When Should We Baptize Believing Children?
Today’s sermon will be a little unusual. We’re taking a break from our Summer Letters series to talk about a pressing issue in the life of our church. Normally, our sermons are expositional—they primarily explore a single passage of Scripture, unfolding the meaning and then showing its relevance to our lives. This sermon is not expositional. Instead, it will be an exercise in practical theology. I’ll be taking a number of different theological conclusions (all of which could be supported by ample Scriptures) and showing how we’ve put them together to address a very real question that many of you are facing.
The issue of baptizing children involves the intersection of a number of different areas of theology:
- our view of the church
- our view of baptism
- our view of child-rearing
Let me begin by outlining our commitments on these issues.
- We are congregationalists. This means that we believe that, under God, the highest authority in the church is the local congregation as a whole. Our congregation is led by elders or pastors; we make many of the decisions relating to the church. But when it comes to issues such as the selection of pastors and deacons, the budget, the final stage of church discipline, and other major decisions like that, the congregation is the body that makes the final call. So, under the authority of Jesus, we are elder-led, but congregationally-ruled.
- We are baptists. This means that we practice credo-baptism, or believer’s baptism. We believe that baptism follows a credible profession of faith. This makes us different from paedobaptists, who baptize the children of believers in anticipation of the child’s faith. Another way to put this is that in baptism we believe that God speaks and that we speak. In baptism, God is saying to us, “If you will trust in me, I will wash away your sins. If you believe in Jesus, I will give you eternal life.” In other words, in baptism God gives us a visual promise, just like he does in the Lord’s Supper. But, we also believe that in baptism, we speak to God and to the world. In baptism, we publicly declare our allegiance to King Jesus. If God is making promises in baptism, then we are believing those promises in baptism. We are saying, “We do trust in you, Lord. We turn from our sins and receive your forgiveness. We believe in Jesus.” And because we are credo-baptists, we believe that no one can speak on our behalf. We must publicly express our faith in Jesus for ourselves.
- We practice what might be called “covenant child-rearing.” This means that, while we don’t baptize the children of believers, we do recognize a difference between children who grow up with Christian parents, and children who do not. In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul says that the children of believers are in some sense, “set apart.” The apostle Paul in his letters addresses children in the church, urging them to obey their parents in the Lord (Eph. 6, Col. 3). Likewise, fathers are exhorted to raise their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. We take this to mean that we ought to treat our children like Christians so that they become Christians. We don’t treat them like total outsiders to the Christian faith, but instead include them and involve them in the life of the church, training them in what it means to follow Jesus. If you think of the New Covenant like a tree, then children are resting in the shade of that tree, even if they haven’t been formally and publicly grafted into the tree through baptism.
Given these commitments, there are a number of different ways that a church might work out the practical details of baptizing children. And it’s important for us at Cities to think carefully about these issues because every church develops a cultural expectation with respect to children. If a church baptizes young children, then parents and young children will develop an expectation that normally children profess faith and are baptized young. If a church doesn’t baptize until children are older, then parents and children adapt to that expectation. Thus, we want to think carefully about how to put these pieces together, and not simply leave it vague and undefined. Given the number of young children in our church, this is already a pressing issue and will only become more so.
So what are the different ways that congregationally-ruled, credo-baptists put these pieces together? There are three main options.
- Baptize young children (as early as 4 or 5), as soon as they make any meaningful profession of faith. This view doesn’t expect children to have the understanding and maturity of adults, nor does it scrutinize the profession of children.
- Baptize young adults (around 15-18 years old), essentially when we are ready to treat them as mature members of the congregation. This view withholds baptism from young children, along with the Lord’s Supper, while teaching children the gospel until they are ready to make a mature, credible, responsible profession.
- The In-Between position. Baptize children when they are around 11 or 12. This view more or less splits the difference. Don’t wait until children become young adults, but don’t baptize young children either. Instead, require a sufficient maturity to count the cost of discipleship, while not withholding baptism and the Lord’s Supper until someone is 15 or 16.
