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Baptism and the Fear of Uncertainty

I recall a conversation with a friend from my Calvin Seminary days. He was a Calvin College student. I went over the college since I was one of two African Americans at the seminary in the late 1980’s. My friend was a biracial child, who along with his sister adopted into a wonderful white Christian Reformed family in Grand Rapids. He shared with me the struggles his parents encountered when they wanted to baptize both children into the faith at their church. There was a one-year waiting period, according to denominational church policy before adopted children could receive the sacrament of baptism. I spoke with his mother and she affirmed the process was true. Why was there a waiting period for adopted children? What was the theological vision that adopted children were different from natural born children in receiving the gifts of God’s grace? I wanted to know the history of the debate. 

Synod declared that such children were “not in the covenant because blood relationship mattered.”

The issue first appeared in 1908 when Synod appointed a committee to study the status of adopted children. The question lingered until the 1910 Synod came to no consensus on if adopted children could receive baptism. That Synod declared that such children were “not in the covenant because blood relationship mattered”. Synod said “they (could) give no actual tenable grounds for the baptism of foundlings adopted by believers.” (1910 Acts of Synod, p. 148) Synod wrestled with following its theological stance of covenant related to bloodline, or adapting to the new situation presented to them in early 20th century life. The church barred adopted children from the baptismal font because of this theology.  

Eighteen years later, the issue came back to Synod. The 1928 Synod requested expert testimony on the matter of baptism for foundlings. Leaders from one Grand Rapids church argued that, “sufficient light has been shed so that we need no longer grope in the dark. (The works of) men such as Dr. Abraham Kuyper (and others) show us the way.” (1928 Acts of Synod, p.132-133) They believed Kuyper’s ideas would definitively end this issue.  

The leaders refused to baptize children whose history was unclear. 

However, churches thru 1920’s and 1930’s had no clear direction from Synod on baptism of foundlings. Then the 1930 Synod took a stab at the issue. They raised the possibility that adoptive children “may be baptized.” Church leaders and members quickly took sides. Some leaders believed it was clear that blood relationship was God’s plan and any attempt to think otherwise was usurping the authority of God himself. The leaders refused to baptize children whose history was unclear.  The denomination was groping for clarity, yet received little during this time. However, I wondered about parents with adoptive children who felt disconnected from their own denomination. What did they feel every Sunday as other children felt the waters of grace, as theirs were denied the same means of grace? 

Kuyper teaches’ grace is hereditary.

The matter of adoptive children rippled across the publications of the Christian Reformed Church as it sought to no longer to grope in the dark. The words of theologian Abraham Kuyper made its way to members seeking a definitive voice of intellectual authority. Mr. R.A. Rozeboom roared that Kuyper’s view of baptism needed a hearing. Roozeboom wrote, “Kuyper teaches’ grace is hereditary. No one cast that further than Kuyper himself. What Kuyper’s teaching does imply here is this: although grace is not inheritable, nevertheless birth into a covenant family is something quite different from adoption into a covenant family.” (Banner, May 13, 1932, p. 466) Rozeboom believed Kuyper’s vision on baptism would settle the matter since he was well respected and well versed on doctrinal issues. Baptism was the gate that the church felt it needed to guard with all deliberate speed. 

Synod 1949 gave the church what it really sought: a yes or no answer to baptisms for adoptive children. Synod’s concerns over the lengthy process of adoption led to a decision that children could not receive baptism until the probationary period was final. The decision allowed the church to give itself time and wait until everything was done decently and in good order. The decision appeared a worthy and wise way to go. But the questions did not go away. Five years later, a dirty secret surfaced among church leaders. Reports in the 1954 Synod alluded to church leadership bodies refusing to baptize adoptive children because it was their right to do so on the basis of local authority. These questions fermented through the 1950’s thru the early 1960’s. The weight and voice of Kuyper was strong among the CRC members looked to his theological vision to preserve the church and uphold her holy purposes.

Smedes took a sledgehammer and smashed the theological vision of Kuyper.

A new wind was blowing the 1960’s. New voices had taken up the cause of racial reconciliation and challenged the church’s stance on baptism and adoptive children. The late Calvin College professor Lewis Smedes and wife Doris adopted three children. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, white CRC parents were adopting children across racial lines. Smedes’s children experienced baptism as God’s benefits through them to their children. Smedes pointed out the incongruence of previous synod who tiptoed around the baptism issue. He wrote, “Synod held tenaciously to both sides of the ambiguity: adopted children were eligible for (baptism), but had no claim upon baptism.” (Banner, May/June 1963, p.18-19) Smedes took a sledgehammer and smashed the theological vision of Kuyper. Adoptive children of believing parents deserved the same access to God’s covenantal grace as naturally born children. 

In the summer of 1968, Synod struck down the 1949 decision. The synod recognized that previous decisions ‘bordered on superstition.” In other words, they used their uncertainty as a locked gate than entertaining new opportunities to widen their understanding of God’s grace. Synod wrote, ‘we believe in the providence of God and doesn’t His providence cover the placing of the adoptive child into a covenant home as well as a child of natural parents? God places the child into each covenant home and only He can permit its removal from either home.” (1968 Acts of Synod, p. 608) 

They used their uncertainty as a locked gate.

I think of the many families over the years who suffered under the heavy burden of rejection from previous synod who suffered from cultural insularity and theological short-sightedness. Fear around children with unknown backgrounds shaped theology in a dramatic way.  In addition, insularity led to voices of theological comfort who simply confirmed their biases. They could not see the new gifts of grace, but instead saw problems to solve for theological purity. Am I being a bit too tough on the past? Possibly. But theological visions and decisions birthed from past live on in churches and homes. Theological visions and decisions have social and historical impacts on the present. 

My friend’s mother, was finally able to baptize her children in 1968. She clearly remembered the conversation about adoptive children baptisms over the years. When churches live to protect the entry points into the body of Christ, they exchange the gospel for the prize of becoming gatekeepers. Don’t allow uncertainty to drive your theological vision. Choose faith! Why not choose God’s big vision for grace in the world? Why not pay attention to the new ways Jesus shows up in and around the neighborhood?  Why not share a gospel that big enough to include God’s children from many places, races, and circumstances?       

Photo by Les Anderson on Unsplash


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