Those Ordination Vows
Many of the arguments and discussions which have rocked the church in recent times have called attention to the vows taken by officebearers of the church on ordination and admission to office. One correspondent this month ("Young people and the church", p.32) alleges that ordination vows are being flouted at will in the Free Church of Scotland. The Free Church Defence Association built itself on the premise that some office-bearers were "promising to uphold our Biblical and confessional position, while at the same time seeking to undermine such", a point pressed in Free Church Foundations, where one statement of aim is given as "To press for consistency in adherence to ordination vows".
The assumption behind such statements is, at the very least, that ordination vows are not being understood, or that they are not being taken seriously, or, at the very most, that they are being deliberately flouted. In any case, two points emerge. The first is that to throw accusations of oath-breaking into the air is the easiest way in the world to absolve ourselves of guilt. For a church that professes itself Calvinistic, and that claims to be God-centred in her attitude, the Free Church has been surprisingly man-centred of late, focusing its attention on the apparent inconsistencies of men rather than upon the sovereign grace and mercy of God. Man-centred solutions to God-centred issues appear rather incongruous in a Calvinistic church.
The second is that to accuse anyone of oath-breaking is itself a serious issue. To be sure, not to vow is better than to vow and not pay (Ecclesiastes 5:5), but to accuse a man of perjury in ecclesiastical matters is to leave oneself wide open to the intense scrutiny both of God and men. It is all too possible for us to make much of the speck in our brother's eye and not be aware of the plank in our own. Stone-throwing was invited by Jesus only from those who were without sin themselves. That was enough to silence every accuser.
The Purpose of Ordination Vows
The reference to Jesus and the early church is a sobering reminder that it is possible for a man to be an effective Gospel communicator without vows or oath or ordination at all. The Lord took no ordination vows, and was the greatest preacher of all time. Peter subscribed to no written confession, yet was the means of at least 8,000 conversions. Paul himself, whose epistles lay down for us the fabric of church government and ecclesiastical organisation, has nothing to say on the matter of ordination vows. As extraordinary officebearers of the church, the original apostolic circle was in a unique, embryonic position, from which many different forms of church government and styles of church polity would later emerge. But in this case the argument from silence is a strong one, and when the Bible has so little to say on the question of clerical dress, clerical ordination and clerical status, it ill becomes us to fill the breach.
At the same time, the Headship of Christ calls us back to the realisation that the church is His to furnish and equip. Although there must be ministry from every member of His body to every other member of His body, He has set into office men after His own heart. Such men are called, equipped and settled by Him to govern His church in the world, through love, and according to Scripture.
Ordination questions and vows, therefore, do not have the purpose of limiting the work of the Gospel or the work of the Gospel officers, but of delineating the bounds of that work, giving it room to grow and offering it its biblical expression and development. Marriage vows were never intended to stint love, but to give it its own space to develop and mature. Ordination vows were never intended to become intrusive, divisive or restrictive, but to give scope and room for biblical evangelism that is according to the mind of Christ. Nor were they ever intended to close the door on fellowship with those who cannot make our creedal subscription, or assent to our mode of worship. So Ryle counsels us:
Let us be satisfied that our own communion is Scriptural; but let us never pretend to unchurch all other communions beside our own ... I loathe the idea of handing over the communions to which such men as Matthew Henry, and Doddridge, and Robert Hall, and McCheyne, and Chalmers belonged, to the uncovenanted mercies of God ... I would to God that we had many Episcopalians like the men I have named.Knots Untied, p281
The moment our ordination vows become the grounds for a plea to have exclusive evangelism as well as exclusive psalmody, to prevent the preaching of the Gospel by Free Church ministers outside of Free Church pulpits, to restrict the mingling and mixing and fellowship of those who are one in the Lord, is to claim for them a purpose and a place that was never envisaged for them.
