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THEOLOGICAL STATEMENT BY THE UNITED FREE CHURCH OF SCOTLAND
We are grateful to the UFC for permission to publish the following paper in full.  We believe readers will find it an immensely valuable theological and practical document.  It was prepared for their General Assembly in 2001.

UFCOS website is www.ufcos.org.uk 

THE PROPER SUBJECTS FOR BAPTISM   

 
In Presbyterian Churches since the Reformation, and in other churches, it has been the view that the proper subjects for baptism are believers and their children. So far as children are concerned this has meant, in practice, two things.

  1. Children have been baptised along with parents (either one or both) following their parents' conversion to Christ and either prior to or at the time of their parents' reception into church membership.
  2. Children of parents who are already church members have been baptised as soon as is appropriate following their birth.

It will be seen here that for practical purposes 'the children of believers' is equated with 'the children of church members'. That is how it should be and there are good reasons for it.

When someone becomes a Christian he or she is united to Christ, the Head of the body (i.e. his Church). It is quite impossible, biblically, theologically and experientially, for a Christian united to Christ not to be a member of his body, the Church. It is essential that those who are members of Christ and his Church should identify with the local expression of his Church wherever possible, as they did in the New Testament era. It is difficult to conceive of Christians in the New Testament era living and acting independently of other Christians outside the discipline of the local church and its leadership appointed under Christ. There will be exceptional circumstances that may make this practically impossible, e.g. in locations where Christians are isolated, but the percentage of Christians in such circumstances is small and hardly applies to this part of the world. It is not sufficient for Christians to worship in a local church and accept the benefits of 'belonging' to a local church without taking on board the reciprocal responsibilities of church membership. Non-Christians may do that, but not Christians. Christians who are unwilling to accept the responsibilities and the discipline of the local church and its leadership are not living in conformity to the New Testament understanding of what it means to be Christ's people. It is biblically correct to speak of 'the children of believers' as 'the children of church members'.

The local church must have some way of identifying those who are Christians and who are to enjoy its privileges and share in its responsibilities. It must have some way of ensuring that there is a mutual commitment of the local church to its individual members and of the commitment of individual members to the local church. A church without order and discipline, just as a family without order and discipline, will not be able to organise its affairs in a way that commends Christ. All Christians are under an obligation to accept the discipline of those who are over them in the Lord (Heb 13.17). At the present moment the way in which we and all Presbyterian Churches meet these requirements is through the membership roll. Of course, no system is perfect. Attempts to produce an alternative system would soon be confronted with other and possibly more difficult problems. In any case it is the system in operation at present and which remains in operation until and unless the General Assembly determines otherwise.

Just as it is not acceptable biblically to foster the idea, intentionally or unintentionally, that there are two kinds of Christians (first and second class) so it is unacceptable biblically to foster the idea that there are two kinds of members. If the kirk session has received people into membership on their profession of faith in Christ those people should and must enjoy both the privileges and responsibilities of membership. If the conduct and the expressed beliefs of individual members make it abundantly clear that they have departed from their commitment to Jesus Christ or that they no longer accept the authority of the leadership of the Church to which they belong that is a matter for the kirk session to deal with. So long as they remain on the membership roll, however, they should and must be regarded as members of Christ and his Church, which necessarily includes membership of a local church. The position of Presbyterian Churches has always been, therefore, that the children of all church members are the proper subjects for baptism.

There was a time, of course, when a large percentage of Scotland's population was in membership of a local church, the result being that most children were baptised. That position has changed significantly. We are increasingly moving into a missionary situation akin to that of the New Testament era, a situation in which more and more people will not be baptised. This has raised the question as to whether we should be less restrictive in our practice of baptising children and open up the sacrament to the children of parents who are not members of the church. Some would recommend that we baptise the children of all parents who seekit, others that we baptise the children of parents who have a close contact with the church through a third party, e.g. a grandparent.

The only biblical warrant within the Bible for the baptism of children is located within the covenant relation between God and his people. Remove the covenant relationship and there is no biblical warrant for the practice. Maintain the covenant relationship, a foundational Jewish and Christian doctrine, and there is not only a biblical warrant but a biblical requirement for the baptism of children. The covenant relation does not, however, allow for indiscriminate baptism. It allows for the baptism of believers and for those within their households (including children).

It is increasingly being recognised that the indiscriminate baptism of children has contributed to a devaluation of both the practice and meaning of infant baptism. The indiscriminate baptism of children has not only widened the gap between paedobaptists and believer baptists it has created a growing disillusionment among many in paedobaptist churches who are seeking a more biblical justification for what they believe and practice.

It is not surprising that the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches in its report, Baptism, Eucharis tand Ministry (often referred to as the Lima Report), states the following, "In order to overcome their differences, believer baptists and those who practise infant baptism should reconsider certain aspects of their practices. The first may seek to express more visibly the fact that children are placed under the protection of God's grace. The latter must guard themselves against the practice of apparent indiscriminate baptism and take more seriously their responsibility for the nurture of baptised children to mature commitment to Christ." It is of interest that in 1991 when the Church of Scotland's Board of World Mission and Unity made its response to the Lima Report it listed as one of Lima's valuable contributions: "Encouragement to avoid indiscriminate infant baptism".

