The Function of the Subscription Form

(The continuing struggle for confessional integrity)

By John Vantil
June 13, 2009

According to the Church Order of the Canadian Reformed Churches all office-bearers are required to subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity.  This requirement is currently set out in Article 26 of the Church Order, as enacted by General Synod 1983 as follows (Acts, Article 91 and Appendix VI):

Article 26.  Subscription to the Confession

 All ministers of the Word, elders, deacons, and professors of theology shall subscribe to the Confessions of the Canadian Reformed Churches by signing the form(s) adopted for that purpose.  Anyone refusing to subscribe in that manner shall not be ordained or installed in office.  Anyone who, being in office, refuses to do so shall, because of that very fact, be immediately suspended from office by the consistory with the deacons, and classis shall not receive him; and if he obstinately persists in his refusal, he shall be deposed from office.

The Purpose of the Subscription Form

The practice of confessional subscription dates back to 1563 when subscription to the Belgic Confession of Faith was adopted by a provincial synod held at Armentieres in French Flanders.  The practice was expanded to include the Heidelberg Catechism by the Convent of Wesel in 1568 and the Synod of Emden in 1571, and to include the Canons of Dort by the Synod of Dordtrecht of 1618-1619.

In his book, With Common Consent, Rev. W.W.J. VanOene clearly explains the purpose behind subscription to the Confessions.  He writes (page 118):

          The federation of the Canadian Reformed Churches is not a federation of convenience but a federation based on the unity of faith.  It is, therefore, of utmost importance that the unity of faith be preserved and protected, for if this unity is no longer there, the very nature of the federation has been violated and total collapse is the final result, even though an outward show of unity is maintained.

          True unity is possible only when the churches can be assured of each other that the true doctrine of the Scriptures is believed and adhered to, and that heresies in every form are recognized and rejected.  History, too, has taught us that wherever deviating views are tolerated dissolution begins almost immediately.

This position is supported in The Church Order Commentary by Rev. Van Dellen and Prof. Monsma (1954 edition) where they write (page 221):

          It should not escape our attention that this present section of our Church Order places doctrines before Sacraments and ceremonies.  This is logical.  No ecclesiastical confederacy, denomination (the Dutch use the descriptive expression “kerkverband”) can function properly without agreement regarding doctrines, Sacraments, and liturgical activities and ceremonies.  And again, unless there be doctrinal unity first of all, there can be no unity regarding the Sacraments and ceremonies, for these are ordered and maintained by each Church or denomination according to doctrinal conception; that is to say, each Church or denomination maintains the Sacraments and orders its liturgy and ceremonies according to what it believes to be the teachings of the Bible regarding these matters.  Consequently our Church Order follows the correct and logical order when in this present division it places the matter of doctrines first.

          In connection with this it may be said that doctrinal unity forms the foundation for denominational unity.  The confessional writings of our Churches are the very cornerstones of their existence….

From the quotations above it is evident that the purpose of subscription is to ensure that the “doctrine taught in this Christian church” is indeed that which is “summarized in the confessions” (Form for the Public Profession of Faith as adopted by General Synod 1983, Acts, Article 145).

The Practical Application of the Subscription Form

In 1965, a refusal to sign the Subscription Form resulted in the deposition of Rev. C. DeHaan.  In connection with this deposition a Court Order was issued in respect of property held in trust for the Canadian Reformed Church at Winnipeg.  In this document, which was delivered August 4, 1967, from the Queen's Bench, Justice R.E. Dickson presiding, Rev. W.W.J. VanOene gave the following testimony (a transcription of the entire judgment of the Court has been placed on this website):

Q.      In the Dutch Reformed Church is it possible for a consistory to exempt a church from being bound by the terms of the subscription form?

A.       No.

Q.      Is it possible for a church of the Canadian Reformed Churches?

A.       No.
Q.      What would the situation be with respect to the relationship of church claiming to be a Canadian Reformed Church but where the minister was exempt from the terms of the subscription form?

A.       If the church would not heed the warnings of the sister churches there would be no other course open than to declare this church no longer belongs to the Confederation of the Reformed Churches.

Q.      Would you say the character of that church has changed?

A.       Because it had changed already it could no longer be considered to be a Canadian Reformed Church."

From the testimony above it is apparent that the continued use of the Subscription Form is essential to the confessional integrity of the Canadian Reformed Churches.  When the Subscription Form ceases to function in the manner it is intended, the church loses its reformed character.

Let us consider the impact of the ecclesiastical decisions of the Canadian Reformed Churches made in 1992, 2001 and 2007.  In previous editorials and in correspondence placed elsewhere on this website we have shown how the decisions to enter into ecclesiastical fellowship with churches that do not maintain the reformed confessions are unscriptural.

Consider the divergencies between the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity, which are documented in Appendix II of the Acts of Synod Burlington 1986.  These divergencies are in fact deviations from the doctrine taught in the Three Forms of Unity.  When permitting ministers, who uphold the Westminster Standards, to preach on Canadian Reformed pulpits without any further investigation, Canadian Reformed office-bearers do not act in accordance with their commitment under the Subscription Form.

