Part I - Confessional Subscription
by Cedric Parsels
This is a new series from Rev. Cedric Parsels covering the history of gravamina in the Christian Reformed Church.
From its beginning, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) has practiced a strict form of confessional subscription. Unlike our brothers and sisters in the Presbyterian churches, we have never allowed our officebearers to take exception to any of the doctrines contained in our confessions. (It is true that we have much higher expectations than our Presbyterian brethren when it comes to church membership as well, but, unlike with our officebearers, we have in the past allowed some church members, under certain conditions, to take exceptions, cf. Acts of Synod 1964, Art. 100, p.63).
As I have pointed out before, when we understand the history of the origins of the CRC, our practice with regard to confessional subscription is not all that surprising. All of our early leaders were men and women who had come from churches that had seceded from the state Netherlands Reformed Church in 1834. Among the reasons for their secession was the state church’s decision in 1816 to change the way it practiced confessional subscription. Whereas the state church allowed ministers to take exceptions to the confessions, the Seceders of 1834 believed that this should not be allowed. It should not surprise us, then, that, when some of these Seceders set about establishing the CRC, they required their officebearers to “unconditionally” subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity (cf., Minutes of Classis Holland, April 6, 1861).
The instrument that our CRC forebearers chose for enforcing this unconditional subscription was, again unsurprisingly, the Form of Subscription (FOS). This Form was created by the great Synod of Dordt (1618-1619) alongside the Canons of Dordt in an effort to purge Arminianism from the state Netherlands Reformed Church. Synod 1912 adopted a very slightly amended version of this Form and the Form remained essentially the same until it was replaced a century later by the Covenant for Officebearers. (For those who are interested, the United Reformed churches returned to using the pre-1988 version of the FOS after their secession from the CRC in the 1990s.)
From 1912 until it was replaced in 2012, the FOS required candidates to make certain declarations and promises before they could enter into service. First and foremost, a candidate had to declare that they were wholeheartedly persuaded that “all the articles and points of doctrine, contained in [our confessions]…fully agree with the Word of God.” Not only that, but they also had to declare that they rejected “all errors that militate against this doctrine and particularly those [errors[ which were condemned by the [Synod of Dordt].” As a report to Synod 1976 put it, these declarations were intentionally written in order to secure a candidate’s “watertight” commitment to orthodox Reformed doctrine (Agenda 1976, p.415). No exceptions were to be allowed.
Having affirmed their unreserved commitment to orthodox doctrine and having affirmed their rejection of every teaching that contradicts it, the FOS required subscribers to make four promises. First, a subscriber promised “diligently to teach and faithfully to promote the aforesaid doctrine.” Second, they promised “to refute and contradict” any doctrine that conflicted with them.
We should note in passing how hard, if not impossible, it would be for an honest subscriber to keep these promises and then turn around and allow other officebearers to take exception to our confessions. Officebearers were bound by oath to refute views that contradicted the confessions. They were “to exercise [themselves] in keeping the Church free from such errors,” not to make room for them!¹
The final two promises the FOS required of candidates had to do with how they would behave if they ever came to have “difficulties” with any of the doctrines contained in the confessions. First, if “difficulties or different sentiments” came up, candidates promised that they would “neither publicly nor privately propose, teach, or defend [these views], either by preaching or writing until [they had] first revealed such sentiments to the Consistory, Classis, or Synod.” These church assemblies would then have the responsibility to examine the officebearer’s ‘difficulty’ and render a judgment on it. According to Van Dellen and Monsma, upon reaching their ‘judgment,’ the assemblies had two options. They could either (1) call for a revision of the confessions or (2) attempt to persuade the officebearer of his or her error (Van Dellen and Monsma, Revised Church Order Commentary. 6th Ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1967, p.39). If an officebearer persisted in their error, the assembly was then obligated to suspend and, if they continued to persist, depose the officebearer in question (cf., 1914 Church Order, Arts. 79-80).
Finally, by signing the FOS, candidates promised that they would “always [be] willing and ready” to give an account of their views to the church, if the church should have “sufficient grounds” for suspecting them of holding views contrary to the confessions. Refusal to submit oneself would result in a de facto suspension from office.
Before concluding, it is relevant to point out that officebearers who subscribe to the Covenant for Officebearers (CFO) today make the same declarations and promises as candidates did prior to 2012. According to the CFO and the Church Order, all officebearers must affirm that all the doctrines contained in our confessions “fully agree with the Word of God.” They promise to “promote and defend [these confessional] doctrines faithfully.” Further, they promise that they will “communicate [their] views to the church,” if they ever come to have “confessional difficulties” or if the church asks. And our church order requires consistories to put under special discipline officebearers who obstinately deviate from our confessional teachings (C.O., Art. 83).
The significance of this history of the FOS for our present study is that it places the burden of proof on anyone who would argue that the CRC has a long history of permitting officebearers to take exception to our confessions. If there is evidence that the CRC has a long official history of granting exceptions, we would expect it to be clear and compelling. As we will see in the remainder of this series, however, such evidence does not exist. In fact, the opposite is the case. The requirements that were made of CRC officebearers in 1861 have been defended, repeated, and assumed decade upon decade. And they remain our official requirements today.
¹ It should be noted that the exception to the doctrine of infant baptism that Synod 1964 granted to some non-ordained members was not technically an ‘exception.’ The members in question had promised their consistory that they would not advocate against infant baptism in the church and that they would remain teachable. Furthermore, they agreed with the Reformed confessions on every other point. A question arises here about when someone stops being “teachable.”