Church Membership


Order of Contents 

What is a Profession of Faith Sufficient for Church Membership?
When did Membership Vows come into the Church?
Right of Congregational Election of Officers
Ladies Voting?
How May Local Churches be Established?
Is Habitual Non-Attendance a Disciplinary Offense?
May one Leave a Local Church due to the Necessities of Providence?  Yes.




Cunningham, William – The Place of Church Members in Acts 15, 1863, p. 54, 5 pages, from his Historical Theology, vol. 1

Kayser, Phillip – Church Membership: Is it Biblical?  A Brief Study of the Concept of Church Rolls, PDF, 1993, 7 pages 

Kayser demonstrates the Biblical obligation of church membership

Kayser, Phillip – Public Assembly: The Biblical Call to Faithful Attendance at Public Worship, 2005, 14 pages

Kayser shows that faithful attendance at public worship is a Biblical obligation



What is a Profession of Faith Sufficient for Church Membership?

What is entailed in a Credible Profession of Faith in order to be Baptized & Become a Church Member?


Rutherford, Samuel – 3rd Conclusion, pp. 251-255  of Ch. 9, Section 9, ‘Of the Addition of Members to the Church’  in The Due Right of Presbyteries...  (1644), pt. 1

“3rd Conclusion.  A visible profession of the truth and doctrine of godliness is that which essentially constitutes a visible church, and every member of the visible church;

Only our [Independent] Brethren and we differ much about the nature of this profession which is required in members added to the Church.  Our Brethren will have none members of the visible Church, but such as are satisfactory to the consciences of all the visible church, and give evidences so clear, as the judgement of discerning men can attain unto, that they are truly regenerated.

We again do teach that the scandalously wicked are to be cast out of the Church by excommunication, and these of approved piety are undoubtedly members of the visible Church, so these of the middle sort are to be acknowledged members of the Church, though the Church have not a positive certainty of the judgement of charity that they are regenerated, so they be known: 1. to be baptized, 2. that they be free of gross scandals, 3. and profess that they be willing hearers of the doctrine of the Gospel.

Such a profession as gives evidences to the positive certainty of the judgment of charity, of sound conversion, is not required to make and constitute a true, visible-Church.”



A Survey of the Survey of that Sum of Church-Discipline penned by Mr. Thomas Hooker… wherein the way of the churches of N. England is now re-examined  (London, 1658), Book 1, ch. 14,

Ch. 15, pp. 67-8

“Mr. [Thomas] Hooker: ‘…But these three [qualifications are] assigned by Mr. Rutherford [in order to be accepted as a member of the Church]:  1. To profess the Faith; 2. Eagerly to desire the Seals; 3. To desire Church-fellowship, counting it a disparagement not to be born again, if not admitted to the Sacraments, [yet all this] may agree to a drunkard [according to Hooker].’

Answer:  …if the [drunkard] man be a born heathen, and shall come to get these three requisites, and profess as Magus did, he is to be received a member: but if he hath not these three requisites, for he lives in sorcery, as Magus and Elymas, and opposeth the Gospel, the openly lying profession is scandalous; such a profession Mr. Rutherford saith is not his requisites:

If he be a pagan, and continue in habitual drunkenness, he may be holden out while he gives evidences to others of amendment, and then he may be admitted to the outer court, as a hearer; though a profession of faith, if not belied with worshipping of false gods, can hardly consist with paganism [and hence he is part of the visible Church in some way and should therefore be a member of a church].”


p. 53

“…yea I teach that the profession of Demas, Magus, doth not notify that they are true believers: And though visible profession should notify true faith, it is not necessary that it must offer to judicious charity such overweighing evidences as the Church cannot lawfully admit Magus a member, but they must first positively judge him a real convert; and the like John must judge of all Jewry whom he baptized.”


pp. 56-57

“First Argument [of Rutherford]:  In the first receiving of members by the apostles, there was but a professed willingness to receive the Gospel, howbeit some received it not from the heart.

Mr. Hooker answereth:  ‘There was not only a professed willingness, but a practical reformation, that in the judgement of charity giveth grounds of hope that there is something real, before the contrary appear; Therefore, Peter who received Magus upon his approbation of the truth and outward conformity thereunto in the course of his life, rejected him as one in the gall of bitterness, who had no share in Christ, and therefore certainly would not suffer him in the privileges of communion, so persisting without repentance.’

