Are Office-bearers Bound in Their Beliefs?

The question whether office-bearers and ecclesiastical assemblies in the Christian Reformed Church arc bound to certain dogmas and courses of procedure may seem to he superfluous. We have our Doctrinal Standards as well as the Church Order. Of course, these arc binding for all who subscribe to them. Yet this obvious fact may be forgotten and can even be ignored. Besides, practices which arc subversive may establish themselves in course of time and be defended as legitimate. For such reasons it is well to remind ourselves of the fact that churches and office-bearers have bound themselves, in a sense voluntarily, to certain dogmas and courses of procedure.


Ministers in the Christian Reformed Church as they are ordained (or installed) answer affirmatively to the question, “Do you believe the writings of the Old and the New Testament to be the only Word of God and the complete doctrine of salvation, and do you reject all doctrines conflicting therewith?” Moreover, they likewise promise to discharge their office “according to the same doctrine” and, in case of delinquency, to submit to “ecclesiastical discipline.”

Elders and deacons state this even more specifically and assert that they “believe the Old and the New Testament to be the only Word of God, and the doctrinal standards of this church to be in harmony therewith.”

At the installation of professors of theology similar questions must be answered in the affirmative and the same obligations assumed. They declare the Old and the New Testament to be “the only Word of God,” and to “accept the doctrinal standards of the Christian Reformed Church as the purest interpretation of the doctrine of salvation” (Psalter Hymnal).

In addition, the office-bearers (ministers, elders, and deacons) are required to “subscribe to the Three Formulas of Unity, namely, the Belgic Confession of Faith, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordtrecht, 1618–1619.” Those who refuse to subscribe “shall de facto be suspended from their office by the Consistory or Classis until they shall have given a full statement and, if they obstinately persist in refusing, they shall be deposed from their office” (Church Order, Art. 53, 54).

The Form of Subscription which office-bearers are required to sign is found on page 70 of the Psalter Hymnal. Upon analysis one discovers at least four declarations or promises in this Form:

1. A solemn declaration by the subscribers that they “sincerely and in good conscience before the Lordheartily believe and are persuaded that all the articles and points of doctrine contained in the Confession and Catechism of the Reformed Churches, together with the explanation of some points of the aforesaid doctrine made by the National Synod of Dordtrecht, 1618–1619, do full y agree with the Word of God.” 2. A promise, “diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid doctrine, without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same by our public preaching or writing.”

3. A declaration, “that we not only reject all errors that militate against this doctrine and particularly those which were condemned by the above mentioned Synod, hut that we are disposed to refute and contradict these and to exert ourselves in keeping the Church free from such errors.”

4. A promise that, in case of a change of mind or of views, we “will neither publicly nor privately propose, teach, or defend the same, either by preaching or writing, until we have first revealed such sentiments to the Consistory, Classis, or Synod, being ready always cheerfully to submit to the judgment 0f these bodies under the penalty, in case of refusal, of being by that very fact suspended from our office.” Of course, the right of appeal is guaranteed.

Again, the Church Visitors are required to ask every consistory annually, “Are the Formulas of Unity signed by all members of the consistory—ministers, elders and deacons?”

In addition to all this, at the beginning of every synod of the Christian Reformed Church the delegates rise to a Public Declaration of Agreement with the Forms of Unity. In part this Declaration reads:

“In obedience to the Lord and for the instruction of all, the Assembly of Elders, delegated by the congregations of the Christian Reformed Church, deem it proper that they publicly declare what the confession is of the Church here mentioned and of every one of its churches.

“All the congregations of this Church believe all the Books of the Old and of the New Testaments to be the Word of God and confess as the true expression of their faith the Thirty-seven Articles of the Confession of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands. formulated by the Synod of 1618–1619, together with the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of the Dordtrecht Synod against the Remonstrants (Arminians).

“In conformity with the belief of all these congregations, we, as members of their Synod, declare that from the heart we fed and believe, that all articles and expressions of Doctrine contained in the three above named Confessions, jointly called the Three Forms of Unity, in all respects agree with the Word of God, whence we reflect all doctrines repugnant thereto; that we desire to conform all our actions to them, agreeably to the accepted Church Order of Dordtrecht 1618 –1619, and desire to receive into our church communion everyone that agrees to our Confession.”

