“All men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with [this holy congregation] . . . submitting themselves to the doctrine and discipline thereof; bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ.” —Belgic Confession, Article 28
Christ’s submission to the Father’s will is integral to the gospel. Without the Son’s submission to His Father’s will, the cup of wrath that was before Him would have passed back to us, to our eternal shame and everlasting destruction (see Matt. 26:39–46). As we read the Gospels, though, we see that our Lord’s struggle in the garden to obey His Father was the pinnacle of this submission, but not the extent of it. In fact, starting with the humiliation of His incarnation, our Lord submitted to everything that the Father set before Him.
One remarkable instance of this is found in the account of Christ’s trial before the Sanhedrin. There we read of our Lord submitting to the authority of the high priest, who puts Him under oath to answer if He is “the Christ, the Son of God” (Matt. 26:63). Instead of remaining silent, Jesus undertook that oath, stating, “It is as you said” (v. 64). What condescension on the part of our Lord, the eternal Son of God, to be bound (however briefly) by the authority of the one appointed to lead God’s people!
Indeed, Jesus’ submission here highlights something that He had instructed His own disciples about earlier in Matthew 23. He told them that the scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat (v. 1), which essentially meant that they had a rightful claim to authority over Israel. Our Lord tells His disciples: “Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do” (v. 2). Thus, even in His unjust, ungodly trial, Jesus sets an example for us all: submit to those who are in authority over you. This principle brings us to the subject before us in this article, namely, the fourth aspect of the Christian’s bond to Christ’s church as set before us in article 28 of our confession: submission.
First, let us first consider to whom or what we are submitting. Ultimately we are submitting to Christ. This is why the first article of the Belgic Confession on the subject of ecclesiology begins by proclaiming “Christ [as] eternal King” whose subjects we are (art. 27). Obviously a king has many subordinates who rule in his name, but they will all, in the end, answer to him as the final, supreme sovereign. So the church (whether considered individually in terms of congregations or wholly in terms of the whole assembly from every age) is called to submit to the Lord Jesus and His rule over her.
But just as Christ recognized and even validated the earthly authorities of His house (Heb. 3:6), we ought to do the same. We see in article 28 that this means that we first submit ourselves to the doctrine of the church. The doctrine of the church is nothing less than her teaching of the truths from Scripture about essential and eternal matters of our faith.
We see right away, then, that this submission is limited to spiritual matters. The government of the church exists that “the true religion may be preserved, and the true doctrine everywhere propagated” (art. 30). Church government in elders and pastors (the consistory) does not exist to tell us how to live every aspect of our lives but seeks to equip the saints for service: to edify the body that the unity of the church may become more and more Christlike and not manipulated by those who would use false teaching to destroy her (see Eph. 4:11–16).
Many are surprised that a kind of egalitarianism is implied in this submission. The Reformed confessional heritage is that all the people of the congregation submit to these doctrines, including the member who has not taken the oath of office. Yes, it is true that there is a different level of submission that each party adheres to: the member, in the oaths of baptism and public confession of faith, assent to this doctrine, but the office-bearers have a particular calling to defend and proclaim these truths. Indeed, this places the ultimate responsibility of doctrinal purity on the shoulders of the consistories. However, members who are not in office are not excused from this responsibility, for they, too, say they believe the things taught in these confessions. They, too, will promote these truths in their homes, among their children, as they promised. They may even bind the conscience of a leadership that goes astray from the principal doctrines of the Three Forms of Unity and teaches contrary to them.
In our corporate submission to the church’s teaching, we gain a helpful insight into the nature of biblical doctrine. Often we have a false division in our minds: doctrine is either what I believe or what we believe. But this false dichotomy does not exist in Scripture. It exists only in various church communions. So, in the extreme, Rome calls her followers to believe because the pope or the councils of the church say (or have said) so. At the other extreme, non confessional evangelicals may believe what they want because their hearts tell them so.
But we see that both the individual and corporate aspects of doctrinal belief can be satisfied even as we examine the contents of the earliest creeds. For example, the Apostles’ Creed uses the first-person singular “I” when it summarizes everything that is “necessary for a Christian to believe” about God’s promises in the gospel (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 22). Undoubtedly, due to the rise of heresies and errors concerning essential matters of Christianity, the Nicene Creed uses the first-person plural “we” to carefully define the parameters of orthodoxy.
Thus, doctrine can never be a mindless repetition of what we have been told but rather must be the truth of Scripture that we confess together from our hearts. It is true that only you really know what is in your heart. And no person can force another, inwardly, to believe what he really does not believe. This truth exposes the internal, personal side of faith; our preaching must instruct that we strive for it and live out the implications. We do not want dead orthodoxy (in this case, confession for the sake of confession).
