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.

About the Author

Dan Postma is an occasional reporter for The Banner.

See comments (4)

Comments

I suppose if I was a Professor of Apologetics at Calvin Seminary, I too would want to have a Form of Subscription that committed officebearers to "defend" the confessions. But that is not the world of the vast majority of elders and deacons in the CRC.
And what document is Mr. Byker reading? So if I pledge to "conform my preaching, teaching, writing, and life" to the confessions of the CRC, I'm actually embracing a "negative, agree-not-to-disagree" approach? I must be missing something here.
I believe both of these "advisers" have overstated their case and we missed an opportunity to adopt a document that holds great promise for speaking into the life and ministry and service of 99% of the officebearers in the CRC.

I think this was the wrong decision. After reading the proposed form, I think it does a wonderful job of affirming the confessions and creeds, while also focusing on the MAIN commitment - to a loving God and wanting to be of service to Him in the church.

For me, this whole exercise is becoming a bit like arguing how many angels can dance on the head of pin.

I worry that we are elevating confessions and creeds to the same level of Scripture. All of them are socio-historically rooted and by definition, not God inspired, reductionistic and creations of people (flawed people at that). Though the confessions and creeds certainly inform our current interpretations of Scripture, I believe they are overly wedded to logical reductionism (which is actually borrowed from empirical science) as a means of discerning the truth, and by definition, discard parts of Scripture that don't adhere and fit with them.

Let's stop worshiping our heritage and get on with the real work on the ground. Other Christians are NOT the enemy folks! Even the Evangelicals.

The Form of Subscription gets at who and what we are as a denomination. The argument is not about angels on pinheads, but about our identity - not about worshipping history, but about who we *ARE* here, now, in this time and place.

I think one of the reasons the CRCNA has been shrinking - and we've lost 20% of our members over the last 20 years (from 316,000 in 1992 to about 254,000 at the latest count) - is because we have not been able to establish a coherent identity as a denomination. If we don't establish one - if we don't figure out who we are called to be in the Body of Christ - then we will cease to be.

So let us take what time is necessary to get this right, even if it takes another 7 years.

PNR -- What leads you to conclude that the loss of membership over the last 20 years "because we have not been able to establish a coherent identity as a denomination"? I can think of a number of other causes, but "identity" is not one of them.

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