Friday, August 13, 2010

A Question for Fellow "Believer's Baptism" Folks: Discerning the Proper Age

A couple weeks ago my brother Garrett emailed me this quote from Tertullian:
Baptism is not rashly to be administered... And so, according to the circumstances and disposition, and even age, of each individual, the delay of baptism is preferable; principally, however, in the case of little children... More caution will be exercised in worldly matters: so that one who is not trusted with earthly substance is trusted with divine!
Garrett noted: "Interesting thought: until we are willing to trust a person with earthly responsibilities and possessions, maybe we shouldn't trust them with heavenly things."

This observation led to an ongoing conversation about what age is appropriate for baptism. Often these discussions turn on what seems ultimately to be an arbitrary choice: when are you an "adult"? When are you "able" to pledge allegiance to Christ for life, aware of what you are doing and saying, and mean it?

The problem isn't only about infant versus believer's baptism, as this quote from James McClendon demonstrates. Here is part of McClendon's critique:
Meanwhile, the churches of the baptist vision have widely responded to the same societal pressures that generated the Constantinian practice, making of the great death-and-resurrection remembering sign a pale cultural symbol, administered to every young child who displays religious feeling (often sincere), and who seeks (as would be normal in childhood's latency period) to emulate admired older persons and to rival other children of the church. So in many baptist churches baptism is still responsive, yet it often fails to be responsible.
As a lifelong member of one of those small-b baptist churches (namely, churches of Christ), this is 100% on the mark. Teenagers who are baptized are at least in murky territory -- but more and more, I am seeing children in elementary school baptized, children whose voices of confession clearly lack puberty's advance. Given the commitment to believer's baptism, is this really any different -- morally, theologically, or psychologically -- from infant baptism?

Here was my simple answer to Garrett's query about the proper age for baptism, either in America or elsewhere: the age at which a culture deems an adolescent to have been initiated or made the transition into adulthood. Depending on time and place, this will be signified by the expectation or possibility of marriage, and/or of having children, and/or of living alone, and/or of owning property, and/or of concluding basic universalized education, and/or of working for one's own or one's family's sustenance, and so on.

Is this view controversial or problematic? Is the rush prior to this stage of adolescent/adulthood transition primarily about fear of damnation? Is it about wanting to "grasp hold of" or to affirm any expression of faith before it withers away? Is it because Americans in particular view the church as a kind of extended family-friendly institution, so the more professing children, the better?

Whatever be the case, I welcome responses and thoughts. And let me reiterate: the assumption of this post is believer's baptism. We have discussed paedobaptism in its own right elsewhere. My question is about, for, and to Christians committed to baptism as the event of a person's conscious confession of Jesus as Messiah and Lord, initiation into his body, washing of burial with him, and rising into the resurrection life of his Holy Spirit. Within that commitment, how ought we to go about discerning the proper age for such an event?

16 comments:

  1. Brad,
    I grew up an Evangelical Mennonite, baptized at age 14. I married a Lutheran, baptized as a baby. Needless to say, we’ve had a good number of discussions about this topic.

    It’s interesting that you point out that your assumption in this question is believer’s baptism, because it was this very question, among others, that forced me to rethink the practice of believer’s baptism. In the end, it seemed almost arbitrary for me to say at 14: “I am ready to be baptized.” Why not before? or after? What is the appropriate age for this conscious decision?

    In my tradition, baptism was always preceded by the candidate’s personal testimony, which, if he or she grew up in the church, almost invariably included the line: “I accepted Jesus at the age of x, but I didn’t really know what it meant until later.” I think if they were to give another testimony today, it might include the line, “I was baptized at the age of y, but I didn’t really know what it meant until later.” My point is that I think we need to acknowledge the sense in which we are being continually baptized, whether it took place by water as a baby or years later. From this perspective, discerning the appropriate age to baptize someone someone on confession of faith might produce less anxiety. I completely agree with you that this decision ought to be a process of discernment for both the believer and the church, and from the perspective of believer’s baptism, both parties want to be certain that the commitment is a spiritual reality and not merely a psychological reality. But given this, I don’t know if we can attach a particular age to the validity of the event.

