Discipline of Members-by-Baptism
1. Historical survey
The church of the sixteenth century Reformation considered the children of believers to be very much part of the congregation. It was as members of the church that they were baptized. Before admitting them to the Lord's Supper, the church insisted that they make public profession of faith.
Martin Bucer was one of the first to provide a set of regulations for the church.2 He believed that the congregation is a fellowship within which discipline is administered. Already at a very early age children had to be instructed about discipline. This is clear from his catechism booklets for children. In the shorter catechism for the schoolchildren in Strasbourg (1537) he expounded in detail the nature of church discipline. Persons in the congregation receive forgiveness of sins through the administration of the keys of the kingdom. The implication is that in church, sins are exposed, including the sins of the children. There are two aspects to the administration of the keys of the kingdom. The one aspect is that assaulted consciences may receive the comfort of the forgiveness of sins. The other aspect is that members must both submit to church discipline and become involved in Christian discipline. We must kindly warn and admonish others when they sin, while at the same time being ready to receive admonition and rebuke from others.
One of the catechism booklets which Bucer wrote for very young children, includes the following questions and answers after the section on the doctrine of baptism and the Lord's Supper:
Question: What other things are done in church?
Answer: The keys are used.
Question: For what purpose?
Answer: (a) To warn against and punish sins, to bind and excommunicate those who refuse to repent; (b) to loose and in grace receive those who desire to repent.
Question: What am I to learn from this?
Answer: (a) To readily allow myself to be warned and punished; (b) to readily warn my neighbour; (c) to value highly church discipline and diligently make use of its comfort.
Bucer apparently did not regard children as too young to teach that the congregation is a real fellowship, within which one keeps watch over another. Right from the start of his ministry in Strasbourg, Bucer considered this thought important. The conflict with the Anabaptists made him more convinced of the necessity of church discipline. If the churches would form a living body through the exercise of church discipline and the promotion of holiness, they could offer an alternative to the fanaticism of the Anabaptists.
From its very inception, the Reformed leaders were convinced that as members of the church children are subject to church discipline. When they made public profession of faith, this thought was underscored. Then they consciously subjected themselves to the obedience of Christ.
Bucer exercised influence over Calvin, particularly during Calvin's stay in Strasbourg.4 Calvin adopted Bucer's ideals with regard to the church, as is clear on the point of the admission to the Lord's Supper.
In his catechisms Calvin also teaches that by baptism children have come into fellowship with the church.5 They are members of the household. Baptism is a form of entrance into the church, a form of initiation into faith. In a preface to his "Articles concerning the organisation of church..." (1537) Calvin writes about the desirability of church education for children. Catechism serves to bring them to that confession which they owe to the church. In the Bible, faith and confession are conjoined. Children are, therefore, to be taught to give testimony to the church of their faith, which they were not able to do when they were baptized. The parents have the task of instructing them.
Four years later Calvin wrote about admittance to the Lord's Supper, for which profession of faith is necessary. The "Church Regulations" (1541) stipulate that on the Lord's Day before the Lord's Supper an announcement shall be made, "in order that a child shall not come before he has made profession of his faith."
This conjunction between public profession of faith and the Lord's Supper has become characteristic of Reformed Protestantism, which has followed Calvin. From age ten children had to attend catechism classes, after which they would make public profession of faith at about the age of fifteen. Calvin insisted particularly that attention be given to the knowledge of faith, although this knowledge was never separate from the confidence of faith. Calvin was not content with simply an intellectual knowledge of the truths of Scripture and agreement therewith. This is clear from the question: "My child, are you a Christian in truth as much as you are a Christian by name?" It is also clear from the other question: "In Whom do you believe, and in Whom do you place the whole trust of your heart?" From the history of the Reformation in Geneva, we know that also children were included in the oversight and discipline of the congregation.
It is remarkable that in the century of the Reformation, young persons made profession of faith at an earlier age than we are used to. We may not overlook that in the century of the Reformation young people carried greater responsibilities than in subsequent times. Today the age of maturity sets in later for children, even though they are introduced to various things at a much earlier age. Another factor is the influence of the later Pietism on how profession of faith came to be viewed.
