Family Matters

Peter Stazen II

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 3, no. 3 (July 1994)

We recently received new members into our congregation. As a couple was presenting themselves before the congregation to make their public profession of faith, the man remarked audibly, “It feels like we are getting married again!” I responded to them and to the congregation, “Well, you know, in many ways you are. You are taking vows. It is public: it is before God and this congregation. You are vowing or promising commitment to Jesus Christ and His church. Indeed it is much like a marriage.”

And yet, by and large, the church and its members do not view church membership in these terms of commitment. The question this article seeks to address is whether a church member has any obligation to keep his/her vows upon relocating their residence to another city or state due to a new job (or whatever the case may involve). With the citation of the above Scripture and the preponderance of Confessional support it would be rather audacious for one to say that they are relieved of the vows made unto Jehovah and his church. One may argue, “But, how do you expect me to keep these vows since I now live hundreds of miles from the church of which I am a member?” That is why Presbyterian polity makes provision for the transfer of church membership. We should take it seriously because our very integrity to these vows and our commitment to Christ may well be called into question if we fail to act. Once again it is a very serious matter to neglect the vows we make unto the Lord.

As a matter of fact, God has much to say on the subject of vows. “There will be silence before Thee, and praise in Zion, O God; And to Thee the vow will be performed” (Psalm 65:1). “Make vows to the Lord your God and fulfill them” (Psalm 76:11). “When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it, for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow! It is better that you should not vow that you should vow and not pay” (Ecclesiastes 5:4,5). “Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’... But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; and anything beyond these is of evil” (Matthew 5:33, 37).

The Standards of Government, Discipline and Worship of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Book of Church Order) directs its ordinands, parents having their children baptized, and those making a public profession of faith to give assent to vows. Again, much is said in God’s Word and our subordinate standards concerning vows.

The Westminster Confession of Faith devotes a whole chapter to “Lawful Oaths and Vows.” Chapter XXII, Section V states, “A vow is of the like nature with a promissory oath, and ought to be made with the like religious care, and to be performed with the like faithfulness.” Section VI says, “It is not to be made to any creature, but to God alone; and, that it may be accepted, it is to be made voluntarily, out of faith, and conscience of duty, whereby we more strictly bind ourselves to necessary duties; or, to other things, so far and so long as they may fitly conduce thereunto.” Vows also involve the third and ninth commandments (cf. The Larger Catechism questions 111, 112, 113, 143, 144, and 145). Vows made in public worship which are subsequently broken are deemed along with some other sins as more heinous in nature (cf. The Larger Catechism questions 150 and 151).

Presbyterian books of church order often have several chapters devoted to church members and their spiritual oversight. Though an entire chapter is often given to “jurisdiction” this notion is likely spread throughout the entire form of government and book of discipline.

Jurisdiction (jur, juris—right, law; dictio—to pronounce) is the power or authority of pronouncing the law or governing. Jurisdiction is secular or ecclesiastical.[1] While most people are likely to think jurisdiction concerns government within geographical boundaries it may also include government upon those outside of a geographical area. Ecclesiastically, the first three vows of communicant membership in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church are personal commitments to the Lord Jesus Christ affirmed publicly before God and a congregation of His people.[2] The fourth vow, also a personal vow taken publicly, concerns commitment to Christ’s visible body, namely, a particular body of church government.

4. Do you agree to submit in the Lord to the government of this church and, in case you should be found delinquent in doctrine or life, to heed its discipline?

It is an assent or an agreement (covenant) to be governed by a particular church. (Note, it is not any church, but “....this church”).

Jurisdiction is interwoven throughout ourBook of Church Order. Note the following relevant portions of our OPC Standards. First, in the Form of Government, Chapter III - The Nature and Extent of Church Power (emphasis mine).

1. “...The regular exercise of oversight in a particular congregation is discharged by those who have been called to such work by vote of the people.”

2. “Those who join in exercising ecclesiastical jurisdiction are the ministers of the Word or teaching elders, and other church governors, commonly called ruling elders. They alone must exercise this authority by delegation from Christ, since according to the New Testament these are the only permanent officers of the church with gifts for such rule.”

