A WAY FORWARD
This report has been
necessitated at least in part by a dissatisfaction with the present
outworking in some quarters of the practice of baptism, both of adults
and children. Concerns have been expressed from differing and sometimes
very different and conflicting standpoints. Many of the concerns
represent genuine difficulties and tensions. The reasons for this are
various but they are highlighted by a growing number of parents
requesting baptism for their children who have no connection with the
church, who have a loose connection with the church, or who attend
church, but who are not willing to commit themselves to the membership
of the church through the profession of their faith in Christ.
It may be helpful to
summarise some of the practical concerns, particularly as they focus on
the baptism of children.
- The trauma of refusing
baptism when requested by parents who are non-members.
- The desire that baptism
should be more easily accessible to the children of parents who are
not members ofthe church.
- The lack of an
alternativeto offer parents who want the birth of their child to be
marked in some wayby the Church.
- A troubled conscience
when asking parents to affirm convictions and make promises when
there is no evidence that the affirmations or promises are
- The misuse of baptism so
that it is presented as little more than a 'christening' or a naming
- A reluctance to attribute
to the baptism of children the significance and meaning given to
baptism inthe New Testament and a consequent tendency to understand
baptism in the light of that diminished understanding.
- A less than honest
approach in dealing with parents so that the word baptism is not
used even when water is, or when the word baptism is used but not
- Parents who have come
into membership so that children might be baptised and who have
lapsed soon afterwards from any meaningful involvement in the life
of the church.
- The lack of access by the
church to a significant number of children who have been baptised
- The lack of follow-up
either through lack of access or because of a failure on the
church's part to take its responsibilities seriously.
- The lack of a consistent
policy among Presbyterian churches which enables parents to look for
a minister who will do what other colleagues have refused to do, and
the danger therefore of being governed by a 'consumer'
- Difficulties arising
through so-called 'second baptisms' only possible by denying the
value of the first baptism, a practice which effectively devalues
- The confusing suggestion
of replacing child baptism with child dedication for which there is
no biblical basis.
The question which arises
now is how we approach these concerns, some of which represent
conflicting points of view, in the
light of the conclusions reached in this Report as tothe biblical
and theological approach to baptism, including the baptism ofchildren.
We may begin by drawing
attention to the crucial role of baptism in the life of the early
church, a missionary church in a pagan society, in which the baptism of
families was a norm, bearing in mind that these baptisms took place when
the head of the house was brought to faith in Christ. We have no mandate
to minimise the role of baptism. In his essay 'Recovering Baptism for a
New Age of Mission'Doing Theology for the People of God
(Eds. D Lewis & A McGrath), Apollos1996, p 53. DF Wright has a
section headed 'The Church as Baptismal Community'. He states:
"baptism is above all the sacrament or the ordinance of the
church's missionary advance" and proceeds to illustrate that point.
When Paul provides us with the basis for Christian unity it is worth
noting that it is not the 'one eucharist' that he invokes but rather our
'one baptism'. Wright draws attention to the fact that when
divisions arose within the Corinthian Church they were tackled with
reference to baptism(1 Cor 1.10-17). He poses the question, "How
many pastors today would instinctively tackle the gross misunderstanding
of 'going on sinning so that grace might increase' as Paul did?"
(i.e. by confronting his readers with their baptism; Rom 6.2-4; see also
Col 2.12-13 for a similar usage). He also reminds his readers how Luther
defied devilish assaults on the soul with the words, 'I have been
baptised!'" It is of the utmost importance that we recognise the
importance of baptism for the church's mission and the church's unity
and that we recover for it the role that it had in the life of the early
church. We must give it its full Christian value as a sacrament of the
In the light of all this
it is worth giving consideration to the conclusions of DF Wright in his
essay referred to above, against the background of the tensions,
concerns and conflicting views also outlined above. He presents his
conclusions out of his concern that Infant Baptism should find its
proper place in the ongoing life of the Church for the new age of
mission facing the Church. There should be:
- A principled discipline
of administration, so that only those parents who are regularly
worshipping church members would expect to have their infants
- The adoption of a
service or services to mark the birth of a child, to enable
ministers to escape from the straitjacket of an all-or-nothing
- The unambiguous owning
of baby baptism as New Testament baptism.
- The nurture of baptised
children as members of the church and the people of God.
- The making of baptism an
explicit and frequent reference-point in Christian education from
the earliest stages.
