Believers make their vows to the Church universal, and while they should be supportive of their local churches and not leave one lightly, nonetheless someone who transfers his membership to another local branch of the one Church is not guilty of infidelity to his PCA membership vows. Neither is the promise to submit to the church’s government a blanket promise of unyielding submission.
In a recent article at PCA Polity, Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) pastor Zachary Garris discusses the membership vows that all members of PCA churches take when they are accepted as members. His aim is to encourage a proper understanding of their solemnity, not only for their own sake, but also as part of a larger testimony to the truth in a society which is, alas, awash with insincerity, dishonesty, and self-seeking. His basic points are indisputable: a vow is a most solemn obligation, and there is a tendency in both church and society to neglect this somber truth. We must somewhat differ as to the particulars of his conception of the nature of the PCA membership vows, however.
Garris says that the fourth and fifth vows mean that members promise to “yield to the Session when it makes a decision that the member disagrees with (‘support the Church’ and ‘study its purity and peace’),” and that “transferring membership to another church for insufficient reasons is also a violation of these vows,” in addition to such clear violations as “promoting false teaching or factions in the church.” That entails obvious difficulties: who is to say what qualify as “insufficient reasons” for a membership transfer? One’s own conscience? The session of the church one wishes to leave? That of the one to which they are transferring? Acceptable reasons for leaving a local church are not enumerated in any authoritative document that the PCA recognizes, and it is likely that people differ widely in what they consider insufficient reasons to leave a church.
There is also the practical difficulty that a church that receives a member from another church ipso facto regards the member’s reasons for transfer as good, or at the least, as being a matter about which it has no business inquiring; the same might be said of a church that has been left when it grants a letter of transfer. One wonders what would happen if a church attempted to act upon Garris’ conception here and refused transfer to a member because it deemed his reasons were insufficient. Any attempt to implement an arrangement by which only sufficient reasons were regarded as faithful to one’s sworn responsibilities of membership would require a member to state his reasons for wishing to leave to the sessions of both the church being left and that one being entered, as well as for them to jointly assess whether the reasons were deemed valid.
This would entail great difficulties. What if the churches disagreed about their sufficiency? What if the member had a good reason for leaving which good manners or prudence caused him to conceal? There are many people who have left churches because they thought the leadership incompetent or because they felt they had been wronged by their failure of leadership in a crisis. Are we quite sure we wish to expose people to the unpleasantry of having to explain and possibly justify why they are leaving to both the church being left and that being entered? That seems like a fine way to empty our pews, not least because it would entail needless intrusiveness and subjection of the individual believer’s freedom of conscience to the church as institution, something we elsewhere deprecate explicitly – the first preliminary principle of our constitution says that “God alone is Lord of the conscience” and “the rights of private judgment in all matters that respect religion are universal and inalienable.” Precisely which local church to attend would seem to be a “right of private judgment” of utmost importance.
To be clear, Garris does not suggest that churches should begin refusing membership transfers or interrogating members that desire them. But ideas have consequences, and it is not unreasonable or unfair to ponder the implications of an idea, even one that is made somewhat in passing. And judging by the minutes of the General Assembly and the Standing Judicial Commission, PCA churches don’t need any further ideas about how to drive sheep from our fold by heavy-handed notions of how to exercise church authority.
Of greater concern is that the notion that one commits oathbreaking by leaving a church for insufficient reasons seems to proceed on a misunderstanding of the church as it is conceived in the PCA Book of Church Order (BCO). The BCO distinguishes between the Church universal and local churches by means of capitalization: the capitalized “Church” means either the Church universal or the PCA in its entirety, whereas the lower case refers to a local/particular church (e.g., BCO 1- 5; 2-3; 8-3; 11-4; and 13-9). BCO 57-5, where the membership vows are prescribed, uses the capitalized “Church,” meaning it does not refer to a local church but to the Church universal or the PCA as a whole. Exactly which is not clear from the text itself, but as will be seen below, this seems to be a reference to the visible Church universal of which the PCA is a part.
With this subtle but consequential stylistic variation Garris’ point about insufficient reasons falls apart. For as each local church is a branch of the one Church – BCO 2-3: “It is according to scriptural example that the Church should be divided into many individual churches” – and as one’s membership vow is to support the capital-c Church, then moving from one local church to another is not a sinful violation of one’s membership vows, but a perfectly legitimate use of one’s liberty that is commensurate with those vows. Indeed, the very concept of being guilty of breaking one’s membership vows by transferring between local churches for insufficient reasons is an impossibility, provided one transfers to a true church, that is, to another manifestation of the Church to which one has sworn support.
