What it Means to be Confessional
For quite some time now, various labels have been used to describe those who hold to the orthodox Christian faith, such as orthodox, conservative, traditional, or even biblical. While these can be helpful terms, I believe that the term confessional is a more accurate way to describe the church’s commitment to biblical truth. To be confessional is more than just what the CRC synod decided in 2022 by specifically defining particular confessional words regarding human sexuality. A commitment to being confessional is what the CRC has held on paper for her entire history, but post Synod 2022, it’s something we need to wholeheartedly embrace and recover, even beyond that specific decision.
What does it mean to be a confessional church? It is not an attempt to go back to some golden age of past orthodoxy. The sixty-six books of the Bible span thousands of pages, and for centuries Christians have disagreed about what they believe the Bible says and means. Yet the confessions unify us in one church and one denomination. To be a confessional church is to believe that the confessions bind us to one faith (Ephesians 4:5), uniting us to what we collectively confess with our mouth and believe in our heart about the Bible (Romans 10:8-10). That’s why the three confessions of the CRCNA are often labeled as The Three Forms of Unity.
So what mechanism makes the CRC a confessional church? It comes down to an important document that has been in use since 2012, the Covenant for Officebearers. Understanding this covenant requires a much deeper dive into history, however. Ever since the great Synod of Dort (1618-1619), the church has used a document called the Form of Subscription. The way this form commits us to subscribe to our confessions was even a factor in why several churches in West Michigan left the RCA to form the CRC in 1857 (See Henry DeMoor, Equipping the Saints, 1986, p. 65). The Form of Subscription states clearly that the one signing the document declares truthfully that they believe that our standards “fully agree with the Word of God.” This important phrase means that the confessions themselves hold authority in the church; to disagree with a Confession is to disagree with the Word of God itself.
Many church traditions, such as several Presbyterian denominations, hold to a looser type of subscription, where officebearers only agree with the confessions insofar as (quatanus) the confession is biblical (See the PCA Book of Church Order 21-4, f.). This means that subscribers are allowed to submit their exceptions, the parts of the confessions that they deem not to be biblical. As long as their governing body believes that their exception is not fundamental to their system of doctrine, they are allowed to serve.
On the other hand, when the Form of Subscription says that our standards fully agree with the word of God, the signer is saying that they hold to them because (quia) they are biblical. There are no exceptions allowed in this system. In the words of R. Scott Clark, “It is not that the authority of the confessions is ‘very nearly tantamount to that of Scripture,’ but it is tantamount to that of Scripture, assuming that a given confession is biblical and intended to be subscribed because (quia) it is biblical. If a confession is not biblical, it should be revised so that it is biblical, or it should be discarded in favor of a confession that is biblical” (Recovering the Reformed Confession, 2008, p. 178).
A Lesson In History
I would like to take a moment to tell the story of how the Covenant for Officebearers came into existence and use in the CRC. It will help us to explore the content of the Covenant and what it means for us to be a confessional denomination.
The CRC Synod of 1998 first received an overture from Classis Thornapple Valley asking that a study committee be formed to revise the Form of Subscription to remove the language “fully agree with the word of God.” The writers were concerned that the wording of the Form of Subscription promotes signing it “with mental reservations” (Agenda 1998, p. 202-204). Synod at that time had no desire to revisit the Form of Subscription so they did not accede the overture (Acts 1998, p. 425-426).
Then in 2004, an Overture from Classis B.C. South-East began what would end up being an eight-year process to update the Form. The overture asked that synod study the effectiveness of the Form of Subscription as an accountability tool for our denomination (Agenda 2004, p. 435). Synod did not accede to the overture, but did instruct the Board of Trustees to survey the churches as to the methods by which the churches comply with the provisions of Church Order Article 5 (Acts 2004, p. 633).
