We now continue our discussion of the section of the Study Report which deals with the Church Order. At the conclusion of our last installment we pointed out that the Report’s solution with respect to the Baptism Form (use of which is required by Article 58 of the Church Order) does not fit. The second question at infant baptism and the fourth question at adult baptism use the expression “here in this Christian Church.” This very language prohibits the Report’s solution of “making it plain to the baptized persons, or their parents, that ‘this Christian Church’ refers to the institute that sends out the missionary.” There is, of course, further language in these Baptism Forms which conflicts with the position of the Study Report. The entire presupposition of these Forms is that baptism belongs in the church. In the exhortation to prayer in both of these forms, reference is made to “the edification of his Church.” What sense does this language make if the Church is not present when this is read? And bear in mind: the church is not presenton the mission field. In Rev. Harbach’s document attached to the Study Report there is repeated reference to “the unorganized congregation.” But remember that this is simply a nonentity. There is no such thing as an unorganized congregation. This very expression is a contradiction terms! If there is a congregation, it is organized; if it is not organized, there is no congregation. And if there is no congregation, it cannot possibly be said that the church is present. This means that the expression in the first question at infant baptism, “members of his Church,” also does not fit on the mission field. It means, further, that the expression used in the exhortation before the questions in adult baptism, “thou art sincerely to give answer before God and his Church,” also does not fit. All of this language presupposes and is based on the idea that the church is present at baptism; but on the mission field it is not yet present. And, therefore, it is impossible to baptize with the use of our adopted Forms.
Another facile solution of a conflict is offered by the Study Report with respect to Article 60 of the Church Order. This article reads: “The names of those baptized, together with those of the parents, and likewise the date of birth and baptism, shall be recorded.” The Study Report simply says: “The baptism records, therefore, can be held either by the missionary, on behalf of the sending church, or by the sending church.” The ground of this is supposed to be the fact that the missionary and his labor are “the arm of the congregation.” Now let us understand this clearly. When there would be infant baptism on the mission field, as proposed by the Study Report,those baptized infants would be members of no congregation. They would not be members of the church on the mission field: for there is no church as yet. Nor would they be members of the sending church, Hope Church of Grand Rapids: for no “branch” of Hope is established on the mission field under Article 39 of the Church Order. In other words, the infants are baptized as members of nothing. And their parents are as yet members of nothing—unless, as has frequently been the case in the past, they still technically retain their membership in another denomination. Now I ask: how, then, can the sending consistory or any representative of that consistory hold the baptismal records of infants who are, in fact, not members of the sending church or of any other church? And do not forget: these baptismal records are not just a technicality. What is involved in baptism and baptismal records is church membership. This is the importance of Article 60, And that I am correct in this is plain from Monsma and Van Dellen’s The Church Order Commentary, p. 247: “In answer to the question why we keep baptismal records the obvious reply is simply: In order that each Church may know who have been baptized. Or, to state it differently: In order that each Church may know which children and young people belong to it by virtue of their Baptism and so that each Consistory may know which children and young people fall under its special care and jurisdiction.”
But there are other difficulties in the Church Order on which the Study Report does not even touch.
Article 56 reads: “The covenant of God shall be sealed unto the children of Christians by baptism, as soon as the administration thereof is feasible, in the public assembly when the Word of God is preached.” This article presents two difficulties for the position taken by the Study Report. The first is the expression “children of Christians.” From the very outset in Reformed churches this expression has been understood as referring to members of the Reformed churches. Again I quote from The Church Order Commentary, p. 231: “The general principle having been established a number of practical questions soon presented themselves. From the very outset it became the rule to baptize only children of parents who belonged to the Reformed Churches. But some parents, who were in sympathy with the Reformation and at heart at odds with the Roman Church, nevertheless failed to make a final break with Rome because they lacked the courage of faith and clarity of conviction. Officially they were still Roman Catholics. Sometimes such parents requested a Reformed Church to baptize their child. The first Synod (Emden, 1571) replied to a question regarding such cases by referring to the opinion of the theologians of Geneva, Ministers and professors. The rule should be, so Beza (Calvin’s successor at Geneva, HCH) had written, that only children of Church members should receive baptism. But in abnormal times, as when the Church was in process of being reorganized, or when severe persecutions were raging, exceptions to this rule might be made. Children of weak and fearful parents might be baptized under these circumstances, though not without certain stipulations and promises. But as will be realized, that ruling was by way of concession for the period of transition.” (italics added)
The second difficulty presented by this article of the Church Order lies in the words “in the public assembly when the Word of God is preached.” Now let it be understood: I am not denying that the Word of God is preached on the mission field. That is not the difficulty. What we must see clearly is that on the mission field and in a mission station there is as yet no public assembly. For that term “public assembly”—and every commentary on the Church Order will confirm this—refers to a regular church service, i.e., to the official gathering of a local congregation for public worship. Going all the way back to the Synod of Dordrecht in 1574 this principle has been insisted upon in Reformed churches. And the position of the Study Report conflicts with this principle. This is not because the Church Order is not geared to the mission situation; it is because the Study Report wants to change what we have always practiced in the mission situation.
Finally, we call attention to Article 59 of the Church Order: “Adults are through baptism incorporated into the Christian church, and are accepted as members of the church, and are therefore obliged also to partake of the Lord’s Supper, which they shall promise to do at their baptism.”
We have already quoted from the Form for Adult Baptism, which also refers to promising to partake of the Lord’s Supper, even as does the above article. It goes without saying, of course, that on the mission field such a promise could be for a long time meaningless, for the simple reason that the Lord’s Supper is not celebrated except in the local, instituted congregation.
But we are especially interested in the first part of this article: “Adults are through baptism incorporated into the Christian church, and are accepted as members of the church.” Do not make the mistake of thinking that this article is speaking of a kind of abstract incorporation into and membership in a so-called visible catholic church. This is not the case; and one would not expect a Church Order to. speak of this anyway. But what this article speaks of is being incorporated into the church as represented in the local congregation. And then it is also very significant with respect to the meaning of baptism. Van Dellen and Monsma, The Church Order Commentary, p. 245, have the following enlightening comments:
“The significance of this statement is that those who have come to years of discretion and comparative independence can only be admitted to Church membership by profession of faith and Baptism administered upon this profession. The term ‘Christian Church’ as used in Article 59, does not stand on par with the expression ‘Church of Christ’ as used in Article 1. The expression ‘Church of Christ’ is used to indicate the body of believers living in a certain region or country. It does not as a rule refer to these believers as they are organized into a Church or Churches. (See comments, Article 1) The term ‘Christian Church’ in the present article, however, refers to a specific congregation or organized Church. The opening provisions of Article 59, therefore, simply specifies that adults who stand outside of the organized Churches can only be incorporated into a local or particular Church upon confession and Baptism, and that thus they are admitted to full membership rights in the Church which so receives them. A literal translation of Article 59 on this score would make this interpretation very evident. Literally we read: ‘Adults are to be incorporated into the Christian congregation by Baptism, and are thus to be accepted as members of the congregations.’ He who has been granted adult Baptism thereby receives all the privileges of Church membership. He stands on par with those who were baptized in infancy and who in later years made profession of their faith.”
This makes it very evident that in our churches adult baptism cannot properly be administered on the mission field in the way proposed by the Study Report. Why not? The reason is simple: there is no church there into which they can be incorporated and accepted as members. Under such circumstances, therefore, adult baptism would lose the significance ascribed to it in the Church Order.
But again, this is closely connected with the significance of baptism in relation to the church as the body of Christ. This will be the subject of our next discussion, the Lord willing.