For Calvin there is a direct relationship between members by baptism and church discipline, even though the formal relationship was expressed only at profession of faith.6
It is important to know the practice of the Refugee congregations in London, England. Á Lasco drafted a church order for these congregations based on a model from Bucer and the church in Geneva. In his Christian Ordinances, Micron described the way things were to be done in this Dutch Refugee congregation.9
There is a reference to discipline of members-by-baptism:
When they have reached the age of (around) fourteen years and have not been taught sufficiently the principles of the Christian life or they live wayward lives, and despise the private admonitions of the brethren, then the ministers shall admonish and rebuke them in the light of the Word of God. The ministers also shall investigate the cause of their ignorance or waywardness with the purpose to lead them to a godly life.
If it appears that the parents are in part to be blamed for their children's waywardness, then they shall first be admonished. If the parents despise these admonitions, then they shall be rebuked for their gross sin in accordance with Christian order and discipline. If, however, it appears that the children alone are to be blamed and not the parents, then one shall comfort the parents and consult with them as to how the unruliness of the children can best be curbed. In the meantime the ministers of the Word shall reprimand and rebuke (though with wisdom) these children by impressing upon them the divine threats. If they still do not mend their ways, they shall not be admitted to the use of the Lord's Supper until they shall have come to repentance. If, despite keeping them from the Lord's Supper and rebuking them, someone among these children is not touched but rather continues in all wickedness to despise his parents (which sin in accordance with God's ordinance ought to be punished with death), then when he will have reached the age of eighteen or twenty, he will be excommunicated from the congregation as a despiser of the grace and of the covenant of God, and the congregation shall grieve over him for following the world. From the excommunication of such children, one can learn that it is not sufficient to have received the seal of the covenant, baptism, in our young years. We dishonour Christ while having His Name on our forehead, unless our life is in accordance with His Name.
Such children who live in guilty ignorance or in waywardness, cannot be admitted to the congregation. If they at one time had been admitted, they would have to be excluded.
A number of things stands out in á Lasco's church order. First: there is a reference to the deacons who need to help the parents who themselves do not have the means to have their children instructed. Second: the parents of these children are not forgotten: they must be comforted. Third: it is intolerable for young people to despise Christ Himself by ridiculing, and by dishonouring the special office in church. It is clear that the young Reformed Church, which consisted mainly of persecuted refugees, desired to maintain discipline. The horrors of those days and the waywardness among the young people are not mentioned only in these church regulations; they also are recorded in the minutes of the church council meetings, which have been preserved. We can scarcely imagine what all took place in such a congregation, but apparently the church council tried to include also the young people.
At the same time it must be stated that the illustration of this congregation is not suitable to illustrate a problem that confronted the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, namely, that of adult non-communicant members particularly in the Northern part of the Netherlands, as is referred to in the 1588 Acts of the Synod of Dort and Voetius.
The 1578 Synod of Dordrecht10
When in 1572 freedom dawned for the churches under the cross,11 church life had to be ordered accordingly. In 1568 at the Convent at Wezel12 a group of Dutch representative leaders from twenty churches had expressed the need for a common order which could serve all the churches of the United Provinces, and they had done some preparatory work towards this.13
The Synod in 1571 at Emden14 adopted a church order of sorts, in which also the disciplinary procedures of the church were carefully defined. Since it described things ideally, the question remained, how things were to be done in specific cases?
The 1578 Synod raised the question: "Are children who have been baptized in the Reformed congregation, when they have reached years of discretion, subject to church discipline, and will those who, after they have been admonished, continue to harden their hearts be excommunicated, although they have not yet professed their faith and have not yet partaken of the Lord's Supper?"
