Church Membership of Infants

James MacGregor

Excerpts from an article in The British and Foreign Evangelical Review, vol. 27 (1878). MacGregor (1830-1894) trained for the ministry under William Cunningham, whom he regarded as Scotland’s master theologian. After MacGregor had been a pastor for ten years, he was called in 1868 to the chair of systematic theology at the Free Church College, Edinburgh, in succession to James Buchanan. He responded to rising errors of his day by writing in defense of the Sabbath and against Amyrauldianism. Illness forced him to migrate to New Zealand in 1881, where he was again the pastor of a church, and published expositions of the confessional teaching about election and eternal punishment. He was the father of ten children.

When a community has victoriously contended for a truth, the next step in some cases is to go to sleep upon the truth which has been vindicated. So in relation to the doctrine of the church membership of infants. Most of our churches have at some time been exercised about this doctrine, and have erected a trophy of their victorious contending in the ordinance of infant baptism. But beyond that the professed friends of the doctrine have in large measure gone to sleep upon it, or at least have rested on their laurels in a manner not heroic.

This must be the result of want of thought rather than want of heart. It is supposed that one-half of the human race die in infancy. Beyond infancy, but on this side of adult manhood or womanhood, there is the great class of “the young” whose mind is in process of definitive formation, whose whole destinies are under God being determined for time and for eternity. The claims of the infant and the other young members of the church upon her consideration and care cannot be neglected except through want of thought, by those who have a new heart on which is written, “Love the brotherhood. . . . Feed my lambs.” It is in illustration of these claims that I submit the following notes on the practical aspects of infant church membership, as suggested by the baptism of infants.

It is no part of my plan to demonstrate the legitimacy of the practice of infant baptism, or the truth of the doctrine of infant church membership. That “they are holy,” that the children of church members are church members by birth, and as such are to be sealed with the sacrament of initiation — baptism under the new dispensation, coming in place of circumcision under the old; this I shall assume. I shall assume that baptism is the solemn reception by the church of one of her members, and that this reception by the church is on man’s part the leading aspect of the rite. The question to which I now address myself is, What then? What, for the church, is the practical significance of the rite, when regarded as a sacred remembrancer of the doctrine of infant church membership?

At the outset, it is plainly one important duty of the church to see to it that her form of administering the ordinance is such as shall not prevent its true meaning from being clearly seen — the fact that what takes place is a solemn reception by the church of one who is her member by institution of Christ. One thing manifestly fitted to withdraw attention from that fact is the place and office given to the parent in the ordinance as administered among us. For instance, the parent, in presence of the congregation, is subjected to a process of questioning, about doctrines believed by him and duties promised by him, which must go far to make him the central and all but sole person in the transaction, and to make other members of the congregation feel as if they had been only sympathetic onlookers on a private family matter, and not really parties in a congregational act.

When a minister looks into our books to see whether the customary questioning process is prescribed by the church’s law, he may find the matter to stand thus. The Directory for the Public Worship of God, prepared and printed along with the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, does not profess to prescribe for every minute detail. What it professes is to give such rules and illustrations as may enable a minister to administer public ordinances without the bondage of a liturgy. Its suggestions — for instance, about preaching — are extremely well worth studying on account of their intrinsic excellency, while by Presbyterians of the Westminster school they fall to be regarded, though not as binding rules in detail, yet as authoritatively setting forth the type to which our ministrations ought to conform. Let us then look into the Directory for a form of baptism.

In the directorial form the process of questioning the parent about doctrines and duties is conspicuous by its absence. Of the “Do you believe” this, and “Do you promise” that, with which we are so familiar, it does not present a trace. The whole of the form is fitted to keep the parent comparatively in the background, and to bring the congregation or church into prominence on the foreground. Thus, ordinarily the baptism must be in the church at a meeting of the congregation. Then, before the actual administration of it there ought to go these three things — first, a doctrinal statement, appropriate to the occasion, addressed to all and sundry; second, an appropriate exhortation to the congregation; and third, to the parent an exhortation about parental duty. Finally, before and after the act of baptizing in the name of the Triune God and Savior there are two prayers, in the second of which all join in seeking blessings on the child, in neither of which is there any special concentration of attention on the parent. No doubt the parent, from the very force of his position, does receive special attention which may have suitable expression in the prayers as well as in the exhortation to him. But the directorial type of administration is manifestly fitted to bring prominently forward that which, from the nature of the case, ought to be brought prominently forward — the church receiving one of her members; and to place the parent comparatively in the background, as being only an accessory rather than the one or main party in the transaction.