- A cluster of lesser
practical requirements that would make baptism unambiguously a
congregational occasion rather than a family one, and also heighten
the dramatic vividness of the rite. If there has to be a party, make
it a church one; the baptism shall always take place in the home
church at the time of the main Sunday service; the local minister
shall baptise; imaginative efforts will be made to enhance the
solemnityand awesomeness of the observance…
The notes of the
gospel to be sounded loudand clear,so that all present will be left in
no doubt that baptism is asacrament of the gospel. If infant baptism
deserves to be saved from theruins of Christendom,it will only be by
returning it to baptism's New testamentconfigurations– ecclesial,
kerygmatic, mystagogic, Christological. Then infant baptism will truly
be an apostolic focus for the church's apostolic mission.
These deserve serious
consideration atleast in part because they coincide with developments in
other paedobaptist churches and with views expressed in the Board of
Missions' Report to the1999 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
The Board of Mission's Report begins with its conclusions and then gives
the reasons for its conclusions.The conclusions were as follows:
1. No change in the Act as
it is (i.e. theview of baptism agreed in the 1960's should not be
changed); but that…
2. Services of Thanksgiving
be given more formal recognition as a proper pastoral response to
3. and 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.
The more controversial of
both the Board of Mission's Report and of DF Wright's essay is the
adoption of a service to mark the birth of child as an appropriate
response to some parents. In fact the Report of the Board of Mission
devotes a whole section to this matter (two pages). It is clear from the
report that there is provision within the rules of that church for a
kirk session to authorise such a service and that in a growing number of
churches within the Church of Scotland such a service is being adopted.
The Rev Dr Andrew Heron has leant his support to the practice,
recommending that "pastoral concerns should allow for requests for
a service of thanksgiving for a new baby to be met – and that there is
nothing in church law to prevent this. "The Law &
Practrice of the Kirk ,Andrew Heron, Chapter House Ltd.,
1995, pp 156f.
Whether it should be
called 'a service' as such is a matter for debate. In our worship at
present, however, we frequently give thanks for significant events in
the lives of individuals, and no doubt that already includes
thanksgiving for the birth of babies. There seems to be no good reason
why parents who desire that should not be invited to join an act of
worship which would include thanksgiving for the birth of their child.
This would not satisfy all, but it already does satisfy a growingnumber
of people who have attended such a service within the Church of
Scotlandand the Church of England. To include within an act of worship a
prayer ofthanksgiving for a child accompanied by prayers of intercession
for boththe child and parents would have a far more solid foundation
biblically thanan act of dedication. The great benefit of such an
approach is that it wouldinvolve no compromise ,no devaluation of
baptism and no troubled conscienceon the part of ministers. It would
offer a way forward that would enable ministers"to escape the
straight jacket of an all-or-nothing choice" (DFWright). Itcould
make some contribution, possibly even a big contribution, to
relievingthe tension between those who want a more open approach to
children outsidethe church and those who are horrified at the prospect
of an indiscriminatebaptism.
Leaving aside the
possibility of including thanksgiving for a child withinan act of
worship we are agreed on the following:
- The baptism of children
is firmly grounded in the biblical doctrine of the covenant
relationship between God and his people.
- The proper subjects for
- those who have come to
faith in Christ, who have not previously been baptised, and who,
through their baptism, are entering into the membership of the
- children who are baptised
along with parents; children whose parents have previously been
baptisedand are already in membership with the church; children
whose parents arein a relationship to the church akin to membership;
children separated fromparents but under Christian care and
- We recognise that it is
not possible and, indeed, would be improper, to anticipate or
legislate for every individual circumstance. Where special
circumstances pertain the guidance of the kirk session must be
sought and the decisions of the kirk session mustbe in keeping with
the policy of the whole Church.
- The sacrament of baptism
should normally be within a public act of worship involving parents
and the congregation and should never be a private act of worship
unless there are very exceptional circumstances and where the kirk
session has given approval.
- The sacrament of baptism
should bespoken of as such and not in any way that presents it as
less than that, e.g.as a christening.
- Much more careful
attention should be given to the Christian upbringing and pastoral
care of children subsequent to baptism by parents and by the kirk
- Baptism must be
administered with water by sprinkling, pouring or immersion. The
overriding factor however must be the principle that baptism
normally takes place within a public act of worship involving the
whole congregation. The Service of Baptism may be a little more
meaningful if we were more liberal in our use of water. The tendency
to use the bare minimum is not helpful.
- When children are
baptisedit should be recognised that the minister is not conveying
spiritual blessings upon them. Baptism does not effect regeneration.
They are baptised as children within the covenant who share with
their parents in the promises of the covenant and are therefore
regarded as belonging to the Christian family – together with
- Baptism is an
unrepeatableact. Second baptisms biblically and theologically are a
contradiction in terms and a denial of what baptism represents, i.e.
our once-for-all-acceptance by God.
