This is the second in a series of articles on the vows of Presbyterian ministers and elders. For the first article see here.
Along with other churches and Christian bodies, the Presbyterian Church of Australia (PCA) holds its leaders to high standards. This begins with the vows taken when PCA ministers and elders take office.
The Basis of Union acts as the constitution of the PCA. (You can read about the Basis in the book Read in the Light, available at: https://eiderbooks.wordpress.com). This constitution has been developed into rules that shape the church’s structure and procedures. (You can find the rules here: https:/www.presbyterian.org.au/images/downloads, then select “GAA Code Book”).
The vows of ministers and elders are set by the General Assembly and can only be changed through a lengthy and careful process. They set the standard that is expected of ministers and elders and to which they are held accountable. When ministers or elders take office, they take these vows publicly and sign a document called the Formula. The vows and formula are in Chapter 6 of the GAA Code Book.
Here is the text of those vows. Elders do not take vows (v) and (viii).
(i) Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, the only rule of faith and practice?”
(ii) Do you own and accept the Westminster Confession of Faith, as amended by the General Assembly, and read in the light of the Declaratory Statement contained in the Basis of Union adopted by this Church on the 24th day of July, 1901, as an exhibition of the sense in which you understand the Holy Scriptures, and as a confession of your faith; and do you engage firmly and constantly to adhere thereto, and to the utmost of your power to assert, maintain and defend the same?
(iii) Do you own and accept the purity of worship as practised in this Church?
(iv) Do you own the Presbyterian form of government to be founded on the Word of God and agreeable thereto; and do you promise that through the grace of God, you will firmly and constantly adhere to, and to the utmost of your power, in your station, assert, maintain and defend the same?
(v) Are zeal for the glory of God, love to the Lord Jesus Christ, and a desire to save souls, and not worldly interests or expectations (so far as you know your own heart), your great motives and chief inducements to the work of the Holy Ministry?
(vi) Do you accept this Call, and promise through grace to perform all the duties of a faithful minister of the Gospel among this people?
(vii) Do you promise to give conscientious attendance upon the Courts of the Church, and to direct your best attention to the business thereof, doing all in the spirit of faithfulness, brotherly kindness, and charity?
(viii) Do you promise, in the strength of Divine Grace, to lead a holy and circumspect life, to rule well your own house, and faithfully, diligently, and cheerfully to perform all the parts of the ministerial work to the edifying of the body of Christ in love?
(ix) All these things you profess and promise through grace, as you shall be answerable at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ?
The Formula that is signed
I own and accept the Subordinate Standard of this Church, with the explanations given in the articles contained in the declaratory statement, as an exhibition of the sense in which I understand the Holy Scriptures, and as a confession of my faith. I further own the purity of worship practised in this Church, and the Presbyterian government thereof to be founded on the Word of God and agreeable thereto; and I promise that through the Grace of God I shall firmly and constantly adhere to the same, and to the utmost of my power shall, in my station, assert, maintain and defend the doctrine, worship, and government of this Church.
There is a pattern to these vows.
(i) Defines the supreme source of authority for the church and its office-bearers;
(ii) Explains how that authority is understood;
(iii) Defines how the church practises worship;
(iv) Defines how the church organises itself;
(v) Relates to the motives of office-bearers;
(vi) Relates to the duties of office-bearers;
(vii) Relates to participation in the governing bodies of the church;
(viii) Relates to the personal life of office-bearers;
(ix) Relates to the accountability of office-bearers.
Later articles in this series will discuss each vow. For now, note how ‘weighty’ they are, especially given the public setting where they are taken. Notice also the mention of grace – none can keep the viws in their own strength.
In part, the health of his church depends on its office-bearers taking their vows with sincerity and keeping them with integrity. The 1993 trial of Dr Peter Cameron for teaching contrary to the PCA doctrinal standards illustrates their value. Dr Cameron took the vows and signed the Formula before the Presbytery of Sydney in February 1991. He preached a controversial sermon in March 1992. The vows and Formula were the basis of the presbytery trial in March 1993 and his subsequent failed appeal to the PCNSW Assembly in July 1993. The vows protected the church.
As Ecclesiastes 5:4-5 reminds us, it is a serious matter to take vows before the Lord. Those taking vows of office do well to consider them carefully before opening their mouth. Likewise, churches asking people to take vows should ensure that they have been carefully briefed on their significance. Church members should be prayerful for those taking, or who have taken, vows of office. Let our ‘yes’ be yes.
– David Burke