Conscience and the Coates Trial

Monday, May 3, James Coates takes the stand to defend his conscientious objections to public health orders and their effects on his congregation.

In October, 2014, the current Premier of Alberta, Jason Kenney, delivered an address to the annual Red Mass dinner hosted by the Thomas More Lawyers’ Guild of Toronto. It was entitled “Conscience Versus the Spirit of the Age.” It was a reflection on the life, legacy and lessons of St. Thomas More.

He describes the nature of Thomas More’s reason for martyrdom well: “Saint Thomas More suffered martyrdom because he insisted that there was a limit to the King’s lawful authority, namely that he had to respect the freedom of the Church, guaranteed by the very nature of the State and the nature of the Church. These ancient principles were recognized in the first article of the Magna Carta, which guaranteed the Church’s freedom.” (italics mine) He writes later: “The spirit of the age can be a powerful juggernaut that is wont to run roughshod over the consciences of those who would resist it.” He concludes with a quote from Pope John Paul on the life of St. Thomas More: “Above all, he never compromised his conscience, even to the point of making the supreme sacrifice so as not to disregard its voice.”

It is a different age, a different time, a different culture than that of St. Thomas More. But as Kenney points out in his fine lecture, the conscience still plays a role in Canadian society: “The witness of conscience, including the consciences of people of faith, therefore offers a valuable contribution to the common good of society, and has certainly made a positive contribution to the development of Canada these past 150 years.”

As Luther pointed out in the year 1521, four years after he nailed the 95 theses to the door of the Church in Wittenburg, Germany, conscience must be bound by the Word of God. As he stood before church authorities that had allied with civil authorities to suppress the growing dissent, he stood up on the podium and stated these famous words: “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and by plain reason and not by Popes and councils who have so often contradicted themselves, my conscience is captive to the word of God. To go against conscience is neither right nor safe. I cannot and I will not recant. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.”

We are facing new issues as a society. The sweeping lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 are yet untested in history. The evidence of the dangers of lockdowns are mounting. Many pastors and elders have voiced their conscientious objections and a number of churches have acted on their conscientious objections to the various restrictions that have impeded and even shut down movement to and from the assembly. These voices echo the warnings of men who warned of this kind of authoritarianism in modern governments at the beginning of the 1900s: such as J. Gresham Machen and Abraham Kuyper. They also reflect the Biblical command to gather before the Lord in repentance and to ask for mercy and to care for one another in times of need.

As Coates takes the stand in the province of Alberta, I trust that Premier Kenney will remember his lecture in Toronto 7 years ago.

May every church leader reach the end of life and be able to confess with the Apostle Paul these words and receive their commendation from God Himself: “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.” (I Cor. 4:1-5)

Photo by Eliecer Gallegos on Unsplash

Decision Making in Tumultuous Times

Here are some notes I took down for an alumni lecture that Dr. Ben Merkle gave alumni from New Saint Andrews College. There should be a video coming out soon. These are just my notes:

God is shaking things. God is sharpening things.

You are called to be faithful with the matter in front of you.

Don’t let precision get in the way of being decisive. The choice is right now. Don’t let your decisiveness take away your ability to see clearly. A good leader embraces both.

Academics tend to be precise. Business men tend to be decisive.

These types of leadership clash. They should not be opposed but you should be able to grab both sides and pull them together.

Mute the crowd and make your decision before God. Is a case decided by the evidence or the volume of the crowd?

The crowd is increasingly employed against godly faithfulness.

You have to sit there and turn off the crowd in the court-room of your mind before God as judge.

Prayer is a good place to find the mute button. You are getting men out of your vision and filling your sight with God.

Know that today’s work will be sharpened tomorrow. You don’t need to solve tomorrows problems. But today’s decision will be refined tomorrow.

God brings great growth through great sharpening. The thing that comes out of it is the thing that explodes.

Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash

A Buffet of Virtue

Welcome in. Pick your virtue. What is your preference? What comes to you most naturally?

There is a lot of discussion at large about some of the challenges that churches are facing right now. Some are letting off the war-cry for courageous action. Others are calling for wisdom in both speech and action.

In the cacophony of voices some get called “cowards” and others get called “unwise”. It might be real cowardice or folly. It might be a disposition of character. Sometimes Christian principle gets lost in the malaise of virtue signalling and virtue scorning.

There does come a time to challenge Christians on a lack of various Christian virtues. That time may have already come. Maybe on a case by case basis as well. Even the godliest among Christian men and women need to be reminded frequently and daily to ask our Heavenly Father for the fruit of the Spirit and the ability to lead wise and courageous lives.

Before I jump to the matter of courage and wisdom, my central question is this: what are you doing and why are you doing it? Do you have a Biblical, historical, confessional, and pastoral rationale for what you are doing (Biblical is central)? If you are just trying to be courageous or wise, that doesn’t really answer the question. In a worldly sense, you can be wise and bought out by vain philosophy and empty deceit. You can be courageous and have the intellectual and Biblical maturity of a 12 year old.

That is the thing with Christian virtues. They are Christian virtues. They are not Greek or Dutch or Canadian virtues. We are not sophists or stoics or secularists. We are Christians. And when a Christian thinks about courage he or she is thinking of the Book of Joshua or the Book of Acts. When a Christian thinks about wisdom he or she is thinking about the book of James.

The Christian, when looking at Scripture is looking at principles that fill all of Scripture and not just a small portion of Scripture. When Protestants teach sola Scripture, that does not mean that we reject tota Scriptura. All the principles of Scripture come to bear on a specific matter at hand as we look to Christ for wisdom and courage to serve Him with a glad and joyful heart.