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  2. Joel,

    Thanks for the comment -- and it certainly sounds like you've had to give this some thought. I couldn't agree more that the "looking back testimony" will inevitably always contain a sense of "I had no idea what I was signing up for." And I appreciate the notion of being continually baptized, or what Jenson (after Luther) calls "baptism and the return to baptism."

    A main emphasis here, which perhaps is helpful spelled out rather than assumed, is that baptism names a commitment to discipleship to which the community can hold one accountable. So I don't want to find a supposed perfect age, at which everyone will be fully mature and know exactly what they are doing. Rather, what is the stage of maturity, culturally mediated, that provides the event of baptism with a base level of conscious commitment, such that the baptized believer can later be told either, "You are walking in the way of Christ, in accord with your baptismal identity!" or "You are not walking in the way of Christ, which is out of sync with your baptismal identity!"

    Let me know if that makes much sense.

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  3. Brad,

    Thanks for the clarification. In terms of a "stage of maturity, culturally mediated," I can perhaps speak from my own experience in college and later in seminary. Our culture leaves us with the freedom to craft our own identity, and it gives us many years to do so - many more years probably than ever before. Now people tend to "find out who they are" most commonly in the latter years of their formal education, which, for more and more people, means in their college years. It's pretty common to exit your post-secondary education a completely different person than you entered it. If you happen to have been baptized beforehand, it often becomes the time and place where you either confirm your baptism or deny it. I wonder then, in a culture where we're not expected to know who we are until graduation, would it be best to wait that long? Is that going too far?

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  4. I think it's counterproductive to talk about a specific age for baptism, culturally defined or not. Rather, I think of baptismal initiation as being determined within the community. That needs to be worked through by the people who will hold that person accountable throughout her life.

    I think we've all witnessed the emergence of very young people who have stunned us by their grasp of the cost of being Christ's disciple. I've also met people well into college who haven't been willing to move forward in their faith.

    In my catechesis I'd have them work in a L'Arche community for a year while reading theology and Bible with other catechumens, then three years of mentorship by an older member of the church while serving in the church. Then we can talk.

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  5. Joel,

    I'm not sure what to do with it, but I appreciate and agree with you that, given the state of culture today, 22-28 would actually be a transitionally mature age...which becomes problematic at some point!

    Melissa,

    Your comments are helpful -- am I hearing you right in saying baptismal maturity "communally defined" rather than "culturally defined"? I fully share your judgment regarding persons "mature beyond their age." I was baptized young, and I don't look back on it as ignorant or with regret.

    I love your practice of catechesis through practice and service in conversation with theology and Scripture, then mentorship. That's basically the right answer, to me, as long as it is communally discerned; I guess my remaining question would be: How, particularly in autonomous congregations, do we go about inculcating this way of coming at the question and challenge of baptism?

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  6. Making The First Catechetical Instruction required reading in seminary? I really don't know but I'm sure it is largely dependent upon the tradition and the church. I wonder if you have any experience with baptists vs Anabaptists on this issue (knowing that even then rural Mennonite churches are in a very different position than urban/suburban churches).

    It's wouldn't hurt to challenge churches in the credo baptismal tradition to eschew the legacy of high school baptism class in favor of something more comprehensive. Which leads the issue of baptism being seen as automatic. It's similar with communion. How many people do we know who don't go forward because they're fighting with their spouse? It's so ingrained to just step up that you feel a little embarrassed to be the one left behind. We have to change the mentality that baptism is right.

    I also want to say that, like all things awesome and righteous, this will require church buy-in that's largely not there. I would venture this sort of turn over in mentality would take a committed pastor a solid 3-5 years to form and challenge a congregation to do it well. It takes patience and very few of us have patience.

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  7. The Tertullian quotation is good in that it provokes our understanding of believer’s baptism according to scripture, only. I was baptized in my late twenties. I rejected my infant baptism authorized by my good-intentioned parents as an act to secure my salvation.

    It is difficult to make a case for the use in the New Testament of (world) culture as the standard (including other particulars such as marriage, property ownership, education to signify readiness) to determine appropriate age for obedience to the gospel. For that matter, too, the approval of the church, or community of one, such as Philip and the eunuch. I have long articulated my understanding there is no more a children's gospel than a adult gospel. Obedience to the gospel by child or adult is contingent on their, the individual, not the church's trust in Jesus.