“Government by presbyters or elders is a New Testament ordinance; their joint exercise of jurisdiction in presbyterial assemblies is set forth in the New Testament; and the organization of subordinate and superior courts is founded upon and agreeable to the Word of God, expressing the unity of the church and the derivation of ministerial authority from Christ the Head of the church.”

3. “All church power is only ministerial and declarative, for the Holy Scriptures are the only infallible rule of faith and practice.”

4. “All church power is wholly moral or spiritual. No church officers or judicatories possess any civil jurisdiction;”

5. “Nevertheless, church government is a valid and authentic jurisdiction to which Christians are commanded to submit themselves. Therefore the decisions of church officers when properly rendered and if in accord with the Word of God ”are to be received with reverence and submission, not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God, appointed thereunto in his Word“ (Confession of Faith, XXXI, 2).”

Secondly, in the OPC Book of Discipline, Chapter II, Jurisdiction. B. The Session’s Jurisdiction, we read:

  1. 1. “The session of a particular church shall have jurisdiction over all those whose names are on the roll of the church.”

  2. “Members shall be received...and and from the roll of the church only by order of the session....”

The chapter continues to elaborate on the various circumstances under which a person may be placed or removed from the rolls.

The point is, when one becomes a communicant member he voluntarily submits to a particular church’s government. One voluntarily places oneself under the elders of a particular church for their spiritual oversight and rule. Again, this not “just any church.” Nor is it the church “down the road.” It is certainly not the invisible church government to which one is to submit. And contrary to popular opinion it is not submission to the universal visible church.

True it is a geographical jurisdiction. But it is also a jurisdiction over a person. That is why moving one’s residence does not automatically remove ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Relocation does not automatically remove one from the roll of the church.

While most, if not all, Presbyterian and Reformed book of church orders have chapters on jurisdiction there seems to be a weakness or a laxity on the part of members to keep their “home” churches informed on their search for a new local church home. Likewise, many sessions assume that the relocated member will conscientiously pursue membership locally and keep his “home” church eldership posted on any progress. Regretfully, in a majority of instances, neither case materializes.

There is a wide range of latitude in the books of church order on this topic. The transfer of membership is implied in most of the forms of government. No doubt the authors presuppose that relocated members will diligently pursue a new local church home and seek to transfer their membership as soon as possible. Maybe in a day and age when ecclesiology was better understood by the laity and elders there was reason for this assumption, but certainly it is not the case today especially when many feel that church membership is optional.[3]

One book of church order is very explicit on this matter and following are sections along with commentary.[4] From its Rules of Discipline, Chapter 46. Jurisdiction (emphasis mine).

46-1. When a church member shall remove his residence beyond the bounds of the congregation of which he is a member, so that he can no longer regularly attend its services, it shall be his duty to transfer his membership by presenting a certificate of dismission from the Session of the church of which he is a member to the church with which he wishes to unite.

Commentator Dr. Morton Smith says, “This paragraph provides for the orderly transfer of members from the jurisdiction of one congregation to another. The responsibility rests upon the member himself.”

46-2. When a church member shall remove his residence beyond the bounds of the congregation of which he is a member into the bounds of another, it shall be the duty of the Teaching and Ruling Elders of the church of which he is a member, as far as possible, to continue pastoral oversight of him and to inform him that according to the teaching of our Book of Church Order it is his duty to transfer his membership as soon as practicable to the church in whose bounds he is living.

Dr. Smith states, “In addition to the responsibility of the individual member to move his membership, the Session is also to continue its pastoral care over him, and to inform him of his responsibility.”

It shall also be the duty of the church from whose bounds the member moved to notify the Teaching and Ruling Elders of a church into whose bounds he has moved and request them to take pastoral oversight of the member, with a view of having him transfer his membership,...“

Again, Dr. Smith notes, ”A further duty of the Session is to inform the Session of the Church into whose bounds their member has moved, so that they too will seek to have the member transfer.“

46-3. Members of one church dismissed to join another shall be held to be under the jurisdiction of the Session dismissing them until they form a regular connection with that to which they have been dismissed.