The Board of Trustees then reported to Synod 2005 that based on the survey results from the churches, they recommended a revised edition of the Form of Subscription. The grounds showed that the churches desired an update, the present Form contained statements that are subject to misinterpretation (though scant evidence was provided to substantiate this claim), and that a contemporary expression of agreement would be helpful (Acts 2005, p. 619.) Synod agreed to form a study committee to revise the Form of Subscription, but added the provision that “the purpose of the revision is to clarify the meaning of the Form of Subscription” (Acts 2005, p. 735).
The 2008 report of the Revision Committee suggested significant changes to an updated form. The committee argued that the assumption that a regulatory instrument is needed to keep us orthodox “is increasingly being called into question” (Agenda 2008, p. 243). The draft for the new Doctrinal Covenant did not have the critical words that the Confessions “Fully agree with the Word of God.” Instead, it stated that the standards are “the church’s faithful expressions of the gospel in their time which define the tradition of our Reformed understanding of Scripture and continue to direct us today” (Agenda 2008, p. 249). In other words, they were useful in our history and tradition of interpretation, but they are not necessarily binding now. This “more flexible” covenant also removed the “silencing language” where the signer promises not to speak against the confessions before disclosing them to the assemblies. The committee even had the audacity to claim that “few church leaders can with integrity state that they agree fully with every jot and tittle of the historical confessions” even though this had always been our practice (Agenda 2008, p. 248).
In processing the report, the advisory committee to Synod 2008 raised some significant concerns about the committee’s work. Among other things, they were concerned that the phrase “in their time” would eliminate the contemporary relevance of the Forms of Unity (Acts 2008, p. 475). Synod decided to recommit the work to another three-year study committee which included new members (Acts 2008, p. 476-477).
At Synod 2011, the advisory committee presented to synod the draft of the Covenant for Officebearers that the study committee had presented in their report to Synod 2011 (Agenda 2011, p. 622). On the floor of synod, several concerns were expressed, including from those of the college faculty and the seminary faculty advisor. Synod voted to recommit the report back to the advisory committee (Acts 2011, p. 870). The next morning (the last day of meeting), Synod revised the mandate of the committee to ensure that they addressed five areas of concern, including “the need to strengthen the scope and the binding nature of the commitment” (Acts 2011, p. 871). They were given one more year to complete their work.
Finally, the study committee reported once again to Synod 2012 a newly revised Covenant for Officebearers (Agenda 2012, p. 453). The committee had done significant work to address some of the concerns of Synod 2011. However, as noted in several overtures to Synod 2012, the 2012 draft of the study committee still had not implemented all of the proposed concerns of Synod 2008 and 2011. The Calvin College Board of Trustees even requested of Synod 2012 that they do so (Acts 2012, p. 644). The version that was suggested by the advisory committee addressed those original concerns of 2011. They added the phrase “whose doctrines fully agree with the Word of God.” They also added the sentence: “If the church asks, we will give a full explanation of our views.” After eight years, two study committees, four drafts, with input from the churches and at least four synods, Synod 2012 agreed unanimously to approve the Covenant for Officebearers as we have it today (Acts 2012, p. 761-762).
Why do I bring up this story? In the end I believe it helps to affirm that the CRC is indeed a confessional church. The CRC had multiple opportunities over a significant period of time to weaken our commitment to the confessions of our denomination. While I do believe that the change from the Form of Subscription to the Covenant for Officebearers slightly softened the language of our commitment to the confessions, it affirmed for us that we hold to our confessions because they are biblical. The Church Order does not provide a way for us to take exceptions to our confessions, because the plain language of the Covenant itself causes us to hold that the standards are themselves biblical. As of late, the Synod FAQ, Council of Delegates members, and Calvin University faculty have argued that filing a gravamina allows officebearers, COD members, and faculty to take exceptions to our confessions. Yet if we have signed this Covenant, we are swearing before God and his church that these doctrines fully agree with the word of God. Therefore we cannot, with any ounce of integrity, continue to serve in these capacities in the Christian Reformed Church, if we disagree with any of the doctrines or interpretations of those doctrines that are taught in these standards.