Some Reformed Presbyterian elders at a recent session meeting wondered together: “What are the requirements for becoming a communing member of our church, from the Constitution’s perspective?” The special focus was on the opportunity for and ability of children to become members who can partake in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Below I offer some paragraphs from the very first portion of the RPCNA’s “Directory for Church Government” (Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America). I offer these, highlighting the portions which seem most relevant to this discussion, then summarize my own perspective on this. What do you think? And for you parents out there, what does this “high bar” of expectation say about doctrinal instruction in your own homes? This matters greatly in the wider evangelical sphere as we hear reports that more and more parents are expecting churches (especially youth departments) to “fix” their rebellious children or to take care of their spiritual lives. A typical parental response will be, when this plan goes bad: “But we took them to youth group religiously! Something must be wrong with that church.” Well, there is always something wrong with every branch of Christ’s church in this world, but parents continue to bear the fundamental responsibility for the spiritual instruction of their children while those children are in the home. Family times of worship are much neglected in this age, and in our general busy-ness, we imagine ourselves as doing well if we pause to pray before meals. Oh, to do that, we must be eating together! The more precise debate about when a child who professes a basic faith in Jesus Christ should be encouraged to commune at the Lord’s Table is quite complicated. The Bible does not clearly teach this commonly held maturity point, “the age of accountability.” Further, the tradition many congregations have of inviting all 12-year-olds into a communicants class does not respect the fact that children mature (spiritually, intellectually, etc.) at different rates. In fact, some 12-year-olds in churches are already quite clear that religion is not for them; a church info class might be useful in such a case, without the expectation of an interview with the elders at its conclusion. The extreme ends of this debate will argue: (1) As soon as a child “prays the prayer,” he should commune. BUT (2) haven’t we experienced enough of the damage from the “dumbing down” of Christianity to five basis assertions, or less? In practice, most RPCNA congregations have shown themselves to be quite comfortable with the concept that there can be: (1) baptized babies who don’t know anything about God; (2) converted/baptized children who have a simple (and real!) relationship with God through Jesus Christ but are NOT yet communicant members of their churches; (3) converted/baptized/communing children who have expressed their faith to their elders, answering some very important questions which indicate basic grasp of Christian doctrine & how that is lived out. Perhaps that last category meshes with Jesus’ charge that His disciples should “count the cost” before expressing full allegiance to Him. We are NOT interested in the modern manufactured category of those who are “Christians” (saved for heaven) but are not yet “disciples” (fully devoted followers of Jesus). I hope some of the data below is an encouragement to all readers (adults & children), spurring us on toward a deeper understanding of God and a deeper walk of obedience. ~ JMM
Directory for Church Government … CHAPTER 1 (The Communicant Membership of the Church)
- Any person capable of forming moral judgments and of making decisions for himself may be received into communicant membership in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, upon credible profession of faith, baptism, and acceptance of the Covenant of Church Membership. Communicant members have an obligation to present their children for baptism and to do all in their power to rear their children so that they will seek communicant membership in the church.
- In a regularly organized congregation it belongs to the session alone to admit to membership in the church. In extraordinary circumstances, such as the organization of a new congregation, presbytery may assume this function or delegate it to a temporary governing body. In the early stages of work in a foreign mission field, special powers may be exercised by the missionaries in this regard until such time as a congregation with a regular session can be organized.
- Classes should be conducted, under the oversight of the session, for baptized children as well as for prospective members for their instruction in the principles of truth maintained by the Church with a view to preparing them to be communicant members.
- Candidates for communicant membership shall be examined by the session in constituted court. The examination shall seek to bring out the degree of the candidate’s knowledge of Divine truth, his personal sense of sin and need of salvation and his knowledge of and willing acceptance of the Covenant of Church Membership including the distinctive principles of the Reformed Presbyterian Church. The degree of knowledge necessary for admission depends, to a considerable extent, upon the capacity of the candidate and the opportunities which he has had for acquiring such knowledge. Children should be encouraged to memorize the Shorter Catechism and urged to read and study the Testimony and Confession of Faith as they come to years of fuller understanding. No one should be admitted who is ignorant of the plan of salvation, or who gives no credible evidence of having been born again, or who assumes an attitude antagonistic to the principles set forth in the standards of the Church.