Is it possible to be a man (or a woman) who is not just wise but also courageous, not just courageous but also wise? What about boldness, or the ability to speak with clarity, in tense situations? What about gentleness? The fruit of the Spirit is one fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Whether you have a peaceful or fiery temperament, is it possible to have this fruit of the Spirit and various other Christian virtues in effect? What are your weaknesses that might relate to your temperament?

If you look at James 1, wisdom is developed in the face of trial, as the Christian seeks wisdom from God in the hour of need. But that is a wisdom that leads to a “groundedness.” This groundedness is at odds with compromise. If you look at Joshua 1, the basis for strength, and courage is that God is with you wherever you go. It is not a self-reliance that is to be boasted in. That pride is at odds with godly courage. Both wisdom and courage come from the Father of Lights (James 1:17). Courage and humility and wisdom are complementary. They are not at odds.

In Proverbs we find that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10). But courage also begins with the fear of the Lord, or at least not fearing men (Deut. 31:6).

Also important to remember. Niceness is not a virtue. Kindness or gentleness are virtues. Brashness is not a virtue. Courage and boldness are virtues. Vain philosophy and empty deceit will not lead to Christian wisdom. But a love for the authority of God’s Word will lead to Christian wisdom. The temperature of American or Canadian culture is not the test for wisdom or courage. Rather, a longing for the Lord and a fear of Him, is the beginning of all Christian virtue.

Conflict doesn’t necessarily mean that a person in conflict is unwise. Otherwise the Apostles were unwise throughout the Book of Acts. Lack of conflict doesn’t necessarily mean that a person in times of peace is a coward. Sometimes it takes courage to maintain peace. Again. What are you doing and why are you doing it? Do you think I am wrong? Let’s open our Bibles together. Let the Spirit convict me that I am a coward or unwise.

In the current climate of Canadian culture in particular, those who speak about wisdom may need more courage, and those who speak about courage may need more wisdom. But at the end of the day we all need the Word of the God and the fear of the Lord and His strength to speak with both courage and wisdom in a culture where principles are so often based on the direction that the wind is blowing.

And so it comes back to Biblical principle. Principled men who love the Lord will ask Him for not just certain virtues but all the virtues. But they will never compromise their Biblical principles in that search for courage and wisdom.

Only then will we do what is right. Only then will we be the Church. Only then will we find true peace under the cross. Only then will we live in joyful obedience and submission as the bride of Christ to Jesus Christ and His Word. In that submission you get the whole buffet.

I will conclude with a word from Abraham Kuyper: “When principles that run against your deepest convictions begin to win the day, then battle is your calling, and peace has become sin; you must, at the price of dearest peace, lay your convictions bare before friend and enemy, with all the fire of your faith.”

Photo by Benjamin Ashton on Unsplash

What do GraceLife and James Coates have to do with Reformed Churches?

Over the course of the last 3 months, an Alberta pastor spent some time in prison. Following his release, he is scheduled to go to trial on May 3-5. His Church, GraceLife Church of Edmonton, is now meeting in an alternate location now that AHS and RCMP officers in Alberta have shut down their building. If I had told you that this would happen in February 2020, I would have been called a conspiracy theorist, or told that I am fear-mongering.

I don’t know Pastor James Coates, or any of his elders, or any of the members in this congregation. So I can’t really vouch for their characters or persons on an “I know that guy” basis. I know the area somewhat having interned in churches in Parkland County and having worked a little further away out of Grande Prairie. But I was not in Alberta long enough to have a thorough understanding of the region.

If you read through all the news sources on this brother and his congregation, it appears that they have proven themselves to be above reproach in many ways. Of course, their incessant refusal to follow health orders in the assembly of believers for worship appears to have warranted the reproach of the premier, public health officials and many pastors and churches throughout Alberta. Each reproach comes from its own unique angle. At the end of the day, these brothers do still have legal protections within the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the criminal code.

There have been a number of news reports and articles released that range all the way from inflammatory, to balanced, to defamatory.

Does every church have to do exactly what GraceLife is doing? Of course not. But every church should be seeking to learn from the GraceLife debacle. And there are things for Reformed Churches to learn as well.

  1. There is a debate of over certain principles in the Reformed Churches (re the 5th commandment). There are three basic camps 1) Obey the government; 2) Submit to the government; 3) Rebel against the government. I would contend against the third option, but I understand where people are coming from in both the first and the second camp. It appears that James Coates and his elders are in the second camp as much as many want to put them in the third camp. James Coates and GraceLife have shown a willingness to submit to the government in this situation, especially by submitting to judicial process. But this has warranted a critique from certain leaders in Reformed Churches that they are not following the command of Christ because they are not obeying the governing authorities.
  2. There is a shift in how authority is understood and used in North America as reflected in this thoughtful article by MLA Drew Barnes. Part of this shift in authority is seen in the continued shift away from Christian principles for government towards secular principles for government. The Church and it’s officers no longer hold a central role in the community. It is one of many faith groups. It’s officers hold just one opinion among many faith leaders. Churches that were once approached respectfully as an authoritative body and even took in the sick and infirm are increasingly separated into a private sphere.
  3. There is a heavier emphasis on technocratic powers in North America at expense of the more Biblical focus on courts and those who run them as the proper authorities. This means that society is governed by technical experts. Rather than simply receiving advice from various experts, those experts are given un-elected authority through various emergency response measures. These experts may be experts in their various fields like science, but they are usually not experts in law, economics, or religion. Nevertheless, government officials continue to make theological statements about the nature of worship.

