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We are grateful to the Presbyterian Church of the USA for permission to copy this fascinating article; caw@ctr.pcusa.org

Indiscriminate Baptism and Baptismal Integrity
by:  Ronald P. Byars

The most critical liturgical issue facing our denomination is, in my judgment, centered on the Sacrament of Baptism. The problem is not a matter of form or of liturgical texts. The problem has to do with the professions of faith and vows asked of parents presenting their children for Baptism, and with the promises made by the congregation.

Four years after my ordination to the ministry, I drove all the way across the state of Michigan for an interview with the Committee on Ministerial Relations of the Presbytery of Detroit, meeting in the church which I now serve as pastor. My growing dissatisfaction with the denomination in which I had been ordained had led me at last to seek ministerial standing in a church that seemed to me to represent a responsible, catholic orthodoxy. This was, of course, the heyday of Karl Barth, who had made a powerful impact on American Presbyterianism. Barth had opened Calvin in a new way, rescuing him from scholastic "Calvinists" who had so often distorted his work. Through Barth's rereading of Calvin, I found it possible to connect with a classical-but certainly not fundamentalist-Christianity.

Changing denominations was not an altogether easy matter. Among the issues I brought to that decision was a concern about the sacraments. I had been accustomed to a church that celebrated the Lord's Supper weekly. I had also been accustomed to "believers' baptism." Those commitments had been important to me, and I could not in all honesty become a Presbyterian until I had worked out an acceptable frame of reference with regard to these sacraments. Imagine the joy when I discovered, reading the proposed Service for the Lord's Day' that Calvin had intended, as a key part of his reform project, to restore the broken unity of Word and Sacrament! Further exploration made it clear that Calvin's project-though it had failed at the time of Reformation-had again come up for review in Reformed circles. Baptism was a bit more difficult.

What justification is there for baptizing infants? Karl Barth, whom I much admired, found none. Does the sacrament work ex opere operato? In other words, do the right words, the right intentions, and the right substance combine to wash away original sin, as Roman Catholics believed? Could one, hypothetically, baptize a child surreptitiously, without the parent's knowledge, and expect that something real had occurred? This point of view did not persuade me. If that's what Presbyterians believed about Baptism, it was an impediment that I would have to consider very seriously. Was Baptism just a sort of blessing ceremony? If that's what it was; then it made sense to baptize any and every child. That view seemed to be an entirely inadequate and unsacramental view of Baptism, with no justification in Scripture. Were the parents making a confession of faith on the child's behalf, which the child might later confirm? That was what I understood to be the traditional Lutheran view. I did not understand how parents could make any confession on the child's behalf, nor why they should be asked to do so.

I began to read what Presbyterians said about Baptism in their official documents. It became clear that, in their practice of infant baptism, Presbyterians intended to focus on God's action. Just as Jesus had said to his disciples, "You did not choose me but I chose you . . . .", one can see in the Sacrament of Baptism God's act of choosing. Whatever the age of the person being baptized, it's God's choosing that is the crucial action. Adults, as well as infants, will have to decide many times after their baptism whether or not to choose God back!

This all made perfectly good sense-but what grounds might there be for presuming that a given child was an object of God's choosing? Why this child and not every child? The answer given was that God chooses people who have responded in faith, but also chooses the children of those who are members of the faithful community. This also made sense-not only by analogy with the Jewish precedent of circumcision-but in embracing the biblical idea of "covenant." God ordinarily chooses us, not one by one, but as part of a people who are knit together. Those people share a common destiny, and a common journey. The children journey with their parents, who journey with a community. When the parents make a profession of faith, they do so not on behalf of their child, but as a statement of their identity as members of the covenanted community, and their intention to form the child's faith as best they can within that community. Under those circumstances, there is at least a reasonable prospect that a baptized person will grow into her baptism in due time, making a profession of faith and choosing back the God who first chose her.

