Childhood Baptism and Church Membership

Are you thinking through the issue of when to baptize children? Here is a position paper I wrote on this topic for Crossroads Church. I hope it is of help to parents and pastors.

Childhood Baptism and Church Membership
Crossroads Church

“Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them (Ps 127:4).”[1] At Crossroads Church, our quiver is overflowing! God has blessed our church family with many children and the number of children continues to grow. We have been entrusted with the important task of ministering to these little ones with the utmost wisdom, care, and intentionality. We recognize that God has given parents, especially Fathers, the primary responsibility for the spiritual oversight of their children (Deut 6:4–9; Eph 6:1–4). Therefore, we believe it is the local church’s responsibility to come alongside parents to equip parents for this important responsibility. As parents instruct their children in the truth of God’s word, we believe that God will work through this means to convict children of sin and, Lord willing, bring them to salvation.

The purpose of this paper is not to argue whether or not a child can be saved. We wholeheartedly affirm that God grants saving faith to some people as young children. God imparts his saving grace according to his sovereign timing no matter a person’s age. Some parents begin to see signs of conversion in their children at a very young age. When these young children profess faith in Jesus Christ, it is natural to expect that children will start asking their parents about baptism. How should we as parents and a church handle these requests? The purpose of this paper is to help us think through the issues involved in baptizing children.

Unbeknownst to many modern American evangelicals, the appropriateness and timing of imparting the ordinance of baptism to children has received much debate among Christians holding to believer’s baptism. This document is my attempt to bring clarity to the discussion and provide counsel for how to move forward with childhood baptism requests. My prayer is that this essay will offer guidance to parents and children, as well as set healthy expectations in order to foster unity in the body of Christ. In what follows, I will 1) summarize the biblical teaching concerning the meaning and purpose of baptism, 2) articulate the biblical evidence for discerning true conversion in a person’s life, 3) discuss the challenges pertaining to the baptism of children, 4) evaluate how other churches and Christian leaders handle the issue of childhood baptism, and 5) present a unified recommendation from the elders of Crossroads Church on how to handle baptism as it pertains to children.

What is Baptism?

A helpful summary of Scripture’s teaching on the meaning of baptism is found in the 1858 confession of faith called the Abstract of Principles:

Baptism is an ordinance of the Lord Jesus, obligatory upon every believer, wherein he is immersed in water in the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, as a sign of his fellowship with the death and resurrection of Christ, of remission of sins, and of giving himself up to God, to live and walk in newness of life. It is prerequisite to church fellowship, and to participation in the Lord’s Supper.

Building on this definition, I will turn to Scripture in order to summarize a few of the essential components of the meaning of baptism.

Baptism is for Believers

After his resurrection, Jesus issued the Great Commission: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19). The logic is straightforward; disciples (i.e. those who believe in Jesus) are to be baptized.

This sequence of belief preceding baptism appears throughout the book of Acts. In Acts 2, Peter preached the gospel in Jerusalem and many who heard were convicted, repented of their sin, and believed the gospel. Acts 2:41 indicates that those who “received” Peter’s word were baptized and added to the church. In Acts 8:4–13, Luke reports that Philip preached the gospel in the city of Samaria. The men and women who heard Philip were baptized after they believed (Acts 8:12). After hearing the good news of Jesus Christ from Philip, the Ethiopian Eunuch believed and was baptized (Acts 8:26–40). The apostle Paul, after he encountered the risen Christ, was baptized (Acts 9:18). Lydia’s heart was “opened” by the Lord to receive the gospel message from Paul (Acts 16:14). After receiving the gospel, she was baptized (Acts 16:15).[2] More examples could be given, but the clear pattern surfacing from the book of Acts is that belief in the gospel message precedes baptism. Our paedobaptist brothers and sisters will point to the “household” baptism texts in the book of acts to justify infant baptism, but these texts are silent on the ages of those who belonged to these particular households.

In his letters, Paul does not separate faith and baptism. Romans 6:3–4 describes baptism in terms of the Christian’s union with Christ. Paul also states that being “in Christ” (union with Christ) comes through faith (Phil 3:9–10). He explicitly links faith and baptism in Galatians 3:26–27:

Galatians 3:26–27 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

Notice that verse 27 grounds the truth of verse 26. To paraphrase Paul, we could say, “You are sons of God through faith because (“for”) you were baptized into Christ.” Whatever we might say about the meaning of baptism here, the point is that faith and baptism are inextricably linked. The association between faith and baptism also appears in Colossians 2:12:

Colossians 2:12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.

