Every communing member in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) takes membership vows. While officers (elders and deacons) take vows to uphold the Westminster Standards and Book of Church Order, church members take vows acknowledging their sin (vow 1), affirming their trust in Christ’s salvation (vow 2) and promising to live as Christians, support the church, and submit to its government (vow 3–5).
Although the church member is not required to affirm the entire Westminster Confession and Catechisms, his vows are no less serious than those of the minister. In fact, the very reason vows are required is because church membership is a serious thing. In taking membership vows, a person makes “declarations and promises” by which he or she “enter[s] into a solemn covenant with God and His Church” (BCO 57-5). The member takes such vows before the elders, and usually also before the entire congregation. But they are also vows before God Himself, as God is witness to such promises.
PCA Membership Vows
The PCA’s five membership vows are as follows:
Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?
Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and Savior of sinners, and do you receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel?
Do you now resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as becomes the followers of Christ?
Do you promise to support the Church in its worship and work to the best of your ability?
Do you submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace? (BCO 57-5)
Sadly, it is all too common for church members to break these vows. The last two vows are particularly difficult – we might even say, “counter-cultural” – in our day and age, as they require respecting and honoring church leadership. Members vow to “support” the church and “submit” to its “government and discipline.” This means members promise to live godly lives in accordance with the Bible and Westminster Standards (“discipline”), as well as yield to the Session when it makes a decision that the member disagrees with (“support the Church” and “study its purity and peace”). Submission requires humility, but that is what God requires of us. Consider the following clear precepts from Scripture:
Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5, ESV)
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. (Hebrew 13:17)
Breaking Membership Vows
There are many ways to break these membership vows, including promoting false teaching or factions in the church. Transferring membership to another church for insufficient reasons is also a violation of these vows. However, it is too frequently the case that members of PCA churches break their vows by leaving the church and not transferring to another church. When a member stops attending church for a long period of time or requests to be “removed from the rolls” – and does not transfer to another gospel-preaching church – then he has broken his membership vows.
In this case, he has not endeavored to live as a follower of Christ (vow 3), since a Christian attends corporate worship (Heb. 10:25). He has not supported the church in its worship and work (vow 4). He has not submitted himself to the government and discipline of the church or studied its purity and peace (vow 5). Because he “has made it known that he has no intention of fulfilling the church vows,” the Session is to “erase” his name from the membership rolls as a form of “pastoral discipline without process” (BCO 38-4). Yet the Session has a duty to remind the member of the “declarations and promises by which he entered into a solemn covenant with God and His Church… and warn him that, if he persists, his name shall be erased from the roll.”
Such violation of vows and erasure from membership rolls is not to be taken lightly. It is “discipline without process,” meaning there is no formal discipline process of excommunication. Yet the person erased from membership is no longer a member of Christ’s visible church, and thus he is no longer welcome to partake of the Lord’s Supper in a PCA church (until there is reconciliation and restoration to church membership).
The Permissibility of Vows
One reason church membership vows are broken so often today is that we live in a culture that does not take oaths seriously. An oath is a sworn promise that calls God as witness and judge (WCF 22.1). Such an oath can confirm the truthfulness of testimony in a church or civil court (an assertory oath), and to lie under such an oath is called perjury. Alternatively, an oath can obligate a person to do something (a promissory oath). A vow is a form of a promissory oath (WCF 22.5), and thus “vow” and “oath” are often used interchangeably today when in reference to a promise (e.g., BCO 47-9). However, testimony asserted in court is only referred to as an “oath” (e.g., BCO 35-6).
Civil officers and lawyers also take oaths to uphold their State Constitution and the U.S. Constitution. In the PCA, church officers take vows upon ordination or installation. In addition to membership vows taken upon joining a church, parents take parental vows when their infants are baptized. Of course, husbands and wives take vows when they marry. All of these oaths and vows are taken publicly because of the public nature of the relationships in question, which ought to give greater weight to the promises being made.