For me, these ideas came together in a kind of "aha!" moment. Infant baptism was about the status of the children of believers-members of the covenant community-and not about children in general! Baptism was meant neither to save the child from some peril in this world or the next, nor as a sentimental blessing upon newborns, nor as a way for the parents to profess the child's supposed "implicit" faith by proxy. It was an act which incorporated into the body of Christ the children of persons who were already a part of that body. Presbyterians did not do "emergency" baptisms, nor did they recruit neighborhood children for the Sacrament. Even though they presumed that God held other people's children in equal affection, Presbyterians did not seek to baptize them. Baptism is about our own children-chosen, with us, to be part of a community set apart for a servant role. That was the insight that turned everything right for me. I embraced what was to me a new and richer understanding of the Sacrament of Baptism, and did so in good conscience and with enthusiasm. My appreciation of the richness of the Reformed tradition, with its deep reverence for the God who moves toward us before we move toward God, grew by leaps and bounds with these new insights.

In my early years as a Presbyterian, the actual practice of Baptism seemed to conform reasonably well with what was written in the official books. Those who brought their children to be baptized were church members themselves. By profession and practice members of the covenant community, they presented their children to be incorporated into that community and shaped by its faith. It was true that some parents who requested Baptism for their children appeared to have a rather casual attitude toward the practice of the faith, but I understood that even in a covenanted community, there would be stronger and weaker members. The fact remained that the church was their community, however much or little they valued it, and it made sense to extend that belonging to the next generation. More often than not, their children actually came within reach of the church's influence. Their parents brought them to the nursery, then to Sunday School, then they came to youth groups, then to Confirmation class in a more or less reliable sequence. Then, dating perhaps roughly to the 1960s, something began to change. At first, the change was so slight that it was almost imperceptible. By the 1980s, it was inescapable.

While certainly in every generation some have fallen away from the faith and out of the church, this phenomenon became more. nearly the rule than the exception beginning, perhaps, in the 60s. Some studies have shown that as many as 50 percent of young people confirmed in Presbyterian churches since the 1960s have dropped out of any church relation-and sometimes. that figure seems low. As a whole generation turned against western civilization and all the institutions of what seemed a racist and corrupt society, they rejected the church whose identity was so intertwined with the history of western culture. In particular, they rejected churches like our own, which had served almost as an informal religious establishment since colonial times. This phenomenon has been well-documented and much discussed, and by now we have all heard the news and gotten the point.

The acute phase of this antiestablishment mood did not last so very long, but the impact of it continues. Most of the 60s' generation eventually made their peace with society-or at least made their peace with employers, the business community, and the free market system. Most did not return to church. They married and had children. Some of them wanted their children to be baptized-perhaps for "religious" reasons, perhaps without quite knowing why. Others were indifferent to such a rite, but their parents coveted it for their new grandchildren. More frequently than ever before, it began to be grandparents who telephoned the pastor to arrange for baptism. The parents of the child to be baptized lived in another community or another state, and had no church connection.

Ministers who failed to perceive that a change occurred continued to do more or less as they had early in their ministries-they baptized those they were asked to baptize, as they had always done when it was safer to presume that at least one parent was a member of the Christian church. The difference-frequently overlooked-was that at least half the time neither parent had any current relationship with the church. They may have had a past relationship. They may have had a nostalgic relationship. They had no present relationship with the church and no plans for establishing one. Still, more often than not, ministers kept on baptizing-eliciting professions of faith that rang hollow, and promises of support from congregations who suspected, if they did not actually know, that neither they nor any other congregation would have an opportunity to keep such promises.

Without consciously intending to do it, our practice has the effect of transforming our Reformed theology of Baptism. In colonial times, the Puritans had compromised for a time with what they called the "HalfWay Covenant's. When few children of the church grew up to make professions of faith, the question arose as to the status of their children. The Puritan decision-makers decided that the children of baptized persons might also be baptized, even, though their parents could make no profession of faith. The Puritans may have contributed to their own problem by imposing excessively rigorous requirements on those who might otherwise have made a profession of faith. In any case, it may be that we Presbyterians, having never actually decided to do so, have in practice instituted our own "Half-Way Covenant." For how many generations will we baptize the children of baptized persons who have opted out of the church?