In the drama of baptism, we come up out of the waters signifying that we have been raised with Christ from the dead. Paul says that this resurrection (“raised with him”) happens “through faith.” In the New Testament, baptism and belief cannot be separated.[3]

Baptism Symbolizes our Union with Christ

Romans 6:3–4 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

Paul’s theology of baptism is a snapshot of the conversion experience. Christian conversion is not merely moral reform, it means becoming a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). Baptism signifies God’s work of new creation in a person’s life by immersing the individual in a watery grave before raising them out to walk in newness of life (Rom 6:4). Baptism is a drama that communicates what God has done to us by the work of his Spirit: we have been put to death, buried, and raised with Christ. The apostle Paul said of his own conversion:

Galatians 2:20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

A believer is one who has been crucified with Christ, raised with Christ, and now walks in newness of life by the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. Gal 2:20; 3:27). Baptism is the ordinance that captures these amazing theological realities in symbolic form. This is why Paul so strongly links baptism with the experience of salvation in Galatians 3:27, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Paul speaks as though baptism itself is what unites us to Christ. But it is not baptism that unites us to Christ because Paul’s assumption is that the ones being baptized are the same ones who are already in Christ through faith (Gal 3:26). Through faith in Christ, we experience what baptism represents, namely the putting off the old self and putting on Christ (cf. Eph 4:22–24).

Baptism is the New Covenant Initiation Ceremony

Throughout redemptive history, God has chosen to relate to his people through covenants. From Adam and Noah to Abraham, to Israel, to David, to the new covenant, God has unfolded his plan to establish his kingdom through covenant relationships. The new covenant is the final expression of God’s covenant relationships with mankind. Jesus Christ purchased the new covenant with his blood (Luke 22:20). According to the author of Hebrews, Jesus is the great high priest of the new covenant (Heb 7:18–25). He has ascended into the heavenly tabernacle where, as the Melchizedekian priest, he mediates all the blessings of the new covenant to those who have faith in him. Through his death, he atoned for all transgressions under the penalty of the old covenant law, and through his resurrection, he has secured the eternal blessings of the new covenant for his people since he always lives to make intercession for them (Heb 7:25). As the head of the new covenant, Jesus is a new and better Adam for his people (Rom 5:12–21). He has achieved universal dominion over heaven and earth by conquering sin, Satan, and death through his cross, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of God (Heb 1:13; 2:14–16). God’s kingdom is advancing through the new covenant purchased by Christ.

When Jesus stood on the mountain in Galilee after his resurrection, he commissioned his disciples to go into the whole world and make disciples of every nation (Matt 28:18–20). He commanded them to baptize these new converts “in the name” of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). In the Old Testament, God’s “name” is associated with his Lordship and covenant faithfulness. Before renewing his covenant with the people of Israel, God proclaimed his “name” to Moses as Yahweh (“The Lord”), announcing, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Exod 33:19, ESV). To be baptized “in the name” of the Triune God is to identify oneself with God and his Lordship. In Jonathan Leeman’s words, “The point of being baptized into the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, like being circumcised in the Old Testament, is to formally ‘reattach’ one’s name and identity to God through the beloved Son.”[4] It is to be brought formally under the Lordship of Jesus Christ by becoming a citizen of God’s kingdom and member of his new covenant community.

Christians across denominational lines and throughout church history have recognized baptism as the sign of the new covenant. Just as Abraham’s offspring received the sign of circumcision in the Old Covenant to distinguish them from the nations, those who are children of Abraham by faith receive the sign of baptism to mark them off as the new covenant people of God (Gal 3:25-29). Baptism, therefore, functions as the public initiation rite into the new covenant. Yes, believers enter into the new covenant through faith, but baptism is where entrance into the new covenant is ratified. Much like marriage is a public ceremony ratifying the covenant commitment between husband and wife, baptism is a public ceremony ratifying the new covenant relationship between a believer, God, and God’s people.

Baptism is a Prerequisite to Church Membership and the Lord’s Supper

If baptism is the sign of initiation into the new covenant, then baptism is necessarily a prerequisite to belonging to the new covenant community. But who is this new covenant community? And where are they and how do we identify them? Broadly speaking, the new covenant community is everyone who has repented of sin, believed in Jesus, and been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). Unlike the old covenant community that consisted of a mixed group of both regenerate and unregenerate individuals, everyone in the new covenant community knows the Lord, has God’s law written on their heart, and has been forgiven of their sins (Jer 31:33–34; cf. Heb 8). In other words, the new covenant community is made up of believers and all believers belong to the new covenant.

But how do we identify this new covenant community? If they have no land with geographical borders; if they are not marked off by ethnicity; if they have no dietary laws or special clothing to set them apart, then how do we identify them? Answer: We find them in local churches (assemblies) that meet regularly to administer the ordinances instituted by Christ: baptism initiates them into the new covenant, and the Lord’s Supper maintains their unity and renews their covenant commitments.[5] In other words, the universal new covenant community becomes tangible, visible, and institutional only in local churches.

Before unpacking this a bit more, consider the great awakening that happened in Acts 2:14–47. After Peter preached the gospel in Jerusalem, Acts 2:41 records: “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” To what were they added? In context, they had to be added to the Jerusalem church­ (a local, visible, identifiable body of believers) because in the next verse Luke describes the same ones who were added as those who devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:32). Luke identified the body of believers in Jerusalem in Acts 1:15 as a company of persons consisting of about 120. By Acts 2:42, they have 3,000 new members—talk about church growth! Using similar language, Luke writes in Acts 2:47, “The Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” How were these new converts being added to the number of the identifiable church in Jerusalem? Baptism. According to Acts 2:42, these people are not added to the church at some point in time after their baptism. Instead, baptism is the means by which they were brought into the Jerusalem church. Baptism conferred upon them the status of belonging (i.e. member) of the Jerusalem church.