In the visible church - the aspect of the Church that is apparent to our senses - ordination to office becomes the handmaid of the Great Commission. There are, after all, says Bannerman "promises and blessings specially linked with the entrance on the office of the ministry not given in connection with anything else" (The Church of Christ, Vol 1, p470). The blessing may be conferred without the act of ordination, but is inextricably woven into it. This, as Bannerman goes on to argue, is what makes ordination "less than a charm, but more than a form".
The Scope of the Vows
It is reasonable to assume that all who apply for ordination to ministry, or who accept office within the Free Church, do so sincerely and intelligibly, having examined the questions, read the Formula and studied the Confession of Faith prior to the act of ordination. On this premise, the ordination vows cover at least seven areas of importance.
The Finality of Scripture
The first of these is the absolute sovereignty of Scripture. Bishop Ryle says: "let me warn members of the Church of England, never to take up ground on behalf of their Church, which cannot be defended from the Holy Scriptures" (Knots Untied, p277). Our church stands for, and sits under, a Bible inspired in all its parts, infallible and inerrant in all its points, broad in its scope, final in its teachings, and the only rule of our faith and our manners. Scripture is our last court of Appeal. Neither personal faith, life or conduct, nor ecclesiastical Acts, creeds or vows, can bring us beyond this point. The moment we give to anything, whether it be the traditions of men, the Acts of Assembly, or even the Westminster Confession of Faith itself the place that belongs to the Word of God, we have sold our soul.
The Doctrine of the Westminster Confession of Faith
The second aspect of ordination in the Free Church refers to the doctrine contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith. The ordination vows distinguish carefully between the Confession and the doctrines it teaches, implying that there is more to the Confession than doctrine. In some cases there is exegesis, in others there is explanation. In all cases, the doctrines of the Westminster Confession are couched in language that extends beyond a mere statement of doctrine. In Chapter 15 of his Collected Writings, John Murray has three caveats to make in this connection. The first is that
The creeds are ... historically complexioned in language and content and do not reflect the particular and distinguishing needs of subsequent generations". The second is "the progressive understanding of the faith delivered to the saints". Did this progression, he asks, cease in 1647? The third is that "all human composition is fallible, and is, therefore, subject to correction and improvement" pp242-3.
The modification of creedal subscription represented by Act II 1874 is a case in point. There the church declared that she did not regard her Confession "as favouring intolerance or persecuting principles", nor did she consider "that her office-bearers, by subscribing it, profess any principles inconsistent with liberty of conscience and the right of private judgement". In this Act, whatever its import, the doctrine of the Confession is preserved, but the accompanying statements require explanation. The wording of the Act itself shows that the Free Church never considered the Confession as final.
The ordination vows themselves guard this point, as the ordinand disavows all Popish, Arian, Socinian, Arminian and Erastian doctrines. He does not disown all Catholics or Arminians, but he does disown their catechisms and creeds. The personalization of these discussions has fuelled religious bigotry and intolerance in many places, most notably in Northern Ireland. To shake hands with a Roman Catholic, to pray with an Arminian, to speak to a Socinian (would I know one if I met one?), is not to breach ordination vows. To breach them would require the preaching of alien doctrine in our pulpits.
The promise to 'assert, maintain and defend' the doctrine is to recognise that the doctrine is fundamental and beyond alteration. A.T. Innes, in his magisterial work on The Law of Creeds in Scotland, states that
There are some acts which a Church cannot do. If there is any doctrine essential to a church - fundamental to it -the right to abandon such a doctrine is a contradiction in terms. It is suicidal and impossible.The Laws of Creeds in Scotland p 444
This is to reflect what Paul says to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:16: "Take heed to thyself and to the doctrine", that is, to the core of non-negotiable and non-transferable biblical teaching, the things "most surely believed among us" (Luke 1:1). The great issue is whether we will be prepared to state these doctrines in a manner that will communicate the truth effectively to modern man, burdened as he is with theological illiteracy. The ordination vows require us to judge a man's ministry in the light of his sermon, not in the light of his pulpit intimations, or the colour of his tie, or the choice of his friends.
