On Baptism and Children

baptism1A recurring question that all pastors will face is this: Pastor, will you baptize my child? With the (all-too-common, but misguided) pressure to please parents and their young child, it is vital for pastors and churches to know what they believe about baptism and children. For parents too, when little Johnny shows interest in baptism, what should you do?

These are vital questions and ones that have received no little attention among Christians committed to believer’s baptism. To find good answers, we don’t need to recreate the wheel. We simply need to know where to turn. Therefore, in what follows, I have listed a number of helpful articles to help you and I think through this important issue.

A Biblical, Pastoral, Denominational, and Parental Perspective by Jason Allen

In a recent blog, Jason Allen (President of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) urges pastors and parents (and the SBC, as well) to “joyfully and wholeheartedly press the accelerator on the gospel while tapping the brakes on the baptistery.” He rightly affirms the fact that it is wise and pastorally-sensitive to affirm children in their desires to follow Christ but to be slow in moving them towards baptism. Since “we must remember it requires more than agreeing to facts about Jesus to be saved,” it is unwise to baptize a young child, simply because they might be able to affirm the plan of salvation. Let me encourage you to read the whole thing.

“Reforming Baptism and Church Membership” by John Hammett (in Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches)

In his excellent book on Baptist ecclesiology, John Hammett, professor of Systematic Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary gives sage counsel on baptism as it relates to children. He writes,

Caution is especially appropriate in the case of very young children. Anyone who works with children knows that five-year-olds will readily ask Jesus into their hearts, but until very recently Baptist would never have considered baptizing them. Believers baptism was seen as virtually synonymous with adult baptism. To request baptism was regarded as a decision requiring a fair degree of maturity. For a church to grant it was to welcome the person into the responsibilities of church membership, which would include participation in the governance of the church, which seems inappropriate in the case of preschoolers. Overseas most Baptists delay baptism until the teenage years, but it is difficult to avoid arbitrariness in setting any specific minimum age for baptism. (Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, 122)

While it is true that delaying baptism does add a measure of subjectivity, if not arbitrariness, he lists at least four reasons for delaying.

Historical Background

First, he reflects on the way Judaism conceived of spiritual maturity. He writes that in Judaism, the age of accountability was twelve. “At the ceremony of the bar mitzvah, a child assumed adult spiritual responsibilities. That may be the context for Paul’s statement in Romans 7:9: “Once I was a live apart from the law, but when the command came, sin sprang to life and I died. The commandment came to a 12-year-old Jewish boy at his bar mitzvah, implying that twelve may be the age of accountability” (123). While it goes too far (in my mind) to pronounce an age of accountability, it is certainly correct to observe the way Judaism understood childhood and spiritual maturation. In fact, the only period of Jesus’ life included in the Bible is his trip to the temple at the age of twelve (Luke 2:41–50).

Cognitive and Spiritual Development

Second, Hammett reports that “most developmental psychologist agree that children reach for moral decision-making ability around the age of twelve” (123). This is the same age that most churches who practice infant baptism initiate a “ceremony of confirmation” (123). And again, this is the age when Jesus is reported going to the temple. Altogether, these hallmarks of cognitive and spiritual development put the age of moral decision-making somewhere in the teenage years. Couple this with the fact that it is in those years that children begin to test and approve/reject their inherited convictions (i.e., the beliefs of their parents), and it makes great sense to wait on baptism.

Spiritual Understanding

Third, delaying baptism does not have to do with a child’s understanding of the facts of the gospel, but their personal faith in the gospel. More specifically, it has to do with the child’s understanding of their own sin and their need for a personal savior. As Corneliu Simut, a Romanian Pastor, has observed:

People develop as persons throughout their teenage years. The distinction between a teenager and a child is not merely in the capacity to comprehend one’s faith, but also the capacity to understand the sinfulness of one’s life (in specific manifestations). A 7-year-old perceives his/her sin differently than a 16-year-old. This perception has repercussions in how we understand our faith and walk with God.

In a context less “child-centered” than North America, Pastor Simut puts his finger on the spiritual reason why delay is wise. “It is highly doubtful that many children below the age of nine can express or have experience to despair for sin as radical separation from God. One cannot be saved until he is aware he is lost” (William Henricks, A Theology for Children, 249; cited in Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, 123).

Accordingly, it is the parent(s) and pastor’s calling to help the child discern not only the meaning of the gospel, but also the personal need for salvation. Of course, this is ultimately the work of the Spirit. But in cooperation with the Spirit (Rev 22:17), we must help our children understand the deceitfulness of their hearts and why they need Christ. We must then rest in the Lord to open the eyes and convince the heart. In fact, it has been my experience that some (certainly not all) parents who insist on baptizing their children early are impelled by pride (“Yes, indeed. My child was baptized”) or misinformed laziness (“Phew! Thank goodness. I can relax now that Johnny is saved. As if salvation is finalized once a child prays a prayer and gets baptized). Could it be that many who push for their child’s baptism do so because they think it will make their life easier? Heaven, forbid!

Prudential Wisdom

Last, while there is not a commandment that says children must be twelve-years-old, or any age, before they can be baptized, prudential wisdom says that premature baptisms may actually inhibit spiritual understanding and later discipleship. As a denomination, this has been a concern for some time among Southern Baptists. For this reason many churches have put in practices of delay, not because of any biblical imperative, but because of pastoral experience and prudential wisdom. In the end, these churches have sought to delay baptism as a means of pastoral care and wise shepherding.

