By Colton Corter
*Note: This position is my own and does not necessarily reflect the rest of the DSR crew. We can be together for the gospel and still disagree on how best to guard it! Praise God for that.
“Our church is almost exactly like your church. Except we don’t hate children.” That’s how a buddy of mine compared our two churches. We preach the exact same gospel, the same truths about God’s sovereignty in salvation and even agree on the same church polity (how the church is structured and governed). Our churches are basically “sister” churches, nearly identical twins! But there is one difference: our church will not baptize children under a certain age.
Now, just to be clear, this is not a huge deal. It is not the gospel or even immediately related to the gospel. Good brothers can disagree on this question and still do a lot together – maybe even plant churches together. But just because the issue is not essential does not make it unimportant. It is the kind of question that Bobby Jamieson says is between “What is the gospel?” and “What color carpet should we install?” Not necessary, but still important for how we go about trying to be faithful to the Word of God and ultimately trying to protect the glory of Christ in the gospel. The issue is one of prudence stemming from biblical principles. That is to say that if you are looking for chapter and verse for proof then you won’t find one. But let me try to set this question in context and then attempt to answer it biblically.
The largest percentage of Southern Baptist baptisms in the last few decades have been in the age range of 6 to 10. Around 67% of all baptisms come from children who still live in their parents homes. And, if I remember correctly, half of the other baptisms were counted as “re-baptisms,” meaning that they had made a false profession of faith at a young age and then were baptized for the first time as believers later. Many of these baptized kids have left the faith all together, still on membership roles and yet showing no evidences of grace in their lives.
I think that we have lost the meaning of baptism by both individualizing it and by separating it from church membership and its privileges (the Lord’s Supper and church discipline).
Baptism is not in the hands of the parent to decide. Why? Because baptism should only be practiced by the local church. Jesus gave the keys of the kingdom to the church (Matt 18:16-18). The highest authority on earth – the institution given authority by the Word of God to represent the heavenly kingdom of God – is the local church. The church affirms and protects the who and the what of the gospel. The church is like an embassy, extending visas to those they can affirm as rightful citizens of the country given the evidence of their lives. The church does not make someone a Christ but judges their profession of faith based on their testimony and understanding of the gospel that saved them. The local assembly is to reflect God’s character by their confession of faith and their lives (see Eph 3:10).
These keys of the kingdom of exercised by the right preaching of the gospel and the practice of gospel ordinances. Church membership normally begins with baptism and is “renewed” by taking the Lord’s Supper together. So it is the church that administers baptism. Only they have the authorization to do so! Baptism is too often seen as a personal devotional act between ourselves and Jesus only. Baptism is certainly not less than our “going public” that we have repented and believed the gospel of free grace and now stand against our sin and with God in Christ. However, baptism is more. Not only does the individual believer speak, the church speaks as well. When someone is baptized by a local church the church is saying, “Yes, this person is someone to whom the world can look to know what God is like. They are on ‘team Jesus.'” In baptism, the church gives the Christian the team jersey because they have now joined the team of the gospel people of God.
Even now it should be obvious why we should not baptize our little ones. Even if we think we should, it would be the church who would decide based on their profession of faith and not the parents. They cannot inform the church that the child is now a Christian and so they should be baptized as soon as possible. Parents just haven’t been authorized to do so by God. But even if a church thought perhaps they were really a Christian, should they still baptize them? In most cases I don’t think so. Remember that the church is giving them the authorization to represent Christ on earth. That means they have to be able to give testimony to the gospel by their articulation of the gospel (even in simple form) and by their lives. They must be able to give evidence that they can stand on their own two feet as it were, standing up for Christ over against the world, the flesh and the devil. This is nearly impossible for a child to do (there may be some exceptions in other countries where it costs more to make a profession of faith).
Furthermore, baptism should normally be baptism into church membership. And that should mean something. The local church is less like country club and more like the embassy described above. That means that we don’t “join” churches as much as we submit to them as a normal part of being a Christian. Membership is not less than having your name of a roll but it is more. We are submitting our lives to the congregation and to the authority of the elders. We are given the responsibilities of membership like voting (exercising the keys of the kingdom together with the assembly) and the privileges of taking the Lord’s Supper. Are you comfortable with having this child be a full-fledged member of your church? Given the duty of a member? Subjecting them to discipline and even taking their jersey back if it appears they are playing for another team? If not, that is understandable. We just shouldn’t baptize them then. Baptism affirms someone’s profession of faith until they prove it otherwise to be false.
We should not baptize anyone whom we do not expect to be a thriving member of our church. To be sure, most members have a lot of instruction ahead of them and the mark of the true church member is repentance and not perfection. But we should only baptize the people we are comfortable putting out to the world as those who are representing Jesus in the everyday. Can you say that of the children you would baptize?
What is at stake here? Thankfully, many good churches do baptize younger children and their gospel witness has not been weakened. We should praise God for that! However, such a practice has the potential to weaken our churches by nominal members who gave a profession of faith early in life but now live as the world does and so tarnish the name of Christ before a watching world. Before anything else, the church is to testify to the glory of God. In the church the manifold wisdom of God is displayed to the nations. The power of the gospel is shown forth. But we begin to fib about the gospel what if we are not careful about the gospel who. Instead of emotion appeals let us strive to be biblical and labor to be jealous for meaningful membership to the glory of God.
(For a better defense of this position, check out this statement from a church that would handle the issue similarly to mine: capitolhillbaptist.com/ministries/children/baptism-of-children)