Thursday, May 10, 2012

Time to Put the Confessions to Pasture?

So the backstory goes something like this. The denomination I am a pastor in, the Christian Reformed Church, is what theologians call a confessional church. That is, as a denomination, we say we believe certain very specific things, summarized in three documents we call the Confessions, written mostly in the sixteenth century. These are the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dordt, and the Belgic Confession. The doctrines found in the Confessions are supposed to be the reasons we give others for why we’ve chosen to be Christian Reformed.
Well, actually, the vast majority of Christian Reformed people are so because they were born that way, and enjoy the community benefits of staying that way. Rodney Stark can explain the sociological reasons why that is so. And unfortunately, most Christian Reformed people have only a passing familiarity with the Confessions. Among those who actually know the Confessions, I run into more and more people—mostly fellow pastors—who are not convinced that the Confessions get it mostly right.
It gets more complicated. Whatever reservations pastors or other official office bearers in the Christian Reformed Church might have about the Confessions, we’re supposed to “subscribe,” to them. That means we’re supposed to publicly affirm that the doctrines (if not how, exactly, they’re formulated) are true. Some people, some time ago, thought that such subscription was too tough, and that many people were signing the Form of Subscription with their fingers crossed, so to speak. So we needed a new form.
Well, years later, Synod (the annual meeting of the Church) is being asked to approve a new Form of Subscription. But it isn’t much of an improvement over the old one, if at all. When office bearers sign it, I’m guessing there will still be a lot of people who do it with crossed fingers. Loosening the form of subscription has proved nearly impossible because many in the church see that as caving in to liberalism (as if that would necessarily be worse than caving into modern Evangelicalism or Fundamentalism).
Now, I've always thought that a confession, in its plain English sense, was something that lived in your heart and thus needed to find expression on your lips. Our Confessions—in spite of brave attempts to rewrite them in contemporary English—don’t do that. There is too much there, too linear, too certain, too abstract, and so on—for people to actually be able to confess the Confessions anymore. They fail as expressions of piety, unless you are talking about short snatches in them, like the Heidelberg Catechism’s description of our only comfort in life and in death: “That we are not our own, but belong, body and soul, to our faithful savior Jesus Christ.”
What the Confessions are good for is defining orthodoxy and theological boundaries. That means that their main function in the church—other than being used for educational purposes—is coercive. They keep people in line and keep the church pure (theologically, of course, though they also help keep us mostly Dutch and Korean).
What I wish is that we could find some new category for the Confessions that would give them some educational prominence, but take away their coercive edge. We could create a category of documents "even more important to our tradition than Berkhof's Systematic Theology" (another touchstone of real scholastic Reformed orthodoxy). We could, in other words, honor them, learn from them, but not be bound by them. The only official confession we really need anymore, as far as I can tell, is the one scripture suggests in Romans 10:9: Jesus is Lord.
Giving the Confessions some sort of status as teaching documents in the Christian Reformed Church would allow us to have a traditional Reformed anchor without presuming that they got it all right 400 years ago. Of course, that isn't practical, some will say. If we change the Form of Subscription, people will be angry, they’ll leave the church. They'll make threats. They'll make judgments. There will be schism. People who say so are probably right. Remember, after all, that the main function of these Confessions today is coercion. They make great clubs. We're in a pickle.
It all sort of reminds me of how some "Old First" churches plateau at a certain level. Change becomes impossible with its present membership because too many people have a stake—in the organ, or the pews, or a coffee break program that is only working for retired women, or whatever. So some members leave and start a new church where they can get with the times, and it flourishes. You know, unless a seed dies . . .
Well, as a Confessional church we're stuck with Old First's great memories and all of its problems, too. Meanwhile, our plateau days are past and we're actually in slow decline. Change has become impossible, unless it is change that sanctifies the language of modern commerce, such as Home Missions foisting "Enterprize Zones" on us. That's almost blasphemous! 
Sure, some traditional Reformed congregations are flourishing. But anecdotal evidence is very unreliable. After all, many traditional Reformed congregations are dying, too. Maybe it isn’t the Confessions that explains either trend. And anyway, if you look around, there are at least a few churches of all stripes (including more than a few liberal ones) flourishing somewhere. Ironically, the Mormon denomination, interestingly enough—is usually growing fastest of all. And they don't have confessions--they have a whole other Holy book!
No, I fear we're stuck. The Christian Reformed Church will muddle on. But the Confessions will never live again in this denomination the way they did when they were written. We'll just keep on pretending, though, that they might. And we'll keep using them as a means of last resort to make people sit up straight and behave. 


  1. John,

    Here I am, stuck in the muddle with you (apologies to Stealers Wheel).

    I appreciate the well-spoken thoughts and also your comittment to redemption of a process that certainly had influence for good at one point in its history and yet has become a force of division and schism and for some, merely apathy, and for some, simply pain.

