Monday, October 27, 2014

Latitudinarianism and Baptism

In 1966, the OPC came to the conclusion that it would leave it up to individual sessions to decide whether or not to admit to membership those who refused to submit their children for baptism (out of baptist scruples).  There was a majority report submitted to the assembly which opposed this, and a minority report by one person which promoted it.  The OPC General Assembly sided with the minority report.  (The reports can be read here.)

I recently encountered an article (which can be found here) in the OPC magazine Ordained Servant, written in 2011 by an OPC ruling elder (Bryan D. Holstrom), arguing that the OPC took a wrong turn in 1966 and that it should not allow members of the OPC to get away with not submitting children for baptism.  His argument is pretty straightforward:

With this understanding of the place of baptism in the church as a backdrop, it is easy to see why our Confession and Catechisms assert the doctrine of infant baptism without apology or equivocation. This makes it all the more puzzling why it is that, when the discussion shifts to the importance of baptism within God's economy, and the sanctions which accompany its neglect, the Reformed Christian so often turns tail and runs in the face of Baptist opposition. But isn't that precisely what we do when we accept the position taken at the 1966 GA? If we accept the argument that baptism is less important than circumcision, and thus optional on the basis of private scruples, have we not cast doubt upon our whole case for infant baptism in the first place? Since none of us would seriously suggest that circumcision was merely an optional rite of entry into the Old Testament church, on what basis do we make such a distinction with respect to baptism? Both rites come to us via direct command of God, and the account of God's nearly taking Moses' life in Exodus 4 because of his failure to circumcise his own son should serve as an urgent warning against our neglecting baptism.

Holstrom points out the teaching of the Westminster Confession on this subject and then makes some pointed observations and asks some pointed questions:

It would be superfluous to add much in the way of commentary to the passages listed above, since they largely speak for themselves. Collectively, they speak to the duty of having children baptized, and of baptism as being the only route to membership in the visible church. The language used does not admit of any discretion in the matter under consideration. Infants "are to be baptized." The failure to do so is a "great sin," since it constitutes a violation of the second commandment in the case of both the parents and elders who allow for its neglect. . . .

At the end of the day, only one conclusion seems plausible in the face of the evidence: we do not take seriously the Confession's statement that the neglect of baptism is a great sin. As a denomination, we have effectively taken an exception to the Confession's teaching at this point. No other explanation of our position makes any sense. The language of the Confession is too explicit and straightforward here to allow for any other possibility.

So that begs the obvious question: What is such language still doing in our doctrinal standards four decades later? Either we embrace and adhere to that section of the WCF or we do not. But we cannot have it both ways. If we are to be consistent, we must either reverse our 1966 decision or formally amend our doctrinal standards to eliminate the offending language. I pray that we choose the former course over the latter, but integrity demands that we do something to resolve the tension. Such inherently inconsistent thinking may be the norm in our modern secular society, but it has no place in the church of Christ. If we are not willing to uphold our confessional standards at this point, we should be honest about it and make our break with tradition official.

The author has pinpointed with regard to the doctrine of baptism a problem that is widespread in many Reformed communities today (and is not limited to the doctrine of baptism)--the problem of latitudinarianism.  Latitudinarianism is the idea that the church may dispense with command and discipline when it comes to certain clear teachings of Scripture deemed "less fundamental" than other teachings.  But this is surely a mistake, for Christ has commanded his church to teach all nations "to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:20--emphasis added).

See here for a more complete argument against latitudinarianism.

UPDATE 11/28/14:  Great comments by John Anderson (from his book Alexander and Rufus, or A Series of Dialogues on Church Communion in Two Parts, published in 1820, p. 24) which speak well to this issue:

You say, that a christian cannot surrender the least tittle of truth which he believes to be the testimony of his God; or do any act which implies such a surrender.  And, is it not as unlawful for a particular church, in her ecclesiastical capacity, to surrender any part of that which she hath received, and which she professes as a truth of God's word?  Surely, it is no less unlawful.  But a church may be justly said to surrender any such part of her profession, when she does not hold it fast.  And, it is evident, that she does not hold it fast, when she admits the avowed opposers of it to her sacramental communion: for, in doing so, she in effect tells them and the world, that she does not account their opposition to that article any moral evil, nor the holding of it any duty.  She does not require her members to hold it; and, therefore, she must be considered as dropping or surrendering it.  For an article, which a church does not require her members to hold, may, indeed, be the private persuasion of individuals, but is no longer any part of her public profession.

That is exactly what Bryan Holstrom is arguing in the article above.

I might add here what a correspondent of mine told me in the context of baptists and the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland:  "In London, quite a number of baptists who were refused membership re-thought their position and became ardent paedobaptists."  Interesting!  Perhaps standing up for the truth rather than compromising it out of a false sense of "charity" actually does more good in the long run, in addition to being simply the right thing to do.

UPDATE 12/16/14:  Here is another set of comments from the OPC website discussing the OPC and baptist members.


Chris Cole said...

I have to disagree. When a person truly comes to belief, he is engrafted into the invisible church, the body of Christ. It is not the place of the elders to refuse him whom Christ has received.

By that I do not mean that it is not proper then for the elders to instruct, and to discipline, if required, those members who obstinately refuse to submit in this matter.

Mark Hausam said...

Hi Chris. I think your position is inconsistent. It doesn't make sense to receive someone into membership in the church as a baptist and then immediately turn around and discipline him for being a baptist, even to the point of excommunication (if he doesn't repent). This is double-speak. If practicing baptist convictions is enough to warrant discipline, it is a bar to membership in the formal, visible church.

When a baptist comes and seeks to be a member of the church, the session cannot see into his heart to determine if he is or is not regenerate. In that sense, the elders cannot know whether or not Christ has received him as part of the invisible church. So this cannot be the basis of their determination as to whether or not to let him into formal membership. That basis ought to involve, rather, whether he agrees to follow Christ in all that he commands--which commands include the command to accept infant baptism. If a person refuses to follow Christ in this matter, he may be regenerate, and we can have a charitable hope that he is, but the session must judge him formally on the basis of his observable outward profession and actions.

Take a look at these two articles, as I think they provide illumination on this subject: