Monday, November 8, 2010

Taking The (Baptism) Plunge

(Matthew 28:19) Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
After church last night, someone asked me about my views on baptizing children.  It kind of caught me off guard since I wasn't thinking about that subject at all.  But the question was appropriate because the Sunday School teachers and Children's Church teachers need to know how their teaching will fit with what I will do with children who come to me about being baptized.

Should children be baptized or not?  Under what conditions would I baptize children?

1) Baptism is a normal part of discipleship.
I believe that baptism is commanded for believers.  After a person comes to faith in Jesus Christ, they should be baptized as a public testimony to the fact that they are identified with Jesus' death, burial and resurrection.  Acts 2:41 says that "those who gladly received his word were baptized..."

It is correct for us to teach this to children who make professions of faith.  On the other hand, it is not necessarily true that we should baptize a child (or adult) just because they make a profession of faith.  We need to do our best to assure that the people we baptize truly understand the Gospel, know the meaning of baptism and are ready to make the commitments suggested by baptism.

2) Baptism does not bring about salvation.
The scripture is clear that salvation is by grace through faith, not of works. (Ephesians 2:8-10)  Baptism is properly thought of as a picture of the person's salvation through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.  While baptism is normal and proper for people who are saved by faith, it is not essential to their salvation.  Baptism is a picture of a spiritual reality - not the cause of the spiritual reality.

Down the road from me there is a church that would be horrified by my reluctance to baptize children! They believe it is baptism that seals the deal and assures the salvation of a person.  Their basic reasoning is no different from the reasoning of those who baptize infants because they believe it removes their original sin - or that it places them in the covenant of grace.  The Bible does not support any of those views.

3) Baptism is not urgent.
We feel a certain urgency to baptize children because we suppose that they will lose interest and will not want to be baptized by the time they become teenagers.  But this is exactly why we should not rush to baptize children.  If their profession of faith is so shallow that it will disappear in a few years, then it is not genuine Christian conversion.

Instead of rushing to baptize a child, we should encourage him or her to continue in his/her profession of faith and to demonstrate the truth of that profession through continued growth in knowledge and obedience to the word of God.  If they are genuinely born of the Spirit, they will indeed continue and still want to be baptized a few years down the road.

4) Baptism should require a certain maturity.
For many children church is strictly a social event limited to Sunday mornings - and this only if there is an entertaining junior church program for them.  For these children, almost everything comes before church.  Is there a sporting event, a concert, a school activity, a family activity, a television show that conflicts with church?  They will NOT be at church.  Are their friends going somewhere else today?  They will not be here either. 

But they want to be baptized.

Jesus said that to be His disciple (and it is disciples that should be baptized) one must take up his own cross daily, deny himself, and follow Jesus.  (Matthew 16:24)  This requires a mature decision - a sober choice to follow Jesus whatever the cost.  But many children will stop attending church as soon as they graduate from junior church and are expected to participate in the regular services of the church. 

I believe that until a person is able to participate in the general assembly of the believers without specialized children's services, they are not yet mature enough to make the decision to be baptized.  I think this is in harmony with the Jewish tradition of celebrating a person's bar mitzvah (or bath mitzvah for girls) at the age of about 13.  While the Bible doesn't mention this specifically, it is interesting that it does tell the story of Jesus staying behind in Jerusalem and questioning the teachers there when he was twelve years old.  (Luke 2:42ff)

5) Baptism is associated with church membership.
Not only does baptism identify the person with Christ, it also identifies that person with the other disciples.  Acts 2:41 says that the believers were baptized, then continues to say..."and that day about three thousand souls were added to them."  By submitting to baptism, believers are identified as members of the church.

The church has a responsibility to screen people who come for baptism to see if they are genuinely converted.  It would be inappropriate for the church to admit non-believers into membership.  With children this becomes more difficult to determine.  Are they professing salvation and seeking baptism because of pressure from adults, parents or peers?  Or are they genuinely born again?  The heartbreaking fact is that 2/3 of children brought up in evangelical churches (baptized or not) will walk away from church as adults.

Even after a child has graduated from junior church to the adult services, there are important questions to be asked.  Are they there because they want to be, or because they are forced to come by their parents?  Are they eager participants - singing out, paying attention and taking notes - or are they slouched in the back row goofing off and sending text messages?  Are they eager to take part in the service or do they use every opportunity to escape to "help" in junior church or the nursery?

I think that we should teach children about baptism.  But I think we should teach them that it is a serious matter that requires them to reach the age when they are able to participate in the adult church program and demonstrate by their attendance and participation that they are serious about their profession of faith, their desire to be baptized and their willingness to put Christ ahead of other priorities.

Putting off baptism does not harm a person who is genuinely born again.  But baptizing a child who subsequently walks away may well inoculate them against the gospel ("I tried that...").  Furthermore, baptizing a person who is not genuinely born again creates a mixed multitude in the church membership that will ultimately cause harm - one way or another.  At the very least there will be the pain of disciplining such people out of membership when they turn away from Christ.

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