This answer was given: "Because baptism is a general testimony of the covenant of God, to which the children belong, as long as they do not through open apostasy reject it, public and general admonitions shall be sufficient in the public and free congregations such as the prophets spoke to the people of Israel. But because profession of faith and the Lord's Supper fellowship are a special testimony in the church of God, by which those who have sinned against the covenant of God are received again (as in former times apostate Israelites were brought back to the true church of Israel not through a new circumcision but by fellowship with the Passover lamb), therefore excommunication shall not be used except against those to whom the covenant of God is sealed anew through the Lord's Supper."
To be sure, questions can be raised with regard to the significance of baptism and the Lord's Supper, but for our purpose it is clear that
- they believed that non-communicant members cannot be excommunicated, and
- they regarded the public admonition, that is, the preaching itself, sufficient as means of discipline.
It is remarkable that the churches in The Netherlands did not follow the direction that á Lasco had pointed out but rather a slightly different direction suggested by Voetius. That difference may be due to Voetius' position with regard to the Independentists17 who put strong emphasis on the holiness of the congregation. According to them, one does not essentially belong to the congregation until one consciously and voluntarily has expressed one's choice of faith. Voetius put more emphasis on the significance of the covenant of God and regarded the congregation as different from the Independentists. What was at stake was the place of non-communicant members. In his Politica Ecclesiastica I, 29-31, Voetius asks: "Are the children of members of the covenant, members of the visible church, and do they make up the church as well?" Voetius agrees with the thesis which is expressed in the first question that is put in the church's liturgical forms for baptism: The children of believing parents "are sanctified in Christ and as members of His church ought to be baptized."
Yet, Voetius expresses some restriction with regard to the membership of non-communicant members. For this he quotes William Ames18 (Medulla I, 32, 13):
Nevertheless the young children are not complete members of the church in the sense that they can participate in the actions of fellowship or partake of all privileges of the church.19
First there must be evidence of the growth of faith. But they cannot be excluded from those things that are part of the beginning of faith and the entering of church for the purpose of baptism.
From here on, Voetius speaks about the children as "incomplete members." He gives a complicated account of rebirth which they do have20 and repentance which they do not have. Because they do have the grace of rebirth, they can belong to the invisible church. However, they do not (yet) have faith itself and actual repentance. They do, therefore, belong to but not in an obvious way, as this can only be see upon profession of faith.
What are the implications for discipline of baptized members? Are all the aspects of church discipline to be administered to those adults who were baptized in their young years but who did not by profession of faith join themselves to the congregation, even though they have reached the years of discretion?
According to Voetius, it would be Roman Catholic if all baptized members would be regarded as objects of church discipline. He refers to an article from Arminian circles that defends a similar point of view: the adult baptized members are subject to church discipline. Voetius rejects this point of view because it erases the distinction between "incomplete" and "complete" members, between rebirth and repentance, and it does not do justice to the significance of profession of faith. Given this circumstance, the children would have to be admitted to the Lord's Supper. That would be contrary to the position of God's people in this world: because then one would have to regard people as members of the church without their having made profession of faith.
But to Voetius this does not mean that the church is not to apply discipline to, or provide pastoral care, for baptized members. On the contrary, the names of those who are baptized are registered in a church register. Moreover, the church provides pastoral care for them over against those who are unbelieving and estranged from the Christian religion. As they grow up they are urged to attend the catechism classes, the worship services, to prepare for making profession of faith and partaking of communion at the Lord's Supper. The ministers are to promote and enforce these things diligently as well as any synodical pronouncements.
The distinction that Voetius makes between "complete" and "incomplete" members is, apparently, of such importance that it determines his view on church discipline. Strictly speaking, baptized members cannot be excommunicated. Since they have not consciously entered the fellowship of the believers, they cannot be removed from it either.
When he discusses church discipline as such, Voetius returns to this topic. Who are subjected to church discipline? "Are they the ones who in their young years were baptized in our churches?" According to Voetius, the words of admonition and reprimand that come prior to the actual church discipline do apply to them. These words must even be applied with special care.
However, I don't see how the actual church discipline can be applied to them, in view of the fact that they never, by profession of faith in the church, were admitted to the Lord's Supper fellowship. How then could they be excluded from it? Moreover, in this way innumerable people who were born from Christian parents but who moved away before they came to the years of discretion and grew up in the Muslim religion or in paganism would need to be censured, and that simply seems absurd.
