Are We Suffocating Christian Children?

Are We Asking the Wrong Question?

Last week Tim posted an interesting collection of articles relating to the issue of baptism. Specifically, the issue being debated was, ‘At what age should we baptize?’ That in itself is an interesting question, because it is one that the Bible never asks or answers. Age is never given as a prerequisite for baptism, nor is it listed as even being a hindrance to baptism. It’s simply a non-issue.

The wrong question is, ‘What age?’ The right question is, ‘Does this person make profession of repentance and faith?’

What Are We Afraid of?

Nevertheless, wisdom and pastoral experience must be brought to bear on an issue that has certainly brought some level of difficulty and pain into the lives of many people. Right?

In all of the discussions I’ve read over the years on this topic, one of the nagging questions that keeps coming back to me is this: ‘What are we afraid of?’ I think that the answer is sadly, not a biblical one. Oftentimes it appears that we’re just afraid of being wrong. We think, ‘What if we baptize someone who ends up not really being converted? Then what?’ Our minds turn then to problems of ‘re-baptism’ and giving false assurance.

Isn’t This a Healthy Fear?

But we ought not be afraid of this, I think, for at least two reasons.

First, we should not be afraid of getting it wrong, because even the apostles did. Have you ever noticed how many people apostasize in the New Testament? How many of Paul’s partners in ministry turned away (1 Tim 1.18-20; 2 Tim 4.10, 16)? And what of the disaster that was Simon Magus (Acts 8.9-24)? Certainly all of these had been baptized.

Second, we should not be afraid of getting it wrong because we are not charged with ‘getting it right’ in the first place. We’re never called to be the police of baptism, ensuring that only those who give good enough proof get in the pool. We’re called to baptize and disciple all who give profession of faith in Jesus as the risen Lord and Master of their lives.

Think about it; how much credible evidence could the people in Acts have given who heard one gospel message and were saved? Yet, they were baptized. Then discipled. And those who, in the process of discipleship, proved that their conversion was not genuine were disciplined out of the church. The answer is not to make sure people are converted before baptism, but after, in the context of local church membership, where they can be discipled and taught to obey King Jesus, with a strong dose of accountability, as part of a community.

What We Should Be Fearing

Rather than a fear of ‘getting it wrong’ with someone (and then introducing somewhat arbitrary qualifications of age and genuine proof of conversion), we should be fearing suffocating baby Christians. And this is a real danger.

Here’s what I mean: The enjoyment of means of grace in the life of a Christian are like breathing and the grace itself is the believer’s oxygen. Without means of grace there will be no intake of oxygen. What we seriously need to ask ourselves is this: Is baptism a means of grace or not? Because if it is, we’re essentially telling the youngest of baby Christians (new converts of whatever age) to continue living without breathing, without taking in grace through God’s appointed means.

And it gets worse. Since proper baptist doctrine withholds participation in the Lord’s Supper, membership, and pastoral oversight to those who have already been baptized as believers, we’re withholding just about every corporate means of grace from this infant believer. And then we tell them to ‘prove’ their life in Christ, all the while denying them the oxygen their growth and life so desperately needs.

That is something we should genuinely fear.

Presumption Is Not the Answer

It’s not okay at this point to simply say, ‘Well, if they’re genuinely converted, they’ll grow anyway and prove their conversion and we’ll baptize them in time.’ That’s the same reasoning hyper-calvinists use to not evangelize: ‘God will save them either way.’ It denies the reality of our call to use the means of grace that God has provided.

Life is the Goal, Not a Problem-Free Church

Yes, willingness to let younger people be baptized makes some tricky pastoral situations. And yes, there will be false professions along the way. But church was already messy by Acts 6, so you can rest assured it will be in our day too. But our calling isn’t to make the church not messy. Our calling is to obey the great commission of our King, making disciples, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey all of our King’s commands. Even if they are young.

And if we want them to live, we must let them breathe.

15 thoughts on “Are We Suffocating Christian Children?

  1. Pingback: Sparks for Friday, March 16, 2012 | The Daily Disciple

  2. I agree with you, but I have a question. Should you baptize someone who doesn't understand baptism?

    • Hi Jessica, thanks for asking!

      I think that in the biblical accounts of baptism what we do have is evidence that the people who were being baptized understood that it was a symbol of their union with Jesus in his death and resurrection and their covenant commitment to him. So if we're to be faithful to the biblical pattern, I think we need to make sure that those who are baptized do so knowingly, as an expression of their faith.

      Hope that helps!

      • Yes! That could be part of the age thing, why a lot of people might believe young/ children believers should not be baptized. I know an almost four year old who was somewhat recently saved (this year). I doubt he would understand what baptism really means, and that is probably due largely to his age.

