Rev. DeVries is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Wingham, Ontario, Canada.
The Formula of Subscription serves a very vital purpose in Reformed Churches. At least it should. From the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the Reformed churches had great concern to maintain unity and doctrinal purity. They often required ministers to sign the two existing creeds (the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession), indicating their wholehearted agreement with these creeds. The Synod of Dordtrecht (1618-19) drew up a formula of subscription and required (in the Church Order) that it be signed by ministers, professors of theology, and school masters. In practice the elders often signed as well.
Early in her history the Christian Reformed Church officially decided that “the formulas are to be unconditionally subscribed by ministers, elders, deacons, and teachers.” This is the form adopted and still in use in the Protestant Reformed Churches. This form remained virtually unchanged in the CRC as well until 1988, when the CRC Synod adopted some changes to make the wording more contemporary.
Signing the Formula of Subscription ought to be a very solemn thing. Serious promises are made by the officebearers who sign the Form. Signing the Form is a declaration of agreement with our Reformed confessions and with the doctrines contained in them. In addition, a promise is made to teach and defend these doctrines actively. Negatively, it contains a promise to combat all errors contrary to these confessions in order to keep the church free from them. Finally, it expresses a promise to be honest in the churches in all matters of doctrine. If one has a change of mind or has doubts on any doctrines, he promises not to promote these differences. He will bring them to the attention of his consistory and submit to the judgment of the consistory, classis, and synod.
In spite of the changes made in 1988 to the Form of Subscription in the CRC to make it more contemporary, opposition continued. An overture to CRC Synod 2004 asked Synod to study the efficacy of the Form of Subscription on the ground that many churches in that classis no longer used it because many individuals had difficulty signing it.
Dan Postma reports on the current situation in the CRC in the February 15, 2008 issue of the Banner, in an article entitled “Form of Subscription: Time for a New Covenant?”
Today almost everyone agrees that the form needs at least a contemporary revision, or at most an overhaul of its scope and purpose. “I can remember, in my classical examination, being asked if I could sign the Form of Subscription,” said Rev. Gordon Pols of West End CRC, Edmonton, Alberta. “I said, ‘Well, yes, but I have some difficulty with the Canons (of Dordt).’ The response was, ‘Well, so do we all,’ and then we moved on. I’ve never forgotten that.”
Synod 2005 asked for a committee to examine the form and propose a revision, clarifying its meaning and giving it more contemporary expression. But how much revision is a bone of contention for some.
In a preliminary report distributed to the churches, the committee proposed renaming the form the Covenant of Ordination. The committee suggested a new way of understanding the confessions: as “true snapshots in time of the church’s self-understanding,” reminding us “to pay attention to what has been deemed vital in the past.”
The new wording asks officebearers to accept that the confessions are “faithful expressions of the church’s understanding of the gospel for its time and place,” which still shape leaders even as they continually review them in the light of Scripture.
“The many years of conflicted discussion about the form in the CRC reveal the need for a doctrinal covenant more in harmony with current realities,” the report argues. “We cannot afford to be more concerned about historical integrity than current expression.”
Rev. William Veenstra of Ancaster (Ont.) CRC likes the proposed covenant. “When the old form was originally rendered, there weren’t issues of technology or abortion or racial reconciliation,” he said. “This is a healthy step toward enriched dialogue.”
But the proposal faces opposition as well. Rev. Michael Borgert of First CRC, Muskegon, Mich., suggests the new language may have gone too far. “We’re hesitant to have the Reformed confessions relegated to little more than historical documents that once shaped our identity,” he said.
Rev. Raymond Blacketer of Neerlandia (Alta.) CRC offers even sharper criticism. “The adoption of such a watered-down and toothless form,” he argues, “would mean the end of the CRC as a confessional church.”
Committee chair John Van Schepen, pastor of Bethel CRC in Lynden, Wash., said well over 100 responses to the preliminary report have been received, most from church councils and some from individuals. The committee will meet again to review the feedback it has received and prepare a final submission to the CRC’s Board of Trustees in advance of synod 2008. “As a Reformed church in today’s world,” Van Schepen said, “we have to keep on speaking from the Scriptures in ways that can be understood by our current society.”
Obviously in the CRC, for some time already, the Formula of Subscription has fallen on hard times. It has been totally unused by some churches; it has been signed with obvious reservations by others. Why? Because the Reformed confessions, the Three Forms of Unity, as they are often called, are no longer that—no longer forms of unity in that denomination. There is no unity in the truths set forth in the confessions. The doctrines they contain are not considered by some to be the timeless, unchanging truths of the Holy Scriptures. The false teachings that the confessions reject are not recognized as being such in our day.
Should the CRC Synod this year adopt the proposed “Covenant of Ordination,” I would concur with the evaluation of CRC pastor Rev. Blacketer mentioned above, “The adoption of such a watered-down and toothless form would mean the end of the CRC as a confessional church.”
In Canada, Human Rights Commissions were established in the 1960s and 1970s. They were intended to adjudicate cases of housing and employment discrimination. But in recent years they have gone far beyond their original, intended purpose. Human rights commissions have proven to be a remedy that is worse than the problem they were created to solve.