    I've long appreciated that the Christian Reformed Church was unlike other mainline churches in that it was important for the denomination, and not only the clergy but the entire constituency, to struggle with what it believed, together.

    And yet, as a youthful desire of belonging gave way to a humble questioning and a humble questioning gave way to discomfort and discomfort gave way to doubt and doubt gave way to an experience of judgement, it occurred to me that I belonged to a church that had set the doctrinal bar so high that it wasn't even enjoyable to try to clear it anymore. And then, after pursuing a Masters degree in theology and philosophy, it seemed to me that the bar was set not only too arbitrarily highly, but also too highly arbitrarily.

    I remain a member of the Christian Reformed Church, and they apparently know where to find me, as Banner editorials continue to be read at my dining room table before being recycled no matter to which Minneapolis burb I move.

    What are my complaints? I'll give complaint one of 2,313. It's simply not important for me, as a believer, to know and sign my certainty on the notion that perseverance of the saints is the only proper understanding of lasting faith in Christ. Perseverance, for those unfamiliar, is sourced in the writings of John Calvin and others and specifically agreed to within the Canons of Dort, a CRC confession. It suggests that any individual chosen by God who is tempted to fall away from faith, our God will "certainly and effectually renew them to repentance".

    It's been shortened into the notion of "once saved, always saved." Well, what in the world does that mean for me as a twenty-first century Christian? Why is it important? What if one was married to an elder in the CRC church who honestly believed for decades that they were saved and at some point in life simply decided they didn't believe? What comfort is there in that doctrine? Why is it essential that I believe it? Why do we compel preachers to preach on it?

    I could give the other 2,312 objections that I have, but having a non theological day job, I'll cease with that one.

    My point is that the form of subscription gates true believers from even WANTING to be part of the CRC because it makes them lie under oath about what they believe.

    I lied when I signed it in 1996, and fortunately or unfortunately our church has had a policy of "once signed, always signed".

    I lied because I believed God wanted me to.

    And that's a sad truth.

    Eric Sybesma
    Faith Christian Reformed Church
    New Brighton MN

  2. Replies
    1. ...and Amen. (from another anonymous reader)

  3. Michael BruinoogeMay 11, 2012 at 2:52 PM

    Amen from me too, John.

    If we need something more than "Jesus is Lord" to establish who we are within the spectrum of Christian traditions (and I suspect we do), perhaps we could have three categories of confession or testimony: 1) Ecumenical, including the Apostles and Nicene Creeds, 2) Historical, including the Heidelberg Catechism and Belgic Confession and perhaps the Canons of Dort, and 3) Contemporary, including the Belhar Confession and the Contemporary Testimony. But then let's also not let them function coercively.

  4. Hi John. I read your blog occasionally, and it often helps to sort out some of my own questions. I'm wondering if you've ever read "Living Faith" a statement of faith adopted by the Presbyterian Church in Canada a number of years ago. Though not identified as a creed or confession, it's purpose is for 'use in worship and in study". Both it's stated purpose--and even more so it's content--seems to address some of your wonderings about how a confessional statement can be less coercive and more helpful in sharing and growing in faith. Though it has some positive similarities to "Our World Belongs to God," I think you'll find much of the content even more stimulating.

  5. What a shame. I would really like some answers to these questions:

    - One of the greatest values of being a denomination is the accountability and discipline nurtured between congregations; we look out for each other. You mention that you "run into more and more people—mostly fellow pastors—who are not convinced that the Confessions get it mostly right." If so many of you have become enlightened to see fallacies in what your brothers believe to be true, don't you have an obligation to bring those concerns to the table? If our collective expressions of what we believe is so messed up, why don't you help us fix them?

    - If your first response to those questions is along the lines of "we can't because of the FoS...." please stop typing. Yes you can, both formally and informally. The question is why aren't you- you either don't care about what your brothers believe or you're unable to defend your assertions. De Bres presented his confession by offering his back to the straps and his tongue to the knife rather than back away from his belief. What a shame we no longer have a fraction of that fortitude. We come from a heritage that endured the stake for bringing reform, and the best you can offer is crossing your fingers?

    - The gravamen process is admittedly burdensome, but it ought to be difficult to change something so critical. If your proposed amendments are unable to pass muster than you need to submit. If you still feel strongly enough about your differences that you need to step away from leadership. A terrible prospect for sure, but I'd have more respect for a leader who stands up for what he believes (even if it's incorrect) than for one who sits back and crosses his fingers. Please tell me why this is so untenable.

    - If your not interested in living in this type of denominational fellowship, or in having a common expression of basic belief to hold us accountable (because, praise God, our culture is no longer the homogeneous glue holding us together), please let me know what purpose there is in having an denomination.

    Sybesma- You are in my prayers. I hope your fellow leaders in your church and classis care enough about you to help you work through your 2,313 problems.

  6. For all these people like John Suk trying to alter the CRC into something not CRC, my question is why are you still in the CRC? If you can't buy into the system that we have had then join a denomination you can buy into. How about the PCUSA?

