by Rev. B. R. Hofford
June 2, 2007

With these words, the chairman of General Synod Smithers 2007 concluded the process that led to the establishment of ecclesiastical fellowship (EF) with the l’Eglise Reformee du Quebec (ERQ.)  We can agree with this assessment, but for reasons that are  diametrically opposite to those given by Synod!  An evaluation of Article 75 of the draft Acts, as they have been posted on the Canadian Reformed web site, will make clear what we mean by this.

Leaving aside for the moment the broader issues surrounding the differences between the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards, the heart of the matter revolves around three main issues:  pulpit supervision, fencing the Lord’s Supper table and confessional accountability (cf. Observation 2.1.1).  For this editorial, we will focus our attention on confessional accountability.  

With regard to the subject of confessional membership, it is striking to note that what the Committee on Contact with Churches in the Americas (CCCA) reports and what the ERQ are quoted as believing are not the same.  The CCCA states that in the ERQ, “Members in the local churches have the duty to receive this doctrine and be willing to be instructed in it.”  (Observation 2.3.1). However, the ERQ are quoted by Synod as follows:  “at present we do not require professing members to be bound to or to adhere to the Reformed doctrine articulated in our confessions.”  (Observation 2.4.2). Synod continues by noting that the ERQ has recently adopted a report entitled, “Vows for Public Profession of Faith.” The first question asked in these “Vows” is, “Do you believe whole-heartedly that the Holy Scriptures, Old and New Testaments, are the Word of God, the only infallible rule for your faith and your life, and that its doctrine of salvation is taught faithfully in this church?”  (Observation 2.5).  This latter question does not specify confessional membership nor does it require any notion of confessional accountability. 

Despite the CCCA’s apparently hopeful presentation of their understanding of the ERQ position, it becomes clear at last that the CCCA is not satisfied with the ERQ position.  For the CCCA recommends that they be mandated, “To continue discussions on existing differences in confession and practice with a particular focus on admission to the Lord’s Supper and confessional accountability.”  (Observation

Even more remarkable is the Synod’s actual decision regarding this issue.  In Consideration 3.2, “Synod notes with gratitude the newly adopted ‘Vows for Public Profession of Faith.’  The questions asked in this form demonstrate a Scriptural understanding of confessional accountability.”  Unless Synod had before them some additional material that has not appeared in the Acts, it is difficult to fathom how they could come to this conclusion based on the above information.  In fact, by Synod’s own admission, the ERQ demonstrate the exact opposite of what Synod concludes! 

At this point, some explanation should be given regarding the expression “confessional accountability.”  It stands side-by-side with the older expression “confessional membership” that arose during the Blue Bell controversy more than 20 years ago.  Why the new language?  In connection with the ERQ, this expression first appeared without any explanation in the decision of Synod Neerlandia, 2001 (Acts, Article 22, Recommendation 5.4.1, p. 18). 

It would appear that this new phrase, “confessional accountability” has been introduced because Synod Neerlandia recognized that the standard of confessional membership was not attainable in this context.  Hence, the need arose to devise an expression that more realistically took into account what could be expected from the ERQ, and presumably other churches such as the OPC, that have never held to confessional membership and give us no indication to believe they ever will. 

In short, the concept of “confessional accountability” provides the proponents of EF with churches such as the OPC and ERQ the kind of latitude they seek in order to accommodate the failures of these churches to adhere to confessional membership as that has been historically understood.

“Confessional membership” means that the members  publicly declare that they “wholeheartedly believe the doctrine of the Word of God, summarized in the confessions and taught here in this Christian church,” (Form for the Public Profession of Faith, BOP, p. 593).   Conversely, with “confessional accountability, “members in the local churches have the duty to receive this doctrine and be willing to be instructed in it.”  (Observation 2.3.1)  There is a vast difference between these two concepts in the scope of what is required of members. 

What makes the introduction of the newer concept of “confessional accountability” so devious is that it sounds so much like “confessional membership.” Many will be fooled into thinking there is no difference.  If we can be satisfied with mere “confessional accountability,” then there will no longer be a need to discuss with the ERQ and the OPC why they don’t practice “confessional membership.”  Synod Smithers 2007 shows how far the federation has degenerated from Synod Fergus, 1998, when the latter was still speaking of “The need for confessional binding for members...” (Acts, Article 97, Recommendation C.1. and Consideration B.4, p. 92). 

While “confessional membership” began as a “more serious concern” with the OPC, it has now been watered-down into a less threatening issue.  At some point in the future we may expect the language, and the concept, of “confessional membership” to be totally eclipsed by the new expression without any noisy objections.

However, Synod’s decision has more to it.

What makes the actual Synod decision most astonishing is the total absence of any desire or mandate to discuss either the concepts of “confessional membership” or “confessional accountability” any further with the ERQ.  Earlier we noted that the ERQ does “not require professing members to be bound to or to adhere to the Reformed doctrine articulated in our confessions.”  In Synod’s Recommendations where further discussions are proposed, this issue is not mentioned at all (Recommendation 4.3.5).  In contrast to the CCCA Report that recommended further discussion of this point, Synod appears to be completely satisfied with what they read and heard on this matter so that they could conclude that the ERQ demonstrates “a scriptural understanding of confessional accountability”  (Consideration 3.2).

It is shocking that a church such as the ERQ can openly acknowledge that they practice what clearly contradicts the historic beliefs and practices of the Canadian Reformed Churches and be given a pass.  What happened to the duty to test the spirits according to I John 4:1?

What are the practical consequences of this decision regarding the ERQ?  First, it increasingly reveals the commitment of the Canadian Reformed Churches to pluriformity.  By retaining confessional membership for themselves, yet embracing confessional accountability for the ERQ, the Canadian Reformed Churches have implicitly approved of pluriformity.  On this basis, it becomes acceptable for differing church federations to hold to different standards of belief and practice.  This began with the acceptance of the Westminster Standards, and here we see a further broadening of the scope.  Now, not only may the allowed confessions differ, but the kind of commitment to those respective confessions may also differ.

Of course, the other option would be for the Canadian Reformed Churches to acknowledge that their historic commitment to confessional membership has been misguided.  They should acknowledge that they were requiring too much as a condition for membership.  In this case, it would be appropriate to repent of their sectarian existence for all these years and seek even broader relationships both at home and abroad.  We should not be surprised to see such a development in the coming years (cf. the GKN encouragement to seek a relationship with the Presbyterian Church in America). 

A second practical consequence of this decision will be revealed at the Lord’s Supper Table.  When a church only has “confessional accountability” rather than confessional membership, then under the rules for EF, one will never know whether those from the ERQ confess the Reformed faith (cf. Article 61, C.O.).  In fact, if we take the ERQ at their word, we may not even assume “confessional accountability.”  Thus, we see the same problems here that have already surfaced with the OPC, a problem that figured large in precipitating the Lynden secession in 2006.  

The Synodical decision in this matter further confirms the growing deformation within the Canadian Reformed Churches.  Anyone hoping that Synod Smithers 2007 would turn back from the direction set by the last two Synods must be sadly disappointed.  Rather, this decision only confirms the direction taken in the past, and even moves a step beyond it.  It is to be hoped that the six churches that objected to this decision (only three favored it) will not accept it as “settled and binding.”  We hope and pray these will join with those of us who have liberated ourselves from the yoke of Synodical decisions that require acquiescence to practices that contradict what the Canadian Reformed Churches have historically believed and confessed, and still officially maintain in their own Church Order.