Nederlands Dagblad (ND)[i], recently published an article about a work group of GKv[ii] synod deputies appointed to look at revising the Church Order. As part of its Report the group has drawn up a new Subscription Form for elders and deacons and is recommending that it replaces the current Subscription Form. The intent, reports ND, is to make the Subscription Form “more sober, more positive and with greater emphasis on the Bible than on the confessions”.
Reading the first sentence in the proposed new Subscription Form seems to suggest that elders and deacons who sign it wholeheartedly agree with everything in the Three Forms of Unity. But apparently this is not the case because one reason the Report gives for wanting a new version is that in the current version office bearers have to declare “with a good conscience before the Lord” that they “wholeheartedly believe and are fully convinced” that all the articles of doctrine in the three confessions “are in full agreement with the Word of God”. Evidently this is too much to expect from present-day elders and deacons, even though it doesn’t appear to have been a problem for the past 500 years! After all, every article of the Belgic Confession Faith and the Canons of Dort, and every Lord’s Day of the Heidelberg Catechism, has a list of Bible texts underpinning what is being confessed.
Objections have also been raised, say deputies, to what is described as a “self- condemnation” in the current Form. The offending words are: “that by the very fact of our refusal [to give to consistory, if needed, an account of our opinion] we will be suspended from our respective offices”.[iii] According to the work group, “some office bearers have difficulty with this”; they find it too restrictive; they say that whilst they want to be loyal, they can’t in all honesty say that they agree with everything in the confession.
Moreover, the report says that some office bearers also have the impression that the present Subscription Form, by binding them to the confessions, places the confessions on the same level as the Bible. However this seems somewhat strange since the confessions themselves show that they want to echo only what is said in God’s Word. In Art 7 BCF, for example, we confess that it is “unlawful for anyone, even for an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in Holy Scriptures”.
Rev van Oene, in his commentary about the Church Order, says that by signing the Subscription Form, elders and deacons are not placing the confessions on the same level as God’s Word. Using the argument that “God’s Word is higher than the confessions” in order not to sign the Subscription Form is to create a “false dilemma”, he says. “What the office bearers affirm in the first paragraph [of the Subscription Form] is that the confessions are a faithful summary of what the Lord teaches us in the Holy Scriptures.”[iv]
The (Dutch) deputies say that in the new Subscription Form being proposed to synod “the promises are geared to what’s needed today: leading the congregation from out of the one faith and standing up for God’s truth in a world full of lies.” Yet that is precisely why office bearers should sign the current Subscription Form, which insists on their agreement with the Three Forms of Unity.
In the new Form office bearers are asked to agree with the Bible “and only dependent on that, with the confession of the church”, says the Report. But this places a question mark behind the reliability of the confessions and works to undermine the unity of the churches in the truth of God’s Word. Our unity as bond of churches is based on our agreement that our reformed confessions faithfully summarise the doctrine of God’s Word. That’s why they are called the Three Forms of Unity.
It is now the time of year when new office bearers are ordained. The first thing they will do at consistory is sign the Subscription Form. It’s a serious business. The whole point of signing the Subscription Form is that “the churches can be assured that the brothers who serve in an office are wholeheartedly in agreement with the doctrine of God’s Word”.[v] Hence the congregation is to see to it that the office bearers stick to what they promise so that the church is and remains “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).
It seems to me that, contrary to what ND reports, the current Subscription Form is more sober and more positive than the proposed new one. More importantly, the current one promotes faithfulness to the Bible by insisting that office bearers sign that they “wholeheartedly believe and are fully convinced” that all the articles of doctrine in the three confessions “are in full agreement with the Word of God”.
[i][i] Gerard ter Horst, “Kleur Bekennen met Handtekening Ouderling”, Nederlands Dagblad, 12 Nov 2013. (Anyone wanting a copy can email me, JN.)
[ii] GKv – Gereformeerds Kerken van Nederland (vrijgemaakt) – Reformed Churches of the Netherlands (liberated)
[iii] This requirement is also in the Church Order. Art 25 of our Australian CO requires elders and deacons to subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity. Refusal will lead to immediate suspension from office and ultimately to being deposed from office.
[iv] WWJ van Oene, With Common Consent, Premier Publishing, Winnipeg, 1990, pp. 120, 121.
[v] Van Oene, p. 121.