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Racism and Volkskerk: debate in the NGK

11 April 2013

There’s an interesting debate going on in and about the Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK), the largest of the three white Dutch Reformed Churches in South Africa. It won’t make much sense to you if you don’t read Afrikaans, but if you do you can follow it more closely by clicking on the links.

It started off when Professor Jonathan Jansen, of the University of the Free State, wrote a column headed “Break down this unrepentant…” in which he pointed out that the NGK is still largely a white institution, which clings to its whiteness.

To this, Neels Jackson responded that the NGK is not a white volkskerk, it only looks like one. In synodical decisions it has rejected apartheid and most of its dominees (clergy) and members also reject apartheid. It’s just that, with a few exceptions, most of those who come to the services are white, and to imply, as Jansen does, that that is the result of a deliberate policy, is at best a sign of ignorance, and at worst a sign of stubbornness or stupidity. That’s quite something to say about the man who has probably done more to transform education in South Africa than any other single person.

And blogger Cobus van Wyngaard (himself a dominee), questions whether one can make such a distinction between what something looks like and what it is. I’m paraphrasing here, but he is basically saying that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it is a duck.

Why should this discussion interest me, when I’m not a member of the NG Kerk? Why should I take such an interest in the internal debates of a Christian body whose theology and ecclesiology are so far removed from mine?

There are two main reasons.

The first reason is historical.

Until 1994 most members of the ruling party in South Africa were members of the NG Kerk, and so its theology profoundly influenced, and in turn was influenced by, the ideology of the government. What the NGK was thinking was not the concern of that denomination alone, but affected all Christians (and those of other religions or no religion) in South Africa as a whole.

One of the concepts that was central to the way that influence was felt was the concept of the Volkskerk.

The nineteenth-century German missiologist Gustav Warneck saw Christian mission primarily as “Christianisation of peoples”, so that they would have their own ethnic church, a Volkskerk. This model was adopted by the NGK in its own mission, so that it set up “daughter” churches to be the Volkskerk of the converts. This fitted in well with the apartheid policy of the National Party, which tried to impose the same model on other denominations, even when it clashed with their ecclesiology.

English-speaking Christians have a language problem here too, since the notion of a Volkskerk is difficult to translate into English. Literally it means “people’s church”, but the meaning of “people” was split in two in the twentieth century by the warring ideologies of Nazism and Communism. Hitler spent several pages of his book Mein Kampf discussing the meaning of Volk.

Dividing the nations (ethni) at Babel

Dividing the nations (ethni) at Babel

In South Africa there was a bank, the Volkskas, the “people’s bank”. But the connotations of “people’s” in Volkskas were vastly different from those of the contemporary Moscow Narodny Bank — the Moscow People’s Bank. “Narod” is the Russian word that corresponds to “Volk” in Afrikaans and German. The distinction perhaps becomes clearer if one goes to Greece or Cyprus, where you can kind two kinds of “people’s banks” — a Laiki Trapeza and an Ethniki Trapeza. I think the missiological concept propagated by Gustav Warneck, and adopted by the NGK, was of a Volkskerk as an Ethniki Ekklesia rather than a Laiki Ekklesia.

And when people have been indoctrinated with this concept for a couple of generations or longer, it is going to take more than a couple of synodical decisions to get it out of their minds and thinking and conceptual universe. What is the theology and ecclesiology that you are going to replace it with? But that is not my problem, and it is not for me, as an outsider, to tell the NGK how to solve it.

And that leads to my second reason for being interested in the debate going on in the NGK, because the same debate is taking place, or needs to take place, in the Orthodox Church, which is also often seen, both by many of its members and by outsiders, as a Volkskerk.

People sometimes ask me what church I belong to, and when I say “the Orthodox Church”, they at first think I must be Jewish. Then when I try to explain, the light dawns, and they say, “Oh, you mean the Greek Orthodox Church“. And I try to explain further, and say no I mean the South African Orthodox Church, or rather the African Orthodox Church because the Church was planted in Africa by St Mark in the first century, in AD 42 or AD 62, depending on who you talk to.