[Rutherford’s] Answer 1:  [Hooker says:] ‘Not professed willingness, but also practical reformation is required.’  But is not professed willingness in murderers of Christ, who said, ‘What shall we doe to be saved?’ some practical reformation?  There is nothing but conjectures that the apostles did not admit all and every one of the three thousand until they had experience of their state of grace and judicially determined so of them all.

([Margin note:] Mr. Hooker neither proves, nor can prove that the apostles had habitual experience in so few hours, all and every one of the 3,000 (Acts 2) gave evidence of real conversion to the apostles.)

(2).  This practical reformation was not an experience of their practice of savory walking, required by Mr. Hooker (p. 1. ch. 2, pp. 14-15) in visible saints before admission, except some four or five hours time may create an habitual experience, for the same very day they were baptized (Acts 2:41).

(3)  Mr. Hooker should prove that the apostles found this practical reformation in all, Ananias, Saphira, and the whole 3000; and that the apostles tried and smelled the savouriness of saving grace in all; in Saphira; the text giveth not the least jot of this, we must take it upon the naked assertion of Mr. Hooker

(4)  That this practical reformation gave to the apostles’ judgement of charity ground of hope that there was something real, that is, the whole number, about three thousand (none excepted, for all were made Church-saints visible) gave grounds of hope that they were all really (otherwise their speaking and hearing the word was real, that is, not imaginary) internally and effectually called, and born over again of the spirit, and so chosen to life eternal from eternity, before the apostles durst, without the offending of God, admit them to Church-fellowship and visible communion; those [things] (I say) must be proven.  If I durst [dare], I am not far from judging the godly and judicious in cold-blood, free of heat of dispute, dare not so judge of the text, Acts 2 or Acts 8.

(5)  There is no shadow, Acts 8, that Peter (Mr. Hooker should say Philip) admitted not Magus while he saw such grounds of the sorcerer’s real conversion and real predestination to glory.

(6)  Peter said that Magus had no share in Christ.  True, but said he that he was an unbaptized man who had no share in the visible Church?  No.

(7) But he would not suffer Magus to share in the privileges of communion, he persisting without repentance.

True, but it is no answer to the argument from the manner of receiving in, this is something to the casting out, (8) that Peter reproveth him in the gall of bitterness [and] 2. Exhorts him to repent, to pray for pardon, [these last two things] were great privileges of Church-communion bestowed upon Magus.”


That Recognizing a Credible Profession of Faith does not entail Presuming Regeneration, & does a credible profession give a proper right to Church membership & the Sacraments?

Rutherford, Samuel – Book 1, ch. 22, ‘Whether profession makes a member of the Church visible?’  in  A Survey of the Survey of that Sum of Church-Discipline Penned by Mr. Thomas Hooker  (1658)

Rutherford is arguing against the New England divine, Thomas Hooker, a congregationalist, who held that the judging of a credible profession of faith entails accounting the person to be a regenerate Christian.

“…when the Gospel is come to a people, if the question be, what gives to this man, not to this man true real right to membership, and ordinances, and seals, so as he may claim them before God and not sin: the meritorious right is Christ’s death, the condition upon his part is faith; hence visible profession as such cannot give right…

Profession is in order to the rulers and members of the Church, which have hand according to their place, either formal or tacit consent, to receive in members…  the question is, what profession is required in such as the rulers may without sin admit to membership and ordinances; we say a profession morally true, not real conversion judged to be real by men.

Now this confession or profession doth not make a Church-member, but declare a Church-member, and it only declares him to the conscience of the rulers, that they sin not in admitting such: but declares him neither to have right before God nor to his own conscience.  Yea, for all this profession [Simon] Magus sinned in being baptized, Magus usurped, and hath no true and real right, no not ecclesiastic, except in a most unproper sense; [yet] the Church hath right and command to receive him to member membership and seals…” – p. 123



When did Membership Vows come into the American presbyterian Church?

According to the sources below, there were precedents to membership vows (such as public professions of faith before the congregation) in American presbyterianism as early as 1865 and before, due to congregational influence.  Such practices were first tolerated, then allowed and then officially held as optional.  Finally membership vows were prescribed by church law as a standard practice in the national American presbyterian Church in 1894.  This final enactment has been said by Dr. Barry Waugh to be largely due to the competing counter-influence of para-church organizations.

