Are Church Members Free Agents?

One of the biggest developments of the modern era of sports is the rise of the “free agent.” Under “free agency” an athlete is bound to a team only for a short period at the end of which he becomes a “free agent” and a sort of commodity on the open market in a given league. As a result most players move about freely during their careers playing for several teams. Free agency has been with us long enough that it is now a question as to which uniform a player will wear when he enters the hall of fame.

American evangelicals, however, could teach professional athletes a thing or two about free agency. They have been roaming from church to church a lot longer than ball players have been switching teams. This relative churchless-ness or serial membership is the product of a radical egalitarian modernist self-identity, doctrine of the church, and view of the Christian life. As Nathan Hatch noted in The Democratization of American Christianity,

the driving spirit of much of American Christianity has been the revolutionary American spirit of autonomy and leveling. Every man a pope. Every family a congregation.

For confessional Reformed and Presbyterian congregations this poses a significant problem. It is another manifestation of the problem of Christ and culture. American Christianity and particularly American evangelicalism is too often the child of the post-Revolutionary culture. This fact explains the almost incredible explosion of sects and denominations in the modern period. It was not Protestantism per se that fragmented the church into a million autonomous pieces. It was the Enlightenment and the revolutionary spirit.

The crisis for confessional Reformed and Presbyterian congregations is intensified by the fact that we fundamentally reject the notion that members of the congregation are, once they have been baptized or made profession of faith, free agents. Those baptized as members of the covenant of grace are members of the church. They are raised in the covenant of grace. They are catechized and they are expected to make profession of faith in due time and if they refuse they face discipline, i.e. they are placed under the law again with the hope and prayer that God the Spirit will use the law to create in one an appropriate awareness of one’s sin and misery and need for a Savior and with that a living trust in and union with Christ.

Just as covenant children are not free agents so also those who make profession of faith, whether as baptized members or adult converts, also renounce their free agency when they join a Reformed congregation. When a Christian makes profession of faith in a Reformed congregation he takes four vows:

  1. First, do you declare that you love the Lord, and that you desire to serve him according to his Word–to forsake the world, to put to death your old nature, and to lead a godly life?
  2. Second, do you openly accept God’s covenant promise, which has been signified and sealed to you in your baptism, and do you humbly confess that you are sinful and that you seek life not in yourselves but only in Jesus Christ your Savior?
  3. Third, do you sincerely believe the doctrine contained in the Old and the New Testaments, and in the articles of the Christian faith, and taught in this Christian church, to be the true and complete doctrine of salvation, and do you promise by the grace of God steadfastly to continue in this profession?
  4. Fourth, do you promise to submit to the government of the church and also, if you should become delinquent either in doctrine or in life, to submit to its admonition and discipline?

The first vow asks whether one is a Christian inwardly, whether one is repentant. The second vow asks whether one is believing, whether one has moved beyond mere external membership in the covenant of grace to appropriate for oneself the substance of the covenant of grace (i.e. Christ and his promises) by free divine acceptance, through faith alone (sola gratia et sola fide). The second vow presupposes that the catechumen is a baptized member of the congregation. In the case of mature converts the language is slightly different, but in either case the question is whether the candidate for membership professes a personal faith in the living Savior and in the triune God in whose name he or she was baptized.

The third vow means that, as a member of a Reformed congregation, one subscribes the Reformed faith. There is no “mere Christianity” in a Reformed congregation nor should there be two tiers of members, those who profess only the Creed and those who actually profess the Reformed faith. The faith taught in “this Christian church” is that revealed in God’s Word and confessed by the Reformed churches in the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort, and the Westminster Standards.

There are three aspects to true faith: knowledge, assent, and trust. In effect these questions ask the candidate to profess that he or she knows the faith, agrees to the truth of the faith, and believes the faith personally and heartily.

Then there is the fourth vow. This is the one that, from my experience as a pastor, many do not seem to grasp fully. Consider it again:

…do you promise to submit to the government of the church and also, if you should become delinquent either in doctrine or in life, to submit to its admonition and discipline?”

