Belgium is a small kingdom of less than 9 million inhabitants. The history of this tiny land conditions its spiritual standing. For the nation has waged a constant struggle for independence against successive foreign invaders. French, English, Spanish, Dutch and German troops have occupied this territory during the centuries. This fact stands as the explanation of the typical Belgian mentality, expressed in deep attachment to freedom, nationally and individually, and in a spirit of vigor in all situations posing a threat to survival.
On the other hand, Belgium suffered from religious tyranny so terrible that the Reformation was drowned in its own blood. Catholic and Spanish oppression, with the help of the Inquisition, caused many compatriots to give their lives for their faith and for their country. The famous “Gueux,” similar in their spiritual beliefs to the French “Huguenots” but different in their political aims, were obliged to fight on a double front-spiritual to save freedom of faith, material to win the battle for independence. Brussels in the sixteenth century was a free Calvinist republic for nine years, but was taken by Spanish troops and given back to Catholicism.
If the national revolution of 1830 at last gave Belgium its independence, by the same token it sacrificed to a foreign country, the Netherlands, the greatest part of the Protestant population. In 1831, when the Protestant churches of Belgium gathered into a Union of Churches, only eight congregations remained from all that had existed formerly.
Impetus From Abroad
New Protestant churches and movements, as they exist today, issued from this nucleus of 1831. They received impetus from the arrival in Belgium of foreign representatives of various Christian denominations, such as the Belgian Gospel Mission, created immediately after World War I by Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Norton.
To get a true impression of what is going on today, several facts must be kept in view.
On one hand, the country is mainly Roman Catholic, political power being wielded by means of the Christian Social Party. On the other hand, a wide workers’ movement is represented in the Socialist Party, which provided the working classes with most of their liberties and possibilities of life and which is anticlerical, i.e., anti-Catholic. The different Protestant denominations stand in the middle, with no political position and often ignored by those who possess or seek to possess power and authority.
Influence Of Catholicism
This great Catholic majority is based on baptism. All baptized persons are considered by the Roman Catholic Church to be Catholic, whether they go to church or not, whether they lose faith or not, whether they become Protestant or not. A Catholic in a high position has declared, however, that among the Armed Forces, fifty per cent should be considered as Roman Catholic. Even that figure is excessive, in my opinion.
Many people in towns or industrial areas never go to church, even though in other sections everyone seems to attend because all social and economic life centers in the Roman Catholic Church. I know certain places in the north of the country where the church, the homes of the mine workers, the football ground and so on, all belong to the mine. The leaders of the mine are keen Roman Catholics. No vicar may remain in charge if he is a “left-side” man; indeed, he must be the man of the mine. In such a place it is very difficult for one born in Protestantism to live. It is even more difficult to turn to Protestantism if one is born Roman Catholic. In such an eventuality, one loses his job, then his house. The only alternative is to move elsewhere, if possible. In some parts of the country, the Catholic influence is still very deep. But in many others, where the socialist or liberal ideas are strong, this influence does not interfere very much with the social or economic life of the people.
No State Church
There is no state church in Belgium. The state recognizes three religions: Catholic, Protestant and Jewish. It pays the parish ministers, but forbids itself interference with the church’s life, doctrine, organization or action.
The seventeen Protestant denominations are set in the middle of this situation.
Six of these are of the normal Reformed tradition, being bound in the Protestant Federation of Belgium. These are:
Union of the Protestant Churches of Belgium. Organized on a Congregational pattern, it reflects a very wide autonomy of the local congregation, even in doctrine. Ministers are appointed by the state, which recognizes this church.
The Belgian Christian Missionary Church. Created about a century ago by Reformed ministers of the Swiss Church of the Vaux Canton, it is a free church (we may call it Presbyterian in pattern) turned to Gospel preaching and missionary work in Belgium.
The Methodist Church. Dependent on the European Conference, the Bishop of which resides in Switzerland.
The Baptist Church. The Reformed Churches (“Gereformeerde Kerken”). Calvinist Flemish Church.
Other denominations at work in Belgium include the Salvation Army; the Belgian Gospel Mission, based on fundamentalism; Seventh Day Adventists; Mennonites; Plymouth Brethren, divided into different branches; Pentacostal Church, or Assembly of God, divided into two main branches; Free Lutheran Church; Church of England; Church of Scotland; and various minor churches or denominations.
The contacts between these various churches differ in various locations. In Antwerp, for instance, nearly all of them organize every year a “Bible Day” which is very well attended. The annual week of prayer also gathers many denominations at special meetings. Ministers meet in their periodical gatherings; if some never come, others (in spite of differences of churches and even of doctrine) happily pray together.
Shift In Romanism
This general background perhaps prepares us for some remarks on the spiritual outlook in Belgium. We will say something about Catholicism first, and then about our own Protestant churches.
Two things must be noticed about the Catholic church.