But we also do not want disunity or chaos, for God is the author of peace and order, not confusion (1 Cor. 14:33, 40). The church is required to confess a unifying faith that binds us together in Christ, lest individual members, in the name of freedom, go off on a tangent and get lost in the doctrinal maze that deceives and destroys (2 Peter 2).
When Paul, Peter, and John write their letters to the churches they do not say, “Here are some helpful tips to make the church relevant or attractive to the world; here is how you attract young people or any other group of people inside or outside the church.” No, the essence of their letters is this: “This is what we as Christians believe because Jesus has given us this office to teach and proclaim (see Matt. 28:19–20). With the passing of the apostolic age, we have their writings only in Scripture, not in some unknown or unfounded tradition. But we do strive to submit to the doctrine they have passed on to us within these writings.1 This requires a confession, for in confession we openly acknowledge that we hold to this truth and not what is false.2
Above all, we need to see this submission to doctrine as a beautiful thing. For the source of all true doctrine is not of man but of God; it is divine. The prophet Isaiah predicted that one day, the nations would come to the Lord’s house, for “He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths” (Isa. 2:3). In a sense, this prophecy is fulfilled every time God’s people are instructed and grow in the eternal truths of Scripture.
You will notice that this promise extends not only to what we believe but also the way we live. The teaching is about “His ways” and “His paths.” This brings us to the second part of the submission Christians make as they participate in the life of the local body of Christ’s church: submitting to its discipline.
The matter of church discipline—its limitations, purpose, and goals—are more fully explained in article 32, so I will not say much about this issue here. What I do want to focus on, though, is helpfully summarized for us in the fourth question of our first Form for the Public Profession of Faith:
Do you promise to submit to the government of the church and also, if you should become delinquent either in doctrine or in life, to submit to its admonition and discipline?
Why do we promise this? Is it because our church tells us to do so? Is it because the elders say we must? Notice that our confession, as we saw in the case of doctrine, points us to the rule of Christ. For submitting to the discipline of the church is equivalent to “bowing [our] necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ” (art. 28). “The yoke of Jesus Christ” is an obvious reference to Matthew 11:29–30, where Jesus invites us to come under His sovereign protection, guidance, and care, even as we find that His yoke is easy and light to bear. That is, there is no other master that we would want to belong to, as He alone can save us from our sins and redeem us body and soul (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 34). Do we trust Him? Then, as Guido De Bres implies, we must also trust His church, and even its government to which we promised to submit, as He has commanded us (see Matt. 18:17–20).
But, you say, the church is fallible and the elders are sometimes wrong.3 So be it; she is fallible and the elders are wrong. But how does that change our submission to Christ? How does that alter His commands to office-bearers to admonish, correct, and rebuke, all of which imply that we must heed them? It doesn’t, and we know that well. We know that all authorities in life have a limited sphere of responsibility, but we are called to obey them just the same. They must answer to the Lord for what they have and what they have not done, but we are called to obey them.4
Furthermore, if the congregation, with our consistories, are diligent and faithful in the selection of faithful men to the office of elder, then we have to trust that the Lord will bless their guidance of us. Christ tells us in His Word: “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you” (Heb. 13:17). They watch out for our spiritual lives. They do not do so as perfectly as the Great Shepherd, but, nevertheless, we listen, we heed, we submit to their wise counsel because they want to the best for us. And we should want the best for them as they strive to fulfill their office, so we submit, and by submitting to this lawful authority, we find it most profitable to us all.
Yes, let us learn from Christ, who submitted to His heavenly Father in all things that He may make the church His bride. Let us remember His love and faithfulness as not only our example but also our motivation in seeking to submit to His body, so that others may wonder at our Lord, who said of Himself: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
1. Including, of course, the rest of the canon which is “profitable for doctrine” (2 Tim. 3:16–17).
2. See 1 Timothy 6:12–13. It is striking that Timothy is required to confess his faith, not just as an example for the church (3:5) or so that he might follow in Paul’s footsteps (1:12), but because Christ Himself did so before Pilate (6:13).
3. That sinful office-bearers may abuse their authority, which they sometimes do (3 John 9–10), is an argument for their censure or removal, not the removal of the office and its authority.
4. Heidelberg Catechism, Q.104: What is God’s will for you in the fifth commandment? A.: That I honor, love, and be loyal to my father and mother and all those in authority over me; that I obey and submit to them, as is proper, when they correct and punish me; and also that I be patient with their failings—for through them God chooses to rule us.
Rev. Daniel Kok is pastor of Grace Reformed Church (URCNA) in Leduc, AB.