In this installment of our series on the above subject we wish to concentrate, as promised in our December 1 editorial, on the stipulation in the Form of Ordination of Missionaries which limits his baptizing anyone on the mission field, “. . . if it pleases God to make thy work fruitful unto the gathering of a church. . . .” Before turning to this question, however, I wish to make two items clear:
1) First of all, as to my motivation in these editorials, I trust that everyone understands that I am not disagreeing with the Study Report simply for the sake of disagreeing; nor am I disagreeing merely out of resistance to change as such—although it remains true that change should not take place lightly and easily, especially not when it concerns policies of long standing and when it concerns so important an element as the sacraments. I am concerned, as we all are and ought to be, that if our churches change their stand (and the stand of Reformed churches in the past) on this matter, this change must be made in full awareness of the implications and consequences and must be made on clear and indubitable grounds. And then I state frankly that, while I am open to conviction, at the moment I have not been convinced that we must go the course recommended by the Study Report; on the contrary, I have many reasons to disagree with said Report. 2)
Secondly, I wish to make it plain that to me the issue is not whether there may and should ever be baptism on the mission field. On the contrary, I am thoroughly convinced that it is in harmony with the Form of Ordination, the Confessions, and Scripture that there be baptism on the mission field. To me, the question is: WHEN? Under what circumstances? May a missionary baptize so-called converts at any time and indiscriminately? May he baptize even when there is no outlook for and no guarantee of the organization of a congregation? This, unless I cannot read, seems to be the position of the Study Report, both under II, where it discusses the Form of Ordination, and in its first item of advice: “Synod declare that the missionary has the authority, under the supervision of the sending church, when the Word of God is preached, to baptize those on the mission field who repent and believe, as well as their children, although the church institute is not yet established there, with a view to the instituting of a congregation.”
Before discussing this question, however, I wish to quote in full what the Study Report has to say on this subject, Acts of Synod, pp. 106, 107:
The Form of Ordination of Missionaries (pp 74-76 in the back of the Psalter), rightly understood, charges the missionary with the duty of baptizing on the mission field, before and with a view to the existence of the instituted church. This Form was misunderstood by the Synod of 1956, which decided that “administration of the Sacraments is contrary to the second duty mentioned in the Form of Ordination (Art. 91).
The second duty of the Form reads: “Secondly, thou art holden, if it pleases God to make thy work fruitful unto the gathering of a church, to administer the Sacraments of Holy Baptism according to the institution of the Lord and the requirement of the covenant.” The Synod of 1956 evidently understood the Form to mean: “if it pleases God to institute a congregation where you were laboring.” That this is not the meaning is plain from the fact that the Form goes on to say, “Furthermore, thou art called wherever it is necessary and possible to ordain elders and deacons . . .” showing that there is no institute as yet when the missionary is carrying out his second duty, namely, baptizing. “If it pleases God to make thy work fruitful unto the gathering of a church” means if God gives you the fruit on your preaching of sinners who repent and believe, which fruit has as its normal goal the gathering of a church in a certain place. The Form refers to the fruit of repentance and faith; the sense is, “If there are converts.” But it views the conversion of sinners, correctly, as God’s gathering of a church. It is not the Form’s intent to prohibit the missionary from baptizing until a congregation is instituted. In addition to the fact that such an interpretation is ruled out by the Form’s speaking of an instituted congregation only in the third duty, this is in conflict with the “institution of the Lord” appealed to by the Form, which “institution of the Lord,” quoted by the Form during the actual ordaining is: “Go then . . . and teach all nations, baptizing them . . .”
Our Form reminds the missionary that the duty of baptizing on the mission field includes baptizing the children of believers when it states: “and the requirement of the covenant.” This was done by the apostles, as
(the baptism of Lydia’s household) and
(the baptism of the house of the Philippian jailor) teach.
It is worthy of note that the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands, at their General Synod of Middelburg in 1965-66, adopted a “Form for the Ordination of Ministers of the Word for the Service of Missions” that makes indisputably clear that the missionary’s task is baptizing converts, not after an institute is formed, but as part of the task of the missionary. (We translate) “The servants who are called to this task have to proclaim the gospel in other parts of the world to those who do not know Jesus Christ as their Savior. They must administer Holy Baptism to those who have confessed Jesus Christ as their Lord after they have given them instruction in the way of salvation. Moreover, they have the task to labor for the building up of the church there, too, where as yet no congregation is present, to help install office bearers. . . .” (Cf. “Generale Synode Middelburg 1965-66,” pp. 19-22.)
