The Fourth Membership Vow
Lawrence R. Eyres
"You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain" (Ex. 20:7).
"Do not be rash with your mouth, and let not your heart utter anything hastily before God. For God is in heaven, and you on earth; therefore let your words be few.... When you make a vow to God, do not delay to pay it; for He has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you have vowed" (Eccl. 5:2, 4).
"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. 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" (Westminster Confession of Faith, XXII.5-6).
The OPC Membership Vows
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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? (Directory for Worship, V.5)
Membership vows, like marriage vows, bind us as long as we live on earth. Vows differ from oaths in that an oath calls for divine judgment upon oath breakers, yet since vows are taken in the name of God, "the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain." God will punish those who do not keep their solemn promises made in his name. Remember, "it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Heb. 10:31).
Scripture and our secondary standards underscore the obligations that every communicant member of the OPC should undertake in the fear of God. The first membership vow narrows down the scope of what is necessary for salvation to Scripture alone. The second affirms that it is by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ alone that we are saved. The third brings the whole of the Christian life under the lordship of Christ.
These vows bind us for the rest of our days on earth. They are taken voluntarily and are registered in heaven. They should compel us to walk before God with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12).
But the fourth vow is significantly different from the other three. This difference grows out of "the government of this church." The candidate for membership affirms that the presbyterian government of the OPC is in accord with the Word of God. More importantly, he confesses that he feels comfortable in rendering submission in the Lord to the minister and elders who rule over him under Christ. He believes that they will not rule over him by whim or prejudice, but in the fear of God.
Absolved from the Vow?
This vow is, unlike the others, not forever. There are various ways in which a person is absolved from this particular promise. Our Confession of Faith says, "The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan" (XXV.5). Should a member at a later date become firmly convinced with good reason that "this church" has departed from the gospel, he is no longer bound.
This can happen and indeed has happened. OPC history tells us that such apostasy provided righteous cause for the formation of our denomination. Deposed members of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, having been removed from office, were accounted faithful ministers and elders without restoration, thus declaring the acts of discipline null and void! May God forbid that this should ever happen to the OPC. But if it ever does, faithful members are quit of this vow!
Again, ours is a mobile society. Modern employment often necessitated transfers to distant cities and states. When there is no available Orthodox Presbyterian or similarly Reformed congregation to which membership can be transferred, a difficult choice is faced: to continue indefinitely as an absentee member, or to become part of a Bible-believing church whose doctrines and practices leave something to be desired. If such a church is joined, one's obligations under the OPC's fourth membership vow cease.
Finally, we come to the most troublesome situation of all. Suppose a member or family becomes disenchanted with the church of his vows. The reasons may be substantial or trivial (in the eyes of others). The usual scenario is that he or they gradually become less involved in the church, and then even Sunday morning worship is avoided altogether. This definitely violates the third commandment.
To avoid such an eventuality, it has been my practice to make this matter a primary element in premembership instruction. All of the above possibilities are dealt with. Letters of transfer will be given upon request to churches in ecclesiastical fellowship. When a member moves to a different community where there is no possibility of a formal transfer, a certificate of standing will be granted upon request.
In case of their growing cool toward "this church," members have a moral obligation to come to their church rulers stating reasons for their disenchantment. The session can then seek to dissuade them, hear and act on their complaints, and even lead in fostering biblical reconciliation. Should these efforts fail, there must be sin somewhere.
But is the sin due to our human frailties? If so, and if the members are desirous, out of conscience, to find another church, permission may be granted for a limited time to find a suitable church. Then, a transfer or certificate of standing may be given.
However, if these rules of common courtesy are ignored, our Book of Discipline (V.2.a) mandates treating this type of erasure as a disciplinary offense, without due process. Breaking vows without righteous cause is a grievous sin. And it must be so regarded by church sessions, especially in these times!
Breaking Covenant with God
Ours is a generation of covenant breakers. And, sadly, covenant breaking has crept into the church. But covenant breaking is not new. Think of how the Israelites broke their vow to the Gibeonites.
In Joshua 9, we read how the Gibeonites (who were Canaanites under God's curse) deceived Joshua and the elders of Israel, saying that they had come from a distant country because of the fame of the God of Israel. They sought a treaty of life with Israel. Joshua and the elders bought the ruse and confirmed the treaty with an oath. When the trickery became known, Joshua refused to disavow the oath. The Gibeonites were permitted to live among them.
Then, hundreds of years later, during the latter years of David's reign, there was a severe drought in Israel (2 Sam. 21). Inquiring of the Lord, David learned that the drought was visited on Israel for the sin of King Saul. Saul had once decided to be zealous for the Lord in a way that the Lord had not commanded. Saul attempted to slaughter the Gibeonites, who were protected by the oath of Joshua and the elders of Israel.
And it was for this sin that Israel, long after the death of Saul, was suffering a severe drought. Only after seven descendants of Saul were hanged did God send rain on Israel. What a sad and distressing story! But we may not stand in judgment of the ways of our God. This eloquently underscores how our covenant God hated, and still hates, the sin of lightly using the name of God and then abusing that name by breaking our solemn vows! We all have the seeds of this sin still in our hearts. Let us walk before our God in holy fear.
Delinquency and Discipline
Now, to return to the climaxing words of this vow, what am I promising? I agree that, "in case [I] should be found delinquent in doctrine or life, to heed its discipline." To be found delinquent in doctrine is either to reject a salient truth of Scripture or to adopt a belief plainly contrary to it. For example, if I should believe in reincarnation, I would be denying the truth of Hebrews 9:24-28 and all Scriptures relating to the heart of the gospel. To be found delinquent in life amounts to openly and deliberately violating any of God's commandments. Exempted would be the many expressions of the frailties of the flesh to which we are all subject and to which we all yield. But we must keep clean from the modern sentiment that calls OK what God forbids. In other words, it is willful unbelief and sin that are in view.
To be "found" delinquent implies an open-and-shut, provable commission of sin. When such findings are brought before any church member, this vow obligates him or her to acknowledge them, seek God's face in hearty repentance, asking forgiveness and turning away from these sins, and (as required) to make restitution. This is what is meant by "to heed its [the church's] discipline." You see, according to the Word of God, unbelief and sin have no defense (see Psalms 32 and 51).
Of course, when one is so charged and is convinced of his innocence, he may have his day in court. But we must all know that there is a higher court from which there is no appeal. "We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ" (2 Cor. 5:10), and "all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account" (Heb. 4:13).
"Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us ... serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire" (Heb. 12:28-29).
Mr. Eyres is a retired OP pastor. He quotes from the NKJV. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 1996.