PCA Pastors, Remember Your Vows
November 18, 2015
Recently I witnessed a man take his ordination vows before the Presbytery to which I belong. I never get tired of those moments. It is a solemn occasion; one accompanied by no small measure of sobriety. The vows are, after all, promises the candidate for ordination makes before God and his brothers in Christ. The promises he makes are specific and, one would hope, binding.
In the Autumn of 2013 I went through the process of transferring my ordination to the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Those of you who have been ordained in the PCA know that the process can be rather grueling. That, of course, is a good thing. Upon completing the process I was presented to the Blue Ridge Presbytery (Virginia) whereupon I took my vows as a teaching elder. I will never forget that moment. It stands as one of the most moving events in all my years in ministry.
The following are the vows (by way of 8 questions) that every candidate takes upon his ordination in the PCA:
1. Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as originally given, to be the inerrant Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice?
2. Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures; and do you further promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, you will on your own initiative, make known to your Presbytery the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow?
3. Do you approve of the form of government and discipline of the Presbyterian Church in America, in conformity with the general principles of Biblical polity?
4. Do you promise subjection to your brethren in the Lord?
5. Have you been induced, as far as you know your own heart, to seek the office of the holy ministry from love to God and a sincere desire to promote His glory in the Gospel of His Son?
6. Do you promise to be zealous and faithful in maintaining the truths of the Gospel and the purity and peace and unity of the Church, whatever persecution or opposition may arise unto you on that account?
7. Do you engage to be faithful and diligent in the exercise of all your duties as a Christian and a minister of the Gospel, whether personal or relational, private or public; and to endeavor by the grace of God to adorn the profession of the Gospel in your manner of life, and to walk with exemplary piety before the flock of which God shall make you overseer?
8. Are you now willing to take the charge of this church, agreeable to your declaration when accepting their call? And do you, relying upon God for strength, promise to discharge to it the duties of a pastor?
Obviously, the candidate is expected to answer in the affirmative to each question.
Pay special attention to the second vow:
“Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures; and do you further promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, you will on your own initiative, make known to your Presbytery the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow?”
Every man ordained in the PCA makes a solemn promise before God and the church of Jesus Christ to make known to his Presbytery if there is a change in his doctrinal convictions. In other words, if over the course of time the theological convictions of an ordained man change such that he is no longer in accord with the system of doctrine carefully laid out in the Westminster Standards then he is honor bound to inform his presbytery. The implication is clear: Ordained man, since you have taken vows both to believe and uphold the doctrinal standards of the PCA you must surrender your ordination should your theological convictions change.
The second vow depends upon the honor of the ordained man. One of the things I appreciate about Presbyterianism is that it is considered a very serious matter to level charges against an elder. What is more, anyone making charges must be ready to back them up in the courts of the church with evidence. It is not enough to make a charge based upon intuition. This helps minimize frivolous charges and slander. At the same time, for the system to work, it requires that the elder be an honorable man. That is, it requires that he actually abide by his vows.
When a PCA pastor leads the church he serves out of the denomination over a shift in his doctrine, I believe it is reasonable to assume that his personal change occurred long before his actual departure from the PCA. How long does it take for a man in violation of his vows to go public? Am I unreasonable in assuming that it takes significantly longer than a week for a pastor to decide he no longer accepts the doctrinal standards of the PCA and then lead his church to abandon the denomination?
It takes time for a pastor to lead a congregation to accept his own doctrinal evolution. And then there is the decision to break with the denomination. That requires significant grooming. I wonder if any former PCA pastors would be willing to share publically how long they continued serving in the PCA after their change in doctrinal convictions. One month? One year? Five years? Longer?
This is a matter of integrity brothers.
We are witnesses to the sad story of City Church in San Francisco which recently announced their decision to affirm the sin of homosexuality and give support to same-sex marriage. City Church is a member of the Reformed Church in America (RCA) so their decision will not raise any concern in their denomination. But City Church was originally a PCA church. Significant sums of money were given from the denomination to plant a confessional Presbyterian beachhead in that rather infamous city. PCA laypersons generously give to support such worthy causes. The vision was right. The key players, however, were not.
The pastor of City Church led the congregation out of the PCA a number of years ago because he no longer accepted the denomination's position on the ordination of women. I believe it is reasonable to assume that his personal conviction changed well before City Church left the PCA. I hope the point I am making is clear. For how long was the pastor or pastors of City Church in violation of their vows prior to departing the denomination which had given so generously to bring the church to life? At any time did any of the pastors of City Church think to themselves, "I no longer hold to the doctrinal convictions of my denomination. I am honor bound to leave"? Instead these pastors led the church to follow their own shifting convictions. Considering the solemn promises these men made, the whole thing stinks.
Brother elders in the PCA, we must be men of honor. We took vows in the sight of God before our brother presbyters. We made solemn promises to the churches we serve. If you did not truly hold to the Westminster Standards when you took your vows then you are guilty of a grievous sin. Notify your presybtery immediately. If your doctrinal convictions have changed since your ordination and you have yet to honor your second vow then do it today.
The following is excerpted from a letter written in 1833 by Rev. Prof. Samuel Miller of Princeton Seminary concerning the elder’s adherence to his vows:
I shall close with remarks along this same line made by the late Dr. John Witherspoon: “I cannot forbear warning you against a piece of dishonesty which may possibly be found united to gravity and decency in other respects. I mean a minister’s subscribing to articles of doctrine which he does not believe. This is so direct a violation of sincerity, that it is astonishing to think how men can set their minds at ease in the prospect, or keep them in peace after the deliberate commission of it. The very excuses and evasions that are offered in defence of it are a disgrace to reason, as well as a scandal to religion.What success can be expected from that man’s ministry, who begins it with an act of such complicated guilt?How can he take upon him to reprove others for sin, or to train them up in virtue and true goodness, while he himself is chargeable with direct, premeditated, and perpetual perjury?…I have particularly chosen to introduce the subject upon this occasion, that I may attack it, not as an error, but as a fraud; not as a mistake in judgment, but an instance of gross dishonesty and insincerity of heart. I must beg every minister, but especially those young persons who have an eye to the sacred office, to remember that God will not be mocked, though the world may bedeceived. In His sight, no gravity of deportment, no pretence to freedom of inquiry, (a thing excellent in itself,) no regular exercise of the right of private judgment, will warrant or excuse such a lie for gain, as solemnly to subscribe what they do not believe.” (Witherspoon’s Works, Vol. I, pp. 313-4.)