Do Presbyterians Confess That Refusing to Baptize Infants is Sin?

That’s the question I received in my inbox yesterday. The writer asks,

…Whereas I know that a consistent Baptist (e.g. Mark Dever) would consider a Christian refusing to be baptized subsequent to conversion as sinning and subject to church discipline, is that true of Reformed/Presbyterians for Christian parents who refuse to baptize their children? I have heard from a PCA friend that since Westminster subscription is only required of officers, not all members, that such parents would be urged but not put under discipline. As I understand it, communions subscribing to the 3 forms require strict subscription of members, therefore I would think such parents in continental congregations would come under discipline. Is that true?

I suppose the majority view is that refusing to baptize one’s children is not sin. There is, however, an alternate view of WCF 28.4-5.

4. Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized.

5. Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it; or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.

Jonathan Moore, in his essay,  “The Westminster Confession of Faith and the Sin of Neglecting Baptism,” in Westminster Theological Journal 69 (2007: 63–86 who argues that, in fact, the WCF teaches that refusing to baptize one’s children is a sin.

He notes that “the Quakers and other minor heretical sects in the seventeenth century did not believe in practicing water baptism at all” (64). He continues, however, that the Quaker movement postdates the Assembly. There evidence from the assembly does not support reading the language of the Confession as speaking against even proto-Quaker ideas (65). The evidence also suggests that other alternatives (e.g. private baptisms) are not in view (66–68).

Moore appeals to five lines of evidence to support the thesis that the divines had the burgeoning Baptist movement in view. The first of these is the Assembly’s choice of biblical proofs for their language (68–69). The Second of these is the Directory of Public Worship where it addresses paedo (infant) baptism directly. Though paedobaptism is not essential to salvation such that salvation cannot be had without it (we do not have an ex opere view of baptism) nevertheless, the DPW remonstrates with Christian parents that they ought not “neglect or contemn [condemn] the ordinance of Christ.” (70) This is the same language used in the WCF. The third line of evidence comes from comments in the minutes, from letters, and statements in Parliament (70–72). The minutes contain 50 references to “Anabaptists” or “Anabaptism” (71). The language was anachronistic, but the group they had in view was that described as “Baptists” today. Fourth, publications by members of the Assembly support this reading (73–74). Remember that the First London Baptist Confession was published in 1644. Moore notes that the Baptist John Toombes responded to the critiques of the Anabaptists. Why? Because he understood that the critique of antipaedobaptism was leveled not at some “other group” not related to the English Baptist movement, but against the English Baptists. Fifth, a contemporary usage of the phrase, “to neglect or contemn the sacraments” supports this reading (75–77). He notes, persuasively to my mind, that the use of the Exodus 4:24–26 as a proof text for this clause in 28.5 makes clear the connection between baptism generally and infant baptism in particular. The sin here is doing what Moses did: failing to initiate a child into the covenant community by applying the sign and seal of initiation.

In the rest of the essay, Moore addresses some possible objections. Some might appeal to the Savoy Declaration (1658) but it was strongly paedobaptist. The language is identical to the WCF. He addresses and dispatches the case of Lucy Hutchinson (who persuaded her husband, a Westminster divine, to reject paedobaptism. Third, though it is assumed that antipaedobaptists were admitted to the table (which, if true, would argue against Moore’s view) but the facts are cloudier. “There is at least some evidence to suggest that the widespread belief that antipaedobaptism was a great sin was reflected in the parliamentary ordinacnes on admission to the Lord’s Supper” (82).

As to the idea that, the WCF only applies to officers and not to members, it is true that that American Presbyterianism has not required confessional subscription of members, but if refusing to baptism children is sin, then it is not a merely theoretical doctrine but a matter of Christian morality. Laity are not allowed to sin, even if (a big condition) they are not expected to hold every doctrine taught in the confession. The churches in the Dutch Reformed tradition carry on the older Reformed and Presbyterian practice of every-member subscription. There’s a chapter on all this in Recovering the Reformed Confession.

Certainly there is enough evidence from the 17th century to make it difficult to assume easily, as some American Presbyterians seem to do, that neglecting the baptism of the children of believers is not a sin.

UPDATE 23 Mar 09

Mark has published a similar case from a Baptist point of view.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

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18 comments

  1. It’s very hard to get around this one. If refusing to baptize one’s covenant child is not sin then wouldn’t that child refusing baptism his whole life also not be sin, in which case baptism would seem to be optional instead of commanded, in which case fewer people would likely be baptized, in which case perhaps the second mark needs to be re-examined, etc., etc.?