Orthodoxy was indeed brought to South Africa by Greek immigrants, but we have Greek, Russian, Serbian, Romanian and Bulgarian parishes. And if I get that far in explaining it people then say “Oh, you mean you’re Russian Orthodox“. No, that’s not it either. I’m non-ethnic Orthodox. But when I go to a Greek parish, sometimes someone who is an immigrant from Greece will refer to me, born in South Africa, as a xenos, a foreigner.

Once a Tswana-speaking seminarian, who had been studying at the Orthodox Seminary in Nairobi, was being interviewed on the Greek radio station in Johannesburg, and the announcer asked him, “And what made you interested in our Greek culture?”  He was gobsmacked, and didn’t know what to say. He knew nothing about Greek culture, he’d been studying Orthodox theology in Africa, among fellow-Africans from all over the continent. Greek culture didn’t enter into it.

Though Orthodox missiology has probably never been influenced by Gustav Warneck, there is, however, something in it that resembles the Volkskerk — not in the manner that I have just described, but Orthodox missionaries did try to plant local churches. St Nicholas of Japan, a Russian missionary, went to Japan in 1861, and he aimed to plant a Japanese Church, not a Russian one. Thus there are various “ethnic” in the sense of “national” Orthodox churches – Greek, Russian, Bulgarian etc. But there is also an essential ecclesiological difference. Though the Bulgarian Church, for example, was in a sense a “daughter” church of the Church of Constantinople, and eventually became autocephalous, meanintg choosing its own head, it was not a daughter church in the same sense as in the Dutch Reformed Churches, where the “daughter” churches were for black people and the “mother” church was for white people. But when Bulgarians went to Constantinople they didn’t always understand this. Some of them wanted to establish a Bulgarian ethnic church there, and a synod was called that denounced that as a heresy, which they called “phyletism” — that’s the Greek word for racism, in case anyone was wondering.

But Gustav Warneck was influenced in his thinking by German romanticism, which also gave rise to central European romantic nationalism. This was a largely secular movement, but it had a huge influence in central and eastern Europe and the Balkans. It contributed to the rise of Balkan nationalism, which in turn led to the struggles for independence of countries like Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania. The links with German romanticism were strengthened when most of the newly independent countries got German monarchs.

Thus in the predominantly Orthodox countries there was a mixture of Orth0dox theology with a secular romantic nationalism and some people confused the two. So you sometimes hear Greek people saying things like “Hellenism is Orthodoxy and Orthodoxy is Hellenism”. St Basil must be turning in his grave!

It was the same romantic nationalism that gave rise to Zionism, which exists in much the same relation to Judaism as Hellenism does to Greek Orthodoxy. I have dealt with this in more detail in an article on Nationalism, violence and reconciliation — so I’m just giving a very brief summary here.

It was the same romantic nationalism that contributed to the rise of Afrikaner nationalism in South Africa, and led to an analogous relationship between the Dutch Reformed Churches and the secular ideology. And that is why the discussion in the NGK interests me, because among us Orthodox too, though we may not be a Volkskerk sometimes it certainly looks like it.

And yet in a sense we are a Volkskerk too, both ethniki ekklesia and laiki ekklesia, for, as St Peter says (I Peter 2:9):

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation (ethnos agion), God’s own people (laos is peripisin), that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were no people (laos) but now you are God’s people (laos Theou); once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

But in this Volkskerk there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither Boer nor Brit, neither Bantu nor Bulgarian, neither Serb nor Sotho, and the only xenos is the devil himself.

PentecostIkon1So when we come to Pentecost, let us sing what we mean and mean what we sing when we sing:

When the most High came down and confused the tongues,
He divided the nations;
But when he distributed the tongues of fire
He called all to unity.
Therefore, with one voice, we glorify the All-holy Spirit!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Zee M. permalink
    1 December 2019 5:53 am

    “But in this Volkskerk there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither Boer nor Brit, neither Bantu nor Bulgarian, neither Serb nor Sotho, and the only xenos is the devil himself.”

    Well said Father Deacon!



  1. SA Bloggers – Racism and Volkskerk: debate in the NGK

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