History of Membership Vows, Presbyterian Church in America

When a Christian supports the church, it includes participating in its ministry with time, talents, and skills. A tithe, or even a tithe plus, placed in the plate, bag, or box does not exhaust the meaning of “support.” As the Apostle Paul has said, the church is a body with each member fulfilling a necessary part of its life. So, when one professes faith in Christ or is received by transfer from another church and vows are administered, it is important to realize that supporting the church means being a disciple not only with dollars and cents, but also with time and talents. Vow four is a call to be involved in the work of the church because not only money, but also many hands, make light work of a congregation’s ministry.

The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) requires those professing faith in Christ to affirm five vows indicative of their covenant with God and his Church (Book of Church Order 57:5). The vows acknowledge an individual’s sinfulness and need for God’s mercy, trust in the Son of God as savior from sin, purpose to live submitted to the Holy Spirit in obedience, concern to support the work of the church, and willingness to submit to the government of the Church. It may be thought that these vows date from the earliest days of Presbyterianism, but this is not the case. The article that follows provides a history of the development and use of vows in the branch of American Presbyterianism from which the PCA was established and it considers the context and influences creating an environment conducive to their adoption and use.

As Presbyterians increased in number in America and congregations were organized it became necessary to establish in 1706 the first presbytery which was named “The Presbytery.” The Presbytery provided a hub of connection for the many scattered churches so presbyters could deliberate common issues and provide collective leadership for their congregations. Continued growth and additional presbyteries led to formation in 1717 of “The Synod.” Twelve years later, The Synod subscribed to the Westminster Confession of Faith and its associated catechisms, however Westminster’s Directory for the Public Worship of God was not subscribed to, but it was instead recommended for use; it was “unanimously” judged “to be agreeable in substance to the Word of God” and “to all their members, to be by them observed as near as circumstances will allow, and Christian prudence direct” (Klett, 195). Westminster’s Directory did not include vows of membership.

Fast forwarding six decades, American Presbyterians experienced sufficient growth to convene in 1789 the First General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA). That same year the first edition of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church was published containing the Westminster Confession and catechisms, Form of the Government and Discipline, Forms of Process, and Directory for the Worship of God. The Directory published by the PCUSA is different from the directory composed by the Westminster Assembly, but the influence of Westminster can be seen in the organization, topics, and some portions of the text. The PCUSA Directory is more concise than Westminster’s, it includes paragraph enumeration, and it added a chapter on the singing of Psalms along with other changes. The following is the entire text of the 1789 chapter titled, “Of the Admission of Persons to Sealing-Ordinances,” which for twenty-first century readers means admission into communicant or church membership.

Sect. I. CHILDREN, born within the pale of the visible Church, and dedicated to God in baptism, are under the inspection and government of the Church; and are to be taught to read, and repeat the Catechism, the Apostles Creed, and the Lord’s prayer. They are to be taught to pray, to abhor sin, to fear God, and to obey the Lord Jesus Christ. And, when they come to years of discretion, if they be free from scandal, appear sober and steady, and to have sufficient knowledge to discern the Lord’s body, they ought to be informed, it is their duty, and their privilege, to come to the Lord’s Supper.

Sect. II. The years of discretion, in young Christians, cannot be precisely fixed. This must be left to the prudence of the Eldership. The officers of the church are the Judges of the qualifications of those to be admitted to sealing ordinances; and of the time when it is proper to admit young Christians to them.

Sect. III. Those, who are to be admitted to sealing ordinances, shall be examined, as to their knowledge and piety.

Sect. IV. When unbaptized persons apply for admission into the church, they shall, in ordinary cases, after giving satisfaction with respect to their knowledge and piety, make a public profession of their faith, in the presence of the congregation; and thereupon be baptized.

There is a distinction between admitting covenant children into communicant membership and admitting “unbaptized persons.” Presbyterians emphasized the responsibility of children to come to terms with their covenant baptism and grow in knowledge of the Lord sufficiently, as Section I expressed it quoting Scripture, “to discern the Lord’s body” (1 Cor. 11:29). The terminology used is that of the covenant child’s duty and responsibility to partake of the Lord’s body and blood in faith. That is to say, is the baptized child going to continue in the covenant, or is he or she going to become a covenant breaker. The “Eldership” determined the admissibility of the baptized to the Lord’s Supper, apparently without them coming before the congregation, but the unbaptized were to make their profession of faith before the congregation and then be baptized. No vows for becoming a communicant member of the church are included in the Directory for Worship in 1789.

Nearly fifty years later, 1837, there was a major division of Presbyterians resulting in two Presbyterian Churches that were known popularly as the Old and New Schools. The Old School-New School division is important for the founding of the PCA because at the time of the division, the Presbyterians in the South were predominately Old School. An edition of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church published just before the division, 1834, provided instruction concerning church membership but like the 1789 edition, it did not have membership vows.

In 1861, there was another division of Presbyterians as a result of the Civil War. The Old School churches in the Union through the Gardiner Spring Resolutions required allegiance of the PCUSA churches to the Union and their continued work to preserve the Union. This, the churches in the Confederacy could not do, so the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America (PCCSA) was formed. About half-way through the war, the PCCSA united with the southern New School Presbyterians to become one general assembly. Shortly thereafter a committee was appointed to revise the Old School Directory for Worship. The war ended in 1865 with the committee having not reported regarding the progress of their work. The PCCSA changed its name to the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS). Attempts to revise the Directory continued sporadically until 1879 when a new committee was appointed for the work. Despite good intentions, it took fourteen years to complete and adopt the finished Directory. The next year, 1894, the first edition of the Directory with membership vows was published, but it included only four of the five vows that would come to be used by the PCA.

The vow missing is the one regarding support of the church’s ministry and work, which reads, “Do you promise to support the Church in its worship and work to the best of your ability?” It was added to the PCUS Directory during an extensive revision of the Book of Church Order that was published in the edition of 1929, however, it was not added as the last vow but rather the fourth resulting in the relocation of the previous fourth to the fifth position. After thirty-five years, since the 1894 edition, the PCUS found it necessary to include a vow regarding church members supporting the ministry of the church, which raises the question, what prompted the revision?

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