    I have to say, often I wish some Presbyterians were more Anabaptist about baptism–just more in spirit than letter.

  2. Dr. Clark,

    Would you take a stab at a practical question that is often not hypothetical:

    A Baptist moves to town and is convinced of the sovereign grace of God in salvation, the authority of Scripture, and many things that are truly orthodox. He comes to the local URC church where you are pastoring and wants to join. The two credo-Baptist churches within driving distance are a mess. One is pastored by a charismatic dispensationalist who believes that God gives him direct “words of knowledge” and the other is a universalist.

    What do you do with our Baptist brother until he actually comes to see that God has ordained infant baptism.

    David

    • Hi David,

      This isn’t hypothetical at all. We deal with this frequently at OURC. We have this situation right now.

      We ask those who do not meet the conditions of the policy to abstain from the table. We work with them, we teach them, we pray with and for them. Sometimes folk come to see the Scriptures as we do. If they don’t they are welcome to continue to visit and worship with us but sometimes they move to a congregation where they are able to function more fully.

      People usually understand that we are trying to act faithfully.

  3. If Presbyterians really [de facto] confessed their [de jure] Confession, then they would have to refrain from admitting even “credibly- gospel professing” fellow Christians to the Supper.

    WLC 113 states that the 3rd commandment forbids:
    “misinterpreting, misapplying, or any way perverting the Word, or any part of it, …or the maintaining of false doctrines;”

    So, even if one doesn’t have kids and one is a convinced antipedobaptist, one should not be admitted to the Supper in a genuinely Confessional Presbyterian church. Moreover, this has been the faithful Presbyterian practice for ages!

    WLC 173 states that “such as are found to be ignorant or scandalous, notwithstanding their profession of the faith, and desire to come to the Lord’s supper, may and ought to be kept from that sacrament, by the power which Christ hath left in his church, until they receive instruction, and manifest their reformation.”

    So, despite a credible profession of the gospel, the (by definition) ignorant antipedobaptist (who does not know the truth of God’s Word concerning baptism) is to be thoroughly catechized until manifesting reformation.

    Oh, if only there were such a Confessional Presbyterian church today!

  4. There are some presbyterians who confess and truly believe that refusing the baptize one’s children is sin, yet would advocate patience in dealing with such a person.

    This particular sin is not like other sins. Refusing to have your infant son baptized is very different from having an affair with your neighbor’s wife. In the former, the man is convinced he is obeying Scripture; in the latter, he knows he is sinning.

    Properly, people should come under discipline for refusing to repent of sin. It seems that in order for the charge to stick, the person needs to understand that it is in fact contrary to Scripture, yet still refuses to repent.

    Rather than saying that such a man is sinning and pursuing discipline through his refusal to repent, there is a better way to go about handling the matter.

    When people join a Presbyterian church, one of the membership vows is to submit to the governance of the elders, the session. When they join the church, it ought to be made clear to them that – say the person joining has no children – should they have children, the session would ask them to be baptized, even if they don’t believe it is a biblical practice. That ought to be part of the deal. You don’t have to believe it, but we intend to practice it.

    THEN when the man refuses to have his child baptized, there is a much clearer charge with which to charge him that he should have seen coming: refusal to submit to the governance of the elders.

    I myself was baptized in a Presbyterian church as an infant by a pastor who didn’t believe in it, having been born to parents who didn’t believe in it. Yet still I was baptized. The pastor said, “The water won’t hurt him, and it’s what we do.” My parents agreed.

    • Echo, do you realize you just said that the church should tell people “hey, you don’t have to believe God’s Word” ?!

      You have just epitomized the “non-close communion” view. Thanks for putting it so accurately.

      But here is how you are mischaracterizing the Confessional Presbyterian (“every member subscription”) view: you think this is about imposing censure. Rather, the part of the responsibility of elders is to “teach them to obey all I have commanded” (which includes teaching them to not profess doctrine contrary to Scripture), and to keep such as are found ignorant from the Supper. The elders don’t have to formally charge, try, and censure you to simply “keep you from” or “not admit you to” the sacrament on the basis of your confessing the false doctrine of antipedobaptism.

      And –this is so important– the only alternative is that the elders will be implicitly (if not explicity) saying: You don’t have to believe God’s Word!

