Prof. Barrett Gritters, professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed
Theological Seminary and member of Hudsonville PRC

Christians may be very thankful that the church’s views on adoption today are not what they were only few generations ago. Today, adoption is common, familiar, expected, celebrated, and a cause for great rejoicing. There are domestic adoptions, foreign adoptions, and adoptions by families of relatives. A congregation without children by adoption is rare. Let’s praise God for His gift of adopted children!

A little history of the olden days

This blessed attitude did not always exist among us. Only 50 years ago, even if adoptions were not unknown then, a special issue of a Reformed magazine celebrating the reality and blessing of adoption—justifying and explaining adoption as other writers are doing in this issue—would have been unthinkable. Since I grew up in California with two adopted cousins, I was not a little shocked shortly after I moved to Michigan in the 1970s and heard at a Sunday morning coffee discussion some older men argue vehemently against adoption. “Adopted children are not covenant children,” was the heart of their position, a view made more troubling by other offensive comments. “Natural born children are given to families by an act of God,” they said, “but adopted children come by a decision of the parents.”

Thankfully rare today, the views expressed by these men reflected old views that were somewhat common in Reformed churches then and rooted back in opinions as far back as the Synod of Dordt some 400 years earlier.

In the PRCA’s mother church, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), debate about adoption, especially about the baptism of adopted children whose birth parents were not known, began in the late 1800s and came to a head in 1908 when synod appointed a study committee to report at the next synod in 1910.1 To be studied was the question “on what grounds foundlings adopted by believers may be baptized.” The Dutch for foundlings was vondelingen; as was the case with many adopted children, they had been abandoned by parents and found by others. For unexpressed reasons, Synod 1910 did not act on the lengthy advice, which left local consistories to make their own decisions. Thus the matter rested for twenty years. In 1930 the question was raised again, at which time synod gave approval for the baptism of adopted children. Three heavyweights registered their negative vote against this decision, an act usually indicating a commitment to protest, which some did. But when Synod 1936 considered the protests, it decided that there was not sufficient reason to retract the decisions of 1930. Reformed theologians in the Netherlands like H. Bouwman, the Dutch church government expert, agreed with the protestants.

Included in their arguments was appeal to the Synod of Dordt, which had also faced the question in connection with Dutch foreign mission work in India and Southeast Asia in the 1600s. Children of “natives” were brought into families of Christian missionaries or settlers, sometimes as slaves but sometimes as members of their families. “May such children be baptized?” was one of the many questions the Great Synod faced before they confronted the Arminians:

Concerning children of pagans which, because of their youth, or because they cannot understand the language (of the Dutch in East Indian homes), have not been able to receive instruction from the Christians, although they may have been incorporated into the homes of Christians by adoption, it was also judged by majority vote that these should not be baptized before they have come to such years that they can be instructed in the first principles of the Christian Religion according to the measure of their understanding, and after such has also taken place.2

There is question whether Dordt was referring to children who had not yet been legally adopted and therefore could easily have been removed from the Christian homes, or perhaps were old enough that they needed to be baptized by way of confession of faith. But VanDellen and Monsma, the Christian Reformed Church Order commentators, conclude: “To be sure, the Synod of Dort declared itself against the Baptism of adopted children of non-Christian origin.”3

In 1951 the PRCA faced the question of adoption by way of a concrete case. An unwed mother had placed her child for adoption and her consistory approved the action. Members protested this consistorial approval and used arguments similar to the CRC’s. But unlike the CRC, these asserted that it was wrong both to give a child to be adopted and wrong, therefore, also to adopt. The protests went all the way to synod. Acknowledging the magnitude of the subject, the PRC synod also appointed a study committee to report at the following synod. After lengthy discussion of the report, Synod 1952 decided two things: First, in normal circumstances it is wrong to place your child for adoption. Second, in some cases, it is understandable that a child might be placed in another home where sound Christian care could be given. Therefore, each case must be judged by the parents and if necessary by the assemblies, according to scriptural principles. Implied in this decision is the right and propriety to adopt children.

Whether such adopted children should be baptized was assumed. So when Synod 1959 faced the question of “when?” and answered, “When their legal adoption shall have been made final,” the official pro-adoption stance of the PRCA was clarified. It is proper to adopt children and to give them the sign of the covenant as covenant children. Adopted children are as truly covenant children as biological children. For this position, we praise and thank God.