To married folk who used traditional wedding vows, this language might ring a bell. It is not far from “love, honor, and obey….” There are two parts: to submit and submit. First the candidate promises before God and the church to submit to the government of the church generally, i.e. to submit to the leadership exercised graciously and lovingly by the elders and pastors. In the second part of the vow the candidate promises to submit in the specific case of church discipline.

It is to these two parts of the vow four that we now turn.


As a people Americans are a stubbornly independent lot. This nation began with a revolution and that spirit continues to animate us in ways of which we are not always conscious. As valuable as that independent spirit might be for civil politics it needs to be questioned in the life of the visible church. One expression of our independent spirit is our reluctance to bow the neck and submit to church authority, under God’s Word. Church growth experts counsel churches not to advertise their denominational membership because it is a “turn off” to American Christians, who like to think that each congregation is utterly autonomous and independent from all others and under the control of the congregation itself.

Against this cultural backdrop comes the fourth vow of membership taken in most confessional Reformed churches says:

…do you promise to submit to the government of the church and also, if you should become delinquent either in doctrine or in life, to submit to its admonition and discipline?

There are two parts to this vow: submit and submit. The first part is general the second is specific. The first part is relatively easy and the second part is relatively more difficult because it is more specific. The first part of the vow requires members to submit generally to the government of the church. The second requires members to submit in the case they are particularly called to repentance and faith for a specific sin. This is when the church has “quit preaching and gone to meddling.”

This vow, of course, is the one that is most often forgotten. Folk take membership courses, read the catechisms and confessions and are usually impressed. They often unite with Reformed and Presbyterian churches in the flush of enthusiasm for the new found freedom of sola scriptura and sola gratia and sola fide. For some new members it is the first time they have ever been a part of a historic Protestant church. For others it is the first time they have been part of an organized congregation, and for others membership in a Reformed congregation means freedom from oppressive moralism and legalism in the Christian life (“don’t touch,” “don’t taste”). Sometimes people unite with confessional Reformed congregations on the rebound from bad relationships with other congregations.

In these sorts of cases candidates for membership do not always stop to consider the implications of the fourth vow. The first thing to understand about vow four is that the church only acts ministerially. That is, according to the Protestant understanding of the Bible, Christ has endowed the visible institutional church with real authority but that authority is limited by the Word of God and that authority is not magisterial but ministerial.

The church saying something does not make it so. The church only speaks according to the Word of God and only has authority insofar as she speaks truly from the Word. The church only recognizes what is. Thus, in the case of church discipline, the when a consistory (the assembly of elders and ministers in a local congregation) makes a judgment that one has left the faith and is impenitent (refusing to repent and believe) an announces that fact in the sentence of excommunication, the church saying so does not make it so. The church binds and looses but only ministerially, only in recognizing what is and in submission to and recognition of the teaching of God’s Word.

Nevertheless, Christ, the head of the church, has instituted real offices, to be filled with actual, sinful human beings, who must interpret and apply God’s Word, as confessed by the Reformed churches, to particular situations. Those offices are endowed with authority to make ministerial pronouncements about what God’s Word says. In other words, Christ is the head of the church but he administers his kingdom through subordinates: ministers, and elders.

Therefore, it is impossible for a member to say, “Well, I’m following Christ but I will not submit to the admonition of the elders and ministers” if those officers are acting according to God’s Word as confessed by the churches. If they come to one and admonish one to repent of adultery and the sinner refuses, the latter cannot plead, “But God brought us together.” One may not plead one’s bad interpretation of providence over against the clear teaching of God’s Word: “You shall not commit adultery.” To refuse the admonition of the consistory in this case is to refuse Christ himself. This is true when the minister preaches the law and the gospel and calls people to repentance and faith. These words are Christ’s words. To refuse them is to refuse the Christ who gave them.

When members finish the a new members class or when catechumens finish their instruction and appear before the elders and minister(s) to make profession of faith, they are entering into a binding relationship that removes their free agency.

Does this mean the the believer has no liberty whatever? Not at all. It has already been mentioned that the authority of the church is limited by God’s Word. The church cannot require one to do anything contrary to the Word and, as touching worship, the church may not ask or require anything of anyone that is not expressly or implicitly commanded in God’s Word.

