Some Thoughts on Membership Vow Number One ... and Taught in this Christian Church
As Reformed churches we follow many of the practices of the historic Christian Church. One such practice is that of taking sacred oaths and vows before God and his Church when uniting with the local church. In doing this believers unite themselves publicly to Jesus Christ as well as to his Body, their fellow members of Christ. This practice is evidenced in Paul's words to the Ephesians, where he says,
There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.Ephesians 4:4-6
It is generally accepted that this was an early baptismal creed, in which a person would recite these words just before baptism as a public profession of faith. This practice continued in the ancient church as what came to be known as the Apostles' Creed was used prior to the baptism of converts. The minister would ask, "Do you believe in God the Father Almighty ... Do you believe in Jesus Christ ... Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?" After each question the candidate would respond, "I do."
In our churches believers respond to the vows found in the Form for the Public Profession of Faith. Here we want to focus our attention on the first vow of "Form Number 1," which asks,
First, do you heartily believe the doctrine contained in the Old and the New Testament, and in the articles of the Christian Faith, and taught in this Christian Church, to be the true and complete doctrine of salvation, and do you promise by the grace of God steadfastly to continue in this profession?
The general question to be examined here is, what does a person profess when joining our churches, and specifically, do we expect them to assent to the ancient creeds as well as our catechism, confession, and canons? The reason for this investigation is that the traditional practice of "confessional membership" (the practice that all members of the church assent to its teachings when seeking access to the table of the Lord and entrance into the church) is being questioned in our circles, albeit informally.
An Explanation of Vow #1
Vow #1 asks prospective members if they "heartily believe." This is language taken from our Heidelberg Catechism, which speaks of true faith not only as knowledge and assent, but also a "hearty trust" (Q&A 21). Anecdotally, when I read this question to inquirers of the church I pastor, they understand the meaning and intent to be that they must have,
read through the confessions themselves,
resolved any lingering doubts about them, and
affirm what the confessions teach, for how else can they "heartily believe" what the church teaches?
Moving on we see that the very grammar of vow #1 shows that a person is making a confessional vow. The noun "doctrine" modifies everything in this vow, so that what is "heartily believed" is "the doctrine" contained in,
the Old and New Testaments,
the articles of the Christian faith (this is the language of Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 22 which means the Apostles' Creed, and
"this Christian church." A person does not say, "I do," merely to the fact that they believe the Bible or even and in the basic tenants in the Apostles' Creed, which things are taught in the particular church in which they profess their faith; rather, they confess that there is one doctrine of salvation in the Bible, the Creed, and our Three Forms of Unity and that this doctrine is contained in the Bible and the Creed and is taught in this church.
Furthermore, what doctrine is taught in our churches? Reformed doctrine. It must be said that we do not expect a person to be able to recite our confessions backwards and forwards, give all the arguments, be able to explain everything with theological precision, but they must at minimum profess our doctrine as the doctrine they believe as well as will continue steadfastly to believe. The point is, they are saying, "I agree or else I wouldn't be here." This is corroborated in "Form Number 2," the more contemporary of our two Forms, which asks in its second vow,
Do you believe that the Bible is the Word of God revealing Christ and his redemption, and that the confessions of this church faithfully reflect this revelation?emphasis added
So if "Form #2" is this explicit, then surely "Form #1" means at least the same. This view that "Form #1" dearly empresses a confessional membership was explained in a commentary upon it, which said:
The things you are called upon to confess in this question concern Christian doctrine. You are asked to admit two things in respect to this doctrine: first, whether you believe that the Reformed system of Christian doctrine is the "...true and complete doctrine of salvation"; and, secondly, that you are personally attached to this system of doctrine ... For your confession is not made in a Baptist or Methodist or any other church, but in a church which adheres to the Reformed system of doctrine.
Our Form expects a "confessional membership" – and this is the practice of our churches – and any view that says otherwise ought to be taken through the proper channels of the consistory, classis, and Synod, if needed.
The Nature of the Church
Related to the language of the Form is the implied doctrine of the Church as found in our Three Forms of Unity. It is a telling fact, for example, that 10 out of our Confession of Faith's 37 articles deal with the Church (arts. 27-36). Our dogma is not individualistic, but is one which we profess together. The Father has sent his Son to redeem a people (plural) for himself, the Church. This salvation has an individual dimension, to be true, but it also has a corporate dimension. As Marva Dawn says,
One of the most powerful reasons for our lack of gladness is that ours is a culture of solo efforts. We live our Christian faith independently – not inextricably linked with other members of the Body of believers. Consequently, we do not experience the Hilarity of being enfolded in a moment-by-moment awareness of the good news of our hope and life in Jesus Christ. We don't experience the support that true community engenders ... So I use the word Hilarity to describe the ideal Christian community, and my intention is to make us stop and think: what would it be like if the Christian Church were truly a community that thoroughly enjoyed being itself? It seems to me it could change the world!