Once upon a time, when I chaired the appropriate presbytery committee, a Seventh-Day Adventist pastor approached me. He said that he had been reading Calvin's Institutes, and wanted to become a Presbyterian. There is, of course, a certain triumph in making a proselyte (as Jesus himself remarked), but it seemed a moment for caution. I asked the pastor whether he knew any Presbyterians. He didn't. I suggested that there might be some value in meeting some and hearing what they said and reading what they were writing before making a decision based on reading a sixteenth -century document, no matter how marvelous that document! It seems that there has been a growing distinction between what Presbyterians say in our official documents that we believe and do, and what we actually do and perhaps also believe. To understand what Presbyterians believe about Baptism, one may learn more by careful observation than by studying theological works or confessions of faith, or even the Book of Order.

 

Issues Facing the Church

It is important to recognize that Presbyterians (and others) have a problem here. The key issue for Reformed communities has always been that the church baptizes the children of its own members, and not children generally. Surely I am not alone in my dismay that we are becoming a church that baptizes anyone's children "on demand" as it were, without consulting our own theology of Baptism. There must be many Presbyterian ministers and elders for whom there are matters at stake here of such importance that they feel their personal integrity to be on the line.

Some will argue with the official position of the church, as stated in the Book of Order:

When a child is being presented for Baptism, ordinarily the parent(s) or one(s) rightly exercising parental responsibility shall be an active member of the congregation. Those presenting children for Baptism shall promise to provide nurture and guidance within the community of faith until the child is ready to make a personal profession of faith and assume the responsibilities of active church membership.3

The "ordinarily" in this citation does not mean that a session or minister can choose to ignore it. The same paragraph identifies the exception indicated by that word. If the parents are not on the active roll of the baptizing congregation, "A session may also consider a request for the baptism of a child from a Christian parent who is an active member of another congregation" (my emphasis).

There may be those who justify ignoring this requirement of the Book of Order because they have a theological quarrel with it. They may argue that there is grace in the Sacrament whether the candidate is appropriate or not, and that by offering the Sacrament generously to the children of unchurched parents, those parents may find themselves touched by that grace and turn to Jesus Christ and to Christ's church. There is no way that I know either to prove that point or to disprove it. There is no doubt that grace works in mysterious ways. Although personal experience and anecdotal evidence do not support the likelihood of such a response, neither can it be ruled out. Certainly there must be occasions in which there is such an occurrence. Nevertheless, one might argue with equal force that the Sacrament offered indiscriminately, with no apparent commitment to the discipline it implies, will cheapen it in the valuation of those for whom it is no more than a social ritual, an appeasement offered to relatives, or a ritual to which they attach their own idiosyncratic interpretation. It would not be so very difficult to make the case that baptism under such circumstances reduces its value in the eyes of congregations. Hearing solemn promises made lightly over and over again when it becomes apparent that there is no follow-through gradually teaches congregations that such vows are perfunctory and not serious. This, in turn, affects the way they make their own promises. One of the things against which our Reformed fore-bears rebelled was an empty ritualism-not rites as such, but empty forms, made on demand without personal engagement.

The great risk is that the church will lose the power to say what its own rites mean and what they require. Out of a fear of appearing exclusive or ungenerous, we forfeit our stewardship of the sacraments and offer them on demand to whomever asks for them, asking no questions about why they want it, and leaving it to the "consumers" to interpret their meaning. So, grandparents ask for Baptism because they believe it to be necessary in case "something" should happen to the child. Parents want it because they saw a "christening" in a television show. TV writers, novelists, and neighbor-hood hearsay define Baptism and say why it should be desirable. A person whose mother attended Catholic parochial school feels that she needs to fulfill an obligation she's just not sure why. In just such ways, a confused society with only sentimental memories of "family rituals" takes over the church's prerogative to teach and define the meaning of its own sacraments.

