Some Thoughts on the Baptism of Children

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Earlier this week, Trevin Wax wrote an interesting blog post titled “Should We Baptize Small Children?” A couple of days later, John Starke of The Gospel Coalition responded to Trevin’s article with his own article, titled “Should We Baptize Small Children? Yes.” I would commend them both to you for your careful consideration.

For what it’s worth, my own thoughts on this subject have evolved in the past couple of years. I used to be a strong advocate of artificially delaying baptism until the teenaged years. For example, in 2008 I gave an interview with the late Michael Spencer and argued the following:

Baptizing small children is an innovation in American Baptist life. I think that this is a clear area where we have been influenced by some of the fundamentalists, though it worked in tandem with our home-grown programmatic emphasis on enlistment. The average age of baptism increasingly declined during the 20th century. In 1995, the old Home Mission Board published a study that showed the only age group where baptisms were increasing was the “under 5″ category. I have a hard time seeing how this makes us very different than pedobaptists. A perusal of church records and associational minutes will show that our American Baptist forefathers did not regularly baptize pre-teens, though there were occasional exceptions when a child gave extraordinary evidence of both genuine conversion and an understanding of the cost of discipleship as entailed through meaningful church membership.

The practice of baptizing pre-teens has affected church membership in a number of ways. First, it has contributed to the growth of our membership roles-the majority of our baptisms are of elementary aged children and preschoolers. Second, it has contributed to the phenomena of multiple “baptisms” and rededications as teenagers and adults have to assess the validity of childhood spiritual decisions that they can sometimes hardly remember. Third, when coupled with an inadequate view of eternal security, it has led to millions of inactive members who are convinced they are Christians because they walked the aisle as a kindergartener during Vacation Bible School forty years ago. Finally, it has greatly contributed to the decline in redemptive church discipline: what church wants to discipline an eleven year old for having premarital sex, vocal racism, or habitually getting into fistfights with his classmates?

I do want to offer one clarification before moving on. I think it is very possible for small children to be regenerated. There are many people I know who can clearly remember being converted at a relatively young age. But being able to understand the basics of sin, judgment, redemption, and faith and being able to maturely covenant in membership with a local church are two different things, in my opinion. Some will argue that virtually all of the New Testament baptisms happen almost immediately after conversion. This is true. I would respond that almost all New Testament examples are clearly adults who are older than even teenagers. Furthermore, we have absolutely zero examples in the New Testament of when to baptize children who are raised in Christian families. Our pedobaptist friends address this situation by baptizing infants. Most Southern Baptists and Independent Baptists address this by baptizing anyone who can articulate a prayer for salvation. I am an old-fashioned Baptist who believes we should withhold baptism until a child is old enough to publicly identify with a local church through covenant, meaningful membership, though I would be reluctant to arbitrarily set a particular age requirement for baptism.

I stand by my first paragraph, but would articulate each of the latter two paragraphs somewhat differently today. To be clear, I have not become an advocate of rushing every small child who can “repeat-after-me” into the waters. But I’ve come to believe the problem isn’t with baptismal ages per se, but rather with our evangelistic methods; we are often far to incautious when it comes to pressing children to profess faith. Almost any kindergartner who is being raised in a Christian family and/or is involved in church activities is ready to repeat-after-me, whether under the Spirit’s conviction or not. In fact, I’d be worried about a churched kid who wasn’t interested to some degree in spiritual things, even if superficially or simplistically so.

If we were more careful in how we articulate the gospel and press for a response (and I do believe we should do the latter), I suspect the average age of baptism would go up a bit, for churched kids at least. While the average baptismal age may not rise to pre-20th century levels, I don’t see this as a problem, for two reasons. One, church history isn’t our only trustworthy and sufficient guide for faith and practice. Second, it is just as possible that earlier Baptists artificially postponed baptism as it is contemporary Baptists are too quick to dunk someone; I believe they did just that.

I believe we should baptize anyone who can articulate a credible profession of faith, regardless of his or her age. This seems to match the New Testament pattern. John Starke pretty much perfectly articulates my own view (which, BTW, I think is essentially Trevin’s view as well). This puts the burden on parents and pastors to shepherd and counsel in such a way that, with the Lord’s help, they can discern with some level of confident hope a credible profession of faith. And when they get it wrong–and sometimes they will–that’s when church discipline comes in. To say it another way, we don’t baptize someone based upon assurance of regeneration, but rather based upon what seems to be a legitimate conversion testimony. This seems to be exactly what they did in the New Testament.

(Cross-posted at One Baptist Perspective under the title “More Thoughts on the Baptism of Children“)

  7Comments

  1. Pingback: One Baptist Perspective » More Thoughts on the Baptism of Children

  2. Bob Cleveland   •  

    My blood pressure doesn’t benefit much when well-known evangelists come to town for one day, ask that all the children be in the adult service (not in children’s church), and then give a sermon specifically about why you should walk down the aisle, complete with a long emotional “invitation”.

    Regardless of how famous they are.

  3. wlh   •  

    Nathan,

    This is a much more important issue than most people give attention to it, and not just because of the pastoral theology involved. I have become, as I’m sure you as a father are as well, more concerned for my children’s salvation the older they get. I fear for them, that they would become teenagers, then adults (assuming they live to it) without Christ. Man, I want them to love Jesus.

    So as a father, when would I like to see my child baptized? When she or he is ready, like you said, “to articulate a credible profession of faith.” And what do I do if my church has a different view (that would be very tough!)?

    How much is it up to my church (or elder/pastor) to be determining this? and what is my role as a father in the process? Every parent, theologically trained or not, should be asking these questions and searching the scriptures to answer them.

    -Wes

  4. Bob Cleveland   •  

    Wes,

    How much is it up to your church/elder? From your standpoint, your responsibility, none of it.

    Sure, they have the responsibility to carry out their duties properly, but that’s between them and God. It’s your responsibility to “train up” your child, and the church and its people are tools you can use to do that. But they’re not the big guns in your arsenal.

  5. Brett Beasley   •  

    Brother Nathan,

    I really appreciate your insights, and have adopted the same mindset. I am a pastor and father of a young boy, and want to find the right balance between caution, and encouragement. The key is in sound teaching at home, in Sunday School, and from the pulpit. This past Sunday, two ten year old boys were baptized in our church. They read simple, but remarkable testimonies of their conversion from the baptistry. They had been counseled on several occasions and gave credible evidence of conversion. I have counseled others that needed some more time of counsel, and waited. One thing that has helped me is staying true to our Baptist understanding of soteriology. Since baptism has no saving qualities, we can hold off on the symbolic act of obedience, while encouraging the child who might very well be converted. We need not be too quick to baptize lest we give false assurance, and we need not be too quick to discourage a child from simple saving faith.

  6. scott parkison   •  

    Nathan

    Thanks for this post. I continue to struggle with this issue even though I have been in full time ministry for 9 years (4 as full time pastor). This was a very helpful and practical post.

    Thanks

  7. Gail   •  

    NAthan,
    We have four children and have struggled through this issue with each of them. Our daughter, at 5, we thought was too young to understand and make a commitment but at 6, after sending her back to her room 3 times over the previous year, and talking with her, she came out of her room one night and said, “I am a Christian whether you believe it or not.” We believed her then. Out youngest two took a little more time. The youngest completely understood what happened when you die and are not a Christian and wanted to avoid the “fire”; however, we believed he was not ready. He took a couple more years of prayer and teaching. Our third child, Simeon, was ready but wanted to wait til he was a little older. He was 8 when he walked down the aisle. He waited to walk the Aisle until we returned to America from our mission home because people do not walk an aisle here is South Africa and he wanted to do that. The twist is that he didn’t want to be baptized until he returned to South Africa because he wanted his friends to see what he was doing. He wanted to impact them. It also impacted our church because they are reticent to baptize children. The church in SA does not like to baptize children because they want to “wait until the child is an older teen and can make a better choice for God or not. They don’t want the young child who is just following others or has become emotional and won’t continue to follow Jesus later.
    As missionaries, we have followed through with our children and the children and teens we have led to Christ. We have and are discipling them each week. The church is still not ready to baptize children; there are 3 children in my Sunday School class who made professions of faith 14 months ago and still are waiting to be baptized. They ask when it will happen. We talk with the elders and pastor, we train them in the way of the Bible as it is a sign of following to do it immediately, and we stand by the children and others as they wait for the outward sign, baptism, of their inward profession. I guess we have done all we can, now we must pray and continue to nurture the baby Christians.

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