  5. This particular sin is not like other sins. Refusing to have your infant son baptized is very different from having an affair with your neighbor’s wife. In the former, the man is convinced he is obeying Scripture; in the latter, he knows he is sinning.

    Echo, you seem to be assuming quite a bit here. Why ss the one who refuses baptism for his covenant child assumed to be “convinced he is obeying Scripture”? Would you say the same to the one who refuses baptism for himself? I mean, the list could go on endlessly of beleifs/practices which are out of accord but can ostensibly be justified by the employment of scripture. The benefit of the doubt you ascribe antipaedobaptists seems precisely the problem these days.

    And couldn’t the one who is committing adultery (sorry, “having an affair” language sticks in my craw) justify himself fairly easily? Seems to me that is what most people do when they sin, justify it. Why is adultery so obvious while refusing baptism gets all the protection?

  6. The Presbyterian church in which I was baptized was PCUSA. My point was that people can and do baptize their children even if they don’t believe in it as a matter of submission to the church. I of course don’t advocate a Presbyterian minister not believing in paedobaptism. I should have said as much.

    But consider Moses’ wife. She bitterly performed the circumcision of Moses’ son, and God was appeased. She clearly submitted kicking and screaming.

    I am not saying it’s ok for people not to believe in infant baptism. I agree with Clark that it is sin. I agree with the WCF that it is sin.

    But what I don’t agree with is saying that people cannot commune with Christ until and unless they become convinced that this doctrine is biblical. People can be Christians without understanding this doctrine, and as such ought to be members of the visible Church, given that they are members of the invisible church.

    Isn’t it true that anyone who is a member of the invisible church ought to be a member of the visible church (assuming that they are in the regenerate state that is)?

    If someone is regenerate, if the profess faith in Christ clearly and with conviction, why should they be excluded from the Lord’s table because they don’t understand something in Scripture?

    I was looking on your blog, and I saw that you were raised in the OPC. You apparently don’t understand how hard it is to untie this knot when you were raised in a credobaptist church. It’s not easy to understand. It’s not super obvious in Scripture to us today like it was in the first century. I do believe that the Bible is ultimately clear on this subject – but people have been deeply confused about this very doctrine, and I think we should be patient with that.

    The fact of the matter is this: there are LOTS of people who “believe God’s Word” who are credobaptists. The issue is not whether or not they believe God’s Word, but whether or not they understand what it says.

    Take the infra- / supra- debate for example. One of those views is wrong. One of those views is sinful. If you can be either one and still be considered orthodox, then aren’t we saying that you don’t have to believe what God’s Word says, since God’s Word can’t say both, but must say one or the other?

    It doesn’t follow that we’re saying you don’t have to believe God’s Word. Rather, they’re allowing for different understandings of what God’s Word SAYS.

    I do not, as do some, advocate an indefinite tolerance of credobaptists in a Presbyterian church. I do not, however, find any warrant in Scripture for denying them the sacrament if they are true professing believers who are still trying to figure things out, provided they have no children needing to be baptized.

    But like any sin, there is no simple formula. Sessions have to consider the situation on a case by case basis.

    For example, a credobaptist who is humble and honestly trying to work through the Scriptures and seeking to understand our view should get more leniency than someone who is obstinate and refuses to be taught. In the case of the former, let him have the sacrament – it is a means of grace. In the latter, he needs to be humbled through discipline.

    Isn’t this how the church would deal with any sin in any congregant?

    If Christ has accepted that sinner, shouldn’t the church?

    Or perhaps you believe that credobaptists have an invalid profession of faith because they’re living in unrepentant sin?

    While I admit that in some cases that might be true, in many it is not true. What do you think? What’s the difference?

    • Echo, your objections are pointed at a view that no one here is advocating.

      Your assumption seems to be that (everything else being equal) all credible gospel-professing people should be admitted to the Supper. Admission to the Supper is seen as equivalent to being regarded as a fellow believer. Not being admitted is seen as equivalent to a pronouncement that one is not a Christian. This is, of course, the common assumption in NAPARC churches… and it is entirely erroneous.

      Now, here is the recently forgotten and neglected, radically different position of the historic confessionally reformed churches: credible profession is not the sufficient criterion for admission to the Supper.

