This subject as we wrote in our last article is putin question form because there is no unanimity of action and conception about this matter in Reformed Churches. It concerns the important question of discipline of adults who were baptized but who refuse to make a confession of faith and partake of the Lord’s Supper, and also such adults who have committed sins for which members of the Church of Jesus Christ are disciplined.

I also gave in my last article a brief sketch of some of the actions and opinions of Reformed leaders from the sixteenth century, up to the recent discussion in the Netherlands at the interrupted Synod of 1939.

Since writing the last article I have borrowed Rutger’s Kerkelijke Adviesen, which contains the report of Bavinck and Rutgers on this question which they gave to the Synod of Middelburg in 1898. This report states very clearly the difference of opinion. In the main there are two positions.

The one position is that which was originally the position of John a Lasco in the Old Netherland Church in London. The other position is that taken by Gijsbertus Voetius and followed generally by Reformed Churches.

It was the practice of John a Lasco to urge the children, (of believing parents) twelve and fourteen years of age, to partake of the Lord’s Supper. And if at the age of fifteen yet one was refused permission to come to the Lord’s table because of ignorance or misconduct such a one was seriously admonished. Finally if such admonition or censure was to no avail when such a person reached the age of eighteen or at the most twenty, they were excluded and no longer considered to belong to the communion to which they belonged as children, and were formally excommunicated.

On the other hand there was the position of Voetius. Voetius considered baptized children to be members of the Church of Jesus Christ. These children who had not yet come to years of discretion he called incomplete members of the Church.

His position accordingly is that these can only be treated as incomplete members also. But with respect to the adults who refuse to make a confession and become united with the communion of the Church, Voetius denies that they can be excommunicated. The argument is that they are not members and therefore cannot be treated under Church discipline.

In the main, it is pointed out by Bavinck and Rutgers, this is the position of the Netherlands Reformed Churches. They remark, however, that it was strange that the simple, clear statement of John a Lasco, which is appealing, did not receive wider recognition. Upon further reflection they could see several reasons why such a position of Voetius was accepted above that of John a Lasco. Two main reasons given are: 1. That in the growth in number in the Reformed Churches there was at the same time a loss of spirituality, which made it difficult for the church to maintain the old firm position. 2. The position of the Reformation to admit those of twelve to fourteen years of age to the table of the Lord was no longer followed. As the age of the years of discretion was changed so it also became evident that the reasons for not coming to the table of the Lord were not only ignorance and misconduct but other serious objections such as lack of confidence and assurance. And therefore the church could not exclude such from its communion.

However, a very good observation made in this report ought to be kept in mind in our consideration of this question of excommunication of so-called baptized members. The report makes the point that there is no principle difference. It shows that the position which says excommunication does so upon the principle that baptized members who because of their own guilt do not come to confession ought to be formally declared not to be members of the Church. The other position which says “not to formally excommunicate,” does so on the principle that they are not at all members even. Essentially therefore the position is the same.

The problem is to make a clear statement of advice for the Church to, follow in its practice. Bavinck and Rutgers attempted to do that. They attempted to keep the good points of both positions. They condemned the practice of some congregations which gave a church position to adult baptized members, for example, to allow them to remain undisturbed in their church membership, or even to give them attestation of membership by baptism when they left for other churches, or other such rights in the church. They gave a three point advice, which is as follows: 1. Baptized children are members of the Church even though they are incomplete members. And as members of the Church they are objects of discipline but this must also be “incomplete” consisting only of admonition.

  1. Such baptized members coming to years of discretion and still not making confession must be seriously admonished by the Church. If they through their own guilt do not come to confession and heed the admonition, it must be considered that they have lost their membership, and it is desirable that the consistory express this not later than their thirtieth year. These baptized members thus cease to be members of the church and thus are not objects of church discipline either.
  2. That these are not members of church means that they are not to be considered such either from any aspect. Their children are also not to be considered “children of believing parents.”

From this advice of Bavinck and Rutgers it is plain what their stand is in regard to the principle of the matter and the action to be taken with such so-called adult baptized members. The only thing that is not clear is whether they favor the more formal excommunication by the church or the mere announcement that N.N is no longer a member.

In our church the custom has been to treat all such cases of discipline of so-called adult baptized members by having the consistory seek the advice of Classis and upon approval of Classis to announce that such a member has been erased.

My conclusions in regard to these matters are as follows:

  1. It seems that everyone would agree that each consistory and pastor should very seriously begin to labor with its young people to show them their calling to confess their faith and to come to the table of the Lord.
  2. In the second place it seems to me that with regard to those who do not do so each consistory should consider the circumstances and attitude of each individual separately. An age limit cannot be set for all upon which labor should cease, and final action taken. Although the age limit set by Bavinck and Rutgers is not without value. Such an age limit will become much clearer and more defined in a church where faithful, systematic, and serious labor is expended.
  3. It also is my conclusion that where there is indifference, or enmity shown that in such cases final action must be taken immediately. By that I mean discipline must be exercised and seriously and systematically executed. This is evidently necessary in the case of public sin. It is altogether a wrong notion that with such young people, from the ages of eighteen and above who show definite hostility to the Church of Christ or even indifference that an attitude of watchful waiting should be taken with them, with the hope that sometime in the indefinite future they may be converted. The correct view of discipline will refute such a conception. True discipline seeks to bring the command to repent seriously and effectively to such young folk. Such action would be sanctifying for other young folk, for the entire church, and for those disciplined themselves if they were truly covenant seed. I think it is an Arminian influence that gives rise to the conception that the Church should be lenient and allow young folk plenty of time to decide. The Arminian influence is that it presents the matter in such a way that it is up to the individual to “accept” Christ at his own time. It is a serious calling which must be heeded in the acceptable time of the Lord, and the refusal to heed such must also therefore be looked upon as a serious sin.

The above conclusions are not at all different from the well-known Reformed teachings. However, coming to the question of what this final action of discipline should be, whether it should be merely erasure, “royeeren,” or excommunication, my conclusion is that we should use the word excommunication in order to avoid misunderstanding as to the serious principle and action involved.

I am aware of the fact that the brothers Bavinck and Rutgers do not become explicit about this in their report, although Rutgers himself at another time said not to excommunicate. I am aware too that the different Synods of the Netherlands with the exception of the last interrupted Synod of 1939 either did not care to make an explicit statement or advised against excommunication.

But I believe this hesitancy is due not to a lack of insight into the principle of the matter but to lack of courage of decision.

The Churches of the Netherlands do not care to use the term erasure. But our Churches in America from their decision in the Christian Reformed Synod of 1918 expressed themselves further than the Churches of the Netherlands by committing themselves to definite disciplinary action of such members. They, however, only came to the conclusion, final erasure.

Because of the principle involved, that baptized children are in the covenant, that is in the communion and fellowship of Jesus Christ, therefore I believe they should be treated in cases of discipline in the usual way, excommunication. That is the idea of the Reformation expressed in the action of John a Lasco. That is the principle recognized in all Reformed Churches. That is how some leaders, for example J. Jansen in 1922 have expressed themselves. The term erasure it seems to me is contradictory, to the disciplinary action itself to which our Churches are committed. That finally is in harmony with the teaching and action shown in the Bible. Compare the words of God to Moses and the actions taken in Deut. 13:6, 11; Lev. 24:10ff.