NECESSITY OF SUBSCRIPTIONS AND DECLARATIONS If anything is clear from the above, it is that the Christian Reformed Church anxiously desires adherence to its Confessional Standards. This anxiety is so great that one wonders what occasions it. What is the reason for this insistence on a scrupulous adherence to its Confessional Standards? Let us mention certain reasons. 1. The Form of Subscription was produced by the Synod of Dort (1618–1619). It was a compilation, more or less, of already existing Forms. The need for such a Form was produced by heresies of various kinds, the chief of which was Arminianism. Confessional Standards and the required subscription to them may, therefore, be said to be necessary to defend the true teachings of Scripture and to counteract false doctrines. 2. Confessional Standard sand obligatory subscription to them arc necessary for the establishment and the maintenance of the unity of the church as a denomination. In which other way could there be proper cooperation between the churches of a denomination? Just because all our ecclesiastical assemblies require subscription to the same Form, cooperation by them and mutual confidence among them is possible. This also makes an exchange of ministers possible. 3. The Church is called to express its faith and to propagate the truth of God. It must express and confess its faith for God’s sake and for its own sake. In this way communion of the saints is exercised. In addition, the same precious faith must be delivered to our children and children’s children, and as well to the world round about us, yes, to all nations. The church cannot do that unless there is agreement and unity, For that reason congregationalism and undenominationalism are so weak and defenseless in this phase of their task.


A very important question concerns the authority to be ascribed to Doctrinal Standards. Descriptions and definitions of this authority have frequently been a bone of contention. Though it may be true that during the history of the Christian Reformed Church no controversies occurred which involved this question directly, yet it comes to the fore in connection with many problems. Moreover, the subject has been of great importance in the churches to which we trace our origin. Those at all acquainted with the two reformatory movements in the Netherlands, during the Nineteenth Century, called the “Afscheiding” and the “Doleantie,” know of the struggle through which our fathers passed and the vigor with which they defended the Form of Subscription, It is especially this Form which ascribes authority to our creeds. Those who depart from our Standards will seek to change its terminology. Those who lack appreciation for doctrinal purity and insist upon lax religious principles will seek to dull its sharp edges.

Our fathers experienced this with the reorganization of the Dutch State Church in 1816 and thereafter. Under the aegis of the government the Form of Subscription was changed and made increasingly more lax. But the first synod of the Secession Church returned to the Form in 1836. The churches of the “Doleantie” did the same in 1886.

Dr. Abraham Kuyper was involved in this struggle. He held to the ius discretionis (the right to hold a different opinion). However, he insisted that this right depended on two conditions: he who differs from the Standards must supply proof from Scripture for his contentions; and his position must not have been rejected by a legitimately convened synod. Moreover, Kuyper insisted that a believer (and, therefore, also the church) is bound to the very words of our Confessional Standards according to their historical interpretation. (Cf. L. Praamsma, Abraham Kuyper als Kerkhistoricus, pp. 90, 91, 98.)

Dr. H . Bouwman occupies an identical position. He states that the subscription to the Confessions does not merely imply a declaration of agreement with the Word of God in spirit and in the main points, or in substance, but rather agreement with the Scriptures in every respect and in their entire content. Hence he asserts that the Confessions have nauthority alongside of or above Scripture, but only because they reproduce what is taught in Scripture. (Cf. H. Bouwman, Gereformeerd Kerkrecht, Vol. II, pp. 560, 562, 575.)

