Subscription to the Confession
All ministers of the Word, elders, deacons, and professors of theology shall subscribe to the Confessions of the Canadian Reformed Churches by signing the form(s) adopted for that purpose.
Anyone refusing to subscribe in that manner shall not be ordained or installed in office. Anyone who, being in office, refuses to do so shall, because of that very fact, be immediately suspended from office by the consistory with the deacons, and classis shall not receive him. If he obstinately persists in his refusal, he shall be deposed from office.
The federation of the Canadian Reformed Churches is not a federation of convenience but a federation based on the unity of faith. It is, therefore, of utmost importance that the unity of faith be preserved and protected, for if this unity is no longer there, the very nature of the federation has been violated and total collapse is the final result, even though an outward show of unity is maintained.
True unity is possible only when the churches can be assured of each other that the true doctrine of the Scriptures is believed and adhered to, and that heresies in every form are recognized and rejected. History, too, has taught us that wherever deviating views are tolerated dissolution begins almost immediately.
The Holy Spirit so guided the churches that had come to Reformation that from the outset they were aware of the necessity of maintaining the unity of faith. Having been freed from the idea that the unity of the church was fixed in one man, the pope, and that allegiance to that official was the only way in which the unity could be preserved, they understood that only allegiance to the Lord, to His Word guaranteed their really being one.
The gathering of brothers in Wesel in the year 1568 has been mentioned before. Although they could not take binding decisions and only expressed what they considered necessary or advisable, they did not hesitate to declare that no laying on of hands should occur ere the brother who was to be ordained had “solemnly bound himself in the presence of the whole church, that he will dedicate himself solely to the propagation of God’s honour, to the pure proclamation of (God's) Word and to the edification of the church; that he will not twist the pronouncements of the Holy Spirit according to his own peculiar inclinations and that he will not deviate from the truth even one hair’s breadth either from favour, or for money, or from fear; likewise that he will diligently observe the adopted ordinances of the church that aim at the order and the rest of the churches.” (Articles of Wesel Ch. ll, Art. 12)
The first synod of the liberated churches was held in 1571. At that synod the brothers decided: “In order to give evidence of the unity in doctrine among the Netherlands Churches the Brothers have decided to place their signatures under the Confession of Faith of the Netherlands Churches and to do the same to the Confession of the Churches in France thereby to witness their bond and unity with these French Churches.”
It is remarkable that of the twenty-nine brothers present only five were elders; there were nineteen ministers, three future ministers, and probably two retired ministers. Yet the brothers decided as indicated above. This may be mentioned with gratitude especially inasmuch as deviation from the doctrine of the church and opposition to subscription to the confessions practically always came from ministers of the Word.
Why a Subscription Form?
Would it not be sufficient if office-bearers just placed their signatures under the confessions of the church to declare thereby that they fully accept these Formulas as a correct summary of the doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures?
This ought to be sufficient and this would be the case if everyone were convinced of it and if the churches could be assured that every one who placed his signature under the confessions knew himself bound by them for as long as his service would last. The hard reality of heresies that crept in soon after the Reformation and the cunning of the human heart convinced the churches that such a simple signature under the confessions alone was not sufficient.
One could remind a minister that he had signed the confessions but is now introducing and promoting errors and is therefore breaking his word. Suppose the minister were to reply: “Yes, at that time I was convinced that they were a faithful summary of the truth, but since then I have made a further study of this specific point and have come to the conclusion that the confessions are wrong here?”
Everyone feels that in such a case he has still broken a solemn declaration made when subscription took place, but speaking in the abstract, it is a fact that the man never made any promises. Since it is not sufficient for a young man and a young woman to be pronounced husband and wife when they declare at a certain moment that they love each other, they also have to make certain promises and to take upon themselves certain obligations. Likewise, the churches learned that it is not sufficient when a minister declares at a certain moment that he believes from the heart that all the points of doctrine contained in the confessions of the church are in full accordance with Holy Scripture. What is also needed is that guarantees are given for the future.
