Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A Favorite Section of The Book of Church Order

Yes, I know. The Presbyterian Book of Church Order has been prescribed as a cure for insomnia, but believe it or not, there are some sections in which the glorious light of the Gospel shines forth, piercing the otherwise dank, dense world of Latinate instructions on church polity.

One of those sections is found 6-1, a section devoted to Church Members. This section says,

The children of believers are, through the covenant and by right of birth, non-communing members of the church. Hence they are entitled to Baptism, and to the pastoral oversight, instruction and government of the church, with a view to their embracing Christ and this possessing personally benefits of the covenant.

I was reminded of the nuance here in a recent session meeting as we were picking apart some of the finer points of sacramentology in clarifying a pastoral issue. A few elders were claiming that non-communicant membership comes through baptism, while others were arguing (in line with the Book of Church Order) that a child's membership in the church is "by right of birth" primarily. The Book of Church Order settled this dispute for us quickly. It is the latter.

The point here is that children are members of the church through and because of their parents, a concept called "federal/covenantal headship." As Christ represents believers before the Father as their "head," so parents represent their children before the Father as their child's "head." Baptism is a gift and a grace children receive because of their birth-right, simply because God has chosen to use families as a vehicle of redemption. And it is the birth-right which makes them members of the church, not baptism itself. This is not to undermine or lessen the power of baptism, for in and through it we are further united to Christ in a myserious way, but only to say that when we speak of membership in the church for covenant children, they access it by their birth-right, not by baptism itself.


Jake said...

Just to be slightly provocative and not very nuanced: this doesn't sound very biblical, just very much inspired by Calvin who was wrong on baptism (if you ask me, which you didn't). Baptism is entry into the church for children and adults. The family is the ecclesia. There are no Jews or Gentiles, i.e. blood relationships, just baptized believers, infants and adults. OT circumcision is not a one-to-one correlation with NT baptism.

I freely admit that I may be wrong, and a more thoughtful response would be less forceful, I'm sure, but I am in the mood to be polemical. So feel free to be just as forceful back at me!

Good to see you blogging again!

joe said...

Assuming you are right, what are your thoughts when coupling your passage in the BCO with WCF 28.1, which speaks of baptism as "the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church"?

In the OT those who were federally holy could later be covenant breakers by virtue of their non-circumcision. Is there a New Testament parallel to Genesis 17:12,14 (sorry Jake)?

Andrew Voelkel said...

Hi Brother,

I was researching this topic online and came across your post. FYI: The Session of South Baton Rouge Presbyterian Church (PCA) has recently discussed this issue, and we are in the process of asking our Presbytery (Southeast Louisiana Presbytery) to weigh in on the matter.
It is true that our Book of Church Order 6-1 & 57-5 asserts that children of believers are non-communing members of the (particular) church simply by birthright and without respect to baptism; but the scriptures (i.e. Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 2:38-41, Romans 6:3, 1Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 3:27, Ephesians 4:4-6, Colossians 2:11-12, 1 Peter 1:1-2, 1 Peter 3:20-21, Titus 3:4-7, Hebrews 10:22, Philippians 3:3, etc.), together with portions of our Westminster Standards (WCF 28.1, WLC 165, WCF 27.1) and some portions of our Book of Church Order (4-1, 57-1, 57-4, 56-4) seem to associate membership in the particular church with the entrance rite of baptism. And for what it is worth, the OPC and the EPC connect membership in the particular church to the entrance rite of baptism, even though they speak of membership in the covenant/visible church by birthright.
With all that said, I think we (in the PCA) need to spend some time clarifying our position on baptism with respect to membership in the particular church. If BCO 6-1 is correct, we need to clean up some other areas of the BCO. But if other areas of the BCO are correct, we may need to modify 6-1.

Andrew Voelkel
Associate Pastor
South Baton Rouge Presbyterian Church

CLYM said...

Thank you for this, JR. New post please!
-B. Cosby