This article is about the way ministers and office-bearers should be bound in churches. Is it enough to only bind officers to the confessions?

Source: Clarion, 2010. 4 pages.

Fit to be Bound?

“No extra-confessional binding” is something of a motto in our churches. This familiar phrase is often trotted out to make the case for the toleration of certain controversial views within our church federation. The slogan is often persuasive because of its historical baggage. Older church members quickly call to mind how binding to the extra-confessional views of Abraham Kuyper led to the Liberation of 1944. History tells of how the early Liberated immigrants could not join the Protestant Reformed Churches because of their insistence on binding to their distinctive understanding of the relationship between covenant, baptism, and election. It might even be said that the Canadian Reformed Churches owe their existence to the saying, “No extra-confessional binding.”

Yet, this saying is not without its problems. Holding consistently to this position can lead us to places we surely don’t want to go and stances we surely don’t want to take. In fact, as we’ll see in this article, some form of extra-confessional binding is not only a reality, but also a necessity. To begin, let me share with you a hypothetical case study.

A Case Study🔗

Dr. Smith is an ethicist at the University of Tuktoyaktuk and an elder in the First Canadian Reformed Church. Dr. Smith is trained not only in philosophy, but also in biology. Long ago, during his Ph.D. studies, Smith became convinced that the fetus is not a human being, and therefore abortion is not a moral issue – rather, abortion is a decision that needs to be made by a woman in consultation with her doctor, much like a woman would consult her doctor with regards to the removal of her gall bladder. Dr. Smith believes that evolutionary insights provide a satisfying scientific explanation for the non-personhood of the fetus. He also appeals to the fact that in Reformed churches for hundreds of years, when women would have spontaneous abortions (miscarriages), they would not name these fetuses, nor would they give them a proper Christian burial. Instead, many fetuses would be discarded with the household garbage or sewage.

It is evident that the anti-choice lobby is a recent phenomenon growing out of Roman Catholicism and American Fundamentalism. Further, according to Dr. Smith, there are no clear passages of Scripture which require Christians to believe that fetuses are true human beings before birth. In his opinion, the various Scripture passages can be interpreted differently to allow for his view. He maintains that his views on abortion fall within the freedom of exegesis.

When Dr. Smith was first nominated to be an elder in his church, there were letters making objections. In fact, some in his church felt that he should have been placed under discipline long ago for his views. The consistory considered the letters. However, it decided that since the Reformed confessions do not say anything about the humanity/personhood of the fetus, this is a matter of exegetical freedom. There can be no extra-confessional binding and therefore Dr. Smith is free to teach that abortion is not a moral issue and he may be an elder in good standing in the Canadian Reformed churches.


Now you have read that case study and thought, “Well, that’s a bit extreme. Everybody in the Canadian Reformed churches agrees that abortion is wrong and the likelihood of this happening is very slim.” True. Yet, the fact remains that there is nothing in the Three Forms of Unity that would prevent someone from holding the position of Dr. Smith. The fact also remains that we appear to believe that our binding is limited to the Three Forms of Unity. In principle, anything beyond the Three Forms of Unity is fair game, including one’s views on abortion.

I developed this case study around the time that abortionist George Tiller was murdered at Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas. Tiller was a member in good standing of this church. Aside from the general consensus in the Canadian Reformed churches, what principled reason could we give to deny him membership or even a position as an office bearer? If we are not permitted to bind beyond the confessions, and the confessions do not say anything explicit about the personhood of a fetus, there is no clear reason why he could not be a member or even an office bearer.

You see the problem, don’t you? When it comes to an issue that involves the unborn, we are quite comfortable with extra-confessional binding. When it comes to something that arouses strong emotions, we easily deny freedom of exegesis. But when there are other issues where there is less emotional baggage but where there may be just as much or more at stake theologically and ethically, then we balk and pull out the “no extra-confessional binding” card.

Let me be clear that I do not believe that somebody like Dr. Smith or George Tiller should be a member in good standing of any church. Someone holding his views should be placed under discipline and there should be no room for his views. There must be extra-confessional binding and this is something where there is no freedom of exegesis. In fact, we must be insistent on this. Moreover, this one issue is simply paradigmatic of a range of other ones. Therefore, we need to reflect thoughtfully on what we are bound to as Reformed believers in general and as Reformed office bearers in particular.

Bound by Scripture and Confession🔗

Not everything clearly taught in Scripture is included in the Three Forms of Unity. Our confessions were written several centuries ago. They were written in an era in which some of the issues were the same as those we face today, but also in which some were different. To be sure, many contemporary issues were around in some form in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but did not pose a threat to the Reformed churches and so don’t find an answer in our confessions. However, that does not mean that there has not been a consensus amongst Reformed believers about these issues. It is simply the case that necessity has not required that this consensus come to written expression in the confessions of the church.

This continues to hold true today. There are things that are clearly taught in Scripture but do not necessarily find expression in our confessions. As an obvious example, we could think of the prohibition against women serving in the special ecclesiastical offices. When men study at our seminary, they are taught in accord with this consensus. When ministers teach their catechism students, they teach not only what the confessions explicitly say, but also what our churches have understood Scripture to teach clearly beyond those confessions.