In article 27 of the Belgic Confession we learn the meaning of the Apostles' Creed's confession, "I believe a holy catholic Church." We as Reformed churches confess to believe that we are the continuation of the true "catholic" Church:
We believe and profess one catholic or universal Church, which is a holy congregation of true Christian believers, all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by His blood, sanctified and sealed by the. Holy Spirit.
The Heidelberg Catechism describes the church as "a chosen communion in the unity of the true faith" (Q&A 54). The church is a confessional institution and organism.
We believe that there is a Church, a congregation of those whom the Lord has saved. Just as the early Christians devoted themselves to the apostles' doctrine and to the Lord's Supper and prayer, so they were devoted to each other, "the fellowship" (Acts 2:42). We see this described by the metaphor of a body in Paul's words in Romans 12, where Paul says that a body has many "members." We as the members of the body are one body in Christ. But even more striking is Paul's conclusion that because we are members of Christ, we are "members one of another."
In article 28 of our Confession of Faith we confess the "communion of the saints" in the church:
We believe, since this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved, and outside of it there is no salvation, that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it; maintain the unity of the Church; submitting themselves to the doctrine and discipline thereof; bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ; and as mutual members of the same body, serving to the edification of the brethren, according to the talents God has given them.
Can a true Christian be a "lone ranger" in the world? (Hebrews 10:24-25) No, for when we profess the language of "Form #1" we profess our common faith and life with the rest of the body.
So what does it mean to be a "member" of Christ's Church? Although many people, even Christians, associate membership with strictness, or a controlling environment, or with the loss of Christian freedom, biblical church membership could not be further from these ideas. To unite ourselves not only with our lips to Christ but to his Church with our lives entails both great responsibilities and great blessings.
The fourth membership vow expresses this. It is the most serious of the four vows of membership and asks whether a person will live in submission to the "doctrine and discipline" of the Church. The Lord has given the gift of rule to his church in the form of the elders, who guide the church in his place in terms of doctrine and discipline.
The blessing of this discipline is being shepherded by pastors and elders. As Paul went "from house to house" (Acts 20:20) so do we as Christ's under-shepherds. In a Reformed church this means that the elders visit their members at least once a year in the privacy of their homes to continue to get to know them better and to bear each other's burdens.
In vow #4 the words of vow #1 are given teeth as we promise to submit to the church's government over doctrine, life, and discipline. Scripture speaks of Christians submitting to the elders of the church in such places as Hebrews 13:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls.Hebrews 13:17
This vow also is a promise to submit to the church's admonition and discipline in the specific case that you should fall in doctrine or life. What are doctrinal things for which you can be disciplined? Any view that contradicts the confessions of the church. What are issues of life for which you can be disciplined? Living contrary to the confessions.
The first membership vow asks whether a person confesses a common faith with the rest of the congregation before whom they stand. When one stands before the church they are identifying themselves with the "doctrine of the apostles" (Acts 2:42) as found in Holy Scripture and faithfully summarized in the Christian creeds and Reformed Confessions. In doing so they are uniting themselves to the body of Christ locally and universally who stand and confess "the good confession" (1 Timothy 6:12). This is an enormous blessing to stand shoulder to shoulder with others of like mind and like-precious faith. One of the blessings of membership is receiving the teaching of the pastors. As well, this is also a responsibility. When one publicly professes faith they are not only saying they believe certain things now, but also that they will continue to believe those things. A member gives a sincere promise (covenant) that they will be faithful to their confession. This is not easy in the world in which we live; thus members are to continue "steadfastly" in their profession.
The blessings of a confessional membership are that everyone covenants together with the same form of faith. And so the confessions become the basis for our fellowship. The practical effect of these creeds and confessions is church unity. The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ is not a divided collection of individual, lone-ranger Christians, or individual parts, but is a single, united body in which each individual member is united in their faith. Although we are many, we are one body in Christ (Romans 12:5). As members of a Reformed church, we all confess the same Faith in matters of essentials. We see in the New Testament the apostle Paul praying for this to become more and more true within the churches. He prays that we would be "like-minded toward one another" and that we "may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 15:5-6). Elsewhere he calls us to action, saying, "...stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel" (Philippians 1:27).
Another practical aspect of these creeds and confessions is that we use them as the basis for our teaching, from the earliest age of children in Sunday school and at home, to teaching adults to be prepared to give an answer for the hope that is within them (1 Peter 3:15). The New Testament teaches us the necessity of having a unified theology because the people of God have always had to beware of being "turned aside to fables" (2 Timothy 4:4), "tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine" (Ephesians 4:14) rather than holding on to the "pattern of sound words" (2 Timothy 1:13), the "form of doctrine ... once for all delivered to the saints" (Romans 6:17; Jude 3), the "whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27).
Within the Church the Lord has given the responsibility to pastors and elders to heed our Lord's words to teach disciples "all things that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20). And we are to do this from the earliest age with our children, teaching the things "we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us."