Are there exceptions in Scripture where a person was baptized without being brought into the membership of a local church? Yes. The Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8:26–40 is the prime example. The Eunuch believed the gospel and was baptized without becoming a member of a local church because no church existed in his region. In order to have a church, there must be at least two or three followers of Jesus who can assemble and covenant together to oversee each other’s membership in the kingdom of God (cf. Matt 28:20). In frontier missions contexts, some people will have to be baptized without the blessing of being brought into a local church body.[6]

So why can’t we just say that baptism brings someone into new covenant community (“universal church”) and leave local church membership out of the equation? We can under exceptional circumstances, but such a practice should not be regarded as normative for churches. Consider the point I made earlier: the universal new covenant community becomes tangible, visible, and institutional only in local churches. While we can distinguish between the universal church and the local church, we cannot ultimately separate them.[7]

Baptism marks someone as a citizen of God’s kingdom, which is bigger than any one local church. This is, in part, why baptism is a one-time act that does not need repeating each time a person transfers their membership to a new church. However, the universal church is made visible on earth through the local church. The universal church has no institutional charter on earth. In biblical terminology, the universal church is not able to wield the authority of the keys of the kingdom on earth (Matt 16:13–20). There is no mechanism whereby the universal church can, for example, deliver an unrepentant professing believer over to Satan or regard him as a “Gentile and tax a collector” (1 Cor 5:5; Matt 18:17). Such institutional authority (keys of the kingdom) is present only in local churches where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name (Matt 18:15-20; cf. Matt 16:13: 18–20).

Local churches are like embassies of God’s kingdom on earth. They have the authority to speak on behalf of heaven. They exercise their authority by declaring the true gospel and by affirming true confessors of that gospel. Thus, when a church baptizes a new convert, they are exercising the keys of the kingdom by bringing the individual into the realm of Christ’ kingdom authority on earth, namely the local church. In other words, through the ordinance of baptism, a local church confers upon an individual the status of church member. Jamieson puts it this way:

Minimally, then, under normal circumstances baptism into the universal church necessarily entails membership in a local church. But we must go further. Where a local church exists, to be baptized is to be added to that church, as in Acts 2:41. Baptism is not just inseparable from local church membership but coincident with it. Membership is the house, baptism the front door. Since a church on earth represents the kingdom of heaven, it is authorized to affirm only those who submit to its authority, which is God’s appointed means of submitting to his authority. That is, a church may baptize only those who are coming out of the world and into the church through their baptismal profession of faith. There should be no affirmed-but- unattached Christians. If a modern, autonomy-loving American happened to be living in Jerusalem at Pentecost and told the apostles, “I want to be baptized, but I don’t want to join the church here in Jerusalem just yet,” they would have sent him packing.

You cannot be a citizen without belonging to a body politic, and the kingdom of heaven’s sole institutional manifestation on earth is the local church. Therefore, to be an authorized citizen of the kingdom is to be a local church member. By the authority of the keys of the kingdom, the official status of “kingdom citizen” is the local church’s alone to confer, and it exists on earth only in the membership of a local church. You don’t get the jersey without joining the team. Therefore baptism not only necessitates church membership, it confers it.[8]

If baptism functions as the initiation rite into the new covenant church, the Lord’s Supper functions as a covenant renewal ceremony.[9] By participating in the Lords’ Supper, we renew our covenant vows by sharing in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor 10:16–17) and by proclaiming “the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26).

In Matthew 26:28, Jesus identified the cup as the “blood of the covenant.” Luke 22:20 refers to the cup as “the new covenant in my blood.” These verses identify the Lord’s Supper as a covenantal meal. In the Old Testament, covenant ceremonies involved special meals and the shedding of blood. Exodus 24:1-11 describes the covenant that Yahweh made with the people of Israel. During this covenant ceremony, Moses sprinkled blood on the people of Israel and said to them, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words” (Exod 24:8). The blood sprinkled on the people signified their entrance into a covenant relationship with God, a covenant they would later break. Later in redemptive history, the prophet Jeremiah anticipated a new and better covenant than the one God made with Moses. Jeremiah 31:31-34 speaks of a “new covenant” that is not like the covenant God made with Israel when he brought them out of the land of Egypt (Jer 31:31-32). Members of this new covenant will have the law written on their hearts (v. 33). They will be recipients of God’s grace in that their iniquities will be forgiven and their sins remembered no more (v. 34). Therefore when Jesus refers to the cup as the “new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20) poured out “for the forgiveness of sins,” he is teaching his disciples that Jeremiah 31:31-34 is fulfilled in him. Entrance into the new covenant community comes to those who by faith receive the blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins. This does not mean that we enter the new covenant by partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Instead, we are to view the Lord’s Supper as covenant renewal. In Leeman’s words, “The Lord’s Supper renews that legal and jurisdictional identification with Christ and Christ’s people . . . . It is how we personally re-ratify our commitment to Christ and his people, as well as how we corporately ensure the church keeps a clear fence around itself.”[10]

Paul emphasizes the corporate nature of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11. He repeatedly uses the language of “when you come together” when dealing with issues pertaining to their practice of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 10:17, 18, 20, 33, 34). Implicit is the notion that the Lord’s Supper is to be practiced as a church, for the church, and under the church’s authority.