This is one reason why we have multiple assemblies in Reformed and Presbyterian churches. If the elders overstep their boundaries the member has a right and even a duty to complain against that action first to the elders and then, if that fails, to a broader regional assembly and, if that fails, to a broader assembly. The process is difficult and often painful but it does work. If, however, an assembly (consistory, session, classis, presbytery, or synod/general assembly) is speaking according to God’s Word, members are bound to submit.

If for some reason, however, one chooses to leave a congregation for another, one’s options are limited. One may seek dismissal to another confessional Reformed or Presbyterian congregation. Asking for dismissal to a non-Reformed congregation or to a congregation that does not have the marks of a true church (Belgic Confession Art 29) is more complicated. Certainly one would want to sit down and discuss the particulars of the situation before taking action. In general terms, why would one who has made profession of faith in a Reformed congregation, who has said, “God’s Word as summarized in the the Reformed confession is my faith. I want to be united formally to this congregation and to be under the oversight of ministers and elders” later say, “I wish to be dismissed to the care of a congregation that denies the faith I professed when I joined the congregation?” If one’s views have changed and one no longer confess the Reformed faith then, frankly, one should be subject to patient, gracious instruction and admonition.

This also means that members should take care of their souls when they change employment or move house. Frequently it seems to be that economic considerations trump the spiritual so that Christians find themselves in a place with no congregation and no means to plant one. This is, to be sure, highly problematic. Would you move to a community where there was no oxygen? Would you move to a community where there was no food? Of course not! Why would you move to a place where there is no place to worship?

Nevertheless, Christians sometimes find themselves in difficult circumstances. Sometimes it is simply unavoidably necessary to move to a place where there is no confessional Reformed or Presbyterian congregation. Sometimes people become Reformed and then find themselves abandoned or they find themselves unable to find a confessional congregation. This is a grievous problem that requires pastoral wisdom and patience. Persons in such a state should consult with the nearest confessional Reformed or Presbyterian elders or minister to get advice as to what to do. It might require moving house and changing jobs or perhaps this is an opportunity to work and pray toward the planting (establishment) of a new confessional Reformed/Presbyterian congregation?

To conclude this part: the point of vow four is that, having married a confessional Reformed or Presbyterian congregation, as it were, one is no longer free to play the field. Making profession of faith is not dating or courting. It is marriage. If a divorce is necessary there must be grounds (adultery or desertion) and those grounds must be manifest. This means profession of faith and union with a true congregation is a momentous and solemn act not to be taken lightly and not to be set aside without the most grave reasons. To simply walk away from that relationship, as with marriage, is to invite—indeed it is to require—admonition and even discipline by the congregation.

Questions and Answers

In the last part we consider some of the questions raised by the first two parts above.

David asks,

How are we to preform church discipline to believers (for their own spiritual good) when they are not members of our congregation or can simply start going to the church down the block?

Floating Christians cannot be disciplined. They have disciplined themselves by virtue of removing themselves from true congregations (Belgic Confession articles 28–29) and from the ordinary ministry of the means of grace. If Cyprian, the Belgic Confession, and the Westminster Standards are correct, that “outside of the church there is [ordinarily] no salvation” then these floating, nominal Christians are placing themselves in spiritual jeopardy. How can one claim to be a member of Christ without being a member of his body the church and how can one claim to be a member of the invisible church without being a member of the visible church where believers (members of the church considered as the church invisible) are found?

Sean asks,

Is there any consideration that the elders of a church have to be worthy of being submitted to? And should they abuse their posts, they abdicate their authority? Aside from gross sexual sin, I rarely see elders brought under discipline or called to account for incompetent and slothful leadership?

There is at least one false premise in the question. The first question is not whether the elders are “worthy” of submission. The first question is whether a congregation has the marks of a true church. Is the “pure gospel” preached? Is there a “pure administration” of the sacraments? Is discipline exercised? These functions are discharged by sinful officers. If those officers have disqualified themselves by gross sin, they should find themselves under discipline and removed from office. If we predicate our submission to elders and ministers on the degree of their sanctity we shall have accepted the Donatist view that the efficacy of ministry of the church is dependent upon the personal qualities of the minister. This is contrary to Philippians 1:15–17.

