“The Ministers shall do their utmost to the end that the father present his child for Baptism.”
—Article 57, D.K.O.
In a divided home where the father and .mother belong to different churches, the question as to who shall have the children baptized is a very touchy one. It causes bitter arguments, strains relationships, stirs up ill feeling and in some cases leads to the spiritual ruination of the family. Not infrequently such questions are resolved by compromise rather than by principle. Sometimes one of the dissenting parties will simply give in and join the other’s church in order that an outward show of unity may be presented in baptism. Seldom is a matter of this nature that has been left unresolved until the late date when children have to be baptized ever settled on the basis of truth and principle. Practical considerations press to the foreground and the utilitarian motive usually prevails. At that late stage it is no longer a question of what is the right and God-honoring way but rather what is the most convenient way for me out of the difficulty? Such a solution is only an invitation to still more serious evils because it is impossible that the blessing of God rests upon us when we walk in the way of our own convenience rather than pursuing the course of His commandments even though the latter course may involve us in many undesirable difficulties.
With this problem as such we are not at present concerned. That it is a very serious matter follows from the fact that it not only may but often does lead to apostasy and denying of the faith. Because of this the matter may never be taken lightly. It is for this reason alone that we mention the problem here. Sometimes a very simple solution to the difficulty is sought by appealing to the above quoted article of the Church Order. This article says that “the father shall present his child for baptism.” Hence, there is no room for argument at least where both parents are members of some Reformed church. The matter, so it seems, is settled for them by the church itself which has decreed that the father, not the mother, shall present the children for baptism. The mother has no choice in the matter. She is bound by the Church Order and must, therefore, submit her desires to those of her husband.
We must show, however, that this argument is not at all legitimate. It is understandable that such a conclusion is reached by a superficial reading of this article for it appears on the surface that this is what it teaches. A careful study of the background and history of this article will reveal, however, that this conclusion is entirely unwarranted.
In the first place, the article we have in our present Church Order is only half of the original article. The article originally in its entirety read as follows:
“The ministers shall do their utmost to the end that the father present his child for baptism. And in churches where the child is sponsored by a godfather or witness (which usage is optional and cannot easily be changed) it is right that such persons be of a pure faith and godly walk.”
This throws an entirely different light on the matter. It shows that the term “father in this article is not intended to stand in contrast to the implied term “mother” so that the meaning is that the father in distinction from the mother shall present the children for baptism but the term “father” is in contrast to the term “godfather” or “witness.” The meaning then is that the “father” (or parents) in distinction from the sponsors in baptism shall present their children for baptism. If this is kept in mind it will be evident that the Church Order cannot be used to support the contention that one parent has an automatic right to have the children baptized as over against the other parent. Baptism is a parental responsibility that must be met by the parents and cannot be laid aside.
In the second place we must point out that this original article of the Church Order was designed to combat a certain practice that in those days was prevalent in the Reformed Churches and which had been carried over from the Roman Catholic Church. This practice allowed sponsors to take the place of the parents when the children were baptized. In the Romish Church this was considered mandatory for it was held that the natural parents were really unfit to present their children for baptism inasmuch as children are born in a sinful state by reason of the sinfulness of the parents. The act of procreation was regarded as a necessary evil. Rome held to a false antithesis between nature and grace and applying this to the marriage relationship arrived at the erroneous conclusion that the bearing of children is a naturally evil act.
The Reformed fathers rejected this antithesis and maintained the scripturally correct antithesis of sin and grace. Although they readily admitted that the children of believers are conceived and born in sin, they repudiated the theory that marriage and procreation are in themselves inherently evil. Every relationship in life is contaminated with sin. This cannot be denied but this actuality does not exclude the fact that the believer’s marriage relation is sanctified by grace in Christ. In spite of this, however, many did not immediately see anything objectionable in the practice of having sponsors in baptism and so this was allowed in the Reformed Churches at first.
The fifty-seventh article of the Church Order was originally designed to discourage this practice. We notice that the wording of the article does not expressly forbid the use of sponsors in baptism. It is rather stated parenthetically that “this usage is optional and cannot easily be changed.” Established customs and practices are difficult to uproot. It requires considerable time accompanied with continuous and sound instruction. The members of the church must first be brought to see why certain practices are undesirable. To accomplish this the ministers (teaching elders of the church) are exhorted to do their utmost to bring the fathers (parents) to see that they should have their own children baptized. They should not be set aside or given a secondary place in this matter. As the parents themselves would be brought to understand this, the undesirable practice of sponsors in baptism would naturally lapse into oblivion.
Thirdly, it is important to observe that where this practice was still allowed the sponsors chosen had to be persons of “pure faith and a godly walk.” They had to be worthy sponsors. The churches had to be careful to see to it that only well-qualified persons were given this role so that when they promised to help the parents to instruct their children in the way of sound doctrine and piety, they would prove to be of real assistance.
Finally, as this practice more and more fell into disuse, it was no longer felt necessary to retain these provisions in the Church Order. The Reformed Churches of the Netherlands as late as 1905, however, still maintained the clause concerning sponsors in baptism in their revised redaction of the, Church Order. In 1914 the Christian Reformed Church in our own country dropped it and, consequently, it is also omitted from our Church Order. The Church Order Commentary by Momma and Van Dellen expresses the opinion that “it might have been well to have retained this stricken provision concerning sponsors.” The reason cited for this is that in cases where the parents have both died or where both mother and father are incompetent to assume the baptismal vow it is sometimes still necessary to have sponsors in baptism. With this opinion we disagree. The cases cited are certainly such as may be classified as “exceptional” and we do not believe that the Church Order can or should be designed or aim to cover every exception. It is sufficient to state the rule that is to prevail in every normal circumstance (i.e. parents are to have their children baptized) and then where and when the exception arises it can and must be decided on the basis of its particular merit.
In conclusion it may be stated yet that Article 57 of the Church Order in its present form does not touch upon various irrelevant matters that are related to the administration of the sacrament of baptism. In light of the foregoing it should be evident that the main element in this article is that it is the responsibility and place of the parents to present their children in baptism. Thus, the question as to whether the father should have the child baptized immediately, that is, before the mother is sufficiently recovered to be with him in the presentation of the child for baptism, is not touched upon here. This was the common practice in the Reformed Churches in the early years but today this custom has changed so that both parents are generally present at the baptism. Article 57 gives no support to either view of this question.
Likewise the question may be considered here as to whether it is mandatory that the father hold the child when the latter is presented in baptism. This is the generally accepted custom but is there any principle involved in this. On the surface Article 57 may appear to teach that this is mandatory but in actuality that is not the meaning nor the implication of “presenting the child.” This phrase in the article means that the father, as the head of the family, shall ask for baptism for his child at a meeting of the consistory and he shall answer to the questions that are put to him in baptism with respect to the training and instruction of his children. We agree with the Church Order Commentary when it states that it is really immaterial as to who holds the child at the baptismal font although it is generally agreed that there is some symbolism in the presentation of the child at the font by the father because he is the God-appointed head of the family and first responsible party for its training.