Paul says that by partaking the one bread, we who are many are one body (1 Cor 10:17). By partaking of the Lord’s Supper together, the church members are bound together as a corporate body. According to Michael Horton, “The sacraments [ordinances] draw us out of our private rooms into the public dining room. Here we are co-heirs at the family table, not consumers of exotic or meaningful religious experiences. Christ gives his body, and we thereby become ‘one body by such participation.’”[11] This is why Jamieson assigns the Lord’s Supper a constitutive role in forming a local church’s identity and existence.[12] Commenting on the relationship between the ordinances and a local church’s institutional identity, Oliver O’Donovan says,

The sacraments provide the primary way in which the church is ‘knit together’, that is, given institutional form and order. Without them the church could be a ‘visible’ society, without doubt, but only a rather intangible one, melting indeterminately like a delicate mist as we stretched out our arms to embrace it. In these forms we know where the church is and can attach ourselves to it.[13]

Building on O’Donovan’s argument, Jamieson says that the ordinances “make the church visible.”[14] Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, in his words, are “the hinge between the ‘invisible’ universal church and the ‘visible’ local church. They draw a line around the church by drawing the church together. They gather many into one: baptism by adding one to many, the Lord’s Supper by making many one.”[15]

If baptism is the ordinance Jesus gave the church to initiate his followers publicly into the new covenant community, then baptism must precede coming to the Lord’s Supper. In other words, covenant initiation must come before covenant renewal. An individual cannot rightly participate in a celebration reserved for a particular covenant community if they have not first been recognized as belonging to the covenant community. To use Jamieson’s illustration, baptism is the doorway into the house and the Lord’s Supper is sitting down at the family meal.

Practical Considerations

These affirmations are the foundation on which we stand as we think through how to handle childhood baptism requests. In my experience, most Christians understand the vertical dimension of the meaning of baptism. That is, they understand that the act of baptism is representative of their union with Christ and symbolizes the reality of their conversion experience. What many Christians fail to recognize, however, is the horizontal implications of their public baptism. Not only is baptism where faith goes public, it is the effective sign of church membership. Baptism initiates an individual in the membership of Christ’s church universal, which finds expression in Christ’s church local.

Thus, a baptized individual bears the responsibilities of belonging to a church. Granted, a child does not have to bear all of the responsibilities of membership. For example, a church may decide to withhold voting responsibilities from a child until they reach an age of greater maturity. Like children in a family, they are full members of the family even though they do not occupy the same decision-making responsibility as Mom and Dad.

Nevertheless, for all members of a church, young and old, membership entails submitting oneself to the authority of the church. This issue alone should give us pause as we consider the issue of childhood baptisms. Are we ready for our children to incur the accountability and responsibility that comes with being a member of a church? Are we confident that they have taken ownership over their own personal acceptance of the responsibility that being a member of a church will bring as they mature over time? Questions like these should be a spoke on the cognitive wheel of those involved in the decision process.

Discerning a Credible Profession of Faith

Unlike our paedobaptist brothers and sisters, we believe that baptism is to be administered to believers upon a credible profession of faith. Can we, therefore, in good conscience discern a credible profession of faith in very young children? The key word here is “credible.” What constitutes a credible profession of faith? If we lived in a region of the world where Christians were severely persecuted, then a profession of faith in and of itself is about as credible as you will ever get. If professing Christ is liable to get one killed, then the credibility is in the confession itself. We, however, are not in that context. Pastors, churches, and parents will do well, therefore, to exercise wisdom, discernment, and patience as they try to discern a credible profession of faith in the lives of their children over time.

Since we live in a country where believers are not the tyranny of severe persecution, what are some of the evidences of saving faith that we should look for in our children (and adults for that matter)? Before answering the question in the positive, I should briefly highlight the error of the revivalistic tendency to affirm the credibility of one’s profession solely based on a prayer that was prayed, an aisle that was walked, or the fact that the professor asked Jesus into his or her heart (cf. verses). If I were to ask a classroom full of children in a Sunday school class, “Who in here believes in Jesus and wants to go to heaven?” every little hand in the room would immediately shoot into the air. Clearly, such a response in not indicative of regeneration (the new birth) in each of their lives. The Bible has much to say about the fruits of true conversion that go beyond a verbal profession of faith, but a verbal profession of faith is necessary so that’s where I will begin. Here are five biblical evidences of a true work of the Spirit of God in an individual’s life.

1) Belief in the Gospel Message

A credible profession of faith will entail at least a basic understanding of the gospel message. One does not need to be an expert in systematic theology or know technical theological terms like penal substitutionary atonement to make a credible profession of faith. A professing believer must, however, be able to profess something, and that something is a basic understanding of the gospel of salvation. A person who professes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that Jesus lived in obedience to the Father, died for sin, and rose from the dead, understands the basic tenets of the gospel. Of course, a true believer will also appropriate the gospel to his own condition—“Jesus died for my sin!”

