by Rev. B. R. Hofford
June 30, 2007


In an earlier editorial "An Historic Decision", I wrote about the decision of Synod Smithers 2007 to establish ecclesiastical fellowship (EF) with the L’ Eglise Reformee du Quebec (ERQ).  In the course of that article, we spoke about the important difference between “confessional membership” and “confessional accountability.”  In this editorial, I will give an analysis of an editorial by Dr. J. Visscher in a recent Clarion that reveals more about the lack of clarity on these issues in the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC). 

In the April 27, 2007 issue of Clarion, Dr. J. Visscher wrote an editorial entitled “Confessional Membership?” in which he interacted with some points raised by Rev. G. I. Williamson of the OPC. 

Rev. Williamson summarizes the differences on this point between the OPC and the Canadian Reformed Churches as follows:  “As I understand it, the CanRC says that those who make a public profession of faith in their churches do, by that act, explicitly subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity.  In the OPC, on the other hand, public profession of faith has never been seen as equivalent to full subscription to the Westminster Standards.”  He adds that while communicant members in the OPC have a relationship to the church’s confessional standards, it is more “implicit than “explicit” (p. 206).

Dr. Visscher provides some background history regarding this expression “confessional membership.”  He shows how it appeared in the CanRC about twenty years ago as a result of the Blue Bell controversy, and how it has been an agenda item at the general synods ever since.  After showing that this expression seems to have no history in the more distant past, he opines that in the acts of general synods there is no clear definition of this expression nor explanation of the implications for church membership (p. 206, 207).

While it may be true that no explicit definition as such appears in the Acts, it seems a bit far-fetched for Dr. Visscher to suggest that there is no clear understanding of the meaning of this expression or its implications for church membership.  The very fact that this expression has been the object of innumerable appeals, the subject of numerous articles and the object of many decisions of general synods demonstrates that even if many throughout the churches are unclear about this matter, it has been clearly illuminated and understood in a wide forum (cf., e.g.,  articles on this subject in Reformed Polemics, Vol. 6, No. 11 & 12).

Dr. Visscher continues to cast doubt on our understanding of these matters by asking a series of questions that he believes have never been studied and answered (p. 207). He first asks, “what is now the correct relationship of members to the creeds and confessions of the church?” 

At this point, we should carefully note precisely what is asked of people professing their faith in the CanRC for in his editorial Dr. Visscher quotes the wrong question.  For some unknown reason, instead of quoting the question asked in the “Form for the Baptism of Adults” or the “Form for the Public Profession of Faith,” he quotes from the question asked of parents in the “Form for the Baptism of Infants” which does not seem relevant to the discussion.

It may be helpful to quote the respective parts of these questions.  The question alluded to by Dr. Visscher from the “Form for the Baptism of Infants” asks, “Do you confess that the doctrine of the Old and New Testaments, summarized in the confessions and taught here in this Christian church is the true and complete doctrine of salvation?” (p. 587).

 In the “Form for the Baptism of Adults” on p. 591, the question asked is, “Do you wholeheartedly agree with the doctrine of the Word of God, summarized in the confessions and taught here in this Christian church?” 

In the “Form for the Public Profession of Faith” on p. 593, the question is, “Do you wholeheartedly believe the doctrine of the Word of God, summarized in the confessions and taught here in this Christian church?”   Furthermore, in these two latter instances, the person is asked if they “reject all heresies and errors conflicting with this doctrine?” (“word of God” in the “Form for the Public Profession of Faith”). 

It is a puzzle that Dr. Visscher does not understand why the wording of these questions doesn’t make clear what the relationship of members is to the creeds and confessions of the church.  Furthermore, contrary to his assertion that these matters have not been researched and reported on (p. 207), we may find clarification as to what the CanRC means by these expressions by referring to the Acts of Synod 1986 (Art. 144, C.1,2,5., p. 67).  There it is explicitly stated that “The statement ‘...which is taught here in this Christian Church’ means one gives allegiance to all the confessions of the church.”  This understanding was reaffirmed by later synods (cf. Acts 1989, Art. 161, C.4, p. 124; Acts 1992, Art. 121, III,A, p. 84).  

By the way, it should be noted that the above synodical decisions regarding the meaning of this question for the public profession of faith came in the context of a challenge from some who sought to restrict agreement to the Apostles’ Creed.  The synodical decisions made it explicitly clear that there is no artificial separation between the Apostles’ Creed and the Three Forms of Unity:  “ does not suggest that this basic summary excludes the further confession given in the ‘Three Forms of Unity.’”

With respect to the confessions, Dr. Visscher next asks “To what extent must they know and be familiar with them in order to qualify for church membership?” (p. 207).  Later in his article, he answers his own question in the following way, “...before such a membership can become effective there should be a time of instruction.  The length and extent of that instruction would be determined by the elders who in turn would ascertain what the applicant knows about the Reformed faith and still needs to learn about it” (p. 208).  Dr. Visscher reveals his belief that this instruction must result in the person being “fully able, according to his ability, to answer “I do” to the question...” (p. 208).  Again, he mysteriously quotes the wrong question, but most assuredly must have meant to quote the question in the “Form for Baptism” or in the “Form for the Public Profession of Faith” in which, as we’ve seen, one must “wholeheartedly agree with” or “wholeheartedly believe”  the doctrine of the Word of God, summarized in the confessions and taught here in this Christian Church.” 