Before this modern practice, presbyterian churches simply had persons desiring membership in a local church privately meet with the session in order to be examined as to their profession of faith.  This being accepted by the session as sufficient for membership in the local church, the session may then announce their reception into the church in an appropriate circumstance (outside of worship).  The only ‘ritual’ connected with coming into communicant church membership, for American presbyterianism, was for the individual then to proceed to take the Lord’s Supper at that assembly for the first time (which may not happen for a few months, as the Lord’s Supper was often held quarterly).

In the Second Reformation of Scotland, and in that era generally, as Rutherford argues, professing Christians who were not members under the authority of a local session were yet allowed, and should, partake of the Lord’s Supper (as it is a Biblical right), whereas the opposite view and practice (held to by modern presbyterianism) was a distinctive and novel practice of congregationalism during the puritan era.


Peter Wallace, “The Bond of Union”: The Old School Presbyterian Church and the American Nation, 1837-1861 (Notre Dame, 2004), ch. 9

B. The Creation of a New Ritual: Public Profession

But as Presbyterians gradually adopted the New England practice of requiring a personal profession of conversion, they also began adopting the Congregationalist ritual of public profession as well. The Presbyterian Form of Government stated that the session had the power to receive members. Traditionally this had been done by examination. The only public ritual that accompanied the admission of a person to the Lord’s Table was the Lord’s Supper itself. Gradually, however, Presbyterians began to imitate the rite of public profession found in the New England Congregational churches. Predictably, the New School took the lead, but even they were cautious. In 1865, the New School General Assembly declared that new members were received by the vote of the session, and except in the case of new converts who needed to be baptized, no further rite was required. Nonetheless, they permitted sessions to “prescribe a public profession of faith before the whole church as a convenient usage, and for this purpose may employ a church confession and covenant.” But they insisted that these public professions were entirely optional and must never be presented as though this were the real entrance into church membership.[57] The reunited General Assembly of 1872 added that if a session chose to have a public profession for covenant youth it must show a clear distinction from that used for public professions associated with adult baptisms.[58] The Presbyterian church, though influenced by congregational forms, was still intent on keeping the sacrament of baptism distinct from its new rites of public profession.

[57]Moore, Digest 129

[58]Moore, Digest 671-678

But these official developments simply reflected the growing practice of the church. Numerous churches were creating a new ritual in Presbyterian worship–the public profession of faith. But these changes did not come without objections. In 1847 Samuel Miller declared that the practice of receiving members by public profession was “not a child of Presbyterianism, but wholly inconsistent with it, and the real offspring of Congregationalism. . . . The church with us is regulated by the Session, made up of representatives of the church members.” Miller went on to insist that “Our fathers of the Church of Scotland know nothing of the public parade in the middle aisle now so common.”[59]

[59]“Dr. Samuel Miller to the Rev. Smith Sturges,” June 21, 1847, quoted in Samuel Miller, Jr., The Life of Samuel Miller, D.D., LL.D. (Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen and Haffelfinger, 1869) II, 485.

Several presbyteries also weighed in on the issue. In 1855 the Presbytery of Elizabethtown in New Jersey wrote a letter to all sessions throughout the Old School, urging them to return to the Presbyterian practice of receiving communicants directly by the session, “without receiving publicly on consenting to a confession read to them.”[60] In 1856 the Presbytery of Cincinnati received a complaint regarding the practice of the Seventh Presbyterian Church of Cincinnati which had permitted the public profession of baptized persons at the same time as the baptism of new converts. One observer commented, “in coming to the ordinance of the Lord’s supper for the first time nothing is required of them in the constitution of the church, but simply, ‘that they shall be examined as to their knowledge and piety.’ That is all.” Indeed, he suggested that anything more communicates the wrong message. He feared that this would “necessarily lead to error in doctrine as well as disorder in practice.”[61] New rituals invariably led to new theology. By introducing the innovation of public profession, Old School Presbyterians were functionally creating a new sacrament.

[60]St Louis Presbyterian 11.45 (May 10, 1855).

[61]Observer, “Unconstitutional Practice in the Church,” PW 16.1 (September 25, 1856).

