By Parnell McCarter


Presbyterians are agreed that children of Christians should be baptized, but there are differences with respect to how broadly or narrowly the term “Christians” should be construed.  Rev. Barry Whear of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland provided me with the following extract explaining the difference between Rev. Samuel Rutherford’s view and Rev. Thomas Boston’s view:




So Rutherford took the position that adherent members (i.e., baptized members who are not communicants) of the church should be able to have their children baptized by the church, whereas Thomas Boston took the position that only communicant members should be able to have their children baptized.   There are various situations which can give rise to adherent membership in a Presbyterian church, including but not limited to the following:


·         Baptized adult converts to reformed Christianity (from paganism, Romanism, etc.) in the process of being catechized in the reformed faith

·         Baptized children in the process of being catechized in the reformed faith

·         Baptized retarded persons who may be mentally incapable of normal catechetical instruction in the reformed faith, with a mental capacity of a several year old child

·         Baptized Christians whose struggle with assurance is such that they may come forward to have their children baptized but not communion for themselves

·         Baptized Christians who agree in the main with the reformed Christian faith but are not ready to affirm the confessional standards of the church as a whole, seeking more time for consideration and study


These are all persons who may very well be saved, but are not mature enough yet in the reformed faith for communicant status in the visible Christian church.  The Westminster Confession rightly teaches: “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.”  This would seem to imply that all those who are properly eligible to receive baptism themselves, should have and should be permitted to have their children baptized. 


On the r-f-w list, people contributed the following insights on this topic:


Dr. F.N. Lee: “…I'd say Rutherford [is right], who here upheld Calvin…”


Rev Matthew Winzer: “One should keep in mind that Rutherford's discussion in Peaceable and Temperate Plea took place in the context of an established church, where to be a civil citizen was to be born within the pale of the reformed religion.  His position needs a little adjusting to allow for the voluntarist context we now live in, so that some kind of adherence to the reformed religion should be required; but it is certainly the case that the earlier reformed position taught the infants of those born within the visible church have a right to baptism.”


It should be noted that the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland appears to adopt Rev. Rutherford’s position on this topic, and Rutherford’s position was the position of the historic Church of Scotland during the Protestant Reformation.  It allows adherents, and not merely members in full communion, to have their children baptized. 


Like Mr. Samuel Rutherford and really the mainstream of reformed theology during the Protestant Reformation (but much less so since then), I believe the church ideally should be co-extensive with the state.  That implies that ideally all citizens within a reformed Christian state should be baptized Christians, analogous to the way all male Israelite citizens were ideally circumcised.  But clearly not all citizens (including adult citizens) would necessarily be qualified for communicant membership, for a variety of possible reasons (some of which are listed above).  So if the church should ideally be co-extensive with the state (but not all within the church should be allowed communicant membership), this implies the validity of Mr. Rutherford’s position relative to the baptism of adherent members.