Most churches and denominations require a higher level of commitment to their doctrinal standards from their leaders and teachers than they expect from their members. Historically, there have also been different degrees or levels of subscription expected of church officers, teachers, or candidates for the ministry. On the one hand, some churches advocate modes of subscription that allow for a looser or more flexible commitment to the church’s official creedal statements. On the other hand, others advocate a mode of subscription that requires complete or nearly complete agreement with the doctrinal standards in view.
Those who support looser forms of subscription often express a concern to protect the subscriber’s liberty of conscience and the primacy of Scripture’s authority. Those who support tighter forms of subscription are concerned to protect the church from too much doctrinal latitude that could open the door to serious theological error or heresy. Moving along the spectrum from tighter to looser modes, we might classify the following absolute, historical, strict, system, and substance.1 The more common modes among Reformed churches that are confessional are strict and system subscription. This essay will offer a critique of strict subscription and will make a case for a conservative version of system subscription. We are calling this mode “substantial subscription”—not to be confused with the looser forms of substance subscription.