    The term believer’s baptism, like so many other terms and phrases we are inclined to create in our efforts to understand and clarify, is not a problem if we understand it as being no more no less important than the respondent's willingness to confess Jesus as Lord, to repent, etc. It is unfortunate camps center around one being more important than the other, but the point is these are part of the respondent's act of obedience to the gospel. When Peter instructed his listeners to repent and be baptized it was not to negate or deny the significance of confession or belief in Jesus.

    Whether a child, or adult, a few years after their baptism learns something they did not understand at the time of their baptism it would equally rash of believers to re-immerse them. The obligation is to strengthen them in their understanding and not to create and become participants in a weekly or regular routine of re-baptism in the manner of Saturday night confessions to a priest.

    I am inclined to agree with McClendon's critique on churches of the baptist vision practicing a responsive baptism but which yet fails to be responsible. However, the practice of that baptism, particularly as concerns children, is that it is a choreographed ceremony performed to “get saved.” Even the active mode in that phrase is absent in scripture which teaches baptism and salvation in the passive mode we “were saved”, “have been saved”. The failure of this believer's baptism as taught to and administered to child and adult alike is that, as goes the theology, they are already Christians. The proof of this is their parents are Christian. They have attended church from infanthood. If they were not Christian, well by golly, they are just as good as any, certainly some Christians. They just need to “get saved.” A theology which teaches one is a Christian yet is lost is a gross departure and distortion of New Testament scripture.

    I do not equate infant baptism with that of a child. The significant difference between these two is that the child is acting, notwithstanding their comparative understanding with those already in the Lord, of his own volition in an act of response of his/her trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior.

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  8. Melissa,

    Agreed, that the basic approach simply has to be one of patience. I haven't encountered an actual "baptism class," but more a general attitude that, whenever a parent deems a child to have professed faith and to be ready, they can baptized them. Patience, and a thick catechetical expectation, should be chief theological and practical steps to implement in our congregations.

    Gil,

    My main question simply has to do with the status and age of "children." I assume we are in agreement that a 4-year old is not capable of confessing Christ and being baptized in faith. But what of a 6-year old? an 8-year old? a 10-year old? That, for me, is the question here. Having seen young elementary school children being baptized (only recently), it is foremost on my mind.

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  9. Thank you for your reponse, Brad. It's a great topic. I believe what may really be at issue is the wisdom of parents who are quick to walk their 4-year old to the baptistry. Having said that, when a child has such a conviction about his intentions he will articulate that conviction to a parent who asks why or what has prompted his/her decision to be baptized. I am not suggesting parents ought to oppose, resist or draw up a battery of theological questions and discussion for the child, but an approach which helps them articulate the child's understanding beyond mere parroting of doctrine is no less than Jesus did with his disciples. Short of the child boldly making his way before the congregation to be baptized it is for the parents, not the congregation, preacher or elders, to provide that first line of support and guidance in the child's decision. I do share your concern on the subject, but I believe baptism classes or setting a specific age are not the best response and may be more an over reactions in the matter of child baptism. I go back to my opening statement in this post. It might prove to be quite revealing to hear that child's parents articulate their understanding. I think I have more than a faint idea of what weighs on those parents' minds and it's rooted primarily in their own lack of understanding of the love and grace of God.

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  10. Great discussion. This has also been on the forefront of my mind since I attempted to read through Everett Ferguson's "Baptism in the Early Church" (I say attempted because 860 large pages all about baptism gets overwhelming after a while). I was reared in a Baptist church (CBA) in which the model for baptism wasn't Jesus or the Ethiopian or anyone in acts, but the thief on the cross which proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that baptism does nothing and is, substantially, nothing. The fear of "works righteousness" loomed over our heads. When I decided upon my own initiative to be baptized (though, I realize now that there were more social pressures involved in my faith and baptism than actual contrition, faith, or repentance, but more on that later), I had to take a class in which they taught us two things: baptism is an outward expression of your faith and it doesn't save you. I thought the second point was odd since why in the world would I (somewhere around 8-10 years old) think that baptism would save me?

    Perhaps my tone has hinted at my dislike for such a shallow view of baptism. Nonetheless, as I have reflection upon my childhood experience of baptism through a more robust theological perspective these are the things that concern me.

