One of the concepts which has figured prominently in the post-Plenary Assembly discussions is “Ordination Vows”. To the best of my knowledge there is no such concept in Scottish Presbyterianism; the phrase is entirely foreign to our practice. In Acts of the General Assembly 1648-1842 the word “vow” doesn’t occur once; and the only significant occurrence of the word “oath” refers to the Oath taken by the Sovereign to maintain the Church of Scotland. In the Free Church Practice, again, there is not a single reference to a vow; and the only oath (apart from the Oath of Purgation) is the vow taken by witnesses giving evidence in cases of discipline. This oath is in a very explicit form: “I swear by Almighty God….” There is nothing remotely resembling this phraseology in the Forms for Licensing, Ordination or Induction.
The idea of “Ordination Vows” is likewise entirely absent from Bannerman’s Church of Christ and from Macpherson’s The Doctrine of the Church in Scottish Theology.
There was a good reason for avoiding reference to oaths and vows in this connection. As the Confession of Faith indicates, they were viewed as especially solemn elements in religious worship and as a result our fathers shrank from putting men on oath except in situations of exceptional gravity. It never seems to have occurred to them to put ministers on oath when merely affirming their commitment to human documents such as the Confession of Faith or to the “decrees of councils” (including such councils as the General Assembly and the Westminster Assembly). Such “decrees” could not be sworn to, because they were in principle provisional, and had to be kept under constant review in the light of Scripture. No one can be sworn to life-long and unquestioning loyalty to uninspired materials of purely human formulation.
The Westminster Confession devotes a whole chapter (Chapter XXII) to the subject of Oaths and Vows. The crucial element in an oath or vow, according to the Confession, is the solemn invocation of God as witness to the undertaking given. This carries with it the implication that the vow-taker calls down on himself the divine curse should the undertaking be broken: “the person swearing solemnly calleth God to witness what he asserteth or promiseth; and to judge him according to the truth or falsehood of what he promiseth.”
The two words, “oath” and “vow” mean the same thing, according to the Confession. Both are promises or assertions sealed by an appeal to God as witness. In actual usage, an oath tends to mean a sworn promise made to human beings: for example, a witness taking the oath in a court of law solemnly swears in God’s name to tell the court the truth. A vow is usually a promise or undertaking given to God, citing God himself as witness to its sincerity.
At no point in Free Church Practice is a Licenciate or an Ordinand put on oath or required to swear a solemn vow. A glance at the Formula and at the Questions to be put to Probationers etc. will make this plain.
If we don’t vow, what, then, do we do?
First, we DECLARE our sincere personal belief in the whole doctrine contained in the Confession of Faith, etc.
Secondly, we APPROVE of the general principles contained in the Claim of Right of 1842 and the Protest of 1843.
Thirdly, we PROMISE that we shall assert, maintain and defend the doctrine, worship, government and discipline of the Church.
Fourthly, we SUBSCRIBE the Formula, signing it in the presence of the congregation, as has been required in the Church of Scotland since 1711.
We declare, we approve, we promise and we subscribe. But at no point do we vow.
Divorcing the church
What of the objection that if Free Church ministers are not bound by their ordination vows married couples could as easily argue that they are not bound by their marriage vows. This is disingenuous. Our word/promise is binding even when it is not a vow, though the avoidance of the word ‘vow’ reflects the reluctance of our fathers to raise a breach of promise to the level of blasphemous perjury.
Keeping the marriage metaphor, however, consider the Jewish position on divorce. In essence, divorce was permitted when one or other partner (in Jewish culture, the wife) broke the marriage vows. But what constituted a breach of vows? There were, notoriously, two schools of thought, one hard-line and one liberal. The hard-line school permitted divorce only in the event of a serious breach of the vows (adultery, for example). This would mean that divorce is seldom, if ever, justified. The more liberal school permitted divorce on the most frivolous grounds. For example, if the wife burnt the soup that was a breach of her marriage vows, and justified divorce.
What is the relevance of this to us? Simply that some among us seem to be of the view that it is a simple, trivial matter to divorce a church; specifically, that the decision of the Plenary Assembly to permit congregations to use hymns in public worship was such a serious breach of the Church’s vows that divorcing her is fully justified.
Is this not the equivalent of divorcing one’s wife because she burnt the soup? Even in the case of adultery, divorce was never mandatory, only permitted. It never occurred even to Drs Begg and Kennedy that they should divorce the Church simply because she adopted a hymn-book. Theologically, our marriage to the church is ‘until us do part’.
What’s involved in ‘Ordination Promises’?
It is also pertinent to ask, What is the extent of the commitment given in our Ordination Promises? It sometimes seems as if they comprehended only ‘purity of worship’. This is far from being the case.