We are not to hide them from (our) children, but are to declare to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, and his strength and his wonderful works that he has done ... that [we] should make them known to (our) children, that the generation to come might know them, the children who would be born, that they may arise and declare them to their children.Psalm 78:1-6
Because the Church has always existed in the midst of perilous times, her members need to be protected from wolves by her shepherds. So the confessions protect the flock from heresy. As Paul warns young pastor Timothy, in these "latter times" (1 Timothy 4:1) false teachers will come. Therefore the apostle John calls us to be discerning and to "test the spirits, whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1).
The Church, then, is a doctrinal institution and people. John does not call us to test the spirits by the numerical and financial results a teacher or church has, nor by how charismatic and outgoing a teachers' personality is. We are called to test the spirits by examining a doctrinal confession (1 John 4:1-3; 1 Timothy 4). Paul commanded the elders of the church in Ephesus to examine doctrine, saying,
Savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock ... speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples.Acts 20:29-30
By believing and confessing a dear, systematic, and comprehensive system of truth, we are less likely to see our sheep drawn away. This also equips the elders to better warn and protect the sheep of Christ. Thus, an elder is to "hold fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict" (Titus 1:9). Summaries of the Christian Faith in creeds and confessions also provide an object standard by which the Church is to discipline those in error, whether doctrinal or ethical. This is eminently practical in our day in which too many churches have sprung up from a person's desire to be a pastor and in which people flock to a church based on feelings, preferences, and "successful" ministries. What happens in these types of churches is that the pastor is a pope and there is no accountability structure except "what the pastor says, goes." Thus people are excommunicated, dis-fellowshipped, and shunned without any biblical steps of reconciliation, simply because of personal differences or not agreeing with the pastor.
In a Reformed church this is not so. For example, if a member should stray from the truth, other members and the elders have a way of objectively identifying their error. Since everyone says, "I believe the Bible," the creeds and confessions give a summary of the Word as well as an explanation on difficult points of doctrine. For the welfare of the wayward believer as well as the entire congregation, the elders are given the ability to hold an erring member accountable. The same holds true for ethical error within the church. Church discipline, then, is not a case of the pastor versus someone teaching contrary to his doctrine, of a person who sins being immediately kicked out, but it is a loving process, dearly delineating between truth and error (Romans 16:17).
And the same above discipline holds true for the pastor in a church. The pastor is a servant of Christ, not an untouchable spiritual giant. So how can a member of a church identify error that is taught? By comparing what is being taught to the official teaching of the church. The confessions, then, keep a pastor from straying into his own ideas or novel doctrines and provide a standard to evaluate teaching. He must be careful to teach and preach only the apostolic doctrine that has been handed down to him, and to "commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Timothy 2:2).
Finally, our creeds and confessions serve us by defining the gospel of salvation for a fallen world as well as the eternal punishment to be suffered by those who reject it. Jesus called the church "the light of the world" (Matthew 5:14). But we can only function as light if we continue in the truth.
We live in an age in which the truths of the Bible have been dimmed and perverted by many groups claiming to be churches. This has compromised the uncompromising and urgent message of Scripture. When an unbeliever asks the church, "What do you believe," it is not enough to say, "We believe the Bible." In order to be a faithful and effective witness in a time of shifting doctrinal tides, we must say, "We have written out exactly what we believe the Bible teaches."
What about People who cannot Assent to Everything?
But doesn't this practice make the door into the church a fence? No, because the task of the church towards people who are new to our understanding of the Faith or who have no idea of it at all, is to be faithful in catechizing them so that they can stand with us. A recent example in my congregation is a young couple with three children who desired to join with us and have their children baptized. They came to us after not attending church for seven years because of a bad experience in the past. After coming, asking questions, struggling through issues, and taking our membership course (all while not being permitted at the Lord's Table), they heartily united with us.
We have another couple from the same class that is not quite ready at this time. He grew up Greek Orthodox and she grew up in the Evangelical Church of Germany (mix of Lutheranism and Calvinism). They just don't quite get it all yet and actually want to wait until they do, so they can affirm with the rest of the congregation their faith and willingness to submit to the Church. We also have folks that have come to us, been blown away by what we believe and how we worship, have left, only to return to us later and desire to unite with us. This is the experience of many of us out here in Southern California.
People actually appreciate the fact that we lay out our beliefs from the start, say to them that this is what we believe, teach, and practice, that we desire them to do the same, and let them come to embrace it. Maybe our area is different than yours, but in five-plus years we have grown from 25 to 125 by being Reformed. We have two ladies who grew up in the CRC and the rest, including myself, came to this precious faith later in life.
Churches that care about people enough to oversee their doctrine and life in a faithful way are few and far between in our age, and people are searching for what we already have. We need to hold forth the Reformed faith and be patient, allowing the Spirit to work in people's lives. One of the ways we can show this patience for their good is to have a confessional membership in which all can say,
I heartily believe the doctrine ... as taught in this Christian church.