46-7. No certificate of dismission from either a Session or a Presbytery shall be valid testimony of good standing for a period longer than one year, unless its earlier presentation be hindered by some providential cause; and such certificates given to persons who have left the bounds of the Session or Presbytery granting them shall certify the standing of such persons only to the time of their leaving those bounds.

On the above two sections Smith cites Ramsey[5] who says,

”The point is, that a person cannot be presumed to be in good standing if he has let a whole year pass since leaving the bounds of a court, or obtaining a letter of dismission from it without presenting his certificate of dismission to the court to which he comes.

“The principle underlying these provisions may be stated thus:

1. One is a member of or officer of the Church which exercises its jurisdiction over him through the appropriate court; and while the Church does not fix his residence, the Church does, with only limited choice over the individual, fix the court through which it exercises the court to whose jurisdiction they will be subject.

2. Being subject to the jurisdiction of the Church, they cannot cast off that jurisdiction at will without sinning against the Church. And she may surrender her jurisdiction only in the way of censure by excommunication or deposition, or in the way of correcting a mistake made by both her and the person, as in demission, or in the way of fraternal recognition of some other Church by dismission thereto. But no one may quit this Church without thereby violating his covenant with it, except with her consent; nor is she permitted to give her consent, except when transferring to some other Church of Christ that can, all things considered, do as well for the member.”

Thus, it is the primary obligation of the members of our churches to see to it that, upon a distant relocation of residence, they actively seek out the local Orthodox Presbyterian Church or another branch of the true church. It is the secondary obligation for the elders of the “home” church to encourage the relocated members to do so. Regrettably, it often comes to the exercising of some sort of discipline of relocated members to get them to fulfill their vows. One of the problems is that the sessions of our churches are lax in their approach to membership in Christ’s church. The church at large suffers from a weakness in ecclesiology. The church has failed to exhort its members of the seriousness of vowing unto the Lord.

Putting this into practice the elders at our church strive to effect a transfer of membership as soon as it can after the session learns of a member’s plans to relocate his residence. The session makes a visit in order to share with our members the addresses of local reformed churches in their new area of residence, an exhortation to find a new church home as soon as possible, and alert them that shepherding letters will soon be following them to encourage them in their search. Sent on a quarterly basis to our relocated members, our “Shepherding Letter” is a survey inquiring into the spiritual and church activities of the members. Along with the survey is a cover letter explaining the importance of church membership and our endeavor as a session to prompt the member to find that local church and transfer their membership. We also include various tracts which touch on the subject matter at hand.

As we look ahead to improving this among our own congregation our elders plan to emphasize it in membership classes, include it in our annual reports and an occasional statement in our bulletin and/or monthly newsletter, preach it from our pulpit, and even develop a leaflet that would assist our members in their search for a new church home.

Certainly in a day and age when promises are made with “fingers crossed” and so readily broken, we, the body of Christ must pay our vows unto Jehovah because the family does matter.

[1] Noah Webster’s First American Dictionary of the English Language 1828, Foundation for American Christian Education, San Francisco, CA, copyright 1967.

[2] The Directory of Worship, The Standards of Government Discipline and Worship of The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Norcross, GA, Great Commission Publications, 1990, p. 237.

1. Do you believe the Bible, consisting of the Old and New Testaments, to be the Word of God, and its doctrine of salvation to be the perfect and only true doctrine of salvation?

2. Do you confess that because of your sinfulness you abhor and humble yourself before God, and that you trust for salvation not in yourself but in Jesus Christ alone?

3. Do you acknowledge Jesus Christ as your sovereign Lord and do you promise, in reliance on the grace of God, to serve him with all that is in you, to forsake the world, to mortify your old nature, and to lead a godly life?

[3] It is not uncommon today to find professing Christians asking, “Where in the Bible does it say I must be a member of a church?” This is a topic for discussion on another day.

[4] Smith, Morton H. Commentary on the Presbyterian Church in America Book of Church Order (Greenville, S.C.: Greenville Seminary Press).

[5] Ramsey, F. P., An Exposition of the Form of Government and of the Rules of Discipline of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (Richmond, VA: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1898), p. 6.