Form of Subscription: A Covenant for Officebearers

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Our current study of “The Form of Subscription,” a document that all officebearers sign to indicate their agreement with the doctrinal teachings of the denomination, began in 2004 when a classis asked synod to study the effectiveness of the Form. Seven years later “A Covenant for Officebearers” is being presented to Synod 2011.

The Board of Trustees informed Synod 2005 that a survey of 350 congregations indicated that “a substantial number of churches believe that an update is desirable,” that “the present Form of Subscription contains statements that are subject to misinterpretation” and that “a more contemporary expression of agreement will make the requirements more meaningful” (Acts of Synod 2005, p. 619). Synod 2005 appointed a study committee to revise the document, and Synod 2008 expanded the committee. After extensive interaction with the churches, the committee now presents its recommendation.

Instead of a Form we have a Covenant, a communal not an individualistic document. Instead of a Form that speaks only of the three forms of unity (the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dordt), the Covenant speaks of Scripture, the ecumenical creeds and the three forms of unity. It also addresses Our World Belongs to God, the contemporary testimony of our denomination, but refers to it in different language than the three forms of unity because it does not have confessional status. The committee’s explanation of its proposals on pages 627-630 of the Agenda is helpful.

Though the document speaks of “being formed and governed” by the three forms of unity, and “conforming our preaching, teaching, writing, serving and living to them,” a few overtures want some of the familiar language of the old Form instead. Hopefully synod will recognize that this new language addresses those concerns. This new document will serve the church well.

One of the goals of the committee was simplicity in language so the covenant would be easily understood by all who sign it. A document like this can suffer death by a hundred paper cuts, but is it as understandable as we would like? The first sentence with its many phrases is confusing: “We, the undersigned, believe the inspired Word of God as received in the Old and New Testaments of Holy Scripture, which proclaims the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ and the reconciliation of all things in him.” Why not mention the Bible? Is there a book known as Holy Scripture? Isn’t the Koran Holy Scripture for some people?

Wouldn’t it more understandable to say: “We, the undersigned, believe the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, the inspired Word of God, proclaim the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ and the reconciliation of all things in him?”

The second sentence says, “Acknowledging the authority of God’s Word, we submit to it in all matters of life and faith.” Typically, (cf. Church Order Article 13) we talk about “doctrine (faith) and life,” recognizing that our life flows from our faith. Shouldn’t those two words be switched?  

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I'm not sure how I feel personally about this -- I go back and forth -- but one of the ideas that is "missing" from the new covenant is the "defending" of the truths of the confessions & of scripture.  I can see the reaon behind excluding that language: Defending is a confrontational approach, an effort that seems aimed at quieting dissent from within and out.  In this day and age, where "engagement" and "conversation" are so highly valued (among those who disagree, among those of different denominational and even differing faith/religious backgrounds) it seems off-putting to have officebearers be required to defend their understanding of truth.

On the ohter hand, is it possible that, by not requiring the leadership (at the very least) to "defend" our view and understanding of scripture, could it be that we are weakening our confessional heritage?  Could it be that we are accommodating ourselves too much to the Spirit of the age?

As I said, I go back and forth...  I must say though, that the COOII is much better than the original Covenant of Officebearers, presented in 2008.  It iwll be interesting to see what Synod does with this -- I'm reasonably certain that this will be adopted as it is written.

 Rob, as you know from some of the overtures you're not alone when you say that "defending" is "missing."  Is it really, or is only the word "defending, used in the previous Form of Subscription, "missing?"  Can you preach and teach and be formed by the Confessions without defending them?             

Acutally, you can be formed by them and not defend them.

Think about the history of Reformed church in the Netherlands in 1816. The new FoS contained ambiguous language so that anyone is bound to the confessions in so far as they agree with the Word of God rather than because they argree.

So you could say that the clergy of the Reformed Church in the Nethrlands in 1816 promised to be governed by them but not defend them because they might think certain parts are not in agreement with God's Word.

 

Rob then is correct when he mentions the problem of the word "defend" not being in there.

 

And this is the problem of the CoO. One promises to defend and teach documents that are not deemed as fully agreeing with God's Word. This means that if someone think an article does not agree then they do not have to defend it.

Whoops, I posted an incomplete comment out of place.  Working with an unfamiliar computer while vacationing in Florida.  Sorry.

>Actually, you can be formed by them and not defend them.<

I find it difficult to believe that you can preach and teach the confessions without defending them.  Theoretically possible, but...

Participant

Certainly a person will want to defend the beliefs they preach, teach and are formed by.  However the 'covenant' provides no obligation to defend the truths of scripture summarized in the confessions when they are attacked or misconstrued by others.

I'm sure major heresies would not go unnoticed, but then again, most major heresies begin as minor errors.  What will happen when we no longer have any officers committed to "reject all errors that conflict with these doctrines, but also to refute them, and to do everything we can to keep the church free from them"?

Well, there's the rub, I guess!  I think you CAN preach/teach without defending, and I wonder if that gets risky.  "Defending" carries the conntation of standing by with a sense of conviction, and actively rejecting that which contradicts.  Preaching and teaching (could) suggest simply imparting information (and, I'm with you, I don't believe in "Preaching the Catechism/Confessions" -- We preach God's word, and may/should use the catechism/confessions to guide our preaching topics). 