It is not irrelevant at this point, though neither should it be determinative, to consider the present position of our sister Church, the Church of Scotland. From 1953 to 1963 that Church engaged in what has been described as "the most extensive investigation of baptism that topic has ever received from a church". Recovering Baptism for a New Age of Mission, article in 'Doing Theology for the People of God"(Eds. D Lewis & A McGrath), Apollos 1996, pp 51f. The conclusions of the Special Commission were embodied in an Overture sent down under the Barrier Act to Presbyteries, and finally became the 1963 Act anent the Administration of Baptism to Infants. Our conclusions with respect to the indiscriminate baptism of children, as outlined above, are similar to those presented to and approved by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. They were summarised in a recent report by the Church of Scotland's Board of Mission as follows: "The emphasis is to ensure the Christian upbringing for the child. One or both parents must be members of the Church and undertake the Christian upbringing of their child; or else the Kirk Session agrees to the baptism on the grounds that one or other parent is in a relationship to the Church akin to membership, or else is desiring to become a communicant member." Several attempts have been made in recent years to amend that position, one of which sought to assert the right of a child to baptism. None of the attempts have been successful. More significant is the Report of the Board of Mission referred to above and presented to the 1999 General Assembly after two years work. The Report was compiled by a sub-committee, the Committee on Mission and Evangelism Resources, and is especially significant because of where it is coming from and because of its remit "to research the effect of the working of the church's policy on Baptism on mission and evangelism in the last 34 years" While the bulk of the report is taken up with the findings of its research during which it records a variety of conflicting views it does incorporate into the report its own views on a number of issues. Particularly relevant to the indiscriminate baptism of infants is the decision not to recommend legislative changes to the 1963 Act. It is noteworthy that this decision was reached by a body of people committed to the mission of the church. The Board did, however, comment on the widespread dissatisfaction at the inconsistent way in which policy is implemented at a local level, and on the particular difficulties experienced at the frontiers of mission. It also made the following highly relevant statement, "Policy and doctrine place great weight on the Christian upbringing of children subsequent to Baptism. Our research left us dubious as to whether adequate attention is given to this by congregations and Kirk Sessions." It also suggested that "the case for the Baptism of infants be made in this generation by sustained teaching, consistent practice and the involvement of the whole people of God." One final illuminating comment may be noted, "On the whole, the Church’s experience of the policy behind the 1963 Act is positive. The larger part of Ministers, Kirk Sessions and congregational groups agree on this. The doctrinal basis underlying current policy is affirmed by contemporary ecumenical theology."

While the Presbyterian Churches in Scotland have never been able to justify indiscriminate baptism biblically or theologically some flexibility has always been necessary to cater for exceptional circumstances. We may consider, for example, in the missionary situation we face increasingly in Scotland, the parent who converts to Christ and whose conversion is not welcome by his or her partner. The newly converted parent may be actively involved in the life and worship of the local congregation but unable to enter formerly into the membership of that congregation because of strong opposition from within the home. It is possible that such opposition does not extend to the involvement of or even the baptism of children. Domestic circumstances can be exceedingly difficult and complex for some Christians and our inflexibility should not make them more difficult than they need be. Here is a circumstance in which one parent is in a relationship to the local congregation akin to membership. There will be other circumstances. In all exceptional circumstances it is of the utmost importance that Kirk sessions play their role in deciding whether a baptism should take place. The Church has obviously allowed for circumstances where children are brought up by those other than natural parents who are effectively acting as parents and, alternatively, where parents have a desire to enter into membership.

The question then arises whether "exceptional circumstances" might be extended to include a grandparent or other close relative who is in membership of the Church. It is the case that many grandparents are increasingly shouldering a responsibility for children while parents are at work. We warmly commend those grandparents who are bringing to bear upon children a Christian influence which would otherwise be absent. It has to be said, however, that this kind of circumstance as a basis for the baptism of children has no parallel in either Old or New Testaments. In the large households of both Testaments it may be that the head of the household was a grandfather or, possibly, a grandmother (Lydia?). But the head of the household was responsible under God for the regulation of family life. Grandparents have often had a considerable influence on their grandchildren and it may well be that that influence has increased because of the nature of our changing society, but very few grandparents bear the final responsibility for their grandchildren.

Not only must those who present their children for baptism be in a position to bring up the children concerned in the nurture and admonition

Other Sections of the Report an be reached by clicking on the following Chapter headings:

Institution of Baptism

Origins of Water Baptism

The Baptism of Children: Old Testament Evidence

The Baptism of Children: New Testament Evidence 

The Baptism of Children: Extra-Biblical Evidence

The Mode of Baptism 

The Way Forward

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