By far the most important thing is that every ordinand (including elders and deacons) is committed to the whole doctrine of the Confession of Faith. This is no small matter. The Confession is a comprehensive and sometimes highly technical document, and Dr William Cunningham, when Principal of New College, used to express his sense of relief that he was no longer involved in ordaining elders and deacons because this would require him to ask them to subscribe to the Confession: something he thought they were in no position to do, After all, he said, the whole point of a four-year theological curriculum was to put men in a position where they could subscribe to the Confession in an intelligent and well-informed way.
How many know that by becoming deacons they are subscribing to, for example, the doctrine of limited atonement? How many know what that doctrine means? And how many know where to find it in the Westminster Confession? In all probability, many office-bearers unknowingly hold opinions at variance with the Confession of Faith; or, at least, are ignorant of what exactly they have signed up to.
The other thing that ministers, elders and deacons promise to uphold is the Presbyterian polity of the Church. This promise is couched in such terms as to leave no room for misunderstanding:
Do you promise to submit yourself willingly and humbly, in the spirit of meekness, unto the admonitions of the brethren of this Presbytery, and to be subject to them, and all other Presbyteries and superior judicatories of this Church, where God in His providence shall cast your lot?
This is not a promise to submit to church courts when you agree with them. It is a promise to submit to the will and judgement of the courts as expressed by majority vote. In Presbyterianism, no individual is superior to another. But the court (Presbytery) is superior to the individual. In effect, the Presbyteries are bishops to each minister; and the Presbyteries operate under the supervision of, and subject to review by, the General Assembly.
The minister’s obligation to his charge
Ministers also promise ‘to perform all the duties of a faithful minister of the gospel among this people’ (underlining mine). Behind this lies the insistence of the founding fathers of Presbyterianism that the pastoral bond between minister and congregation could not be broken simply by decision of the minister. No minister, wrote Alexander Henderson, may, ‘after his entry, desert his charge, or remove himself to another Congregation at his own pleasure’. Only the church, through its courts, could authorise a translation; and any desertion of a charge was regarded as an extremely grave misdemeanour.
Purity of worship
But ministers also promised to adhere to the ‘purity of worship as presently practised in this church’. This phrase has only the most minimal reference to what sort of ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ we sing. Its original purpose was to eradicate the ceremonies, vestments and other innovations introduced by the prelates and curates during the Episcopal ascendancy between 1660 and 1690, and to call the church back to the form of worship prescribed by the Westminster Directory for Public Worship (successor to Knox’s Book of Common Order). This Directory had little to say about what psalms and hymns we should sing, and certainly no dire warnings against the dangers of using ‘uninspired materials of praise’. Nor did it want uniformity in every detail. Unlike the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (which it was designed to replace) it allowed considerable discretion to ministers, insisting only that ‘there may be a consent of all the churches in those things that contain the substance of service and worship of God’.
Where they were firm, however, was in prescribing a ‘common order’ for Baptism, the Lord’s Supper and the Solemnisation of Marriage: all matters on which our practice across our churches today is in a state of chaos. They also laid down rules for the Burial of the Dead: rules which reflected the general Puritan and Scottish view that funerals were not religious services.
Some have tried to make merry with the view that men might be allowed to take these promises (‘vows’) ‘in their own sense’. Yet such an approach (agreement through ambiguity) would be no new thing. There were certainly moments in the Westminster Assembly when the divines adopted forms of words which each took in his own sense. This was also true (of necessity) of our own 1932 Act, proscribing the use of ‘uninspired materials of praise’. What did this mean? It’s hard to avoid the impression that there was a deliberate ambiguity, admitting of different interpretations. Did this allow the singing of paraphrases? Did it apply only to worship within the borders of the Free Church, thus allowing a man to lead worship in hymn-singing churches (or to attend the Keswick Convention)? Was the Magnificat (the song of Mary in Luke 1:46-55) inspired? And if, as Calvin and Luther believed, a sermon which simply explains the word of God is itself the word of God – is it equally true that a spiritual song which faithfully expresses New Testament teaching is also the word of God?
What damaged us was not only the modification of our ‘constitution’ by this innovative Act (the Reformed church in Scotland had done without it for almost 400 years), but the fact that some brethren demanded that everyone accept their own interpretation of the Act. That reflects a fundamental divide between those who want a church which is as exclusive as possible (admitting only those who share our personal views) and those who want a church which is as inclusive as possible (admitting and retaining any minister prepared to sign our Formula sincerely and intelligently).
Paul laid down (First Corinthians Thirteen) that love must govern us in our use of spiritual gifts. Equally, love must govern us in our interpretation of Ordination Promises. We must take them in the sense which allows us to keep the fellowship of as many brethren as possible.
Love will not by itself make a church. There must be truth as well. But we have no latitude to choose between the one and the other. We have to truth it in love (Eph. 4:15).