 

Challenges of the Culture

What is at stake here is not only the church's right to define itself, but its ability to do so. Our society is at once intensely secular and extravagantly religious. The secularism challenges us, but the varieties of piety that have taken hold of people’s

imaginations may threaten Christian faith even more. People long for "spirituality," but they loathe discriminating among available spiritualities and are not well equipped to do so. They feel free to mix and match from this source and that, blending doctrines and pieties with no concern for consistency. Recognizing the importance of rituals in human life, bookstores sell volumes on creating one's own. The traditional Sacrament of Baptism might retain a certain charm or satisfy a need for those who sense the desirability of a birth ritual, but have neither the competence nor, per-haps, the confidence to create their own.

In such a theological climate, the church needs above all to be clear about who we are and Whose we are, and to claim the right to say what our rites mean and what they do not mean. There are seasons in the history of the church in which the integrity of its mission stands or falls with its ability to define its own boundaries. The difficulty of articulating a clear message of identity is magnified exponentially in a culture that believes itself already to be acquainted with Christianity, however much that acquaintance may be distorted. The old liberal cry that invites people out of their various Christian fundamentalisms to create new and modern versions of the faith that satisfy the requirements of their personal experience is useful only for those few for whom fundamentalism has been the problem. Most of the population is more likely to have a hazy religious background than one that is excessively certain. Our time requires not a call to personal interpretation, which has already been carried to extremes, but rather a measure of clarity, and certainly that clarity should begin with the church's rites of initiation, of which the Sacrament of Baptism is the foundation.

Baptism by immersion is clumsy and difficult-which is, perhaps, a word in its favor, since the Christian life itself is clumsy and difficult. It has the virtue of visually dramatizing Christ's death and resurrection, to which the person baptized is joined. Baptism as we customarily practice it is more nearly reminiscent either of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit or of an act of washing. Nevertheless, whether by immersion or affusion, at the essential core of Baptism is a testimony to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As sweet as the little child may be, and even though the harsh realities of life may seem far removed from the tenderness of the occasion, this Sacrament necessarily points to the fact that those who 'are united with Christ become part of a body that must be prepared to lose its life in order to gain it.

Can baptizing children whose parents are outside that body, and who will in all likelihood withhold their children from the nurture of that body, possibly do justice to a gospel that calls us to support one another in laying down our lives so that we might find them? Can such baptisms in any way model for either parents or for congregations a gospel that summons us to share in some way the self-offering so strikingly evident in the cross? Grace is free, but can we justify encouraging people to line up, hands outstretched, for free grace with no suggestion that they need to live by that grace and into it? Or, that they need to labor with the church to realize the fruits of that grace in their own lives and in the lives of their baptized children?

Sometimes, the most loving way to deal with those who want something of us is to say "no"-or "not yet." Certainly, the petitioners may go away angry, but they will know at least that the thing for which they have asked is something which we hold to be of real value. My response to requests to baptize the children of unchurched parents is to suggest that there are several steps involved in planning a baptism, and the first step is for the parents to sort out their own spiritual commitments. Once they settle that question, it's appropriate to consider the next step. Arranging the baptism follows, unless it has become apparent that they cannot in good conscience attempt to lead their children where they themselves have no desire to go.

Abroad, tolerant, inclusive church is one that has great difficulty with setting boundaries. We are terribly fearful of rejecting or appearing to reject anyone, because we know the graciousness of Jesus Christ and his openness to all sorts of people, including notorious sinners. My appeal to the church is not to become ungracious or exclusive, nor to erect high walls that only a few can climb. Nevertheless, I believe that the church of Jesus Christ in North America is in a missionary situation. Ours is perhaps more difficult than the situation of those who bear the mission to some corner of the world where the gospel has never been heard.

