Yes, a Baptist pastor baptizing infants. Perhaps you ran across the story. Just a few weeks ago, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dayton, Ohio baptized a 7-month old baby.
“There was an overpowering sense that this was the right thing to do, and there was a sense of God’s presence there,” he said. “It was just a really high and holy moment”.[i]
The right thing to do? A lot of committed Baptists would take issue with his claim.
“But this is probably just some Baptist-by-name church that has gone rouge” you say. Yet, is this really a far stretch from what is a common occurrence in mainstream Baptist life? Jason Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary says no.
Within Southern Baptist life, we have been on a steady march towards infant baptism, routinely baptizing children younger and younger in age.[ii]
Allen’s perspective is backed up with facts.
What I appreciate about Allen is his consistency. He says that the growing trend of “toddler baptism” is more disconcerting than baptizing infants. He answers why.
Why is this? Because when Presbyterians, for example, sprinkle infants, they anticipate the child will one day be converted. When we baptize young children we are testifying they have been converted.[iv]
Allen believes that children can of course be converted. Yet, he has a firm grasp on the parental and pastoral pitfalls associated with calling for and discerning these conversions.
It became clear to me I could get most every kid in the room, including my own children, to raise their hand, express their desire to avoid Hell, and simply to ‘repeat after me’ to miss it.[v]
In addition to his consistency, I appreciate Allen’s honesty. When, by whatever means, we bring a child to the point of “repeat after me”, and then follow it up with bold claims of their regenerate status before God, we have created an issue. From his perspective Allen believes one such issue is unregenerate membership within the church. He says regarding the Southern Baptist Convention,
The challenge of unregenerate church membership is systemic within our convention. With some 16 million members on our rolls, but only about a third of those in church attendance on any given Sunday, one doesn’t have to be exceedingly scrupulous to sense a problem.[vi]
This gets closer to the heart of the issue. It is not just a Baptist problem. This is a pervasive issue within the institutional church that points to a breakdown in church discipline across the board. The church has boundaries. It has rolls. These rolls are to imperfectly and dimly reflect the rolls in heaven.
Covenant membership is a confessional issue. To confess Christ and live out said confession places one within the covenant boundary of the church. This also determines the covenant membership of any children. As goes the head, so goes the household.
The Baptist predicament is largely an issue of church discipline on the wrong side of the baptismal font. It bars entry to children where it should not.
The Baptist presents a rational or intellectual hurdle to baptism. “They must understand what they are doing”.
But where is the line? If you were baptized as a young child, how much did you understand? How much do you understand now? How much understanding is enough? Who says? What about the mentally incapacitated? Will they be refused entry for a lifetime? If not, why is the standard lower for them?
I did not understand what was going on when I became a Crawford. I did not understand what took place at my birth when I became an American citizen. Yet, as an infant I was a Crawford and I was an American citizen. Both my parents and my civil authority formally laid claim to me.
When we are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, God is putting his name on us. He is setting us apart and laying special claim to our life. Baptism says, “God owns me”. It formally places a child within the covenant boundaries of the church.
Yet, we should not confuse issues. Covenant membership on earth does not equal elect status in eternity. Understanding this one concept would alleviate much of the evangelistic gymnastics that go on with children in our churches today. The issue is covenant. Baptists intuitively understand this. I regard a rise in the practice of baby dedications as evidence. This “dry baptism” betrays an understanding of the covenant institutions of the family and the church.
The visible church is an institution. It is marked out by confessional and ethical boundaries. It must be governed. The fact that a maverick Baptist pastor in Ohio dispenses with a defining pillar of his denomination is a testament to a faulty legal structure within the broader institution.
Infant baptism and church discipline go hand in hand. Baptism relates to entry into the institution. Church discipline preserves the institution. With an insufficient legal framework and process, the Baptist has no way to confessionally bar the windows and judicially lock the doors on malpractice. The pastor in Ohio is an extreme example of such. It is a case of full church autonomy literally eradicating identity.
Let’s return to the issue of unregenerate membership. Allen finds solid direction from a well-known leader and pastor within the SBC during the 20th century.
W.A. Criswell’s practice helped me navigate this issue. During Criswell’s half-century tenure at First Baptist Dallas, he encouraged young children – and older children who seemed to not grasp the gospel – to “continue to take steps toward Jesus,” but often instructed their parents to hold off on baptism.
Criswell’s pattern is instructive for every pastor. You can joyfully and wholeheartedly press the accelerator on the gospel while tapping the brakes on the baptistery. That is not being duplicitous, that is shepherding the flock of God.[vii]
This feels more like quarantining God’s little lambs. It is a far stretch from “let the little children come to me”. It says, “let the little children come to me when they are smart enough to rationally articulate their faith”. My intent here is not to be brash or oversimplify the issue. I mean only to be plain about the church-entry requirements put forward by our Baptist brethren and how I believe them to differ from the Biblical, covenantal conditions.
Allen expresses caution again in his conclusion.
Let’s be quick to point our children to the Lord Jesus Christ, but let’s be a bit slower to point them to the baptistery.[viii]
What is missed here is that the baptistery itself points to Christ. It does not point to the sure salvation of an individual. It points to the death, resurrection and ascension of our Lord. It does not say, “I am saved.” It says, “Jesus saves”.
Let us wholeheartedly point our children to Christ through baptism. And as they grow, let us continually point them back to the time when God formally set them apart and put his name on them.
Let us consciously shepherd all of Christ’s sheep – even the little lambs.