They increasingly have become a threat to religious freedom in Canada. There is a long and growing list of mainly Christian and/or socially conservative Canadians that have been hauled before these, as many are called, “kangaroo courts.”
Many of these cases coming before the Commissions concern criticism of the homosexual agenda. In spite of their numerous political and legal victories, including the right in Canada to marry and adopt children, it seems that the homosexual community will tolerate little if any dissent. They move to silence any group or individual that disagrees.
One case, yet to be decided, has hit rather “close to home.” Rob Wells, a member of the Pride Centre in Edmonton, Alberta, has launched a federal complaint against the Christian Heritage Party and its leader, Ron Gray. A good number of conservative Christians here in mid-western Ontario are acquainted with Ron Gray and many support the Christian Heritage Party.
Mr. Gray and his political party face this complaint after reprinting on the party web site an article critical of homosexual activism that appeared in the U.S.-based news site WorldNet-Daily—a positive review of a series of legal essays published on the topic by the Regent University (Virginia) Law Review in 2002. Mr. Gray insists, “I believe it’s very important for such information to be available to the Canadian public; and since most media in Canada are pro-‘gay’ and will not report such information, I believe the CHP must make it accessible. Speaking the truth is part of our mandate as a federal political party; speaking the truth in love is part of our mandate as Christians.”
Recently there also have been cases that have come before the Human Rights Commissions dealing with Islamic groups who claim to have been “offended.” One case in particular has been receiving publicity even in the United States.
Pete Vere reports in the January 9, 2008Washington Times in an article entitled, “Canada goosed”:
An attempt to have a Canadian panel stifle Mark Steyn poses a threat to American freedom of speech, the conservative columnist says.
The Canadian author told The Washington Times in a telephone interview that the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) agreeing to investigate a Muslim complaint against him opens a new front on threats to Canadians’ press and religious freedom: speech that originates in the United States.
“There are attempts to circumscribe the First Amendment, and certain groups have become very adept at using legal and quasi-legal methods to restrict discussion and what’s discussed,” said Mr. Steyn, who spends half the year living in New Hampshire and writes for several U.S.-based publications.
Under Canadian law, the CHRC investigates purported incidents of hate speech and discrimination and refers some to the quasi-judicial Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which can impose fines or issue restraint orders.
Mr. Steyn became subject to a CHRC investigation last month when the Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC) complained about an excerpt Mr. Steyn had reprinted from “America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It,” Mr. Steyn’s best-seller published by U.S.-based Regnery Publishing.
Mr. Steyn contrasted Islamic values with Western values and spoke of the growing Muslim demographic in the West and the declining birthrate among other Western populations.
“The Muslim world has youth, numbers and global ambitions,” stated Mr. Steyn in an opening summary of what was to follow. “The West is growing old and enfeebled, and lacks the will to rebuff those who would supplant it. It’s the end of the world as we’ve known it.”
The excerpt appeared in the Oct. 23, 2006, edition of Maclean’s, Canada’s most-widely circulated newsweekly, under the title “The Future Belongs to Islam…”
Mr. Steyn told The Times that the complaint endangers freedom of the press on both sides of the border, and that both he and Maclean’s are prepared to fight this case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada if necessary.
“Basically, everything is fair game if it was to become accepted that the commission has the right to weigh the merits of individual articles and the media,” Mr. Steyn said. “The (Canadian and provincial) commissions are a threat to free speech, which is why people on various parts of the spectrum have identified them as the easiest way to shut down an opponent’s speech that one does not like.”
Left unchecked, Mr. Steyn said, the CHRC could bring about a relationship between the state and the press similar to that of the former Soviet Union, in which “basically the state regulates the bounds of public expression.”
One can only hope that bringing Mark Steyn and Maclean’s magazine before the Canadian Human Rights Commission will be a positive development. Certainly this case is bringing much needed attention to a serious Canadian problem with these commissions.
The threat that the Human Rights Commissions pose to churches, religious organizations, and faithful Christian individuals is very real. Ottawa Citizencolumnist David Warren has noted that the process is the punishment. For those who use legal counsel, there are enormous costs in defending oneself in a system that many consider rigged. Meanwhile the complainant’s legal bills are fully paid by the government.
Mr. Steyn has noted that no accused has ever won a case once the Canadian HRC referred it to the Tribunal. “A court where rules only go one way,” writes Steyn, “is the very definition of a show trial.” And while facts, quotes, and statistics may be accurately cited by the author, what the Commission bases its judgment upon is whether the person reading it is “offended.” As Mr. Steyn has pointed out, “Offense is in the eye of the beholder. A fact can be accurate but offensive to some people. The commissions aren’t weighing facts but hurt feelings.”
This gets at the real crux of the issue as far as the Christian faith is concerned. For the gospel of Christ is offensive to many. The Christian religion is not a religion of tolerance and accommodation. Christ Himself is “a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence, even to them which stumble at the word…” (I Pet. 2:8). Yes, we must be ready to suffer for Christ’s sake, but let us be assured, “whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.”