Monday, November 26, 2007

The nature of ordination vows

In the September 2007 Monthly Record of the Free Church of Scotland Rev. John Ross Inverness Greyfriars-Stratherrick reports on an induction and comments as follows on the vows put to the prospective minister.

'I wonder if it really is necessary to make an ordination a public display of the mysteries of the Claim, Declaration and Protest of 1842 or the Protest by Commissioners to the General Assembly of 1843, or a disavowal of all "Popish, Arian, Socinian, Arminian, Erastian and other doctrines doctrines, tenets and opinions whatsoever..." to say nothing of placing the candidate under reminder of the strictures of Act V, 1932. This all bemused most of the congregation and produced not a few a few stifled sniggers and embarrassed looks by those conscious of the presence of the local Catholic priest, whose kindly presence helped welcome Ricky and Melissa to the community. Might not these arcane memories of 'old unhappy, far off things and battles long ago' be better dealt with by the Presbytery in private prior to ordination? Surely induction questions, like those put to a bride and groom at a marriage, ought to be short, serious, and above all, obviously relevant, not detracting from the essentially joyous nature of the occasion by turning it into a public justification of the continued separate existence of the Free Church of Scotland'.

These comments fail to understand the true nature of the vows themselves as well as the their content. Ordination vows must be public, before the congregation who are receiving this minister or other office-bearer. It matters what the minister believes and is prepared to assert, maintain and defend. It matters what constitutes purity of worship. The climate of indifference to these solemn vows within the Free Church at present is truly alarming when we consider the true nature of such vows.

The solemn promises and declarations made at ordination - commonly called ordination vows- are in nature both an oath made in relation to man and vows taken with respect to God. (the Establishment in the Act for Settling the Quiet and Peace of the Church 1693 speak of the ordination vow as "the oath of allegiance"). Thus the whole of chapter 22 of the WCF is applicable. In relation to oaths the Confession says:
"WHOSOEVER takes 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 believes so to be, and what he is able and resolved to perform. Yet it is a sin to refuse an oath touching anything that is good and just, being imposed by lawful authority.

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."

This makes it clear that an oath is to be taken clearly without mental reservation or interpretation different from those who impose it because that involves the individual in the sin of perjury. An oath also binds to performance although it is to one's hurt and even though it is made to those who are heretics or infidels - we cannot violate it (Ezek. 17:16, 18, 19; Josh. 9:18, 19; II Sam. 21:1), provided the object of the oath is not sinful. An oath is also to be taken in the plain and common sense of the words, without equivocation or mental reservation. Thus there is to be no reinterpretation - the oath is to be understood in its prima facie sense.

"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." As Robert Shaw puts it, "the oath retains its high place among the solemnities of religion".
The fulfilment of vows is repeatedly enjoined in Scripture. "If a man vow a vow unto the LORD, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth." Numbers 30:2 "When thou shalt vow a vow unto the LORD thy God, thou shalt not slack to pay it: for the LORD thy God will surely require it of thee; and it would be sin in thee." (Deuteronomy 23:2) "He that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not." (Psalm 15:4) "...yea, they shall vow a vow unto the LORD, and perform it." (Isaiah 19:21) "When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for he hath no pleasure in fools: pay that which thou hast vowed. Better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay" (Eccl 5:4-5). "Vow, and pay unto the LORD your God:" (Psalm 76:11). "It is a snare to the man who devoureth that which is holy, and after vows to make enquiry." (Proverbs 20:25).

It is a solemn thing therefore to break ordination vows - it is to violate the third commandment. As James Begg put it: "To allege that they may afterwards set these avowals at defiance, and still retain their offices, is to outrage morality and overflow the liberty of the Church and her congregations".