The pastors have spent a good amount of time wrestling with this issue. It’s a live one for almost all of us. It’s been a regular question for me all through seminary and up until the present day. And, this question is particularly acute for us at Cities for two reasons. First, we have a lot of young children. And we love having all of these kids running around. And I know this is a pressing question for many of you as you seek to shepherd your children and give them the gospel. Second, it’s a pressing issue for us because of our liturgy. In some churches, the question can largely be avoided, because there isn’t a significant difference between a baptized child and an unbaptized child in the congregation. But, because we practice weekly communion, the issue of excluding our children from the Lord’s Table will constantly show up. Every week they watch the bread and wine pass, and so every week we communicate to them, “You’re not fully a part of us.” Which means we need to have an answer for them when they ask, “What do I have to do to become a full member of this congregation?”
So having wrestled with this issue and considered arguments for these various positions, having included our wives in the discussion and receiving their insight and wisdom, we have decided that at Cities Church we will practice Position 1. That is, we are willing to baptize young children when they profess childlike faith.
Now again, the Bible doesn’t give us clear guidance on the timing of the baptism of children. Outside of the household baptisms in the book of Acts, we’re always reasoning from Scripture, not directly applying a biblical command or example. So we as pastors understand why churches who share our commitments on the nature of the church and the meaning of baptism and the raising of children might make a different practical choice. In other words, we believe that faithful churches can arrive at different practical conclusions on this matter.
Having said that, I want to give a few reasons why we are willing to baptize young children, and then respond to a few objections to our position, and then close with how this will practically affect our ministry to children and their families going forward.
Reasons for Baptizing Young Children
We believe that baptizing young children when they make a credible profession of faith fits with the biblical pattern of baptizing professing believers soon after their profession.
Baptizing young children avoids the chief danger that we see in the other two positions, namely the danger of overly scrutinizing our children’s faith. Christians who withhold baptism from young children who profess faith until they are 11, 12, 15, 18 often adopt a “Wait and See” approach to a child’s faith. They teach children the good news about Jesus: that God created us to know and love him, that we have all sinned and rejected God; that God’s righteousness demands that he punish sin; that God sent Jesus to stand in our place; that Jesus lived, died, and rose again for us and for our salvation; and that by trusting him we can be forgiven for our sins and have eternal life with God. They teach the gospel, but when the young child responds with “I believe,” they say, “Let’s wait and see. Let’s see if your faith is real faith, true faith. Let’s see if your repentance is real repentance. Let’s wait until you bear fruit in your life before baptizing you.”
Now the intention of this waiting, of this scrutiny, is that the church avoid false conversions. They don’t want to give children false assurance by baptizing them prematurely, and they want to maintain a regenerate church membership. However, our fear is that in their zeal to protect the purity of the church, they may be uninentionally hindering the faith of their children. They are teaching their children to doubt, not teaching them to believe.
Our fear—and it is one that I’ve seen in practice—is that a child who is told “Let’s wait and see” will begin to think that there is something more than trusting in Jesus that must be done in order to be saved, in order to be a “real” Christian. They’ve been taught to trust in Jesus; as far as they can tell, that’s what they’re doing. But, according to their parents and their pastors, what they’re doing is apparently not good enough to be baptized and welcomed to the Table. There are other hoops that they must jump through in order to prove that they are real Christians. And those other hoops will be vague and nebulous, and as a result, kids learn to be legalists, always working harder to prove that their faith is real. They constantly wrestle with whether they are really saved. In my judgment (and experience), the Wait-and-See approach can easily make faith in Jesus impossible for our children to conceive, let alone exercise, and sets the stage for the tormenting doubts that wrongly plague many Christian teenagers. And as a father and a pastor, everything in me wants to encourage and strengthen the seed-like faith I see in my boys, and everything in me abhors looking at their childlike professions with skeptical eyes.
