The last paragraph of Section III (The Church Order) of the Study Report we have not yet discussed. Actually, this paragraph is only partially concerned with the Church Order. The latter indeed has something to say on the subject: Article 59 states that “Adults are through Baptism incorporated into the Christian Church, and are accepted as members of the Church.” And this in itself rules out the position of the Study Report, which in effect proposes a baptism which is not incorporation into the Christian Church and which does not involve acceptance as members of the Church. As I said, this is important enough in itself: for it surely means that the Study Report is proposing a new kind of baptism, which Reformed churches have never before recognized and practiced.
But more importantly, this part of the Study Report involves our confessions. Before I call attention to this, let me quote the pertinent paragraph:
Nor does baptism on the mission field weaken the truth that baptism signifies incorporation into the instituted church. It must be recognized, first, that one is baptized into Christ Himself, into His death.
ff Secondly, one is baptized into the visible, catholic Body of Christ
Belgic Confession, Art. 34. But the missionary’s instruction of those who present themselves for baptism must include the teaching that, exactly for these reasons, the end of baptism is the formation of and the individual’s membership in an instituted congregation. If God does not bless the missionary’s labors with the establishing of a congregation, the baptized are bound to join a congregation that has the marks of the true church.
I will pass by, at least for the time being, the fact that the Study Report produces absolutely no exegesis ofRomans 6:3, ff. and I Corinthians 12:12, 13, but simply assumesa certain meaning and application of these passages. This is no way to use texts. My very first question would be: has the Report demonstrated that these texts are indeed speaking of the sacrament, rather than only of the reality of baptism? Understand, I am only raising the question at this point. But it is an important question. A second important question would be: has the Report demonstrated that I Cor. 12 is speaking indeed of “the visible, catholic Body of Christ?” Do we simply assume such important items, and then adopt new stands and new practices on the basis of assumptions? This, to me, is not proper church style. But for the present I will pass this by: this is really not the Scriptural section of the Study Report.
What I want to point out is that this is the only point in the entire Study Report where there is even a reference to the confessions. And then the subject receives quick and easy treatment.
Now I am not blaming the Study Committee for this. The blame rests squarely upon the Synod of 1975, which made absolutely no reference to the confessions in the mandate given to the committee. To me, this is preposterous! One would think we had no confessions, or that the confessions have nothing to say about baptism and about the relation between baptism and church membership. And yet this is not the case. Fact is that almost all Reformed confessions, because of their historical orientation, pay a disproportionate amount of attention to the subject of the sacraments and the church. And surely, whatever is decided on this issue of baptism on the mission field must be in full harmony with what our confessions have to say about baptism and the church. Let our Protestant Reformed Churches at their Synod make certain about that!
What is wrong with the position set forth in this paragraph of the Study Report? I find the following items:
1. The Report establishes no connection between being baptized into Christ and being baptized into the visible, catholic Body of Christ. It simply places the two next to each other.
2. The Report as it stands speaks of a “visible, catholic Body of Christ” which is an abstraction. One can indeed distinguish between the organic and the institutional aspect of the visibility of the church. But surely, when we speak of the sacraments, according to all our confessions, we are squarely in the realm of the institutional aspect and manifestation of the “visible, catholic Body of Christ.” What is the importance of this? It means: a) That the only way in which this “visible, catholic Body of Christ” becomes manifest, i.e., visible, is through concrete, visible, local, instituted congregations. And, b) That the only way a person can be baptized into that “visible, catholic Body of Christ” is through his, by baptism (a holy, visible sign and seal), being incorporated into the institutionally visible congregation.
It is of the utmost importance that we understand this and maintain it. Otherwise we can no longer maintain that the church as institutionally visible in the local congregation is indispensably necessary. If I can be baptized somehow into a visible, catholic Body of Christ without being a member of any local congregation and without becoming a member through my very baptism, then I have no principal need of that local congregation. After all, my membership in the Body of Christ is the important thing, the all-important thing. If the latter can be separated from my membership in the local church, then I can forget about that local church membership. Oh, perhaps there are practical reasons for such membership, but’ there is no principal need. And remember: if this is true, it is as true at home as it is on the mission field.
3. Yet this is exactly what the Study Report proposes and allows. It forgets that we are incorporated into the church by baptism. And it proposes that the missionary must instruct people that they must become members in an instituted congregation. And if a congregation is not established on the mission field, then the baptized persons must go elsewhere. But remember: all this time (whether 3 months, 6 months, a year, two years) they are already members of the VISIBLE, catholic Body of Christ! And I ask: if this is possible for six months or a year, then what principal reason is there why it should not be possible for ten years or a lifetime? To put it bluntly, such a person, once he has been baptized, doesn’t need the instituted church; he “has it made.”
I warn you: follow this line to its logical and ultimate conclusion, and there will not even be an instituted church left to do any baptizing!
But now let us turn to our confessions.