A little doctrine (of the olden days)

At issue in most of the discussions was the doctrine of the covenant and the inclusion of children in the covenant. Specifically, are adopted children to be considered covenant children?

In their commentary on the Reformed Church Order, Van Dellen and Monsma gave their judgment about adopted children: those adopted children of believing parentage may be baptized in their infancy; but those whose parentage is not known or known to be pagan may not be baptized (that is, until later when they make confession of faith). The former children are to be considered covenant children, the latter not.

Surprising as this view may be to us, it was not uncommon. In fact, it was the reasoning of some at the Synod of Dordt. Disappointingly, it appears even in the early history of the PRCA. Rev. George Ophoff is al- leged to have said, “they may be [baptized] if the parents were believers, otherwise not.”4 Why? Presumably because only those children could be considered covenant children in whose generations was found Christianity. When Herman Hoeksema was presented with this question in the Standard Bearer in 1950, he wrote that his own consistory had approved such baptisms, although not always unanimously, and that he himself would approve such. But his first line of reasoning is telling:

My opinion is as follows: 1. That a child is adopted from a nominally Christian community most probably is guarantee that in the recent past it belonged to the generations of the people of God. It is true that those generations were cut off, and that, as a general rule, the branches cut off are not grafted in again. But exceptions to this rule are not excluded.5

It appears that Hoeksema was arguing the case for baptizing an adopted child only if we are relatively confident that it belonged to the generations of the people of God. Such were covenant children; others were not.

When VanDellen and Monsma argued their case in their Church Order Commentary, their argument was simple, if not simplistic: 1) Baptism is administered to covenant children. 2) Adopted children of pagan (or unknown) background are not covenant children. 3) Therefore, adopted children of pagan (or unknown) origin may not be baptized. Of course, how could anyone permit baptism of children who were not ‘covenant children’?

Therefore, one’s view on the baptism of adopted children depends, they contended, on one’s view of the covenant. If the covenant is “only” a promise of salvation to all who would believe someday, one would likely permit baptism. That view they reject. But if the covenant is a real bond between God and His people in Christ (VanDellen and Monsma’s view), only biological children of believers may be baptized. Why? Because only with them we may be confident God has established a real bond.

The error in VanDellen and Monsma’s view is the contention that baptism is for those with whom we are sure God has established a real bond and relationship. If we cannot be confident of this, we must not baptize them. This is the old view of presumptive regeneration. According to this view, even though we know some of our children are not God’s elect, we presume them to be so and baptize them based on that presumption. And about which children can we presume this? Only natural– born, that is, biological children:

Upon what basis does the meaningful assumption referred to above rest? Upon the assurances of God regarding the (natural) children of believers. It cannot be assumed that children of pagans and non-Christians are (federally, representatively, covenantally) in Christ until they by their confession and walk of life manifest themselves as Christians.6


­­Baptism of children, however, is not based on our assumption of their actually being in Christ, but on God’s command to baptize the children of believers; and both natural-born children and adopted children are the children of believers. Adopted children are the legal, real, rightful, true, legitimate, genuine, children of believers.

For this reason—so the proper argumentation goes— God commanded Abraham to give the sign of the covenant to his household, not only to his biological children but to all who were his, including servants young and old. “… he that is born in thy house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed.” For emphasis, God repeated, “He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised” (Gen. 17:10-13).

God has given us an example to follow from His own family life. He has one child brought forth from His own being: the only begotten Son of God, our Lord Jesus. All His other children are adopted by grace. And we are of all different kinds: Jew and Gentile, red and brown, black and white. Our adopted children are also truly His beloved children, purchased with the blood and death of His only begotten Son.

In the goodness of God, the church has matured in her thinking about many things. We may thank Him for this development also.

1 The Acts of Synod of the CRC dating back to 1857 may be found online at https://libguides.calvin.edu/crc/synod-acts-and-agendas; or, search “CRC Acts Hekman Library”; all the Dutch has been translated into English.

2 The Church Order Commentary on Article 56 (3rd ed., Jenison, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2021), 362. The quotation of Dordt is their translation of the Dutch.

3 VanDellen and Monsma, 362.

4 G. VandenBerg, “The Baptism of Adopted Children,” Standard Bearer, v. 37, no. 10 (Feb. 15, 1961), 236. VandenBerg gives no citation for his quotation of Ophoff.

5 H. Hoeksema, “Baptism of Adopted Children,” Standard Bearer, v. 26, no. 11 (March 1, 1950), 250.

6 VanDellen and Monsma, 364.