Voetius' line of reasoning seems somewhat peculiar. But his point is clear: The censure that results in excommunication cannot be applied to baptized members. All the admonitions that come prior to excommunication are to be applied to them, but excommunication itself is not to be applied to them (Pol. Eccl. IV, 849 ff).
Voetius left it at that. The Form of Baptism says that the children of the believers "are sanctified in Christ and therefore as members of His church ought to be baptized." According to Voetius, this does not mean that, therefore, they can also be subjected to church discipline. They are "incomplete members," and therefore only incomplete discipline can be applied to them. They can be admonished and reprimanded. But the first stage of church discipline21 or the second stage of church discipline22 cannot be applied to them, because they have not been admitted to the full communication of the church and the partaking of the Lord's Supper.
Not all who were Reformed adopted Voetius' position. According to Jac Koelman, Voetius did not do justice to the words found in the Form for Baptism, in which the parents express that their child "as member of Christ's church ought to be baptized." In this Form for Baptism our fore bearers confessed, on good ground, that the children of believing parents are members of the visible church of Christ and that, therefore, by virtue of their membership and baptism they are obliged to live as members of covenant. "Therefore when they live an offensive life and stubbornly continue to live that way contrary to all the words of admonition and rebuke spoken by the overseers in church, then we must regard them as Gentiles and publicans."
For his position, Koelman appealed to a pronouncement by the 1638 provincial synod of Zeeland which was held in Tholen.
The churches should take stricter oversight (than has been practiced until now) over those baptized members who have not attempted to live in a Christian way in accordance with God's covenant, the covenant that they had entered into during their youth.
Koelman declares that he does not see why one could rightly apply the words of admonition and reprimand that precede the actual church discipline but not the actual excommunication. "I do not see why church discipline should not continue in their cases." For his position, Koelman also appealed to Hoornbeek23 who over against the Independentists had taken the Reformed position, that one "by virtue of his baptism had a right to the Lord's Supper." That is how that right could also be removed.
From the above, it is clear that
- there was a difference of opinion on this view in the seventeenth century;
- representatives of the contrary opinions agreed that the church was to provide pastoral care for baptized members;
- the disagreement was concerned with the scope of church discipline.
The position taken by the 1834 Secession Churches and afterwards
It is remarkable that the two thoughts which we encountered in Voetius and Koelman, continued during the days of the 1834 Secession. These two contrary opinions were expressed by the two fathers of the Secession H. de Cock and H.P. Scholte in a controversy in which De Cock accused H.P. Scholte of having Independentistic tendencies. It is important to see clearly that behind this controversy lay two different views of the congregation. H.P. Scholte, whose background was Le Réveil,24 maintained a view of the congregation which did not issue from the national Reformed line of thinking,25 to which De Cock adhered.
At the first synod of the Secession churches there was a discussion that pleased everyone about baptism, profession of faith and the Lord's Supper. But at the second synod of the Secession churches, a profound difference between Scholte and De Cock became manifest. The discussion centered on the question as to who belonged to the congregation. De Cock had a broad view of this. His congregation consisted of members, baptized members, and adherents.26 They all belonged in some way to the congregation. The membership of the congregation was based on the promise of God. Some had that promise in the sense that it was offered to them, and others had that promise in the sense that it had been applied to the heart.27
But they all belonged to the visible church. Scholte could not follow De Cock in his broader view on the covenant. He put more emphasis on the inner realization of the promise. According to him, only those who could testify of that, really belonged to the congregation. He regarded baptized members as belonging to the congregation in the sense that it was expected from them that, (after they had reached the years of discretion) they would make profession of faith.
In this way the whole subject of discipline of baptized members came to be considered in a different context and became more problematic. The question no longer simply concerned the extent of church discipline applied to baptized members. Now the question was: Do baptized members belong to the church, and can they be expected to make profession of their faith at a certain age? Or could this not be required of them all, even though they could continue to belong to the congregation?