2) Awareness of One’s Own Sinful Condition

The apostle John made it very plain that true believers will understand the reality of their own sinful condition: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). The very nature of salvation demands an awareness that one needs to be “saved” from something. What is that something? It is the final judgment of God on unrepentant sinners. Salvation, in part, means being delivered from the wrath of God. A person must affirm the reality of their own sinful condition and be convicted of their own sin if they are going to understand their need for God’s grace.

3) A Repentant Heart

Conversion does not establish an individual in an on-going state of sinless perfection. Instead, a true believer will continue to wrestle against the temptations of the world, the desires of the flesh, and the attacks of the devil. A mark of a true believer is not a posture of perfection, but a posture of repentance. Repentance is not a one-time act that the believer leaves behind after being initiated into God’s kingdom. Instead, a spirit of repentance characterizes the whole of the Christian life. As the Holy Spirit conforms believers to the image of Christ, they will become more aware of their sinful tendencies, thoughts, habits, and failures. Their response to their own personal sin will be contrition and repentance before God, as well as faith in his promise to forgive (Ps 51; 1 John 1:9). Paul tells us in Romans 2:4 that it is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance. If God is not leading a person to repentance, then it is likely that the person remains in a state of hard-hearted unbelief (Rom 2:6).

4) A Posture of Submission to the Authority of God’s Word

Jesus said in John 8:31–32, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Similarly, the apostle John wrote in 2 John 9, “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.” These words from Jesus and his beloved apostle clearly indicate that true discipleship necessarily entails trust in the Word of Christ.

Indeed the very reality of regeneration is a creative act of God coming through the power of his word. Peter reminds his readers that they were born again by the “living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet 1:23). The word that regenerates is also a word that sanctifies. The born again believer is now able, by the power of God’s Spirit, to submit to the authority of God’s word. The mind that is set on the flesh is unable to submit to God’s law (Rom 8:7). The believer, however, is not “in the flesh,” but “in the Spirit.” (Rom 8:9). The Spirit works in the lives of God’s people to help them understand the things of God as they come to us from the message of the prophets and the apostles (1 Cor 2:6–15). This understanding is not merely intellectual, but a willful and obedient submission to the authoritative proclamation of Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 2:2).

5) Love for God’s people

Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). The apostle John identified love as one of the distinguishing marks of a true Christian. In 1 John 3:14, he wrote, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers.” The work of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life is to produce love for fellow believers. Where there is no love, there is no true conversion. John said elsewhere, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). A true believer, young or old, will exemplify a love for other believers. This love can manifest itself in various ways, but the desire of a follower of Jesus is to fellowship with other followers of Jesus.

Discerning a Credible Profession of Faith in Children

Are parents and churches able to discern the evidence of the work of the Spirit in a child’s life? My answer is yes, but they should do so over time. We live in a part of the world where being a Christian is socially acceptable (at least for now). Many Christians worldwide do not share the freedoms that we experience in our culture. Imagine a young boy in a different context who has seen his closest relatives martyred for Christ and yet decides to become a follower of Jesus anyway knowing that it could cost him his life. Would anyone doubt the credibility of that boy’s profession of faith? I don’t think so.

The point, for now, is that a credible profession of faith involves more than a mere profession of faith. Because we do not have the litmus test of persecution in our context, parents and local churches must decide how to handle baptism requests—for children and adults—in a way that considers more than a hand raised, an aisle walked, or a repeating of the sinner’s prayer. If your children have professed faith in Christ, do you also see the accompanying evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives? Are they repentant over sin? Is their desire (albeit imperfect) to submit to Mom and Dad out of obedience to God? Do they have a desire to know what God’s word says? Do they desire to go to church and to be around God’s people? Do they want to tell others about Jesus? These are the types of visible fruits that help us discern the difference between a profession of faith and a credible profession of faith. And these are the types of fruits that parents should allow to flower over time before rushing their child to the baptismal waters.

Of course, none of this means that we should have a posture of skepticism towards our children’s professions of faith. We should celebrate and encourage our children when they express faith in Jesus Christ. A sort of, “we’ll see about that” type attitude in response to a child’s profession of faith is not only unwise, it is unhealthy. As parents, we should rejoice over our children’s expressions of trust in Jesus Christ and believe that their faith is genuine. This means that we should hold them to their confession and express thanks for the evidences of God’s grace (like those outlined above) in their lives and simultaneously call them to repentance when they sin against God. But this does not mean we must administer baptism to them in their early years. The simple reality is that there are some unique challenges involved in deciding when to bring a child to the church for baptism.

Unique Challenges to Discerning a Credible Profession of Faith in Children

Children are conditioned to want to please their parents. God has designed children to be leadable. This is why the Bible repeatedly exhorts children to follow their parents’ instruction (Exod 20:12; Eph 6:1–4). Children will find safety and security in following their parents’ lead. It is only natural that a child who grows up in a Christian home with Jesus-loving parents is going to want to please Mom and Dad. Children want their parents’ approval and affirmation. Such desires may incline a child to want baptism even if they have never experienced the new birth.

