All of this invites questions of great practical consequence: why did we bring into our own denomination a requirement – this vow to support – that was only introduced into our predecessor in the years of her growing infidelity, that was used to coerce and intimidate the faithful remnant, and that was not precedented (in the actual meaning of that abused word) in over 220 years of earlier Presbyterian polity in this country?
In a previous article I discussed somewhat the meaning and implications of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)’s fourth membership vow (see footnote for text). Since that time an earlier work of a very learned gentleman, Barry Waugh, that gives a history of how that vow came to be included in the PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO) has been republished here. It is worth the read, as is much else that Waugh has written, but as its extensive documentation makes it somewhat long (approximately 3,000 words), I’ll summarize his point here.
In 1929 the PCA’s predecessor, the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS), added the vow in question as a response to a practical difficulty that had arisen due to the increasing popularity of what were then called voluntary agencies, or what we would now call parachurch ministries. These had so much increased in popularity that the church believed its own ministry was being adversely affected by being deprived of its members’ funds and talents. To ensure that such parachurch entities did not undermine the church, and in keeping with the historic Presbyterian belief that Christ established the church to advance his kingdom, the church added the vow in question to emphasize the importance of members supporting the institutional church in its own work. When the PCA later formed, this vow was one of the many things she brought with her from the PCUS.
Whether it should have done so is a separate question. As Waugh amply documents, there were no membership vows in the first approximately 200 years of Presbyterian history in this country. And as other reading will attest, worldliness and unbelief, clothed in the respectable monikers of reason, science, scholarship, necessity, utility, and the usual gamut of high-sounding and urgent rhetoric, had made a deep infiltration in the PCUS, so that by 1929 that denomination was far along the road of infidelity. When the seeds of unbelief began to bear a wicked fruit with increased severity and frequency in the succeeding generation, there arose that movement of reaction that ultimately lead to the formation of the PCA in 1973.
And it is my understanding, gleaned especially from Frank Smith’s early history of the PCA, The History of the Presbyterian Church in America, that at that time, and in the years prior, the unbelievers in the PCUS appealed to the membership vow in question (and its associated notion of church participation) to coerce people into remaining in the denomination and providing it with full support. Whenever individuals, churches, or presbyteries withheld financial support from certain agencies, sought to separate, or were otherwise involved in the continuing church movement or refused to give full support to the program of apostasy in the PCUS, they were accused of infidelity. (“The sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light . . .”) Others were restrained by their own consciences from supporting the continuing church and joining the PCA on account of the vow in question.
And taken literally, the vow places members under a burden that does not accord with the New Testament conception of stewardship. The New Testament records the church saying its members’ possessions are theirs to dispose of as they determine best: speaking of land and its sale, Peter tells a member (Acts 5:4a) “while it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?” And elsewhere Paul, collecting an offering for the saints in Judea, says that “each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7). Indeed, though he urges the Corinthians to “excel in this act of grace” (8:7), he emphasizes that this is an appeal for voluntary generosity (“I say this not as a command,” v. 8).
Such verses attest an enormous authority in stewardship to the individual believer vis-à-vis the church. And on the opposite side of things, far from insisting upon his rights, Paul says he was pleased to not live off the contributions of the Corinthians and Thessalonians (1 Cor. 9:6-18; 2 Cor. 12:13; 1 Thess. 2:9). And yet the fourth vow requires support to the institutional church to the best of one’s ability. I do not believe it is sufficiently appreciated how grave and strict this requirement is, and of how much it requires of the individual member.
Consider some examples. If one is able, after all lawful debts, liabilities, necessities, and prudential savings, to give $12,000 a year to the church, and instead gives $11,000, opting to give $300 to the state forest system and another $700 to the local rescue mission, he has not given to the church to the best of his ability. If someone has a free Wednesday night for church work and instead opts to go elsewhere, he is not supporting the church to his best ability. In each case he had the time or money at hand to support the church and used it for something else. There is no understanding of that being “to the best of your ability” that such examples meet.
Now at this point you might say I am engaged in a reductio ad absurdum argument, and being rather silly by taking this far more seriously than our people and courts are accustomed to taking it. Actually, I would say that I am taking the words in view in their plain, common meaning, and that our ethical thinkers have always thought that words related to vows and covenants are to be thus taken in their common, plain meaning.
Consider the first membership vow: “Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?” All PCA courts understand this in a traditional Reformed light. “Sinners” means ‘people who are fundamentally alienated from God by their very nature, and who cannot truly obey his will or be reconciled to him unless they are born again of his Spirit.’ “Without hope” means ‘inescapably doomed to be condemned and punished by his just displeasure because of our sins.’ “His sovereign mercy” means ‘his grace as manifested in unconditional election, calling, regeneration, justification, sanctification, and final glorification,’ and is deemed monergistic in nature, not as some sort of Pelagian, Semi-Pelagian, or Arminian ‘prevenient grace’ that has been dispensed indiscriminately so that all people have the natural ability to repent and believe apart from a particular work of the Holy Spirit.
Now if we understand such words in light of the common, public meaning of them as expressed in our doctrinal standards, why would we not also interpret “best of your ability” in light of its society-wide common meaning? If it is within your ability to do something and you do not, you have ipso facto not done it to the best of your ability. We confess that “an oath is to be taken in the plain and common sense of the words, without equivocation, or mental reservation” (WCF 22-4). And again, “best of your ability” has a plain meaning in contemporary English.
All of this invites questions of great practical consequence: why did we bring into our own denomination a requirement – this vow to support – that was only introduced into our predecessor in the years of her growing infidelity, that was used to coerce and intimidate the faithful remnant, and that was not precedented (in the actual meaning of that abused word) in over 220 years of earlier Presbyterian polity in this country? One which seems to contradict other fundamental principles of our polity (BCO Pref. II.1, 7), runs contrary to the New Testament conception of such matters, and which forces a person to swear a strict allegiance to an institution that history attests might fall away? We have twice escaped institutional apostasy (Rome and the PCUS), and the Scriptures abundantly attest that unbelief and rebellion have been common in the church as Old Testament Israel, and that they will be so in these last days as well (Matt. 24:9-13; 2 Thess. 2:3). And yet we think it wise to force people to vow support to an institution that could fall away from Christ and make war upon his people?
The only answer to all of this is that the fourth membership vow ought to be taken as requiring support to the true church universal, which is invisible, and only to any visible church body insofar as it bears the marks of being a participant in the one true church. Further, that the support in view is a general support, directed by one’s own conscience and toward the church as both organism and institution, and that supporting extra-ecclesiastical entities that advance Christ’s kingdom is not contrary to the vow in view (comp. Mk. 9:38-41), but actually a commendable and effective way of fulfilling it. And last, that a vow taken to enter a covenant cannot be more restrictive than the covenant entered, nor oblige one to things that are not inherent in that covenant, nor deny one’s rights under that covenant. The covenant between believers and Christ and his church includes both obligations and rights, and we hold that those obligations are those laid down in the Scriptures (that is, voluntary giving according to one’s means), and that those rights include a large and wide (but by no means absolute) right of conscience in stewardship. To conceive the vow in view in the typical meaning of the words without these further considerations would entail our denomination in a soul tyranny worthy rather of Rome than the proponents of the individual believer’s rights of conscience.
Tom Hervey is a member of Woodruff Road Presbyterian Church, Five Forks (Simpsonville), SC. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not of necessity reflect those of his church or its leadership or other members. He welcomes comments at the email address provided with his name. He is also author of Reflections on the Word: Essays in Protestant Scriptural Contemplation.
 “Do you promise to support the Church in its worship and work to the best of your ability?” BCO 57-5