Back to White Colonialism or Ahead in One Faith?


One of the most difficult lessons that the Western Christian Churches have had to learn in their missionary practice has been that they must treat the converts and the churches whom the Lord has raised up through their witness as equals. Our churches have been earnestly trying to put that lesson into practice, especially since the early 1950s. In 1953 the Synod adopted as one of its mission principles.

j. A church duly constituted has equal standing in dignity and law with all other churches. The sending church, recognizing this, will increasingly encourage the new church to assume her full responsibility (Acts, 1953, p. 85.)

For helping the church to frankly recognize this sound biblical principle a good deal of appreciation is due to Dr. Harry Boer who by his zealous speaking and writing did much to publicize it. It is worth our while to recall a few of the many things he has written on this subject. In his 1955 doctoral thesis ( Pentecost and the Missionary Witness of the Church, p. 204, ff.) he wrote on “The Indigenous Church.”

“The pattern describing the growth of the Church of New Testament times is a very simple one. The Church grew by the addition of converts to existing congregations and by the organization at converts into new and fully independent churches. The importance for us of this simple pattern can hardly be overestimated. It involves the rejection in principle of the method by which we of the West have in many places pursued the missionary task since the days of William Carey, and points to a better way. A characteristic feature of our approach in significant mission areas has been the withholding of a fully independent Church life from the converts which were gained by our witness. Too often we have placed them and the Churches into which they were formed in a state of dependence upon the missionaries and the mission. Our approach has frequently departed from the N.T. pattern in this crucially important respect: it has made missionary control of the Church which its witness brought into being a normal and extended stage between the beginning of the witness and the coming into being of truly independent Churches. It has inserted a protracted stage in the missionary pattern of which the N.T. knows nothing.”

“It has…been a feature of much missionary practice to retain control of the churches that were coming into being.”

“This dependence, however is against the nature of the Spirit who lives in the believers and not infrequently leads to open or covert revolution or, if not to this, to less than a full deployment of the power, talent and devotion that is latent in the suppressed presence of the Spirit.”

When, in the course of time, Dr. Boer became intrigued by his dream of a united seminary that would transcend doctrinal as well as tribal and geographic differences, and when questions arose about the character of such a mixed faith seminary, one of his strongest and most frequently used arguments, was that we must recognize the sacred biblical principle of the rights of the national churches. He wrote, for example, in The Banner (May 2, 1958, p. 28).

“The African church exists as a fully independent church. The church on our field in particular was recognized by our Synod last year as a sister denomination. Are we willing to respect the right of that church and of churches associated with her to judge what is best for them in their situation, and to help them to the best of our ability to discharge their responsibility? That is the question before us.”

Three weeks later he wrote even more vehemently, regarding the idea of a seminary on our own field, “the church does not want such a school. Perhaps she could be forced to accept such a school if we were willing to apply pressures that would be an insult to her independence. Perhaps we can acknowledge the Benue church as a full-fledged sister church in 1957 and in 1958 tell her that she must dance, according to our tune. But is that the kind of missIonary body we are? Have we labored all these years to bring this church into being only to deny her the right to be master in her own house…?” (May 23, p. 7 ).

Two years later he wrote in his report for the first half of 1960:

“Presumably no one at home wants to force a separate school down the throat of sister churches against their will, and presumably there is no one on the field who would want to withhold such a school from them when they clearly express a desire for it.” “It is, I think, compatible altogether with mission policies long followed on the Nigerian field that final decisions affecting deeply the life of the Church should be made by the Church.”


The Synod of 1959 after very thorough study of the matter felt keenly that it must reckon with the rights of its sister churches, but did not feel that this consideration should be permitted to override its own commitment to the Reformed faith. Synod therefore decided “(1) The Christian Reformed Church participate in the TCNN only to the extent of loaning Dr. H. Boer as teacher of Reformed Theology in the TCNN.” It gave as its first ground for this decision “a. This arrangement honors the autonomy of the Benue and Tiv churches.” A little later Synod explained its action in a fourth point: “In response to the invitation to be a member of the TCNN Synod expresses its appreciation, but regrets that in view of its total commitment to the Reformed faith it cannot sec its way clear to be co-responsible for the college which may present many different doctrines. However it would like to be helpful, especially because the Tiv and Benue churches are interested in the college. It is glad to offer the services of a minister on its teaching staff and to support him and provide him with a home.” In a final point Synod instructed “the Christian Reformed Board of Missions and the Nigerian General Conference to maintain and develop the Reformed Pastor’s Training program in Nigeria with a view to hopefully establishing a Reformed Theological Seminary” (Acts 1959, pp. 46, 47).




