During the Covenanter Young Adult Winter Conference, each year on Sabbath afternoons we have traditionally had a time called "Stump the Pastors" (affectionately dubbed "Stump the Chumps" by some) where a panel of pastors responds to questions from the young people. Usually these questions cover a wide range of topics, from creation to culture to calling. I wanted to follow up on some comments that arose regarding the subject of vows that I thought at the time were confusing and have heard since others have felt the same way.
In a discussion about the necessity of requiring vows for church membership, at least one of the pastors stated that the Reformed Presbyterian Church does not ask vows but rather queries. In other words, what I take this pastor to have meant is that when the new member is being asked the Covenant of Church Membership required to join the church, he is assenting to the truths and stating his beliefs found in the seven questions but he is not taking vows that solemnly swear himself to this behavior. This pastor also stated that Synod had declared this as its understanding.
Not wanting to start a debate at the time, knowing through my experience of serving on several different committees studying vows that confusion exists even among pastors, and wanting to be careful not to add to that confusion, I did not say anything at the time. Even now I am writing this not to embarrass anyone (hence my blog title), but to help us understand what we are doing when we or others respond to the Church Membership Covenant.
Simply put, there are both queries and vows in the seven questions contained in the Covenant of Church Membership. In a report by a synod committee regarding ordination vows I served on in 1998 that was approved by Synod, we defined these terms because of the confusion about them (Committee on Communication 98-10). A query is a "question or inquiry to ascertain information designed to give a public, official statement of one's beliefs," whereas a vow is a "solemn promise or assertion by which a person binds himself to an act, service or condition before God." With these definitions in mind, the report went on to differentiate that some of the questions asked at ordination were queries and others were vows.
The same is true of the seven church membership questions. The first three are queries, eliciting a statement of faith from the respondent:
1. Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, the only infallible rule for faith and life?
2. Do you believe in the one living and true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as revealed in the Scriptures?
3. Do you repent of your sin; confess your guilt and helplessness as a sinner against God; profess Jesus Christ, Son of God, as your Saviour and Lord; and dedicate yourself to His service: Do you promise that you will endeavor to forsake all sin, and to conform your life to His teaching and example?
The last four are clearly vows, as the person taking them is binding himself before God to certain acts and conditions:
4. Do you promise to submit in the Lord to the teaching and government of this church as being based upon the Scriptures and described in substance in the Constitution of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America? Do you recognize your responsibility to work with others in the church and do you promise to support and encourage them in their service to the Lord? In case you should need correction in doctrine or life, do you promise to respect the authority and discipline of the church?
5. To the end that you may grow in the Christian life, do you promise that you will diligently read the Bible, engage in private prayer, keep the Lord's Day, regularly attend the worship services, observe the appointed sacraments, and give to the Lord's work as He shall prosper you?
6. Do you purpose to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness in all the relationships of life, faithfully to perform your whole duty as a true servant of Jesus Christ, and seek to win others to Him?
7. Do you make this profession of faith and purpose in the presence of God, in humble reliance upon His grace, as you desire to give your account with joy at the Last Great Day?
In the RPCNA Constitution, the Covenant of Church Membership is found in the section called "Vows" and has "Official Vows" printed on the page above where it is found. You can even see in the web link I gave above from our denomination's website that the understanding is that vows are contained in this covenant (www.reformed.com/rpcna-constitution/vows.htm).
With this in mind, let all who belong to the church or who are considering joining it know they are binding themselves in solemn covenant with Christ and His church. Yet let us not fear that, but rather rejoice, draw near to God, and fulfill our vows to Him. For as we sing in Psalm 65, "Praise waits for Thee in Zion! To Thee vows paid shall be."