Conformity to this directorial type would go far to establish one important claim of infant church members, namely, their claim to be thought about by the church as her members. From the view it gives of the meaning of infant baptism, it would be natural, and it would be felt as appropriate, for the minister to bring the whole congregation into his prayer, seeking that they may on this occasion receive a new baptism of light and love. In this way there would come to be formed for the child a treasure of thoughtful affection in the church’s heart, a fountain of blessing whose streams might follow it through life. At the same time all the young members of the church would be brought to her remembrance, with pleasant thoughts of spiritual kindred and country, resulting in manifold activity of thought and affection, which doubtless would prove a blessing to the young, but at the same time would prove a double blessing to the adults thus recalled into Christian exercise of mind and heart, as it is more blessed to give than to receive. This indeed is one of the ways in which the Head of the Church has provided for setting “the solitary in families.”

It is said of Lord Chesterfield in his old age, that when asked how he did, he answered, “Oh! Well enough, considering how old I am; but the truth is, — and I have been dead for several years, though we are not buried yet.” There are not a few such dead-alive in our churches through sheer solitariness. Through this and that cause they have become isolated, left alone in the world. Their social affections are thus dormant, and to their enjoyment as if dead. They may bitterly feel and lament their solitariness, perhaps in spirit complain of it, as if the providence of Christ had given them no sphere for those affections toward man, the exercise of which is so large a part of our happiness as well as of our duty towards God. To such an one the baptism of an infant, duly considered, might be as life from the dead, through recalling to mind the fact that no one, except through willful neglect of privilege as well as duty, can ever be solitary who is a member of the church. If adult church members would but seriously think of this when they are in form receiving an infant member into His church, then every baptism might at once be a blessing to all, and every infant the unconscious minister of that blessing: the tiny rill of life here beginning might thus prove as the stream which blesses the tree that shades it. The desertion, spiritual decay, which Christians often lament in themselves, may thus be occasioned by their neglecting to exercise life in the life in the form of social affection to the little ones. On the other hand, faithfulness in this relation may be blessed by continued fullness and freshness of life.

The directorial form of doctrinal address is not restricted to the doctrine of infant church membership. It embraces the whole doctrine of grace. And rightly so. For baptism is a picture gospel, fitted and intended to recall to mind and heart the foundation truths of our Christian religion. Thus the blessed name in which church members are baptized reminds us that Jehovah, the God of Israel, is the one God, living and true; while the full recitation of the name of the Three-One God sets forth salvation as flowing from all the three persons of the Godhead, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost.” The whole doctrine of salvation is thus appropriately referred to by the minister whenever anyone is baptized, whether infant or adult.

By addressing the congregation at this stage, instead of questioning the parent, he duly proceeds upon the fact, that not only the parent but every one of the audience has then and there to deal with God on the ground of the doctrine set forth by word and act. Further, this address to them appropriately introduces an exercise suggested by the Directory for the occasion, namely, every one’s recalling to mind the obligations represented by his baptism, in infancy or later, obligations now recalled to his view. Thus out of the mouth of babes and sucklings God will perfect his praise, saying through the unconscious babe to every adult present, “Here is the covenant, the covenant God, that was set forth when you were baptized: the Christ who was beforehand with you, setting you in the membership of his church by your birth, sealing you to his faith and service by your baptism. How do you now stand related to him? Have you, honoring the call which he thus addressed to you, freely and gladly undertaken with mind and heart the obligations that were declared incumbent upon you?”

Such thoughts, going down to the roots of our own religion, and back to the beginning of our own church connection, would be a very auspicious introduction to thoughts, fruitful of affections and actions, having special reference to the infant. First of all, his baptism, setting him forth as needing to be cleansed or washed, reminds us that the infant has brought with him into the world a woeful inheritance of corruption and guilt. When Augustine, having learned the truth of original sin through his own heart’s experience, was providentially called to defend the doctrine against Pelagius, he maintained that the doctrine had been held by the Catholic Church from the beginning of her history, and in proof of this appealed to the immemorial practice of infant baptism. This practice indeed, like that of infant circumcision, has no theoretical justification unless it be admitted that infants have need of purification through the lordly baptism of repentance for the remission of sins; or, in other words, are sinners, guilty and depraved from their birth — “by nature children of wrath, even as others.” And the doctrine thus set forth, of original sin, is one that for practical purposes ought by all means to be recalled to mind on this impressive occasion.

