A friend and HB reader writes to ask about the validity baptisms administered in mainline (liberal) congregations. Should a NAPARC (North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council) affiliated congregation receive as valid a baptism performed by a minister in a denomination that has largely abandoned the historic Christian faith? After all, arguably, such a denomination has lost at least one of the marks of the true church (Belgic Confession art. 29), namely discipline, and if so does it have the other two marks? After all, Machen said that liberal Christianity is an oxymoron, that theological liberalism, Modernism, is not really Christianity at all. To make matters worse, baptism is now being performed by persons who do not meet basic biblical qualifications. If so, how could we receive the baptism from such a denomination or minister?
Let us define our terms. The adjective mainline refers to the old American Protestant denominations, sometimes described as the “Seven Sisters,” namely, the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Methodist Church, the United Churches of Christ, the American Baptist Church, the Disciples of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Episcopal Church USA. These are historic denominations that largely adopted liberal theology, piety, and practice about the turn of the 20th century. There remain conservative congregations and ministers within them but they are mostly committed to being as inclusive as possible. In some cases, e.g., the PCUSA it is virtually impossible for a traditional, confessional Presbyterian to be ordained. One must affirm, e.g., the ordination of females, the Barthian view of Scripture, and probably other liberal shibboleths.
Despite the grave corruption in the mainline churches, we (NAPARC congregations) should nevertheless accept a baptism administered in a mainline church. Machen was speaking theologically, not ecclesiastically. It is true the theological liberalism Machen described in Christianity and Liberalism is not Christianity. Orthodoxy and liberalism are two distinct theological systems but there is some distinction to be made between the theological views published by individual authors and what is confessed by the churches. On that score the story is more complicated. The PCUSA’s Confession of 1967 is highly problematic and impossible to square with the Reformed confession at key points (e.g., Scripture) but the question remains whether the PCUSA is still a church even if corrupted by error?
This is not a purely subjective or individual decision. Has one’s (NAPARC) denomination spoken ecclesiastically to this matter? Has any NAPARC body declared any of the Seven Sisters to be apostate? Until a church acts officially to declare, e.g., the PCUSA to be a sect, a cult, or to deny that it is a church, then we receive their baptism in roughly the same way we receive a Roman baptism. After all, it is not unknown for a PCUSA minister to migrate into the ministry of the NAPARC churches. We do not treat such candidates for ministry as coming from an apostate church nor as coming from a sect/cult such as the Mormons. We do not baptize such a candidate on the grounds that he has never been baptized.
In the early days of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (from 1936) virtually all their members came from what today we know as the PCUSA. Machen and the old Westminster faculty, board, and student body came out of the PCUSA. They were not, to my knowledge, re-baptized.
We accept mainline baptisms for the same reason we accept Roman baptisms: because they are Trinitarian. It may be that NAPARC denominations should take a look at what it means to accept the baptism of those who are baptized in a congregation where the minister openly denies the ecumenical faith. Still, we must be careful of not becoming Donatists. Since the time of Augustine (and arguably since Cyprian in the mid-3rd century) we have agreed that the validity of baptism is not contingent upon the character of the minister. The validity of baptism is contingent upon objective (not subjective) realities. There are limits. Should a PCUSA minister administer baptism in the name of Gaia, however, then it would be hard to see how such could be considered a Christian baptism, whatever the PCUSA confesses. Even though individual ministers do take heretical positions, the PCUSA et al still formally affirm the ecumenical creeds.
As grossly undisciplined as the mainline churches are, neither Rome nor the mainline churches today are any more wicked and corrupt than Rome was in the 16th century, when the Reformed were accepting Roman baptisms. The sixteenth-century Reformed congregations accepted Roman baptisms while they denounced the papacy as Anti-Christ and denounced the manifold abuses and corruptions of the Roman communion. They continued to accept Roman baptisms even after Rome condemned to hell all who confess the gospel as revealed in holy Scripture. I do not think we are more concerned about theological and moral corruption in the mainline than were our sixteenth-century forebears about corruption in the Roman communion. If they accepted Roman baptisms as valid then we, on the same grounds, should accept baptisms administered in corrupted mainline congregations as valid, even as we denounce those corruptions and call for separation by those among them who still believe the historic, orthodox Christian faith and for repentance and faith where apostasy has occurred.