I would love to sit around the table with Pastor Coates and other Reformed pastors in Canada who have taken the position of critics. I am sure that there would be a great and animated discussion. Many of us have similar concerns over how the last year has affected not only churches but also individuals. Some questions for discussion:

What does ministry look like in this brave new world? What does Jesus want from His servants? What does it mean to be the Church? What is the authority that Jesus has given His office-bearers in the sanctuary? What role do we hold in the sanctuary in both Scripture and the Reformed confessions? How can we be a salt and a light for King Jesus in a world where there is so much apostasy, loneliness, abuse, mental illness, confusion, anger, depression, sorrow? Is it possible to be apart, but also together? How can we stir each other up to love and good works in real and tangible ways? What are necessary risks that Jesus calls us to take for the advance of the gospel? Is the gospel advancing? What losses are churches taking? How and why? Above all, what does it look like to place the highest importance on obedience to Jesus Christ and His Word in the world that we live in?

Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

Historical Introduction to the Belgic Confession: de Bres’ Letter to King Phillip II of Spain in Defense of the Doctrine and Practice of the Reformers

Below, I have copied and pasted the original introduction to the Belgic Confession that Guido de Bres wrote to King Phillip II of Spain in defense of the doctrine and practice of the Reformed Churches. The purpose of this introduction is stated clearly within the introduction: “in order that we may demonstrate our innocence concerning the crimes with which we are charged.” de Bres eventually died in a prison, as he described it “on account of the Son of God.”

You can find a short history along with my source here. If you want to learn more about the teachings that he was willing to die for, you can find them in the Belgic Confession here. De Bres of course, lived during a unique time of history with its own pitfalls and circumstances, but you find here principles for fidelity to Jesus Christ and His Word in any age.

Guido De Brès’ Letter to Philip II of Spain
Appended to the Belgic Confession

translated by Marvin Kamps

If it were granted to us, O most gracious Lord,1 to present ourselves before your Majesty, in order that we may demonstrate our innocence concerning the crimes with which we are charged, and to demonstrate the righteousness of our cause: we would not seek this secret means in order to make known to you the bitter laments of your people by means of a silent petition or a written confession. We do so in this manner only because our enemies have filled your ears with so many false complaints and reports that we were not only prevented to appear before your face personally, but also chased out of your lands, murdered, and burned in whatever place we were found. At the very least, most gracious Lord, bestow to us in the name of God the privilege that no man may deny even beasts, namely, to permit our cries of complaint to reach your ears as it were from afar; so that, if having heard us, Your Majesty should judge us guilty, let the fires then be increased in number and let the pains and torments be multiplied in thy kingdom. On the contrary, if our innocence is revealed to you, let our innocence be recognized as a support and a refuge against the violence of our enemies.

For alas, most gracious Lord, if men need only charge others with evil and thereby every means of protection be denied the accused, who will be found righteous? Whose innocence among all the people will be established? We are, they say, disobedient insurrectionists desiring nothing other than to destroy all political and civil rule and to introduce into the world confusion and disorder. Besides they claim that we desire not only to liberate ourselves from your rule and power but also to rip the sceptre from your hands. O the crimes alleged, which are unworthy of our confession, unworthy of a Christian man, unworthy of the common name of humanity; worthy only that the ancient proverb of the tyrants be presented anew: “The Christians to the beasts.”

However, it is not enough merely to accuse; everything lies in the proof. The prophets, the apostles, and even those of the early churches of Jesus Christ were troubled, yea, according to the external viewpoint and carnal judgment of men, they were oppressed with similar slanders. But even as they had openly testified and protested in their time, so also do we protest and testify now before God and His angels that we desire nothing higher than to live according to the purity of our consciences in obedience under the authorities, to serve God and to reform ourselves according to His Word and holy commandments.

Besides these hidden testimonies of our consciences, those who hold office and pass sentence and judgment in legal proceedings would be good witnesses that they never observed anything in us that leaned towards disobedience, nor did they discover in us the resolve in any way to militate against your Majesty, nor did they find anything that would disturb the common peace. Rather, they found that in our communal assemblies we pray for the kings and princes of the earth and in particular for you, O most gracious Lord, and for those whom you have authorized in the regime and ruling offices of the regions and countries of your domain. For we have been taught not only by God’s Word but also through the constant instruction of our preachers that the kings, princes, and authorities are appointed by the ordinance of God. Besides, we have been taught that he that resists the magistrates resists the ordinance of God and will receive damnation. We acknowledge and maintain that by the eternal wisdom of God the kings rule and the princes determine justice.

Briefly stated, we believe that they have their office not through injustice2 or despotism, but by God’s own appointment. In order to demonstrate that this is not merely the word of our lips but that it is a conviction most deeply impressed and imprinted upon our hearts, we ask: who has ever been found among us who has refused you, most gracious Lord, the tribute or tax required of him? On the contrary, obedience to pay was as quickly granted as the command was given. What cache of weapons, what conspiracy was ever uncovered, even when we had been subjected to such cruel pains and torment by those who have clothed themselves in your name and power to commit every cruelty against us? These torments were so excruciating that it was enough to vex the patience of the most benevolent and meekest persons and to change their dispositions to wrath and despair. However, we thank our God that the blood of our brothers that was shed for our cause—or rather, for the cause of Jesus Christ and the witness to the truth—cries out on our behalf. For truly all the banishments, imprisonments, racks, tortures, and other innumerable oppressions testify clearly that our desire and conviction is not carnal, since, according to the flesh, we could have had it much more comfortable if we had not taken a stand for these doctrines.

