A few months ago, I had the privilege of meeting with a young couple in our congregation in order to choose vows for their wedding. We decided to look at some historic Protestant marriage vows. Ultimately, we ended up with a combination of the marriage vows in the Directory of Public Worship and the vows of the Christian Reformed Church--together with some personal additions. Here are the vows we decided on:
Groom: I, ______, take you, ______, to be my wife and I promise and covenant before God and all who are present here to be your loving and faithful husband, until God shall separate us by death. By the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, I will, endeavor to love you and give myself up for you, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. I will serve you with tenderness and respect, and encourage you to develop the gifts that God has given you. I will seek out your forgiveness when I fail to do the things I have vowed.
Bride: I, ______, take you, _______, to be my husband, and I promise and covenant before God and all who are present here to be your loving and faithful wife, until God shall separate us by death. By the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, I will, endeavor to love you and submit to you, as the church loves and submits to Christ. I will serve you with tenderness and respect, and encourage you to develop the gifts that God has given you. I will seek out your forgiveness when I fail to do the things I have vowed.
Overseeing the ceremony in which the Lord brings together in the covenantal bond of marriage those He has called you to pastor is one of the greatest joys of pastoral ministry. It is also one of most solemn aspects of pastoral ministry. In officiating a marriage, the minister is mediating the vow taking between men and God. The unique thing about Christian marriage, as is also true with regard to church membership, is that men and women are making covenant promises to God.
When we examine and receive members in our local churches in the Presbyterian Church in America, we ask those coming for membership to take five vows:
1. Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?
2. Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and Savior of sinners, and do you receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel?
3. Do you now resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as becomes the followers of Christ?
4. Do you promise to support the Church in its worship and work to the best of your ability?
5. Do you submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace?
These vows contain the substance of the basics of Christian knowledge, practice and commitment to the Church. During the private exams for membership, the session of New Covenant asks those coming for membership questions that relate to the five vows.
Sadly, we see just how little most value vow taking in our day. We see with what flippancy men and women will throw away their marriage and how easily they walk away from the church when they find one or two things with which they do not agree. The great need of our day is to get a theology of vows and to commit to fulfilling those vows that we have vowed to God. In order to do so, we need to consider afresh the nature of vows.
When we come to consider the nature of vows, we first have to tackle the objection that Jesus forbid all vow-making. Some have suggested that Jesus prohibited all oath-taking in the Sermon on the Mount when he said:
"Do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one" (Matt. 5:34-37)
Additionally, some have drawn this conclusion from the words of James--the Lord's brother:
"Above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No,” “No,” lest you fall into judgment" (James 5:12).
Having made a thorough study of what it was that Jesus was refuting in the Sermon on the Mount, Professor John Murray drew the following conclusions:
"The teaching of our Lord becomes not only intelligible but luminous on the background of the Rabbincal tradition. When He says, 'Swear not at all; neither by heaven, for it is God's throne; nor by the earth for it is the footstool of His feet,' He was striking directly at that profanity which enlisted substitutes for the name of God in order to secure the virtual emphasis of adjuration and yet at the same time sought escape from the obligations and sanctions that the use of that the use of the divine name itself would have involved. It is the evil of surreptitiously securing for oneself the advantages of adjuration while attempting to escape from its obligations and, in the event of falsehood, from the penalties attached to perjury.
We are compelled to the conclusion that Jesus does not prohibit all oath-taking, but only such oath-taking as violates the conditions under which the oath, as an act of religious worship, must be undertaken.
...In Matthew 23:17-22 Jesus deals with a situation similar to that with which He deals in the sermon on the mount and with one pertinent to our question. In this case He does not condemn the practice of swearing by the Temple, or by the alter, or by heaven. But he is emphasizing that which is the main thought of Matt. 5:34-36, namely, that if we swear by the temple we swear by it and 'by him that dwells therein,' and if we swear by heaven we swear 'by the throne of God, and by him that sits thereon.' There is no suggestions that the use of such terms is improper so long as we realize the Godward reference and understand that the adjuratory use carries all the implications of the direct and express use of the name of God.1
Not only are promissory vows permissible--they are binding. As Solomon noted in Ecclesiastes, breaking vows made to God is one of the most series of all offenses. In Ecclesiastes 5:4-6 we read:
"When you make a vow to God, do not delay to pay it; for He has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you have vowed—better not to vow than to vow and not pay. Do not let your mouth cause your flesh to sin, nor say before the messenger of God that it was an error. Why should God be angry at your excuse and destroy the work of your hands?"
Making a promise to the infinite and eternal God is something that we should view with the utmost sobriety. To break our vows to God is to make light of God's name and authority. What would it look like if we all took to heart the vows that we have taken in marriage and as members of a local church? How much would marriages improve and the church thrive, if we all recognized the seriousness of our vows?
If we are honest with ourselves, we would all have to admit that we have broken our vows many times and in many ways. Divorce is not the only way in which the marital vows are broken. Every harsh word, selfish act, lustful thought, etc. is a breaking of our marital vows. Leaving a local church for unbiblical reasons is not the only way to break our church membership vows. Delinquency in attendance, complaining, stirring up discord, failing to use our gifts for the spiritual well-being of the other members, failing to pray with and for one another is also a breaking of our vows.
We constantly need the blood of Jesus to forgive us and cleanse us. We need to return to Him in repentance and faith, whenever we acknowledge that we have not kept the vows that we have made to Him. We need to remember that we can only keep our vows by abiding in Jesus Christ crucified and risen. We need His continual intercession to sustain us in our marriages and in His church. May God give us new measures of grace to consider where we need to go to Him in repentance and crying out for forgiveness, cleansing and renewal in the spheres of our vow taking. 1. John Murray (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman's, 1957) pp. 169-170.