All of this illustrates that we are not bound only to the confessions. We have to dispose of that illusion in the Canadian Reformed churches. We are bound first of all by Scripture and its clear teaching and then by the confessions as faithful (but not exhaustive) summaries of what Scripture teaches.

What about the Form for Subscription?🔗

However, I can imagine that someone will recall that our forms for subscription (adopted by Synod Smithers) do not bind office bearers to Scripture, but to the confessions. Yes, that is certainly true. The forms speak of heartily believing that “the whole doctrine contained in the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort fully agrees with the Word of God.” The forms pay special attention to binding office bearers to the summary of Scripture in the confessions.

Yet this is not the only declaration that office bearers make with regards to doctrine. We do well to remember that office bearers, just as well as the other members of the church, are bound to a declaration they made when they publicly professed their faith. All office bearers and regular members declare that they “wholeheartedly believe the doctrine of the Word of God, summarized in the confessions and taught here in this Christian church.” They all promise “steadfastly to continue in this doctrine in life and death, rejecting all heresies and errors conflicting with God’s Word.” Likewise, when men take ecclesiastical office they affirm that they believe “the Old and New Testament to be the only Word of God and the complete doctrine of salvation.” They further state that they reject all doctrines conflicting with the Word of God.

The church always teaches more than what is summarized in the confessions. The church teaches the doctrine of the Word of God. That doctrine says, for instance, that unborn children are human beings and that life must be respected from the moment of conception forwards. All members are bound to continue in that doctrine and to reject errors that conflict with it. Canadian Reformed church members are bound by Scripture to be pro-life. Consequently, a consistory would be naive and short-sighted to think that Dr. Smith could be a member in good standing, let alone serve as an office bearer. In fact, the consistory that would allow that is departing from the doctrine of the Word of God, even if formally it still claims to hold to the Three Forms of Unity.

Breaking the Unity🔗

There is a broad consensus in our churches on a number of matters that are not explicitly defined in the Three Forms of Unity. We consider these issues to be clear in the Word of God. Consequently, our seminary teaches accordingly, and the same voice is then heard from our pulpits and in our catechism classrooms.

However, what if someone wished to break ranks with that consensus? Let’s again take the case study. Dr. Smith made profession of faith as a young man long before he did his Ph.D. studies. He ought to have been taught the doctrine of the Word of God, including (but not restricted to) the summary found in the Three Forms of Unity. He would have known that the Canadian Reformed churches believe in the personhood of the unborn. Should he arrive at a different conclusion through his studies, he should have entered into a discussion with his consistory. His consistory ought to have made every effort to persuade him of his error. If he would fail to turn from this error after repeated admonitions, he should have been placed under discipline. Yes, a member can be placed under discipline for holding a view that contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture without necessarily contradicting a clear teaching of the Three Forms of Unity. Then obviously, a member can also be prevented from holding office in the church for holding a view that contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture.

Appeal and Revision🔗

Let’s now say that Dr. Smith was a member of a faithful Canadian Reformed church that shared the consensual understanding of what Scripture teaches about abortion. This church placed him under discipline and, unless he repented, he was on the road to excommunication. Given what often happens in these situations, more than likely Dr. Smith would just withdraw and find another church more amenable to his views. But it could also happen that Dr. Smith decides to appeal his case to the broader assemblies. According to Article 31 of the Church Order, he would have the right to do this.

Perhaps the broader assemblies would hear the case of Dr. Smith and decide that he was right and that the Word of God is sufficiently unclear to allow his position on the unborn. In that case, he would be free to teach and maintain his views and while properly the decision of the broader assemblies would only apply to him, most likely his case would set a precedent turning the consensus in the Canadian Reformed churches.

On the other hand, perhaps his consistory would be sufficiently alarmed by Dr. Smith’s position that it would argue that the consensus of the churches on the clear teaching of Scripture should be codified in our confessions. So, for instance, perhaps the consistory might overture the broader assemblies to revise Lord’s Day 40 of the Heidelberg Catechism so that it clearly and unequivocally states that abortion at any stage is a violation of the sixth commandment. The broader assemblies would weigh the arguments and it could very well happen that the confessions are amended to strengthen the church’s stand.

Interestingly, something similar has happened in our churches with regards to same-sex marriage. There is nothing in the Three Forms of Unity that explicitly rules out same-sex marriage. Aside from our consensus on the clear teaching of the Word of God (!), up until 2007, someone could theoretically be a member in good standing in the Canadian Reformed churches and even be an office bearer and believe and teach that same-sex marriage is acceptable. To protect the churches from legal threats, Synod 2007 decided to add these words to Article 63 of our Church Order: “The Word of God teaches that marriage is a union between one man and one woman.” However, it is interesting that the amendment was made to the Church Order and not the Heidelberg Catechism. It raises the question: is this extra-confessional binding? If so, why no protest?


Consistories should not be afraid to exclude men from office who hold to positions that contradict the clear teaching of Scripture while not necessarily contradicting the Three Forms of Unity. To take it further, consistories should not be afraid to proceed with general church discipline against such individuals. If we consistently apply the concept of “no extra-confessional binding,” we’re headed for a world of trouble. Because we’re bound to Scripture, we must have extra-confessional binding. “No extra-confessional binding” amounts to a dead confessionalism that ultimately places the confessions of the church above the Word of God.   

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