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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 

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.

  1. The trauma of refusing baptism when requested by parents who are non-members.  
  2. The desire that baptism should be more easily accessible to the children of parents who are not members ofthe church.
  3. The lack of an alternativeto offer parents who want the birth of their child to be marked in some wayby the Church.
  4. A troubled conscience when asking parents to affirm convictions and make promises when there is no evidence that the affirmations or promises are meaningful.  
  5. The misuse of baptism so that it is presented as little more than a 'christening' or a naming ceremonywith water. 
  6. 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.
  7. 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 water!  
  8. 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.  
  9. The lack of access by the church to a significant number of children who have been baptised  
  10. 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.
  11. 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' mentality.  
  12. Difficulties arising through so-called 'second baptisms' only possible by denying the value of the first baptism, a practice which effectively devalues baptism.
  13. 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 New Covenant.

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:

  1. A principled discipline of administration, so that only those parents who are regularly worshipping church members would expect to have their infants baptised.
  2. 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 choice.
  3. The unambiguous owning of baby baptism as New Testament baptism.
  4. The nurture of baptised children as members of the church and the people of God.
  5. The making of baptism an explicit and frequent reference-point in Christian education from the earliest stages.
  6. 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 some parents;

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.

  1. Agreement

      Leaving aside the possibility of including thanksgiving for a child withinan act of worship we are agreed on the following:      

  1. The baptism of children is firmly grounded in the biblical doctrine of the covenant relationship between God and his people.
  2. The proper subjects for baptism are
  3. 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 church;  
  4. 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 supervision. 
  5. 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.  
  6. 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.  
  7. 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.
  8. 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 session.  
  9. 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.  
  10. 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 their parents.
  11. 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. 
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  1. 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,

   "I 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.

  1. 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.  
  2. 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 assembly.

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.

  1. 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.

  1. An explanatory leaflet for parents to help them in their understanding of baptism.
  2. An Order of Service for Baptism.
  3. A teaching programme for use by ministers and leaders in worship services, mid-week meetings, youth groups and preparation classes (for membership and/or baptism).  
  4. Guidance on the pastoral care of those baptised.
  5. 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:

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 Proper Subjects for Baptism 

The Mode of Baptism 

 

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