Form of Subscription or Covenant: An Eternal Debate?

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Jesus said the poor will always be with us. Ripping his passionate and compassionate observation completely out of context, it is tempting to say the “The Form of Subscription Revision Study Committee” will always be with us as well.

It is impossible for me to present the Agenda for Synod’s materials on FOS 2 with any disengagement. I have chaired that study committee for the last four years after our mandate was reformulated and the committee itself expanded and diversified at Synod 2008.

While four years is a long way from always being with us, consider this: Several overtures had meandered through several earlier synods between 2003 an 2005. BOT struck a task force to revise FOS in 2005. That task force soon morphed into a study committee and reported in 2008. Seven-plus years is getting a little closer to forever.

What’s more, the yearning to change or revise the FOS within the CRC has been around since the early 1950s. Then Calvin College German professor Clarence Boersma presented a gravamen detailing his difficulties with signing the FOS. Not much happened with Boersma’s brave, humble attempts. Some say he was intimidated into acquiescence.

Twenty years later Dr. Harry R. Boer revived the issue in a series of articles in The Reformed Journal. Boer also submitted an overture to Synod 1976, resulting in the development of the thoughtful, yet complex supplement to Church Order 5 that dealt with some of Boer’s concerns. Still not satisfied with how the supplements worked to permit officebearers to sign the FOS in good conscience, other articles and obscurely published dissertations were added to the smoldering FOS discussion, finally resulting in the task force, FOS 1 and now FOS 2.

FOS 2 began work in September, 2008 and made progress reports to synod in 2009 and 2010 after meeting with all but three CRC classes. Last year a hopeful final draft of a new “Covenant for Officebearers” covenant was recommended for adoption by the advisory committee. It met a firestorm of opposition on the floor of synod when the situation regarding two Calvin College professors’ work on historicity of Adam and Eve exploded into the discussion. It was alleged that the new Covenant would not have worked as boundary markers, though the current FOS had done so. So, back to the committee again with specific guidelines for revision to be presented in 2012.

FOS 2 members corresponded, then met for two days heeding Synod 2011’s guidelines. The revised “Covenant for Officebearers” and an appendix appears in Agenda for Synod 2012, pp. 448-461. Six classes responded to FOS 2’s report with overtures 9-14 (Agenda 2012, pp. 484-489). One calls for recommitment to yet another new study committee. Others make more specific recommendations to add “fully agree with the Word of God.” One curiously argues that “stating that our confessions fully agree with the Word of God does not mean that the confessions are infallible or inerrant.” I thought it did really mean that! Another requests that Our World Belongs to God be removed from the Covenant.

Where will Synod 2012 take this? In his ever-more controversial book Not Sure former Banner editor and soon-to-be former minister of the CRC John Suk avers that our church will not be able to agree on either this proposed covenant or on anything that is nearly as binding on consciences and as limiting to vital confessional discussion as the current FOS.

Our committee will make a case to the advisory committee and to the full synod soon. Briefly, we will claim that we have diligently followed Synod 2011’s slightly revised mandate in our latest revisions. Our constant goal has been to present a strong, pleasing document to God and the CRC that sets boundaries for theological confession, while also providing a climate for freedom from intimidation and suppression. Those were the main reasons that Dr. Clarence Boersma started his lonely journey more than 60 years ago. He has since been promoted to eternity. I pray that FOS 2 and the Covenant for Officebearers are approved before we join Dr. Boersma.

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Perhaps the reason the FOS committees have languished for so long is because there just isn't very much support for their proposals which would radically alter the CRC's identity as a confessional church!

Perhaps your committee is frustrated because your working from a false premise: that the Form of Subscription is irreparably broken and must be replaced. This premise is bolstered by further unsubstantiated claims that the language of the FoS is supposedly archaic and difficult, or by the insulting notion that people of certain ethnic groups are unable to understand what they are signing, or that it makes confessional critique completely impossible.

I've read all I can find on this issue including some of the above references, and it seems to me the complaints are not that the FOS doesn't work, rather that it works too well. Prospective office bearers and professors with unorthodox theological proclivities or 'itching ears' can't sign it in good conscience and are therefore prevented from a leadership role. To blame the FOS for the resulting confrontations is like blaming the guard rail for denting a wayward car!

Over the past few years there have been some excellent overtures, articles and discussions showing the value of having a strong subscription. The weaknesses of the proposed Covenant have been very clearly demonstrated. History has shown us over and over what happens to denominations who loosen their confessional subscription.

Please, please heed these warnings. If we can not fully agree as to what Scripture teaches in its core doctrines, there really is no unity and no need for many of us to continue to belong to a denomination that is becoming a stranger to many of us who have known it our entire lives.

The case will certainly have to be strong to convince synod that the committee followed mandate given last year. I find little difference between the two versions.

The First CO and the now updated one are essentially the same. Without the phrase "fully agree with God's Word" the statement to "conform" our preaching to them means little. In fact, without the phrase "fully agree" why even have the CO?

What ends up happening is that we find ourselves in the same place as our Dutch forebears did in 1816 when the FoS was changed to read something like "in so far as" the confessions agree with God's Word.

If the HC, BC, and CD do not fully agree with God's Word, then we will only conform our preaching and teaching to them in so far as we think they agree with God's Word.

In the Netherlands after the FoS was changed, people started teaching things contrary to scripture. Arminian theology stood side by side with Calvinism....and there are many more historical examples. This kind of thing will likely happen in the CRC if the CO is adopted. Has your revision committee taken this history into account? Maybe you have. Maybe you want to steer us in the direction the church did a couple hundred years ago. I am sure you are aware too, that Abraham Kuyper led a movement away from this trend. We trace our history to the doleantie.

Are we not seeing a repeat of Gresham Machen’s battle? It seems like it from posts I have read from many pastor’s blogs such as John Suk.

When I signed the FoS, I was proud. It was a moment where I felt connected with our great heritage and with Godly people who have gone before us. It made me proud I was part of this denomination. It gave me courage to teach and defend the Gospel.

I agree with Chad, the FoS is not broken. What is broken is our church compromising the truth. Chad's warnings ring true.

Kevin De Young makes an excellent point in his book Why We Love the Church: “My observation is that as people grow tired of hearing about the atonement, salvation, the cross, and the afterlife, they grow tired of the church. Because the more that sin and redemption recede into the background…the more the church becomes just one among several options for making a difference in the world” (page 51).

The FoS and our strong confessional heritage is what helps us stay in the Word and thus enables us to be relevant to this world. Without the FoS and being a confessional  church, we lose our relevance.