It is this question that lies behind the further developments. There were all sorts of tensions concerning this question in the Secession churches. In 1857 the question was put to the synod whether church discipline had to be applied to children of the congregation who had reached the years of discretion and had not made profession of faith, while living in sin without repenting of sin even after sincere and repeated admonitions. The synod obviously did not give a clear answer. It stated:
The synod, upon thorough deliberation, is of the opinion that no specific rules should be laid down for this. Rather, it should be left to the modest judgment of the councils to deal with them in meekness as faithfully and edifyingly as possible.
This unclear position of baptized members was strengthened by the common practice of many in the Northern part in the Netherlands who continued to be baptized members, without being admitted to the celebration of the Lord's Supper through public profession of faith. Their children could be baptized.28
Right after the Union in 1892, the Gereformeerde Kerken did tackle the problem. Professors Bavinck and Rutgers presented a report to the 1896 synod, in which they took the position of Voetius, that baptized members are "incomplete" members of the congregation, so that church discipline could not be fully applied to them. But they went further than Voetius in following the line of á Lasco that baptized members at one time must be put to the choice. They set a limit of thirty years of age, beyond which they could no longer continue to be baptized members and beyond which they were no longer permitted to have their children baptized. Beyond this age baptized members would lose their membership.
The Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken in 1925
In the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken the 1925 synod dealt with this issue and made the following pronouncement, which lies behind what our Church Order spells out:
- Baptized members who are, as it were, born into the church must also be regarded as members of the church.
- They are, therefore, definitely subject to church discipline, which in view of their not having reached the years of discretion must be remedial and therapeutic, intended to draw them to Christ and His service.
- However, the ordinary church censure consisting of the three steps cannot be applied to those who have not reached the years of understanding.
- Just as in a family the age of the children needs to be considered, so in church the baptized members are to be divided into three age groups:
- children under sixteen years of age;
- young people from sixteen through twenty-one years of age;
- the adults (above twenty-one years of age).
- In case of sinful conduct on the part of the first group
- (children under sixteen years of age), the church can only apply discipline by admonishing, rebuking and exhorting the parents.
- In the case of the second group (young people from sixteen through twenty-one years of age) continuing in sin, the church may not erase their church membership-by-baptism without any form of disciplinary process, neither may the church neglect to seriously admonish them.
- As for the third group (the adults above twenty-one years of age), the church is to distinguish between those who through sinful conduct or unbelief despise the confession of the church, who must be dealt with along the same lines as mentioned above,
- and those who are serious and active members of the congregation but who have not found the liberty to make profession of faith. The church shall earnestly admonish them to repent and exhort them to believe but may never suddenly erase their church membership by baptism.
- Without coming to the censure of excommunication for confessing members, it is possible to apply a measure that is more severe than mere admonition in this sense: Publicly declaring that an unfaithful covenant member will not be regarded as belonging to the Church in which these stages will be followed:
- Serious admonition.
- Announcing that such exclusion will take place, without mentioning his name, while exhorting the congregation to pray for that member by baptism, in order that he may humble himself before God and correct his walk of life.
- Announcing the name of the member to be excluded.
- Only after the third step the announcement will be made that the baptized person will no longer be regarded as belonging to the Church.
- In-between the abovementioned stages, the delinquent member by baptism shall be admonished repeatedly.
The reasons for taking these severe measures are:
- The delinquent and indifferent attitude among the rising generation is increasing, while in general one takes little heed to the admonition.
- We cannot see that the church has the right to erase such membership but not to do such in this more serious form. (as spelled-out sub. f above)
- We hope and pray that the Lord will bless this application of discipline to the members-by-baptism in such a way that many such members who are halting on two opinions shall be alarmed by it and shall turn from their erring way. Whoever ignores all this, must be very "hardened."
The synod adopted the conclusions of the report and added a fifth provision: "Members by baptism who have been excluded from the Church, and who later repent of their sin, shall be received again into the church, after a period of probation, followed by public confession of guilt and profession of faith."