Furthermore, many children who grow up in a church are strongly affected by peer pressure. They see their friends or siblings get baptized and may suddenly want to share their experience. Moreover, we live in a state where many of their neighbors and school friends get baptized at 8 years old. As someone who grew up in Utah, I can remember numerous occasions where my schoolmates shared the story of their baptism in “show and tell.” How different is our context from many of our brothers and sisters around the world when receiving baptism may actually give a child some level of social status among their peers!

There is also the issue of psychological and spiritual maturity. Let me reaffirm here that God can and does save children. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation and God has the power to save the simplest mind. Again, the point under discussion is not whether children can be saved; they most certainly can! The issue is when to administer baptism to a child. Scripture affirms that children tend to be immature, naïve, and even foolish (1 Cor 13:11; 14:20; Prov 22:15). They are often unable to understand the implications of their decisions and the responsibility that comes with their commitments.

As noted earlier, baptism is where faith goes public. It brings a person into the realm of the accountability of the local church. Since baptism confers upon an individual that status of church member, a baptized individual is now under the direct authority of the church. Granted, baptized children remain under the authority of their parents, and churches should, under normal circumstances, minister to children in conjunction with their parents’ oversight. Nevertheless, it seems prudent to allow a child to mature spiritually in the confines of the family before bringing them into the realm of the church in an official capacity. God has made the family the primary context for nurturing, training, teaching, and shaping children. Baptistic churches have historically delayed baptizing children until they could maturely take on the responsibilities that come with being a church member.

Gleaning Wisdom From Other Churches

Proverbs 11:14 says that “in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” We do well to consider how other Christian leaders and healthy churches affirming believer’s baptism handle the practice of baptizing children. Interestingly, the practice of baptizing children among credobaptist churches has become common only in recent history, especially in America.[16] According to John Hammett, most Baptists outside of the U.S.A. delay baptism until the teenage years.[17] Prior to 1966, Southern Baptists, for example, did not keep statistics on the number of preschool baptisms. But the trend towards baptizing younger children led the denomination to start tracking the numbers, and over the next 23 years the number of preschool baptisms tripled.[18] The tendency toward baptizing young children has also led to an increase in the number of re-baptisms. According to Hammet,

The validity of many contemporary baptisms was further challenged by a 1993 study done by the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. In their study of adult baptisms (those over eighteen years of age) in Southern Baptist churches in 1993, they found that the majority of adult baptisms (60 percent) could be called rebaptisms. Some were baptisms of those who had previously been baptized as infants, but 36 percent of these adult baptisms were of those who had been previously baptized in Southern Baptist churches. When asked why they were seeking rebaptism, many said that it was because they had not been regenerate believers when they were first baptized.[19]

Expectations for pastors, churches, and parents are different than they used to be. The practice of baptizing young children is so normal in modern day America that many evangelicals cannot imagine anything different. Jim Elliff describes how churches and pastors commonly handled the discussion of childhood baptism a few generations ago:

In better days, when sound theology was more prominent in our churches, the leaders would often approach the child who was dealing with salvation like this. They would, first of all, assert that children could be converted. However, they would emphasize that the child’s ability to know if they are converted on a sound, biblical basis was not likely, due to the ease with which children are deceived. The child would have been encouraged, prayed for, and guided. There would be no push for baptism because the responsibility of the pastor was to baptize valid converts. The validity of this hopeful conversion was yet undecided. The parents understood this and were comfortable with the process because, in most cases, this was the practice among all of their child’s peers. There is nothing that could be done to “unsave” a truly converted child. This process would continue until the mid to later teen years.[20]

The approach described by Elliff is not entirely extinct from our modern day American evangelical context. Many churches have thought it prudent to prescribe a designated age before administering baptism to the children under their care. Well-known Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minnesota waits until children are at least 11 years old before administering baptism. Their website describes their process for handling baptism requests:

There are differences among those who embrace believer’s baptism concerning the timing of baptism for children who profess faith in Christ. Some argue for “immediate participation” meaning that children should be baptized as soon as they can confess faith in Christ. The elders lean toward the second view which suggests waiting to baptize children until there is evidence of regeneration and the ability to reason independently in spiritual matters . . . . It is our practice to wait until a child is at least age eleven before considering him for baptism. More importantly it is our practice to wait until there is evidence of regeneration and enough maturity to articulate the Gospel and give a credible profession of faith.[21]

At Bethlehem Baptist, young people between the ages of 11–18 who request baptism are assigned a mentor and taken through an 8-week process involving discussions about the meaning of baptism, church membership, and an assessment of the individual’s readiness to be baptized. After these sessions are complete, the mentor and candidate meet with church leaders to review the meaning of baptism and its relationship to church membership. The candidate is then interviewed by an elder and other church leaders in order to “confirm a credible profession of faith and clear understanding of the meaning and significance of baptism.”[22]

At Grace Community Church in Sun Valley California, baptism is generally delayed until a child reaches 12 years of age. An essay available on their website titled “Evangelizing Children” describes their position:

A final pitfall for many parents is having the child baptized immediately after he professes faith. Although Scripture commands that believers be baptized (Matt. 28:19; Acts 2:38), it is best not to rush into the ordinance in the case of a child. As previously stated, it is extremely difficult to recognize genuine salvation in children. Rather than rushing them into baptism after an initial profession, then, it is wiser to take the ongoing opportunity to interact with them and wait for more significant evidence of lasting commitment. Even if a child can say enough in a testimony to make it reasonably clear that he understands and embraces the gospel, baptism should wait until he manifests evidence of regeneration that is independent of parental control.

