The Subjects of Baptism?

Our Church Order answers the above question by stating that baptism is to be administered to “children of Christmas.” This answer is rather general. Its indefiniteness creates the possibility of raising various questions and it is of little value in solving the problems that arise in abnormal circumstances. Rev. Ophoff suggests an improved formulation to read: “Unto the seed of believers, that is, unto the seed of the covenant.” In 1564 the wording was simply, “to the children.” Though this wording was retained for fourteen years, its obvious defect lies in the possible interpretation that this can mean that all children are to receive baptism regardless of their parentage or the faith of their parents. This, however, was not the intended meaning of those synods that approved this wording. To make this clear the wording was changed in 1578 to read: “to the children of Christians.” The Synod of Middelberg then further amended this to read: “to the children of baptized Christians” but in 1586 the adjective “baptized” was again elided so that today we still have the general reading although the Christian Reformed Church has in their proposed revision the change: “to children of communicate members.” 

In all of these possible formulations the one main general principle is plain. This is that God establishes His covenant of grace with believers and their children in continued generations. The children of believers, therefore, that is, of those who profess faith in Christ and who manifest that faith in an upright walk, must receive the sign of the covenant which is baptism. These children are “sanctified in Christ, and therefore, as members of His church ought to be baptized” (Baptism Form). In Reformed churches this is understood and in normal circumstances no question or problem arises irrespective of which of the above wordings is adopted. By normal circumstances we mean a situation where both parents are members in full communion and in good standing in the church. Such parents do not question whether their children should be baptized. They present them for baptism as soon as that is possible. 

However, problems arise in regard to this question when the circumstances become in one way or another abnormal. We shall discuss some of these situations that have arisen in the church in the past and also some of the problems that are still with us today.

The first question is whether the church can administer baptism to the children of Christians who are members in some other church denomination. From a practical point of view this question is not very serious today. It is not likely to arise but this was not the case in the sixteenth century. Shortly after the Reformation there were people who at heart were in sympathy with the Reformed position but who never made a break with the Roman Catholic Church. Sometimes such people would request baptism for their children in a Reformed church. When the question arose at the synod of 1571 it was referred to the theologians Of Geneva, ministers and professors. Beza wrote that the rule should be that only children of church members should receive baptism and this was generally accepted as the rule in the Reformed churches. However, it was also granted that in abnormal times, as when the church was in the process of being reorganized, or when severe persecutions were raging, exceptions to this rule might be made. Children of weak and fearful parents might be baptized under these circumstances though not without certain stipulations and promises. This is a decision of convenience rather than of principle. To make such concessions is to pave the way for all kinds of exceptions and the eventual outcome of it is that the principle rule cannot be maintained. The rule of Beza is sound and should be maintained. Baptism should be administered only to those children whose parents are members of the church. 

Maintaining this rule, we must next ask whether baptism may be administered to parents who are under discipline or who have been excommunicated from the church. As to the latter, we may say that their children cannot receive baptism since’ those who have been excommunicated are not members of the church. This, of course, applies only where both parents are involved in the excommunication. If one of the parents is still a member in good standing in the church, be it father or mother, that one could have the children baptized. 

In the case of parents who are under discipline it might be argued that their children are entitled to baptism since their parents are still within the church. However, it must not be overlooked that unless the parents of these children repent of the sin or sins for which they are being censured, the baptism of these children will be without meaning. It will simply be an empty form. These parents are not ‘able to assume the obligations and responsibilities of baptism. They cannot answer to the baptismal vow requiring them to give their children the training and instruction that harmonizes with the significance of baptism. The church may not administer the sacrament that way for to do so would be to trifle with the holy things of God. Besides, when a member of the church is under censure, that member is temporarily denied all the rights and privileges of church membership and this would certainly include the right and privilege to the sacraments. These privileges are again restored only when confession of sin is made and repentance is evident. At such time these parents may have their children baptized. Otherwise baptism must be denied these children even though they are born historically in the line of the covenant. If, in later life, such unbaptized children give evidence of faith and seek affiliation with the church, they will be baptized as adults upon their own, rather than their parent’s responsibility.