We live in a terribly ambiguous position, in which the great majority of people in the nation perhaps think of themselves as being, in some way, Christian, yet have nearly no knowledge of the content of that faith and minimal experience with the church. When they (or their parents on their behalf) request baptism for their children, they seldom really know what it is they are asking for.

If we provide it on their own terms, do we not con-tribute to a religious complacency that presumes that the church exists simply to provide services at high points and transitional moments in life? Do we not miss the opportunity to make at least a gesture in the direction of affirming that the Christian church is more than a generic religious institution, in which even its most sacred rites are available to the general public? Don't we miss the opportunity to demonstrate that the church makes certain claims which may run against the grain of the culture?

It may be that I have not entirely shaken off my early formation in a "believers' church." My approach in this matter may be more "sectarian" than "churchly." Still, can even a "people's church" (as the established churches of Europe conceive themselves) use inclusiveness as. an excuse to refuse to define itself or to distinguish its identity from other cultural institutions? There seems to me an acute danger to a church that is afraid of defining its boundaries for fear of of-fending those who might interpret such a definition in ungenerous terms.

 

Choices-from Moderate to Radical

What are the options? The options I can think of range from moderate to radical. A moderate action for a church that senses the danger of losing its integrity in this matter would be to focus on the issue far more powerfully in seminary courses-not simply to teach the polity of the Book of Order, but to teach the theology behind the polity and to raise pastoral and missionary issues with self-conscious directness. This is a moderate approach, be-cause it would probably take at least a generation to see much effect, if then. The political pressures within congregations will consistently work against a serious implementation of our baptismal theology.

A similar and supplementary approach would be for presbytery session records committees to compare session approvals of baptisms with church roll books to see whether particular sessions are respecting the baptismal theology to which our polity commits us. If not, I do not suggest punitive action, but visitations to sessions for the purpose of beginning a process of continuing education in this matter.

Another approach would be for ministers who share a commitment to Reformed baptismal theology to covenant together to support one another in finding ways to deal with this issue in their congregations. This approach will be effective only to the extent that one can find such colleagues!

The far more radical approach would be for the church to call for a moratorium on infant baptisms until such time as the moratorium shall have caught the attention of ministers, sessions, and congregations and caused them to reaffirm a Reformed theology of this Sacrament. I do not expect such a thing to happen. However, as radical as it is, it may be worthy of consideration. In the past, when theologies of baptism have lost their credibility, parts of churches have broken away to create a new baptismal discipline. That is not an attractive option, and we should do everything possible to avoid it.

Another option, of course, is simply to go along with the tide as it surges through our congregations, refusing, to think about the issue, much less adhere to our polity, for fear of offending people whom we dare not risk offending. We could revise our theology to one that so focuses on grace that it becomes unthinkable to withhold either Baptism or the Lord's Supper from anyone who wants either, for whatever reasons. The responsibility to be stewards of the sacraments, delegated to the church, could be given back to God. The responsibility of stating the terms of church member-ship could be laid aside. The church could abandon the task of defining itself or its faith, and simply offer whatever it has, on any terms, to whoever asks for it. If we choose that option-as perhaps we already have-honesty would require that we revise the forms of baptism so as not to cause either parents or congregations to perjure themselves.

Will we continue with the Reformed requirement that parents presenting children for Baptism make a profession of faith? Will we continue to require that congregations be present, and promise to support the Christian formation of the child? This is the most pressing liturgical question before our church.

 Byars, Ronald. "Indiscriminate Baptism and Baptismal Integrity" Reformed Liturgy & Music. Vol. XXXI, No. 1, 1997. Pages 36-40.

NOTES:

1 Service for the Lord's Day and Lectionary for the Christian Year, (Philadelphia, The Westminster Press, 1964). This pamphlet also cites the Directory for the Worship of God, in The Constitution of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, Part II: Book of Order (New York: Office of the General Assembly, 1961), VI, 1.

2 Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1972), pp. 158 ff

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