- We should make the act of
reception into membership by profession of faith in Christ a much
more meaningful and far more significant event, and that act of
reception together with the profession of faith should be related to
a person's baptism.
- There should be adequate
teaching on Baptism, teaching which would deal with the place of
children within the covenant, and such teaching should feature as a
part of the church's regular teaching programme.
- Service of Thanksgiving
The re-examination, by
the Panel on Doctrine,of "the whole issue of Baptism and, in
particular the practice of Infant Baptism",has its origin in a
motion presented to the 1996 General Assembly by the RevJ Neil. In
moving the motion Mr Neil referred to changing circumstances and made
the following statement,
would urge the Assembly notto underestimate the deep and genuine
feelings that parents have at their children's birth having just
witnessed the miracle of new-born life. It is often a time when, for men
especially, their eyes are opened to the sacredness of life and their
responsibility toward the well-being and development of their child. Any
wonder that when they come to the minister requesting baptism they are
shocked to discover it is not quite as simple as a request. Clearly our
members need to be taught more effectively what Water Baptism is and
towhom it properly applies. The Church may simply (even if painfully)
declinesuch requests for Baptism, or it may, with some imagination and
sensitivity towards enquiring parents seek to formulate a service of
thanksgiving or blessingwhich can be approved by our Church so that
there is uniformity of practiceand advice on how it should be properly
conducted. I suspect some alreadyhave introduced something along
these lines but would welcome stricter guidelines."
Moreover, when the last
Report on Baptism was presented to the General Assembly in 1980 it
concluded with this Footnote:"It may be that the Church should give
consideration to offering a service of blessing for children, whose
parents are not believers."
There are, of course,
arguments for and against such a service. Members of the Panel were
reluctant to deal with the matter in this Report for two reasons.
- Our present remit
requiresus to re-examine the question of Baptism, including Infant
Baptism. It doesnot authorise us to consider a Service of
Thanksgiving. Another matter related to the baptism of children is
that of the presence of children at the Lord's Table. The Assembly
deemed it necessary to agree to a separate deliverance authorising
us to look at that related issue.
- We are concerned that our
theological and biblical approach to Baptism should not be
influenced by a consideration of a Service of Thanksgiving. There
was, in our view, a danger that to deal with both in the same Report
may confuse the issues when this Report is debated at the General
For the reasons given,
members of the Panel felt it wise to seek guidance from the General
Assembly as to whether we should consider a service of thanksgiving for
children whose parents are not in membership with the church or who are
not covered by the particular circumstances outlined above. A paragraph
of deliverance has been included to determine the mind of the Assembly.
The approval of the paragraph would not prejudge the outcome of
the deliberations which would follow, though the Panel would obviously
take into account any discussion on the matterby the Assembly.
- Supporting material
It ought to be no
surprise that a Report from the Panel on Doctrine should be essentially
doctrinal! Moreover it will be clear from the Report that we have had to
deal in a detailed way with numerous conflicting ideas. Throughout we
have sought to ensure that our exegesis of all relevant Bible passages
and themes would be meticulous. The result has been a lengthy and fairly
technical Report. From an early stagein our discussions it was
anticipated that this would be the case and that,should the Report be
accepted by the General Assembly, it would be essential for the Panel to
produce supporting material for the local congregation that would be
much more 'user friendly'.
Our intention would be to
produce, in the course of the next year and firmly based on the Report,
material as listed below.
- An explanatory leaflet
for parents to help them in their understanding of baptism.
- An Order of Service for
- A teaching programme for
use by ministers and leaders in worship services, mid-week meetings,
youth groups and preparation classes (for membership and/or
- Guidance on the pastoral
care of those baptised.
- Guidelines whereby the
actof reception into membership by profession of faith in Christ
could becomea much more meaningful and far more significant event,
relating the act ofreception together with the profession of faith
to a person's baptism.
Some work on the above
has already commenced though it was deemed wise to await the General
Assembly's decision with respect to the Report before expending overmuch
time and energy on supporting material.
Whatever the outcome of
the General Assembly's deliberations, members of the Panel on Doctrine
have found their investigation into the topic of baptism, over five
years, to be a challenging and enriching experience. We are grateful to
the General Assembly for the opportunity to engage in this exercise.
In the name of the Panel
DAVID CARTLEDGE Convener
JOHN O FULTON Secretary
Other Sections of the
Report an be reached by clicking on the following Chapter headings
Origins of Water Baptism
Baptism of Children: Old Testament Evidence
Baptism of Children: New Testament Evidence
Baptism of Children: Extra-Biblical Evidence
Proper Subjects for Baptism
Mode of Baptism