However, since we had the fear of God before our eyes and thus dreading the threat of Jesus Christ, who says that He will deny us before God His Father, should we deny Him before men: we offer our backs to the whip’s lash, our tongues to the knives, the mouth to the muzzle, and the whole body to the flames. For we know that whoever will follow Christ must take up his cross and deny himself. Never would a well-disciplined soul, that is, one who is not spiritually blind or robbed of his senses, contemplate the upheaval of forsaking one’s land, one’s relatives, and one’s friends, in order to be able to live in peace and tranquillity. Never would a spiritually sound person purpose to suffer for the gospel’s sake by seeking to remove the king’s crown or by resolving to oppose him by means of deceit, for in the gospel we read: give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.

Rather these believers, while offering and abandoning their bodies and their goods to the King, humbly supplicate his Majesty that it may be granted them to render obedience to God in what He requires. For we have not the right nor may we refuse to obey Him, because He hath made us and purchased us for Himself through the payment of the most dear price of infinite worth.

It is also not necessary that you should feel obligated to listen to the views of our enemies. They grievously abuse your goodness and patience by claiming that we do not openly oppose you as King only because we are so few in number. They allege also that each one of us in his heart is disobedient and rebellious, only waiting for the majority of the people to bring his fanaticism into action causing him to pounce violently upon you. For let them twist and pervert the facts as much as they will, we assure you, most gracious Lord, that in your Netherlands there are more than one hundred thousand men maintaining and following the religion, the confession of which we now deliver to you. Nevertheless, in none of these persons was ever seen any preparation for revolt. Indeed, never a word was heard from these persons that would lead to insurrection.

We have spoken, most gracious Lord, of the great number of our brothers not to cause your minor officers and servants any fear or terror, but rather to refute the slanders of those who through lies could make those who do not envy us to do so.3 Besides, we have thus spoken to move you to pity. For sadly, if you stretch forth your powerful hand to wash it in the blood of so many people, before God, what devastation will it work in your subjects, what wounds in your people, what weeping, what lament, what groaning by the women, by the children, and by family and friends? Who shall be able to behold with eyes dry and not bathed in tears, many honourable citizens, loved by all and hated by none, delivered over to dark and dreadful imprisonments, endure the oppressions and tortures ending in the most shameful torments and death more cruel and barbaric than were ever invented by the heathen and by ungodly tyrants? while their wives, if they are able to flee, wander about in foreign countries, begging for bread from door to door with their little children clinging to their neck?

O most gracious Lord, may it not be that posterity describes your reign as bloody and cruel. May no one say that the honour of your ancestors, the greatness of your father, and your own virtues and piety were darkened by a cruelty, a cruelty I say, natural to the beasts but unworthy of man. It would be a cruelty contradicting what a prince and ruler should be, whose greatness and true piety are expressed especially by kindness and compassion—the genuine marks of distinction between a true king and a tyrant.

As regards the persecution that we endure not only as enemies of your crown and of the common good, but also as enemies of God and of His church, we humbly petition you carefully to judge this matter according to our confession of faith that we present to you being ever ready and willing, if it be necessary, to seal it with our own blood. Through this confession, as we hope, you will acknowledge that we are unjustly vilified as schismatics or as disturbers of the unity of society, as disobedient and as heretics, since we are committed to and confess not only the most fundamental points of the Christian faith that are contained in the symbols of the common faith but also the whole doctrine revealed by Jesus Christ for a life of righteousness and salvation. This doctrine was preached by the evangelists and apostles, sealed in the blood of so many martyrs, preserved purely and wholly in the early church; until it was corrupted through the ignorance, greed, and the lust for praise of the preachers, through human discoveries and human institutions contrary to the purity of the gospel.

Our opponents shamelessly deny that this gospel is the power of God unto salvation and reject all those who believe it, when they condemn and murder us because we do not receive what is not found in it. Nor are they innocent of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit when they assert that the entire treasure of the wisdom of God and the means abundantly sufficient to our salvation are not contained and present in the Old and New Testaments. Rather they claim that their inventions are necessary; that we are accursed and not worthy of the natural fellowship among men, but only worthy to be put to death in the body and pressed down in our souls into the abyss of hell. While ignoring the truth, our enemies hold their inventions to be of equal or even of higher esteem and worth than the gospel.

The weakness of our flesh staggers before these words, terrified by the threats of those who have the power to reduce our bodies to ashes. But on the other hand, we hear what the apostle says: “Though an angel should descend from heaven and preach to us something other than that gospel you have received, he is accursed.” We hear Saint John, who concludes his prophecy with these words: “For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book; if anyone adds to them, God will lay upon him the plagues that are written in this book.” Briefly stated, we see that we are commanded to follow God’s Word alone and not whatever seems right to us; for we are forbidden to add to or to detract from the holy commandments of the great God. Jesus Christ tells us that He has given to us all that which He had heard from His Father; and if He were silent (because of the weakness of the apostles) about something that He had promised to reveal to us through the Holy Spirit whom He would send to us, we are assured (because He is the Truth itself) that He has kept that promise. The promised mysteries were made known and are contained in the Gospels and the writings of the apostles, after the aforesaid promise was made and the Holy Spirit was poured out. It appears by this fact, that those individuals misuse this passage of Scripture, who by this word “mysteries” understand, (something the apostles did not and could not endure) their own ceremonies and useless superstitions, contrary to God’s Word.

