Pushing Ourselves Forward

Compared to the beloved Heidelberg Catechism, feted in these pages and still recited on death beds, the Belgic Confession is a rather unremarkable Reformed document. The Belgic Confession is like that ordinary, stolid child who has the misfortune of spending life next to the bright, charming, and popular sibling. Although the various Dutch Reformed groups in North America all recognize the Belgic Confession as one of their doctrinal standards, it is pretty much a garden variety sixteenth century Reformed confession. Far worse than antipathy, the Belgic Confession is instead usually received with apathy.

It did receive some attention, almost 80 years ago now, in the ire of the young Karl Barth. In its Article Two, the Belgic Confession asserts that God is “known” in two ways–both through the universe and the “holy and divine Word.” Similar Reformed documents typically use the more restrictive “revealed” in two ways, rather than “known.” Barth, of course, contended this change of nuance in the Belgic Confession opened the way for other sources of authority in the church–blood and soil, for example. The next-to-last article, “On Civil Government” with its Constantinian underpinnings, can also still stir discussion–trying to explain it without explaining it away.

One line from the Belgic Confession that intrigues me is found in Article 31: “So all must be careful not to push themselves forward improperly, but must wait for God’s call, so that they may be assured of a divine calling and be certain that they are chosen by the Lord.” Although Article 31’s topic is the “Officers of the Church,” the not pushing themselves forward would seem to describe Dutch Reformed folk in general. I will let others have a go at the chicken-andegg argument about whether doctrine forms character or character is reflected in doctrine. Are Dutch Reformed folk modest and reticent because the Belgic Confession instructs them to be so? Or does Article 31 say what it says to give divine sanction to the Dutch Reformed temperament?

A colleague helpfully wondered if this modesty and reticence could be the fruit of a genuine understanding of election; an abiding trust in the inexorability of God’s purposes. We might hope that Reformed doctrine has truly formed people who quietly believe “I am not qualified or better than anyone else. I am simply the recipient of God’s wondrous grace and an unassuming instrument of God’s Kingdom.”

Being Dutch Reformed myself–and at least somewhat self-effacing–it might be predictable, although unsuitably self-serving, that I like and approve of what Article 31 endorses: not pushing oneself forward improperly. Moreover, I fear this admirable trait is slowly disappearing under pressure from American bluster and marketing.

I think of so many decent, salt-of-the-earth Reformed folk. Genuine, generous, unobtrusive, and devoted. Serving behind the scenes. Faithful as the day is long. Ever careful not to push themselves forward improperly. The Baptists and Pentecostals, with their amazing testimonies and conversion tales, have often made us feel inferior or envious. Why couldn’t we be more like that? But we were also uncomfortable. That just wasn’t for us. Not that we didn’t experience God in our own way. We just would never thinking of standing up in church and telling about it, for that might have been pushing ourselves forward improperly.

I saw this reluctance to push themselves forward in the old Reformed missionaries from my childhood. They felt little pressure to give head-counts of how many heathens they had saved. They had no need to share wild, demeaning stories of the idolaters’ peculiar practices. Instead they quietly and faithfully went about their business, for decades and generations, in such “unfruitful” areas as the Middle East and Japan.

This is not to say our reluctance to push ourselves forward has not had a down side, even a dark side. Reticence and restraint often gave way to stoicism. We probably have not affirmed the gifts of our sisters and brothers or celebrated enough the remarkable work of the Spirit among us and in us. Generations of Reformed folk have been denied the opportunity of offering their personal gifts, the joy of sharing, for fear of seeming to push themselves forward. A friend of mine, while raised in a Reformed home, hasn’t darkened the door of a church for thirty-plus years. Still she has dreams where her childhood church invites her to play the piano. No matter that she hasn’t played the piano for thirty-plus years either. In her dream she returns, plays, is restored, and believes. I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if thirty-plus years ago someone had given her the opportunity to play. Consider also the struggles of women seeking ordination to the ministry of Word and sacrament, but unable to secure a call to a congregation. More than once, the inference of Article 31 has been employed to tell these women that they should not push themselves forward. Their inability to find a congregation to serve must indicate that they are not divinely called.

Nonetheless I lament that the ethos of Article 31 is gradually disappearing under the force of glitz and cheap emotionalism, assertiveness, and will to power, advertising, and consumerism. Congregations, causes, egos, denominations, all vying to be noticed, all pushing themselves forward. It is not a pretty sight.

Several years ago, at a denominational conclave, I saw candidates for office stand before the body, urging us to vote for them, telling us their passions, bragging about their accomplishments, and spouting their visions. I longed for the day, not so long ago, when such candidates briefly introduced themselves and quietly thanked the body for the honor of being nominated.

Young people, but really not only young people, return from a ten day trip to a developing country. Rather than share how their eyes were opened and their hearts broken, they tout all they accomplished for Jesus.

Much ink has been spilt over praise and worship music, but little is said about the so-called “praise teams” who lead the singing. Aging baby-boomers, preening and gyrating with saccharine smiles–apparently working out some teenage “American Bandstand” fantasy from the 60’s–always having to tell us between songs “why this next one is so meaningful” to them. When I attended postcontemporary worship recently, I was pleased that the band unobtrusively faced forward, their backs turned toward the congregation, not pushing themselves forward.

As a pastor, I am acutely aware of the realistic need to build esprit de corps, to accentuate the positive, to communicate successes. But when the news is always and only marvelous; when “rock star pastor” is said with esteem rather than chagrin; when we feel the need to employ the shallow, the sensational, and the manipulative; when lust for the spotlight prevails; then our plain, old Belgic Confession still speaks. Being careful not to push oneself forward improperly can be so refreshing. Maybe even Christ-like.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is pastor of Second Reformed Church, Pella, Iowa and an editor of Perspectives.