To Be or Not to Be Reformed (5): Upholding the Formula of Subscription

Previous article in this series: February 15, 2019, p. 220.

Considering that the Formula of Subscription (FOS) is an authoritative document binding for every Reformed officebearer, it is crucially important that each understand to what the FOS binds him. In that connection we face a question that often arises, namely: Is the Reformed church order binding on the officebearer who signs the FOS?

Historically, the confessions and the church order are closely related. As we noted earlier, in the midst of bitter persecution, the Reformed churches in the Lowlands produced the Belgic Confession and a Reformed church order. Significantly, in those early ecclesiastical gatherings, the assemblies often required their officebearers to sign not only the confession(s), but also the church order. More about that later.

That historical fact points us in the right direction. It is one of several indications that the officebearer agrees to uphold and defend the church order when he signs the FOS. To this should be added the liturgical forms adopted for use by the Reformed church. It has also been noted that the FOS does not explicitly address whether or not the officebearer is bound by the liturgical forms and the church order. It requires adherence to specific confessions, namely, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordrecht. Included by implication are the three ancient confessions, the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Chalcedonian, for these form the foundation of the Reformed confessions. Indeed the Reformed confessions affirm the teaching of these creeds.

In a similar way, the church order and the liturgical forms are included by implication.

To appreciate this, we need to know the place these documents have in a Reformed church. Understand that being Reformed includes more than adopting the three Reformed confessions. A Reformed church must be confessionally Reformed, to be sure. Yet, to be Reformed is to be always reforming back to God’s standard for His church, that is, seeking to conform to the Bible in doctrine, practice, and life. Therefore, a Reformed church must be Reformed (biblical) in her worship and in her government. This is easily recognized if one considers the incongruity of a church holding to the three Reformed confessions, but having the liturgical forms of Rome! Or the inconsistency of a confessionally Reformed church, with a hierarchical form of church government, and a pope ruling from the top. That would not be a Reformed church, that is, one conforming to the Bible.

In harmony with this, the Protestant Reformed Churches hold that the liturgical forms and the Reformed church order are minor creeds in distinction from the three Reformed creeds that are major creeds. Since that terminology is not universally used, this requires some explanation.

That liturgical forms and the church order are minor confessions does not mean that they are less important. Rather, they are minor in the sense that their scope and function are limited. The goal of a liturgical form is to define a particular doctrine for use in the liturgy. Each one deals usually with one area of doctrine. Take, for example, the Form for Administration of Baptism. The first section explains the doctrine of baptism; then the form proceeds to the actual administration of baptism. So it is with all the forms. They are confessions in that they set forth the teaching of Scripture, and are thus declarations of the truth. As such, they are binding, as are all creeds.

What then of the church order? First of all, even apart from the matter of a minor confession, the church order consists of the rules that a group of churches agree will determine the government of their churches. That by itself indicates that it is binding on the churches and all the officebearers. Certain articles may be changed by means of an overture, but none of the articles may simply be disregarded.

Technically the church order, too, is a minor confession and in that way also binding on the churches. But it is not a confession in the same sense that the liturgical forms are. To see why, we must understand the kind of document the church order is. It is not merely a set of rules drawn up for efficiency. Rather, it is a practical statement of biblical principles concerning the governing of the church. Anyone familiar with the church order knows, however, that the principles are not set forth explicitly in the church order.

The church order contains articles that are based directly on the Scriptures (e.g., the duties of the officebearers). Some articles are deduced from the Scriptures (e.g., the manner of calling a minister). Still others are simply the result of common sense and experience (e.g., the frequency of the meetings of ecclesiastical bodies).

The church order does not have a section of instruction on biblical church government. In this respect it is not like the liturgical forms. However, especially two of the Reformed confessions do set forth the principles of church polity. For example, the Heidelberg Catechism teaches that Christ is the Anointed One, holding the threefold office of Prophet, Priest, and King in the church. The officebearers thus represent Him in their offices. The Catechism also sets forth the truth of the Bible about the sacraments, Christian discipline, and proper authority (fifth commandment).