Some Christians (e.g., the Anabaptists) understand Matthew 5:33-37 to prohibit oaths. But Jesus there was responding to Jewish Rabbinic distortions of oaths. He certainly was not overturning the practice of taking oaths and making vows. Our Lord was condemning superficial and trite oaths, in this case oaths sworn by anything less than God Himself for the purpose of allowing the oath-taker to break them without any meaningful consequence (“by heaven… by the earth… by Jerusalem… by your head”). Jesus was not abolishing the longstanding Old Testament practice of taking oaths or vows (e.g., the Nazarite vow in Num. 6). He even permitted Himself to be put under oath (Matt. 26:63-64). Thus, Jesus taught in Matthew 5:33-37 that our oaths should be made before God alone and that we should actually do what we say. There is no need to swear by anything other than God’s name (WCF 22.2), for such “comes from evil.” We make oaths before God Almighty, so, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ (Matt. 5:37, ESV).
Contrary to the views of the Anabaptists, Presbyterians affirm that oaths are permissible for Christians to take “in matters of weight and moment,” but only to “what is good and just, and what he believeth so to be, and what he is able and resolved to perform” (WCF 22.2-3). An oath is not to “oblige to sin” (WCF 22.4; e.g., Acts 23:12-14; Judg. 11:30). And if we take an unlawful vow, we have a duty to renounce it and not to fulfill it (which Herod failed to do in Mark 6:14-29). But if we take a lawful oath or vow, we have a moral duty to fulfill it.
Vows and the Third Commandment
Accordingly, the violation of an oath or vow is a violation of the Third Commandment, which says, “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, ESV). The Third Commandment is short and straightforward, but it is also ironically one of the least known of the commandments today. The word for “vain” (Heb. shaweh) refers to “emptiness” and “nothingness.” Thus, the Third Commandment prohibits the use of God’s Name for any frivolous or insincere purpose. The root issue is that God is to be treated with honor and respect, and so His name is to be revered.
Notice that the Third Commandment comes with a warning – “for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” Or as the NASB(1995) says, “for the LORD will not leave him unpunished.” Westminster Shorter Catechism 56 asks, “What is the reason annexed to the third commandment?” The corresponding response answers, “The reason annexed to the third commandment is that however the breakers of this commandment may escape punishment from men, yet the Lord our God will not suffer them to escape his righteous judgment.” So God makes it clear that you cannot and never will escape judgment for taking His Name in vain. You may escape the judgment of men. But you will not escape the Lord’s judgment. And the key for our purposes is that the breaking of a vow before God is to take His name in vain. Therefore, God will judge those who break vows, including membership vows.
Taking Vow Seriously
So we must take our oaths and vows seriously. The Third Commandment prohibits false oaths, that is, using God’s name in an oath that one does not intend to keep (Lev. 19:12; Jer. 5:2; Zech. 5:4; Ps. 24:4). But the Third Commandment also prohibits taking an oath or vow one intends to keep and then breaking it. As the Larger Catechism says, “violating of our oaths and vows, if lawful” is a sin forbidden in the Third Commandment (WLC 113).
Thus, he who takes an oath or vow “ought duly to consider the weightiness of so solemn an act,” and “in anything not sinful, being taken, it binds to performance, although to a man’s own hurt” (WCF 22.3-4). This last clause is important, as a lawful oath is to be fulfilled even if it is hard and involves self-denial. Pleasing God is not about doing what is easy but about doing what is right. The psalmist asks, “Who shall dwell on [the Lord’s] holy hill?” He answers, “He who walks blamelessly and does what is right… who swears to his own hurt and does not change” (Ps. 15:1-2, 4, ESV). Or as the NET translates this last clause, “He makes firm commitments and does not renege on his promise.” Who is the man who fears the Lord? It is he who keeps his vows, even to his own hurt. And he will dwell with the Lord. Christ alone keeps His word perfectly, and as our gracious Lord and Savior He calls us to follow suit as best as we can, in the power of His Spirit.
It should be clear that oaths and vows play an important role in societies of all kind (and in society in-general). They build trust. They teach people to tell the truth and to fulfill promises. Yet what we have today is the breakdown of such trust. And this is tied with the weakening of oaths. Brothers and sisters, God is the foundation for oath-keeping. Those who do not fear God (or believe in Him) will not take their oaths seriously, for they do not believe God will judge them for such violations. Yet God has promised to punish all who break their oaths. We need to restore the importance of oaths and vows if we are going to have a healthy society of any kind. And this must start in the church of Christ.