Now let us look at these and subsequent developments from the side of the Tiv churches, the larger of the two churches in Nigeria with which we are concerned.

Our churches in their labors in Nigeria, contrary to allegations that have been made about our ecumenical commitments there, have always been uncompromisingly committed to preaching and applying the gospel in complete accord with the Reformed faith. In 1939 Our Synod decided to authorize taking over part of the Sudan United Mission field only after it had been assured by a special report of our Board, which stated:

Its (the SUM’s) proviso that we be willing to cooperate with the rest of the S.U.M. work in Nigeria cannot mean, in the light of other statements it has made, any curtailment whatever of our authority to conduct mission work along the Reformed lines which we consider essential.

Later, when we took over responsibility for the Tiv field, it was said:

Not only the missionaries of the Dutch Reformed Church Mission of South Africa, but also the native elders of the Tiv Church would agree to the transfer (of the field to us) only if we would promise to continue teaching the Reformed Faith as had been done by the missionaries of the Dutch Reformed Church (The Banner, Aug. 15, 1958, p. 9).

When ten years ago our churches were pressured to agree to the TCNN, primarily on the basis that the African churches desired it, two of our missionaries who had been working among the Tiv seriously questioned that claim. One wrote, “Whether this entire movement comes from the native church is a question worth contesting. From what I can gather on the field the real beginnings of the movement had its origin with a few missionaries.” Of the Tiv he said, “They are eager to accept a handout such as we propose to give them (the building of the school, library, etc.), but in all honesty there are some serious misgivings as to the nature of the school, its interdenominational character, the kind of pastors that will graduate from the school…” The other wrote of the Tiv church, “THIS CHUHCH NEVER REQUESTED A UNITED school. The to-be-organized theological school was the only school possibility offered to them.”

In November of 1966, well over a year ago, the Tiv church which has been growing at a fantastic rate—it is the fastest growing church in the world according to one of our missionaries—becoming concerned about its increasing need for more pastors, decided to write our church as a sister church requesting Our help to obtain a Reformed seminary in Benue. The first ground of their request was that of principle:

“It is necessary that we have teaching in the Reformed faith that is both correct and right. Thus when we come together with our brethren and their teachings they wiD not be able to change us by their teachings and we will be strong in our faith. Even more, we will have something to give them. If we do not have this seminary we will be lost among them and other teachings will swallow us up. We will not have roots to stand firm.”

The second ground they advanced was the practical consideration that their need for pastors was such that only a seminary in their area would be adequate to meet it.


What kind of reception has this reasonable request of the sister church received by us who are committed to the principle that we must recognize the Tiv Church as our equal? It has been criticized, condemned, and bandied about for mOre than a year. It is my feeling that the treatment accorded this request of a sister church, which we are supposed to respect, has been disgraceful!

Does this seem too strongly stated? Just look at the record and judge for yourself. In a Banner report on Synod (July 28, 1967) it is stated that Rev. L. Van Essen informed the delegates of Synod concerning the request of the Tiv Church for a Reformed Seminary. Having done so, Rev. Van Essen branded this request as invalid, explaining, “We can only interpret this request as a desire on the part of the Tiv Church to acquire another post-primary institution to be used solely by the Tiv.” The reader of this report is given no inkling that there is any mention of the principle involved in the request. And the statement that the requested school is to be used only by the Tiv has turned out to be untrue! Is this the way to deal with the official request of a highly respected sister church?

Dr. Boer, who has expressed himself often about how we arc to respect our equal and independent sister churches on the mission fields, wrote on the Tiv church request in the December, 1967 Reformed Journal. From him, certainly, one would expect courtesy and fairness in the way the subject is handled. But one who reads the article does not find this. There is no acknowledgment that consideration of principle entered into the Tiv request. Their request is attributed to a narrow, anti-ecumenical tribalism, which is flatly contradicted by what the church actually said! That church urged its need for thoroughly Reformed training in order to be able to do justice to its ecumenical responsibilities among Christians of diverse beliefs. To this primary reason for request, Boer’s extensive article devotes not one word. Instead the Tiv request is flagrantly misrepresented. To conclude his treatment of the matter Dr. Boer, who has always insisted on the rights of the native churches to “be masters in their own house,” urges that our Board and Synod defer to the superior wisdom of our missionaries and summarily deny the request of the sister church. Is this the way Christians should treat one another?