Purity of Worship
The Free Church has pledged itself to a particular mode of worship characterised by simplicity (in comparison to the complexities of high liturgy), seriousness (in contrast with the levity and excesses of much contemporary Christian style), and soundness (by focusing on the Word of God throughout, whether in sermon or song). The vow to assert, maintain and defend the purity of worship is defined by Act V, 1932, which roots the present practice of the church in the practice of the Reformation church, so as to avoid the use in public worship of uninspired materials of praise, and instrumental music. We have, in other words, the best hymns, and the best music, in the Psalms of David and the melody of the heart. That is not to say we always have the best worship.
At ordination, there is a pledge to the continuance of the present practice of worship. The Free Church position in this connection has not changed this century. We have defended it to the hilt, and we have held it dearly. And we have never had any difficulty with singing hymns, either in English or Gaelic, outwith our worship services, or with our ministers preaching the Gospel where hymns and instrumental music were employed. We rejoiced that the Great Commission was neither compromised nor bounded by such strictures.
And we must confess to still not knowing what 'entertainment evangelism' means. If a man, accepting the Bible as the rule of worship, is "fully persuaded in his own mind" that he is in no breach of biblical principle when he uses hymns or instrumental music, in his own church, he holds a position which we can challenge, with a right which we must defend. And if he asks us to preach for him in his pulpit we will be delighted to do so, and to go anywhere with the Good News. But we will tell him that the Free Church of Scotland is pledged to a form of worship altogether different, which she holds by virtue of her view of the regulating standard of the Bible, and, if we invite such a man to preach for us, we will look after his guitar for him.
It is interesting to note that the Confession, in stating the Apocrypha to be not part of Scripture, does not say that it is of no use at all, but that it is of no more use than any human composition. The same principle must apply to every hymn and sacred song, to every instrument of music and every talent of musical artistry: to say that these are not to be employed in our worship is not to say that they are of no use whatever, but that they are of no more use than any other art form in the communication of thought.
There are at least another four areas covered in our ordination vows.
Presbyterian Church Government
The first of these is the method of church government employed and practised in the church; the ordinand acknowledges that "the Presbyterian government and discipline of the church are founded upon the word of God". This statement presumes the need for the church of Christ in its outward and visible aspects to be organised and provided for, in order that the ordinances of religion might be made available to every ordinary member and adherent of the church wherever he or she might be.
Presbyterianism has a long pedigree in Scotland, and was formally recognised as early as 1581, with the creation of Stirling Presbytery, whose extant minutes are the earliest surviving record of Presbyterianism. But the roots of Presbyterian church government are to be found in the New Testament, with elders and deacons carrying authority as pastors, teachers and overseers of the New Testament church. The present form of church government distinguishes the Free Church from congregationally oriented independent fellowships, where government is in the hands of the members of each local congregation, and from episcopalian schemes, in which control is usually vested in one man, rather than in a body of men, in which all are accountable to each other.
The benefits of Presbyterianism need not be rehearsed here. We can, however, note certain points. The first is that although the Presbytery is the radical, or root, Court of the church, congregations are under a specific obligation to meet local needs and evangelise in their own localities. The parochial system is, to all useful intents and purposes, now obsolete, but the presence of individual congregations in different localities places the responsibility for the upkeep of gospel ordinances and the responsibility for evangelism and outreach firmly upon the shoulders of each Kirk-Session. This is no congregationalism, but only the recognition that every congregation has its own peculiar and individual obligation under the Gospel in every local area.
It is also of vital importance that the governing of congregations does not become a means to the suppression of life and good ideas within the body of believers. The eldership can so very easily become distanced from the membership to the extent that Kirk-Sessions, like bottlenecks, can make the flow of life and vitality very slow and very controlled. It is little wonder that sometimes the cork pops out of the bottle with violence and force! There is vital need for elders to undertake the pastoral care of the people, to live and walk alongside them, to get to know them and to care for them. Their function is not to represent the people in the Courts of the church, but nor is it to extinguish the growth and development of new plans, ideas and enterprises if these will be to the good of the cause of Christ.