We merely present it, even though their errors would be easy to demonstrate by means of the testimony of Scripture (but we are admonished to use the means and brevity in a letter that is appropriate), for we fear to be bothersome to your Majesty. We humbly petition you, in the very Name of the one who has established and preserved you in your kingdom, that you do not permit those in authority who are overcome by greed, lust for honour and praise of men, and other evil inclinations, to use your arm, authority, and power to satisfy their lusts, satiating and filling it with the blood of your subjects who are praised for their genuine zeal for the fear of God and His service. For they would persecute us on the grounds of the evil charge that we are guilty of insurrection, desertion, and other offences, with which they inflame you against us.

However, most gracious Lord, consider, has it not always been true that the world hated the light and opposed the truth; and that he who speaks this word of truth faithfully is considered guilty of insurrection, because people incite others to oppose him? On the contrary, one must attribute the tumult and offence to the one who has been the implacable enemy of God and men, namely the Devil, who, not willing to lose his kingdom, which exists in idolatry, the false worship of God, whoredom, and other innumerable errors forbidden by the gospel, raises tumult and opposition everywhere in order to resist the progress of the gospel. Add to that the ingratitude of the world, which, instead of thankfully receiving the Word of her Master, her shepherds, and her God, causes her to oppose the same because of, among other reasons that could be mentioned, the long time that she has lived in unfaithfulness and error. The world of unbelief wilfully resists, through prescription of the spirit of the ages, Him who has made the world and the ages and for which all thanks is due.

It belongs to you, most gracious Lord, it belongs to you to have knowledge of these matters in order that you may oppose the errors, no matter how intractable, being deeply rooted in the ages. It belongs to you to protect the innocence of those who have been more oppressed than heard in their just cause. In this manner, the Lord will bless and preserve you. The Lord lift up His face and cause it to shine upon you, protect and maintain you in all prosperity. Amen.

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How Far We Are Bound to Obey the Magistrate

Taylor Bredenhof

Theodore Beza’s Confession (1560) : Article 43 of the Sixth Point

“43. How Far We Are Bound to Obey the Magistrate

As there is no faithful man except from the obedience which he owes to Jesus Christ reigning in His church, whether it is a king, prince or subject, so there is no one from the greatest to the least who does not owe voluntary obedience to his magistrate as ordained by God (Rom. 13; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13–14), even if the magistrate is a tyrant, except in one point only, i.e., he commands you to do things which are against the Word of God. For in this case (as the apostles said), we must obey God rather than men, for otherwise we exalt men above God (Acts 4:19–20). Then, it is not rebellion to disobey princes when they would cause us to do what God forbids or to…

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The Tragedy of the “Leaders”: A Pastor’s Reflections on the Reformed (Gereformeerd) Churches in the early 1940s

Below I have transcribed another piece of writing from Hermanus Knoop entitled “The Tragedy of the ‘Leaders.” It is from the book “A Theatre in Dachau.” You can find the book here with Inheritance Publications in Neerlandia, Alberta. You will find the piece that I have transcribed on p. 67-73. It is by Rev. Hermanus Knoop with an introduction by Dr. Klaas Schilder.

In this piece, you see Knoop’s keen awareness that there is not one square inch over which Jesus as Lord does not declare “mine!” The influence of Kuyperian thought lived on even though it’s principles all but died out in the early 40s. All of human life is to be lived under the Lordship of Christ. Right around this time, Knoop’s German colleague and contemporary, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was also teaching the call of discipleship, and the heavy consequences or costs for following that call of the gospel. Whether Dutch or German, the confession of the Christian Church during WWII, was that Jesus is Lord.

Rev. Hermanus Knoop writes with a certain ethos (character) and pathos (emotion) since he wrote having experienced the horrors of the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau. Knoop describes a distinct time of history that had distinct challenges. There are timeless principles in here for leaders in various positions and strata in society in every age. You see the continuing fire of Knoop’s Biblical and Reformed conviction as well as his prophetic awareness, following this age of compromise in the Church.

The Tragedy of the ‘Leaders’

The well-known Czech statesman Masaryk was asked by a journalist, upon receiving word that he had been appointed president of Czechsolovakia, whether or not he was happy with the distinction. “Happy?” he answered. “No, I am not happy, but I have a feeling that we may not be disappointing.” That is the language of one who is not ambitious for a political plume or a post of honour, but is deeply conscious of his great calling and is, therefore, fully conscious of his great responsibility. Being a true leader is a matter of great responsibility, which one must assume with its most dire consequences, and therefore is at the same time a mater of sacrifice. True leadership means being a devotee, sacrificing that which is most precious and dear. A leader lives solely for those whom he must lead. To him the words of Brand apply: “Though you should offer all but life, your sacrifice is nothing still.”

He who is called to be a leader and is not ready to accept the extreme consequences had better not accept the task. He is nothing more than a disappointing jumping-jack, not fit for the task. He is a despicable seeker of sinecures who toys with duty and gambles with his appointed trust for the sake of personal advantage, gain, and glory. He is a filthy bankrupt who should be brought to justice for swindling. He does not care at all if he causes disappointment.

How glorious it would have been, and how significant and different, if all those who were called to leadership in the Reformed (Gereformeerd) Churches, in any sphere of life, had given evidence of such a deep consciousness of their calling during the German occupation! Instead, a disturbing lack of leadership came to light. Ability and character did not prove able to cover each other. Again, as of old, it was the ‘little people’ who stood immovable, while many who had such preeminence over the ‘little people’ either simply toppled over, quickly got off their leader’s seats, or tried, by shifting and fitting, by yielding step by step, to save their own little affairs. Or else they were conspicuously absent from field or highway. Were not journalists, politicians, preachers, and officers of various organizations duty-bound to give leadership and guidance to the Christian people as it sought for guidance in the great difficulty in which it suddenly found itself?

