The Safety-First Principle Tested

It is both strange and painful that members of the same Church, though they believe in the same Bible and subscribe to the same creed, can differ widely on many important points of principle and policy. Yet that has been the case throughout all of New Testament history, even in the days of the apostles. The temptation is to ignore and hide such differences for the sake of good will and an appearance of unity. Not a few well-meaning members and officers of the Church wax impatient when public expression is given to divergent viewpoints. They do not realize that without the free expression of such differences there could be no progress either in doctrine or in life.


In our first article under the heading Safety First! we were very frank in expressing dissent from an article by Dr. Henry Stob in The Reformed Journal of April 1957, on the subject: “The Mind of Safety.” Since his article was very lengthy we were compelled to break off our reply with the promise of completing it in this issue.

It was stated that there are three minds in the Christian Reformed Church: the mind of safety, the mind of militancy, and the mind of love. The first two were declared to have no right of existence except as they are subordinated to the Mind of Love.

In our reply we contended, among other things, that the mind of safety does not exclude the mind of love—a deep love, not only for the brother but for God, for his truth, for the Church, and for the world.

We were not ashamed to admit that we believe in Safety First as an indispensable slogan in matters pertaining to the Church. However, it was misinterpreted as if those who believe in it hold that Safety only should be our motto. Let us add another restriction: Not safety first but What saith the Scripture is our foremost consideration. At the same time, we believe that the Scripture itself justifies the attitude expressed in Safety First.

Further, our contention was that the Mind of Safety, us it was called, is not the product of fear—the kind of fear that stymies all spiritual progress. Rather, it is the fruit of a deep concern for the welfare of the Church through the retention of our rich spiritual heritage.

The chief weakness in the Mind of Safety, we are told, lies in making the question how the Church can preserve its truth and piety central. Our contention is that this question by all means deserves to be central. Our first—not our only—concern should be for the preservation of the purity and the soundness of the Church. Safety should be first. There is no safety for the Church if its safety is not put first. The Church cannot discharge its task in the world unless it clings with might and main to the truth which it has embraced. and contends for it. The danger of the Church losing its purity is so great, as history proves. that unless we put forth every effort to hold fast that which we have we shall lose our crown.

Safety First in Education

To prove that safety should not be our first consideration the writer of “The Mind of Safety” points to a number of phenomena in our Church which he deplores. The first of these belong to the area of Christian education. To say that the mind of safety makes the safety of the Church determinative of “all secondary issues and practices in the Church” is no proof that it is an evil mind. The evil or folly of the attitudes on such secondary issues and practices will have to be demonstrated in each case also in educational matters.

The first instance given is that those who lay undue stress on safety first fear to see Our Seminary graduates go to Union Seminary or Princeton Seminary because they will there be exposed to every wind of doctrine, even though they “may be stimulated there to grow into great and staunch expositors of Reformed theology.”


We are frank to admit that we are one of those who deem it dangerous for fresh graduates of our Seminary to attend any liberal Seminary or University for post-graduate work such graduates, generally speaking, are not likely to be sufficiently firm and settled in their theological convictions to withstand the pressure of liberal classroom teaching by strong professors. Even graduates who have been in the ministry for some time may be shaken in their faith. It is not necessary to make our statements more specific, nor would it be proper. But we do feel inclined to ask for examples of men—fresh graduates—who were “stimulated there to grow into great and staunch expositors of Reformed theology.”

We wish all our Seminary professors would urge all our graduates who want more advanced courses to attend Westminster Seminary and perhaps thereafter the Free University or Kampen. In such instances the probability of such men growing into great and staunch expositors of Reformed theology would be much greater. Few of our young theologians can emerge as Victoriously from the spiritual struggle into which attendance at a liberal university subjects them as the great Herman Bavinck.

And why should we even desire to make our own School a university if by attending other universities Calvin’s graduates will probably grow into “great and staunch expositors” of our Reformed faith?

