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Baptism and Church Membership: A Plea for Confessional Fidelity

Bryan D. Holstrom

In response to an overture from the Presbytery of the West Coast, the 1965 General Assembly elected a three member committee chaired by John Murray to consider the following question: Does the Constitution of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church permit church sessions to receive into communicant membership those who refuse to present their children for baptism on account of scruples concerning infant baptism?

The committee's report, which was submitted to the following year's Assembly, was brief but forceful. They stressed the indisputable nature of the fact that baptism was of divine origin and institution, and as such, wrote that "it is the obligation of believing parents to present their children for baptism." To hold otherwise, the report stated, "would constitute a weakening of the witness the church bears to the ordinance of infant baptism as one of divine warrant, authority, and obligation."[1]

Furthermore, the person so refusing to submit his children for baptism is guilty of "rejecting the covenant promise and grace which God has certified to his people," and of withholding from the church "the holy seed which God in his goodness has provided for it." Such a person is not only delinquent in doctrine, but guilty of what our subordinate standards characterize as a "great sin."

Despite the forcefulness of the committee's language, however, their arguments failed to win the day. When the question was put to a vote, the Assembly chose to side with the view of a single dissenting member of the committee whose qualifying considerations were incorporated into the final report. That member argued against adopting a firm rule in the matter, and instead to leave it to the discretion of individual sessions to decide the issue in each case.

Whatever may have been the practice of individual sessions prior to the formal adoption of that position in 1966, it is undeniable that such discretion is nowadays, more often than not, exercised in favor of receiving those who refuse to present their children for baptism. Some churches have even taken to maintaining separate rolls for the baptized and unbaptized children of members.

The present essay seeks to expand upon the arguments made in the 1966 report, with a twofold purpose in view: 1) to convince individual sessions to exercise their discretion in accordance with the majority position, requiring prospective members to baptize their children as they are received; and ultimately, 2) to encourage reconsideration and reversal of the position taken in 1966 at a future General Assembly.

Briefly, the argument for overturning the earlier decision is based upon the fundamental conviction that for elders to admit parents into membership without requiring the concurrent baptism of their young children is to act contrary to what is required of them as overseers of the church in both Scripture and the Westminster Standards.

Scripture

Every elder who is ordained in the OPC has sworn to receive and adopt the provisions relating to baptism in the Westminster Confession, "as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures." Thus, our denominational fidelity to the practice of infant baptism is already firmly established and not in question here. Rather, the focus herein is upon the narrower question of how it is that Scripture precludes granting to elders the option of dispensing with baptism as a requirement for membership in Christ's church. The answer to that question is found in the Bible's teaching on the purposes for which baptism and its forerunner, circumcision, have been given, and the importance that God attaches to them as signs and seals of his covenant of grace.

At the outset, it is important to recognize that the biblical case for infant baptism is built upon the covenantal understanding of redemptive history, which also forms the framework for Reformed theology in general. Through this scriptural lens, we are able to see that the promises made and sealed to Abraham in his circumcision are the exact same ones which find their continuing fulfillment in his "descendant" Jesus Christ. Although the outward sign has changed from circumcision to baptism, the meaning and purpose for which it is administered is precisely the same—to mark the one receiving the sign as belonging to the covenant people of God, and for testifying to the righteousness of the faith which God imparts to those whom he unites to his Son (Rom. 4:11). This is why Paul can so easily equate the two rites (Col. 2:11-12; see also WCF 27.5).

With this understanding of the place of baptism in the church as a backdrop, it is easy to see why our Confession and Catechisms assert the doctrine of infant baptism without apology or equivocation. This makes it all the more puzzling why it is that, when the discussion shifts to the importance of baptism within God's economy, and the sanctions which accompany its neglect, the Reformed Christian so often turns tail and runs in the face of Baptist opposition. But isn't that precisely what we do when we accept the position taken at the 1966 GA? If we accept the argument that baptism is less important than circumcision, and thus optional on the basis of private scruples, have we not cast doubt upon our whole case for infant baptism in the first place? Since none of us would seriously suggest that circumcision was merely an optional rite of entry into the Old Testament church, on what basis do we make such a distinction with respect to baptism? Both rites come to us via direct command of God, and the account of God's nearly taking Moses' life in Exodus 4 because of his failure to circumcise his own son should serve as an urgent warning against our neglecting baptism.

