Saturday, January 27, 2007

Vowing, but Not to Get Even

During the Covenanter Young Adult Winter Conference, each year on Sabbath afternoons we have traditionally had a time called "Stump the Pastors" (affectionately dubbed "Stump the Chumps" by some) where a panel of pastors responds to questions from the young people. Usually these questions cover a wide range of topics, from creation to culture to calling. I wanted to follow up on some comments that arose regarding the subject of vows that I thought at the time were confusing and have heard since others have felt the same way.

In a discussion about the necessity of requiring vows for church membership, at least one of the pastors stated that the Reformed Presbyterian Church does not ask vows but rather queries. In other words, what I take this pastor to have meant is that when the new member is being asked the Covenant of Church Membership required to join the church, he is assenting to the truths and stating his beliefs found in the seven questions but he is not taking vows that solemnly swear himself to this behavior. This pastor also stated that Synod had declared this as its understanding.

Not wanting to start a debate at the time, knowing through my experience of serving on several different committees studying vows that confusion exists even among pastors, and wanting to be careful not to add to that confusion, I did not say anything at the time. Even now I am writing this not to embarrass anyone (hence my blog title), but to help us understand what we are doing when we or others respond to the Church Membership Covenant.

Simply put, there are both queries and vows in the seven questions contained in the Covenant of Church Membership. In a report by a synod committee regarding ordination vows I served on in 1998 that was approved by Synod, we defined these terms because of the confusion about them (Committee on Communication 98-10). A query is a "question or inquiry to ascertain information designed to give a public, official statement of one's beliefs," whereas a vow is a "solemn promise or assertion by which a person binds himself to an act, service or condition before God." With these definitions in mind, the report went on to differentiate that some of the questions asked at ordination were queries and others were vows.

The same is true of the seven church membership questions. The first three are queries, eliciting a statement of faith from the respondent:

1. Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, the only infallible rule for faith and life?
2. Do you believe in the one living and true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as revealed in the Scriptures?
3. Do you repent of your sin; confess your guilt and helplessness as a sinner against God; profess Jesus Christ, Son of God, as your Saviour and Lord; and dedicate yourself to His service: Do you promise that you will endeavor to forsake all sin, and to conform your life to His teaching and example?

The last four are clearly vows, as the person taking them is binding himself before God to certain acts and conditions:

4. Do you promise to submit in the Lord to the teaching and government of this church as being based upon the Scriptures and described in substance in the Constitution of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America? Do you recognize your responsibility to work with others in the church and do you promise to support and encourage them in their service to the Lord? In case you should need correction in doctrine or life, do you promise to respect the authority and discipline of the church?
5. To the end that you may grow in the Christian life, do you promise that you will diligently read the Bible, engage in private prayer, keep the Lord's Day, regularly attend the worship services, observe the appointed sacraments, and give to the Lord's work as He shall prosper you?
6. Do you purpose to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness in all the relationships of life, faithfully to perform your whole duty as a true servant of Jesus Christ, and seek to win others to Him?
7. Do you make this profession of faith and purpose in the presence of God, in humble reliance upon His grace, as you desire to give your account with joy at the Last Great Day?

In the RPCNA Constitution, the Covenant of Church Membership is found in the section called "Vows" and has "Official Vows" printed on the page above where it is found. You can even see in the web link I gave above from our denomination's website that the understanding is that vows are contained in this covenant (

With this in mind, let all who belong to the church or who are considering joining it know they are binding themselves in solemn covenant with Christ and His church. Yet let us not fear that, but rather rejoice, draw near to God, and fulfill our vows to Him. For as we sing in Psalm 65, "Praise waits for Thee in Zion! To Thee vows paid shall be."


Marlene said...

I would like to add something else into the mix as a question. Since we are Christians as we join the visible church, should it really make a difference? Shouldn't our yea be yea no matter what we are saying? So whether it be a vow or querie, shouldn't we obey and strive to do all seven to the best of our ability? Just asking. :-)

esther faris said...

I must say that as I sat there my mind was racing and I'm thankful you followed up on this question. It's been a topic of much discussion.

Barry York said...

Esther, I'm glad you found this helpful.