How about our Christian textbook program? This is another instance, we are told, of the unwholesome consequence of the application of the mind of safety attitude. Dr. Stob can see little good in it. But his remarks on the subject show that he is not acquainted with the aims of the textbook program in question. We quote: “Under the influence of this Mind the Christian textbook program, admirable in so far as it seeks to provide the necessary Christian commentary on the subjects taught at school [Note: Mere Christian commentary can be made by teachers and requires no textbooks–K.] is seized upon as an occasion to urge the production of anthologies [selected readings–K.] from which everything anti-Christian or even non-Christian is excluded…” (italics mine–K.). Apparently the writer does not know what our Christian textbook anthologies contain. Anyone who reads the first book of the Pilot series for Literature for Junior High Schools will see that the above statement does not agree with the real facts. It is hardly helpful to the cause of Christian education to make statements that border so close on the irresponsible.

Also the opposition to the plan of one of our organizations to invite Dr. Lever of the Free University to give a series of lectures at our College on biology is condemned because it springs from the mind of safety. Dr. Lever, as not all of our readers may know, holds that all forms of vegetable and animal life evolve, under God’s guidance. from the most simple forms; and he deems it possible, to say the least, that man is the product of an ape-like ancestor (See Creatie en Evolutie and De Mens in de Biologie).

Writes Dr. Stob: “Shall the Calvin Foundation invite Dr. J. Lever to Calvin Campus as a short-term lecturer in biology? No, for though he is a loyal and honored member of a sister-Church, a Professor at the Free University of Amsterdam, and a hearty subscriber to our creeds, he would, if he came, raise disturbing questions about the origin of man, and who cannot see danger in this? And so it goes. In matters of this kind, even though there are prospects of great gain, no risks are to be taken. It is better to walk the center line of gravity…”

We wonder what the “prospects of great gain” may be? Has Dr. Lever made any scientific discoveries or propounded new ideas on biology which have not been set forth by other scientists who seek to combine the doctrine of creation with the theory of evolutionism? And how convincing is it to ask for at least a hearing from his own lips of what Dr. Lever has to say seeing any one who reads his books can know what his position is?

We are not ashamed that we wanted against inviting Dr. Lever to become a short+term lecturer at our school. If our Board of Trustees and our synod would never appoint a man to a teaching position at Calvin College who is known to be sympathetic, to say the least, to theistic evolution, then why should any organization to which the Church has not given the authority to appoint teachers for our school have the right to invite such a teacher as a guest lecturer? Again, we are not ashamed for having written against inviting Dr. Lever because we know from our own youthful experience how easily students are influenced by teachers who present theories which seem to be new and advanced. And when we consider that the adoption of evolutionistic ideas has far-reaching effects because it tends to put doubts into the minds of the young about the trust worthiness of Genesis 1 as sacred history and about the trust worthiness and the inspiration of the Bible as a whole, we wonder how anyone who is concerned about the future soundness of our Church can speak so lightly about inviting Dr. Lever and about the great gain that might accrue from his coming. And besides, are there no other, more conservative but equally scholarly men in the Netherlands or in this country whose lectures at our school would benefit us?

Safety First and Church Membership

The Mind of Safety is tested also by its attitude on church membership and found wanting.

On this subject Dr. Stob takes virtually the same position as Dr. Daane whom he once gently rebuked in The Reformed Journal for his stand that even lodge-members should, under certain circumstances, be taken into our churches. We are told that the mind of safety “tends to raise a restrictive wall, even when a wall is what the situation neither requires nor permits.” This is applied, for example, to mission converts who are not able or willing to express agreement with our Reformed faith. But the writer does not put it that way. He presents the mind of safety approach as follows: “At what stage of his spiritual development shall a mission convert be admitted to the Church? Shall he be admitted when he confesses a faith in Christ, possesses a basically sound although still incomplete understanding of what Christ is, and has begun though not completed the amendment of his life? No, this would not be safe.”

The writer should know that no one among us defends such a view. Who has ever pleaded for the rejection of mission converts who still have only an “incomplete understanding” of what Christ is? The issue was whether the Church should receive members who do not know or do not agree with our Reformed doctrine -that and only that. Let their faith be as elementary as possible, there should be some conception of the doctrine of sovereign grace and a hearty acceptance of it.

For one thing, the right of denominational existence is at stake here. Reformed, Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics—all must demand that their converts shall be able to express agreement with their distinctive tenets. Both our Church Order (Article 61) and our Liturgy (Form for Profession of Faith) demand of those who make confession of faith in our churches that they shall express agreement with the Reformed faith. Shall we require of our own young people some knowledge of and agreement with our doctrines and not require it of our mission converts?

