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 of time, 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 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 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, catechized, expected to make profession of faith in due time, and if they refuse to make profession of faith they face discipline (meaning 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 a profession of faith, whether as baptized members or adult converts, renounce their free agency when they join a Reformed congregation. When Christians make a profession of faith in a Reformed congregation they take 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 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.

Submit And Submit

Above we began considering the membership vows we take when we join a Reformed church. Let us now consider what to means to submit and submit according to the fourth membership vow. We live in a rootless, drifting time. Jobs are transitory and our relation to them and to the very idea of vocation is changing. Where once people worked for the same company all their lives, today many people will change careers more than once and perhaps several times. With the advent of no-fault divorce, even marriage seems increasingly like a temporary relationship. The idea of church membership may even seem quaint. Thus, this is a challenging topic because it puts us at odds with the spirit of the age in a practical way.

The first part of submitting is general and 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 preachin’ and gone to meddlin.”

This vow, of course, is the one that is most often forgotten. Individuals take membership courses, read the catechism, confession, and Canons (the Three Forms of Unity), and are usually and rightly suitably impressed. They often unite with Reformed 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,” etc.). 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, 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) and 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. 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 won’t submit to the admonition of the elders and ministers” (if those officers are acting according to God’s Word). If they come to a member and admonish them to repent of some sin (e.g. adultery) and the adulterer refuses, the latter cannot plead, “But God brought us together.” No, God most certainly did not bring you 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 consistory 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. For example, congregations may call special services on days other than the Sabbath but the church has no authority to compel attendance to non-Sabbath-day services. Such services are useful and edifying but they are not taught or implied by God’s Word therefore attendance to them is a matter of liberty. Churches may sing uninspired songs or other elements (e.g. non-canonical responsive readings) but they cannot compel one to use them as the Scriptures neither teach nor require the use of non-inspired elements of worship.

This is one reason why we have multiple assemblies in our churches. If a consistory over steps its boundaries, the member has a right, and even a duty, to complain against that action first to the consistory, then if that fails, to classis, and if that fails, to synod. There is at least one striking case in recent years in our own federation where such action by a lay couple helped bring about significant reformation. The process is difficult and often painful, but it does work.

If, however, an assembly (consistory, classis, or synod) 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 URCNA congregation or 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 Article 29) is not contemplated in our church order. Why would one who has made profession of faith in a Reformed congregation, who has said, “The Three Forms of Unity 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 confesses the Reformed faith then, frankly, one should be subject to patient, gracious instruction and admonition. If that fails, then that one should be placed under discipline just as if one had committed a more obvious moral sin.

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 or food? Of course not. Why would you move to a place where there is no place to worship?

I realize that Christians find themselves in difficult circumstances. Sometimes people become Reformed and then find themselves abandoned where they are or they find themselves unable to find a confessional congregation. This is a grievous problem that requires pastoral wisdom. Persons in such a state should consult with the nearest confessional Reformed consistory (session) or minister to get advice as to what to do. It might require moving house and changing jobs or perhaps there is a church plant that could be considered.

The point of vow four is that, having married a confessional Reformed 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 a 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.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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16 comments

  1. This is a good and necessary article. Church hopping is becoming more prevalent in the reformed circles, and churches are changing their liturgy/music/government in order to keep people in the church.

    • A very sad fact throughout the Reformed “world”. Trying to keep people from leaving and thereby, buckling at the knees to accommodate sensational worship styles, and even preaching styles, to keep everyone happy and satisfied seems to be a malady spreading quite rapidly in the reformed circles. Are we, pastors, to blame I wonder? Have we failed by legislating devotion and so denied our people from loving God form their hearts and minds? Have we not reflected the reality of saving grace and the resultant “joy of Christ” as shepherds that are called to LEAD God’s treasured people to glorify Him and Enjoy Him? As the shepherd is, so the flock will also be, I wonder?!!!

      • Possible, but I think it’s more 2 Timothy 4:3-4, “itching ears”. People want to be titillated, they do not simply want the gospel anymore. They say they can’t worship, unless they have certain music, unless their emotions are engaged, unless the congregation is more loving, unless… either that, or they want no supervision. This is a huge concern for me, something we are seeing in our congregation.

  2. Many congregations are now trying to “reign in” members who have been avoiding live worship attendance in favor of Livestream or similar Web broadcasts which increased dramatically during the “pandemic.” Those video broadcasts also make it much easier for people to jump around from church to church if they don’t like what they see and hear. It’s another unfortunate consequence or side effect of the digital times in which we live.

  3. I know this will not be popular here, and I am not contending for any changes, but this is ultimately one of the consequences of the “American Experiment” which resulted in disestablishmentarianism. Even the fact that any Joe Schmo can start a “Church” and get tax exempt status, without any standards of compliance, is ridiculous and an overreach of the freedom of religion intended by our framers. Even the Baptists of England had to come up with a confession of faith to get approval by Parliament to do their thing.