2. The lesson to be learned
Points that stand out
As we survey the lengthy road which the church travelled in delineating its attitude with regard to its members by baptism, the following points stand out:
- The church has urged members-by-baptism to be admitted to the Lord's Supper by way of public profession of faith and in that way to membership with full rights. That is how Bucer and Calvin envisioned it. The Lord's Supper table is not automatically open to those who are church members by baptism. They need to ask for admittance to the Lord's Supper, and this is granted only after the council has examined them concerning their motives, doctrine and conduct.
- How about those members-by-baptism who wilfully neglected to make public profession of faith? The Refugee churches held the pronounced opinion that they could not always remain members by baptism. However, the churches of the Reformation in the liberated regions of the Netherlands took a different stand. They believed that they had to consider members-by-baptism differently from professing members. The former came under the discipline as administered in the public worship services through the preaching of the Word, but in view of the fact that they had not willingly entered the covenant of God, they could not be excluded from the Church of Christ. Voetius aligned himself with this position. In his estimation, church council administers discipline but cannot formally proceed to excommunicate, because a member by baptism has not joined himself to the church. Koelman thought differently about this. According to him, members by baptism who were delinquent could be excluded from the fellowship of Church. If they did not repent, they had to be regarded as a Gentile and a publican.29 Gradually the practice of the national church community, with a broad concept of the covenant, resulted in members-by-baptism being regarded as part of church, even though they did not make profession of faith. In the Northern part of the Netherlands they were allowed to have their children baptized. A totally different light fell on the matter when a certain view of the congregation became an issue. An extreme view on a holy church brought about tensions which resulted in conflicts in the Secession churches.
At any rate, these four important points stand out from the past:
- members by baptism belong to the congregation;
- they shall be included in the pastoral care and oversight, and in the preaching they are to be pointed to their responsibility;
- church discipline is to be applied to them, even though it functions differently with them than with professing members; through pastoral care and oversight the members by baptism are to be exhorted to make public profession of faith, although the church cannot force them.
These principles continue to carry significance for the church, also today.
In comparison with some historical data, it is important to be aware of some changes that have occurred. We are thinking of the following points.
- In general, there is a certain crisis with regard to the exercise of church discipline in our congregations. On paper we acknowledge the exercise of church discipline as one of the three marks of the true church. But in reality not very much comes of it. The congregations have become more listening-congregations than they used to be. At any rate, the communion of saints is a rare thing in practice. The disunity of the various churches of the Reformed persuasion cripples the exercise of church discipline. Moreover, the lawlessness that characterizes the present time increasingly shows its face inside the congregations. Sometimes persons ask: "Isn't council doing anything about it?" The question is not right, for the congregation itself must practice mutual oversight. Being truly connected to one another in the congregation is, however, sadly lacking.
- Today many young people question the need for making public profession of faith. "What's the use of making public profession of faith?" Moreover, many churches have moved to having children partake of the Lord's Supper. Concomitantly, the question of discipline of members by baptism has become problematic. Many members do not see the sense of various practices in church, and they are not interested in determining the sense of various practices. It seems characteristic of our time that one longs to make changes rather than to be changed.
- What has changed is the function of the preaching as administration of the keys of the kingdom. Many question whether the preaching is to include such public and general admonitions, as the 1578 synod of Dort called for. Devaluating the preaching in this regard may well be one of the most serious causes of the little interest shown on the part of some of our young people. If the preaching considers every member as belonging to the congregation in the same way, then the members-by-baptism will sense less of a need for making a personal and public profession of faith. Pastor Hendrik de Cock spoke about the covenant-congregation. He started from the promise of the covenant, but distinguished between those who have the promise only in the offer of grace and those for whom the promise has come to fulfilment in the heart. A generalized preaching removes the seriousness of eternity from the proclamation and promotes indifference. There is to be an inner coherence between the contemporary crisis in church discipline and the contemporary crisis in the preaching which is deficient in administrating the keys of the kingdom. If the preaching does not include specific admonitions in a general way, then church discipline comes across simply as a tough but irrelevant approach.