This is not merely a consequence of the position of Safety First. It is based on the conviction that those who join the Church must know why they join it, in distinction from other Churches—the conviction as well that the Reformed faith is the purest interpretation of the Christian faith.

The position of our Church on divorce and remarriage, which was held from the beginning of our history till the year 1956, was also interpreted as an application of the mind of safety. Considerations of safety for the Church, to be sure, had much to do with that position. But that was not tho primary reason why that position was held so long and tenaciously. That primary reason, in the mind of the defenders of that position, was that the latter was based on the teaching of Scripture. The question right now is not whether this belief was correct. The question is why the Church held to it for ninety-nine years. The answer is that it was convinced that, according to the teaching of Scripture, those who arc divorced on unscriptural grounds and remarry not only commit adultery when they remarry—no one among us questions this since Christ teaches it emphatically—but also continue to live in adultery.

No one has ever said: The Bible really permits such people to rejoin the church after they confess that their subsequent marriage was adulterous; but it is safer for the Church to keep them out since their acceptance would open the door to widespread divorce among us. In that case the mind of safety in this matter would have been an evil mind.

The situation being what it is, Synod will never allay the fears and the unrest caused by the 1956 decision until it realizes that it is the duty of the Church to prove that its present position is Scriptural, or else to rescind it. If it was true—let us suppose it—that lip to 1956 the Church took a position which it had never satisfactorily proved from Scripture, it is just as true, as all wiD admit, that its present stand has not been established with Scriptural proofs either. How can that decision bind the conscience as long as this remains true? Must the pre-1956 position be proved from Scripture and not the post-1956 position?

To say that the latter position needs no other proof than that, according to Scripture, God receives all who are truly peniteat is begging the question, reasoning in a circle, since it must be proved that those who live in the bonds of an unscriptural marriage are not living in adultery. If they are not living in adultery, confession only is sufficient evidence of repentance. If however, they are living in adultery, as we believe the Bible teaches, their sin must be forsaken as well as confessed to make their repentance complete and real. Not what is safe for the Church is the first consideration here but what the Bible teaches about unscriptural remarriage and adultery.

Safety First and Membership in “Neutral” Labor Unions

The desire to safeguard the Church and its members against worldly pollution is said to be the reason for our opposition to so-called neutral unions and our advocacy of Christian labor organizations. H ere again we must take issue with the writer. The reason for that stand was not first of all that it was the only safe policy for the Church, but rather that the Christian is bound and privileged to confess Christ as King in every domain of life. If Christ is Our Lord in every area of legitimate endeavor, labor and industry included, we must be able to confess him not only in every organization which we join but we must be allowed the privilege to work for the establishment of his rule also in that domain. This may be possible in certain organizations which are not definitely Christian; but we doubt and many others doubt whether that is possible in the typical labor union of our day. Not only do the present investigations in Washington highlight the Widespread corruption among the leaders of some unions. Everyone knows that nearly all these “neutral” unions seek only their own welfare regardless of the well-being of the nation; that their methods of labor warfare are often unjust and even brutal; that union meetings are often held on the Lord’s Day; that questionable amusements for raising money are resorted to; and that the dictatorial character of union control makes it well-nigh impossible for Christians to let their light shine in these organizations.

Now this affects not only the Christian worker’s relation to his Lord; it also has a bearing on the welfare and purity of the Church. If the members fail to realize that the principle of corporate responsibility tends to make them co-responsible for the sins of the unions to which they belong and that they jeopardize their moral character by failing to “hate also the garment that is spotted by the flesh,” they thereby endanger the purity also of the Church.

This point was highlighted in one of the many synodical decisions on labor unions (1945). The Synod of that year stated that “in view of the moral and spiritual dangers of membership in non-Christian organizations, Synod urges all our people, wherever possible, to establish and promote definitely Christian organizations in the social sphere.” But this is by no means the only reason why the Church went on record as favoring Christian labor associations. Back of its stand is the conviction that Christians, collectively as well as individually, are under solemn obligation to confess Christ as King and Lord in every area of life, industry, business, and labor included.

Safety First and our Amusements

The desire to safeguard the church and its members against contamination by the evil world is represented in “The Mind of Safety” as the motive which led to the decisions of 1928 in the matter of worldly amusements. Here again we observe that the chief motivation was not to keep the Church pure but to promote obedience to the precepts of Christ.

