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Broken Vows

G. I. Williamson

It was quite a few years ago that I first read Professor John Murray's essay on "The Sanctity of the Moral Law."[1] That article, written at the height of the struggle in the Presbyterian Church USA between orthodoxy and modernism, drew attention to the fact that orthodoxy is not concerned with doctrine only. Murray writes:

The orthodox Christian ... has been too concessive when he has tolerated even the suggestion that the difference between him and the modernist is largely confined to the realm of what we more specifically call doctrinal belief. For the attack upon the Christian Faith is not a whit less in the realm of standards of moral obligation....[2]

He goes on to focus this concern on the signers of the Auburn Affirmation!

Does the seriousness of the Auburn Affirmation confine itself to the realm of what we call doctrinal belief? Oh, not at all! Another aspect of it is equally if not more serious, because in that aspect of it, it evidences departure from the very principle of truth itself. These same men have solemnly vowed belief in and adherence to these great verities which they have either denied or branded as mere theories. In justice and truth their continuance in the Presbyterian Church can only last as long as they are faithful to these vows. It is manifest that they are not faithful to these vows. What does this mean? It means simply blatant breach of trust, of the basic principle of honesty, in one word, of truth.

... Modernism in doctrine and modernism in ethics are ultimately one.[3]

These powerful words made a deep impression on me, and I call them to your attention because I believe we very much need them. Even at the time that this was written (seventy-one years ago), Mr. Murray went on to suggest that too often orthodox people seem to be lacking with respect to the ethical side of the matter. After all, it isn't only modernists who seem to take their ordination vows lightly. No, I am more and more convinced that Mr. Murray was right when he, in effect, warned us against a "loss of the consciousness of the sanctity of the moral law, and of its implications in truth and justice."[4] What concerns me in this article is the vital connection between doctrine and morality (or ethics) as defined by Chapter 22 of the Westminster Confession of Faith.

  1. A lawful oath is a part of religious worship, wherein, upon just occasion, 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 sweareth.
  2. The name of God only is that by which men ought to swear, and therein it is to be used with all holy fear and reverence. Therefore, to swear vainly, or rashly, by that glorious and dreadful Name; or, to swear at all by any other thing, is sinful, and to be abhorred. Yet, as in matters of weight and moment, an oath is warranted by the Word of God, under the New Testament as well as under the Old; so a lawful oath, being imposed by lawful authority, in such matters, ought to be taken.
  3. Whosoever taketh an oath ought duly to consider the weightiness of so solemn an act, and therein to avouch nothing but what he is fully persuaded is the truth: neither may any man bind himself by oath to anything but what is good and just, and what he believeth so to be, and what he is able and resolved to perform.
  4. An oath is to be taken in the plain and common sense of the words, without equivocation, or mental reservation. It cannot oblige to sin; but in anything not sinful, being taken, it binds to performance, although to a man's own hurt. Nor is it to be violated, although made to heretics, or infidels.
  5. A vow is of the like nature with a promissory oath, and ought to be made with the like religious care, and to be performed with the like faithfulness.

Those who receive the privilege of serving as ministers of the OPC do so on the basis of solemn vows—made before the face of almighty God—to do the following things: (1) "receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures;" (2) "approve of the government, discipline, and worship of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church;" (3) "promise to be in subjection to ... brethren in the Lord;" (4) and "to be zealous and faithful in maintaining the truths of the gospel and the purity, the peace, and the unity of the church, whatever persecution or opposition may arise...on that account."[5]

It seems to me that any man who makes these vows in the conscientious way specified by the Westminster Confession of Faith—to which he is subscribing on oath—would never do such things as these: (1) withdraw from the ministry of the OPC merely because of not getting his own way in a particular instance; (2) intentionally preach any doctrine or engage in any practice in the execution of his office which is contrary to the constitution of the church to which he has vowed adherence; or (3) abort the process of administrative or judicial discipline without first exhausting the full provisions of due process. I do not think that I need to cite any specific examples for the readers of Ordained Servant, because I am confident that you will also recognize that there is reason for concern about this issue.

But what troubles me just as much as any particular instance of the deviations listed above, is what I see as the tendency of some to be willing to minimize this sin, and therefore too easily restore the reputation of those who have broken their vows for one reason or another. What they seem to me to be doing is to substitute their own personal evaluation of things for the urgently needed—but too often selfishly aborted—final results of a faithful adherence to due process. It is my view that when a man simply renounces the jurisdiction of the OPC, during the process of discipline, he is not entitled to claim—nor to be quickly believed by others on the basis of his claim—to be in the right while the Church is in the wrong. Even if he could have been proved right, through the full use of the due-process provided by our constitution, the very act of aborting the process is itself a breaking of the sense and meaning of his vows, and that by itself renders him guilty.

But I am even more amazed when brothers say to me, "we agree with you on the principles involved, but disagree in this case." The principles to which we commit ourselves by our vows involve accountability. And one of my vows is to the effect that I submit to my brothers in the Lord. It is always possible, of course, that even with full process there might result a miscarriage of justice. We see that clearly in the deposition of J. Gresham Machen. But even in the corrupt and deteriorating PCUSA of his day, that great man did not refuse to follow constitutional process until the miscarriage of justice was evident.

It is my view that men who have broken their vows do not deserve to be treated as if they had done nothing wrong. I do not even think they deserve to continue in office—certainly not unless and until they sincerely repent of their sin. And I do not think we are really doing the church of Jesus Christ a service when we treat them as if nothing has happened.[6]

We are living in a degenerate culture in which vows (marriage vows are a glaring example) often seem to mean nothing. It is a time in which "every man does what seems right in his own eyes" (Judg. 17:5, 21:25). But should we be surprised at what we see in our present-day culture generally, when we see such "loving" treatment of office-bearers in the church who break their vows? The Scripture says "it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God" (1 Pet. 4:17). It certainly is.

Endnotes

[1] Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1977), 193-204.

[2] Ibid., 193–194.

[3] Ibid., 194–195.

[4] Ibid.

[5] The Book of Church Order of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Willow Grove, PA: The Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2005), XXII.13.c 42.

[6] The Book of Discipline held by the old UPCNA (until 1925) said [X:6] "Church officers deposed may be restored to church privileges, on evidence of repentance; but they ought not, especially ministers, to be restored to the exercise of their office until it is obvious that the religious community is prepared to receive them in their official character." To much the same effect is our own Book of Discipline [VI.D.1]: "An officer deposed because of a commonly known offense shall be restored only after the judicatory has assured itself that the restoration will not be attended by injury to the cause of the gospel."

G. I. Williamson, a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is now retired but still active in part-time ministerial work in the Presbytery of the Dakotas of the OPC and Cornerstone United Reformed Church in Sanborn, Iowa. Mr. Williamson was the first editor of Ordained Servant (1992-2005). Ordained Servant, March 2008.

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