Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Vows Of Submission

I was looking back to the vows I took when I joined a PCA church, when I came across L. Roy Taylor's article entitled PCA: A Hierarchical Church?. In it he describes the nature of authority within the PCA, and the weight of the fifth and final vow of membership. This vow reads, "Do you submit yoursel[f] to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace?"

I should set the table by noting how the PCA's Confession treats the taking of vows. Chapter XXII of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCOF) states that oaths and vows are a swearing to solemnly call God to witness an assertion "to witness what he asserts, or promises, and to judge him according to the truth or falsehood of what he swears." Oaths are to be taken, it later says, in the plain and literal sense of the words.

In his article, Taylor says, "One of the major reasons for the formation of the PCA was to revert to a democratic Presbyterianism [from what is now the PCUSA]."

I admit that this has nothing to do with the Fifth Vow, the subject of this post. But I wanted to include this assertion that the PCA is democratic (as in, follows the will of the people). I've had people in PCA churches bitterly object to my making this assertion.

Taylor continues, "In recent court cases involving employment law, the PCA successfully argued that as a non-hierarchal denomination, local church pastors and local church staff members are not employees of a Presbytery or the General Assembly."

This gets closer to a point I'll get to -- for now, note that the particular 'church' at which I make vows is not, strictly speaking, the same being (i.e., entity) as the PCA.

"The PCA argued that the relationship of a PCA minister to a Presbytery is analogous to that of a lawyer with a bar association. The bar association examines the lawyer regarding expertise and character, but a law firm, not the bar, is the attorney’s employer."

Even further. The particular church at which I make vows is my representative (to follow the language of this analogy). I have no direct relationship to the PCA denomination, but only indirectly benefit from the order and structure it provides to my particular church.

"When a person joins a congregation he voluntarily takes a vow to submit himself to the government and discipline of the church (BCO 57-5.5)." And, "When members, ruling elders, deacons and ministers take such vows they voluntarily place themselves under the spiritual authority of the Church."

Now we're here: I voluntarily submitted myself to the government and discipline of the "church", that is, under the spiritual authority (there can be no higher kind of authority, by the way) of the "Church." My question is this: was this submission to the particular church, to the Presbyterian Church in America, or to Christ's Church with an unapologetic capital "C"? If Taylor's bar association analogy bears any weight, the middle option seems to be easily ruled out. But then, I am under the same authority as ministers (commonly called teaching elders in the PCA), and ministers are not members of particular churches, but of the Presbytery itself. So that seems to eliminate the particular church as the intended meaning of the vow. Finally, it doesn't seem that the vow can refer to the Capital "C" church, because we would disregard expressions of discipline from other sectors of Christianity out of hand (indeed, I think I know of one or more anathemas directed our way). I'm confused, but Taylor is good enough to flesh the meaning of the BCO's vows a little further.

"By taking the vows of membership or ordination one agrees to abide by the authority of the court of original jurisdiction and higher courts as well because of the spiritual connectionalism of the Church (BCO 11-3, 11-4). Once the higher court has handled the matter finally, there is, because of the vows they have taken and theological beliefs they have espoused, a moral responsibility (though not a legal obligation) to abide by the final disposition of the matter as long as they are members of the PCA. A person may think that he cannot in good conscience accept the final disposition of the matter after the complaint or appellate process is complete, in which case he may leave the PCA without coercion."

So it was the PCA to which I submitted? The client is bound by the dealings of the of bar association (to use his analogy) after all. Or is he bound at all? Taylor allows for (and his strikes me as a common view) departure from the denomination when the jurisdiction of the court, to which he vowed submission before God, renders a decision that conflicts with his own good conscience.

Perhaps we'd be better off to not vow at all than to scorn the submission we pledged when we believe a court acted out of line with Scripture?

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