It is good for adult Christians, even the maturest, thus to be led to recollection of their own original sin, to look upon the rock from which they were hewn, and into the pit from which they were taken. For this will tend to maintain in their mind and heart a due sense of the magnitude of the glorious grace by which they have been saved, and a due sense both of their general unworthiness and of the profound demerit involved in particular transgressions: “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” But also, and especially, it will serve to give them a due sense of the profoundly affecting condition into which infant human beings are born. To a duly thoughtful Christian, a child’s advent into our world, an infant sinner’s advent into a world full of sin and sorrow, is most moving. It is only now and then, through this and that accident, that even thoughtful and tender-hearted men have flashes of recollection of the awful tragedy that may be bound up in the most commonplace babe’s commencing life.

Thus a tender-hearted seaman, sailing past a village in the Hebrides, and hearing a rapturous shout of thoughtless mirth from a band of children, confessed to a pang of bitter feeling of his own incapacity so to rejoice. There is hardly any adult that has not had a sudden visitation of a pang of painful feeling, on passing such a band of children gaily shouting, and finding the question in his heart, Would it not have been well if they had not been born? This feeling is better fitted to occasion due tender interest in the little ones with their tragic possibilities. But the appropriate feeling is best sustained and guided by means of meditation on original sin when infants are baptized. Herodotus speaks of a nation who went into mourning on the occasion of a birth. We have not so learned Christ. But we have not learned him rightly unless we duly attend to what is set forth in his ordinance, so as to cherish the feelings of thoughtful and tender solicitude towards the infant that are naturally suggested by the fundamental tragedy of original sin. The pain, the anxious solicitude, the boding apprehensions, suggested by that fundamental tragedy, are well fitted to serve as a prophylactic discipline of the heart in order to works of faith, and labors of love, and patience of hope, for the sake of the little one whose condition is so deeply moving; and we ought to welcome our wounds which thus lead to his healing.

Even here on its dark side the doctrine of Christ is providing blessings for his lamb by nourishing at the root our Christian affections toward the little one. But his doctrine has a bright side as well as a dark. And it is the bright side that specially is turned upon us when an infant is baptized. Original sin is a thing common to all infants descended from Adam by ordinary generation. The truth specially set forth by infant baptism is that of the salvation of infants.

The present question is mainly about rightly setting towards the infant the thoughts and affections of the congregation which receives him in baptism. It is a great thing to be warranted by God’s word in regarding him as then and there a being susceptible of the saving grace of God. This for the congregation makes him to be a dumb pathetic sermon of salvation to the lost. It will be remembered that the Savior specifies the case of infants as one exemplifying the truth that salvation is to the lost (Matt. 18:10-11). The adults who look on the baptism are reminded that for them salvation is to the lost; that as God’s grace can save this infant sinner, blind and helpless in depravity and guilt, so it is to the lost, blind and helpless like the infant, with personal guilt and depravity superadded to our woeful inheritance of sin, that salvation comes in the case of adults too, through faith; and that it is for a salvation so given to the lost, blind and helpless as well as wicked and worthless in themselves, that believers must evermore go to God through the ever new and living way. But all this, duly considered, will guide them and move them in the appropriate exercise of faith and love towards the infant, praying that even now, before he enter on the tragic life of human beings unfolded into clear conscious activity, there may be reposed in him the seed of life immortal, so that all possible storms can only serve to strengthen the life which no creature can destroy.

Here the subject begins to widen out into what I have had in view from the outset, namely, the practical duties towards the young which, formally beginning here, ought never to end. I have labored at the previous part of this article in the endeavor to suggest correct scriptural views of the relation of church members to their younger fellow members, because I am persuaded that here nothing but sound scriptural views can instrumentally sustain the corresponding Christian practice, as all true life is rooted in faith. And I now shall labor somewhat further in the same endeavor by dealing with the question, What then, after all, is our true relation to these little ones? How precisely for working purposes of a Christian life towards them are we to regard them?