There are two places in our confessions which speak of baptism in terms of church membership. One is the Heidelberg Catechism, Question and Answer 74, which speaks of infant baptism. Speaking of infants of believers, it says that “since they, as well as the adult, are included in the covenant and church of God . . . they must therefore by baptism, as a sign of the covenant, be also admitted into the Christian church. . . .” (italics added) The other was referred to by the Study Report, but not quoted. In Article 34 of the Belgic Confession we read: “We believe and confess that Jesus Christ . . . having abolished circumcision . . . hath instituted the sacrament of baptism instead thereof; by which we are received into the Church of God, and separated from all other people and strange religions, that we may wholly belong to him, whose ensign and banner we bear. . . .”
Here, therefore, we find baptism described as the sacrament by which we are admitted into, received into, incorporated into what the Study Report calls the “visible, catholic Body of Christ.” This expression, by the way, is found in the Westminster Confession in connection with baptism. We may note, too, that there is general agreement among other Reformed confessions on this significance of baptism. Similar language can be found in the Westminster creeds, the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, the Irish Articles of Religion, the Scotch Confession of Faith, and the French Confession of Faith.
Now the very language of Article 34 as well as the context of the preceding articles (30 to 32), all of which refer to the church as instituted, ought to warn us already that this so-called visible, catholic Body of Christ is not a mere abstraction, existing “out there somewhere” without concrete form in local congregations.
But let us allow the Confession itself to tell us what is meant.
First of all, go back with me to Article 27, “Of the Catholic Christian Church.” There you read: “We believe and profess, one catholic or universal Church, which is an holy congregation of true Christian believers, all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by his blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Ghost.” But when you read on in this article, you discover that this article is speaking of this holy catholic church as it exists in and is visible in this present world. This is very plain from the following: “And this holy Church is preserved or supported by God, against the rage of the whole world; though she sometimes (for a while) appears very small, and in the eyes of men, to be reduced to nothing: as during the perilous reign of Ahab, the Lord reserved unto him seven thousand men, who had not bowed the knees to Baal. Furthermore, this holy Church is not confined, bound, or limited to a certain place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed over the whole world. . . .” (italics added)
This is the church (visible and catholic) to which Article 34 refers.
But now read on in Article 28, where the subject is this same church; under the title, “That every one is bound to join himself to the true Church,” this article states:
“We believe, since this holy congregation (notice: the same church as in Art. 27, HCH) is an assembly of those who are saved, and that out of it there is no salvation, that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw himself, to live in a separate state from it; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it; maintaining the unity of the Church; submitting themselves to the doctrine and discipline thereof; bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ; and as mutual members of the same body, serving to the edification of the brethren, according to the talents God has given them.” We interrupt our quotation at this point to ask the question: how is this to be done, this joining one’s self to this holy congregation, this “visible, catholic Body of Christ?” Here is the answer of Art. 28: “And that this may be the more effectually observed, it is the duty of all believers, according to the word of God, to separate themselves from all those who do not belong to the Church, and to join themselves to this congregation, wheresoever God hath established it, even though the magistrates and edicts of princes were against it, yea, though they should suffer death or any other corporal punishment. Therefore all those, who separate themselves from the same, or do not join themselves to it, act contrary to the ordinance of God.” (italics added)
It is very plain that when our Confession speaks of joining the visible, catholic Body of Christ, therefore, it does so in terms of joining it as manifested in the locally constituted congregation. No prince or magistrate will ever punish you and kill you for joining an abstract visible, catholic Body of Christ. But if you joined this church concretely, as manifested in a Reformed congregation, in the days when our Confession was written, Philip II would have you killed!
And it is this church, the visible, catholic church as manifested in the local congregation, into which you are admitted, received, incorporated by baptism, according to Article 34 of the Confession and Qu. & A. 74 of the Heidelberg Catechism, as well as many other Reformed creeds. Mind you, you do not by baptism become obligated to join it. Your membership in it is not merely “the end of baptism”—sometime in the future, if and when a congregation is established. No, baptism IS your incorporation into the church. By baptism you ARE ADMITTED, RECEIVED into that church.
This is the teaching of our confessions. By this we must abide.
Let me conclude this part of my critique by quoting from some old catechism notes on Article 28 by Rev. H. Hoeksema. They are notes for his “Wednesday Evening Class” of some 30 to 40 years ago. My eye happened to fall on them when, I was studying another subject, and I noticed the mention of baptism—though not, of course, in the context of our current discussion whatsoever. But notice:
“1. The subject of this article: a. Everyone is bound to join himself to the true church: 1) What is meant is not that one makes himself a member of the true spiritual body of Christ. 2) But that one is in duty bound to unite himself with the manifestation of that body in the church in the world. b. This takes place: 1) Through the outward sign of baptism, whether of children or of adults. 2) Through confession of faith. 3) Through the union in public worship, celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and in general, participation in the organic life of the church.”