Saturday, April 18, 2009
The Obligations of Presbyterian Membership Vows
I am occasionally asked what constitute Biblical reasons for leaving a particular Church. (I am not here considering occasions such as moving to another state; rather, moving from one congregation to another without moving house.) I think this question wrongly prejudices the matter: it implies only a reason which is clearly grounded in Scripture is sufficiently weighty to leave one congregation for another. This is not the case. Under the general provisions of God’s Word, one’s membership vows create the guidelines for deciding when one should leave one’s Church.
Consider: how does one become a communicant member of an Orthodox Presbyterian (or any other kind of presbyterian) congregation? By being examined by a session which, upon deciding one has a credible profession of faith in Christ, gives one permission to take membership vows in a worship service. Until those vows are taken, one is not a communicant member; after taking them, one is. I’m belaboring this fairly obvious point because it demonstrates how these vows regulate and control one’s membership in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. So what do those vows require of the person who might wish to leave his present congregation for another?
First, we should note our Confession of Faith has a chapter (22, which you can find online, with Scripture proofs, at http://www.opc.org/confessions.html) on oaths and vows. It’s worth your while to read the whole thing; in my opinion, its most pertinent sentence for the concerns of this essay is “[A vow] is to be taken in the plain and common sense of the words, without equivocation, or mental reservation.” In other words, when you take a vow, you are obligated to do what you vowed to do, no less and no more. So what is the presbyterian obligated to do when dissatisfied with his local Church?
Of the four OPC membership vows, the only one which directly governs one’s membership in a local congregation is the fourth: “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?” (OPC Book of Discipline V,5) This vow obligates you to deal with any concerns you might have regarding your congregation in submission to the government of the OPC. So if you’re unhappy in your local congregation, you should make this known to your elders, and listen respectfully to any advice they might have for you. If you believe there is sin in your local congregation, you should seek to deal with that sin as our Lord commands in Matthew 18:15-20 and as outlined in the OPC’s Book of Discipline.
However, you ARE NOT obligated to remain a member of that particular congregation. I have heard some suggest Church membership is like marriage: that is, one may not leave a particular congregation unless there is unrepentant sin on the part of the session, much as one may not divorce one’s spouse unless he or she is guilty of the sin of adultery or desertion. This is simply incorrect. Marriage vows include the phrase “until death do us part.” There is absolutely nothing like this in one’s Church membership vows.
Here, one might object that Scripture teaches marriage is a permanent union, unbreakable except for adultery (Matthew 19:1-9): that is, marriage’s permanency is controlled by more than its vows. Fair enough, but can the same be said for Church membership? The Scriptures require submission to one’s elders (Hebrews 13:7-17), but they never describe membership in a particular congregation as being anything like as permanent as a marriage. Every Christian is obligated to be a member of a particular Church, but as long as one moves from one congregation to another in a way which honors the elders’ authority, one is not obligated to remain a member of a particular congregation.
What, then, constitute reasons sufficient to leave one local congregation for another? This is not a matter of law, but of wisdom. May a family leave their OPC congregation for a nearby PCA which has a youth group for their children? If that family thinks this sufficiently important, nothing in their membership vows prevents them from doing this. Again, they should discuss their concerns with their elders and respect their advice; but if the family continues to believe this move would be for their Spiritual good, I can see no reason, in principle, they may not.
On the one hand, I am greatly encouraged to see people take their Church membership seriously enough to be willing to put up with difficulties and disappointments; far too many Christians hop from congregation to congregation, utterly indifferent to their Biblical obligation to be committed to a local Church body. I have seen any number of presbyterian Church members decide they’re unhappy, never bring their concerns to their elders, start attending another congregation’s services, decline requests from their elders to meet, and then never bother to ask for a transfer of membership. In light of this overwhelming and discouraging pattern, I am very pleased when a Church member is extremely reluctant to even consider transferring to another congregation.
Nonetheless, I am also concerned when families struggle spiritually because they have to drive an hour for services and have no opportunity for fellowship with other members during the week when there are two or three confessionally reformed congregations nearer their house. (This is not uncommon in major metropolitan areas, such as Denver.) In these and similar instances, I wonder whether fathers and husbands, out of a misguided understanding of their obligations, are doing their families a disservice when a ready solution to their problem is at hand.
I could multiply examples of legitimate reasons to leave one particular congregation for another, and I could similarly multiply examples of really bad reasons. Again, this is a matter best left to sanctified wisdom, guided by Scripture, bathed in prayer, and exercised with submission and deference to one’s elders. If a Church member makes his decisions in this way, then he can be assured he is acting in accord with God’s Word and his membership vows.