We also consider the admission of members from these other churches to the use of the sacraments in the Canadian Reformed Churches.  As discussed in previous editorials, it is clear that these members have not professed the Reformed faith (see Article 61 of the Church Order).  This means that these members have not professed allegiance to the Three Forms of Unity (see the Acts of Synod 1986, Article 144, Consideration 2).  When admitting such members without meeting the confessional and church orderly standard, the office-bearers do not act in accordance with their commitment under the Subscription Form.

We should also consider the impact of the erroneous teachings on the doctrine of the covenant promoted by the URC Synod Schererville 2007.  When Canadian Reformed consistories continue to participate in a sister church relationship with the URC, we may expect them to invite URC ministers on their pulpits.  However, in light of the above decision of the URC Synod, how can we expect URC ministers to preach completely in accordance with the Three Forms of Unity?  And further, how do Canadian Reformed office-bearers act in accordance with their commitment under the Subscription Form when they permit them to preach on their pulpits?

The question is sometimes asked: why would a guest minister promote the divergent views of the federation of which he is a minister?  Is it not reasonable for us to believe that a guest minister would promote the position of the federation of churches of which he is a member?  After all, can we not reasonably expect that a Roman Catholic priest would preach in accordance with the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and that a Baptist minister would preach in accordance with the official teachings of the Baptist church?

Canadian Reformed consistories cannot take any comfort from the fact that guest ministers may have signed a Subscription Form in their own federation.  The office-bearers in the local consistories are accountable to Christ, as a result of their collective signatures under the Subscription Form, to ensure that all preaching, even by guest ministers, does indeed accord with the Three Forms of Unity.

Let us again refer to the Court judgment written by Justice Dickson in 1967.  In his judgment Justice Dickson writes that the purpose of the Subscription Form "is to preserve the purity of faith and doctrine."  In the case of Rev. C. DeHaan we were not informed of any charge of doctrinal deviation.  He had signed a similar form in Holland.  Why should we not simply trust him?  Was it not an extreme reaction to depose him?  If the concerns over Rev. DeHaan were justified (and they were because he refused to sign) how much more are they justified for those who have signed a Subscription Form but in practice do not uphold the Three Forms of Unity.  It is also self-evident that we should have concerns about those who actually subscribe to confessions that deviate from the Three Forms of Unity.

The Limitations of the Subscription Form

It needs to be emphasized that the use of the Subscription Form cannot ensure preservation of the purity of doctrine.  As Rev. W.W.J. VanOene writes in his book With Common Consent, (page 123):

The Subscription Form provides no iron-clad guarantees.  Ultimately it is all a matter of the heart and of sincerity of the office-bearers.  Vigilance remains mandatory.  Besides, a brother may be wholeheartedly convinced that his views are in accordance with God’s Word whereas, in reality, they are in conflict with it.  The churches have, however done what they could by requiring the declarations and promises as contained in the time-honoured Subscription Form.

We would expect consistories in the Canadian Reformed Churches to give serious consideration, to interact with and to respond to concerns that are raised over failures to maintain the reformed confessions.  The evidence presented on this website shows that this did not occur either in Lynden or in Abbotsford.

As evidenced elsewhere on this website a more recent series of correspondence has occurred in Aldergrove over similar issues.  However, regrettably we do not find any inclination on the part of consistory to properly address the issues and concerns.  When publicly confronted with these matters the consistory reacted with confusing and distorted responses.  When these inconsistent and incorrect consistory responses were exposed in another public letter, the consistory responded with silence, in order to frustrate those who are seeking truth and justice.

Is it not obvious that the character of the Canadian Reformed Churches has changed?  What has happened to General Synod 1965’s consideration that "Correspondence with Churches abroad should not be entered into, until upon a conscientious and serious investigation, it has become apparent that these Churches not only officially embrace the Reformed confession and church polity but also in fact maintain them" (Acts, Article 141, II)?  What happened to this confessional foundation in 1992, in 2001 and in 2007?

The Canadian Reformed Churches have entered into ecclesiastical fellowship with churches whose members:

i) do not practice confessional membership;
ii) do not need to believe the Three Forms of Unity; and, consequently,
iii) do not adhere to or maintain the Three Forms of Unity.

How then can the Subscription Form serve to "preserve the purity of faith and doctrine"?

When one confronts a consistory with evidence from Scripture, the confessions, the Church Order, and previous general synod decisions, and the consistory responds with an explicit refusal to deal with the above issues, how does this response accord with the Subscription Form?  And what about consistories that use church discipline as a weapon against those who warn about these issues and are seeking to live holy lives according to the Word of God by refusing to participate in the consequences of these unscriptural decisions?

Although Canadian Reformed consistory members have formally pledged their adherence to the Three Forms of Unity and the Church Order of Dort, in practice they do not honour this pledge when they accept and implement unscriptural general synod decisions.  As Rev. P.K.A. DeBoer writes: “Even though the confessions are still received with much gratitude, they no longer fully function as forms for unity.” (see Reformed Polemics article entitled "What is happening to the Three Forms of Unity in the Canadian Churches," Volume 8, Number 1, October 24, 2001 issue – I strongly recommend a (re)reading of this article!).

We beseech all the office-bearers in the Canadian Reformed Churches, using the words of Synod 1986, (Acts, Article 184, Recommendations 3) to “bring their views, their preaching, teaching and ruling in harmony with the Scriptures and the Three Forms of Unity, and thus in line with their ordination vows and their signature under the Subscription Form.