    • We had free churches without free agency and we shouldn’t romanticize about the virtues of established churches. I lived under a state-church for two years. I got a glimpse of how marginal the free churches were and the challenges faced by the more faithful of the established churches. Everyone in the parish is a member with a certain right to the rites and privileges of the church whether they attended or not. One of the biggest challenges of the state-church system was always (and remains) church discipline. I don’t think it’s possible for a C of E congregation to discipline a tax-paying citizen, who with his taxes supports the church (whether he attends or not). The more faithful churches had to navigate these narrows very carefully indeed. Churches full of nominal Christians was the inevitable result of the state-church system. The Pietist reaction was the inevitable result (versions of it happened before Pietism per se, going all the way back to the Novationist and Donatist movements).

  4. Dr, Clark,

    I agree 100%. Definitely not romanticizing the State Churches. Do you think that often when free agency is exercised, the leadership of the Church regularly says “good riddance”? I think of almost everyone who has left our congregation over the years, excepting those who relocated to a different area, were really thorns in the leadership’s side. Always complaining and never satisfied. I know that every effort should be made to keep them faithful to their vows but in the end most congregations are better off without the drama. We have had some leave, go across town to another Church and then come back. Without fail they leave again.

    • William,

      Yes, there are blessed subtractions😂

      Even they should be transferred or at least dismissed to affiliate (as we say) so that they are in the care of some congregation.

  5. Another piece is where I find myself at present: becoming more deeply reformed theologically (esp w/ regard to the Regulative Principle), I have found myself convicted about various practices in my home church (PCA), yet find few options in the area. Scott, I actually had thought of emailing you as I find little in your writing (and teaching/preaching/podcasting) with which I disagree. I have met with a pastor in my home church & he appreciates my stance, but says he does not anticipate significant “reform” (my word) in our worship practice.

    The non-reformed believers have no understanding of covenant theology so I wouldn’t expect them to worry about ‘playing the field’ so to speak.

    • If only we could interest your session in listening & reading.

      Lots of pastors think (have been taught) that the only way to grow a church is effectively to adapt the revivalist model of worship. Most PCA pastors probably don’t know that they are doing that. Many have never seen an RPW service and thus it lacks plausibility to them.

  6. Apolo,
    I am an ordained minister in the PCA, and I wish I could offer you some hope, but I cannot. The PCA is, to my knowledge, the only Presbyterian church in history whose Directory for Worship does not have full constitutional authority (only the chapters on the sacraments have constitutional authority). If, when the PCA was first established in 1973, the founders had all agreed on the Presbyterian worship which you and I believe in, they would have given the DoW full constitutional authority, but they didn’t; Presbyterian worship is optional in the PCA, which is liturgically like Forest Gump’s box of chocolates (“You never know what you’re going to get.” An interesting study of the intrusion of Revivalism into American Presbyterian experience is Julius Melton, Presbyterian Worship in America: Changing Patterns Since 1787.
    T. David Gordon

    • Dr. Gordon (& others),

      I know you’re addressing ApoloDoc but thanks for chiming in.

      As an ordained minister in the PCA, I think you’re illustrating for us that sometimes it’s just more beneficial (sacrificial?) to be willing to live with the non-Reformed Lord’s Day worship practices in the PCA than to simply jump ship and seek greener grass elsewhere —perhaps in other NAPARC churches like the OPC or URC or even the RPCNA in some instances.

      If this is true for ministers like yourself, which I assume you might be a bit more aligned with the OPC in some matters that are lacking in the PCA and maybe even on the whole (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong), I imagine it’s equally as true for congregants.

      However, further reforming PCA congregants often find themselves in this dilemma—whether to remain in their somewhat broadly evangelical confessionally loose PCA congregation or to depart for one in which they’re more aligned and their conscience violated less—once they come to embrace more biblical and historic Presbyterian & Reformed worship and witness.

      It’s agonizing to seek to leave a gospel-preaching, Jesus-loving, sacrament-administering, discipline-practicing, prayer-filled PCA church which hits all the marks of a true church but may be less pure in its practice than the OPC church down the road (I speak from experience on this one).

      But a question for us all to consider is:

      Cannot a conscience-stricken PCA member, with the guidance and approval of his elders, humbly seek a transfer to a more committed body that upholds the practice of our standards more thoroughly and has a binding DPW that more faithfully reflects our standards, without getting the stink eye and being smeared with the “church hopper” label?

      If said PCA congregant no longer believes performative praise is required of the church to worship in Spirit and truth (in the sense in which a concert-like production engulfs many PCA churches today), that Psalms (yes those songs right there in the Bible for us to sing in corporate worship) ought to be sung congregationally (even if not exclusively but regularly), that women should not be doing the public reading of Scripture in worship nor leading the congregation in prayer, that creativity and newness and human ingenuity don’t equal enhanced worship but actually often sinfully distract—as well-intentioned and as good-hearted as it often is meant to be, that it’s not legalistic to have two worship services on Sunday or to seek to honor and keep the Lord’s Day (cf. 4th commandment), and that a very large part of a church’s witness is actually seen and displayed in its commitment to gather for corporate worship and in its efforts to plant more churches.

