Westminster & Ordination: The Vows

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.


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.

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