    • Jessica. In the Bible the word baptism is used not just to indicate a step that new believers take (that is, being immersed in water), but a baptism in the Holy Spirit (that is, Salvation). To invite Christ into your heart is to be baptized. Understanding the meaning of baptism is no more complicated than understanding Jesus' death on the cross for our sins, his burial, and his resurrection on the third day. This step is an outward, human expression of what already happened in the heart. For me, it is hard to separate the idea of water baptism from baptism of the Holy Spirit. If you understand the decision to follow Christ then by default you understand water baptism. Any thoughts?

  3. Julian,
    This is an honest question and not my usual facetiousness. Are all paedo-baptist believers suffocating?

    • They're not just suffocating, they're sinning! ;)

      Honestly, Ken, I think that if you're not baptized upon profession of faith, and are just living like that, you're better off in a presbyterian church, since you'll be allowed the other means of grace (Lord's supper, membership, etc.). So the suffocating is far less in that context.

  4. Have a good and pretty post here. There have long deal about baptize or baptism history. It is sure that some of people can't compare between baptize and baptism. Thanks mate!

  5. Pingback: The Fear of Baptizing Children – Justin Taylor

  6. One question I've had that I've only just gotten around to asking is this: If you baptize children of any age (presuming a profession of faith that appears to be legitimate), do you also then extend church membership to children of any age? As you say, according to historic baptist doctrine a person will be baptized and then become a member and partake of Lord's Supper; the three seem to go together. So what does it look like for a young child to be a member and be under the more direct oversight of the pastors?

    • That's a great question, Tim. (As an aside, I think the elders of your church may have written a position paper on that, haven't they?) The elders of the local church will need to work that out. It's interesting that authority structures change in the church all the time. In the NT slaves and owners could be brothers at church. I think the same is true of parents and children in our day.

      To be honest, I think that if we're saying the Spirit is in this person, then we allow them membership to the church in the exact same way we allow anyone else. But there's subtlety and nuance to 'standing' in a local church, even among members, in the NT. For example, the 'older women' and the 'younger women' of Titus 2. Neither of them hold office, but there's an understood role distinction and honour given to the elder women.

      That's something that the church could model well for our culture, I think.

  7. Julian, thanks for the post.

    Mark Dever says, “While it is not generally known among American evangelicals today, the practice of baptizing pre-teenage children is of recent development—largely early 20th century—and of limited geography—largely limited to the United States. Baptists in the past were known for waiting to baptize until the believers were adults.”

    Do you agree? I think we both would agree that biblical teaching and practice takes precedence over church history, but since the Bible is not explicit on this issue, how do you see historical church practice affecting our view on this issue?

    Greg

    • That's a great, question, Greg. I have benefited from Mark Dever and the folks at 9 Marks immeasurably. They have done more service for the church than I could ever dream.

      That being said, I have trouble with their stance on this one particular issue. As far as I can see, the biblical pattern is baptism upon profession of faith and the church becoming the discipling body for the individual.

      As far as church history, I have no idea. Mark has studied that obviously far, far more than me. But I would argue back that much of church history has been dominated by paedo-baptists, too. I don't think that outweighs the biblical data for the credo-baptist position though. I think the two arguments are probably similar.

      That's just my very meagre two cents. I really hesitate to disagree with men like Mark. He is much smarter and wiser than I am.

  8. Thanks for posting this, Jules. It's a question that's been on my heart since my own salvation (around the age of 20-21), and to be honest my reaction to the current church model of baptism delayed my own baptism by several years. I didn't (and in some ways still don't) see a true connection between the "Here's the gospel! You believe it? Oh, look there's some water!" example we see in scripture and the "Let's make people jump through some hoops, schedule a meeting or three, and pass a quiz" model practised today.

    In the end it came down to understanding that I needed to obey in being baptized, since obedience trumps preference for procedure.

    As a parent trying to raise 3 kids to learn of Christ I've wondered for years how I (and our church) would respond to one of my kids requesting baptism. While at least one is a professing believer and seems to be giving evidence, none have requested it yet. My own inclination, as it appears is yours, is that profession of belief should lead to baptism and participation in the church.

    Just the other day Janis and I were re-reading Brian Croft's article on 5 signs of conversion in young children, and I fully intended to email you that day to ask: "What's more important to fear? Giving false assurance, or stifling assurance in a true believer?" Now I'm glad to see you've already answered that!

    I think it comes down to understanding that the Elect are the Elect, and any church with a healthy process of discipleship and discipline need not fear baptizing those unbelievers who slip through the cracks. They will reveal themselves in time. My greater fear is the years we lose in not welcoming, discipling and training young minds to grow into powerful men and women for Christ.

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