In this section of our discussion we will try to cover that part of the Study Report which deals with what the Church Order has to say about baptism. The material of the Study Report appears on page 107 of the 1976 Acts of Synod, and it reads as follows:
It is the Church Order that apparently stands opposed to baptism on the mission field. Articles 39 (with its appended decision), 56, and 58-60 seem to require the institution of a congregation, or the enrolling of the members of a group in an adjoining congregation, before there may be baptism, thus prohibiting baptism on the mission field and denying that baptism is part of the missionary task.
Such a reading of the Church Order confronts one with the serious question: How is the Church Order to be harmonized with the missionary mandate of
and with the practice of the Church in the book of Acts, i.e., with the Word of God?
In fact, there is no conflict between the Church Order and Scripture. In these articles on baptism, the Church Order’s scope is the local, instituted congregation. As regards the instituted congregation, the sacraments are to be administered in the public gathering of the congregation under the supervision of elders. But the Church Order does not address itself to the missionary situation. This was the position of the General Committee for Home Missions report to Synod of the Christian Reformed Church 1957. (See attachment I, “Historical Perspective.”)
In this connection, the objection that baptism on the mission field does not harmonize with the truth of the church institute should be faced. The fear that baptism in the mission field does not do justice to the church institute, or to the supervision of elders, is unfounded. The instituted church that sends out the missionary does the baptizing on the mission field through the missionary, just as she preaches through the missionary. Cf.
The elders of the sending church oversee the missionary’s baptizing, just as they oversee his preaching. The simple truth that must be remembered here is that it is. the instituted congregation which preaches the Word and administers the sacraments: in the case of missions, she, does this through the missionary whom she sends out. The missionary and his labor do not stand over against the local congregation, but are the arm of the congregation. The baptism records, therefore, can be held either by the missionary, on behalf of the sending church, or by the sending church. The missionary can use our present Form for the Administration of Baptism, making plain to the baptized persons, or their parents, that “this Christian Church” refers to the institute that sends out the missionary.
There is one more paragraph in this section of the Study Report. But since this does not deal with the Church Order as such, we will not quote it and discuss it now, but reserve treatment of it for a later date. The “Attachment” referred to is found on pp. 109-111 of the 1976 Acts of Synod. We shall refer to that later.
Now I can agree with the fundamental point made in this section of the Study Report. For the rest, I am in radical disagreement. The fundamental point with which I am in agreement is: “In fact, there is no conflict between the Church Order and Scripture. In these articles on baptism, the Church Order’s scope is the local, instituted congregation.” If only the Study Report had stuck to this point and proceeded from it, it would have reached an entirely different conclusion and would not have been compelled to invent solutions for all kinds of problems resulting from its present, incorrect conclusion—solutions, I am sorry to say, which are obviously no real solutions and which ,do not even, when tested, ring true.
But what does the Report go on to state?
In the first place, it says: “As regards the instituted congregation, the sacraments are to be administered in the public gathering of the congregation under the supervision of the elders.” Now this statement is in itself true. However, it is not to the point. And it is not to the point, because it fails to state the principle which underlies virtually everything that our Church Order says concerning the sacraments. That principle is this: the sacraments and their administration are inseparably bound to the instituted, local congregation, gathered for public worship (in which the preaching of the Word is indispensable) under the supervision of its own, local elders. And this is a principle always held by Reformed churches, as well as maintained by almost every Reformed theologian who addresses himself to this subject in any detail. Precisely because it is a principle, it can be and must be observed on the mission field as well as in the already organized and established congregation. And let me add immediately: when we properly read the Form of Ordination of Missionaries, as I have previously explained it, this principle also can be observed on the mission field, whether foreign or domestic. Have no fears about it, our Reformed documents (Church Order, Liturgical Forms, Confessions) are all consistent with one another.