Moreover, a wrong interpretation is placed on the decisions of 1928 and 1951 pertaining to worldly amusements. They are said to be merely warnings, not prohibitions, against such sinful amusements as theater attendance, promiscuous dancing and games of place chance. To be sure, the decisions of 1928 were, or were interpreted, as prohibitions, bans, but that was corrected by the Synod of 1951.

What are the facts? That the element of prohibition has not been removed from the decisions of 1928 though those decisions were somewhat weakened. To prove our contention we shall quote from two of the seven articles adopted in 1928 and left unchanged in 1951. “Article VI. Synod urges consistories to deal in the spirit of love yet also, in view of the strong tide of wordliness which is threatening our churches, very firmly with all cases of misdemeanor and offensive conduct in the matter of amusements; and where repeated admonitions by the consistory are left unheeded, to apply discipline as a last resort.” This is more than a mere warning. “Article VII. Synod instructs consistories to inquire of those who ask to be examined previous to making public profession of their faith and partaking of the Lord’s Supper as to their stand and conduct in the matter of worldly amusements, and, if it appears that they are not minded to lead the life of Christian separation and consecration, not to permit their public profession.” (Italics ours–K.) Hence, according to the present stand of Synod, there are cases of participation in worldly amusements in which consistories are in duty bound to reject applicants for full membership in the church, also cases in which members who participate in such amusements should be censured.

Safety First and Theological Advance

More serious perhaps than all the preceding charges against the Safety First principle is this that it stymies all theological progress. It is said that “the Mind of Safety is, from the nature of the case, able to contribute little toward the growth and development, as distinct from the preservation, of theology.” This statement, we believe, is unproved and not susceptible of proof.

The fact is, as was already stated in our preceding article, that there can be no genuine theological advance if we are unsuccessful in preserving and conserving our spiritual heritage. TIle history of the Church provides numerous examples of stymied theological development due to the rejection of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. There can be no progress in the knowledge of the truth if the Church fails to do its utmost to preserve its creedal heritage and to cling to the faith with undiminished tenacity! Real theological progress does not require that we question the teachings embodied in our creeds. We must begin where our fathers left off when they formulated the dogmas of the Church.

Let us go a step farther. The “Mind of Safety” by its very nature wants theological development and progress for the very reason that it realizes that a theology which is sterile, and merely restates what the fathers have said, will never maintain itself. There is safety only in theological advance. Study the history of Reformed Churches, at home and abroad, and ask, Who were the men who objected to fuller creedal statements on certain doctrines; and who today would probably object to, let us say, more specific creedal utterances on such subjects as the inspiration of the Scriptures, creation, etc.? Were they not, and are they not, as a rule the men who are not too sure of themselves on such subjects?

Therefore, when it is said that the mind of safety “stifles theological growth and blocks the way of theological advance,” we disagree strenuously. What those whose motto is Safety First do object to is subtle attempts to create doubts in the minds of the people concerning doctrines that should have complete certainty among us. It is not sound theological inquiry to continue to raise questions about issues that have been settled, for example those dealing with higher criticism. It requires little scholarship to do that. Let those who wish to do pioneer work in theology test their mettle on such really difficult and to a great extent unanswered questions as the relation between Church and State, the light that modern psychology sheds on questions pertaining to the origin of the soul, on regeneration, etc.

As to the assertion that we stand aloof from “the main current of contemporary theological discussion” we would ask: Who among us had done more to enlighten us on modern theological trends than the late Professor Berkhof? His example is worthy of emulation, to be sure. The evidence of true scholarship is not furnished by daring expeditions into the fields of more or less liberal or neo-orthodox thought to show how much good can be found there.

Again, it is said that “We have not entered into a continuing conversation or debate with the chief representatives of twentieth century religious thought.” Just what the writer refers to we do not know. To an up-to-date Reformed Apologetics? If so, we applaud. Or is this perhaps an indirect plea for “continuous discussion” through membership in the World Council? We do not know. But if the esteemed writer means to say that we need more articles and books and reviews of books dealing with the teachings of Barth, Brunner, the Niebuhrs. Tillich, etc., no one objects. But as we see it, there has been considerable theological discussion of this sort, and not a little of it has come from those who have no inclination to speak disparagingly of “the Mind of Safety.”