That the heading of this article is put in question form means to indicate that as far as our Church Order is concerned there is no answer to this question. If there were an answer in the Church Order we would not at all be so presumptuous as to place the heading in question form.
It is immediately obvious to us that this question pertains to the very important matter of Christian discipline. Such a question naturally is vital to every believer who seeks the welfare of God’s kingdom here on earth. Very important ought it to be to us as churches and consistories who are called upon to direct all disciplinary action. The matter of treatment of baptized members comes to us in question form when we find no direction given in the Church Order of Dordrecht. And especially does it leave us with a question when we search in vain for unanimity in actions of the synods of our Reformed Churches.
Because this is the nature of the subject I want to place all the historical data I can before your attention. To submit such historical data I consider of prime importance to the readers and the main objective of my article. If there is space I shall also indicate some of the principles involved and will venture my opinion.
If we turn to the very first Synod of Reformed Churches, the Synod of Emden, 1571, at which Synod the first rules and regulations of Church Order were laid down, we do not find any distinction made as to disciplinary action with those baptized members who failed to make confession of their faith and who had also become objects of discipline because of their doctrine or walk. It only makes the general proposition that it believes that Church discipline or Christian chastisement (Christelijke straffe) ought to be maintained in every congregation. (Article 25) of the “Acta der Emdensche Synode van 1517).
This silence about disciplinary action with those who are only baptized members is kept by the following five Synods even including the famous Synod of Dort, 1618-19, from which we have our official Church Order. You will find the expression of the Synod of Dordrecht about censure and ecclesiastical admonition in articles 71 to 80.
Although there is no official regulation about such disciplinary action, there can be no doubt in the mind of anyone who has faced the matter in consistory meetings, that there is a problem. The problem is not whether discipline should be exercised over against baptized members. Such is plainly the duty of Christians. It is first of all the duty of covenant parents, and, should they become lax, it is the duty of the Church to point this out to the parents and children. The apostle Paul admonishes children to be obedient to parents and also that the fathers should not provoke their children to wrath. (Eph. 6:1, 4). The problem however arises with baptized members who have come to the years of discretion and do not confess their faith, and with those baptized members who walk in gross sins. The problem is how shall these be treated.
And from the questions that have arisen in the history of Reformed Churches about disciplinary action of adult baptized members it is also evident that it was a problem from the beginning of Reformed Churches.
Among the “Particular Questions” that were raised at the National Synod of Dordrecht in 1578, there appears a question about this very matter, (ques. 47). The question translated is, “Whether children in Reformed Churches who have become of age should be subject to Christian chastisement (straffe), and who after being admonished remain hardened, whether they should be cut off (afsnijden zal) although they have not made confession of their faith and approached the table of the Lord?” The answer given reads as follows: “Because baptism is a general testimony of the covenant of God. which belongs to children of believers as long as they do not reject it through manifest apostasy, therefore the revealed and general admonitions which were used by the prophets to Israel shall be sufficient in the public and free gatherings (openbare en de vrije gemeenten). However, because confession of faith and partaking of communion is a special testimony in the Church of God, to which communion those who have sinned against the covenant of God are readmitted upon confession as the apostate Israelites were not re-admitted through another circumcision but through the Passover to the true Church of Israel) so therefore one shall not use excommunication except over against the one upon whom the covenant of God has been sealed through the participation in the Lord’s Supper.”
