The Form of Subscription used by the Christian Reformed Church is getting a revision, but just how much it should be revised has stirred disagreement. Delegates to Synod 2008 (the CRC’s annual leadership meeting) will make the final decision on the extent of those changes.
The Form of Subscription is an agreement all CRC officebearers are supposed to sign before taking office. By signing, they affirm that the creeds and confessions of the Christian Reformed Church fully agree with the Word of God, and they promise to teach and defend them. The form is virtually unchanged since it was written nearly 400 years ago.
Today almost everyone agrees that the form needs at least a contemporary revision, or at most an overhaul of its scope and purpose. “I can remember, in my classical examination, being asked if I could sign the Form of Subscription,” said Rev. Gordon Pols of West End CRC, Edmonton, Alberta. “I said, ‘Well, yes, but I have some difficulty with the Canons [of Dort].’ The response was, ‘Well, so do we all,’ and then we moved on. I’ve never forgotten that.”
Synod 2005 asked for a committee to examine the form and propose a revision, clarifying its meaning and giving it more contemporary expression.
But how much revision is a bone of contention for some.
In a preliminary report distributed to the churches, the committee proposed renaming the form the Covenant of Ordination. The committee suggested a new way of understanding the confessions: as “true snapshots in time of the church’s self-understanding,” reminding us “to pay attention to what has been deemed vital in the past.”
The new wording asks officebearers to accept that the confessions are “faithful expressions of the church’s understanding of the gospel for its time and place,” which still shape leaders even as they continually review them in the light of Scripture.
“The many years of conflicted discussion about the form in the CRC reveal the need for a doctrinal covenant more in harmony with current realities,” the report argues. “We cannot afford to be more concerned about historical integrity than current expression.”
Rev. William Veenstra of Ancaster (Ont.) CRC likes the proposed covenant. “When the old form was originally rendered, there weren’t issues of technology or abortion or racial reconciliation,” he said. “This is a healthy step toward enriched dialogue.”
But the proposal faces opposition as well. Rev. Michael Borgert of First CRC, Muskegon, Mich., suggests the new language may have gone too far. “We’re hesitant to have the Reformed confessions relegated to little more than historical documents that once shaped our identity,” he said.
Rev. Raymond Blacketer of Neerlandia (Alta.) CRC offers even sharper criticism. “The adoption of such a watered-down and toothless form,” he argues, “would mean the end of the CRC as a confessional church.”
Committee chair John Van Schepen, pastor of Bethel CRC in Lynden, Wash., said well over 100 responses to the preliminary report have been received, most from church councils and some from individuals. The committee will meet again to review the feedback it has received and prepare a final submission to the CRC’s Board of Trustees in advance of Synod 2008.
“As a Reformed church in today’s world,” Van Schepen said, “we have to keep on speaking from the Scriptures in ways that can be understood by our current society.”