Surely they had the right to expect every leader to speak up saying, “Here we are, you can depend on us. We are attacking; follow us! Now it is as never before, but you are not alone.” This was the fire-test of their principles which showed what they were really worth to us. This was also the fire-test which showed what we were worth. Right now, especially now, we had to live from those principles, whatever the cost. With tact, surely, but also with firmness and stability. That is how it should have been. That would have been a feast in the midst of our great sorrow. But did they live up to that expectation? Alas, very many did not. They would have moved mountains if they had possessed faith as a mustard seed. They would have lived up to it if they had lived in the strong consciousness of their calling of responsibility now, of self-sacrificing devotion now. They would have lived up to it if the principles they preached had been a part of their flesh and blood. But, alas, it appeared that for many this was not the case, and therefore in our own circles we had to behold the tragedy of the “leaders.” We were witnesses of the desertion of many who were called to be leaders, or at least whom we had always considered as leaders. We discerned the faithlessness and cowardice of many who had climbed to a seat of leadership, and clung to it as a cramped clutch. So we discerned that they did not carry the feeling that they must not cause disappointment.

Oh, how they did cause disappointment, many of those ‘leaders’ who did not prove worthy of this privilege of grace! Did they ever really for one moment foster that inner anxiety which says, “If only we do not cause disappointment.” but it was only when there were no clouds in the sky that they were such principled men. Before the war, when elections were again at hand, they gave deeply principled guidance. They were favourite speakers at mass-meetings. The youth-meetings received their enthusiastic enlightenment. They battled with words, hard words, and witty words, against the principles of the N.S.B., because these conflicted with Scripture. They forcefully called men to battle, to stand for the antithesis. But at that time it was quite easy and brought them no small profit. But when the sky began to turn cloudy, did they offer their freedom, their lives, their position, their honour?

Then God finally deemed it time to purge His threshing floor. When their fire-test in the shape of the German occupation came, where did they stay? What did they do? Were they equal tot he test? God blew down all their display and appearance of sufficiency.

Yes, indeed, it was the tragedy of the “leaders.”

That was the great offense of which I had to take note for about a year and a half before my imprisonment – an offense which I often mentioned in my preaching. I heard our people complain in great vexation that they had looked to their highly beloved and trusted leaders for guidance, but had been failed by them. I saw their deep consternation when they discovered that the leaders had either disappeared or had begun to negotiate with the enemy, and were trying to save the situation for themselves by the policy of yielding, rather than letting them demolish; or were giving them advice, for example about their treatment of the Jews, which was in diametrical opposition to their previous preaching. Thus people complained that their pastor would not pray for the queen and the lawful government, and if he did, his prayer was so diplomatic that one had to ask, “now what was he really praying for?” So they tactfully moved away from the truth, lest they came into conflict with the prowling Gestapo. They would not risk their life for Christ and the sake of His Gospel.

One of my colleagues once said to me, “I can still say so much that is glorious about the Lord Jesus,” to which I replied, “Then why do you not once mention this glorious fact, namely, that He is Lord, and that no man, no Fuhrer, is lord besides Him. Is not your official calling to say everything about Him that you find in the Bible?”

There was also constant complaining by Christians concerning their Christian daily periodical, which used to give such vigorous leadership, but now was simply never being forbidden. And why not? Because it twisted itself into every possible shape so that it might maintain its existence. Because it was not faithful, it gradually permitted itself to be assimilated by the German rule, to at last lend itself to the Nazi propaganda in order to help infect our Christian people therewith. This was what De Standaard did, their standard, the publication of Abraham Kuyper, who in the past had aroused and led the Kleine Luyden (the “little people”).

There was constant complaining about church periodicals. How great was the consternation concerning the “leadership” of De Heraut, a “leadership” which was definitely pro-German in spirit. It was a vassal which sold itself to the oppressors, thereby being able to preserve its regular size. Meanwhile, well-known professors and ministers continued to lend their cooperation to this Germanized periodical.

There was complaining over the lax leadership given by the Synod of the Reformed (Gereformeerd) Churches. Did this Synod really give leadership? Did it give fearless testimony against the constantly expanding, constantly more pervading, ever-further encroaching Nazi terrorism which appeared in the Jewish programs, the imprisonment of pastors, and the labour-camp measures? The Reformed (Gereformeerd) Churches do not stand out among the Christian churches for courageous and tenacious resistance for the faith. Later a highly placed Gestapo testified that the Reformed (Gereformeerd) Churches were the most pliable.

But this Synod did have the courage to persecute brothers and to cast them out in a manner very much akin to the methods practised by Nazism. Those simple Reformed (Gereformeerd) people saw this clearly and plainly as well, and they were bitterly grieved by this. This grief was for the corruption rooted at the centre of the institution.

Thus they complained in advance about the surrender to the demands of an occupying power which did not honour a single international rule of warfare, even though this power had subscribed itself to it. What about the required “Aryan Declaration?” If the “Christian leadership” had given forceful and courageous advice to say “No!” to this demand – because it was not at all a measure of administration, but entirely an action to prepare for the gruesom and cowardly persecution of the Jews and, ultimately, their eradication – surely much Jewish suffering would have been avoided.