- When the candidates have given assent to the Covenant of Church Membership and when their examination has been sustained, they shall, if they have been baptized, be declared in communicant membership and may sign the Covenant of Church Membership. After prayer on their behalf, the members of the session shall welcome them by extending the right hand of fellowship.
- Where there is no definite knowledge that a candidate has been baptized in a true church as defined by Synod (Chapter 25 of the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Testimony of the Reformed Presbyterian Church), this sacrament shall be administered.
- The new members should be publicly recognized. This may be done by having them stand before the congregation to give public assent to the Covenant of Church Membership. …
Summarizing … candidates for communicant membership must/should … becapable of forming moral judgments and making decisions for themselves; … give credible profession of faith; … be baptized (either before candidacy or as a result of becoming a communicant member); … accept the Covenant of Church Membership(with its seven terms, below); … take a class (under elder oversight) to be instructed in the principles of the truth maintained by the Church; … be examined by the elders, such exam seeking to bring out the degree of the candidate’s knowledge of Divine truth, his personal sense of sin and need of salvation, and his knowledge of and willing acceptance of the Covenant of Church Membership (including RPCNA distinctive principles like matters of Bible-regulated worship and critical church/state concerns); … children wanting to become communicant members should be encouraged to memorize the Westminster Shorter Catechism (107 questions) and urged to read and study the RPCNA Testimony and the Westminster Confession of Faith as they come to years of fuller understanding. No one should be admitted who is ignorant of the Biblical plan of salvation or who gives no credible evidence of having been born again or who assumes an attitude antagonistic to the principles set forth in church standards.
The seven vows of the Covenant of Church Membership (below) imply understanding of & some level of submission to concepts including:
- What the Bible is, its uniqueness, sufficiency, and authority in the candidate’s own life.
- Who God is in His Person, Biblical attributes, and Tri-unity.
- Who the candidate is as a creature, sinner, penitent, believer, saint, and servant of God.
- What the church is, and what THIS church is (according to the Constitution), and being part of this body.
- How God empowers our growth in Christ through several of the ordinary means. Then, “I promise …”
- That his/her primary purpose in life from this time forward will be to seek God’s Kingdom and righteousness.
- That God’s grace will be necessary in the pursuit of these promises, and (s)he will be giving account to God.
Official Vows: Covenant of Communicant Membership
- Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, the only infallible rule for faith and life?
- Do you believe in the one living and true God ~ Father, Son, and Holy Spirit ~ as revealed in the Scriptures?
- Do you repent of your sin; confess your guilt and helplessness as a sinner against God; profess Jesus Christ, Son of God, as your Savior and Lord; and dedicate yourself to His service: Do you promise that you will endeavor to forsake all sin, and to conform your life to His teaching and example?
- Do you promise to submit in the Lord to the teaching and government of this church as being based upon the Scriptures and described in substance in the Constitution of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America? Do you recognize your responsibility to work with others in the church and do you promise to support and encourage them in their service to the Lord? In case you should need correction in doctrine or life, do you promise to respect the authority and discipline of the church?
- To the end that you may grow in the Christian life, do you promise that you will diligently read the Bible, engage in private prayer, keep the Lord’s Day, regularly attend the worship services, observe the appointed sacraments, and give to the Lord’s work as He shall prosper you?
- Do you purpose to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness in all the relationships of life, faithfully to perform your whole duty as a true servant of Jesus Christ, and seek to win others to Him?
- Do you make this profession of faith and purpose in the presence of God, in humble reliance upon His grace, as you desire to give your account with joy at the Last Great Day?