      I realize you’ve never heard this before, but you ought to look into it. Sometimes called “close communion” (though that term has been given various definitions), sometimes “confessional membership”… the biblical standard of admission to the Lord’s Supper includes, among other requirements, that participants must not only have a “credible profession of the gospel,” but also must 1) positively affirm the confessional doctrine of that sacrament (particularly, Christ’s real spiritual presence) and 2) not knowingly hold to teachings contrary to those confessed by the church.

      It is not a requirement that believers be theologians, completely understand everything in the Confession, or even be mature in their faith or life. Applying this standard does not necessarily involve bringing any censure against believers who fail to satisfy these requirements.

      I wish I could point you to a book offering contemporary exegetical defense of this view, but sadly there isn’t one (yet). You’ll just have to slog through theology of the previous centuries to learn about it. Often the Seceder and (various) Covenanter Presbyterian traditions were the ones to best preserve this doctrine and practice. You might be surprised to know that the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement (some of whom preserved acappella singing in worship) was founded primarily as a rejection of the Presbyterian practice of close communion.

      Anyway, Echo, perhaps just hearing about this doctrine for the first time will be of help to you and spark your curiosity. I hope Dr. Clark doesn’t mind me using his comment section to indict the majority of congregations with which he is in communion. In the interest of recovering the Reformed Confession, I hope Dr. Clark will continue to reflect and speak on this subject.

  7. Zrim,

    Refusing baptism gets all the protection, as you say, because no one was ever taught from the pulpit that having an affair (sorry, I don’t think the language is all that important) is honoring to God and the only way to be true to Scripture.

    It IS true, however, that many people are being told from the pulpit every Sunday that the BIBLE demands credobaptism, and they are being told this by their pastor, duly ordained in a Christian church.

    Why is this distinction so hard to understand?

    By the same token, if someone is a former Pentecostal, it make take a while to convince them that speaking in tongues is not biblical or from the Holy Spirit. Trust me, that’s difficult! Meanwhile, are they living in unrepentant sin because they don’t understand the Scriptures?

    Let’s say that the pastor doesn’t think to ask if they speak in tongues when they become members, and the person doesn’t think to mention it. Then a year later, the pastor and elders find out that they are speaking in tongues. What do they do, immediately insist that they stop taking the Lord’s Supper? No, obviously not. They have to instruct the person. If they refuse instruction, that’s a different matter, but if the instruction is difficult, well, what did you expect – people are thick headed.

    The point is, you can’t just, at that point, refuse them the Supper without a trial and bringing them under official discipline. And before that can happen, you have to demonstrate that you went to sufficient lengths to try to convince the person of the error of their ways, and rightly so.

    So you can’t just deny someone the sacrament because they’re in error. Not right away anyway. That’s the point. Presbyterians are just trying to be consistent with that.

    The church operates on principles of mercy, not justice (that’s the state’s job).

  8. Echo,

    I’m not the one suggesting folks be excluded from the Table because they haven’t become erudite theolgians. I happen to agree with you that patience is a better rule. After all, I was still credo- when I became a member of a Reformed church.

    My point is to wonder why you think some sins deserve so much more patience than others?

    My hunch is that you think adultery should get pulled up short because it is moral in character, which might suggest a subsuming moralism on your part. I also wonder if you are more patient with credo-baptism simply because you used to be one. Like I said, so was I. But I also used to believe a lot of false things. I’m not sure why that has much bearing on why some sinfulness gets oodles of patience while others do not. I’m all for loving patience, but why can’t patience be more evenly doled out? Could it be that you have less patience for adultery because you never used to be one? Isn’t it possible that it’s just as perplexing for a sinner to be in the midst of adultery as it is credo-bapstism? I’m being serious.

  9. Zrim,

    In the case of adultery, it’s very clear: “You shall not commit adultery.” Once the definition of adultery is settled, it’s pretty hard to claim confusion about the point. An adulterer has two options, then. Either repent or refuse to repent.

    Meanwhile, the credobaptist is not so clearly in sin. I don’t think the Bible is vague or ambiguous on this point. I think we can certainly settle the issue, which is why I’m a Presbyterian. But it’s not anywhere NEAR as clear and obvious as the command not to commit adultery.

    It’s impossible for the adulterer to say, “I don’t think that the acts I’ve committed with that woman are forbidden in Scripture” with any credibility.

    However, the credobaptist has lots of credibility when he says, “I don’t think the Scriptures teach infant baptism.” And by credibility, I don’t mean he’s correct, but I mean that it’s very likely he’s being sincere. It’s very likely he sincerely thinks he’s upholding the Scriptures by his credo position. So then, it may be the case that his heart is in the right place.

