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Proposed Covenant for Officebearers Sent Back for Further Study

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After six years and two study committees, the proposed replacement to the Form of Subscription has still not satisfied synod. Synod 2011 delegates voted to send the document back to the study committee for a seventh year of work.

The Form of Subscription (FOS) is the document that all Christian Reformed Church (CRC) officebearers must sign to affirm their agreement with the creeds, confessions, and teachings of the church. A version modified for academic use must be signed by professors at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, both owned by the CRC.

In recent years the document has fallen into disuse in some churches because some officebearers have reservations about signing it. So Synod 2005 assigned a committee the task of coming up with a new version of the Form of Subscription. The first revision, presented to Synod 2008, was not accepted.

A new committee proposed a Covenant for Officebearers, keeping synods since 2008 apprised of its work.

Synod 2011 greeted the proposed Covenant for Officebearers with spirited debate.

Rev. Daniel Zylstra: “To me this is a document that speaks clearly and beautifully. It’s a document that resonates very well.”

Photo: Karen Huttenga

“To me this is a document that speaks clearly and beautifully,” said Rev. Daniel Zylstra, Classis Quinte. “It reminds me very much of the language in the Contemporary Testimony. It’s a document that resonates very well.”

Rev. Ed Laarman, Central Plains, agreed. “I think the current [Form of Subscription] clips our wings to some extent. I have long, long felt that the wording is negative, defensive, overly restrictive, about preservation. I think it casts a negative pall on the confessions themselves. I see the proposed Covenant as more positive.”

Much of the debate centered on the perception that the new document requires less defense of the Reformed confessions and less accountability from signers than the current FOS.

Representatives of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary and several other synod delegates advocated for more study and a new draft.

Gaylen Byker: “This is a watershed point for the CRC and Calvin College. It would be a major mistake to adopt the proposed Covenant in its current form.”

Photo: Karen Huttenga

Gaylen Byker, president of Calvin College, said: “This is a watershed point for the CRC and Calvin College. It would be a major mistake to adopt the proposed Covenant in its current form.”

Quoting an unnamed Calvin professor, Byker read to delegates: “The largely negative, agree-not-to-disagree tone of the Covenant is exactly how Catholic universities began to recruit faculty in the ’50s and ’60s. In the name of pluralism, they simply asked incoming faculty not to contradict the teachings of the church, and we all know where that has led.

“I can attest that this passive-negative approach was a Trojan horse for a sea change in the orientation of faculty over the next generation, and the loss of Christian character.

“If the CRC is not going to embrace the particularity of Reformed confessional tradition as a gift and a strength, then we might as well fold up shop and head for the nondenominational evangelical church down the street.”

Rev. John Cooper, professor of philosophical theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, also argued forcefully against the draft. “I like [Rev. Tim] Keller, I like the fact that he can make Time magazine, that Calvinism makes Time magazine as something that young people are taking seriously. And just at that time, we’re backing off on our enthusiasm in our willingness to defend it?”

Rev. James Dekker, president of Synod 2011 and chair of the committee that wrote the proposed Covenant for Officebearers, responded: “We were very diligent to respond to the warnings, caveats that were made on the flood of [previous] synods. We’ve visited 45 of the 47 classes. It is only within the last months, because of the difficulty here at the college, that some of this has again begun to surface. I don’t think that a bad year in one place is a good time to make a retreat to something the church had said we had to progress from.”

Synod 2011 asked the study committee to come back in 2012 with a new draft that includes more positive, declarative commitments to teach, defend, and actively promote the confessions and Reformed doctrine of the CRCNA.

Rev. John Luth: “It’s really important we get this thing right. If it takes another year, that’s the price we pay.”

Photo: Karen Huttenga

“It’s really important we get this thing right, and I respect the work that’s been done, but if it takes another year, that’s the price we pay,” said Rev. John Luth, Classis Alberta North.

At least Rev. Kenneth Baker, Classis Kalamazoo, took the long view on assigning a seventh year of study.

Quipped Baker, “We’ve heard a lot of talk about people’s fathers and grandfathers having signed the original [Form]. Perhaps in future years our own grandchildren will say, ‘My grandparents worked on this committee.’”

For more coverage while synod is in session, including webcasts, photos, a discussion forum, reports, and more, see the Synod 2011 website.

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