Constant with the statements of both Kuyper and Bouwman are the assertions of Dr. A.D.R. Polman. He holds that the Holy Scripture, being the infallibility inspired Word of God, is the only rule, standard, and basis of doctrine and the only judge in all differences. For that reason, so he argues, every Confession always remains subordinate to Scripture. But, so he continues, the Confessional Standards have authority because they agree with Holy Scripture and because they recapitulate its teachings. Concerning the binding force of the Form of Subscription, Polman holds that it is as strong as it can be and that the fathers of Dart insisted that the binding character of the Form be understood in a literal sense. (Cf. A. D. R. Polman, Onze Nederlandsche Geloofsbelijdenis, Vol. I, pp. 62–86.) These authors are so insistent upon the literal binding force of the Form of Subscription, because they had seen the sad results of subversive action. Dr. Polman states that because of changes in that Form made by the Dutch State Church, the Church of Christ, which is the pillar and ground of the truth, was delivered into the hands of rationalists, Freemasons, liberals, socialists, and became the victim of a number of evil trends (op. cit., p. 78).
An apparently serious objection may be made at this point. The authority ascribed to the Doctrinal Standards by the Form of Subscription may create the impression that the church insists that dogmas (official church doctrines) must control exegesis—the interpretation of Scripture. If that were the case the Word of God would not only be abused, but its intent might be frustrated. That would be a serious sin.
In reply to that objection it must be stated, first of all, that no well-informed and responsible Reformed scholar defends such a position. All insist on a free and unrestricted interpretation of Scripture. The only restrictions they allow are those which Scripture places upon itself. A basic one of these is, for instance, that since the Scriptures are the very Word of God they must be approached and treated as such.
However, it is very essential to realize that the dogmas confessed in the Standards have not been gathered from sources outside of Scripture. In fact these dogmas are the result of an intense and painstaking study of Scripture—a study much more laborious and conscientious than many surmise. Subscription to our Doctrinal Standards is, therefore, a declaration of one’s personal persuasion that they agree with Scripture. No rule of Scripture for its own interpretation has, therefore, been violated. In fact, the rule that Scripture is its own interpreter and that Scripture must be compared with Scripture has been observed by the authors of our Standards. True, this does not make the Standards infallible. The Bible alone is infallible. But we do not hesitate to say that they are undoubted. This means that “we heartily believe and are persuaded that all the articles and points of doctrine contained [in the Standards] do fully agree with the Word of God” (Form of Subscription).
Moreover, it should be understood that subscription to the Confessions is a voluntary act. In a sense it is not voluntary: for since our Confessions agree with Scripture, we must also hold that God demands of all believers to subscribe to them. But subscription is voluntary in the sense that the church does not coerce or force anyone to subscribe. Every subscriber must be convinced of the agreement of the Confessions with Scripture. The church does not seek to violate anyone’s conscience. If one doubts the agreement of the Confessions with Scripture he should not subscribe. But he does disqualify himself for office by a refusal to · do so. Even after one has subscribed and thereupon thinks that he discovers disagreement between the Confessions and Scripture, proviSion is made in the Form for Subscription for such a one to petition the assemblies of the church for the revision of its Standards. This is no dead letter, but was a course followed, for instance, at the Synods of 1946 and 1952.
However, anyone who believes that there is a discrepancy between a statement or statements in the Standards and Scripture may, while in office, “neither publicly nor privately propose, teach, or defend the same, either by preaching or writing…” (Form of Subscription). The Standards are called “Formulas of Unity.” That is to say, upon the basis of these Confessions the churches have united as a denominational body. Ordinary loyalty and a sense of fairness require that all subscribing churches and individuals shall take this subscription seriously and adhere to their pledges. Dr. Polman reminds us of the fact that the church is not a “debating club,” in which scholars seek to propagate and to defend the results of their investigations and conclusions (op. cit., pp. 67, 68). The church must declare the truth according to its Doctrinal Standards.
Today there is a rather wide-spread demand for a return to the Bible. At first blush we are inclined to rejoice in it. However, it is not all gold that glitters here. This demand is heard among groups which make strange bed-fellows. The “evangelical” undenominational churches insist on a return to the Bible and denounce Confessional Standards as the work of man. The present day ecumenical movement, which cannot be called “evangelical” without serious reservations, and which is in many respects modernistic or neo-modernistic, would bypass the Standards and return to Scripture—but as interpreted in accordance with its own preconceived notions concerning the church and church unity.
However, repeatedly there is occasion to wonder whether there is a proper appreciation for the Standards and their function at ecclesiastical assemblies. Dogmatism, for example, is condemned (cf. Reformed Journal. November, ‘59). If by that term is meant the failure to prove one’s contentions or beliefs from Scripture, we agree with the condemnation. But if an appeal to our Doctrinal Standards is said to be dogmatism, we must beg to differ. Indeed, when these Standards are silent about certain doctrinal differences synods must base their declarations on Scripture. But we should not forget that the delegates to our synods bind themselves and declare, before any decision is made,…that from the heart we feel and believe that all the articles and expressions of doctrine contained [in the Doctrinal Standards] in all respects agree with the Word of God…that we desire to conform all our actions to them…” (Public Declaration). Hence if synods base their decisions and declarations on the Standards, they base them on Scripture and are not guilty of dogmatism. Of course, this requirement makes heavy demands on the delegates to synods and should influence the choice of these delegates at classical meetings more than it often does. But that does not change the way in which synods operate and must operate if progress is to be made.
True, our Doctrinal Standards are subject to re-examination. Their contents must constantly he traced to their Scriptural origins. We must keep on reforming and improving.
This is much more easily said than done. But it must be done nevertheless. However, generally speaking, that kind of labor should be performed in seminary classrooms and in the study rooms of ministers and others, rather than at synod. However, the point to be emphasized here is that no synod, or any other ecclesiastical assembly in the Christian Reformed Church, starts afresh and as from scratch. They all must proceed from a very definite basis. The Christian Reformed Church has its Creed, its Church Order, and its Formularies. By honoring and observing them we not only operate as a denomination and preserve our unity, but we also jointly bow before the authority of the Word of God.