During the past couple of Sundays most readers probably heard the Form for Ordination of Elders and Deacons read during the worship service as new elders and deacons were installed. Along with this the Formula of Subscription was read, which all Protestant Reformed officebearers must sign. This year as these two forms were read, I was struck by the emphasis these forms place on believing sound doctrine and rejecting false doctrine.
In the Form for Ordination of Elders and Deacons there are five references to the maintenance of sound doctrine in the church. The first duty of elders is “diligently to look whether every one properly deports himself in his confession and conversation.” The third duty of elders is to “have regard unto the doctrine and conversation of the ministers of the Word, to the end that all things be directed to the edification of the church; and that no strange doctrine be taught.” The Ordination Form calls the elders to “watch diligently against the wolves.” Therefore, the elders are “diligently to search the Word of God, and continually be meditating on the mysteries of the faith.”
The second and third questions asked of the newly installed officebearers concern believing “the perfect doctrine of salvation” and “reject[ing] all doctrines repugnant thereto.”
After the questions are answered, the minister, using the Ordination Form, exhorts the elders to “take heed that purity of doctrine and godliness of life be maintained in the church of God.” Finally, in the prayer at the end of the Ordination Form, God is beseeched that the elders may have the spiritual gifts of “wisdom, courage, and discretion” that they may take “diligent heed unto the doctrine and conversation" of those in the sheepfold, “keeping out the wolves.”
The language of the Formula of Subscription is even stronger. By subscribing to the Form, the officebearers “before the Lord declare” that they “heartily believe and are persuaded that all the articles contained in the Confession and Catechism of the Reformed Churches, together with the explanation of some points of the aforesaid doctrine made by the National Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-‘19, do fully agree with the Word of God.” Subscription binds the officebearers to “teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid doctrine.”
The language of the Formula of Subscription becomes very rigorous when setting forth the subscriber's promise to reject false doctrine. Again, the officebearers declare before the Lord their promise to “not only reject all errors that militate against this doctrine” but to “refute and contradict them.” Further, they promise “to exert themselves in keeping the church free from such errors.”
We can be thankful that this kind of language is found in our forms. It is fashionable in Reformed churches today—and the Protestant Reformed Churches are not immune from this—to minimize sound doctrine and holiness of life. Further, condemnation of false doctrine is characterized as being sectarian and uncharitable. And this attitude is fatal for the church. Too often it is heard, “It’s not so important what we believe, it’s how we live.” Or, as some will say to excuse the sin of a member who forsakes his confession of faith vow and leaves for a church that holds to false doctrine, “Well, at least he is still attending church faithfully and seems to walk a holy life.” As if it were possible for one to depart from the truth (sound doctrine), that is walk in apostasy, and still live in holiness of life. Again, this attitude is fatal for the church and completely contrary to the clear language of the Ordination Form and the Formula of Subscription.
The officebearers of the church are called to search the Word of God, to know and believe the perfect doctrine of salvation and to exert themselves in the rejection of false doctrine so that the church may be kept free from error. While the officebearers are to lead in these areas, every member of the church is responsible for the promotion of sound doctrine, the rejection of false doctrine and the leading of a holy, antithetical life.
More on this in the next post.
This post was written by Aaron Cleveland, a member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. If you have a question or comment for Aaron, please do so in the comment section.