Membership through baptism includes the privilege to warnings that are to precede ever being placed outside the church, which presupposes de facto member-status in the church. But what about unbaptized adult members of the church? How can one who has never been received into the church ever be placed outside the church for not “embracing Christ and thus possessing personally all benefits of the covenant”?
The PCA Book of Church Order (BCO) teaches that children of professing believers are members of the visible church and, therefore, are entitled to baptism. Indeed, per BCO 56-1 baptism should not be unnecessarily delayed!
However, what the BCO does not teach is that a refusal to baptize one’s covenant child is great sin that entails a cutting off from the assembly. But should it? Should the BCO teach that to deny baptism to a covenant child is to deny a covenant child non-communing membership in the visible church? Or, is the BCO correct that children can remain unbaptized yet members of the visible church? In other words, in the face of pastoral oversight and instruction, should a parent’s refusal of the covenant entitlement of Christian baptism be met with the denial of the child’s covenant-keeping status? That is the principle beginning with Abraham, then dramatically punctuated through Zipporah’s intervention unto the saving of Moses’ life. (Genesis 17:14; Exodus 4:24-26)
BCO, a halfway covenant?
Does the BCO offer a half-way covenant that divides non-communing members into two classes?
A baptized child is to be distinguished from the world and considered a member of Christ’s body unless covenant incongruity is manifested either in delinquency of doctrine or manner of life. In other words, baptized children are to be given the judgment of charity with respect to their covenant standing in the church. In a word, Christian baptism is in the name of the triune God, by which the Lord himself places his name upon a covenant child.
The BCO teaches that an unbaptized covenant child remains a member of the visible church even without an intention of a believing parent to have his or her child received into membership through the sign of covenant membership. Consequently, it’s hard to understand how the BCO does not divide child membership in the visible church between non-received members and received members.
By implication, has the visible church become something other than a manifestation of members united by one faith and one baptism?
The halves and the halves not:
It would seem that two classes of covenant children are established by BCO 57-1, whereby non-communing members include not only (a) unbaptized children born of a member, but (b) especially those presented for baptism. Yet per BCO 56-4(g) it is not by birthright but baptism that children are “received into the bosom of the visible church, distinguished from the world… and united with believers.” Therefore, not all members are actually received into the church as members of Christ’s body.
Trying to make sense of things:
PCA ecclesiology distinguishes unbaptized child-members of the visible church from first class child-members who by baptism are especially members of the church; been received into her bosom; been distinguished from the world; and united to believers.
Put negatively and perhaps more strikingly, by implication the BCO teaches there are true members of the visible church – even adult members – who are “federally holy” yet not especially members of the visible church because they have not been received into her bosom and been distinguished from the world by being united to other believers in baptism.
What is it to be a visible member of the church while outside her bosom? What covenantal standing is there for non-bosom members who aren’t “especially” members of Christ’s church (because they have not been distinguished from the world, having not been united to other members of the church in Christian baptism)?
Has the BCO blurred the spiritual meaning of church membership, possibly by downplaying the theological significance of the sacrament when it comes to Baptist theology? At the very least, to be united to other members of Christ’s body is to be united to Christ in baptism. (In passing let it be noted that consistent Baptists will not be offended by the exclusion of their children from church membership for they do not consider their own children members of the visible church, otherwise Baptists would dedicate their children in baptism.)
Further ramifications, a reductio of sorts:
The practice of trying to maintain a two tiered membership for children leads to further difficulties with respect to non-baptized members upon coming to an age of discretion.
BCO 6-1 teaches that “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 thus possessing personally all benefits of the covenant.” (emphasis mine) The reference to instruction and in particular to government can suggest entitlement to the discipline of the church. Perhaps BCO 6-1 presupposes baptism has been administered (given that it’s an entitlement), especially in light of BCO 6-3.