There is also a pledge on the part of the ordinand to submit to the government and discipline of Church Courts. There has been a conspicuous silence regarding this particular vow in certain quarters. Decisions are sometimes taken at church courts with which we cannot agree; there is a mechanism for dissent from them and even appeal against them, but, as far as we can tell, no mechanism that allows continued rebellion against them. Acts of the Assembly, which are no part of the church's constitution, and which can be repealed, altered and revised, may cause us great disquiet; the Practice of the Free Church of Scotland, with marvellous pastoral instinct, tells us that "By dissenting with reasons a man keeps his conscience clear from the responsibility of what he does not approve of, and his appeal goes up to the Head of the Church on high" (Practice, p85).
It is difficult to see how the Free Church Defence Association can justify its existence in the light of the church's practice. No constitutional aspect of the Free Church's witness or testimony has been threatened by Acts of Assembly in the last decade. Organised complaint against decisions and conclusions of the Assembly hardly accords with the promise to submit to the government and discipline of the church, and only by the most severe stretching of the imagination can such complaining be regarded as a defence of the church's constitution.
But there is more. The oath of ordination underlines the promise that the free debate and the free decisions of church courts will not be prejudiced or subverted by any Free Church officebearer. What does this mean? It means that every officebearer recognises the need for church courts to be above any kind of agenda from any pressure group within the Church, so as to ensure that decisions are made in the Court, and not before it. Letters, for example, addressed to the General Assembly ought not to be made public before the Assembly meets. To publish them beforehand in any form is to prejudice the Assembly's discussion of them. The constitution of the church is only threatened by those who will not submit, as they vowed to do, to decisions of Assembly which they do not like.
Church and State
The relationship between the church and the state has vexed the church since the days of the New Testament. Questions over whether the church should receive any state support or whether it ought to be regarded as an entirely voluntary organisation, self-financing and self-supporting have been addressed and discussed over the past two millennia.
On this issue the Free Church has a clear point in principle: that the civil courts and the ecclesiastical courts represent two quite separate and distinct spheres of jurisdiction; but that Christ exercises sovereignty over both. This undergirds the Establishment Principle, on the basis of which the Free Church separated in 1843, and that says that the state is duty-bound to maintain the interests of the Christian religion, while the church, on her part, is duty-bound to recognise the position and jurisdiction of the sovereign and her government, playing a full and active part in the lawmaking and political process by bringing the principles of the Word of God constantly before the conscience of the nation. It recognises that,
Church and State are the twin departments of Christ's Kingdom on earth, each owing duty and service to the other, and both being concerned with the prerogatives of Christ as Head of the Church and King of the kings of the earth. The aim of both should be the production and maintenance of a hristian civilisation.The Heritage of our Fathers, p3
The irony of the moment is that at present the Free Church believes in Establishment in principle, and yet is to all intents and purposes Voluntary in practice. Apart from entertaining the Lord High Commissioner at the General Assembly, a potent symbol of our allegiance to the crown, we have very little to say about the state. Where is the church's voice on the setting up of the new Scottish Parliament, one of the most significant political watersheds of the twentieth century? While we make sure we are singing 17th-century versions of the psalms, we are allowing the humanistic and atheistic forces of the 21st century to forge our political processes. It is to our shame that we have allowed the Establishment Principle to fall into such abeyance in our thinking.
It is on the basis of this constitutional principle of the Church that we must resist any attempt to dissociate our Christian values from our political and national life. We may bemoan the fact, for example, that in 1872 the state took control of our schools. We may regret the church's ever having abandoned control of its schools in this way. But are separatist, independent Christian schools really the answer? Does our Establishment Principle not remind us that we regard the State as being equally bound to honour the authority of Christ in our education system? To imagine that only an overtly Christian education system is biblical is to undervalue the very principles on which the Free Church separation took place in 1843.