This question is answered by saying simply, As members of the church. A good man will cherish and practice natural affection towards men as men, an affection specially tender towards children as children. That general affection of philanthropy is not weakened, but strengthened, by special affection towards church members as church members. A man is not the worse patriot, but the better patriot, because he loves his own family. In a real sense, “Charity begins at home.” The stronger the pulse of love towards the inner circle of home, the stronger will be the widening circles of affection to friends, and country, and mankind beyond. Thus Christianity prescribes and secures that we shall “honor all men.” But at the same time it prescribes and secures that with a special affection we shall “love the brotherhood” in Christ. Thus it is written, “As ye have opportunity do good unto all men, especially to such as are of the household of faith.” The man who loves his own child only as he loves another man’s is not a large-hearted philanthropist, but a small-hearted parent. But the church member, as such, is the church’s own child. Members of the church stand to us in a specialty of close relation over and above the common relation of man to man. Corresponding to this there is a specialty of affection towards church members, which is prescribed by the word of Christ, “Lovest thou me? Feed my sheep. . . . We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren.” Of this there can be no doubt. The man that has not a special affection towards church members is not a Christian in heart. The man that does not exercise a special affection towards church members is not a Christian in life. “He loveth our nation, and hath built us a synagogue,” is the only certificate from elders recorded in the Bible.

The application of this to the case in hand is easy and obvious. The infant is an infant church member; consequently it is our duty and privilege to cherish and practice towards him the affection which corresponds to his relation to us as an infant member of the church. To keep the position clearly in view is a leading purpose of the baptism of infants. And the directorial form of administration provides for making men see the position thus brought into view, by clearly defining it in such words as these, “That the seed and posterity of the faithful born within the church have, by their birth, interest in the covenant, and right to the seal of it, and to the outward privileges of the church. . . . That children, by baptism, are solemnly received into the bosom of the visible church, distinguished from the world, and them that are without, and united with believers,” etc.

In the remaining part of this paper I shall endeavor to illustrate the practical principle on which I have commented, by calling attention to some applications of the principle in life. In relation to all such applications it is of great importance that the principle itself should be held steadfastly in view of the heart, so as continuously to nourish the outgoing practice in its roots, and to make the practice itself a continuous outgoing of Christian principle, enthroned in the heart and ruling the outgoing affections.

The principle of infant church membership finds occasional applications in the life of many who do not steadfastly keep it in their heart’s view, and in whose case therefore it fails to bring forth its full tale of good fruits to themselves and to others. But steadfast regard to the principle will both greatly augment the number of cases in which it comes into practice, and at the same time sustain the living and life-giving spirit of the practice. The particular duties to be now referred to are suggested, not as if the performance of them could be exhaustive of our duties towards the young, but only as illustrating the way in which the Christian affection which we owe to the young may by systematic practice be made fully fruitful in blessing to them and to ourselves.

Christians desirous of benefiting the child received by them will do well to have practical regard to the prosperity, especially the spiritual prosperity, of its parents. There are various ways in which the parent’s prosperity may be sought by his fellow Christians. And his prosperity they ought to seek in every practicable way, with special earnestness for the sake of his babe. Though the parent ought not in the baptismal ceremony to be thrust forward into such prominence as to hide the church from view, yet he does stand so related to the babe that, for the babe’s sake, the church may well be moved to special prayers and pains on his behalf, that goodness and mercy may follow him all the days of his life, and that he may dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. For indeed his influence and that of his family is to the babe of inestimable importance for good and evil, especially in the highest relations. Piety, though it manifestly does not run in the blood, yet manifestly, to a large extent, runs in the line. It is therefore to be expected that those who really seek the babe’s prosperity will set themselves, with peculiar earnestness, to seek the parent’s prosperity in such ways as are open to them.

For all beneficent Christian purposes the Christian family is of inestimable importance. The Christian congregation, therefore, recalled by every infant baptism to recognition of the family and its importance, ought to apply the truth thus brought to mind in its ordinary social Christian life and action. Church members ought to cultivate the habit of thinking of the congregation as an aggregate of families, and of having regard to this church constitution in their practical wishes and endeavors for the church’s well-being and well-doing.

For instance, in their ardor for one very useful form of “Christian work,” some Christians may be disposed to relieve the family of the care of Christian education by making the Sabbath school to supersede the family as “the nursery of the church.” This disposition ought to be guarded against as a temptation. In every way the public opinion, as it may be called, of a congregation ought to be leavened with the view, that in God’s kingdom the family must be kept sacred, that its appropriate influence must not be neutralized by any other influence whatever; that every influence really conflicting with it is so far illegitimate and unchristian, and that such other agencies as I now proceed to speak of are not intended to supersede the appropriate agency of the family, but to sustain and strengthen that agency where it exists.

For the purpose of illustrating by sample the way in which the church as a whole may give effect in her practice to her doctrine of infant church membership, it is convenient to refer to her threefold ministry, of doctrine, of law, and of liberality, represented respectively by the teaching eldership, the ruling eldership, and the deaconship. A church desiring to give effect to that doctrine might consider how to give her ministry, in every one of these forms, a specialty of direction fitted to conduce to the prosperity of the young. Those holding the offices in which her ministries are represented, might set themselves habitually in their work to the practical care of the young as one great part of the duties of their office.