Here at Grace Community Church, our general practice is to wait until a professing child has reached the age of twelve. Because baptism is seen as something clear and final, our primary concern is that when a younger child is baptized he tends to look to that experience as proof that he was saved. Therefore, in the case of an unregenerate child who is baptized—which is not uncommon in the church at large—baptism actually does him a disservice. It is better to wait until the reality to which baptism testifies can be more easily discerned.[23]

While not prescribing a minimum age, Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington D.C. recommends waiting until a young person begins assuming “adult responsibilities” independent of their parent’s authority:

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.[24]

John Hammett, addresses the issue of childhood baptism in his book on Baptist ecclesiology. While acknowledging the “arbitrariness” in setting a minimum age for baptism, Hammett describes the rationale some have used for delaying baptism until a professing child is 12 years old. He writes,

This raises the issue of the age of accountability or age of moral responsibility. In Judaism, that age 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 alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.” The commandment came to a twelve-year-old Jewish boy at his bar mitzvah, implying that twelve may be the age of accountability. Jesus first began to manifest his special calling at age twelve (Luke 2:41–50). Furthermore, in groups that practice infant baptism, the ceremony of confirmation is usually around the age of twelve. Finally, most developmental psychologists agree that children reach full moral decision-making ability around the age of twelve. For these reasons, some see twelve as the appropriate minimum age for baptism. [25]

Clearly, Hammett is not arguing for an age of accountability and neither am I for that matter. His point is simply that a heightened sense of spiritual maturity and personal responsibility often begins to manifest itself in a child around the age of 12.

The payoff from these observations is that however we handle childhood baptism requests, we need to be intentional and thoughtful about this most important matter. Therefore, the final section of this essay describes the unified position from the elders of Crossroads Church on how to handle childhood baptism requests. We are letting the full weight of the issues described in this essay inform our recommendation.

 The Baptism of Children at Crossroads Church

In light of the full scope of the meaning and purpose of baptism, the elders of Crossroads Church make the following recommendation regarding how we will handle childhood baptism requests.

  1. We will not mandate a minimum age requirement for evaluating baptism requests. We are happy to speak with parents and children about their child’s desire to be baptized. That being said we believe that prudence in our context will generally require patience for both parents and the church to discern the credibility of a child’s profession of faith. While we are not requiring a minimum age limit, we believe it wise to wait until children are around 12 years of age before considering them for baptism. We believe, generally speaking, that it will be difficult for us to discern a credible profession of faith prior to this stage of life.

Again, the Bible prescribes no age limitations regarding the timing of baptism. However, as we have seen, most everyone recognizes that age is a factor in discerning a credible profession of faith. Most Christian parents would withhold baptism from their 3-year-old child as a matter of prudence. We are simply affirming that the concerns that parents would have with baptizing their 3-year-old are the same type of concerns that we have with baptizing a child before the age of 12. Obviously, this recommendation is not meant to bring into question the validity of anyone’s childhood baptism.

We believe that delaying baptism will not only protect us against the potential danger of granting false assurance to a child and inoculating them to the gospel, but will make the one-time event of baptism more meaningful for the rest of the child’s life. As elders, we find ourselves in regular conversations with adults who wrestle with whether they were truly converted at the time of their childhood baptism and whether or not they should get re-baptized. Many of these people wish they would have waited on baptism until a stage in life when it would have meant more to them.

  1. Our process for baptism and church membership will be similar for children and adults, but we will take into consideration the maturity of the child requesting membership. Anyone requesting baptism will be required to meet with the elders (or at least one elder and another member) in order to confirm a credible profession of faith and a right understanding of the gospel. After this initial step, the candidate will be taken through our membership class. This class will cover the meaning and purpose of baptism, the content of our statement of faith, and the responsibilities outlined in our church covenant.

Children will be expected to go through this process with their parents. The content will be delivered on their level to make sure they understand to the best of their ability the responsibilities entailed in being a church member. This class may seem excessive, but we believe that our context requires us to administer this level of pastoral care, concern, and love for anyone requesting baptism. In our estimation, this process is not much different than the catechumenate instituted in Christian churches by the second century A.D.

Once this process is complete, the candidate will be voted into membership (pending baptism) by the congregation. We want everyone requesting baptism to understand the value, importance, and seriousness of becoming a public follower of Jesus and covenant church member. Jesus commanded us not only to baptize his disciples but also to teach them everything he commanded (Matt 28:20). We see this membership process as an expression of the teaching component of the Great Commission and a demonstration of love for those under our care. We have no desire to baptize someone and then leave them in the wilderness apart from the loving accountability, protection, and oversight of the local church.