      The list could go on, and I know I’m painting with a fairly broad brush here—there are some PCA congregations that would loathe some of the above as well—but is it not the case that if the PCA keeps refusing to Reform in matters of practice (sticking to its guns on not enforcing adherence to the RPW in any way shape or form which is explicitly taught in WCF 21), it might be worth departing to another nearby NAPARC congregation where this stuff is at least on its conscience and seen more clearly in belief (binding DPW) and practice?

      Each congregant and even some disheartened PCA ministers will have to wrestle with that one I suppose, and speak to their sessions and presbyteries about this—but a word of caution: you might be told your disrupting the purity and peace of the church by seeking to ensure it in greater measure by asking that the church try to conform to what it confesses.

      May God conform us more and more to Christ’s image, and continue sanctifying and purifying the Bride of Christ until that last Day for the sake of His Son.

      PS: Writing like this makes me think the PCA definitely sees me as one of those “blessed subtractions” 😉!

      • Interesting take coming from the opposite side. I don’t think you would get the stink eye from a more relaxed counsel as far as discipline goes. You might get the stink eye from congregants who may believe that you think you’re ‘better’ than them. It all comes down to following God and his word in the best way you can on this earth.

  7. Brandon,
    Our primary commitment, it seems to me, is to the church catholic. None of us asked to be born into a moment in church history such as we find ourselves in here in America, where the rebellion against British rule in the colonial era quickly found a match in rebellion against ecclesiastical rule. Without any church-state restrictions, new denominations popped up in the early Republic like acne on a teenager (Dr. Clark is right; Nathan O. Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity is a must read).

    We therefore are faced with “options” that we wish we did not have, all things being equal. Each family (especially parents) must attempt to find, in an imperfect world, a church home where they can both bless and be blessed. In our part of western PA, we have an embarrassment of ecclesiastical riches; we have many fine churches in this area, and the NAPARC churches in our area (including the PCA churches, mostly) are committed to the regulative principle. Since the world is imperfect/fallen, I do not expect to find a “perfect” church home; rather, I make judgment calls about what is more or less negotiable.

    Also, my wife and I have enjoyed being parts of church plants several times in our 45 years together, and sometimes we stretch a little out of our comfort zone to aid in a new church getting started; the only other couple that has been at Grace Anglican (where we attend) since its first meeting fifteen years ago is the pastor and his wife. Ethan’s a terrific preacher; I believe in frequent communion (and will be administering it Sunday at a PCA work in Butler, then preaching in the evening at an OPC church in Harrisville); I love the old Book of Common Prayer, so I just pay no attention to the church calendar.

    • JP and Dr. Gordon,

      I appreciate both of your replies. I thought I was the one perhaps on the receiving end of that “stink eye” I mentioned, living on the eastern part of PA where we also have an almost embarrassment of riches in terms of NAPARC congregations but, as in most NAPARC areas, the PCA takes the cake for good or ill in these parts. WTS’ impact and influence is seen throughout many of the OPC and PCA congregations (along with Jack Miller and Time Keller probably more so seen in the PCA ones, obviously).

      But now I can sinply point out to my loving but confused and upset PCA friends that the Rev. Dr. David T. Gordon, PCA minister extraordinaire, finds himself worshipping in an Anglican church amid plenty of PCA ones because he too has had enough 🙂. I kid.

      Last but not least I’m glad you mentioned frequent communion as being important as well—something even some of our most ardent defenders of the RPW in NAPARC often undervalue as a means of grace worthy of frequent, if not weekly, Lord’s Day participation.

      Best to both of you brothers!

  8. Brandon,
    I have distributed in the past my brief (under 20-pages) paper on frequent communion (maybe I’ll send it to Dr. Clark, and see if his wizards can render my prose into digestible or intelligible units for HB), and one argument not in there, but which is pertinent, is the argument from RPW: If we believe we should only do in worship what God has revealed to be His will, unless an element is necessarily occasional (e.g. baptism), the presumption is that whatever we believe God has revealed to be His will is what we ought to do. “Do this in remembrance of me” was only said of the Supper. We have clearer grounds for it (a Dominical saying) than for any of the other things we do weekly. But our “liberal” Lutheran and Anglican friends are more “regulative” on this than we are…

    I also concur with J.P.; my experience has been that, if we explain ourselves, take a long time to discuss the decision (we took over a year to discuss the matter with our elders) and especially, ask our elders what we should do, we will not likely get the stinkeye. I only get the stinkeye from Bob Godfrey, and he assures me it is just on general principle…

    tdg

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