At synod Bunbury 2018, there were delegates present from three different church federations in Indonesia. Two brothers came on behalf of the GGRI, which are sister churches of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia. Two brothers were present who came from the GGRC, a federation with which the FRCA maintain contact, and which are sister churches of the GGRI. And two delegates from the GGRI-Timor, churches established by the mission work of the Canadian Reformed Church in Smithville.
For many of our members, the situation in Indonesia is very confusing. Why these three federations?
In an article which I wrote for Clarion, three years ago (23 October 2015) I tried to explain the situation. The situation has changed a little bit in the past three years: the GGRI-Timor is established as a federation now, while three years ago they were referred to as the mission work of Smithville. There are some other developments, but generally, the situation has not changed that much.
I republish this article here, in the hope that it will give some clarity to our readers.
Indonesia is known as the country with the largest Muslim population in the world. The Republic of Indonesia has a population of over 255 million people. It is estimated that 87 % of the population is Muslim. In 2010 Christians made up almost 10 % of the population of whom 7 % Protestant and 2.9 % Roman Catholic. Indonesia is divided into 34 provinces. One of those provinces is NTT (which stands for Nusa Tenggara Timur) and the three major islands in this province are West-Timor, Sumba, and Flores. The capital of this province is Kupang in West-Timor.
Since 2010, the Canadian and American Reformed Churches have a sister church in Indonesia: the GGRI-NTT. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t reformed churches in Indonesia before that. In fact, there are several reformed churches and we are having contacts with some of them. If you read the report of the Committee for Relations with Churches Abroad (CRCA) to General Synod Dunnville, you will find several names or abbreviations and it may be quite confusing for many to keep track of all the different churches. Later on, I will write a bit more about other churches with which we have contact. Indonesia is a former Dutch colony and the Dutch Reformed churches have been doing mission work in many parts of this country. After the Second World War, Indonesia became independent. If you ask an Indonesian, he will say it was in 1945. If you ask a Dutchman he will probably mention 1948. That is because right away after the Second World War several movements in Indonesia started the fight for independence, but it was not before 1948 that the queen of the Netherlands signed the law that gave Indonesia official independence from the Netherlands. That already is an indication that the separation from the Netherlands did not go very peacefully and that made mission work also difficult from time to time. However, our Dutch sister churches did take up again the mission in Indonesia. The church in Zwolle sent missionary S.P.J. Goossens to Sumba. Rev. Goossens was suspended and dismissed by the church of Zwolle, which led to a split in the mission churches in Sumba. Some churches remained faithful to Rev. Goossens and were called the Bebas Churches (Free Churches). The other churches remained in contact with the church in Zwolle. After the split in 1967 in the Netherlands, the Bebas churches with Rev. P.P. Goossens (son of S.P.J. Goossens) received mainly support from the Dutch Reformed Churches (Nederlands Gereformeerde Kerken).
In 1975 the Reformed Churches in Sumba federated into the GGRI-NTT. GGRI stands for Gereja Gereja Reformasi di Indonesia, which means: Reformed Churches of Indonesia. In two other provinces, Reformed Churches also federated: in Kalimantan Barat and in Papua. These churches also chose the name GGRI and each federation added the abbreviation of the name of the province behind the name GGRI. So the churches in NTT became GGRI-NTT and in the other two provinces respectively GGRI-KalBar and GGRI-Papua. In 2012 these three federations came together in their first National Synod and decided to continue as one national federation, with the name GGRI. When we use the name GGRI then we mean the national federation, and if we use the name GGRI with the addition NTT, then we speak about the Reformed Churches in the province NTT.
At the moment, the GGRI-NTT have around 7,000 members, 20 instituted churches and several mission posts. In total there are 75 places where the Word is being preached. Over the past four years the membership has been quite stable, maybe a slight increase. The number of instituted churches increased with one over those four years, but the total number of preaching points has seen a slight decrease from 79 to 75. Preaching points can be mission posts, but also ‘branches’ of instituted churches. Those branches are in fact local congregations which are under the care of a neighbouring consistory because the offices could not yet be instituted at that place.
In the past, the GGRI-NTT had a seminary which was set up by the Dutch missionaries, but it closed twenty years ago. In 2007 the GGI-NTT decided to restart this school again and at the moment there are 24 students being trained at this seminary. This school is not only for the GGRI-NTT but also the GGRI-Papua and the GGRI-KalBar decided to send their students to Sumba. In the past, this seminary was situated in Waimarangu, but it moved to the big city, Waingapu. There a building is being rented for this purpose. With the support of the Dutch and Australian sister churches, the GGRI-NTT hope to build their own building sometime in the near future.
The Canadian and American Reformed Churches accepted the GGRI-NTT as sister churches in 2010, but in 2012 the GGRI-NTT became part of the GGRI. The GGRI-Papua has about 16,000 members and the GGRI-KalBar around 6,000, so the new federation has a total of approximately 29,000 members. Synod Carman 2013 did not have sufficient information to decide to enter into a relationship of ecclesiastical fellowship with the GGRI. Synod mandated the Committee for Relations with Churches Abroad (CRCA) to gather as much information as is needed about the national GGRI to come to a good recommendation to General Synod 2016.
