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FIRST-PERSON: Baptizing children & regenerate church membership

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jason Allen is president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP) — Associated Baptist Press recently reported that Rodney Kennedy, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dayton, Ohio, sprinkled an infant. The event was newsworthy because, by definition, a Baptist church does not baptize infants. To practice the latter is to forfeit being the former. Or at least it used to.

The article read as a congratulatory piece, as though it was one small step for a church, but one giant leap forward for Baptists everywhere — no doubt a leap away from draconian biblical and confessional markers of Baptist identity.

But one need not look to a CBF Baptist church to find believer’s baptism being renegotiated. At least a few conservative Baptist churches have adopted — or have flirted with adopting — some form of dual baptism.

While I have been blessed by the writings of many who practice pedobaptism, as one who is wholeheartedly Baptist, sprinkling infants — especially in erstwhile Baptist congregations — concerns me.

However, what concerns me most is not the rare “Baptist” church that occasionally sprinkles an infant; it is what’s increasingly passing as credo-baptism, or believer’s baptism, these days. Within Southern Baptist life, we have been on a steady march toward infant baptism, routinely baptizing children younger and younger in age.

As the Southern Baptist Task Force on Baptism reported, Southern Baptists continue to baptize a remarkably large number of young children, including those age 5 and under. This trend should prompt careful reflection and should remind us of some of the potential dangers associated with baptizing young children.

As a convictional Baptist, it is hard for me to admit this, but when we baptize children too young to grasp the Gospel and, as a result, whose hearts haven’t been affected by it, it is more troubling than sprinkling an infant.

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.

This trend concerns me for biblical, pastoral, denominational and parental reasons. Let’s give this closer consideration.

Biblically speaking

To be clear, Jesus didn’t say children must become like adults to be saved. He said adults must become childlike. We are to encourage our children toward following Christ at every age, including the early years. If we are not careful, however, we can find ourselves routinely baptizing young children before they understand the Gospel — or have been affected by it.

Perhaps a subtle confusion over conversion and baptism are at the heart of the matter.

As for conversion, we must remember it requires more than agreeing to facts about Jesus to be saved. Conversion is not merely intellectual; it is also affective. To be saved one must not only embrace facts; one must embrace Christ. One must not merely believe facts about Jesus; one must believe in Jesus. This happens through faith in Christ, repentance from sin, and submission of one’s life to Him. The point is not that a child cannot be converted; the point is that we should do our best to make sure conversion has happened in our children before baptizing them.

And as for baptism, we do not believe in baptismal regeneration. Therefore, we should not feel an unbridled press to the baptistery. Being baptized is a profoundly essential step of obedience — one that is linked very closely with conversion — whereby one declares their allegiance to Christ, is baptized into the church, and depicts the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.

For many reasons, including how closely conversion and baptism are linked in the book of Acts, I’m not for erecting age-based criteria, or adopting a programmatic, wait-and-see approach on baptizing new converts. Spurious conversions occur regardless of the age, and we are not called to wait them out before baptism.

Yet, a healthy understanding of conversion means we need not rush children to the baptistery, and a healthy understanding of baptism means that we shouldn’t. The effects of true conversion will not evaporate like the morning dew. When in doubt as to whether a child is ready for baptism, it is best to give it time.

Pastorally speaking

As a pastor, I have baptized many children over the years. But I also have met with more than a few parents and encouraged them to hold off on pursuing their child’s baptism.

For many pastors, especially those fearful of potential conflict, expressing reservations to parents about baptizing their child can be stressful. Yet over the years I have had that conversation with parents many times. In all my years of ministry, I’ve never had a parent leave the conversation frustrated with me, at least having expressed that frustration.

Generally, parents have valued my concern and appreciated my forthrightness with them. Moreover, since parents know I’m willing to ask them to hold off, it has given them greater confidence — and joy — when in due season I’ve recommended baptism.

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. He winsomely affirmed the child’s interest in following Christ and encouraged them to that end, but he did so without granting them assurance of conversion or baptizing them straightway.

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.

Denominationally speaking

While the SBC has no mechanism (nor should we) for policing such matters, as a convention of churches we do encourage ourselves toward certain practices and expectations. Perhaps in our zeal for increasing baptism numbers, we’ve not always given enough scrutiny to whom we are baptizing. This has contributed, in part, to the plague of unregenerate church members.

As previously referenced, perhaps our trend of younger baptisms should give us pause. I’m reminded of the recent trend in Britain, where many adults who were sprinkled into the Church of England as infants are now formally renouncing their “baptism,” in part because they had no choice in the matter as a babe.

I sometimes wonder how many on SBC church membership rolls, who were baptized so young as to have almost no choice in the matter, would renounce their membership if presented with the option. Or, perhaps more accurately put, if they realized they were still on a church’s membership roll in the first place.

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.

This is one reason why I’ve invited Dr. Paige Patterson to be one of our presenters at Midwestern Seminary’s For the Church luncheon at this year’s SBC. He will answer the question: Why is recovering regenerate church membership one of the SBC’s most urgent needs? Baptizing children too young to understand the Gospel and to submit their lives to Christ contributes to this problem.

Parentally speaking

As the father of five young children, I more than understand the parental urge to see one’s children converted. I live with it daily, and strive to balance leading them to Christ without over-leading them into a premature profession of faith.

I sensed this tension in a personal way once while presenting the Gospel during a Vacation Bible School rally. 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.

My kids, like many who have been reared in the church, are well versed in the facts of the Gospel and eternal realities. If conversion was merely getting them to recite a few facts, they would all have been saved since their earliest years.

Parents do not have to be theologians to discern these things. They merely have to be discerning parents. If the primary motivations in a child’s conversion is pleasing parents or avoiding hell, that may well be a sign the Gospel is yet to fully take root.

In conclusion

Many of God’s mightiest men in church history experienced conversion at a young age. I do not question their conversion story — I thank God for it. Likewise, when a precocious young child understands the Gospel, repents, embraces Christ, and reflects the fruits of conversion, we should celebrate that and baptize them as well. But if they lack any of these ingredients, caution and patience is key.

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. The local church, our children, the integrity of baptism and the witness of our denomination are all too precious for us to mess this up.

    About the Author

  • Jason Allen