    1) As has already been said by others, baptism cannot be whole dependent on ones sincerity. There are days when I am more sincere than others, but I'm not going to be re-baptized every time I "realize" that I "really mean it now." I can honestly say that I am a baptized Christian because I grew up in a home of baptized Christians. Let's be honest, children do things to please their parents which can include faith and baptism, but the question then becomes whether such faith and baptism are invalid. Again, resting the entire issue on the sincerity of someone's heart does help because that can always change.

    2) Why refuse baptism when the children are already being reared as Christians? Sure, we weren't allowed to take part in Communion, but that, as with baptism, was nothing. If this is the case, and I know of no Christian parent who is going to raise their child sans Christianity, then maybe we could view them as catechumens until they are ready. I like how the Early Church would pull a "speak now or forever hold your peace" before a baptism. If anyone in the church saw that the person being baptized wasn't living as a Christian should, then baptism would be withheld until a later date. Along this line, I like the idea of baptism being contingent upon some sense of responsibility.

    3) Every child is different and so there cannot be a set age. Gregory of Nazianzus though three years was old enough to be cognitively aware of what was happening, though I think that is rather generous. Determining the proper age for each child is something that can only be done by the parents

    I don't think I've added anything substantial, but since this topic has been on my mind lately I felt inclined to participate.

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  11. Great discussion. This has also been on the forefront of my mind since I attempted to read through Everett Ferguson's "Baptism in the Early Church" (I say attempted because 860 large pages all about baptism gets overwhelming after a while). I was reared in a Baptist church (CBA) in which the model for baptism wasn't Jesus or the Ethiopian or anyone in acts, but the thief on the cross which proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that baptism does nothing and is, substantially, nothing. The fear of "works righteousness" loomed over our heads. When I decided upon my own initiative to be baptized (though, I realize now that there were more social pressures involved in my faith and baptism than actual contrition, faith, or repentance, but more on that later), I had to take a class in which they taught us two things: baptism is an outward expression of your faith and it doesn't save you. I thought the second point was odd since why in the world would I (somewhere around 8-10 years old) think that baptism would save me?

    Perhaps my tone has hinted at my dislike for such a shallow view of baptism. Nonetheless, as I have reflection upon my childhood experience of baptism through a more robust theological perspective these are the things that concern me.

    1) As has already been said by others, baptism cannot be whole dependent on ones sincerity. There are days when I am more sincere than others, but I'm not going to be re-baptized every time I "realize" that I "really mean it now." I can honestly say that I am a baptized Christian because I grew up in a home of baptized Christians. Let's be honest, children do things to please their parents which can include faith and baptism, but the question then becomes whether such faith and baptism are invalid. Again, resting the entire issue on the sincerity of someone's heart does help because that can always change.

    2) Why refuse baptism when the children are already being reared as Christians? Sure, we weren't allowed to take part in Communion, but that, as with baptism, was nothing. If this is the case, and I know of no Christian parent who is going to raise their child sans Christianity, then maybe we could view them as catechumens until they are ready. I like how the Early Church would pull a "speak now or forever hold your peace" before a baptism. If anyone in the church saw that the person being baptized wasn't living as a Christian should, then baptism would be withheld until a later date. Along this line, I like the idea of baptism being contingent upon some sense of responsibility.

    3) Every child is different and so there cannot be a set age. Gregory of Nazianzus though three years was old enough to be cognitively aware of what was happening, though I think that is rather generous. Determining the proper age for each child is something that can only be done by the parents

    I don't think I've added anything substantial, but since this topic has been on my mind lately I felt inclined to participate.

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  12. Sorry about posting twice. You can delete the second one and this message as well. Thanks.

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  13. Gil,

    I share your desire to make the parents the first line of response to children's profession of faith, but my concern is also not to make the church a country club, where people who have "placed membership" can do whatever they want -- like, say, baptize a child just because the child said s/he wants to. Of course, you share that concern, too; but my ongoing question is about what kind of church structures and community forms of life could be formed over time to make clear the real expectations of discipleship that baptism entails for those mature enough to make the decision.

    Ryan,

    Thanks for the comment. I agree that the "efficacy" (or importance) of baptism cannot be based on something as ephemeral and inward as "sincerity," as that would be getting at the whole "mean it as much as you can...then you'll be saved" complex. My focus is simply an age at which one can be aware of the meaning of what is happening and mature enough to be able to commit one's life to Christ.