    How likely is this? INCREDIBLY likely. In fact I daresay that I sincerely doubt that there’s anyone out there who knows that the Bible teaches infant baptism, and yet still obstinately remains a credobaptist, refusing to repent of their error.

    In the case of the adulterer, he cannot make such a case. He cannot say that he doesn’t understand that the Bible condemns adultery.

    However, despite that, there is still reason to show the adulterer mercy the very moment he repents. That’s all it takes to receive mercy and be restored.

    So then, the credobaptist needs to be corrected, educated, so that he can no longer be considered ignorant of what the Scriptures say. But as long as he remains ignorant and confused, how is he guilty of sin?

    Doesn’t his heart acquit him if he thinks he’s being obedient to Scripture?

    What about a teetotaler? Is their position wrong? Yes, and I daresay it’s sinful, because it implies that the sacrament, when properly administered with wine, is sinful, and thus Jesus is sinful for instituting it.

    But is there reason to be patient with sin like this? Does the URC allow teetotalers into their fellowship? Doesn’t their position imply that there’s something sinful about a sacrament when properly administered?

    And yet not only are teetotalers tolerated in the church, MOST people admire their piety, and so it is NEVER corrected. Most of us feel cowed by these folks by “weaker brother” arguments, so teetotalers are allowed to remain such indefinitely, despite the wicked implications of their position and the dangers of legalism.

    Most churches even compromise the sacrament by having wine AND grape juice, whichever YOU prefer.

    All because someone thinks wine is sinful, thanks to the temperance movement, that wicked movement of Pharisees.

    If the credobaptist can’t be shown some patience and gentleness, then neither can the teetotaler. Let it be added to the membership vows: “I confess I don’t think drinking wine is sinful.” Until they can say that, they cannot be members.

    • Echo,

      I wonder if you are working with a rather simplistic conception of adultery, perhaps more informed by caricatures. What about the divorcee who is remarried? Human relationships are actually quite complicated, and sinfulness isn’t always quite as discernible as you seem to imply. Sorry you went through that big explanation, but I guess I still don’t understand how you think one falsehood is easier to discern than another, nor why you afford so much patience for one over another. All I can come up with is that you know what it’s like to be a credo-baptist but not an adulterer.

      However, the credobaptist has lots of credibility when he says, “I don’t think the Scriptures teach infant baptism.” And by credibility, I don’t mean he’s correct, but I mean that it’s very likely he’s being sincere. It’s very likely he sincerely thinks he’s upholding the Scriptures by his credo position. So then, it may be the case that his heart is in the right place.

      Since when was “sincerity” grounds to justify something out of accord with scripture and confessional teaching, and since when do Calvinists believe anyone’s heart is in the right place, much less that it is grounds for justifying falsehood?

      Doesn’t his heart acquit him if he thinks he’s being obedient to Scripture?

      You seem to think views on sacraments are adiaphora. Since when is the second mark of the true church a thing indifferent? Like it or not, on top of applying a double standard to two different falsehoods and affording a disproportionate amount of patience to one over the other, I also think what subsumes your view here is what actually ails many today: a high opinion but still low view of the sacraments. The only way one can suggest what you have here is to assume that sacramental theology is a matter of conscience. (To boot, I’m no friend to legalism, but you seem to suggest that abstinence from alcohol is wrong. Figuratively speaking, you seem to be doing adiaphora when you should be doing RPW and RPW when you should be doing adiaphora. But what does it look like to “not let abstainers remain such indefinitely”? Are you going to force-feed them booze?)

  10. I’ll shamelessly plug again: this precise issue is debated in “Hoagies & Stogies: Baptiterian”. You can download .mp3, or find many links to related resources, at this link, and you can navigate to all things H&S from here

  11. To throw a little more fuel on the fire, the 1966 OPC report would seem to give significant comfort to the baptiterians; even though the report frowns on allowing members who refuse to baptize their infants, the report also contained “qualifying considerations”, and “the General Assembly declared that the admission to membership of those who cannot in good conscience present their children for baptism is a matter for judgment by sessions

  12. A noteworthy quote from Dr. Clark’s aricle above:
    “The sin here is doing what Moses did: failing to initiate a child into the covenant community by applying the sign and seal of initiation.”

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