Marlene, you are referring to Jesus' admonition in Matthew 5 about letting our yes be yes and no be no. In this passage He is speaking against those who were carelessly swearing about everyday matters and/or trying to convince their hearers of their truthfulness. This would be akin to those today who say "I swear to God" when relating a story or promising to do something ordinary.

The type of vowing regarding church membership is of a different nature, for true vowing, seen in the definition I gave in the blog, cannot be done casually. Standing before God in worship or a session of elders in court promising to perform sacred duties should have a weightiness to it.

So though indeed a Christian should always keep his word, how much more so church membership vows. For an analogy, think of how it is one thing to explain to my wife I was late for dinner because I got caught in traffic, but it was a whole other thing to tell her - before God at our wedding - that only death will separate us.

David Hanson said...


Thanks for this clarification. I was asked about this on Sunday by one of the Penn State students who attended the retreat. Would you agree that #3 after the colon is also a vow?

In addition, I think Marlene's comment on Matthew 5 is more related to the question at hand than what you seem to think. My understanding is that the religious leaders of the day had set up all sorts of different levels of swearing with a hierarchy of seriousness, so in our day we might have vows, queries, promises, and statements, all with a descending order of importance and requirement for truthfulness. Christ is making the point that such distinctions lead to or are motivated by a desire to cloud the truth, and that the intent of the commandment is to tell the truth. ie- you are not as bound by your word if you promise as if you vow.

All of this does not illegitimize vows and their importance as you noted, rather it leads to the application of the 9th commandment to all of life. The Confession and Catechisms deal with this very clearly.

Marlene said...

Thanks for the clarification of my words, David. That is what I was trying to get at in my statement. I am just not very good at expressing what I want to say. I appreciate your help. I in no way wanted to minimize queries or vows. I just wanted to say that we should stand by what we say.

Barry York said...

David and Marlene, thanks for you comments. I want to respond to them, not to be defensive, but to be clear over a topic that is confusing.

My response to Marlene was not meant to suggest she personally wanted to minimize vows. I know her better than that! Yet she asked "Does it make a difference?" and referred to the passage that is often used by Christians to decry vowing and church membership (some even within our denomination). So in this public forum I wanted to be clear. I agreed in my comment that "Christians should always keep their word" and be truthful, as you both are pointing out is at the heart of the Matthew 5 passage.

Jesus is speaking strongly against a practice here, to the point He says "Do not swear at all." Opponents of church membership vows appear to have a case when they refer to this passage. We have to concede that Matthew 5:33-37 is not really a passage for the support of making vows; it is more precisely addressing false vow taking.

We see that Jesus is forbidding vowing falsely or grandiosely here. I would agree fully with David's understanding that the Pharisees had a hierarchical bent to their swearing (such things as "You swear by the temple, but I'll really one-up you and swear by heaven") and their intent was to give an impression of sincerity when such was lacking. However, the clarification I would offer is that though in "our day we might have vows, queries, promises, and statements, all with a descending order of importance and requirement for truthfulness," this does not correspond exactly to the false ranking practiced by the Pharisees. If Jesus is forbidding the hierarchy of vows instituted by the Pharisees, then we cannot compare what we do to it without like condemnation.

Perhaps here an analogy will help. Repeatedly the psalms encourage us "to pay our vows" to the Lord. We can then think of vows, promises, and words we make as "IOU's" that must be paid, and I think we are all agreeing that the greater the vow or promise, the more we owe it to God to pay it. For instance, a marriage vow is like a million dollar one, while a promise to go to the store for someone is, let's say, five bucks. All should be paid, but how much more serious is the greater one. The problem with the Pharisees, and what Jesus appears to be condemning, was that they were making all promises million dollar ones (or more!), they were not intending to pay on their IOU's, and then they were ultimately invoking something as "collateral" (God and heaven) that they did not really possess. So God's word allows for a differing level of making oaths, covenants, promises, vows, etc., but absolutely forbids counterfeits.

And finally, yes, David, I think the last part of Question 3 is vow material!

David Hanson said...

Well said, Barry.

Marlene said...

Thanks Barry. It is good to clarify everything since, as you said, this is a public forum. Not everybody knows each of us.