Thus in the period between 1568 and 1618/1619 various subscription forms were drawn up and were in use in the different classical regions. Essentially they all contained two parts: in the first place a declaration that the doctrine as summarized in the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism was wholly in accordance with Holy Scripture, and secondly the
promise to maintain this doctrine and to refute errors conflicting with it. These elements remained the main elements also of the Form of Subscription that was adopted by the Synod of 1618/1619, the Synod of Dordrecht. The Form that is generally in use in the Canadian Reformed Churches is essentially a translation of this Dort Form. It follows here.
FORM OF SUBSCRIPTION
We, the undersigned, Ministers, Elders, and Deacons of the Canadian Reformed Church at..., do hereby, sincerely and in good conscience before the Lord, declare by this our subscription that we heartily believe and are persuaded that all the articles and points of doctrine, contained in the doctrinal standards of the Canadian Reformed Churches: the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort, do fully agree with the Word of God.
We promise therefore diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid doctrine, without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same by our public teaching or writing. We declare, moreover, that we not only reject all errors that militate against this doctrine, but that we are disposed to refute and contradict these and to exert ourselves in keeping the Church free from such errors. And if hereafter any difficulties or different sentiments respecting the aforesaid doctrine should arise in our minds, we promise that we will neither publicly nor privately propose, teach, or defend the same, either by teaching or writing, until we have first revealed such sentiments to the Consistory, Classis, and Synod, that the same may be examined by them, being ready always cheerfully to submit to their judgment under penalty in case of refusal, because of that very fact, to be suspended from our office.
And further, if at any time the Consistory, Classis, or Synod, upon sufficient grounds of suspicion and to preserve the uniformity and purity of doctrine, may deem it proper to require of us a further explanation of our sentiments respecting any particular article of the above-mentioned doctrinal standards, we do hereby promise to be always willing and ready to comply with such request, under the penalty mentioned above, reserving for ourselves, however, the right of appeal in case we should believe ourselves aggrieved by the sentence and until such a decision is made upon such an appeal we will acquiesce in the determination and judgment already passed.
This Form contains four elements. There is, in the first place, the declaration which signatories make that they heartily believe that all the articles and points of doctrine, contained in the doctrinal standards of the Canadian Reformed Churches do fully agree with the Word of God. By making this declaration they do not put the confessional formulas of the churches on a level with the Word of God, nor do they thereby assert that the confessions may never be changed. God’s Word is always above all. That is what we confess in the Belgic Confession with express words.
On the other hand, it would be putting up a false dilemma if one said, “But God’s Word is higher than the confessions and for this reason we are not allowed to make such a declaration.” What the office-bearers affirm in the first paragraph is that the confessions are a faithful summary of what the Lord teaches us in the Holy Scriptures. Thus the churches can be assured that the brothers who serve in an office wholeheartedly are in agreement with the doctrine of God’s Word.
In the second place — and we speak now particularly about the ministers of the Word — there is the promise “diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid doctrine, without directly or indirectly contradicting the same by our teaching or writing either publicly or privately.” When the apostle Paul bade farewell to the elders of the church at Ephesus, he testified that he “did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” (Acts 20: 27) This is what ministers, too, should do. No element of the doctrine of God’s Word should be neglected or omitted from the teaching and preaching. It would, for example, be wrong and a breaking of his promise, if a minister never spoke of God’s gracious election or failed to expound the riches of God’s covenant or never sounded a warning of the wrath of God upon disobedience and apostasy.
Thus the ministers promise that they will diligently teach the aforesaid doctrine. They also promise that they will defend it. It is their obligation to expose errors and to proclaim the truth over against them. Failure to defend the Scriptural doctrine against errors opens the door for them so that they can enter and make their victims. In close connection with this comes the promise that they will refute and contradict these errors and do their best to keep the church free from them.
Doubts and Different Sentiments
It is possible that a brother begins to have doubts regarding a certain point of doctrine or that he disagrees with it. The first thing he is not permitted to do is: place question marks here and there with the doctrine of the church. “No, I am not denying this doctrine, but is it really correct to say this or that?” It was with the placing of a question mark behind what the Lord spoke to man in paradise that Satan initiated his attack on man and his faithfulness to the Lord his God. By placing question marks behind what the Lord has revealed or what the church confesses one sows doubt into the hearts of the believers.
