The age of baptizing young professing children can be a contentious issue for Baptists. It is personal for parents, delicate for pastors, and forming for believers.
Recently, a little dust storm has formed on the internet surrounding this issue and I was surprised to see how many are taking the “wait and warm” (w&w) stance. On this view, even if a child credibly professes to be a Christian it is prudent to delay baptism until there is more clarity or maturity in the individual. I do not claim to have the final word on this issue, nor am I set in my ways in what I am about to write, but I have a few arguments to present for why I think we should quickly baptize upon a credible profession of faith.
The division comes when we begin to parse out what makes a credible or mature profession. Jonathan Leeman is right to point out on this issue that we are all making decisions based on wisdom and not nice and neat checklists. So in one sense there is actually much common ground between the two camps. Wherever you land on this issue judiciousness needs to be practiced. We pray and lead our children in the wisdom God has given us.
But I find the w&w argument lacking for three reasons. It (1) lacks in biblical support, (2) causes more practical problems than it solves, and (3) is ultimately not prudent despite the followers claims.
I think most would admit that the argument for waiting to baptize professing children is a prudential choice, not something explicit in the Scriptures. I have seen a few try to argue for this point from Scripture. But it seems that they are searching for their own hand in the dark.
So what can we say about baptism, conversion, and children from the Scriptures that might help us in this issue? Here are a few theses I think are fairly clear in Scripture.
Canonically, there is evidence of children having saving faith
Jesus says the kingdom belongs to children (Matt 19:14).
Baptism happens in the NT upon profession of faith.
There is no evidence of waiting for baptism in the NT once there is a believable profession.
Baptism marks the inception of Christian living and the beginning of membership in the church.
The NT knows nothing of an unbaptized Christian or church member.
It is true that we don’t have evidence of children being baptized in the New Testament, yet it is hard to imagine that children were not included in the “households” that were baptized (Acts 16:15, 31; 18:8; 1 Cor 1:16) Therefore, although we don’t have explicit evidence there does seem to be implicit evidence for baptizing children.
In Matthew 19:14 Jesus welcomes the children to him declaring to such belong the kingdom of heaven. This is a favorite passage of Presbyterians, and a thorn to some Baptists. Baptists have been on the defensive concerning this passage for so long that the positive air has been deflated and it sits as a lifeless “this is what it doesn’t mean” point. But we cannot argue this passage away and say simply that it is “child-like” faith.
The children are not props for Jesus’s point. He welcomes them, the children. If one follows the logic of this section in Matthew there is a household theme woven throughout it. A number of scholars have seen 19:1-20:28 as a Haustefl, or ‘household code’, similar to Col 3:18-4:1. Earlier Jesus has defended the rights of the married and single people and now he defends the rights of children. And these are rights concerning the kingdom of heaven. If Jesus defends the rights of believing children in the kingdom, and baptism is a sign of entrance into the kingdom, then it seems that believing children should be baptized.
Another relevant text is when Simon Magnus is baptized when he had believed in Acts 8:13. What is interesting about this text is what happens after he is baptized. The text is actually unclear concerning whether Simon has truly been converted. Yet the apostles don’t seem to hesitate to baptism him upon his profession. Simon tries to offer them money asking for the power of the Holy Spirit and Peter replies “May your silver perish with you…you have neither part nor lot in this matter for your heart is not right with God” (8:20-21). Simon answers Peter by asking Peter to pray for him that these things might not come upon him.
A theology of baptism also informs one’s decision on this issue. Baptism marks the inception into Christian living, not the mid-point, or even mature step. As Vern Poythress argues, rigorism should be avoided. Rigorism makes the standards of admission to the church so high that only the spiritually mature can meet them. Baptism is an entrance ritual, an adoption ceremony, and maturity should follow through fellowship in the church, not precede.
Now We Got Problems, And I Don’t Think We Can Solve Them
Second, in terms of pragmatics, both positions have their own complications. What I mean by pragmatics is not what works, but rather the argument based on practicality. Waiting does not help solve things in terms of pragmatics, but actually raises more.