Finally, Dr. Visscher asks about the difference between the relationship of members to the confessions and the relationship of office bearers to the confessions via the subscription vow (Art. 26, C.O.).  This question is underscored since it is one raised by Rev. Williamson.  As Rev. Williamson notes, OPC members do not subscribe to the Westminster Standards; however, office bearers are required to so subscribe.  It should be clear to most readers from the CanRC that the background of the subscription vow is the desire to protect and preserve the unity of faith, particularly as that relates to the work of the office bearers (for more information, cf. With Common Consent by W.W.J. Van Oene, p. 118f.). 

In short, the subscription vow in the CanRC was not designed to reflect the significant distinction  evident in the OPC and other American Presbyterian churches in which office bearers accept and believe (subscribe to) the confessions but members do not.  Furthermore, we should not get hung-up on the confusion that sometimes arises over the use of the of the term “subscribe.”   As Dr. Visscher correctly states, the CanRC approach is not one of members “subscribing” but of “giving assent.” 

Rev. Williamson raises the question of how “subscription” would have been possible in the case of the Philippian jailer (cf. Acts 16:16f.).  Quite astonishingly, Dr. Visscher expresses doubt that there was  time for him to “subscribe” but that it wouldn’t have been too much to have asked for agreement with the Apostles’ Creed, or even with what is “taught here in this Christian church.” (p. 208).

We need not digress into a lengthy discussion of this case in order to be satisfied that the historical practice of the CanRC is not disproved by it.  In the case of the Philippian jailer, it is obvious that we are still in the foundational stage of the New Testament church.  The New Testament scriptures are not even complete; much more revelation and explanation is yet to be given, and we are hundreds of years away from the development of the Apostles’ Creed.  Furthermore, we read in v. 32, that the Apostle Paul and Silas “spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house” before they were baptized.  In short, the uniqueness of this occasion warns us that it is not normative and that we must be cautious in drawing unwarranted conclusions.  

It must be recognized that with the completion of the New Testament scriptures and the struggles of the church against error throughout history, confessional documents arose.  Thus, when someone today desires to profess their faith, they don’t do so in a vacuum, but in an historical context.  That context is reflected in what is required for applicants.  Like the Philippian jailer, they too must be instructed in the Word of the Lord and this instruction takes into account not only positively what the church has learned to confess from the completed scriptures, but also what it has learned to reject as heresies arose.  Hence,  the applicant must not only wholeheartedly believe/agree with the church’s doctrine, but they must also reject all heresies that conflict with that doctrine.  

Dr. Visscher concludes that the differences between the CanRC and the OPC are not basic, although he acknowledges that the OPC is more willing to receive people as members before they have been fully instructed.  His conclusion is “that in principle and practice we both distinguish between what is required of office bearers and what is required of members.  Also in both cases we aim for a membership that knows, adheres, and respects the creeds and confessions of the church.  Being confessionally Reformed is an aim we share.  If we differ, it may be in the area of what we require of new members.  Just how high should the bar really be?” (p. 208).

In bending over backward to accommodate Rev. Williamson, Dr. Visscher has distorted the truth.  In fact, the differences in the principles and practice of the two federations are most basic! 

It is patently untrue to claim that “in principle and practice we both distinguish between what is required of office bearers and what is required of members.” (p. 208).  The CanRC require both members and office bearers to “wholeheartedly believe the doctrine of the Word of God” according to the confessions.  This is confessional membership.  The fact that office bearers subscribe under Art. 26, C.O. does not mean the office bearers believe more than other members; rather, it means that they have a special duty, commensurate with their office, to protect and preserve the doctrine taught in those confessions.

In the OPC, there is a substantial difference between what is required of members and what is required of office bearers.  The fact is that members are not required to “wholeheartedly agree” with the Westminster Standards.  In fact, prior to professing their faith, they are not required to be instructed in them, nor are they required to even read them.  We may go even further: they are also not required to affirm the Apostles’ Creed.  Contrary to Dr. Visscher, there is a vast difference between these two approaches.

It may be subtly true that “in both cases we aim for a membership that knows, adheres, and respects the creeds and confessions of the church,” (emphasis mine) but it is not factually correct to assert that both churches share the same practices and principles regarding the requirements for those seeking to profess their faith. 

Again, the claim that “Being confessionally Reformed is an aim we share” (emphasis mine) essentially skirts the main question.  The fact is that in order to profess your faith in the OPC, you are not required to profess the Reformed faith; whereas, in the CanRC, you are required to confess the Reformed faith.  In this connection we are reminded of what was reported from the OPC to Synod Fergus 1998:  “We (OPC) affirm what you (CanRC) reject—that the church is competent to determine as valid and credible a confession of the Christian faith for communicant membership that is not also in accord with the church’s confession” (cf. Act, Art.130, V.C.3.,  p. 156).

Dr. Visscher seems willing to acknowledge that there is a difference in what is required of new members, but in the end he leaves the question open:  “Just how high should the bar really be?”  One would hope that Dr. Visscher knows the answer to this question. After all, he himself is the author of a catechetical instruction program that was designed to be used for covenant youth wishing to publicly profess their faith. The CanRC has historically known the answer. But with the evolving deformation within the CanRC, and the extension of EF to numerous churches, such as the OPC, that do not adhere to confessional membership, it is easier to relativize this question and in the end leave it  unanswered. 

One has to wonder if Dr. Visscher’s profession of uncertainty about confessional membership in response to Rev. Williamson arises out of the context of the relationship between the two federations.  Since recent synods have increasingly minimized the differences, (we are reminded here of the move toward “confessional accountability” and away from “confessional membership”) it would not do for Dr. Visscher to speak clearly and definitively about the realities when that might undermine the cozy relationship that exists between the two federations.