- The pastoral oversight as it was practiced in the Reformed tradition, by way of family visiting, has changed and become less functional. Family visiting still functions among the young families and the elderly, so it seems. However, it seems less functional in families with older, teenage children. The very heart of this pastoral oversight is the Word of grace. If this heart is cut out of it, and family visiting becomes a formality, then it cannot be called pastoral oversight any longer. We cannot discipline members by baptism, if this is not part of a genuine pastoral care in which we wrestle with our young people, so that they may be gained for our Lord. For this pastoral oversight, every officebearer needs to be trained and to be aware that it pleases the Lord to use mortals in His work.
Of all that we have learned from history about discipline of members-by-baptism, the most important thing is that the church showed love and compassion for its children. Today the church still has that calling. We need to be alive to the needs of our young people.
There are young people who appear to walk in the traditional paths. But on Friday and Saturday evenings they spend their time in bars, not to evangelize or to be witnesses of the Lord Jesus there but rather to have a "good time." How empty are the lives of many young people who outwardly appear to walk in the right tracks but inwardly they do not know the Lord Jesus! On the Lord's Days they attend both services. During the week they attend the catechism classes. They are part of young people societies. They are involved in church but inwardly they are empty.
There are other young people who do not walk in the traditional paths but rather are in a process of conforming to the world. They attend church once a Lord's Day but are not attending the catechism classes and are living a worldly life style.
There are still other young people who are growing up amidst significant cultural changes that have occurred in North America during the past few decades, changes which has an impact on the family and church directly. For instance, there are young people growing up in broken homes. I am thinking of the young man who is living with his divorced mother, except on weekends when he moves in with his girlfriend. He and his girlfriend do not attend worship services in church but do spend time at "spiritual retreats."
How is church discipline to function in these and other instances? Are we simply to be tough and quickly exclude such members-by-baptism? Are we then not merely combating symptoms without concerning ourselves with the underlying causes? Then we are treating the various "cases" incidentally. Then church discipline is not embedded in a larger framework of pastoral care and oversight in which discipline could function effectively. Then church discipline is simply a tough measure instead of a link in the realization of the order of salvation.
How to exercise church discipline over members-by-baptism
When we speak about disciplining communicant members, we usually say that there cannot be excommunication if there is no communication. The same thing must be said with regard to discipline of members by baptism. In order for church discipline to function well in a congregation, the church must meet a number of requirements, as follows:
- The church must function as a communion of saints. The congregation is to be truly a spiritual congregation in order to exercise discipline, also discipline of members by baptism.
- It is important to understand that if, on the basis of God's Word, we baptize also the children of the believers, then we must include them in our pastoral care and oversight. We may not baptize them "out of custom or superstition." Rather, we baptize them in view of the fact that they "as members of His Church ought to be baptized." Then as they grow up we teach them what God has promised them in baptism, the first part of the covenant of grace.
The question is whether we also sufficiently teach them the second part of the covenant of grace, that through baptism the Lord calls and obliges "to a new obedience. We are to cleave to this one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to trust in Him, and to love Him with our whole heart, soul, and mind, and with all our strength. We must not love the world but put off our old nature and lead a God-fearing life."30 We are to speak with our members-by-baptism about these things, not by referring to any possibilities in themselves but rather to the reality of God's covenant and His promise. Herein the Holy Spirit, Who works faith, is promised to them no less than to their believing parents.31 Is it not at this point that we underrate baptism and what is promised to us in baptism? If we do not hold our children accountable to these things, God surely shall hold them and us accountable for not having done so. We may not administer baptism without following it up with pastoral care and oversight. Baptism must be embedded in the larger framework of being church of our Lord with promises, obligations and admonitions. To be sure, we are not able to change the hearts of our young people. In 1925, the synod of the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands expressed awareness of this when it reminded the churches of a category within the congregation, consisting of those "who are serious and active members of the congregation but who have no liberty to make profession of faith. The church shall earnestly admonish them to repent and exhort them to believe but may never dismiss them as members by baptism." Our discipline always is to be characterized by drawing to Christ and His service, never repelling from that service. That goes particularly for those members-by-baptism who have no liberty to make public profession of faith.