The validity of the preached gospel and the administration of the sacraments and the use of discipline is grounded in the promises attached to the gospel by God himself and the authority given to the church as an institution by the Lord himself.

If elders or ministers show themselves to be incompetent or sinful in the conduct of their office the laity have every right (and even duty) to complain against them to the session (consistory) and should that fail then the complaint should be laid against them to a broader (or, in presbyterian terms, higher) assemblies. If the assemblies of the church(es) do not agree, then perhaps you are using an unbiblical standard of judgment? If they agree, then you have served the church well.

Ben asks,

…how to do church discipline…since anyone under discipline can just pack up and move to another church. …Do you talk to other pastors in the area to try to get them on the same page before you have to put someone under discipline? Do you just rely on a strong ecclesiology, hoping that the Spirit will work in the hearts of those who might later come under discipline?

This is indeed the “sixty-four thousand dollar question.” I have faced this as a pastor many times. If people flee to a broad evangelical congregation there is not much probability that the leadership of that congregation will be much interested in hearing from the local “TR” (truly Reformed) congregation—at least I have not had much success in this area.

If, however, they flee to another Reformed/Presbyterian congregation then we have a right to expect that the other consistory (session) will cooperate with your efforts to corral a straying lamb. I’ve generally found other confessional Reformed and Presbyterian pastors and elders to be sympathetic and helpful. If, for some inexplicable reason, a congregation with which you have ecumenical relations is uncooperative then a complaint would be appropriate. If they are disregarding your discipline then perhaps they are disregarding the discipline of other Reformed congregations also?

In the former case, if someone has fled discipline, the only thing to do is to proceed with discipline as warranted by the case. I think your instincts are correct, to act in a churchly manner, and to trust in the Spirit to do his work as people are placed under the law with the hope that they will be driven back to Christ and his church.

E complains that

…I and many others are now darkening the door of Reformed churches precisely because we have shopped, “free agent” style, not for therapy, but for Truth. …PLEASE do not start mocking the “free agent” process that lead us out of the sewers of moralism and post-modernism bequeathed by Finney and subsequent ilk.

To which I reply:

I rejoice that your journey led you to a Reformed communion.

We cannot, however, assume that the assembly from which people have fled is equivalent to a rightly ordered church. Not every congregation that calls itself a “church” is actually a church. There are three marks of a true church: the pure preaching of the good news, the pure administration of the (two) holy sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) and the use of church discipline. If a congregation from which someone flees lacks one or more of those marks then one has not become a “free agent” but rather a refugee looking for shelter. There is a great difference between a refugee and a free agent.

Our culture says we are free agents and the way many American Christians live their lives seems to suggest that it is easy and natural to be a free agent but it is not how Scripture speaks. The biblical conception of the church is one of a disciplined assembly of Christ-confessing believers, making use of those means instituted by the Lord, the preaching of the gospel (Rom 10), the sacraments (Matt 28:18–20), and church discipline (Matt 16 and 18).

Ours is a fluid age in which everything seems to be in flux but the Christian faith is not ever-changing. God’s Word is not ever-changing and the church is not ever-changing. Nothing symbolizes the permanence of our relation to the visible church than the sacrament of baptism: it is a ritual death (Col 2:11–12; Rom 6). It is an identification with Christ’s death, his circumcision and baptism, as it were, on the cross for us. To be circumcized/baptised is to be cut off from our old life and identified with a new life in Christ.

In a similar way, the Lord’s Supper testifies to our union and communion with Christ, by grace alone, through faith alone, by the Spirit. The Supper is a solemn, joyful, deliberate communal meal not a drive-through for fast-food. The Supper presupposes a genuine relation, stable between believers (1 Cor 11).

It is not as if one could never move from one congregation to another. We have Christian liberty under God’s Word. Commitment is not tyranny. Nevertheless, we are not free to abandon the visible assembly that Christ established and to which he committed the ministry of his Word and sacraments. Freedom is not free agency.

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