    To use a simple example, I have heard from trained teachers and child-care providers that before the 9-12 age range, children, purely on a developmental level, cannot understand the notion of a person who both died and is alive. Hence the huge emphasis either on Jesus "dying for us" or Jesus "living and active today" in talking to children about Christian faith. That fact alone demonstrates to me that prior to middle school, it seems unlikely that baptism is a good idea.

    And yes, I think the answer relates to catechesis as well as to premature fears of death and hell. If we thought of Christian formation as a long-term process, that death-at-any-moment is not a fear we should have before the God revealed in Christ, and that being baptized for lifelong Christian discipleship is a profound decision involving one's whole self that must be the end of an extended and serious time of discernment -- that could help a good deal.

    Finally, let me clarify that I am in agreement that we can't just pick an arbitrary age -- that was part of my attempt with my post. The culturally mediated, or communally mediated, stage of developmental maturity, per the child and the world of the child, seems the best approach; though again I hesitate to put it simply in the hands of overly eager parents and leave it at that.

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  14. Has anyone else here heard of "the age of accountability"? That's what I always heard growing up was the proper age for baptism...

    Anyways, it seems there's several questions here including the ones already raised:

    1. A strong notion of hell and a weak notion of grace leads some parents to encourage their children to be baptized because they are truly afraid that if they aren't they will be tortured eternally in hell if, God forbid, a crazy car accident or something happens.

    2. When Christianity equals salvation rather than/more than discipleship the age for baptism easily decreases. This is why I like the idea of three years training before baptism...

    3. Our "de-radicalization" of Christianity has made it a "safe" religion - and of course anything safe is good for children.

    4. Christianity, especially in America, has become very "family friendly" when I'm not sure Jesus' message was...

    5. It seems to me Jesus guarantees the salvation of little children so it doesn't seem very necessary to baptize them...

    6. Finally, How is it that one can legally catch the Spirit in the baptismal waters before drinking the spirits instead of water?

    Anyways, it seems to me that there's a whole lot of theological presuppositions that have led to the acceptance of "believer's baptism" being legitimate for people who find it hard not to believe in anything, including Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. But, of course, we could all be underestimating children and overestimating adults way too much here.

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  15. Jimmy,

    Agreed on all points. In response to #3, how about we start responding to parents presenting children for baptism by asking, "Are you ready for your child to die for Christ?" or saying, "This decision means that you are choosing to put your child in harm's way, for to follow Christ is to take up the cross." Wonder how parents would respond? Or how about just quoting Jesus' words about hating father and mother?

    "Drinking the spirits" meaning drinking alcohol? I like that too: because to become a baptized believer is to be welcomed to partake of the Eucharist, which is bread and wine. Can't be drunk on one without the potential to be drunk on another!

    And finally, amen and amen: who wouldn't believe in Jesus when Santa Claus is still viable? Or worse, who wouldn't think that Jesus is just one more iteration of Santa Claus? The Easter Bunny comes at Jesus' resurrection like Santa comes at Jesus' birth -- it's all the same thing, right?

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  16. Brad,I think we may see some convergence on the the push back on the question of child baptism. Specifically, I push it back to the parents, because a parent who would insist or assert their country club right to have their child be baptized will have put themselves in a position where they themselves should expect to be quizzed by any brother or sister in Christ.

    I do not see, and would rather never see, a time when the church could look back and say she implemented a structured framework x number years ago to resolve this question. Just as every individual in every generation must come to that crucial point of commitment to Jesus so too every individual in every generation must search and discover anew the sacred scriptures to the questions of life and godliness of its modern times. What emerges from this discussion, in my mind at least, is the serious need to probe and teach towards a maturity of the parent as much as the child. I do not say anymore or different than the Hebrews' writer about brothers and sisters who have not moved on beyond the teaching of the first principles of Christ.

    I go back to my earlier post. There is no more a children's gospel than there is an adult gospel. Child or adult coming to be baptized ought be able to articulate in simple terms their understanding of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Although Jesus' conversation with the travelers to Emmaus did not involve baptism I believe it is a precedent with applicability on this matter. Jesus feigned ignorance to allow and provoke them to articulate their conviction. Although they had some misunderstandings, as Jesus reveals, there is no question as to their earnest sincerity and eagerness to be instructed.

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