1. Ministry of doctrine. By this I mean all that properly falls under the description of religious instruction. The Sabbath school in many districts is of vast importance as a missionary agency; there is no good reason to doubt that through this agency young people are brought savingly to God who otherwise would not have been reached by the word of his grace. For the proper children of the church it may provide a training more systematic and complete than can be well provided in their homes. But even the Sabbath school may do more harm than good if it be allowed to supersede the home instruction.

The “children’s church” is as yet on its trial. Some of the grounds on which it is advocated are certainly not fitted to gain for it the favor of men wisely considering the case. If it be so conducted that the children cannot or do not accompany their parents to the ordinary congregational meeting for public worship, it cannot long stand. For the children themselves ought to be habituated to regard themselves as part of the congregation, having a proper church life in them to be lived and trained; the collection of individuals from which they are absent can hardly be reckoned a Christian congregation, or aggregate of families; and the whole tenor of the worship as conducted in their absence will be sensibly different from what the true congregational worship of the church is.

We are thus led to the formal ministry represented by the teaching eldership. Classes for youthful adults, providing a systematic training in Christian evidences as well as doctrines, are justly regarded as of first-rate importance. But far more important it is that every service should be conducted with due regard to the fact that young Christians are an integral part of the congregation whom the minister is leading, in prayer and praise as well as by his preaching. The church ought to make it known and felt that she expects her ministers in their ordinary ministrations to feed the lambs of Christ as well as the sheep. It does not follow that the minister is to talk twaddle in the pulpit for the special edification of children. It only follows that he ought to speak so that children can take home what he says, so far as the nature of the subject admits of it. It is certain that many sermons give internal evidence of not having been prepared with any real regard to the capacity of the young. Some ministers excuse themselves by saying that they cannot speak so as to come home to children with God’s truth. But, in fact, they can easily make themselves understood by children so as to be remembered, at the fireside or on the street.

2. Ministry of law. The great mass of our ruling elders have in them the spirit of their office. What can they do specially for the young? A church feeling in the heart of the young will be promoted by the elder’s visits in his districts, especially if in these he have and show due regard to the claims of the young upon the thoughtful affection of their seniors. It will be remembered that the Directory sets forth as possible that the efficacy of infant baptism should come to be manifested in after life, through the baptized person’s calling to mind and heart the obligations under which in infancy he was formally placed, to trust Christ as the Savior and serve him as God. The elder’s visit might easily be made instrumental in this awakening to a blessed sense of obligation, if only the elder had the matter in his mind and heart, and fully felt that his visit is to the children as well as to the adults of a family. A very winning aspect of the elder’s office is brought into view when young people go to him for advice. Youths and maidens might for time and eternity be benefited by a seasonable word from the elder when they are leaving their native place. And our Presbyterian organization is admirably fitted to enable the eldership to follow them with their beneficent influences to the scenes of their subsequent residence, by an organized system of correspondence, or by occasional correspondence, with elders in those other localities, so that the young man or woman, perhaps in a foreign land, may yet be reached, and love to be reached, by “the strong hand of the church’s purity” and love.

3. Ministry of liberality. In relation to the young, the American deacons appear to be in advance of ours. Church building, for instance, in America, far more than in this country, is gone about with a special reference to the comfort of young people. I am not sure that the ordinary pew in the church is constructed on the principle of infant church membership.

The sanctified sense of deacons, ministers of the church’s liberality, can come into play in other relations. I do not think that the deacons should administer liberality only in the form of small driblets of money to paupers. In many cases the sense of the diaconate, administering the wealth of the congregation, may do real and permanent good in connection with the education of the young. And there are cases in which, if only there is sanctified sense in exercise, the deaconship may do very great good in connection with families. The family, let us suppose, has been down with fever, or in some other way has been impoverished as well as enfeebled, perhaps sunken in debt, with furniture and clothes in the pawnshop. I do not know a better use of money than to advance it largely for the purpose of setting such a family fairly on its feet. A family of ordinarily good people will not abuse this kindness. Ordinarily, the family, once set on its feet, will keep its feet, with a new sense in its heart of the value of church connection and the kindness of God, while the children are saved from the tremendous perils surrounding young people brought up in demoralizing destitution. Such care for the family on occasions of real need surely becomes a church which receives the children of that family into her bosom through baptism. The deacons too may in this way be to the little one ministers of the blessing, “Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”