Why Church Membership Vows?
As part of the process of becoming full communicant members of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, candidates for membership are asked to affirm five membership vows in the presence of God and the congregation:
(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 believe in one living and true God, in whom eternally there are three distinct persons – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit – who are the same in being and equal in power and glory, and that Jesus Christ is God the Son, come in the flesh?
(3) Do you confess that because of your sinfulness you abhor and humble yourself before God, that you repent of your sin, and that you trust for salvation not in yourself but in Jesus Christ alone?
(4) Do you acknowledge Jesus Christ as your sovereign Lord, and do you promise that, in reliance on the grace of God, you will serve him with all that is in you, forsake the world, resist the devil, put to death your sinful deeds and desires, and lead a godly life?
(5) Do you promise to participate faithfully in this church’s worship and service, to submit in the Lord to its government, and to heed its discipline, even in case you should be found delinquent in doctrine or life?*
Why are such membership vows required? What is their purpose and function? Much could be said in answer to these questions, but here are a few reasons why we believe in the importance of church membership vows, and why we who have taken such vows ought to regard our vows with the utmost seriousness:
(1) Membership vows underscore the importance of church membership itself.
Today many self-described Christians are basically permanent church shoppers. They may attend at one church for a time, but then move on to another church down the road which seems more “hip” or exciting, all the while never joining any of the churches which they might happen to attend. Or, they may attend Sunday morning service in one area church, weekday Bible study at another area church, and send their children off to the youth programs offered by yet another area church; yet they never commit themselves in responsible, official membership in any one particular church. This approach to church basically reflects a consumerist mindset, and is often a result of either biblical ignorance, spiritual immaturity, or perhaps even the absence of genuine conversion.
The Bible makes it clear that those who are brought by the Spirit to faith in Christ are also brought into Christ’s church by baptism, at least under ordinary circumstances. (For example, read the Book of Acts, where coming to Christ and coming into His church usually go together.) The Apostles would have found utterly incomprehensible the contemporary notion that one can be regarded as a genuine Christian while at the same time wilfully refusing to unite in responsible membership with any local expression of Christ’s Church. Many of the New Testament Epistles were written to local churches with a definite membership and a real local address, which shows that the Scriptures assume the reality of church membership. Church membership vows serve to underscore the reality and vital importance of church membership itself.
(2) Membership vows express the believer’s corporate responsibility to the Body of Christ.
Many in the Christian world today stress the importance of having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” If that expression means that each of us must personally repent of sin and personally trust in Christ alone for salvation in order to be saved, we Orthodox Presbyterians would wholeheartedly agree! At the same time, in the Bible salvation has both a personal and a corporate or communal aspect to it. Yes, God saves us as individual persons, but ordinarily He chooses to save us not merely as isolated individuals, but in connection with believing families (Gen. 17:7; Acts 2:39; First Corinthians 7:14) and especially in connection with the visible church (Acts 2:47). This is why the Westminster Confession of Faith states in chapter 25.2 that “there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” outside of the visible church — not because the church saves us, but because Christ ordinarily brings His elect to saving faith and keeps them in that faith through the means of grace (word and sacraments) He has entrusted to His visible church. Therefore, professing believers in Christ have a solemn responsibility to join a faithful local expression of the visible church and to be accountable under Christ to that local church. Membership vows help believers to express this corporate responsibility.
(3) By taking membership vows, a believer expresses his/her willingness to be spiritually accountable to the church.
During the Old Testament period of the Judges, God’s stinging indictment against His wayward covenant people is expressed well in these closing words of that biblical book: “In those days there was no king in Isael. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25, ESV; emphasis added) The Israelites at that time were driven by a spirit of autonomy from God. They refused to submit to God’s Kingship or to heed His Law. They did as they pleased — they did what was right in their own eyes — and ignored God’s requirements.
I believe the same basic indictment could be brought against many self-described Christians today who refuse the spiritual accountability that comes from being a responsible member of a faithful, biblical local church. Self-styled spirituality and a cafeteria, pick-and-choose approach to Christianity are the in-thing, but submission to Christ’s Lordship and obedience to the biblical direction of the church’s leadership (as commanded in places such as Hebrews 13:17) have fallen on hard times. A believer’s willingness to take solemn church membership vows helps to express his/her willingness to be spiritually accountable to Christ’s church.
(4) Membership vows are countercultural.
In our culture of hyper-individualistic spirituality and pervasive consumerism, formal church membership and church membership vows are radically countercultural! A willingness to take such vows, in a church that actually views its membership vows seriously, and a determination to live out those vows in everyday life — such things are totally out-of-step with the narcissism and hyper-individualism of our culture today. Want to be “countercultural”? Want to stand out from the crowd? Consider uniting with a faithful local church which requires that you take solemn membership vows.
(5) Membership vows are a way of demonstrating love for fellow believers.
When you take formal church membership vows in joining a faithful local church, you are not only saying something to God. You are also saying to your fellow believers who belong to the church, “I’m one of you. We belong together! I recognize you as part of the family of God — as my dear brothers and sisters in Christ! I commit myself to serve Christ and to serve you in our congregational life together!” When affirmed seriously, thoughtfully, and reverently, membership vows help to cement the covenantal bond of fellowship that we share in Christ with our fellow church members.
*Source: The Directory for the Public Worship of God IV.B.2., p. 158 in The Book of Church Order of The Orthodox Presbyterian Church: 2015 Edition (Willow Grove, PA: The Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, copyright 2015 by The Orthodox Presbyterian Church) Read the Book of Church Order online here: http://opc.org/BCO/BCO_2015.pdf