This is not, let it be carefully noted, the mere opinion of the insignificant and decidedly-not-an-expert author of the present piece; it is the explicit statement of the PCA’s current Standing Judicial Commission (SJC). In 2020 the SJC handled a case (Case 2019-06), in which a petitioner had been removed from membership without process on the ground that she had made clear that she had “no intention of fulfilling her vows to submit to the authority of the Session” in her response to an arraignment for the charge of “failing to submit to the government and discipline of the church.” Without getting too much into minutiae, the petitioner subsequently began attendance at a local Baptist church, but also appealed to Presbytery that her removal from membership was unconstitutional. The SJC ruled that her complaint was valid, and that the session had erred by “conflating the ‘not guilty’ plea with a statement definitively indicating that the Petitioner had no intention to fulfill her vows.” In addition, they said that:
The Session erred by failing to determine whether the Petitioner could fulfill the duties of membership in another branch of the visible church. BCO 38-4 [removal without process] requires a session to render a judgment on whether the member will fulfill membership obligations in any branch of the Church.
And again, that:
This component of review wisely affords a session the opportunity to evaluate a member’s actions and statements thoroughly, to determine, among other things, whether the member’s actions are applicable only in one local PCA church, or more broadly, to any branch of the Church.
The Session and Presbytery have confirmed that in the time since she made the BCO 40-5 report, the Petitioner has joined another branch of the visible Church, indicating at least some willingness to fulfill membership obligations in that branch. Our churches should conform to the provision of BCO 38-4 and examine whether a member will fulfill membership obligations in another church prior to carrying out the erasure.
In other words, joining another local church, even one in a different, non-Reformed denomination, satisfies the responsibilities of one’s membership vows. (Provided, of course, that the duties of attendance, peace-seeking, etc. are actually performed there.)
The same case leads us to a similar conclusion regarding Garris’ opinion that the fourth membership vow means one must “yield to the Session when it makes a decision that the member disagrees with.” The petitioner above had been accused of “failing to submit to the government and discipline of the church” because she had filed for a divorce that the session believed was without scriptural warrant and which they had counseled her to avoid. She disagreed that the divorce was unjustified. The SJC ruled that her complaint was valid, and in so doing asserted that the petitioner had a right to “consider, but respectfully disagree with, the Session’s conclusion” that she should not divorce her husband, and that such action “would not, in itself, be a violation of membership vow 5 or de facto evidence of ‘failing to submit to the government and discipline of the church.’” It further said:
A member’s responsibility is to seriously and respectfully consider the counsel. But there may be many instances where a Session advises it regards something as sinful, without the member sinning by not following the advice.
This later elaboration dealt with questions of conduct about which believers often differ, but which some believers sometimes elevate to the level of legal duty (the acceptability of alcohol consumption, how to observe the Sabbath, style of dress, etc.), and in it the SJC affirmed that one’s vow to submit to the government of the church is not absolute or unconditional, and that it does not involve a surrender of one’s own rights. And as one retains the right of exercising his conscience in the conduct of his or her own affairs, so also does one retain the right to dissent where it believes a session has sinned in its actions. This is inherent in the vow to study the church’s purity and peace and finds scriptural warrant in the admonition to test all things (Rom. 12:2; 1 Thess. 5:21), and in the example of believers confronting other believers when they do wrong.
Without impugning the bulk of Garris’ article, the above considerations lead us to politely demur from his two suggestions considered here. Believers make their vows to the Church universal, and while they should be supportive of their local churches and not leave one lightly, nonetheless someone who transfers his membership to another local branch of the one Church is not guilty of infidelity to his PCA membership vows. Neither is the promise to submit to the church’s government a blanket promise of unyielding submission (as Garris’ statement arguably seems to imply). Inherent in it is the understanding that one retains those rights of private judgment, conscience, and appeal to higher authority which the PCA so zealously asserts, and that there are occasions where wisdom, practical considerations, or the need to oppose sin will lead one to refuse assent to the actions of a local session, perhaps by leaving the local church in question. Charity commends hoping that Garris would agree with much of what has been written here, but a defense of the rights of PCA members required considering the actual content and probable implications of what he did write, not the presumably more responsible body of his doctrine on this point that did not appear in his recent article.
Tom Hervey is a member of Woodruff Road Presbyterian Church, Five Forks (Simpsonville), SC. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not of necessity reflect those of his church or its leadership or other members. He welcomes comments at the email address provided with his name. He is also author of Reflections on the Word: Essays in Protestant Scriptural Contemplation.
 From Book of Church Order chapter 57, section 5. Vow 4: Do you promise to support the Church in its worship and work to the best of your ability? Vow 5: Do you submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace?