Friday, March 09, 2012

How Many Unconverted Children Do You Want to Baptize?

Challies' post on when we should baptize children who've made a profession of faith has generated discussion in various places. Here's my response to a friend's question about the issue:
I think it comes down to a question of what you believe the church is doing when you baptize. You might think that you are merely telling the church that the person has professed faith in Christ. So anyone who says he's a Christian and wants to be baptized, you baptize: the upper-middle-class tidy-life couple, the town drunk, or a 4-year-old kid.

On the other hand, if you think baptism is a declaration of allegiance to Christ, affirmed by the church, and linked to church membership with all its privileges and obligations, then you're going to think it's pretty important for there to be some sort of examination of the credibility of the person's profession.

If you go the latter route, you're going to have to ask yourself (in light of Scripture) what constitutes a credible profession of faith, and at what point a child is ready to bear the burden of congregational rule and accountability to church discipline. It's very difficult to discern the credibility of that profession in the life of a young person, particularly one inclined to fear of man and people-pleasing, while the child is under the primary care and authority of his or her parents. For that reason, I'd do all I can to avoid baptizing a pre-teen, and the more I'm seeing in pastoral ministry, the higher that age is getting in my mind.
If you want to make the argument that conversion and baptism are linked in Scripture, I'd agree. Wholeheartedly. In fact, it's precisely because I agree so strongly that I think it's generally unwise to baptize young children. Frankly, I believe there's a far greater problem in contemporary American Christianity because we regularly baptize unconverted young children, than there is because we unreasonably withhold baptism from the genuinely converted.

In other words, I'm arguing that we have a foundational problem in our understanding of conversion. We really need to get that problem sorted out before we get too upset over people "delaying" baptism—or before we give any more kids the false impression that they're eternally secure.

Finally, I don't know of a better combination of theological clarity and practical application on the matter of baptism than what you'll find in this book—one of the most helpful things I've read in the past five years.


Anonymous said...

I decided to wait for my oldest son to turn 10 before I baptized him. He had a solid confession for several years, but wanted to wait for him to be old enough to actually participate in church life, since that is what is now expected of him. He regularly requests songs, helps distribute the Lord's supper, and offerings, and can intelligently talk to adults.

I understand the thought process, but those saved on Pentecost weren't given a test run prior to their baptism. I struggle with both sides of that debate.

d4v34x said...


I share your concerns,and, having young kids, have given this some thought. But, as James intimates, the scriptural support is light. In fact the only pre-baptism "test" I see is the case of Cornelius, if memory serves, ("Who can forbid water . . .").

Since I recognize the appropriate place of discernment where Scripture is quietish (yes, that was pre-emptive :simle: ), I also remind you of this concern:

Michelle said...

I understand the fear of false conversions. I also understand the problems of a baptized child unable to bear the responsibility of full membership of the body. These are significant considerations.

Nevertheless, an enormous challenge is created with this approach. Making age and evidence of growth a necessary condition of baptism encourages children to look away from the gospel and inward at their own fruit (or lack thereof) to determine whether they are saved.

There is self-examination in the Bible (and well there should be with our children), but that's not the basis of our salvation. I want my children to say, "I know Christ saved me, because he is faithful to do what he said he would do, on the basis of his death, burial, and resurrection." Instead, we see angst and fear, not a focus on growing in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It magnifies the human side of salvation in an unintended way.

The net result is that, practically, withholding baptism because of age and "credibility" of a salvation experience tends to undermine the gospel and confuses children. I say this on the basis of my experiences with my own children and others I have taught in two different churches that use a similar approach to salvation and baptism.

Ben said...


For starters, you know that guy you linked to? Take him with a grain of salt. He's a little nutty. But I like his quote from Caneday. It makes the point that we shouldn't isolate baptism from conversion, which is exactly what I'm concerned about too. And unsurprisingly, revivalism is spectre behind the problems in that post AND this post.

Now, I disagree with you that the test is "who can forbid water." I actually think it's conversion—repentance and faith. If you think a church has an obligation to baptize only believers, and I think you do, then the church has some responsibility to evaluate the genuineness of that conversion. Everything after that is theologically informed, but at some level it's a judgment call.

Ben said...

Michelle, I'm actually not arguing for age and evidence of growth as a necessary condition. I realize the difference is subtle, but I'm arguing for evidence of conversion. That means dependence on the gospel of Christ, not the evidence of fruit. I can see how pointing kids to evidence of fruit is antithetical to the gospel.

In other words, I wouldn't say to a kid, "Live like a Christian and we'll baptize you when we see genuine fruit." I'd say something more along the lines of "Keep believing the gospel and turning from your sin, and it'll become clear that you really are a child of God."

d4v34x said...

I'm not saying "who can forbid water is a/the test, but was the expression Peter used when saying Cornelius et al. had met the only instance of a test in Scripture (that I know of, setting aside the eunuch). But I think you'd agree that the reason for the test with Cornelius had more to do with incredulity over full inclusion of gentiles since that had not been the case in old system.

My point in referring to that (admittedly suspect) source is that in preventing a young person who was saved at 6 from being baptized until, say, 11, you risk separating the rite from conversion. Cuts both ways, in other words.

Anonymous said...

I suppose another issue is at stake with those who believe the congregation votes on decisions. If a person is baptized, should he/she not also be able to vote just like any other member? I wonder if that doesn't color some of Dever's reasoning.

Our church does not vote for the simple reason that it isn't anywhere found in the NT. So my 10 y/o son can be a full member as much as every other baptized person. The only restriction on him is that he cannot teach yet, obviously.

Ben said...

d4, you're right. That's a risk. There's certainly a risk either way. And as I said, I believe there's a far greater problem in contemporary American Christianity because we regularly baptize unconverted young children, than there is because we unreasonably withhold baptism from the genuinely converted.

I guess my question for you and Michelle would be, "Is there any scenario in which you think it would be justifiable to withhold baptism from a professing believer?" If you say yes, then you're willing to embrace the risk of separating conversion from baptism. And at that point we're into a judgment call on what constitutes a credible profession of faith. If you answer no, then we have a disagreement over the church's role in baptism and it's relationship to church membership. And those are two very different conversations.

James, I would agree with the implications for congregationalism and voting, but that's not a pivotal argument in my mind. What is very clear (and almost always neglected) is that a baptized child of any age would be subject to the discipline of the church.

Michelle said...

Sure, I would agree that an evaluation of a person's understanding of salvation is a judgment call. Sometimes we get it wrong. It bothers me that we have a much higher standard for children than adults. We have a poor understanding of what godliness in a young child looks like. (And I think the problem of children turning from Christ in later years is a parenting problem far more than one of baptizing unconverted children.)

Do you see the parable of the wheat and tares to be instructive here? I've always thought that it was better to treat a profession as credible until I see evidence otherwise.

Situations where I would withhold baptism--
if I was unsure they understood salvation (although I've learned with new believers of all ages that their understanding and appreciation of salvation grows greatly.)
if they were practicing unrepentant sin
a child whose parents forbad baptism (I don't like it, but I do think the parents have a right to forbid baptism. I don't think they have the right to forbid salvation.)
i remember when i was young when a woman with multiple personality disorder came to church as a different "person" than the one who had been led to salvation earlier in the week. The pastor refused to baptize her. I think that was the right decision.

(Full disclosure: all three of my children have made professions of faith, and none have expressed a desire to be baptized.)

Have you read Come, Ye, Children by Spurgeon? I found his book relevant to this discussion. You can find the full text online.