Living Into the Vows We Have Taken

November 4, 2011

In yesterday’s post, I suggested that there is a mutuality in promise-keeping. Every church officer in the PCUSA answers questions for ordination committing oneself to trust Jesus Christ, abide by God’s Word, adopt the essential tenets of Reformed faith, further the purposes of the church, and faithfully serve the people therein. These are promises made to God, to the PCUSA church as a whole, and to the people in one’s worshipping community. The question is whether these “vows” (though technically the PCUSA does not call them such) are akin to a covenant which cannot be broken or an agreement that can be nullified under certain conditions. If the latter, then what would be those conditions?

If this arrangement is a covenant, then who are the parties of that agreement? In the marriage covenant, the man and the woman choose each other and commit to an exclusive, life-long relationship. But in ordination to church ministry, on one side is the individual making the commitment; on the other side is a tripartite recipient and respondent: God, the denomination, and the people of the local church. How are we to understand the commitments they make, and if they fail to live up to them, what happens to the agreement?

God will not fail to fulfill the requirements that justify our trust and commitment. The Scriptures from start to finish testify to God’s faithfulness, covenant love, empowering gifting, and gracious presence in the lives of those who serve him. God is pretty amazing. While he makes significant demands upon believers, God never gives them a job to do without also providing the power to carry it out. God can only be in the position to help us live into and live up to the vows we have taken as teaching and ruling elders and deacons. God also expects that no matter what, our commitment to him will remain secure and unwavering. In other words, we are obligated to keep God at the very center of all other covenants we make, or we wander off-center into idolatry. This is the primary commitment a Presbyterian minister makes; if this covenant fails, it is because we mere humans have fallen short and let go of God.

The commitment to the local church is not on the same order, and this is quite clear in the process that unfolds to identify, call, and install a minister of the gospel in a congregation. This arrangement, though sacred, is more like a contract in which two parties agree to some terms. The minister answers the nine constitutional questions, and the church members answer three (W-4.4006b) regarding acceptance of the minister’s leadership, the body’s encouragement, and functional obligations of support and authority. Provision is made for dissolving the call when either party decides the season of ministry is over. Though the relationship may ultimately be long-term, it is not eternal, and both parties understand this. Certainly a minister can violate the terms through misconduct or drifting beliefs, but the discipline of the church provides a way to correct or remedy such breaches.

The third recipient/respondent to our ordination vows is the sticky wicket. The denomination, the PCUSA is this case, is the corporate representation of the congregations and presbyteries that comprise it. Though a part of the whole, the PCUSA is not to be equated with the entire “Church of Jesus Christ.” When we make our vows, we are not making promises to the one, true, catholic, and apostolic Church, but to one branch of it. There are others, and in fact our Form of Government acknowledges that among those others might be one that is a better fit for an individual’s beliefs and ministry goals (F-3.0102). This statement is made without judgment and certainly no condemnation.

Unlike many Protestant denominations, Presbyterians are bound together by a common Constitution (the Book of Order and the Book of Confessions) which compiles and codifies our theological and polity distinctives. When “the body” (in this case, the PCUSA) acts by adding, amending, or deleting something in the Book of Order, the body is further defining itself.

A significant redefinition of the PCUSA is underway, and some like myself question whether this “other party” to our ordination vows is actually the same one to whom we uttered our promises. In the last twenty-four years since I said “I do” and “I will” to the constitutional questions, allowable belief and practice in the PCUSA, according to its constitution, has metamorphosed. Does its changes in anyway affect my commitment? This is the question, a troubling one, every church officer must address in the days to come.

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