On this practice, consider these three examples

  1. The First Baptist Church of Orlando, Florida waits till the age of seven. They believe that by waiting to the age of seven’ it will give their decision time to take root and grow, so that when they are baptized, it will be more meaningful for them. “It should also reduce the growing number of re-baptisms, those performed when church members realize later in life that their baptism as a child was not, in fact, believer’s baptism”(Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, 122–23)
  2. Grace Community Church (Sun Valley, California), John McArthur’s church, waits until the age of 12. Before baptizing children they look for evidence of regeneration that is independent of parental control. (ibid.)
  3. Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. waits even longer. According to a statement written in 2004 by their elders, they wait for children to wait until they approach adulthood before baptizing. While this may sound extreme, their reasoning is sound (and comports with Baptist life in other parts of the world and in every century except the last). Here’s part of their rationale:

We believe that the normal age of baptism should be when the credibility of one’s conversion becomes naturally evident to the church community. This would normally be when the child has matured, and is beginning to live more self-consciously as an individual, making their own choices, having left the God-given, intended child-like dependence on their parents for the God-given, intended mature wisdom which marks one who has felt the tug of the world, the flesh and the devil, but has decided, despite these allurements, to follow Christ. While it is difficult to set a certain number of years which are required for baptism, it is appropriate to consider the candidate’s maturity. The kind of maturity that we feel it is wise to expect is the maturity which would allow that son or daughter to deal directly with the church as a whole, and not, fundamentally, to be under their parents’ authority. As they assume adult responsibilities (sometime in late high school with driving, employment, non-Christian friends, voting, legality of marriage), then part of this, we would think, would be to declare publicly their allegiance to Christ by baptism.

In the final report, every church will approach this differently. What must be stressed is that for the sake of the gospel and for the sake of the eternal salvation of every young child, we must watch with wisdom to make sure (as much as we can) that their profession is genuine. It is at this point that subjectivity sets in, but Lord willing it is a subjectivity guided by Scripture and Spiritual wisdom.

Saying “Not Yet” to Children on Baptism” by Jonathan Leeman

After a church settles the biblical and practical decision of when they should baptize a child, it is vital to consider how to communicate to that child and their parents. In a recent 9Marks Mail BagJonathan Leeman gives a sample discussion between a parent and child. Here’s what such a conversation might look like:

Daughter: Daddy, am I a Christian?

Me: If you’re repenting of your sins, and putting your trust in Jesus, then yes.

Daughter: I am.

Me: If you are, then praise God! Keep doing that, sweetheart!

Daughter: Can I get baptized?

Me: At some point, honey. Right now, while you’re young, let’s continue to learn and grow. We’ll think about this more when you are older. I want you stand on your own two feet as a follower of Jesus, and not just believe these things because I do. But I’m so glad you want to follow Jesus with me! This is the most important decision you’ll ever make. There’s no one better than him.

He then explains,

Notice a couple of things. First, I don’t formally affirm her as a Christian. Instead, I give her the criteria (repentance and faith) and I make conditional statements (If…then…). Second, I do rejoice with her in what she believes to be the case when I say “Praise God.” But again, I don’t go as far as employing my parental authority to say, “You are a Christian.” I honestly don’t believe God has given me such authority as a parent. Instead, I believe he has given the local church this affirming authority (Matt. 16:19; 18:18, 20).

Next, he turns to the grown up conversation. He lists several points to consider:

  1. No one questions whether or not children can be saved. God can save at any age.
  2. The question is whether or not a church has the ability or competence to affirm a child’s profession of faith.
  3. Let me explain that last point. Baptism requires two parties to make a public statement, not just one: the baptizee and the baptizer (the church). The baptizer, for its part, needs to be able to state with integrity, “Yep, best we can tell, this person’s profession of faith is valid and he or she should be identified with Father, Son, and Spirit as a Christian.” And insofar as children are under their parents’ authority, and have been designed by God to want to please their parents, it’s difficult for a church to discern whether or not a profession of faith is genuine (we assume it’s sincere). (When children come without Christian parents, we tend to baptize younger.)
  4. Best we can tell, most churches who have practiced believers baptism throughout history did not baptize until something closer to adulthood. It’s a relatively new practice to baptize children.
  5. The problems of nominal Christianity in our country, and the number of children who leave youth group and abandon the faith in college, have been created, in part, because we’ve given so many young children the assurance of salvation sooner than we should have.
  6. I want to give my children the ability to make this public profession when they are standing on their own two feet closer to adulthood, if not as adults. (I personally found this to be a source of much joy in my experience.)

He summarizes with a few points to remember: “use conditional statements, rejoice in the fruit that you see, encourage children and parents both to press on and be patient, and express caution about acting prematurely.” On the whole, I think his counsel is wise, compassionate, and honoring to both the gospel and the family in question. In particular, point #5 must be given special attention in America. Until becoming a Christian loses social capital (or familial capital), it is wise to help impressionable young children make sure they are seeking baptism for the right reason, and not for motivations of parental approval, peer pressure, etc. For what it’s worth, because the culture is changing radically (=it is growing increasingly difficult to be a Christian), I wouldn’t be surprised if this discussion changes in the years ahead.

Further Reflections

For further reflections on why we should exercise caution with baptizing young children see “Should We Baptize Small Children?” by Trevin Wax. His article was responded to by John Starke who argues that we should baptize young children when they express faith. I side with Trevin, but we should be aware of the arguments on both sides.

The articles and resources mentioned above are a helpful starting place to think through these issues, but they are not exhaustive. What other arguments would you consider? What other resources have you found illuminating? I’d love to know.

May God get the glory as we baptize his children, even if we wait a little while for them to grow up in the faith.

Soli Deo Gloria,