In the second place, the Report goes on to state: “But the Church Order does not address itself to the missionary situation.” Here the Report makes a fundamental mistake, first of all. It pits the missionary- situation over against the local-church-situation, as though they are two entirely different situations when it comes to the administration of the Word and sacraments and when it comes to the principles involved and the rules which follow from these principles. This is erroneous. Even the appeal to the “Report re Branch Churches” attached to the Study Report does by no means entirely support this contention. For one thing, this report is talking about branch churches, not mission stations. But besides, its recommendations (which are somewhat in harmony with our own Study Report) are not in harmony with the data in the report. The latter speaks of organizing churches before administering the Lord’s Supper. (This is apart from the fact that a report of 1957 surely does not date from what might be called the most flourishing period of the Christian Reformed Church.) But be that as it may, in the second place, let me point out that the statement of the Study Report is not factually correct. The Church Order does indeed address the missionary situation in Article 39 and its footnote. This is exactly the article which in part has been involved in this entire discussion from its beginning in Hope’s Consistory. It reads: “Places where as yet no consistory can be constituted shall be placed under the care of a neighboring consistory.” Regardless now of whether the original article was geared to mission or church extension work, it has been applied in this fashion for almost 70 years, as is plain from the footnote attached: “If possible the organization of a congregation shall precede the administration of the sacraments. However, if the conditions are not ripe for the organization of a congregation, such members are to be enrolled in an adjoining congregation, and thus the sacraments can be administered under the supervision of that consistory. However, this shall not be without the accompanying preaching of the Word, nor without sufficient representation of the consistory to have supervision of the administration.” Let no one say, therefore, that the Church Order does not address the missionary situation. And ‘bear in mind, too, that this is not just a decision hatched out in our own Protestant Reformed Churches. No, we took over this decision from the Christian Reformed denomination; and the latter adopted it as early as 1908. Notice, too, that it maintains the principle which I mentioned above.
In the third place, while it may be true that Articles 56 and 58-60 of the Church Order do not specifically address the missionary situation, this is really beside the point. It is somewhat like saying that these articles do not address the question of church state relationships or some other question. For do not overlook the fact that our fathers who drew up the Church Order (and also the confessions and liturgy)—even as many Reformed theologians who can be quoted to this effect—were well aware of the very Scriptural data. which the Study Report cites. Yet they insist that the sacraments are bound to the locally instituted congregation, as stated above; and they never make any provision for violation of this principle.
I must conclude the discussion for this time. But let me put to the test just one of the Report’s proposed solutions—which, by the way, ought also to be included in the recommendations (for from a formal point of view the Report is sorely lacking in spelling out regulations governing this whole new procedure). But let us test what the Report says about the use of the Baptism Form(s), as required by Article 58 of the Church Order. The Report addresses but one problem, that of the expression “this Christian Church” in the second question asked of parents at infant baptism and in the fourth question at adult baptism. The Report proposes that the missionary make it plain that this expression refers to the institute that sends out the missionary. Hence, in the Houston, Texas mission station our missionary would say: “. . . in this, the Hope Protestant Reformed (Grand Rapids) Christian Church . . .” It is perfectly obvious that this is factually incorrect. It doesn’t work. But now bear in mind that the Study Report does not even mention the, full expression used in the Form. That specific expression is: “. . . here, in this Christian Church. . . .” (italics added) Now anyone can understand that “here,” which is Houston, Texas cannot at the same time be “here, in this Hope Church in Grand Rapids.” The Baptism Form does not fit the position taken by the Study Report. It would have to be officially changed in order to make it fit. And why? The whole of the Baptism Form is in harmony with the principle that the administration of the sacraments is bound inseparably to the locally instituted congregation. And this, mind you, is not simply a matter of some elders supervising—whether in actual presence or in absentia and long distance. Supervision of elders is only one, limited aspect; and supervision of elders without an institutedcongregation and members of a congregation is a complete anomaly.
But let us test more of these solutions next time.