Are Church Members Free Agents?

An HB Classic

Curt FloodOne 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]


  1. Thanks for the insightful post. I was just thinking today about the complex problem created when people come to church but never join. 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? No wonder our harshest critics think we are a bunch of hypocrites- we are because we’ve democratized our christianity and vote with our butts (which pew our butt sits in this week).

  2. “his 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”

    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?

    To quote a movie line; “attitude is a reflection of leadership.”


  3. I know you’ve already got a bunch of questions on here, but I was wondering if you could address the issue of how to do church discipline a little more (maybe in a future post). Let me explain. We all know that this mark of the church doesn’t mean much to most folks in the west, since anyone under discipline can just pack up and move to another church. You’ve done a good job at pointing this part out, but how do you propose we deal with that? It seems to me like the million dollar question of the day. 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? I suppose this is similar to David’s question and maybe a partial answer might look like something Sean is getting at, but I think there’s still more that needs to be dealt with. I think you’ve done a good job at pointing out the problem – pastor’s and laity aren’t convinced of a high ecclesiology – but what do those pastors do who are convinced of it? Any reading you could recommend on this would also be helpful.

  4. Wouldn’t a Pastor who shepherds 4-6 congregation during his life also be considered a free agent? Or is there free agency different?

  5. As a relative new-comer to the Reformed world (about 4 years) I receive with some irritation all the talk about “church shopping,” or as you’ve allegorized it, “free agency.” I was baptized into, joined, and submitted to the Assemblies of God in 1991. My wife and I left shortly there after for all the insanity of the modern “charismaniac” world – word of faith teaching, flamboyant sensationalism, emotionalism, anti-intellectualism, etc.

    Later, I joined a typical Evangelical “Just-like-every-other Community Church”; another cookie-cutter, purpose-driven bastion of therapeutic moralism with fill-in sermon notes. Through a friend I found an author named Jay Adams, who started me toward Reformed doctrine. I left the “community church” – indeed, I went “free agent” again – when, explaining the growth obsession, the pastor taught: “We count people because people count with God!” No thank you.

    I then landed at the local Christian Reformed Church. This year CRC has officially gone unisex (my word for egalitarian) in church leadership and by all accounts homosexuality is making substantial in-roads, too. Another CRC friend of mine sat stunned as her CRC brought in Oneness Pentecostals (an “apostle and prophetess” husband/wife team) to preach and prophesy over that church. Submit? No way… time to go “free agent” again, with zero apologies for breaking the membership covenant.

    I understand the church covenant to be much like the marriage covenant, including submission to the God ordained headship, but violable for the cause of adultery (think “biblion apostasiou” [Matt. 19:7]) when the covenant is apostatized — by either party. I would no sooner tell a woman to submit to her husband who has apostatized the marriage covenant through persistent adultery than I would tell her she is in any way bound to a church that persist in damnable heresies and practices.

    What I have to say is terse and in love: I and many others are now darkening the door of Reformed churches precisely because we’ve shopped, “free agent” style, not for therapy, but for Truth. There is a full blown resurgence of Reformed doctrine going on right now among young believers, disillusioned Evangelicals and many other segments, likely as a reaction to the endless cycle of vapid therapeutic fads of re-packaged save-yourself-from-yourself liberalism with a “family friendly” face.

    So when weary refugees from cross-less Christianity come to your church, see the sacraments honored, hear the ministrations of the Word rightly preached, take comfort in the Sola’s, and know that we have found sweet fellowship through in and through Christ, 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 be honest, many in the Reformed community look quite foolish when rightly decrying the “The Great Evangelical Disaster” (as Schaefer termed it) one minute, but decrying “church shoppers! free agents!” in the next breath. The uber-Reformed who grew up cutting their teeth on Reformed pews need to look around a bit before they mock their newly added members.

  6. Hi E,

    I rejoice that your journey led you to a Reformed communion. I’ve written about that on the HB.

