The following piece appeared in the January 14 issue of Christian Courier as the latest installment of my “Principalities & Powers” column. The story related therein is based on Constantijn J. Sikke’s book, Een waarlijk vrije: levensschets van Dr Kornelis Sietsma (A Truly Free Man: A Sketch of the Life of Dr. Kornelis Sietsma) (Amsterdam: Kirchner, 1946).
On a Monday early in 1942, the Rev. Dr. Kornelis Sietsma was arrested by the German Sicherheitsdienst (SD) at his home in Amsterdam. The previous day he had preached a sermon on Luke 4:1-13, the account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, in which he emphasized the temptations that come with power. This was at his own congregation, the Schinkelkerk, which worshipped in a fifty-year-old building in the Dutch capital city. At the offering he announced that a collection would be taken for the denomination’s mission to the Jews, something that had come to the attention of the SD, whose agents had attended his church that day.
German troops had occupied the Netherlands for not quite two years. Queen Wilhelmina and her government had taken refuge in London and the occupiers set up a pro-Nazi régime in its place. All of this occurred despite the Dutch declaration of neutrality at the beginning of the war in 1939. However, only months later Germany violated Dutch neutrality and invaded the country. Now German soldiers patrolled the streets, and the Jewish population was beginning to receive discriminatory treatment at their hands, with much worse to come.
The Schinkelkerk was part of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, a denomination that began as a merger of two Reformed denominations dissenting from the established church. This union was brought about in 1892 by Abraham Kuyper, who would go on to become Prime Minister of the Netherlands shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. In his own political thought Kuyper had recovered an emphasis on something he called soevereiniteit in eigen kring , or sovereignty in its own sphere—-a principle in sharp contrast to state absolutism and certainly to the pretensions of any totalitarian régime.
A week and a half earlier, Sietsma had presided over the meeting of the Schinkelkerk consistory, which was faced with two issues of political significance: the status of liturgical prayers for the exiled Royal Family, and the Arbeitsdienst , or the mandatory service imposed on young people by the Germans. These had been raised in a letter issued by the General Synod of the Reformed Churches which was communicated to the congregations, calling them to discourage their young men from participating in the Arbeitsdienst and to remember the Royal Family in worship services. Sietsma commended the courage of this synodical letter at that meeting.
Sunday, February 1, would mark Sietsma’s final sermon. SD officials were in the congregation that day when the special collection was taken. During his prayers, Sietsma recalled the fourth birthday of Queen Wilhelmina’s little granddaughter, Princess Beatrix, which had occurred on Saturday, and asked God for the safe return of the Royal Family to the Netherlands. All of this was duly noted by the visitors, who took this incriminating information back to their superiors.
Following his arrest, Sietsma was put on trial for provoking resistance to the governing authorities, collecting funds for the Jews, and praying for the royal family’s return. During his trial he admitted, under questioning, that the lust for power, on which he had preached, was present also in national socialism. Sietsma was held in prison until July and then transferred to the concentration camp at Dachau. Two months later, at only forty-six years of age, he was dead, having paid the ultimate price for his courage in the face of his persecutors.
Prior to the outbreak of war, Sietsma wrote a little book called Ambtsgedachte , which was published posthumously and translated half a century later as The Idea of Office (Paideia Press, 1985). In this brief volume the author ties the exercise of authority to the possession of office, arguing that “office is the only justification and the proper limitation of any human exercise of power and authority.” Apart from office, there is no obligation to obey another person. There is no natural right for one person to rule over someone else. Whether the German SD ever saw this book is unknown, but if they had done so, they could not have failed to recognize the implications of Sietsma’s approach for the Nazi claim to Aryan racial superiority over other peoples.
Only office , and not the mere possession of power, can confer authority. The principal office we exercise in God’s world is that of divine image-bearer (Genesis 1:26-27). All the other authoritative offices we hold find their ultimate point of origin in this central office given by God himself. Sietsma understood this and willingly accepted the consequences of living it out before the face of the God he loved and served.
David T. Koyzis teaches politics at Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ontario, and is currently seeking a publisher for his book on authority, office, and the image of God.