And what did De Heraut dare to write about this persecution in the issue of November 17, 1940? Why was the declaration of the Protestant Churches to Seyss Inquart concerning the persecution of the Jews, not read from the Reformed (Gereformeerd) pulpits? Why? De Heraut answered, “[Because] such an announcement from the pulpit in public worship would endanger those who made the announcement.” Why, then? To save one’s life. And to save the “life” of “our” churches. As if that was most important. Did they not know that Hitler had said that he would solve the Jewish problem? And did they not know that such a solution meant, in the vocabulary of the National Socialism, nothing but annihilation? Or, were they blind though seeing, deaf though interrogation? And could they not know that everyone who signed this declaration became personally responsible fro the great misery which soon overcame our Jewish countrymen?

Why did the “leadership” not call for a front of open resistance, a resistance through obedience in faith by all who know that their salvation is of the Jews? A mass resistance for the faith could have effected very much. Even if it had not, we would still have had a quiet conscience that we had been faithful to our calling before God with respect to the Jews as well. But the “leadership” failed. Read again what Dr. H.H. Kuyper dared to write in De Heraut of December 8, 1940, and you will be filled with deep indignation about what this unfaithful “leader” did not hesitate to bring forth.

I still believe that a massed resistance could have accomplished much. This was seen, for example, in the case of the churches’ care for the needy, in which the Germans also wanted to meddle. I myself experienced that if one gave a well-motivated reason, one could very well accomplish something. The same was true with regard to the occupying power, which wanted to centralize and rule everything. It demanded that those who planned to hold a lecture had to inform the authorities in advance of its contents. Thus we simply let ourselves be controlled and muzzled. Several times I refused and informed them to come and listen if they wanted to know. It is better to be prohibited from speaking than to speak while wearing a muzzle. Thus it was with the members of the Department of Culture and others. The “leadership” of the Reformed (Gereformeerd) section of our people kept silent and so the people became members of such National Socialist organizations.

Barring a few laudable exceptions our confessing journalists shied from making the sacrifice for Christ’s sake by joining the National Socialistic Fraternity of Journalists, to save their jobs and their lives. But the leadership silent – or led the way.

It is not surprising that our Reformed (Gereformeerd) people, left in the lurch by their leadership, felt forsaken. And, since the leaders erred from the path, the sheep also wandered off. In many cases, the responsibility for the breakdown of the resistance for the faith lay with the leaders. Certainly, how differently our Reformed (Gereformeerd) people would have acted if all those who were called to give leadership had all proved true, and if they had confirmed their lofty pre-war words by equally noble deeds. Here the lack of a sense of responsibility became manifest. The instinct to save one’s own life was altogether to strong. Oh, indeed, if this had been different, many more victims would have fallen, and many more would have had to undergo the gruesome suffering of the horrible concentration camps. But was not the cause of the Lord worth all this, even apart from the cause of the oppressed and tyrannize fatherland?

This might all have become very dreadful, but one thing is certain: Our Reformed (Gereformeerd) people would have been proud of those leaders, and in the event that they came through this conflict alive, would have received them after the liberation of the country with open arms, eager to follow their firm leadership. How mighty and beautiful the flowering of our life of faith would have been! Alas, this faithlessness has been an abomination to the Lord. It has surely avenged itself.

It was not only complaints about the tragedy of these “leaders” that I heard during the year and a half before my seizure. I also heard something else. “Our people” drew from this tragedy a definite conclusion for the future. They would never forget this. For of course, it would not be at all impossible that when all this was past – recall how things went after the Napoleonic occupation – they would see the spectacle of all these deserting leaders coming unashamedly out of their hiding places to sit in the saddle and again take up their reins of leadership. “But,” they grimly assured, “they shall not succeed. Whether they are preachers, journalists, burgomasters, legislators, party officials, or labour leaders, they will have to comfort themselves with the fact that their little kingdom is done for, that they are finished and not needed anymore. First of all there must be a thorough purging! They may have been ever so capable, but they have proved to have no character. It would just be a little naive to allow a responsible leader who defaulted in the hour of peril to calmly take up the reins again later. By their laxity they have proved that they were not equal to the calling of confirming their words with their deeds, and did nor dare do the weighty tasks that the hour demanded.” It was this conviction which I saw growing deeper in the people in those days, and in my last interrogation I testified to the German Security Police of that conviction.

The tragedy of the “leaders” is one of the saddest episodes in the history of the occupation.

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The Family as Monastic Unit

Dietrich Bonhoeffer poses the question in his book The Cost of Discipleship: “It is becoming clearer every day that the most urgent problem besetting the Church is this: How can we live the Christian life in the modern world?”

As we face the increasing challenges that surround globalism and technocracy, the Christian Church must be ready to pivot and prepare for new and strange challenges. This will not be done by clinging to old ways of life or by running after the newest and latest fad in the Christian world or in the secular world. How do we prepare Christians to be Christian in the various hubs that we find ourselves in: in the Church, in business, in the family? I especially want to look at the family unit here as a sphere of authority that is distinct from both the Church and the State and reflect on how families can prepare for new and daunting challenges to the Christian world and life view.

The monastic life was often known for being closed off to the world. But that is not totally true. There was a lot of good that was given too the world through the Christian disciplines that could be found in the monasteries. After all, it was through the monasteries that much of Scotland and Ireland and England were converted in the 400s and 500s. There is much that we can learn from Benedict and Bede and Boniface.