What’s more, the Wait-and-See approach seems to demand that children attain to an adult-level of mental and emotional maturity in order to be candidates for baptism. Instead of looking for evidence appropriate for a child, we look for evidence appropriate for an adult. In fact, I fear that we are often more rigorous with children, because children don’t know what’s being done to them. They can’t fight back. And of course, expecting adult-level comprehension and fruit from children gets Jesus’s teaching precisely backward. To paraphrase Justin Taylor, “Jesus told his adult disciples to repent and come to him like little children. We tell our children that their faith is not worthy of baptism until they repent and come to him like adults.”
What’s the alternative to the rigorism of the Wait-and-See approach? To answer that, we need to think more carefully about what it means to give a “credible profession of faith.” That’s the standard way of talking about the requirement for baptism: we baptize people upon a credible profession of faith. But a credible profession means simply a believable profession. But when my young sons confess their sins, when they profess faith in Jesus, when they sing our hymns in church, I believe them. I think they are (often) as sincere as seven- and five-year-olds can be. Thus, I cast no doubt on their professions of faith.
When they say that they believe in Jesus, I say, “Awesome!” When I correct their behavior, I tell them, “We Christians don’t hit our brother in anger.” When they pray to God, I tell them to address him as “Our Father.” And when they ask for his forgiveness, I assure them that he is faithful and just to forgive their sins because of what Jesus has done. In other words, I treat my young sons as responsible moral agents who are obeying their parent’s instruction about who God is and what he’s done for them.
I give them the judgment of charity and, as their father, believe (that is, I find credible) and honor their professions while continuing to bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. And so when they give that credible profession, they are eligible and encouraged to make that profession public in baptism.
Baptizing young children also allows us to avoid withholding the Lord’s Supper from those that we believe are trusting in Jesus. The reason that we practice weekly communion is that we believe that the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace. God meets us at the Table and nourishes and strengthens our faith. Therefore, we think it’s a big deal to withhold the Table from professing believers, which we would have to do if we did not baptize until children were 12 or 16 years old.
This is why we decided to baptize young children. We are seeking to raise our children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. When they respond to this instruction in appropriate, child-like ways, we want to affirm and encourage their faith. And one of the main ways we do so is by bringing them to the font and allowing them to publicly declare their allegiance to Jesus in baptism, and then to grow in faith by worshiping with God’s people and receiving the Lord’s Table.
Responding to Objections
Won’t this create false professions and give false assurance?
Answer: it might. But false professions and false assurance aren’t eliminated by the other two positions. People can be deceived and can deceive others. Our approach recognizes the possibility of false assurance, but tries to deal with it in a different way than the other positions. Rather than raise the bar high at the entry to the Christian life, we want to raise the bar for parents and for our church in discipling our children. That’s why, when a child is a candidate for baptism, we expect that they will have an advocate or sponsor (most often their parents) who will be their with them, making or renewing their commitment to disciple the child. Rather than scrutinizing the child, our goal as pastors is to scrutinize the parents or other advocates who are giving the child the gospel. The gospel message is simple enough for a child to understand. Trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins and the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. Believe in Jesus, Follow Jesus is the call of the gospel. Jesus’s arms are open wide to receive anyone who comes to him in simple, childlike faith. So rather than raise the bar at the front end, we want to put a greater responsibility on parents to obey Ephesians 6 (“Fathers, bring your children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord”) and on the church to help parents to do so by receiving children in the name of Jesus and teaching them the whole counsel of God. Relative to other positions, we are lowering the bar to get to the water, but we’re raising the bar for everyone else, for the mature Christians whose responsibility it is to help our children grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus.
“You say that you want to avoid scrutinizing your children. But aren’t you still scrutinizing them? You still require some kind of credible profession, right?”
