My wife and I had an experience that stirred and energized my thinking about church membership vows, which we took at a particular church. It awakened some new insights regarding the implications of vows in general, but especially as it relates to church membership and church leadership. I now believe that they are not only unnecessary, but not supported by the NT. I further believe that vows give church leaders an enforcement of power that is not only unnecessary, but also unsupported by the NT.
Many churches require that each baptized believer take vows (covenant or promise) to become a member of their church. It’s a fairly common practice. But are they biblical? In other words, do we see any instructions for it in the New Testament (NT)? Do we see it practiced in the NT? Many churches don’t see it. For example, Calvary Chapel does not have any kind of formalized membership for believers. You’re accepted as a member if you’re there regularly and participate in their ministries. Other churches, where the members have voting privileges, simply vote to accept believers as members as they stand up front before the congregation for membership, as they profess Christ as their Lord and Savior. Other churches, with the prospective members standing in front of the church, may simply require them to acknowledge that they will be expected to live for Christ, serve in the church, give financially to the church, follow the lead of the elders, etc. Those are not vows, but merely an acknowledgement of what will be expected of them as members. If I’m not mistaken, I think I was in one or two churches that did it this way. All these churches may or may not require a membership class or classes prior to becoming members. These classes are for the purpose of educating the prospective members of what their church is all about, particularly as it pertains to their doctrinal positions. Which I think is fine, even wise, so that the interested parties know what kind of church it is that they’re considering for membership.
In regard to churches that require believers to take vows for church membership, the vows basically consist of the following:
“Do you vow (promise) before God and the members of this church to live for Christ, practice regular church attendance, serve in the church, give financially to the church, love and pray for the members and elders of the church, and submit to the leadership (elders) of the church? If so, say ‘I do.’”
It will vary from church to church, but I think that generally covers the typical vows that must be taken for membership in these churches. The question is, are vows for church membership biblical? The answer is no, they are not biblical. In this article I will make the case against the practice of vow-taking for membership. I will discuss not only the absence of such a practice in the Bible, but I will explain the implications of it, particularly in the context of church leadership.
Perhaps we can agree that church vows are not merely to each other, but primarily to Christ, who is Head of the Church. It’s before Him that we make these vows to each other as an assembly in His name, and not merely between ourselves. Therefore, whether we make these vows before Him or directly to Him, from my perspective it’s a distinction without a difference. They’re binding either way, and God holds us accountable either way. If church vows were not so serious and binding — whether before Him or directly to Him — they would not be used. Speaking from personal experience, it’s something that weighs upon me either way. I have a problem with this doctrinally, whether these vows are made to each other before Christ, or directly to Him. It’s this perspective that you’ll need to keep in mind throughout this article.
As it pertains to vows to God in general, it’s an Old Testament (OT) practice. Not a New Testament (NT) practice. Paul was under a vow (Acts 18:18), but he was a former pharisee deep in the Jewish religion and culture. It’s understandable that some of what he practiced before he came to Christ would carry over afterwards, for in the early days of the church there was a lot of discussion about what they were to apply from the OT (and continues to this day!)—however, I personally doubt if Paul had any questions about it. Furthermore, we don’t know the circumstances surrounding this vow. It may have been one of those situations where he “became as a Jew, in order to win Jews” (1 Cor 9:20). We just don’t know anything about it. So we certainly cannot use Paul as an example of practicing vows under the New Covenant.
I’m not saying vows are wrong, necessarily, it’s just not taught in the NT as something we’re to practice. Paul himself did not teach the practice of vows. Therefore, I believe vows in general are unwise. It’s especially important to point out that vows are not taught in relation to church membership (whether to God, or to each other before God). Since it’s not taught in the NT, it’s bewildering to me why any church would impose vows as a requirement for membership (whether to God, or to each other before God). In this case, I believe vows are wrong (unbiblical). Nowhere in the NT do we see vows required for membership in a local assembly. There are no instructions for it, nor are there any examples of it. This is a man-made, extra-biblical practice. As with the rest of the Christian life, the NT pattern for church membership should be followed—which requires only that one profess Christ as your Lord and Savior and be water baptized.
Think about this, what reason could there possibly be to put our devotion to Christ and His will under the umbrella of a vow? When we come to faith in Christ, it’s with the understanding that we are turning from our sins to live for Jesus. It’s with the understanding that we are committing our lives to serve a new Master. There’s no biblical support to turn this into a promise (vow) to keep, when the Holy Spirit has already created a change of heart within us. He’s given us a new desire to follow Christ and to live according to the Scriptures that were written and given to us by the same Spirit of God. These vows (promises, covenant) turn this work of grace into an unnecessary binding, the same type of binding that the law creates. Vows enslave the same way the law does (Gal 3:23). And as a reminder, vows were practiced under Old Covenant Law. Grace and vows are not compatible. It’s this sort of bondage that we’ve been set free from. Yet, we place ourselves back under a type of law which binds us with these church vows.