 

I guess that's just to say that the proposed COO potentially alters the role of both the officebearers and the confessions. 

Participant

Somebody help me out here.  I've read everything I could find regarding the CRC & the FoS, and I have yet to find any specific examples of how the FoS 'contains statements that are subject to misinterpretation' or has language which is difficult to understand.  Every document ever written contains statements subject to misinterpretation, and the language in the FoS is so straightforward and simple that a middle school student could easily comprehend it.

Passing on these vague, meaningless, subjective claims is disingenuous and it needs to stop. 

The fact of the matter is people are upset with the FoS because of its effectiveness, not its 400 year old structure.  Even the Committee's report admits that vocabulary and phraseology are not the issue here- the concept of confessional subscription is the issue.  We live in a culture that abhors absolute claims, and the FoS demands the signer acknowledge our confessions 'fully [absolutely] agree with the Word of God.'  Unfortunately, this worldly culture has crept into the CRC in a big way, and the fact that so many of our officers do not want to be bound by a shared commitment to doctrinal truth should make anyone who cares about the future of our denomination sick.

This new document acknowledges the authority of God's Word.  Great.  But if we can't commit that our interpretations (our confessions) of what God's Word says regarding specific foundational topics fully agree with God's Word, then why should we be formed and governed by these documents?  Without the words 'fully agree with the Word of God' the entire document is meaningless, no matter how well it's word smithed.  I'm sad to say that I think this is exactly what the Committee intended: a document that 'sings' but is totally meaningless.

If this proposal passes the CRCNA will no longer be a confessional church.  This is the most important and potentially dangerous proposal to come to Synod in decades (and that's really saying something).  It must be soundly defeated.

Chad,

  The reformation never stops because while we are on earth we are to continuously seek more understanding that is built on the former reformers. We never arrive till we die.

Participant

Ken,

In one sense you are absolutely right, and in another you are dangerously wrong.

We all ought to adopt the motto Semper Reformanda (always reforming) in that we, as you say, "are to continuously seek more understanding that is built on the former reformers. We never arrive till we die."  We must always strive to articulate doctrines more clearly and apply them to a world that desparately needs to hear them.

However, many confuse reforming with evolving.  The church keeps morphing and changing, drifting wherever the cultural winds blow it until it becomes something that the Reformers would not even recognize.  Since are minds are naturally idol factories, this is a very dangerous path.

Although the phrase Semper Reformanda is somewhat familiar, not as many people are familiar with the full phrase: Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda: The Church Reformed, Always Reforming.  Our task is not to continually redefine the church, but to keep the church true to its Biblical definition which was rediscovered in the Reformation and articulated in our Confessions.

Our Confessions give us the anchor we need to maintain this truth.  The Church exists in tension- the world constantly pulling it away, and its officers (synod, classis, elders) always pulling it back to its basis: what we confess to be Biblical in our Three Forms of Unity. 

Cutting our anchors loose, as this new 'covenant' does is like cutting the string on a kite.  Sure, it relieves the tension, but what happens to the kite?

Semper Ref, Brother.

Hi Chad,

   Maintaining God's truth is going to be dangerous. . Chad I understand your concern, I to am aware that some changes would be wrong. It is comforting to know that we are saved by Grace of Christ and not by our works.

Ken

Chad:

Very much appreciate your rarely stated but complete exposition of the cry of the Reformation (if I am correct that is where  Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda originated).  

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard even from supposedly educated persons the "always reforming" cliche as some sort of evidence for whatever new coming down the pipe that they wanted supported.  Made me wonder if they were more children of the French Revolution than Calvin's Reformation, which if memory of my Reformation history classes serves me correctly was in a sense a "conservative" movement, wanting to return to the doctrines of the early church.

Thanks your comments Chad. There are several overtures coming to synod that make similar points. I am glad this voice is getting to synod not by one church but by a few classes.

I agree that this is one fo the most if not the most defining moments in our denomination has faced in decades. This is issue is far more crucial than even the Belhar. The consequences that could be unleashed if the CoO are very unsettling.

1. we lose our identity as reformed

2. anybody can teach any doctrine. Just as a situation was created the new FoS in 1816 where any view point could exist side by side, so any view point can be tolerated under the CoO. Under the CoO we have to conform our teaching to the three forms but the three forms are not doctrinal standards only merely historic expressions, so the CoO can basically be ignored. A couple of the overtures to Synod make this point. we need some statement that says something like "fully agree with God's word."

3. the Belhar can be more easily accepted. I am nervous about the Belhar being a doctrinal standard. But under the CoO there really is no doctrinal standard.

4. tendency for leaders to even more doctrinally and historically ignorant.

5. encourages preaching that is not well founded on the word. Many people already expect quaint, pithy, moralistic self-help sermons with any hint of gospel sucked out. Anything doctrinal or that has doctrinal roots tends to be viewed as irrelevant. The CoO contributes to these kinds of problems rather than solves them.

George writes, "Though the document speaks of “being formed and governed” by the three forms of unity, and “conforming our preaching, teaching, writing, serving and living to them,” a few overtures want some of the familiar language of the old Form instead. Hopefully synod will recognize that this new language addresses those concerns. This new document will serve the church well."

This "new" language does not address those concerns. The overtures written to Synod prove that this language does not address the cocnerns. That is why the overtures were written. George's comment does not address the issues the overtures presented.