Christianity Today magazine has reported on a growing surge of interest in and attraction to the Reformed faith among North American evangelicals (“Young, Restless, Reformed,” September 2006). Ironically, while others are clamoring for the Reformed faith, we in the Christian Reformed Church seem to be increasingly lukewarm toward our own confessional heritage.
One symptom of this indifference is a proposed revision to our Form of Subscription, the document that deacons, elders, pastors, and ministry associates sign to indicate their agreement with the teachings of the Reformed faith as taught in our confessions: the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort. This document plays an important part in our calling to be biblically faithful in our preaching and teaching. It defines our distinctive identity, and when used conscientiously, it can help keep us accountable to our ordination vows.
Because officebearers sometimes misunderstand what signing the form means, Synod 2005 called for a revision of the form’s language to clarify its meaning. However, the task force assigned to this project exceeded their mandate by proposing a document that appears to be a replacement of the traditional form, rather than a clarified or simplified form.
The proposed “Covenant of Ordination” downplays the current relevance of our Reformed confessions, raises our Contemporary Testimony to the level of a confessional document (or perhaps lowers the confessions to the level of a testimony), and significantly loosens the obligations of church leaders, requiring merely that we be “guided” and “shaped by” these confessions. In addition, the task force’s report presents an excessively negative and unbalanced view of our confessional tradition.
It would be a serious mistake for us to adopt this proposed form in its current state. It would not hurt to clarify the traditional form that officebearers sign, to anticipate common misunderstandings. But its substance must remain the same because our subscription to the confessions is essential for our unity, our integrity, and our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ.
We must not concede to what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” the “uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age” (Surprised by Joy). We must not demote our confessions to sentimental relics of the past, as the proposed form seems to do by characterizing them as merely “faithful expressions of the church’s understanding of the gospel for its time and place.”
Essential for Our Unity
Our confessions are called the “Three Forms of Unity” for good reason. When we sign the Form of Subscription, we covenant with each other to honor the core convictions of the Reformed faith, a God-centered understanding of the good news of Jesus Christ. Our confessions are not a doctrinal straightjacket; they do not stifle debate or silence dissent as the revision report claims. Our history reveals no lack of theological diversity or debate in the CRC or the Reformed tradition. In fact, it is our common adherence to these confessions that unifies us as a distinctive part of the body of Christ and binds us together despite our diverse tendencies and mindsets. Some of us put more stress on piety, others on social action. This diversity enriches our denomination; but without some common ground, conflict and division can easily erupt. We find that common ground in our shared confession of the historic Reformed faith, just as we find common ground with all believers when we profess the Apostles’ Creed.
If, however, we loosen our confessional covenant, the unity of our church, which has already suffered over the past decades, will be dealt another severe blow. There will be a significant number of officebearers and councils who will not be able to subscribe to the proposed document in good conscience. Some people find this hard to understand, since officebearers would be asked to sign on to less, not more, than what we required before. But imagine if your spouse, after 20 years of marriage, asked you to reconsider your marriage vows: “After all, times have changed. You and I are not the same people we used to be. Let’s renew our vows, but leave out that dated part about being exclusively faithful to each other.” It would be a poor recipe for harmony, to say the least.
Essential for Our Integrity
Retaining the substance of our Form of Subscription is also essential if we are to have any kind of integrity in our ministry.
This proposed revision of our ordination covenant, with its vague language, will make it more difficult for us to hold each other accountable to our promise to faithfully teach and defend the Reformed faith, and it will contribute to a further blurring of our church’s identity. Those who have signed the form in good
conscience, and who take seriously
our Reformed confessional character,
will certainly feel betrayed; suspicion
and distrust will increase among our churches.
Our confessions affirm the priority of the Scriptures over any human document, and the Form of Subscription makes provision for communal critique and revision of these confessions if they are proven to contradict Scripture. The problem we face today is not in our confessions, nor is it in the Form of Subscription. The problem is with our integrity. If we find ourselves disagreeing with the confessions, we have an obligation to bring these objections forward. When pastors, councils, and classes neglect the use of the Form of Subscription, it is a failure to be honest, a failure to be faithful to our ordination vows.
How can we as pastors and leaders expect church members to be true to their vows of marriage, baptism, or profession of faith if we are only halfheartedly faithful to our own promises as officebearers in Christ’s church?
Essential for Our Ministry
There is another reason why we as a Reformed church must not water down our Form of Subscription. Our shared commitment to the Reformed confessions is vital to our effectiveness in making disciples for Jesus Christ and witnessing to his transforming power.
Our Reformed perspective, far from being a hindrance or liability to ministry, is our greatest asset in preaching the gospel, planting new churches, and advancing Christ’s kingdom. Why would people seeking truth and meaning be drawn to a church that calls itself Reformed but only halfheartedly confesses its distinctive take on the Christian faith? Churches that stand for only the least common denominator are declining rapidly. Those with strong convictions are growing.
If we continue to neglect our Reformed distinctives, we will no longer have any reason to continue as a distinct denomination. We must move beyond our unhealthy tendency to become mired in self-doubt. We have received a great legacy that we must not squander. The Reformed faith is still relevant and always will be; the only question is whether we will trust in God’s sovereign power or feel compelled to conform to the spirit of the age.
It’s crucial that we recapture the spirit of Reformed believers like Guido de Brès, author of the Belgic Confession, who preferred to “offer their backs to stripes, their tongues to knives, their mouths to gags, and their whole bodies to the fire,” rather than deny the faith embodied in our confessions.
May God reawaken our enthusiasm for the Reformed faith and his Spirit equip us to proclaim that faith with renewed creativity and passion.