In 1862 “A True Presbyterian” objected that many Kentucky churches had begun to “ask the member or members received, to stand up in the aisle or pew, and give their assent to certain articles, and make pledges in regard to their future conduct, and avow their sense of the fearful responsibility connected with a public profession of religion.” He argued that this approach placed the focus on the new communicant himself rather than Christ. The session should call him to fix his eyes on Christ as the source of his hope, and not point him to his own profession. Further, it “conveys the impression that the person thus assenting is then and thus introduced into the Church. Whereas, according to the theory of the Presbyterian Church, such an one was ‘engrafted into Christ,’ and partook of the benefits, (to some extent) of the New Covenant, and became members of the visible Church, when baptized.” In addition, he said that such public professions created a new catechism for the church, ignoring the church’s catechisms.[62] The editor, Stuart Robinson, concurred that the practice was foreign to Presbyterian doctrine. He pointed out that the Synod of Kentucky had “formally censured the use of the abbreviated creeds framed by pastors for such purpose” many years before.[63]

[62]A True Presbyterian, “Mode of Admitting Baptized Persons to the Lord’s Supper,” True Presbyterian (June 12, 1862).

[63]Editorial, “Mode of Admitting Baptized Persons to the Lord’s Supper,” True Presbyterian (June 12, 1862).



Barry Waugh

‘History of Membership Vows, Presbyterian Church in America’

“In conclusion, the five membership vows used by the PCA were added to the Directory for Worship of the Book of Church Order by the PCUS in response to the growth of parachurch-interdenominational ministries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

This has been shown in particular with the addition of vow four that requires a member to support the church. The case was not developed in this brief article, but it is believed that the four vows adopted in 1894 were intended to distinguish church membership in the PCUS as a shepherded, historic, confessional, and evangelistic church from the parachurch, revivalism, and interdenominational churches.”

‘Overture Regarding Voluntary Societies, 1889’  13 paragraphs



Right of Congregational Election of Officers

see also Patronage

Patronage was the erroneous historical practice of civil patron’s over-riding the congregational election of officers.

Binnie, William – The Concurrence of Popular Election and Official Ordination, p. 132, 16 pp.

Cunningham, William

Right of the Christian People to Elect Officers in the Early Church, 1863, p. 189, 8 pages, from his Historical Theology, vol. 1

The Rights of the Christian People, starting on p. 290, 140 pages.  1863.  This is Chapters 11 from his Discussions on Church Principles

Popular Election of Office Bearers, 1863, p. 534, 10 pages, from his Historical Theology, vol. 2



Ladies Voting?

Whether Ladies have the Right to Vote for Church Officers



How may Local Churches be Established?

John Coffey, Politics, Religion and the British Revolutions: The Mind of Samuel Rutherford, p. 204.  HT: Andrew Myers

It should not surprise us, therefore, that in the [Westminster] Assembly debates, Rutherford and Gillespie sided with the English Independents on several points where they disagreed with the English Presbyterians.  As liturgical practice was concerned, the Scottish radicals agreed with the Independents on the value of extemporary prayer, and the dangers of a fixed liturgy.70 Rutherford also opposed those who favoured a system of rigidly fixed congregations, with no freedom to seek fellowship outside the parish. He argued that being in the vicinity of a church was not an adequate basis for determining church membership, but that the consent of the people was also necessary.  Although he thought that a church covenant was not needed at a local level, he did favor a ‘voluntary agreement’ on the part of the church members in order to form a congregation.  [Wayne] Spear suggests that Rutherford’s views may have had something to do with the mildness with which the Assembly treated the gathering of churches.71  

70. See above. See also [Robert S.] Paul, Assembly of the Lord, p. 445.
71. Spear, Covenanted Uniformity, pp. 214-17. Paul argues that the Scots ecclesiology ‘in some ways was closer to the Independents’ than to that of the English Presbyterians, who pressed for a simplified form of the traditional English parish. Assembly of the Lord, p. 345. See also p. 209.


Wayne Spear, Covenanted Uniformity in Religion: The Influence of the Scottish Commissioners Upon the Ecclesiology of the Westminster Assembly, p. 217.  HT: Andrew Myers

Among the Scottish Commissioners at the Westminster Assembly, Samuel Rutherford was the foremost representative of this type of piety, and in the Assembly debate on fixed congregations, he supported the Independents to some degree. He said that being in the vicinity was not an adequate basis for determining church membership, but that the consent of the people was also necessary. While he rejected the necessity of a church covenant on the local level, he did advocate a “voluntary agreement” on the part of church members in order to form a congregation.1  It may be that his views had something to do with the mildness with which the Assembly treated the gathering of churches.