Just as we rightly ask the Baptist to show us the evidence for God having done away with placing his covenant sign upon the children of believers, so too must we ask him to show us the biblical evidence that failure to do so carries any less of a penalty or negative consequence in the New Testament era. Are the children of believers who do not receive baptism in this age any less cut-off from the benefits of the covenant than those who did not receive circumcision in the Old Testament era? If it be argued in the affirmative, where is the support for such a conclusion?

Even if it is argued that the particular nature of redemption, or the fact that we are in an age of "greater grace," somehow overrides or minimizes the adverse effects upon the covenant child who is denied the baptism that he or she deserves, that does not change the fact that in our refusal to apply the sign we are defying a direct command of God. Regardless of whether or not the consequences to the covenant child of not receiving the sign are less severe in this age, the fact is that there was nothing optional about the administration of the rite, either in its original pronouncement to Abraham, or its subsequent pronouncement to the apostles from Christ himself.

Moreover, we must be careful that we do not use the "greater grace" argument as a convenient cover for our sin. To argue that God would not take the life of any one of us for sanctioning such an infraction of a clear command says nothing about the appropriateness of doing so. It does not make such an act pleasing in his sight. Judgment for our failure to do the right thing is merely delayed until a later time (Heb. 13:17; Jas. 3:1).

Besides, what sense does it make to argue that, in an age of greater grace, the act of administering a sacrament which brings blessings to the recipient is now merely optional, as opposed to commanded? The sacrament is God's action upon the child, not the reverse. It is a means of grace. Our Reformed tradition has always recognized that, although the rite of baptism itself is not automatically regenerative, we nevertheless have every reason to believe that God is pleased at times to offer his saving grace to certain covenant children at that very moment of administration, a possibility for which our own Confession seems to make allowance (WCF 28.6). While there is no warrant for assuming that this will happen in the case of any particular covenant child, one thing is certain—it cannot happen in this manner if the rite is not administered in the first place. Such is the potential impact of our decision upon the children whom God has placed in our charge.

The Westminster Standards

The position adopted by the 1966 GA is also at odds with our subordinate doctrinal standards. The following excerpts touch upon the matter either directly or indirectly.

Regarding Baptism:

"Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized" (WCF 28.4).

"Baptism is a sacrament ... whereby the parties baptized are solemnly admitted into the visible church" (WLC 165).

Regarding the subjects of baptism, "infants descending from their parents, either both, or but one of them, professing faith in Christ, and obedience to him, are in that respect within the covenant, and to be baptized" (WLC 166; see also 177).

It is "a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance" (WCF 28.5).

Regarding the Second Commandment:

"The duties required in the second commandment are the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath instituted in his Word; particularly ... the administration and receiving of the sacraments" (WLC 108).

It would be superfluous to add much in the way of commentary to the passages listed above, since they largely speak for themselves. Collectively, they speak to the duty of having children baptized, and of baptism as being the only route to membership in the visible church. The language used does not admit of any discretion in the matter under consideration. Infants "are to be baptized." The failure to do so is a "great sin," since it constitutes a violation of the second commandment in the case of both the parents and elders who allow for its neglect.

Some have tried to blunt the force of the Confession's teaching here by arguing that the characterization of baptismal neglect as a "great sin" occurs only within the larger context of an assertion that baptism is not necessary to salvation. But what difference does that make to the discussion here? The relevant words are not taken out of context. They call the neglect of baptism a great sin, plain and simple. The qualifying phrase, on the other hand, has nothing to do with the issue at hand, for no one is arguing that the rite of baptism is a necessary concomitant to saving grace. The question involved here is unambiguous to the core: Does the WCF call the neglecting of baptism a great sin, or does it not?

Significantly, neither of the two arguments that are frequently advanced in favor of dispensing with the rite of baptism addresses the explicit language of condemnation found in the Confession. The first argument—that requiring the prospective member to baptize his children amounts to imposing a standard of full confessional subscription on him—is absurd. The only thing under consideration here is faithful obedience to the administration of the sacraments. Moreover, the argument misses the point that we already require full subscription with respect to the other sacrament. I am not aware of a single OP church that admits to membership those who demand that their infant children receive the Lord's Supper. On what basis do we take a different approach to baptism?