    Gresham Machen in Christianity and Liberalism shows how Christianity without the necessary foundational doctrines is not really Christianity at all.

    Are we not in danger of this again? I also think about how Machen helped start the OPC and Westminster Philadelphia.

    Let's learn from history.

  7. Hi, John, like-minded pastors (like John), and like-minded members (like John) of the CRC:

    I am a pastor, professor, and member of the CRC. I would like to point out a simple fact: All denominations, organizations, etc., have a written or unwritten list of affirmations and denials. That's what makes organization "X" = organization "X", not organization "Y", "Z", etc. Without those distinctive affirmations and denials they are really organization "Y" or "Z", etc. The CRC, let's say, is organization "X", with it distinctive affirmations and denials.

    No one is coercing any of you to remain in the CRC (organization "X"). You are free at any time to join organization "Y", "Z", etc. But by staying in the CRC (organization "X") by "crossing your fingers," "lying," "no longer truly believing certain affirmations and denials," etc., you are being and acting dishonest, deceiving, without integrity, and wrongly leading others to join you in your disloyalty, spreading confusion and disharmony. This is sinful.

    The right thing, the honorable thing, the biblical thing, is to leave and find an organization (organization "Y," "Z", etc.) in which you will be able to honestly uphold its affirmations and denials, unless you can show from Scripture that the CRC does not have viable interpretations of Scripture as its distinctive interpretation (interpretation "X")!

    As for me, the many pastors (like me), and the many members (like me), in the CRC, we absolutely LOVE and strongly desire to uphold the CRC's biblical and beautiful confessions. We WANT to be in the CRC (organization "X" with interpretation "X")! If you pastors, teachers, etc., that I am addressing, did what you should have done and taught the CRC's confessions, members would love and believe them also, except for those who would not and then they would be free to join a different organization.

    I know from my prior church/denominational experience what it is like to be under "Y" or "Z" and their distinctive affirmations and denials. When it came about that I no longer could honestly uphold the distinctives in "Y" or "Z" I left and gladly joined "X" (CRC)!

    As K. A. Smith said recently, in regard to Banner editor DeMoor and his unhappiness with the CRC's confessions, there are many in the CRC who are like him (Smith), like me, and others that LOVE the CRC and its confessions and we are NOT going away. We believe these CRC confessions are what make the CRC the CRC, not Dutchness or culture-ness, etc. We find these confessions biblical and beautiful.

    My honest prayer is for these concerns: (1) You will reconsider and embrace the CRC's confessions and teach them, (2) If not, you will peacefully leave the CRC and find affirmations/denials you can live with without disturbing the CRC (unless you can show from Scripture that the CRC is in serious error), (3) If not, that your local church council, local church membership, classis, etc., will have the integrity and courage, out of love for you and the churches in the CRC, to apply the biblical steps of church discipline, since failing to uphold these Bible-based confessions is a serious issue in the CRC (organization "X").

    If any church pastor, church council, church membership, church classis, or synod of the CRC, fails to uphold the "DNA" (confessions "X") of the CRC, then, ideally, all who disagree with the CRC confessions should leave and find another church base, rather than trying to disrupt the CRC.

    I am praying for you, John, and others like you, and those in your circles, to do the right thing.

    Out of a deep love for the CRC and its beloved confessions, which were born out of its interpretations of God's Word, Stephen Whatley (Faith Evangelical Seminary).

  8. The tone in the responses of Chad, Anonymous, and Steven seems a bit harsh to me. When did we declare that the confessions were the absolute truth and were never to be challenged again? I always thought that the discussion should continue. Think of the time when the confessions were being written. There was a whole lot of back and forth debate prior to the time when the final documents were written. I would like to see this kind of debate continue (without a tone of harshness and anger). I look forward to the discussion.

  9. I'm with you Jim. What about "Reformed and always reforming."? Are we not supposed to continually reexamine our beliefs, challenge them, see how they stand up to new textual, contextual and other information gained through interpretation of scripture, time and culture. Are we to say that somehow our confessional forefathers got it perfect? Especially in the CoD there are many places that can be challenged on its biblical interpretation. Traditionalism is also a sin. Can we say that they got it mostly right, sure I would say that, but perfect? That would suggest divine inspiration and I doubt any of us would say that -- at least I hope not.
    As a former church planter I find the FoS to be very difficult for people to sign who have come from other church backgrounds. We've had trouble with its language that falls short of asking for your first-born should you believe contrary. I see no grace there but rather arrogance. It's what supplies that old joke with the punch line, "shhh, they think they're the only one's here." It's not very missional friendly and leaves no room to deal with legitimate questions the newbies might have.
    I believe John raises some valid concerns in the denomination that I have also encountered in my 30+years journey in the CRCNA.

  10. What debate? All the anti-confessionalists have supplied is a disdain for the Three Forms of Unity, not an actual criticism of anything therein.


What do you think?