  1. Finally, we will schedule the individual’s baptismal service during one of our Sunday morning worship gatherings. We want as many people as possible to celebrate with us in this momentous occasion. During this service, all those who are being baptized will share their testimony with the congregation as an expression of thanks and praise for what God has done in their lives. In addition, they will publically affirm our membership vows. From this point forward, they will be recognized as members of Crossroads Church and able to partake of the Lord’s Supper with us.

May God give us wisdom and patience to shepherd the souls of the little ones entrusted to our care. Our prayer is that this document would foster a spirit of unity in the bond of peace amongst the members of Crossroads Church. Our hope is that God will use this recommendation from the elders to give parents the freedom to handle the baptism requests of their children with patience and joy. To God alone be the glory.

 

Endnotes:

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the ESV Bible.

[2] The fact that Lydia’s household was also baptized does not indicate that infants or unbelievers were among those baptized.

[3] Bobby Jamieson notes that “every New Testament reference to baptism assumes faith.” Bobby Jamieson, Going Public: Why Baptism is Required for Church Membership (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2015), 50.

[4] Jonathan Leeman, Don’t Fire Your Church Members: The Case for Congregationalism (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016), 55.

[5] Leeman writes, “The ordinances, in short, swear us into the office of new covenant member, kingdom citizen, and member of the church. In that sense they function like passports or national identity papers. They let the nations and other members of Christ’s kingdom know whose we are.” Ibid., 81.

[6] Jamieson’s comments here are helpful: “As the gospel spreads into a totally un-gospeled area, whoever first believes will be baptized but will not yet be a member of a church, because there are no fellow believers with whom to constitute a church. Yet as soon as even one or two others are converted and baptized, they can and should form a church (Matt. 18:20). On the front lines of gospel expansion, baptism immediately follows an individual’s profession, and the church follows as soon as there are multiple Christians to constitute it. Thus, one could say that the Ethiopian eunuch’s baptism gained its full, ecclesial meaning when the gospel brought a church into being in Ethiopia.” Jamieson, Going Public, 101.

[7] Jamieson’s comments shed light on the broader principle here, “Because baptism marks entry into the covenant, it draws the shape of the covenant community on earth. Because baptism is covenant-shaped, it is also church-shaping. Baptism, therefore, has an ecclesial shape. It is not merely an individual ordinance, but an ordinance which brings an individual into a new whole of which he is now a part. The ordinance which seals covenant entry opens the door of the church. Baptism is the initiating oath-sign of the new covenant. Therefore it is necessary for entry into the new covenant community on earth—the membership of a local church.” Ibid., 79.

[8] Ibid., 103–104

[9] See Ibid., 113–135.

[10] Leeman, Don’t Fire Your Church Members, 81.

[11] Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 822.

[12] Jamieson writes, “In sum, the Lord’s Supper is an effective sign of the local church’s distinct, unified existence as a body. We’ve seen that baptism is an effective sign of an individual’s inclusion in the church. The Lord’s Supper, on the other hand, is an effective sign of the whole church’s existence as a unity of one-from-many. Baptism binds one to many and the Lord’s Supper binds many into one.” Jamieson, Going Public, 122.

[13] Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 172.

[14] Jamieson, Going Public, 142.

[15] Ibid.

[16] According to a statement issued by the elders of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, the practice of baptizing pre-teenage children is mainly a modern American practice: “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, and places where American evangelicals have exercised great influence). Baptists in the past were known for waiting to baptize until the believers were adults. Baptistic Christians around the world are still much more cautious than modern American Christians, often waiting in Europe, Africa and Asia to baptize until children are grown and are in their 20’s.” Capitol Hill Baptist Church, “The Baptism of Children at Capitol Hill Baptist Church,” 2004, accessed February 2, 2017, (http://www.capitolhillbaptist.org/sermon/the-baptism-of-children-at-capitol-hill-baptist-church/). See also, Scott Holmon and Jared Kennedy, “Two Views on Childhood Participation in Church Ordinances,” accessed March 5, 2017, https://www.hopeingod.org/sites/hopeingod.org/files/documents/Two%20Views%20on%20Childhood%20Participation%20in%20Church%20Ordinances.pdf.

[17] John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2005), 122.

[18] Ibid., 111–112.

[19] Ibid., 112.

[20] Jim Elliff, “Childhood Conversion,” 1997, accessed March 1, 2017, http://www.gfcto.com/articles/for-parents/childhood-conversion—elliff.

[21] Bethlehem Baptist Church, “Youth Baptism Information Brochure,” accessed March 3, 2017, https://www.hopeingod.org/document/youth-baptism-information-brochure.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Grace Community Church, “Evangelizing Children,” accessed March 4, 2017, https://www.gracechurch.org/about/distinctives/evangelizing-children.

[24] Capitol Hill Baptist Church, “The Baptism of Children at Capitol Hill Baptist Church,” 2004, accessed February 22, 2017, http://www.capitolhillbaptist.org/sermon/the-baptism-of-children-at-capitol-hill-baptist-church.

[25] Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, 123.

 

Leave a Reply