I have a friend who went from being the pastor of a Baptist church in Texas to a Congregational church in New England. That is a significant change, not only in geography but also in theology. He invited me to come to his church, between Boston and the New Hampshire state line, on two different occasions to work with on stewardship issues. Both were amazing and memorable trips.
As you can imagine, we had some interesting conversations about his new place of service. One issue that caused him to pause slightly was the practice of infant baptism. As a Baptist he had been raised to believe and practice “believer’s baptism.” The Congregational church where he was now the pastor practiced “infant baptism.”
I’m not sure why he and the church didn’t have this conversation earlier, but shortly after becoming pastor he was confronted with the desire of some new parents to have their child baptized. He sought advice from several, but the words he shared with me came from his predecessor who had also come from a Baptist tradition. He suggested that he view the infant baptism as simply a “wet baby dedication.” This sage advice provided my friend a way to keep parents in the church happy as well as ease his conscience that he was doing something totally against his training.
Baptists have practiced baby dedications for a long time, but have always shied away from infant baptisms—until recently. There is a disturbing trend among Southern Baptists to baptize more and more young children. The number of preschool age children baptized by Baptist churches increased 97% from 1974 to 2010. This means a lot of four and five year olds are being baptized, which essentially makes it nothing more than a “wet baby dedication.”
Now, I love young children and I have seen some very intelligent ones, but I find it incredulous to believe that a four-year-old is in a position to make a lifetime commitment to follow Jesus. There is very little difference between baptizing a four-year-old and an infant. We might be able to teach them to say the words and mimic the behavior, but they are not capable of surrendering their life to something they cannot comprehend.
Salvation is a journey, and for many of us it was a journey that started at a very early age. Personally, I do not remember a time when I did not believe that Jesus is Lord and Savior. “Jesus Loves Me” is the first song I learned and I have always believed every word. Although I remember my baptism very clearly, I can honestly say that nothing happened to me or inside of me when I came up out of the waters at age nine. It was simply a continuation of a lifelong process. However, through that baptism, I made a public profession that my life belonged to Jesus.
There was enough growth and maturity that took place in those four or five years that gave me enough understanding of what baptism was all about. It was a memorable time for me, but honestly it did not alter the course of my life. I don’t think it would have mattered if I had waited another few years for baptism.
For others, especially those who have lived a little more wayward life; baptism can be a highly significant event. It marks a major change. Traditionally that is what baptism has been about for Baptists.
I suspect one of the reasons Baptist churches are pushing to baptize younger and younger children has to do with the way they make reports. Southern Baptists tend to judge the success or failure of a church on the basis of baptisms. If you baptize a large number of folks then it is a good church. If you don’t baptize people then you are doing something wrong.
As a Southern Baptist pastor for years I heard people recoil in horror at the large number of churches that reported zero baptisms. It was a cause for alarm and cries to do something to change this situation were heard.
Overall baptisms are on a steady decline across the board among Baptists so why not pick the easy fruit. Let’s baptize our children. At least the numbers will look better. If we are going to take this path then we need to be honest and confess that we no longer practice “believer’s baptism.”
There are some unwanted consequences that come with practicing infant baptism:
- Provides false security – Many live with confidence in their relationship with God because of their baptism. If it was a baptism that resulted from a desire to please parents or make the Sunday School teacher happy then they have a false security. Unless baptism is a testimony of a commitment to follow Jesus then it has no meaning.
- Eliminates the testimony of baptism – Baptism pictures the death, burial, and resurrection of the believer’s old life. The baptism of a child or an infant has neither symbolic nor salvific meaning.
- Encourages the manipulation of children – Many children have been manipulated into reciting words that are supposed to make everything good between them and God. We use phrases like “ask Jesus into your heart” to explain salvation. I have spent a lot of time and mental energy trying to figure out exactly what it means to “ask Jesus into your heart” and I have no clue. I can only imagine what a child must think when they hear the phrase.
- Suggests that parents have done all that is necessary for the spiritual nurture of their children. Those who think baptism represents salvation might be tempted to feel they have done all they need to do concerning their children’s spiritual life.
Baptists originally derived their name from the practice of baptism. What separated them from other Christian groups was “believer’s baptism.” However, it appears they may be setting this distinction aside in order to make the annual reports look more favorable. It is a troubling trend that is doing a great disservice to children and parents. It is something that deserves consideration, especially this time of year as many churches are hosting Vacation Bible School, a time that is rife with spiritual manipulation of children.