Much less, of course, is the brother permitted to “propose, teach, or defend” his deviating sentiments. By his subscription he promises that he will not do so either. Hereby it is prevented that a minister speaks about his doubts or entertains diverging sentiments at catechism classes or at family visits. Even though he himself may have doubts about a certain point, for example the baptism of infants, he shall teach what the doctrine of the church teaches. That is what he promised by signing the Form. He knows very well what this doctrine is and this is what he has to proclaim from the pulpit and in the classroom. He may not be able to do it with conviction and we certainly do not minimize the difficulties which he faces, especially with the preaching, but this does not give him the right to go against his promise.
The only ones to whom he may reveal and explain his doubts or different sentiments is the consistory. He is even under obligation to do this, so that the consistory may examine them and judge them. Perhaps the brother will be convinced of his errors when the consistory has studied them and found them to be errors indeed. In case he is not convinced of his fallacy, he will have to submit his sentiments to the classis. In the meantime, of course, he will still have to refrain from propagating his ideas. If classis agrees with the consistory, and he still is not convinced of his error, the brother has to bring his sentiments to regional and general synod respectively. That is what he promised by his signature under the Form of Subscription.
In the meantime, he has promised that he will refrain from spreading or propagating his dissenting views. He also will submit to the judgment of the various ecclesiastical assemblies to which he appeals should he consider himself to have been wronged by the decision of the minor assembly. By means of these guarantees the churches are safeguarded against the introduction of errors as much as they are able to effectuate.
What is to be done if a brother refuses to sign and make the promises which are required of an office-bearer? Because of that very fact he is barred from office if he has not yet been installed or ordained. This does not mean that such barring is automatic. A decision by the consistory is needed, but the very fact of his refusal is solid ground for such a mandatory decision. If he is already an office-bearer, refusal renders him subject to suspension forthwith.
Some churches have the office-bearers sign the Form at the ordination or installation. In by far the most instances, however, this is done at the first consistory meeting after the installation or ordination. In the latter case suspension is the proper course when the brother refuses to sign. As for the ministers of the Word, they sign every time anew when they are installed in another church. The reason for this is that each church is autonomous and must have the guarantees for itself that the new minister of the Word is and will remain faithful to his office.
Since the signing has to take place at the classical level as well, the question has to be answered what is to be done if a minister refuses to sign at a classis. The old text of this article provided that in this case he was to be suspended by classis. This would have been the only instance in which a minister could be suspended by a classis. But apart from the fact that this is an alien element in Reformed church polity, it is not clear what effect it would have. Or was the meaning, perhaps, that the brother was to be suspended as a member of classis? The present text of Article 26 reads that “classis shall not receive him,” namely as a legitimate delegate from that church and as a member of classis with all the rights, privileges, and obligations coming with this membership. Continued refusal will have to result in deposition from office.
When a brother who is not yet an office-bearer receives permission to exhort in the churches, the classis which examined him and gave him this permission usually requests him to make an oral promise corresponding to the Subscription Form. In some classes a Subscription Form is in use that is an adapted version of the form used for ministers of the Word. Whichever procedure is followed, the churches demand also of those who may exhort that they shall abide by the Truth.
At times the provision was included that the office-bearers promised to act in accordance with the Church Order and would help govern the church in accordance with it. Such a provision did not become either general or permanent. In the Letter of Call the churches most times include the sentence that they have adopted the Church Order and expect the minister, in case he accepts the call, to honour it in his service to this church.
The Subscription Form provides no iron-clad guarantees. Ultimately it is all a matter of the heart and of sincerity of the office-bearers. Vigilance remains mandatory. Besides, a brother may be wholeheartedly convinced that his views are in accordance with God's Word whereas, in reality, they are in conflict with it. The churches have, however, done what they could by requiring the declarations and promises as contained in the time-honoured Subscription Form.