For the time being, we will pass by the evaluation of the decision of 1956. Whether or not this decision was as incorrect as the Study Report pictures it to be is open to debate. However, at the moment this would lead us away from the main question. We will, therefore, return to the matter of the 1956 decision at a later time.
At present we must concentrate, first of all, on the Study Report’s explanation of the clause, “If it pleases God to make thy work fruitful unto the gathering of a church.” Concerning this limitation on the missionary’s baptizing, the Report says the following:
1. It means: “if God gives you the fruit on your preaching of sinners who repent and believe, which fruit has as its normal goal the gathering of a church in a certain place.”
2. This is simplified in the next statement to: “. . .the sense is, ‘If there are converts.'” And “fruitful unto the gathering of a church” becomes: “But it views the conversion of sinners, correctly; as God’s gathering of a church.”
3. The Report makes the negative statement: “It is not the Form’s intent to prohibit the missionary from baptizing until a congregation is instituted.” With this statement I can agree if “is instituted” means “has been instituted.” In other words, I believe that the Form plainly teaches that baptism need not wait untilafter organization. This, I remind you, is not the same as saying that baptism can take place at any time whatsoever, without limitation, before organization.
My objection to the interpretation offered under “1” and “2” is very simple: this is not the meaning of the language, first of all. Nor can it be shown from any dictionary that this is, or can be, the meaning of the language. “Vruchtbaar tot” and “fruitful unto” means the same as productive of whether that refers to a crop or to other material things, or whether, as here, it refers to a spiritual activity and its concrete results. When is the labor of a farmer fruitful unto the gathering of a harvest? When the entire ripe crop stands in the field ready to be harvested. When is a householder’s labor fruitful unto the building of a new house? When all his labors (the planning, the purchase of a lot, the saving of funds, the employment of a builder, etc.) have reached the point that the house is ready to go up. When is a missionary’s labor fruitful unto the gathering of a church (congregation)? When a group of families of sufficient size and with sufficient material for elders and deacons, etc., is ready to be organized. This is the plain meaning of the language.
In close connection with this, in the second place, let me point out that if it had been the intention of the Form to say what the Study Report says, then it would have been very simple to do this; and then, too, the Form is guilty of gross ambiguity and obscurity in using the language which it does use. The Form could simply have said, “If it pleases God to make thy work fruitful unto the conversion of sinners. . . .”
In the third place, it simply is not true that the conversion of sinners is in every instance in which our missionary labors God’s gathering of a church. That is precisely part of the problem! It may very well be that there are one or two or a few converts in a given place, and that it is not at all God’s intention to gather a congregation there. And historically this is thebaptized individuals, not baptized church members? Not at all! The missionary must wait. When his work is fruitful unto the gathering of a congregation, then he may and must baptize these previously well-instructed converts. For a congregation cannot be instituted with unbaptized confessing members and elders and deacons.
As I have already suggested earlier, this is much less of a problem on the home mission field. Usually—there are exceptions, of course—the problem does not involve unbaptized adults. And while the baptism of infants could very well wait until after actual organization, there can be no objection to the baptism of infants at this same point in time, that is: when the missionary’s labor has been fruitful unto the gathering of a church, and when, therefore, a congregation isready to be instituted.
A couple of concluding remarks:
1. I do not believe that the Form has in mind specifically the baptizing of children when it uses the phrase “and the requirement of the covenant.” It does not exclude the children (infants); but it does not point to them specifically. The simple fact is that baptism is “the requirement of the covenant” for adults as well as for infants. Why? Because baptism is the sacrament of our incorporation into the covenant and church of God. And that, by the way, is also the reason why baptism may not be administered to anyone except in the church or at the precise point when the church is about to be instituted.
2. While I do not have much esteem for a decision of the Gereformeerde Kerken which has a date as late as 1965-66 (surely not the most flourishing period of Reformed theology in the Netherlands!), I see no proof in the brief quotation given of the position of the Study Report. On the contrary, this quotation, it seems to me, is quite consistent with the position of our Form as I have explained it.