By the same token, it is only in the light of such principles that we have any right at all to address the social and political questions of the current day. As we survey the whole social spectrum, recognizing the distinctive jurisdiction that belongs to the state in civil matters and to the church in her own matters, we are duty-bound to acknowledge that Christ's lordship extends both to the office-bearers of the church and to the civil magistrate, who remains God's minister to us for good (Romans 14:4).
Submission, Unity and Peace
The ordinand in the Free Church pledges himself to a position of submission. It may seem surprising that admission to a position of authority and rule should require such a pledge. Yet it is a recognition that no ecclesiastical office carries with it absolute or final authority, and that humility and meekness are indispensable criteria for Christian ministry.
It is a sobering thought to appreciate that personal and vital godliness on the part of an office-bearer of the church is indispensable to the wellbeing of any ecclesiastical system. There is always more to be gained from subjection to others than from lordship over others. Indeed, 1 Peter 5:3 counsels ministers and elders to be not lords over God's heritage, but examples to the flock.
Yet too often it is precisely the spiritual life of the minister that is drained by his constant and faithful application to ecclesiastical duty. The minister's spiritual life is sapped by the constantly recurring demands of church life, and by the continual haunting guilt that more could have been done. It is in such a complex of personal, domestic and congregational responsibility that burnout occurs and a man's usefulness is compromised.
Yet if anything compromises the work of the Gospel, it is not the use of 'you' in prayer, or the NIV in preaching, or the supplementary psalms in worship, but the thought that no-one is right but us. It is a sobering thought that our cemeteries are full of indispensable men, and none of us can afford ourselves the luxury of imagining that we are essential to the cause of truth in our day.
Nonetheless, there is a commitment in the vows on two counts with regard to the wider church. The first is that the unity and peace of the church will be maintained by its office-bearers against error and schism. Unity in the truth: this is the very heart of the Reformed faith. There can, however, be no unity that threatens the peace of the church, and no peace that undermines the unity of the church. Both are alike precious to those who value the Gospel heritage.
There is also a negative - that no divisive courses will be followed from the 'doctrine, worship, discipline and government of this Church'. This statement is capable of carrying many interpretations, but it does represent a serious undertaking to pursue no policy and support no organisation that insists on dictating to the Church what she should preach, how she should worship, whom she should discipline and on what basis she should govern. These are matters for the courts of the Church and the office-bearers of the church to regulate. They are the overseers whom Christ has appointed in His church, and any society or sect within the Church that awards itself a 'watching brief' arrogates to itself the right to superintend, when Christ has made provision for this already.
Motives and Methods
The entrance upon office in the church of Christ is a solemn business. For the Probationer or Minister-Elect, there is another test: "Have you used any undue methods either by yourself or others, in procuring this call?" What constitutes an undue method remains undefined. Does it preclude, for example, discussion between prospective ministers and congregations with a view to mutual reflection over suitability and appropriateness in the choice and availability of candidates? After all, while congregations retain the right to call their own ministers, how many calls actually reflect the considered choice of the congregation?
In the interests of this particular shibboleth, prospective candidates for pulpits throughout the church are left with no option but to remain silent on issues that concern them in response to the possibility of occupying pulpits and becoming settled in congregations. There ought to be some kind of mechanism in place that will allow frank and full discussion between prospective candidates and prospective congregations that will clear the way and the air over the issuing and accepting of calls. As there ought to be a mechanism in place for a man to discover he made a mistake to leave without the odium of resignation or the implementation of the Act anent Problem Ministries.
To be sure, we expect our officebearers to honour the vows undertaken on admission to office in the Church. But when we dictate how the vows are to be kept, and when we brook no refusal, our insistences will be at the expense of good men, good methods, good ministry, and even the good news itself.