Church Membership


Order of Contents 

When did Membership Vows come into the Church?
Right of Congregational Election of Officers
Ladies Voting?
How May Local Churches be Established?




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



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 pages

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

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

Cunningham, William – 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.



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

John ‘Rabbi’ Duncan



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Church Government

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