PCA Membership Vows, Part 6
The fifth membership vow asks, “Do you submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace?” There is no doubt that submission and discipline have negative connotations in our current culture. Two images pop into my mind when I hear those words. One is of a bully holding your arm behind your back and demanding submission while taking your lunch money. The other is of a mother saying to her child, “Just you wait until your father gets home!” The fifth vow may carry with it the appearance of puritanical strictness or imposed governmental submission, but I assure you it involves neither of those things. We must remember that the vows are a beautiful progression and a description of the inward and outward working of the gospel. The progression has been building from one vow to the next, leading us from sin to the Savior, the process of sanctification to the support of the Church, and submission to God’s design for the Church. God’s design for his worshippers on earth is for them to gather together to hear his Word read and preached. He has made us one body that worships in purity and peace, grows in faith, and makes disciples of all nations.
To that end, we will use 1 Peter 5 and Hebrews 12 to think about two aspects of this vow. 1 Peter 5:1–4 says, “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” These verses present God’s design for the government of his Church. Men are called to be shepherds over the flock of Jesus. They are to have oversight among us and set godly examples so that we may grow in holiness. These men are called from our midst to be under-shepherds of the Great Shepherd. They are to endure with the Church, feeding us from the Word, pressing us toward repentance, while being chief repenters themselves. Our submission to them is not forced, but we submit because we see God’s goodness and providential care in his design for his Church. And most beautifully, the elders of the Church have been tasked to bring us to that time when Christ returns, and we receive the unfading crown of glory. It is a high calling to be an elder of the flock of Jesus, just as it is a high calling for us to be called the children of God. Within this dynamic, we see that they are spiritual fathers who bring us continually to the throne of grace. And in turn, it should be our delight within this spiritual government to have such watchful care given for our souls. Hebrews 13:7 says, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” We are called to remember this design and consider the ways in which these under-shepherds lead, and we promise to do this in the fifth vow.
Finally, within the description of the work of the elder, we see the primary way we are disciplined. They are to speak to us the Word of God. We are students and disciples of that Word, and to be a disciple is to be disciplined. We are disciplined as we hear God’s Word and respond to it. Hebrews 12 says, “Consider him who endured (Jesus Christ) from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted… My son do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” We respond to God our Father through the discipline that flows from hearing his Word and responding in obedience. We submit to the One who gave us grace in light of our sin—the one who saved us from his own wrath. And we may delight in his design because this is the way he carries us all the way home so that we may “share in his holiness.” Submission to his government and Word leads us to purity and peace. Thanks be to God that he is with us every step of the way from our salvation to our home with him!