If you’ve been around our church at all over the past 2 1/2 years you’ve probably noticed or heard that your pastor has struggled with the idea of baptizing young children. It’s partly due to my own story–baptized at six but not truly born again until 21. It’s partly due to how flippantly many Baptist churches have approached the baptism of kids–instead of being cautious some churches have looked like the wild wild west. And yet because of these reasons and more, I’ve spent the better part of two years being cynical. But isn’t it amazing how God can change even the cynical heart of an insecure pastor?
Recently through my own study of Scripture, the loving counsel of fellow pastors, and the gentle correction from our faithful deacons God has been steadily changing my views on this very important issue. Although nothing I’m about to share with you represents a change on any official position at PBC, they do represent the very real changes in my heart and mind over the past few months.
First, let’s consider what is clear in Scripture about baptism: While the Bible says nothing explicitly about the baptism of children, there are several clear principles of Scripture that can help local churches navigate this sensitive issue. These include the following:
Baptism is for believers. It’s the first step of Christian discipleship (Matthew 28:18-20), the believer’s public profession of faith (Acts 2:37-38), and the symbol by which a believer identifies with the Christian community (Acts 10:47-48).
Baptism does not save, but is the believer’s public profession of faith that salvation has occurred. An individual does not have to be baptized to be saved (e.g., the thief on the cross in Luke 23:32-43), but those who sincerely desire to follow Jesus usually also desire to follow Him in baptism (Acts 8:34-38, 16:33, 22:16).
Baptism generally occurs quickly after an individual repents and believes. The early church seemed to baptize as soon as possible after salvation (Acts 2:41, 8:12-13, 8:34-38, 9:18, 16:33, 19:5, 22:16).
Baptism is generally connected to church membership. In other words, when someone was baptized, they were also welcomed into a local church family that would oversee their discipleship (Acts 2:41). The Ethiopian eunuch who was baptized alone with Philip along a desert road is the one clear exception (Acts 8:26-40). But this instance appears to be an exception for pioneer missionary contexts where there is no local church.
Sometimes the church baptizes wrongly. Sometimes even well-intentioned churches baptize individuals who are not truly saved. Consider Simon Magus, who was baptized in Antioch even though he was later condemned as a false convert (Acts 8:9-23). In many ways this is unavoidable, since the church cannot see the heart of those desiring baptism. One of the things Jesus promises to do upon His return is to separate genuine converts from false ones (Matthew 7:21-23, 13:24-30, 25:31-46).
The possibility of false converts should lead churches to be cautious, but not cynical. Yes, churches should be careful to examine individuals requesting baptism. However, caution can easily turn into cynicism. This cynicism can lead us to prevent people from being baptized (cf., Acts 8:36, 10:47) until they’ve demonstrated “enough” knowledge or fruit. We believe that baptism should not be withheld from those (1) with a credible profession of faith (i.e., it’s believable that this person truly has repented and believed in Christ as Lord and Savior), (2) with a clear understanding of the Gospel, and (3) with a desire to unite with this church.
Sometimes entire households are baptized (Acts 16:15; 1 Corinthians 1:16)This does not mean, as some claim, that infants were baptized along with their parents. Instead, it seems more likely to conclude that every member of the household believed and then was baptized (e.g., Acts 11:14, 16:31-34, 18:8). It is not clear, however, the ages of any of the individuals in these households. Were children included? The text simply does not say one way or another.
Second, let’s consider what is not clear in Scripture about baptism. Most importantly, how do we apply the above truths to children desiring baptism. Since Scripture is silent regarding the baptism of children, we must rely on principles of Spirit-filled wisdom.
First, we believe children can be genuinely saved, just like adults. Scripture says “whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:13), and this certainly can include children (see also, Matthew 18:3-4, Mark 10:13-16, Acts 2:39, 2 Timothy 3:15).
Second, we believe children can make false professions of faith, just like adults. However, children of Christian parents may be more likely to profess faith out of a desire to please mom and dad in a way that adults would be less tempted. This should lead us to exercise a bit more caution before baptizing children, but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the baptism water and refuse to baptize children entirely. Instead, we should look for the same three criteria in children that we look for in adults: (1) a credible profession of faith, (2) a clear understanding of the Gospel, and (3) a desire to unite with this church.
Third, we believe the church should be cautious, not cynical. In other words, we should work very carefully with children to ensure the above three criteria are met. We should err on the side of patience and caution. But we should not do so in such a way that we are cynical towards the possibility of a child being ready for baptism and membership.
Finally, we believe the baptism of children should be connected to church membership. This means that baptized children should be added to the membership list and placed under the spiritual care and oversight of the local church. Practically, this also means the following:
- Since parents are the primary earthly authority of young children, the church (and specifically, the elders) will seek to come alongside the child’s parents as they seek to disciple their child.
- Instead of a membership class, the church will provide basic material for parents to instruct their children regarding baptism, church membership, etc. Parents are responsible to teach these truths to their children prior to the child’s baptism.
- Prior to the child’s baptism, the child will sit down with one or more elders for an interview. In this interview the child will be asked about his/her understanding of the Gospel, testimony of conversion, and basic understanding of what it means to be a part of a church (see #2 above). One or both parents can be present, but they must be careful to not answer for the child.
- If the elders interviewing the child believe he/she is ready for baptism, they will present the child’s testimony to the church for approval. Once the child has been baptized, he/she will be added to the membership list.
- As members of the church, baptized children should be encouraged and equipped to fulfill the duties of membership in age-appropriate ways. These can and should include faithfulness in attendance, serving, discipleship, and more. However, members under the age of 18 do not have voting privileges at PBC. In this way we hope to preserve family unity by avoiding situations where children and their parental authority could be voting in contradictory ways.
- While the child remains under his parents’ authority, any need for church discipline for the child would initially go through his parents. For example, if a teenage member were caught in unrepentant fornication, the elders would first address the issue with the parents and would only proceed towards excommunication (Matthew 18:17) if parental admonitions to repent had failed.
- Unless providentially hindered, every PBC member should complete the Discover Class before turning 18 years old. This will further prepare the child for the duties and responsibilities of membership as they transition out from under parental authority.
I hope these words bring light and understanding to you as you read them. And as always, my door is open to you to hear your questions and concerns. Thank you for being patient with me, your pastor, as I strive to be daily transformed to the image of Christ.
Christ Is All,