The biblical movement now offers the Holy Scriptures to the laity. About twenty years ago the Bible was considered a Protestant book. Catholic editions were too expensive, and the clergy did not favor Bible knowledge by the common people. Since World War II the Maredsous Abbey, a well known Benedictine convent, has published a new translation of the Bible and has opened a wide campaign inviting people to read the Scriptures.
This excellent translation has some notes and comments that are compulsory in all Roman Catholic editions. It is published in French. Another edition also well known in Belgium is the Jerusalem edition. In many places the local priest carries on Bible studies, of course according to the official dogmas of Rome. This dogmatic position, which dictates interpretation, limits all liberty of comprehension.
Furthermore, Roman contacts with Protestant ministers are often allowed. A few years ago, for instance, a joint gathering was organized in Liege with a Reformed minister from France, an Orthodox priest and a Roman Catholic priest. Each speaker expressed his convictions about the division of Christianity and his opinions about future unity. The Roman Catholic bishop was present. A Belgian minister was once invited in the Roman Catholic University of Louvain to present the doctrine according to Karl Barth, and a very interesting discussion followed. But these developments do not change at all the basic situation, according to which the Church of Rome, regarding itself as the only Christian church in the world in agreement with Christ’s will, declares all others to be “heretics.” And from the Protestant side no compromise can be admitted with such false dogmas as the assumption of the virgin Mary or the infallibility of the Pope.
Outlook For Protestants
What is the spiritual outlook on the Protestant side in our day?
The division of Belgian Protestantism into different denominations makes it impossible to speak for all of them. Nevertheless, certain facts are clear. Great possibilities are now open for the preaching of the Gospel. Many Protestants have Catholic relatives and when they marry, for instance, these Catholics attend the ceremony. The same occurs for ceremonies of baptism, confirmation or funerals. I do not feel that a great conference in a large hall is the best method for exploiting this opportunity. Personal contact is far more efficient. A large number of Christians in our churches were formerly Roman Catholics and came to the Gospel through a personal witness.
The witness of laymen is greatly emphasized in our day. Gatherings of medical personnel, of lawyers, of businessmen and so on, are organized to think through our faith and its claims inside the professions. These meetings help lay members to bear witness where they live and work.
The preaching of the Gospel by radio and television has been organized by a special committee at the Protestant Churches Federation level. Against Roman Catholic resistance, this committee obtained four broadcast services annually and short weekly lectures.
The Protestant Military Chaplaincy leads an official church service on National Feast Day before the highest authorities of the Kingdom, military and civilian. This service is broadcast by the National Broadcasting Radio Station of Brussels. Many conversions follow these monthly services on the part of people who write and ask to receive the Gospel.
Special mention must be given to the Belgian Bible Society whose Gospel preachers go from door to door and from village to village, on foot, through all the country. Many meetings are held in homes and kitchens, and some discover the Lord in this way.
But Protestantism in Belgium suffers from lack of fully prepared preachers, of men out of theological high school. A certain number of congregations are entirely without a minister. Those who love the Lord and think with sympathy about Belgium pray that God may call young people to his service. We lack men and financial resources to go ahead. Nevertheless, during the period between the two wars two new congregations have come into existence annually, showing the possibilities that lie before our churches.
Preacher In The Red
FROM THE FULLNESS OF THE HEART
A few days before the annual District Synod of the Methodist Church in the Barbados and Trinidad District, British West Indies, was due to meet, a particularly well attended Prayer Meeting was held in the local Methodist Church. It was my privilege to preside over this meeting.
Fervent prayers were offered for the work of the Synod and especially for its important task in the stationing of Ministers.
One good woman who had a reputation for her power in prayer addressed to the Lord a few general observations on the duties and responsibilities of the Synod, and continued; “Lord, thou knowest that thy servant, our Minister who now stands before us, is to attend the Synod. Perhaps the Synod will want to station him in some other circuit. If it be thy will, Lord, to leave him right here amongst us we shall say ‘AMEN’. But if it be thy will to send him somewhere else we shall say, ‘HALLELUJAH’.—The Rev. Ernest Griffin, Superintendent Minister, The Methodist Church, Wesley Manse, Croxton Road, Thetford, Norfolk, England.
Belgium’s population of 8,500,000 will play host to the world in 1958, when 48 countries will participate in the first World’s Fair since 1939. The dates will be April 17 to October 19. Facing each other across an esplanade will be the two largest exhibitions—representing the United States and the Soviet Union. Towering above both will be the theme structure, a 360-foot high Atonium, designed to show that mankind has the ability to mold the atomic age to the benefit of all nations. An estimated 25,000,000 visitors from around the world are expected. With such big plans in the making, Christianity Today submits the significant spiritual history of the small kingdom. The author is W. W. Marichal, Chaplain General of the Belgian Armed Forces and Protestant Chaplain in Chief, Christianity Today’s correspondent in that land.
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