1. MS, II, fol. 30.


Samuel Rutherford

A Survey of the Survey of that Sum of Church-Discipline penned by Mr. Thomas Hooker… wherein the way of the churches of N. England is now re-examined  (London, 1658), p. 190

“Its a wide mistake that a Presbyterian Church hath its formal essence from a voluntary actual combination in such bounds, or such a circuit more or less.  That is not a pillar of Presbyterian Churches.

For their near association, by dwelling where they may edify or scandalize one another, gives them right to be an associated Church; not simply habitation, but the habitation of such and such professors in covenant with God, baptized and giving themselves up in profession to Christ as disciples, before there be a formal consent, they are obliged to associate: yea, nor doth that voluntary combination make a Presbyterial Church.”



Is Habitual Non-Attendance at Public Worship, when within a Person’s Means, a Disciplinary Offense?

Samuel Rutherford

A Survey of the Survey of that Sum of Church-Discipline penned by Mr. Thomas Hooker… wherein the way of the churches of N. England is now re-examined  (London, 1658), Book 3, ch. 1, p. 282-3

“Mr. Hooker [a congregationalist]:  ‘It’s a staple rule, no man by nature hath an ecclesiastical power over another by constraint; one comes a Christian convert from China, to a country or city where many churches are, none of them can, by the rule of the Gospel, compel him to join with one more than another.  He may freely choose what is most suitable to his heart, and may be most to promote his spiritual edification.’

[Rutherford’s] Answer:  …The man comes from China acknowledging God in all his ways, as Abraham left his country (Gen. 12); if he be an idolater, they should not lodge him (2 Jn. 10); he comes not as indifferent to be married [the analogy used by congregationalists for joining] to this or this church, or to none at all; as a man sins not if he marry none at all (1 Cor. 7).

But if he be a professor that joins to no Church, he lives scandalously; therefore the adequate cause of membership, or to this membership, is not mutual consent, as in marriage, but both parties are under a command to confess Christ before men; and its a selfish thing to make a man’s own heart the judge and determiner of his membership, and not the churches led by the rule of the Word: and so the Church is obliged to receive him, and he is obliged to join a member, according to Cant. 1:7-8; Mt. 10:32.”



May One Leave a Local Church Due to the Necessities of Providence?  Yes

Samuel Rutherford

A Survey of the Survey of that Sum of Church-Discipline penned by Mr. Thomas Hooker...  (1658)

p. 102

“[Rutherford’s] Answer:  …no godly visible professors can tie themselves by [a] covenant or oath to exercise the common Christian acts of a church-member only to such a [local-church] society, but in an occasional and providential way: for it is as unlawful to tie Church-worship to one society or place under the New Testament, as it was to tie it of old to Bethel and Gilgal, Hos. 4:15 & 9:14 & 12:11; Amos 4:4, which is a demonstration that a godly professor carries about a soul with him, stands in need of Church-feeding by the Lords Supper and other Church Ordinances in all the Christian world, and that he is to warn, admonish, comfort all Church-members, and to labor to gain a trespassing brother, not of the single congregation only whereof he is a member, Mt. 18, and neither Scriptures, nor sound divinity, nor the Law of Nature (which is not destroyed by the Gospel) will warrant to limit the word, ‘brother’, as Mr. Hooker does, and his Brethren, Mt. 18:15, ‘If thy brother trespass, if he hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother;’ to a brother only of the congregation of which the offended brother is a member…”


p. 104

“4.  If Providence necessitate him, as he is chased by persecution to one city, and is banished out of that, that he must fly to another, and from that to another, and from that to a third, and is providentially necessitated to have no certain dwelling, as was Abraham and the saints’ case, Heb. 11:37-38; 1 Cor. 4:11, so was Christ’s case, Mt. 8:20…”


Richard Baxter

A Christian Directory: a Sum of Practical Theology and Cases of Conscience  (1673), pt. 3, Christian Ecclesiastics, Question 104, ‘Is a pastor obliged to his flock for life?  Or is it lawful so to oblige himself?  And may he remove without their consent?  And so also of a church-member, the same questions are put.’

“IV.  As to the people’s case, it needs no other answer:

1.  No member may remove without cause:
2.  Nor abruptly and uncharitably to the church’s dissatisfaction, when he may avoid it.
But 3.  He may remove upon many just causes (private or public) whether the church and pastors consent or not, so the manner be as becomes a Christian.”




A pastor to an appreciative congregation:
“I know you love me, but I did not die for you.”

John ‘Rabbi’ Duncan




Related Pages


Church Government

Unity of the Church