The Belgic Confession teaches that Christ is the eternal King of the church. It contains a lengthy section on ecclesiology (Articles 27-32), in which the offices are discussed. Likewise, it presents the Reformed view of the sacraments.

In a sense, these confessions form the didactic part of Reformed church government, and the church order is the practical application. Thus the church order is a minor confession in so far as 1) the articles set forth biblical truth, and 2) the principles of church government are set forth (in distinction from the practical matters of church government, as, how many times per year to administer the Lord’s Supper, and maintaining special religious holidays).

If, then, the church order sets forth the practical church government that follows from and is in harmony with the Reformed confessions, surely it is binding on Reformed churches, and surely it is included, by implication, in the FOS.

As noted above, that is the testimony of history. A clear demonstration of this is found in a significant article by Donald Sinnema, “The Origin of the Form of Subscription in the Dutch Reformed Tradition” (Calvin Theological Journal, vol. 42, no. 2, Nov. 2007, pp. 256-282). As early as 1574, a provincial synod (Dordrecht) required ministers, elders, and deacons to subscribe to the Belgic Confession and to the articles of the [Emden] synod (containing the rudiments of a church order, p. 259). Classis Walcheren in Zeeland drew up a separate form of subscription by which ministers promised to uphold the articles of the Emden and Dordrecht synods (p. 260). The 1578 national synod of Dordrecht decided that also the court preachers must sign the confession and the church order (p. 260). The national synod of Middelburg (1581) required elders to sign the church order (pp. 260, 261).

This is only a beginning. More instances of the same are found in this informative and valuable article by Dr. Sinnema. The point is, the Reformed churches in the Netherlands believed it necessary that the officebearers be bound by the church order. That the form of subscription adopted by Dordrecht does not include it explicitly does not remove the weight that the Reformed churches have placed on adherence not only to the confessions, but to the church order.

Therefore we conclude that, to be Reformed, one must not only subscribe to the Reformed confessions, but one must also adhere to the Reformed church order. I say again, if the church order is the Reformed system of government, in harmony with Scripture and the confessions, by implication, the officebearer promises also to uphold the church order when signing the FOS.

Believers and the Confessions

But what of the individual members who, as non-officebearers, do not sign the FOS? Are they bound by the confessions? Briefly, we note that they are bound, by virtue of their confession of faith. The confessing member has vowed agreement with “the doctrine…taught here in this Christian church.” The doctrine taught in this Christian church is in harmony with the confessions, if the minister and elders are keeping their subscription promise. Hence it follows that the member does agree with the confessions.

However, he is not bound in the same way that an officebearer is. An officebearer expresses full agreement with all the articles and points of doctrine in the creeds. A confessing member could conceivable have a difference on a point of doctrine. If he agrees not to promote his difference, and if the consistory agrees that he may be a member and still hold that belief privately, then he may be a member, but not an officebearer.

That leads to an implied warning and admonition.

To be Reformed, the church must maintain strict subscription to the confessions. The FOS is extremely important for this. And, yet, as important as it is to maintain it, the FOS is only of value if the church knows its creeds. Creeds are blessed gifts of the Spirit, with much benefit for the church. But not if they are only formally adopted, and gather dust on the shelves. Then to require officebearers to sign the FOS is a meaningless formality.

We live in the last days. I urge everyone to read II Thessalonians 2, because it describes one of the dreadful events of the last days, namely, the great apostasy, the falling away. This forsaking of the truth is a judgment of God. He sends a spirit of delusion upon the nominal church in order that the members should believe the lie!

Why does God do this? Why are historically Presbyterian and Reformed churches giving up their doctrines and freely embracing the lie? Paul tells us that it is because they did not love the truth. II Thessalonians 2:12 contains this dreadful statement: “That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.”

Do you love the truth?

I adjure you, I admonish you, with all that is in me, I plead with you: Know your Reformed confessions. They set forth the truth of the Bible. But do more than know the confessions. Love the truth. Love it because it is the truth about the glorious and lovely God of our salvation. If you love God, you will love the truth about Him. Indifference about the truth indicates indifference about God.

Those who love the truth will, by God’s grace, obey the command of II Thessalonians 2:15 —”Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught.”