Another question that must sometimes be faced in the church that is still not perfectly delivered from sin is whether children that are born illegitimately, i.e., out of wedlock, are or are not to be baptized? It is impossible to give a definite yes or no answer to this question because of the complexity of circumstances which may be involved in situations of this kind. Suppose, for example, that the mother of such a child is herself a spiritual minor, a baptized member of the church. Apart from other considerations, this alone would make it impossible for her to have her child baptized. Then there is the question as to what is going to become of the child and who is going to assume the responsibility for its up-bringing? Is the mother going to do this? Are, perhaps, the grandparents or some other relative going to take the child and bring it up or maybe even legally adopt it? Or is it going to be placed in a home to be adopted at random? All this would not only affect the baptism of the child but also the question as to who would present the child in baptism and assume the baptismal vows. Then, too, suppose that the mother is a full member of the church and the father of the child is an unbeliever. Suppose that this couple marries and the father, after the child is born, strongly opposes having the child baptized and instructed in the Christian faith. Apart now from the question as to how a God-fearing mother could possibly live in the marriage relation with such a man, can the church baptize under such circumstances? From a practical point of view this would be very difficult, if not impossible. However, if the mother requested baptism and was able to show that it is possible for her, under the circumstances, to keep the baptismal vows, her request could not be denied. It would appear though that this would never be the case unless the father changed his attitude or that a separation was effected in which the care of the child was entrusted to the mother. 

All of this, however, is still contingent upon one fundamental thing. In the baptism of such illegitimate children, the parent or parents requesting baptism would first have to confess their sin and give evidence of true repentance. If there is no confession of sin there can be no. administration of the sacrament. 

Another question that concerns us even more, that is, from the point of view of frequency of occurring, is one that arises from the situation where the father and mother are members respectively of different churches. The question is: “Where must the children be baptized? Must the husband’s church or the wife’s church administer baptism to the children in such cases?! This problem is very difficult and to it we can offer no ready-made solution. It involves far more than the mere question of baptism. Rather than attempting to discuss this problem I will point to some conclusions which Rev. H.C. Hoeksema drew a few years ago in a speech. which he gave before the Eastern League of Protestant Reformed Men’s Societies. In the first place it should be pointed out that this is basically a problem of the parents involved. Although it may become a matter in which the church becomes involved, the parents are responsible for its solution. 

Secondly, it is not a problem that can or may be solved on the basis of convenience though this is often done. One or the other parent gives in for the sake of the peace of the family. Or some mechanical and arbitrary agreement is reached in the form of a compromise with the husband taking some of the children and the wife the others. All such attempts are not solutions. The only way is that the problem be faced and resolved on the basis of sound principle. 

In the third place, this, means that the principle to be followed is that expressed in our Confessions, namely, “that everyone is bound to join themselves unto the true church.” This means, of course, that the true church must be determined by the distinguishing marks of the church, which are the pure preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments and the faithful exercise of Christian discipline. Both husband and wife, in seeking a united church affiliation, must be guided and moved by the desire to join the true church according to this standard. “Nothing else,” in the words of Rev. Hoeksema, “may control them. Nothing else may move them to affiliate with any church. They must be convinced that in the church to which they join themselves here on earth, the pure doctrine of the Gospel is preached. They may not do anything else. To do anything else is to live the lie!”

Fourthly, suppose that no solution can be reached; that both insist on remaining in their own church. Then the unhappy situation prevails of a divided home. Concerning this situation, we agree with the following point brought out in the speech of Rev. Hoeksema: 

“But supposing that the husband is the dissenting party and that he is insistent on his position on the rights of his headship in the family. I maintain then and I believe that that is correct in the light of Scripture and in the light of all the Scriptural teaching concerning the marriage relation that no one can or may prevent him from having the children baptized in his church. The wife, even though she disagrees and continues to disagree with her husband and expresses her disagreement and tells him that in her heart she can never consent to have her children baptized in his church and brought up in his doctrine, she, nevertheless, is called to be in subjection to her husband in his God-given position as head.” To this I would add that it must then also be evident that the responsibility for this insistence, right or wrong, also rests upon the husband. 

Finally, this conclusion must be remembered. We quote from the same speech. “Further the problem must not be approached in the attitude that we can solve it. After all it is of the very essence of our position that is such a dissenting husband or wife is to see the light—to understand the truth as we believe it—that is not our work! It is God’s work; the work of His irresistible grace! And in dependence, therefore, upon Him, as true children of God, together as husband and wife, praying earnestly for a solution to their difficulties, a solution must be sought in the love of His truth, in the love of Christ toward one another.” 

—G.V.d.B.