In His book the Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer shows how Luther brought the Christian disciplines out of the monastic life and into the world. “The other-worldliness of the Christian life ought, Luther concluded, to be manifested in the very midst of the world, in the Christian community and in its daily life. Hence the Christian’s task is to live out that life in terms of his secular calling. That is the way to die unto the world. The value of the secular calling for the Christian is that it provides an opportunity of living the Christian life with the support of God’s grace, and of engaging more vigorously in the assault on the world and everything that it stands for.”

As his own marriage and family life show, Luther brought the Christian disciplines into family life. It was in the family that the pastor or elder of the Church would show his metal. Each father becomes a local shepherd, raising and discipling young hearts in the cloister of the home. In the union of marriage God shows His glory as the family becomes one of the base units for the spread of the gospel.

It may very well be that family life took on this devotional shape before the Reformation, but following the Reformation, the Dutch Reformed family became known for prayer before and after meals and the Scottish Reformers became known for family worship. The discipline of coming to worship with all of God’s people at least once or twice a week became part of the family discipline as the family cannot be separated from the household of God, the assembly of God’s people. Of course, in the various reform movements of the coming years it would become clear that at times, faith ties would need to prove to hold stronger than blood ties.

But what greater fuel for reformation is there than training for godly marriages, Christ-like child-raising, Christian education in the home? When the home is a boot-camp for raising children with spiritual muscle and calibre and grit and determination to serve King Jesus, what wicked power can stand against such an array of arrows? (Psalm 8, 127-128). What better place to encourage critical thinking in a young generation than around the family table or around the fireplace on a late evening? This is where the virtues of joy in suffering, courage in times of hardship, and love for enemies are instilled and inculcated in young souls as they look to mothers and fathers who have been tried and tested and refined by the providences of God.

Families who are units of Christian discipline and Christian piety (in prayer, Scripture reading, Church attendance) will be like the monasteries of old that shed the light of Christ into dark worlds. There will be no ordered societies until there are ordered families. As Chesterton once put it: “The most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children.”

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Silence? An Exhortation to the Dutch Churches in the Early 1940s

Below I have transcribed a short meditation from Hermanus Knoop on Amos 5:13 entitled ‘Silence?’ You can find the book with Inheritance Publications in Neerlandia, Alberta. It is called “A Theatre in Dachau.” It is by Hermanus Knoop with an introduction by Dr. Klaas Schilder.

Amos 5:13: “Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time. You can find the whole passage here as it provides the necessary context for this verse and for Knoop’s interpretation.

Silence?

Amos was an annoying character. Prophets always are. They are specialists in disturbing the sweet and blessed reposeful life of the people. Hence they are not popular, but rather the contrary. You will have to avoid them somewhat if you wish to continue your course. They always have some censure to express. You have just nicely established contact with your own flesh and the world, when, behold, sure enough, one of these fault-finding prophets must spoil the party.

That is how Israel had to get along with the prophets of the Lord, as well as with Amos. Take, for example, the word of Amos. Make no mistake: he spoke this, as is evident from his book of prophecies, in a time when might dominated right. Yes, might – His Majesty King Jereboam himself, down to the meanest official, robbed the people. Read it, if you will, in his prophecies. And not only that, the hopelessness of the situation was that the people were simply powerless to do anything about it. The right – so decadent was life in Israel that right was nowhere to be obtained. Nowhere. They simply had to stand by helplessly and let things go their own way. How could they protest against such tyrants? It would simply mean committing suicide.

And now it seems that Amos gave some good advice. He said, “therefore the prudent will keep silent in that time, for it is an evil time.”

But you are mistaken as to the purpose of his word. For it was not advice that Amos gave. He merely said what he saw when he took a look around in that evil time. He saw that those who were formerly big talkers became silent, silent in that time of might triumphing over right, when arbitrary self-will swayed the sceptre. He noted this as their tactics. He called them the “prudent.” Between quotation marks, you understand. We also often call such a one “prudent,” and know exactly what we mean by it. They are people of good manners, people who know how to get along in life.

They are the talkers who have turned to silence. But why are they silent in that evil time? Is it because they comply while they still retain their own opinion? Or because they are so wonderfully pleased with the course of events? You know better. The opposite is true. It is because it is too dangerous to express their convictions. It is not advisable to speak of works with firm principle now. Self-concern holds first place in all things. They are prudent, calculating people. Indeed, there are so many of them in this world, ‘prudent’ men of silence, who are not able to force one principled word between their lips. Let us never forget this. And let us never forget that the prophet, in mentioning this fact, intends to mark it as a danger, as a sin. He who keeps silent in the evil time out of self-concern makes the time still more evil, because might becomes still more brazen, and annihilates the last vestige of right. He who is silent out of self-concern consents to the evil being done. He who is silent out of self-concern approves the corruption of life. He who is silent and looks on makes himself guilty of terrible sin. He who is silent casts up no dam against evil.

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A Sowing of Peace

The Word of the Lord in Zechariah 8:9-13:

“Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Let your hands be strong, you who in these days have been hearing these words from the mouth of the prophets who were present on the day that the foundation of the house of the Lord of hosts was laid, that the temple might be built. For before those days there was no wage for man or any wage for beast, neither was there any safety from the foe for him who went out or came in, for I set every man against his neighbor. But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as in the former days, declares the Lord of hosts. For there shall be a sowing of peace. The vine shall give its fruit, and the ground shall give its produce, and the heavens shall give their dew. And I will cause the remnant of this people to possess all these things. And as you have been a byword of cursing among the nations, O house of Judah and house of Israel, so will I save you, and you shall be a blessing. Fear not, but let your hands be strong.'”

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