Baptism On the Mission Field (2)

In our previous editorial we explained that our Form of Ordination of Missionaries was originally only a form designed for the ordination of missionaries to the heathen. If you want to read the Form as it was originally composed, then you must omit the section entitled, “Unto the Dispersed.” The latter was added by the Christian Reformed Church in the early 1900s, and we inherited this revised form. The important point here, as we hope to make plain, is that the duties of the missionary were originally formulated for a missionary to the heathen; and this has something to do with the order in which these duties are listed. 

Synod’s Study Committee was instructed “to investigate whether on the mission field there may be, or should be, administration of the sacraments, especially baptism” and “to take into account . . . the Form for the Ordination of Missionaries . . . .” The Study Committee did this. But we believe: 1) That the Study Committee’s explanation of the Form is contrary to the plain language of the Form. 2) That the Study Committee did not see that there is a perfectly natural explanation for the order of the duties bf the missionary in the Form. This we will try to make plain. 

First of all, let us get before us the language of the Form of Ordination in which the duties of the missionary are set forth:

In the first place thou art to bring to their attention by all fit and lawful means, the glad tidings that Jesus Christ has come into the world to save sinners. All thine actions, thy speaking and thy silence, yea, all thine influence is to co-operate to recommend the gospel of Christ, etc. 

Secondly, thou art holden, if it pleases God to make thy work fruitful unto the gathering of a church, to administer the Sacrament of Holy Baptism according to the institution of the Lord and the requirement of the covenant. (Note: Lest there be any doubt about it, let it be noted that this point speaks very definitely of “the gathering of a congregation,” as is plain from the Dutch original, “indien het God behaagt uwen arbeid vruchtbaar te maken tot het vergaderen eener gemeente.” HCH) 

Furthermore, thou art called wherever it is necessary and possible to ordain elders and deacons even as Paul charged Titus, chapter 1:5, saying: “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that were wanting, and appoint elders in every city, as I gave thee charge.” But lay hands hastily on no man. 

Moreover, there is committed unto thee, as minister of Christ and steward of the mysteries of God, the administering of the Holy Supper of the Lord according to the institution of Christ.

Besides this, there is commended unto thee the maintaining of Christian discipline in the midst of the congregation, by faithful use of the keys of the Kingdom, etc. 

And finally, beloved brother, be a faithful servant of Jesus Christ, and a careful shepherd of the flock, etc.

Notice the order here: 1) Preaching. 2) Baptism. 3) Ordination 6f elders and deacons. 4) The Lord’s Supper. 5) Discipline. 6) Shepherd of the flock. 

Especially should we notice that the duty of baptism comes before the duty of ordaining elders and deacons, while the duty of administering the Lord’s Supper follows the duty of ordaining elders and deacons. Why? 

There can be no question, about it that this order is intentional. As we saw in our historical study, Dr. Beuker himself, the author of this Form, stated that he adhered as much as possible to the Form for the Ordination of Ministers. But here he departed from that Form. For the latter has the following order: 1) Preaching. 2) Public prayer and supplication. 3) Administration of the Sacraments (both mentioned in the same paragraph, HCH). 4) Discipline and government. 

We repeat the question: WHY this order for missionaries? 

The answer is a perfectly natural one: this Form was originally designed to fit the peculiar situation of a missionary to the heathen; and for a missionary to the heathen, because of the peculiar circumstances, this order is necessary and all these duties are included. Bear in mind the following: 

1. A missionary to the heathen will be laboring among unbaptized persons exclusively. Not only will there be unbaptized infants, but the adult converts, coming out of heathendom, will be unbaptized. Ordinarily a home missionary does not encounter that situation: the adults have usually been baptized. 

2. A missionary to the heathen must ordain elders and deacons. But an unbaptized, non-confessing elder or deacon is an impossibility. Hence, such a missionary must necessarily receive the confession of faith of adult converts and must thereupon baptize them before a congregation can be instituted and elders and deacons be ordained. Roughly equivalent to this step on the home mission field is the fact that when a congregation is organized membership testimonials must be received by those in charge of organization: “In order to organize the congregation the committee meets with the persons concerned, who have meanwhile requested their certificates of membership, or if it be impossible to have their certificates transferred, those present shall give testimony one of another that they were members in full communion and of good report in the congregation from which they are now separating. After a service of worship shall have been conducted under the guidance of the committee, the latter shall request those present to tender their certificates, in as far as possible. The committee having found the certificates in good order and having accepted them, they shall proceed to election of officebearers, who shall immediately upon their election, be installed in their respective offices.” (Decision #3, Article 38, Church Order) If my memory serves me correctly, there have also been instances of profession of faith at such an organizational meeting—prior to election of officebearers. And I suppose that there could also be—if the situation arose—the profession of faith and baptism of a previously unbaptized adult. 

3. A missionary to the heathen would also necessarily have to administer the Lord’s Supper for a time. Ordinarily a home missionary does not do this, except , perhaps, immediately after organization. Usually the missionary moves on to a new field, and the new congregation receives classical pulpit supply. The situation would be different on the foreign field. There would be elders and deacons, but perhaps for a long time no native pastor. The missionary remains in the area, possibly serving more than one newly established congregation. Hence, he preaches and also administers the supper. 

4. The same is true of the duty of discipline. Ordinarily the home missionary has no occasion to exercise discipline in a congregation established through his labors. He moves on. But on the foreign field this would be different. There is no native pastor. And although there are elders and deacons, they are new to the faith and in much need of the instruction and guidance of the missionary. And the same is true of the last duty mentioned, the labor of a pastor. One can well understand that on the foreign field the missionary cannot simply move on and drop the care of an infant congregation once it has been organized. And again, this is different on the home mission field. 

Now all this is a far cry from the ordinary situation on the home mission field. And it is also plain as the sun in the heavens that surely the baptism of infants prior to the ordination of elders and deacons is not at all necessary. And yet the fact remains that this same Form was simply taken over by the Committee of the Christian Reformed Church in the early 1900s and adjusted a bit so that it could be used for Home Missionaries. I would hazard a guess that there was some carelessness and thoughtlessness involved here, and that in making this adjustment due consideration was not given to the obvious differences of situation between the foreign field and the home field. 

Nevertheless, the decision stands. We as Protestant Reformed Churches, having inherited this form, are also bound by it; and it applies to a home missionary as well as to a foreign missionary. And this means, therefore, that to the extent that the same situation prevails on the home mission field as on the foreign mission field, the same order of duties also prevails. 

Do not forget, however, that the stand of our churches in this regard does not simply depend on the alleged synodical precedent of 1956. It is also a binding decision of our churches in 1934 and 1944: “If possible the organization of a congregation shall precede the administration of the sacraments.” (Decision under Article 39, Church Order) 

Do not forget, moreover, that the question still remains: what is the meaning of the stipulation in the Form, “. . . if it pleases God to make thy work fruitful unto the gathering of a church . . . .”? On this also I am in disagreement with the Study Committee’s report. 

But about this next time, the Lord willing.