Let me tease out three pragmatic problems in terms of waiting. First, if one wants to wait, then how long do you wait and for whom do you wait? Sometimes criteria is created around the categories of those who deal directly with church and those who are no longer under their parents authority. But what does this mean for the handicapped, or those with mental illness? Also, what does under their parents authority mean? Many “children” still live under their parents authority well into college. Waiting becomes an argument that could be extended ad infinitum.
Second, if we are going to be consistent with waiting on children then we should probably wait for all sorts of people. For some, habits are so entrenched late in life that it is hard to tell whether their profession of faith is an emotional reaction in their mid-life crisis or if it is a true profession. Or maybe all their friends are becoming Christians and they are just going with the flow? How do we discern what is a credible and mature profession across the spectrum of ages? The waiting question to be consistent should not be applied only to children.
My point in raising these two issues is that the waiting argument can really be extended to any point and any person. But to jump to the first point again, we don’t see the apostles waiting for anyone. Not even for the many saved on start of the church. They did not wait to see who would fall off; they just baptized them all. It seems that if waiting was a practice or an option, then we would get a whiff of it in Scripture.
A final pragmatic concern is that by denying baptism one is also denying a regular means of grace in the Lord’s Supper to a potential believer. The Lord’s Supper is where one can be encouraged and reminded of their participation in the death and resurrection of the Messiah. I find it troubling that a believer would be forbidden participation in this sacrament.
The w&w camp might respond by arguing that my position has its own problems. For example they might say that while the w&w camp inserts an artificial waiting period between profession and baptism, the “baptize quickly” camp inserts an artificial waiting period between baptism and full membership.
While some take this route, I find it inconsistent. There is a third option. Why not treat children as full members once they are baptized?
Two arguments are usually raised against this. First, “Should we have seven year-olds making decisions on discipline and similar issues?” Yet this individualizes a process that is bodyized in the Scripture. They will not be making these decisions on their own, but through the leadership of both their elders and their parents.
Although some may still seem uncomfortable with such a situation, I don’t think it is consistent to argue against “waiting on baptism” and then have a waiting period for full membership. Our larger culture may want to extend adolescence, but we should not cave into the pressure in the church.
Second, Joe Rigney argues baptized members, in a congregational polity, must be qualified to rule the church. But not all members are called into leadership. He must mean that the members of the church have final authority, but even with congregational polity it is the body making these decisions not individuals. Individuals are included in the body, but the Scripture speaks of the body making decisions not individuals. Rigney is right to say members must be able to judge and be judged. While this might sound scary, we all judge based on the leadership of our elders. A child can do this as well. In terms of judgment I do think a member should be liable to church discipline to be consistent (a topic for another day).
So from a pragmatic perspective it seems that both sides have their own issues to deal with. Thus the argument ammunition should not be unloaded in the pragmatic sphere for the w&w.
So if the w&w camp is honest, the argument comes down to prudence. But even the prudence argument rests on weak beams. Is it prudent to not encourage our children to obey Jesus’ commands in terms of baptism? Is it prudent to wait until children have more mature faith when Jesus welcomes the children to him? Is it prudent to withhold the Lord’s Supper to believers? Is it prudent to have a church full of adult members as if children did not have something to teach us? Is it prudent to communicate to our children, even inadvertently, that faith is largely intellectual and that baptism is reserved only for the mature?
All these questions makes me think it is more prudent to follow the fairly clear logic of Scripture and baptize upon a credible profession of faith welcoming them into full membership in the church.
At what age should this be done? I don’t think we can have a Mishnah-type law on this. For different children and different families the age will vary. I think all agree the profession needs to be credible and not just some willy-nilly assent, but in the Scriptures there doesn’t seem to be a waiting period for this credibility to be verified. Therefore parents and pastors must pray for wisdom, but not willfully withhold baptism to children they have reasons to believe are regenerate.
Lydia, my nearly five-year-old daughter is learning about Jesus now. This is not some abstract argument for me. People have strong opinions about this issue because it pertains to their children. I will continue to work through this issue as I teach her the gospel, and tell her about Jesus and his commands to follow him in his death and resurrection.
But for biblical, pragmatic, and prudential reasons I can’t see myself withholding baptism from her if she is credibly professing Christ and requesting to be baptized in obedience to his commands. Baptism is an adoption ritual, and when I see my child credibly adopted into the family of God I will not withhold water.