We are to distinguish these persons from those who do not see the use of making public profession of faith. The latter only consider the human aspect of making profession of faith before the council and congregation. To them making profession of faith is something between themselves and God. These members need to be distinguished from those who inwardly are afraid to celebrate the Lord's Supper and who for that reason neglect to make profession of faith. The former need to be taught that the Lord gathers His church and that their attitude is not to be individualistic. The latter need to be taught that the Lord at His table wants to strengthen faith, even if it is weak. We need to carefully shepherd both categories of members-by-baptism.
We cannot take away the fear that some have with regard to celebrating the Lord's Supper simply by way of a simple ecclesiastical commandment. We need to have our eyes open to the circumstances that, particularly in the Northern part of the Netherlands, gave occasion for the so-called "doopledenstelsel" (baptismal member system). In response to this Pastor W. Kremer32 wrote and published a booklet in 1938, entitled "our members-by-baptism who have reached maturity,"33 in which he wrote about the church's task as a mother with regard to these grown-up members-by-baptism. "The church must do its utmost to teach them that:
- they are members of the congregation, and do not become such through profession of faith;
- they are to come to full church membership, and if not, they will be exposed as unbelieving and disobedient (Hebrews 3:18, 19);
- catechism is not merely a means to intellectually educate our young people but is a means of God to spiritually educate them in mind and heart for full church membership. Non-attendance at catechism is evidence of unbelief and disobedience and a refusal to walk in the ways of the Lord;
- making profession of faith is not first of all professing an assured faith but rather a saving faith, in accordance with the measure of light that the Lord gave;
- regardless of how much one needs an assured faith, such an assured faith is no condition for celebrating the Lord's Supper. At the Lord's Supper, God's promises in Christ are sealed and not the spiritual state of the Christian.
If the church teaches these things as a mother to the grown-up members by baptism, through preaching and pastoral care, while praying to the Lord, then the church may expect fruit. As church we may and must have great faith in the Lord that He will make use of the means of preaching and pastoral care.
It is clear that this pastoral approach to the non-professing members-by-baptism does not give a separate legal status to them. No one has the right to be unconverted. Therefore, such grown up members-by-baptism do not have the right not to be church members with full rights.
Alongside this problem in our churches in the Northern part of the Netherlands,34 there is the problem of members-by-baptism who, instead of living in the new obedience to which they by baptism are obliged, are delinquent in life. These persons are members of the congregation. Precisely for that reason they were baptized. But their life is contrary to membership in the Church of Christ. Granted, they are "incomplete" members, because they have not yet made profession of faith, because they have not yet pledged to submit willingly to the admonition and discipline of the Church, in case they should become delinquent either in doctrine or life. But does that relieve the Church of the responsibility to admonish and discipline them? And does this relieve these members by baptism of the responsibility to take this admonition and discipline to heart? Do they ever have the right to ignore this admonition from out of the covenant and from out of Christ? The question in this regard first of all is not: "is it going to help?" Rather, the question is: "do we as church know and abide by our calling with regard to these members-by-baptism?"
According to Calvin, one important purpose of church discipline is the awakening of the sinner. "The third purpose is that those overcome by shame for their baseness begin to repent. They who under gentler treatment would have become more stubborn so profit by chastisement of their own evil as to be awakened when they feel the rod." (Institutes, IV, 12, 5).
As church we should never simply dismiss members-by-baptism. Rather we are to repeatedly and patiently admonish them. To be sure, when they continue to be indifferent and disobedient, we shall exclude them from the church.
Indeed, for the church to administer discipline, a high level of spiritual life is required. But there is a connection between the one and the other. There is interaction between the two. The less we use this means of admonition, the more the spiritual level of the congregation will go down. Also at this point the words of the Canons of Dort are to the point: "...Grace is conferred through admonitions" (III/IV, 17).