As for the second argument—that such families are better off worshiping in our churches than down the street in one of Baptist persuasion—who among us could take issue with such a statement? But the irony is that we feel that way precisely because we have already accepted the superiority of our Reformed tradition, which includes our theology of baptism. And if we do so, then what sense does it make to abandon an important tenet of that tradition just to keep one or two or even ten families in the fold, when the other ten or twenty or fifty families are counting on us to uphold that tradition? Is such a policy fair to them? Wasn't it our faithfulness to the Reformed tradition that attracted most families to our churches in the first place? What will we have to offer them in the future if we begin to look like the great mass of churches out there for which biblical doctrine is, at best, an afterthought?

At the end of the day, only one conclusion seems plausible in the face of the evidence: we do not take seriously the Confession's statement that the neglect of baptism is a great sin. As a denomination, we have effectively taken an exception to the Confession's teaching at this point. No other explanation of our position makes any sense. The language of the Confession is too explicit and straightforward here to allow for any other possibility.

So that begs the obvious question: What is such language still doing in our doctrinal standards four decades later? Either we embrace and adhere to that section of the WCF or we do not. But we cannot have it both ways. If we are to be consistent, we must either reverse our 1966 decision or formally amend our doctrinal standards to eliminate the offending language. I pray that we choose the former course over the latter, but integrity demands that we do something to resolve the tension. Such inherently inconsistent thinking may be the norm in our modern secular society, but it has no place in the church of Christ. If we are not willing to uphold our confessional standards at this point, we should be honest about it and make our break with tradition official.

Conclusion

An old legal maxim says that "hard cases make for bad law." The point of that old saw is that when fallible men seek to apply the plain dictates of the law against an otherwise sympathetic party, too often it is the law that gets set aside. The result is that a bad precedent is established for all future cases. I can't help but see an application of that principle in our adoption of the 1966 position on baptism and church membership. In a desire to accomplish otherwise laudable goals, we've taken an express affirmation found in our doctrinal standards and chosen to ignore it. But at what cost to precedent have we done so? What will be our response to those who will inevitably come demanding that we make an exception to our practice of distinguishing between communicant and noncommunicant members? Yet we have even less confessional support for drawing the line at this point, since there is no comparable language in our standards condemning paedocommunion as a great sin. Alas, the hard case of turning away those with Baptist scruples has made us vulnerable on any number of fronts.

Frankly, it is inexplicable to me that we have chosen to take an exception at precisely the point where our Confession has spoken most clearly and emphatically. What else could account for such a departure, except that we have succumbed to the pressures of the Baptistic culture all around us? I don't know of a single Baptist church that would accommodate the scruples regarding infant baptism of a Reformed Christian who came to it seeking membership. In our accommodation of theirs, is the Baptist not warranted in assuming that we really don't believe that deeply in what we preach on this subject? If it is a great sin to leave our children unbaptized, then it is likewise sinful for church leaders to countenance such an infraction.

In an earlier time, Machen reminded us of the stakes involved here. In commenting upon the calamitous split between Luther and Zwingli over the meaning of the other sacrament, he wrote:

It was a great calamity indeed. But the calamity was due to the fact Luther (as we believe) was wrong about the Lord's Supper; and it would have been a far greater calamity if being wrong about the Supper he had represented the whole question as a trifling affair.... A Luther who would have compromised with regard to the Lord's Supper never would have said at the Diet of Worms, "Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me, Amen." Indifferentism about doctrine makes no heroes of the faith.[2]

Despite the spiritual nature of our calling, we elders are, after all, still human. We are frail and weak, and we sometimes allow personal friendships and the desire for peace to prevail over the hard task of doing what God has called us to do. It is easy to see how we may be individually led astray in matters such as this. But there should be a measure of protection against such tendencies when we assemble together as a session (or presbytery or general assembly). We should be able to, even expected to, hold one another accountable to our own standards, and in that more detached setting our deliberations should be free from such weaknesses and compromising influences.

Undoubtedly, such a stand will cost us a potential member now and then. But God will bless our faithfulness to his Word. In the long run, the only safe course of action for us as a denomination is to follow Scripture (as summarized in our Confession) and let God supply the increase. May it never be said of us that we were more concerned about numbers or friendships than we were about pleasing him.

Endnotes

[1] The full report may be accessed under the title "Refusing to Present Children for Baptism," at http://opc.org/GA/refuse_bapt.html.

[2] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 50-51.

Bryan D. Holstrom is a ruling elder at Covenant of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Batavia, Illinois. Ordained Servant Online, February 2011.

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