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 significant 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 churchlessness 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 Reformed 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 wasn’t Protestantism per se that fragmented the church into a million autonomous pieces. It was the Enlightenment and the revolutionary spirit.
The crisis for Reformed 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:
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?
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?
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?
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, sola gratia et sola fide, i.e. Christ and his promises. 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, and the Canons of Dort.
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: “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?” To married folk who used traditional wedding vows, this language might ring a bell. It’s 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 will return in the next part.
[This HB Classic was originally published on the HB in April, 2008]