This question about discipline of adult baptized members received, as is evident from the quotation, the definite answer, “no excommunication”. The matter, however, came up again much later. This answer of the Synod of 1578 did not prove satisfactory to all for a question was raised about the same matter in the Netherland Reformed Churches in 1896. To the Synod of Middelburg 1896 the two men, Bavinck and Rutgers, gave the following advice: “It is evident that it is simply impossible, without ignoring the Word of God, to classify such baptized members as members of the church. Because they have not made confession and also have not bound themselves, they stand outside the Church institute, which particularly depends upon confession and subjection; membership for them in that sense cannot be recognized.” (For this statement see, Kerkelijke Haindboek, by I Van Dellen and H. Keegstra p. 85). From this quotation in the above Church Manual it is not very clear as to the stand of Bavinck and Rutgers take about excommunication. The authors, Van Dellen and Keegstra, explain that the stand favors excommunication. This appears to be correct from Bavinck’s Dogmatics (Vol. IV, p. 502). Bavinck gives the general practice in Reformed Churches as follows: children of believers are baptized as believers, instructed in the truth, with satisfactory examination and public confession are admitted to the Lord’s table, or upon unchristian teaching or loose walk after repeated admonition are separated from the Church (uit de gemeente verwijderd).”
Although this is the general conception of Reformed Churches since that advice was given, there appeared a difference in practice. One direction followed John Lasco and favored excommunication. Another group followed Voetius and simply considered such objectionable adult baptized members as separated without even a formal announcement. The advice of Bavinck and Rutgers was adopted by the Synod of Gronnigen in 1899.
Considering the difference of opinion, we see how it is surprising that the question came up again in the history of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands. At the Synod of 1923 of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands it was expressed that there was a need for unity of action and that there was not unity of opinion to establish such unity of action. In 1936 the Synod appointed a committee of three to give advice. And at the last interrupted Synod of 1939 this committee came with their advice.
Examining the report of the committee of 1939 we find that it differs from a statement of the Synod of 1920. And reading the comments made by different ministers in the year 1939 in Netherlands it is evident that all do not agree with the report of the last committee. For our consideration of the matter it is worth our while to examine the statements of 1920 made by the Synod and the report of the committee of 1939.
Here is my translation of the expression of the Synod of 1920: “Synod expresses itself that excommunication cannot be applied to baptized members, but the consistory can very well explain that with reference to certain baptized members who in confession and walk have revealed themselves as unbelievers and ungodly that they have thereby withdrawn themselves from the Reformed Church.”
In the religious press in Netherlands this stand was characterized as no official exclusion from the church of baptized members with the key power which was entrusted to the Church by Christ, but only a proof or announcement (constateeren) that someone had left the church. Over against this stand of the Synod of 1920 we have a different idea expressed in the report of the committee of three who drew up a “Concept Announcement. (Concept-afkondiging). The following is my translation: “The consistory is compelled by sad necessity to announce that the incomplete member, N.N., has stubbornly denied fellowship with Christ and His church, which was signified and sealed in his holy baptism, notwithstanding many earnest admonitions. Therefore the consistory is compelled, since the public trial period of admonition has been given, at the present time to proceed in the name of the Lord to excommunicate (uit te sluiten) N.N., and to declare that he has no part in the kingdom of Christ, as long as he remains impenitent.”
This report was approved by some in the Netherlands as is evident from a comment of Ds. Van Strien who wrote in effect, ‘Here is not simply announcement (constateeren), but here is moving action, excommunication.’
It is interesting to notice that the same difficulty appeared in our country in the history of the Christian Reformed Church. In their Church Manual, Van Dellen and Keegstra write after a brief mention of the difference of opinion in the Netherlands, “Also our Synods have made various expressions with reference to baptized adults. In a certain way we are ahead of the Churches in the Netherlands, (This manual was published in 1915) in this that the so-called “royeeren,” erasure of baptized members must be made with consent of Classis and the approval of the congregation. For the rest our decisions do not testify to a clear insight in this matter.” (p. 86 Kerkelijke Fandboek).
Upon the Synod of 1914 of the Christian Reformed Church it was decided (art. 64, 10) ‘to investigate the entire question of baptized members and to have a report upon the following Synod, and to correspond with the Churches in the Netherlands in this matter’.”
For the present I have no more space. If the editor desires I am willing to .submit more material and suggest action upon the basis of principles. I do not have any material of further decisions of the Christian Reformed Church nor of any conception of our Protestant Reformed Churches. At least this material is interesting and serves to cause us to reflect and at least to direct such disciplinary action more consciously.