Yes, we are still requiring faith in Jesus as the prerequisite to baptism. But again, we believe that this requirement is simple enough for a child to understand. And we hope that our liturgy will provoke questions from our children. Weekly communion is a great conversation starter and a great way for parents to teach their children about the gospel. Lord willing, we’ll continue to baptize adult converts to the faith, and those are also opportunities for our children to see the gospel embodied in a ritual. We want to remember that having and raising children is a natural act; the new birth is a supernatural act. God causes us to be born again to a living hope, opening our eyes to see the beauty of the gospel. For some of us, that has meant a cataclysmic moment when the story of Jesus collided with our story and everything was different. For others, we can’t remember the precise moment when that supernatural event took place. And we don’t want to impose one story of conversion on all people. What matters is that we are now trusting in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sins and the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to us, even eternal life.
“Doesn’t this create two tiers of membership in the church? You’re not going to allow young children to vote in the congregational meeting, are you?”
In a way, it does create two tiers of membership. Young children who are baptized will be able to participate fully in the life of the church. But when it comes to exercising the responsibilities of the church, we will use wisdom and prudence to determine when the participation of children might not help their faith. In particular, young children will likely be excused from significant church discipline situations. We also will not have the same expectations on children in terms of our congregational meetings. However, parents are encouraged, as a part of the discipleship process, to include their children in these decisions so that they feel the ownership and weight of belonging to the body of Christ.
Practically speaking, what will this mean for Cities Church? As a result of this decision, we are making a handful of changes to how we will serve children and their parents at Cities.
- We will continue to offer our nursery during the service to families who wish to use them. It’s by no means an expectation; there are a number of families who include their children in the corporate gathering from the time they are born. And we love that they do so. At the same time, we know that it can be a blessing to parents and to children to allow the younger ones to have a time to themselves during the service where they can play and sing and hear the Bible and be received in Jesus’s name by this congregation. However, beginning Labor Day weekend, we are making an adjustment to the ages of our Nursery. We will have four rooms available, and they will continue to be staffed by our Serve Rotation Teams: Nursery (0-12mo), Room 1 (1-2 years), Room 2 (2-3 years), and Room 3 (3-6 years). This means that children will age out of our Nursery at six years old (though children may begin transitioning to the service earlier).
- This means that children 6 years and older will join their parents for corporate worship each week. They will join us as God calls us to worship, as we confess our sins, as we are consecrated for his service, as we commune with him at the Lord’s Table, and as we are commissioned out in the world to make disciples. We hope that their participation in worship will shape them and provoke questions for them and encourage all of us as a congregation.
- Because we still believe that it’s good and valuable for children to have age-appropriate teaching, beginning Labor Day weekend, we will be offering a Sunday School class for children 6 and up, prior to the service, from 9-9:45am, in the classrooms below. This class or classes will be taught by dedicated volunteers (not Serve Rotation), including some of our pastors, and will work through a Lifeway curriculum called the Gospel Project. We know that this will be an additional commitment for families, since they will need to arrive earlier for church, and we’re eager to help make it possible.
- We will periodically be offering a four-week baptism class for children or adults who desire to publicly profess their faith in Jesus. That class will run alongside the Sunday School hour from 9-9:45am and will cover the basics of the gospel, the meaning of baptism, and what it means to follow Jesus. As a part of our commitment to raising the bar of discipleship, parents of children who wish to be baptized must attend with their child so that they can discuss the gospel with them at home and so that they realize the weight of their responsibility to continue to nurture the faith of their children once they have identified with Jesus in baptism.
I suspect there will be questions about all of this. That is why we’re having the Q&A after lunch today.
This brings us to the Table. Baptism is the public door to the visible church. In it, God makes a visible promise to us, and we receive that promise by faith. But God doesn’t stop making his promises once we’re inside the church. And we don’t stop believing them. Every week, we have a visible promise, here at this table. When we enter God’s house, he invites us to share a meal with him every week. And so we eat it in faith, and we invite others to join us at the Table of the King.