 1994 the DRMC and DRCA united to form the Uniting Reformed Church, with a church order explicitly based on the Belhar Confession.
The tide also slowly turned in the DRC in the years since 1980. In 1986 racism was declared a sin by the General Synod of the DRC. Prof Willie Jonker publicly confessed the sin of apartheid on behalf of the DRC at the Rustenburg ecumenical church meeting in 1990. In 1994 General Synod decided to seek unification with the other members of the DRC Family of Churches.
The struggle in the DRC against the ideology of apartheid is not yet complete. The church officially confessed its sin and repented of its theological justification of apartheid. It deserves ample recognition for this courageous act, but racism still remains a reality in the church.
We are in dire straits as a South African nation. We need leadership from the church. The recent walg-video of the shaming initiation of black workers in an Afrikaner hostel at the University of the Free State testify to the fact that churches failed to teach it’s young, those born right at the end of the apartheid era, what it means to be non-racial and to treat all people as being created in the image of God.
We need a reconnection to the biblical narrative, we need to be shaped by the Son of God who became flesh in order to serve us and to bring us all in communion with God, taking away our shame and our sin.
5. Church and modernity
A few concluding remarks on the DRC and modernity. Modernity influenced the church at various junctions in its past, e.g. in the 19th century when critical European enlightenment theology were popularised in South Africa by DRC-pastors, a scenario which currently repeats itself.
Three examples of challenges posed by modernity:
1. The private / public split of modernity may trap churches in a spirituality focused on the self, the inner needs and fulfilment of the individual believer. This may be true of liturgy and worship, and may support new forms of apathy regarding South African realities and public life.
2. Developments within critical theological scholarship in the 19th century impacted in recent times on the DRC. It strengthens the idea of a disenchanted world (Max Weber) and may further processes of secularization.
3. In the economic sphere the free market in the form of global capitalism seems to be the reigning idol (Smith 2007a:12). The consumer society may prove to be a much more powerful force in the spiritual formation of people than the gospel.
6. Concerning the future
What lies ahead? What is God’s preferred future for the church, the future that focuses our obedience to the Lord Jesus?
The DRC is currently officially is a Season of Listening – listening to God, to each other, to outsiders and those marginalised for various reasons. Listening is the proper discerning leadership skill for times like these. It signifies a proper humility.
The DRC needs a fresh understanding and deep experience of being called and sent by God to the South African context. It needs to be shaped by the gospel of the Son of God who did not hesitate to become a slave, willingly giving up everything He had in order to free us and bring us into the shared life of the Trinity.
To quote Alan Hirsch again:
We need to refocus our attention back to the root of it all, to recalibrate ourselves and our organizations around the person and work of Jesus the Lord. It will mean taking the Gospels seriously as the primary texts that define us. It will mean acting like Jesus in relation to people outside of the faith…” (2006:94)
Hirsch, A 2008. The forgotten ways. Brazos Press: Grand Rapids
Keifert, P 2006. We are here now – a new missional era. Allelon Publishing: Eagle
Marais, DF 1984. Die Sinode van 1857 en die instituering van afsonderlike kerkverbande onder leiding van die NG Kerk: ‘n Sending-historiese verantwoording. Unpublished M.Th. dissertation.
Smit, DJ, 2007a. Mainline Protestantism in South Africa – and modernity? Unpublished paper.
Smit DJ, 2007b. Essays on public theology. Sun Publishers: Stellenbosch.
Van der Watt, PB 1980. Die NG Kerk Band 2. NGKU: Pretoria