Westminster & Ordination: The Vows

The men whom we mean are seeking not membership in the Church, but a place in the ministry, and they desire not to learn but to teach. … Whether it be desirable or not, the ordination declaration is part of the constitution of the Church. If a man can stand on that platform he may be an officer in the Presbyterian Church; if he cannot stand on it he has no right to be an officer in the Presbyterian Church.[1]

Twenty-five years ago, my dad was preparing for his ordination exam to be a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America. In order to be ordained as a pastor in the PCA (or other NAPARC churches), a man must pass a thorough examination by the men of the presbytery. As part of his preparation, he was studying the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Catechisms, and the Book of Church Order. To help him get ready, Dad made study cards and had us all take turns quizzing him. It was a family effort. He'd hand us another stack while he sat across from us and say jokingly, “More questions! More questions!” By the time of his examination, we were all well-versed.

Having grown up in the Southern Baptist denomination (except my mother who was raised Presbyterian), rigorous questions on confessional standards were not what we'd experienced before. But we were learning that such standards and examinations were a blessing and a benefit both for the elders and for the congregations.

Denominations with confessional standards require their elders to know the confession and catechisms, to affirm them, and to uphold them. This is intended to protect the sheep and to promote the peace and purity of the church and denomination. As the Machen wrote in the quote above, the requirement is different for those men seeking ordination. We require more of our ordained leaders than we do of the lay members in the church.

In the PCA and OPC, elders vow to “receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.”[2] The same is not required of lay members of the church in their membership vows. The reason for the difference is that the elders are responsible to lead the church faithfully and to teach sound doctrine that conforms to the Bible and to the confessional standards of their church.

These vows are a serious business and not to be taken lightly. It requires honesty and integrity on the part of the elders and those who approve them for ordination. When a man vows to “receive and adopt” the confessional standards of his denomination, he is promising that his personal views are in accord with the standards. He's also promising that he will maintain and uphold those standards for as long as he is an elder in his denomination.

For this reason, if a man holds a view different from what the confessional standards teach, he must make his view known during his examination. This is so that the men of the presbytery may determine if his views are within acceptable bounds.[3] In the PCA, the ordination question goes on to ask

do you further promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, you will on your own initiative, make known to your Presbytery the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow?[4]

Over time, a man's views may change. He may find himself to be in fundamental disagreement with what the confessional standards teach. If so, it is his responsibility to make his new views known to his presbytery. If he can no longer affirm that he is in accord with the standards, he should publicly say so. This protects his congregation and denomination by removing someone who is out of accord with the standards.

Some, especially those in non-confessional denominations, believe that having confessional standards for ordination that elders are required to know, affirm, and uphold is unnecessarily strict. Some have called the standards a “straitjacket.” On the contrary, the structure and protection the standards provide should be a great comfort both for elders and for members of the congregation. Each knows what to expect.

By requiring elders to “receive and adopt” the confessional standards of their denomination, the men, women, and children of the congregation are protected from false teaching and the peace and purity of the church and denomination are upheld.

And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ;  until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming – Ephesians 4:11-14, NASB

Rachel Miller is News Editor for the Aquila Report. She has a BA in History from Texas A&M University. She is a member of a PCA church in the Houston area and the homeschooling mother of three boys.

[1]    John Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (1923, pg 164)

[2]    PCA, OPC Ordination Question 2

[3]    The relative merits of strict subscription versus good faith subscription are beyond the scope of this article.

[4]    PCA Ordination Question 2


Rachel Miller