    My answer is that prior to joining a Reformed congregation there is a good likelihood that you were not in a “true church” as confessed in Belgic Confession Art 29. In other words, what you left may have been congregations but, if they lacked the marks of a true church (the pure administration of the sacraments, the pure preaching of the gospel, the use of church discipline) then they were something other than a true church. I understand. I came to the Reformed churches from broad evangelicalism. Most of the Reformed people I know didn’t grow up Reformed.

    The concern in this series is Reformed folk who walk way from Reformed churches to non-Reformed communions. So the concern is for people taking the opposite journey you took.

  7. Looking forward to the next part, but in the meantime…

    Is “I moved across town” sufficient justification to (in cooperation with both sessions) transfer membership from NAPARC church to another?

    • Hey Rube,

      Generally, yes. “Across town” in LA or San Diego can mean a long drive. Further, and more to the point, it seems as if it is a matter of Christian liberty to be able to unite with a true church. On what ground would a session/consistory say to one not under discipline, “You may not unite that true church”?

    • I was thinking potentially on the grounds “we are family; you made vows to this session, not just to this denomination or NAPARC more generally.

      Not that I’ve ever heard of this happening to anybody, but I’ve wondered before if there is any principle that might be involved here; otherwise we are free agents, just within a smaller sphere of agency (likewise, most evangelicals would not consider their free agency to extend to Islam, or Mormonism, or even Rome).

      To push the earlier example towards absurdity, what if somebody lived in a place where travel time to N churches is pragmatically equivalent (say, Grand Rapids back when CRC churches were ubiquitous), and every few months solicited a transfer of membership to another church? Are churches of like faith “franchises”, like it doesn’t make any difference whether I buy my slurpee from one 7-11 or another?

  8. Rube,

    I believe that I’ve heard of cases where sessions have reasoned that since one made a vow to “this session” or “this congregation” that they could not transfer. This is not the historic Reformed view.

    If a family, for instance, became ecclesiastical ping pong balls, transferring back and forth or between churches constantly then a session/consistory would have a right on practical grounds to inquire as to what me happening behind the scenes but other wise membership vows are implicitly conditional.

    It would be unreasonable and even tyrannical for a session/consistory to refuse to dismiss/transfer a member in good standing to another true church, especially if the churches were ecumenically related. That could be tantamount to denying the status of the receiving congregation as a true church.

  9. I’ve been thinking about how a healthy 2 kingdoms doctrine goes along with this as well. So many do not look at the church as Christ’s spiritual, redemptive kingdom, but rather more as a place to offer their services and get a refill so that they can go about the real work of transforming culture “for Christ.” I know this sounds a bit superficial and many 1Kers do not think this way, but I’m talking about many who do not even have the categories but they do have presuppositions.

    • Aimee,

      It is important to recognize that we live in two spheres simultaneously and that the way we live in one is not necessarily appropriate in the other. It may be fine to surf the economy by moving fluidly from job to job. Surfing churches, however, is a bad idea. We do make consumer choices in a free market but our relation to the visible church is a little different. It’s true that we’re not compelled by the magistrate to go–and that’s a good thing–but it’s also true that we have a relation to the visible church that we do not have even to the magistrate. The magistrate protects us from criminals but the church is administering the keys of the kingdom.

    • Yes, Dr. Clark, that is what I was getting at. When we confuse the two, we also confuse the differing governments and our behavior as a citizen in them. Thanks for articulating.

  10. Rube, your ubiquitous slip brings up another point. Figuratively speaking, there is a church on every corner here in Little Geneva. That might appear to be a function of consumer religion (as in, we don’t like the carpet color over here so let’s plant a church with the right color over there). But it’s actually a function of an older sensibility in the other direction, that is to say, a more localist sense. When a church got too big it would plant another instead of continuing to inflate.

    Which reminds me of a joke about consumer religion. A man is shipwrecked on a desert island. He come across three huts on the beach. Another man emerges from one. The first man asks the second, “What are these huts?” The second man says, “The one I came out of his my home and the one next to it is my church.” The first man asks, “And the third?” The second man says, “Oh, that’s the church I used to go to.”

  11. Aimee, sounds like you are saying that preservationist 2k is healthier than transformationlist 2k. I agree.

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