In Indonesia, the modern means of communication are not as widely spread as in North America. This, as well as the large distance between these three provinces, don’t make it easy to collect this information. Therefore the CRCA mainly relied on information which was received from the GGRI-NTT as well as our sister churches in Australia. At the moment there are a few questions and concerns left, which may be answered at the next national synod which will be held in 2016 in Sumba.
The GGRI-NTT have an official relationship of ecclesiastical fellowship with another church federation in the same province, the Calvinist Reformed Churches (GGRC), which are mainly in West Timor and Rote Island. Shortly after the Second World War, the GGRC left the large Christian Evangelical Church (GMIT), which is the dominant church in the province. During the decades that followed they were searching, until they came into contact with the missionaries of our Dutch sister churches who were working in Sumba. That was about 25 years ago. Rev. Eli Fangidae, who was a leading minister in the GGRC, requested that several young men from the GGRC would be allowed to attend the Theological School which the Dutch missionaries had set up in Sumba. Two of these young men were the brothers Yonson and Edwer Dethan. Most of the ministers who are serving in the GGRC as well as in the GGRI-NTT at the moment have been trained at this school.
The GGRC also adopted a church order which was based on the Church Order of Dort and is very much like the church order of the GGRI-NTT and also the Canadian Reformed Churches. However, over the past twenty years, the GGRC have been struggling greatly to implement this church order in their church life and are still having a hard time to faithfully abide by it. That is the main reason that several synods of the Canadian Reformed Churches have decided to wait with accepting the GGRC as sister churches. At the moment the CRCA continues to encourage the GGRC to apply the rules which they have in the church order and is monitoring the developments.
The GGRI-NTT and the GGRC have been in contact with each other for over 25 years now. Although their ministers have been trained at the same seminary in Sumba and they both have the same church order, there is no real progress in the process of becoming one federation. In fact, at the moment there is hardly any contact between these two federations.
Mission work of Smithville
In 2003 the church of Smithville started mission work in West Timor by calling Rev. Edwer Dethan and sending him there as a missionary. There was no relationship between the GGRI-NTT and the Canadian Reformed Churches yet. Rev. Edwer Dethan came from the GGRC and the mission work started in the proximity of GGRC churches and with the help of GGRC members. The intent was, therefore, to work together with the GGRC. Once the GGRC became sister churches with the Canadian Reformed Churches the mission churches which would be established could join the GGRC. However, as described before, the GGRC are still struggling to implement the reformed church order which makes it difficult for the mission churches to join the GGRC.
At the moment there are nine churches instituted as the result of the mission work and if the LORD continues to bless the work, it is to be expected that several more will follow in the near future. In order to train brothers for the ministry of the Word in these churches, a Theological School has been established in Kupang (STAKRI). This school is not only training students for the ministry of the Word but also for teachers. It has just under 100 students, about 20 % studying for the ministry and 80 % for teachers. The school received full accreditation from the Indonesian government, which means that the diplomas and certificates are all officially recognized by the government and are valid throughout entire Indonesia. Reformed teachers are even allowed and do actually teach at public schools and have a great opportunity there to spread the gospel. This school and the work being done by this school has been tremendously blessed and is a great support for the mission work. Also the GGRC was invited to send their students to this school and call their ministers from those who have been trained at this school. However, so far this has not happened and it is very unfortunate to see that the GGRC recently decided to call and ordain three ministers from totally different seminaries in Indonesia. This is not a good development for the reformed character of the GGRC and not for unity between the reformed churches in the province either.
The Theological School for the training for the ministry which was set up by the GGRI-NTT is on the Island of Sumba, which is only about an hour flying from Kupang (or a day traveling by boat). So far this school has not received government accreditation. For this and other reasons, the Canadian Reformed Churches together with the Free Reformed Churches in Australia have encouraged the GGRI to work together with STAKRI in Kupang. If both the GGRI and the GGRC are going to work together with STAKRI, this school could become a great encouragement for church unity.
Summarizing the situation in the province NTT: since 2010 we have the GGRI-NTT as sister churches, mainly on the islands Sumba and Sabu with a Theological School in Sumba; since 2003 the church of Smithville is doing mission work in West Timor, nine churches have been instituted so far and a Theological School is up and running since 2006 in Kupang; the GGRC are sister churches of the GGRI-NTT and the Canadian Reformed Churches are maintaining contact with the GGRC in the hope that a sister church relationship will be possible in the future. In a predominantly Muslim country, it is important that these churches all work together to maintain and spread the Christian faith and the Reformed heritage. So far there has not been much cooperation, but it is our prayer that this will grow so that all these reformed churches may share their blessings and help and encourage each other in the important task of preaching God’s Word in a world that lives in darkness. Christ gathers his church also in Indonesia. May He bless our brother and sisters in Indonesia so that they may remain faithful to Him and that His name be preached also there among a mainly Muslim population. We know that God’s power is made perfect in weakness.