Furthermore, vows to submit to church elders gives them an authority or a power beyond what Scripture gives to them. God Himself has already given them that authority. God has also given instruction to believers to honor that authority. Yet many churches still impose church vows upon its members as if God’s authority is not enough.
Our commitment to live for Christ, our commitment to apply God’s Word to our lives, our commitment to one’s church, to the elders, to one’s church ministry, it all now falls within the sphere of this vow that we take as church members. Everything we do now is connected to this vow, because all these things are wrapped up in the vow we took for membership. So now we’re no longer living solely according to the freedom and grace that we have in Christ, living and serving freely from a willing heart, but now we’ve added a binding vow to carry these things out. This vow is in conflict with the freedom and grace that is in Christ. They’re not in harmony. They’re not compatible. With a vow, we live under constraint; with the other, we live freely and willingly without any outside force bearing upon us to obey.
When we receive Christ as our Lord and Savior, everything changes for us. The old life is gone, and we’re now living our new life in Christ through the grace and power and guidance that He Himself gives to us. We don’t need anything more than that. When we place our living for Christ and being faithful to our church under a vow, we’re no longer totally free. We are literally bound by that vow, and in a sense that places us back under a type of law. It’s a legal obligation.
We don’t need a vow to live for Christ. We don’t need a vow to serve faithfully in our local assembly. Grace and power—and the desire—to live out the Christian life has already been provided. Thus a vow is not only unnecessary, it’s a heavy burden to carry (at least it is for me), one that I don’t believe God intended for us to carry. Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us that we don’t see vows taught or practiced in the NT. The two are incompatible. The judaizers tried to mix law and grace too. We should not allow ourselves to fall into the same trap. I realize it’s not exactly the same thing, but it’s certainly similar, because the practice of vows were performed under OT Law. Too similar for me. Personally, I can’t live that way, nor do I want to. I want total freedom to live for Christ without an outside force bearing upon me to comply.
The things specified in church vows, all this work of grace created within us by the Holy Spirit has now been put under the shadow and control of a vow. In a sense, this vow becomes a ruling power over grace, or at least a conflicting force to obtain our obedience. This vow is in opposition to the grace that has been given to us to live for Christ. These two things are in conflict with one another. No longer are we living and serving 100% from the position of grace, but are now under the rule of a vow that is used to oversee this work of grace to ensure that it’s carried out, which of course, is contradictory. The two are working against each other to gain our obedience. Church vows are a man-made tool to ensure the faithfulness of church members.
I also believe that implementation of church vows reveals a lack of faith in Christ to lead and govern His own Church, His own people—whether churches realize it or not. Jesus does not need the help of a vow to enable elders to enforce His will. That being the case, what need is there for vows to “strengthen” what God has already fully commanded and empowered? Vows give elders the power of enforcement beyond what God has already given to them. What reason is there for a church to impose vows upon their members, except for the purpose of enforcing obedience and submission to God and to the elders? If that’s the case, then that’s just simply wrong. Bringing in an additional means of enforcement is unwarranted. Instead of being influenced solely by the power of grace from a willing heart, members are also influenced by the power of conflicting and binding vows. Or put another way, vows become a controlling influence, which conflicts with the controlling influence of the Holy Spirit of grace. Church members should not feel bound by an overshadowing vow. They should be able to live and serve in an environment of grace, and where there is a little more room to breathe.
Lastly, I believe church vows automatically sets up an authoritarian type of church government. The degree, of course, depends on the elders themselves. I also realize that elders don’t need membership vows to be authoritarian, but they certainly set it up for that. I have to believe that it provides an ever present temptation for elders to abuse their authority.
To summarize, Christ has set us free from the type of legal binding that vows create. We’re to live for Him under grace, as we’re influenced and empowered by the Holy Spirit. And again, I believe this is why we don’t see vows practiced in the NT, and especially why we don’t see it used as a requirement for church membership. It’s an extra-biblical practice, one that I believe is designed to secure the obedience and financial support of the members. Vows ensure that the elders receive full submission from the full membership. That’s not a method that establishes an environment of grace!
In conclusion, from a biblical perspective, church vows are something that I can no longer support. In fact, if I were in such a church, I couldn’t even agree to accept anyone for membership, because I do not agree with the practice of vow-taking for membership. I will not take church vows for myself, and I would discourage others from taking membership vows—which is what I seek to do in this article. I want to live freely for the Lord without that ever-present weight, and I would not want to see other believers in that same situation. There are many churches who follow the biblical pattern, which doesn’t include vow-taking. I’m guessing that’s precisely why they don’t use them.