Now the matter has been taken up at our annual mission board meeting. There the Board was advised on Nigeria matters only by Dr. Boer and another missionary who agreed with him. Who represented the Tiv church? Only people who opposed it! And the conclusion was that the majority of the board finally acknowledged a 10-month old letter of the Tiv church but, in doing so, proceeded to recommend full participation in and expansion of the TCNN and asked the Tiv church to reconsider its request for a Reformed Seminary in the light of the fact that the board had not yet been informed of any consultation with other bodies who are affected by their request. In other words the Board majority answered the Tiv request for a Reformed seminary by saying that it would “help” that church by enlarging the TCNN whether that church desired this kind of help or not. Does not this response to the Tiv request amount to a rebuke? What has become of our recognition of the rights of the African church, so prominent in our decisions of ten years ago? Can anyone discover a trace of it in this astonishing procedure?


Dr. Boer has made much of the drastic changes taking place in Africa which, he alleges, demand that we enlarge T.C.N.N. and deny the request of the native church. But just what is the nature of these current changes in Africa? As every report about Africa, including his own, has emphasized, they are changes in the direction of African independence from colonial control by outsiders. The Africans today will not be treated as inferiors by white Europeans. By what kind of logic can that kind of change be used to justify our own or our missionaries overuling the decisions of the African Synod? If it was wrong for us to do such things in 1958 and 1959 how docs it suddenly become right for us to do them in 1968, especially since African self-rule in general and the Tiv church in particular have undergone another ten years of fantastically rapid development? Is not this treatment of the Tiv church decision by our mission and board a return to white colonialism in one of the most flagrant ways imaginable? Can anyone find in the past century of our inter-church relations another example of such treatment of the responsible communication of a sister church as that which has been accorded to the Tiv church? If even considerations of ordinary decency would demand that their communications be treated with respect should not our loyalty to Christ and the plain teaching of his Word move us the more to do so? After the months of delay, opposition, and final dismissal, will bur coming Synod take notice of what has been happening and belatedly try to do the Tiv Church justice? Will it not at least give it an opportunity to present its own case?


If the Tiv request were something with which we could not in good conscience agree, we might, after giving them every opportunity to state their case, have to disagree with them and try to persuade them to another opinion. Even then we would have to treat them courteously, just as we would deal with any other Reformed sister church in other parts of the world. But the Tiv request deals not with something unwise or improper, but with a matter which concerns nothing less than the continuing loyalty of their church to the gospel. They have said that they must have training for their ministry that is uncompromisingly committed to the gospel as they believe it. They have said that they need it so that they will be able to help rather than be hurt by other Christians who hold false doctrines. They have said, “If we do not have this seminary we will be lost among them and other teachings will swallow us up. We will not have roots to stand firm.”

We, to whom they made this appeal, have always held exactly the same profound conviction about the gospel. We have also said that we cannot, in view of our total commitment to the Reformed faith, be satisfied with anything less than a seminary that teaches that faith. We cannot, in good conscience, support a seminary that, in various ways, must compromise of contradict the Reformed faith. Everyone who holds office in our churches, at home or on our mission fields, has solemnly promised before God “diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid doctrine (the Reformed doctrines, in particular those expressed in the Canons of Dort) without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same by—public preaching or writing,” and has promised further “to refute and contradict these (errors condemned by the Synod of Dort) and to exert ourselves in keeping the church free from such errors.” Are we as a church now ready to break our solemn promises to the Tiv church and to God Himself? Will we insist on training their ministry in a way we have promised, before God, to oppose? Will we refuse them the right to the kind of training we ourselves promised to maintain and promote? I hope that our churches, when they wake up to realize what has been happening, will reject any thought of such treachery and will insist on honoring our commitments to fellow Christians and our Lord. How can we do less?

Rev. Peter De Jong is pastor of the First Sarnia, Ontario, Christian Reformed Church.