Foundations: No.63 Autumn 2012

“Let the Little Children Come to Me…” But Should We Baptise Them? Why Believers’ Baptism Should Usually Be Adult Baptism

Mike Gilbart-Smith [1]

Though Baptists agree on the necessity of a profession of faith for Christian baptism, there is considerable disagreement as to whether baptism should be restricted to those of a particular age. This article builds upon two key assumptions of credobaptism and of the concurrence of baptism, church membership and participation at the Lord’s Supper to argue that baptism is appropriate for those who are at the stage in life where they are taking on adult responsibilities independent of parental authority.The responsibilities of church membership are inappropriate for children, and therefore the entry point of church membership should be delayed until adulthood. This is not to suggest that even very young children cannot be genuine disciples. Rather, the appropriate locus of their discipleship ought to be the family, rather than the church.

Introduction: a pastoral minefield that must be traversed

The age at which to baptise believers upon their own profession of faith is simple neither in principle nor in pastoral practice.

It is complex in terms of discerning biblical principles for several reasons. Most simply, nowhere is the question addressed directly in the Bible. We are given the age of one person only at his baptism, the Lord Jesus Christ. [2] Few have followed early Anabaptist leaders in insisting that we wait until candidates are about 30 years old before we admit them to baptism in order that they might follow Jesus’ example. [3]

Therefore the approach must be one of inference from other biblical principles as to what would be wisest. For some, we should baptise young children as soon as they are capable of professing faith. [4] For others, we should find an “age of accountability”, which I shall argue is rather more difficult to pinpoint than some seem to suggest. [5] Instead, my approach will be to look at the responsibilities that accompany baptism, and to argue that these responsibilities are best conferred upon those who would be ready to take on other more adult responsibilities, including greater independence from parents.

Unless one concludes that there is a definite age at which one may baptise, (e.g. 4, 10, 12, 18, or 20) the application of the principles are far more complex even than discerning what those principles are. Young adults of identical age may be at very different levels of maturity, and in very different circumstances. Trying to persuade anyone of the wisdom of delaying baptism is an emotive issue, but the emotions are intensified when it is a particular child, and that particular child’s parents require persuasion. Parents can often see their children as “special cases”; and while not wanting to deny that any child is special, one must be aware of the pressures that might be put on that young person’s peers that if someone of their own age within the church has received baptism, then why shouldn’t they? Unless pastors are willing to have difficult and unpopular conversations with young people and their parents, churches will face ever-downward pressure upon the age of baptism until the distinction between paedobaptists and credobaptists will be blurred. The theology of the grounds of baptism might remain different, but the place of baptism within the discipleship of that child, who may grow up even unable to remember their baptism, will be practically identical.

Even more sensitive will be the situations where a pastor or an eldership are wishing to address a culture within a local church that hereunto happily baptised children younger than the current eldership are happy with. “My brother was baptised at 13; why can’t I be?” is a difficult question to answer when confronted with a teenager. Sometimes it is an even harder conversation to have with her parents.

All this is to say that I am not unaware of the pastoral minefield that is opened up by arguing for a higher age of baptism than is often practised in baptistic churches today. Those who argue for a lower age might occasionally be accused of being unwise, but rarely of being a child-hating, harsh, hurtful, divisive, uncharitable or Spirit-quenching bigot. [6] But any pastor arguing for delay well into teenage years should be prepared to receive all such criticism, and must therefore be fully convinced in his own mind that delaying can actually be the most loving, caring, family-honouring, Christ-glorifying approach for the individual young person, and for the practice of the local church. As Mark Dever once said in a sermon to which I am much indebted in this paper, “Such pressures for baptising younger and younger believers could only be resisted by pastors who are convinced that there are clearly biblical reasons for not doing this.” [7]

There is not space in this paper to advise how to negotiate such conversations, but I am painfully aware that they will certainly come and require much wisdom, gentleness and patience. Rather, I hope to argue that making the “charitable assumption” of publicly recognising a young person’s profession of faith in baptism may not be as charitable as we might suppose. If baptism comes with responsibilities, we might recognise that some may be too immature to take on such weight, and therefore should be left free from them until they are old enough. As Tertullian states in the earliest extant treatise that addresses the age of baptism, “If any understand the weighty import of bequeaths, they will fear its reception more than its delay: sound faith is sure of salvation.” [8]

Just this morning I passed a poster at a train station that was trying to raise money for a women’s charity. “Remember leaving school? Getting married? Having your first child? So does Edele: she is 12 years old.” The point is clear. Some of the greatest blessings of life are not so agreeable if they are experienced prematurely. I will argue that baptism is one event that is best left until adulthood. But first I shall clarify two key assumptions that I shall be making.

Two key assumptions

Assumption 1: We should not baptise infants

There has been much ink spilled on the question of whether we should baptise infants and children who are too young to profess their own faith [9] ever since the first recorded explicit mention of infant baptism by Tertullian in around A.D. 200. [10] The fact that Tertullian both mentions infant baptism and opposes it makes it clear that for at least 1800 years the practice has been debated. I do not intend even to survey this debate. This paper is written unapologetically from within a baptistic framework. It may be of some minor use to paedobaptists in questions regarding the age of communicant membership, and in understanding a baptistic position more clearly, but it is written primarily for those who have already agreed that Christians should only be baptised upon profession of their own faith rather than that of their parents or other sponsors. I shall therefore not even attempt to interact with the objections that would most certainly arise against the conclusions of this paper from the parallel to circumcision, baptismal regeneration, infant faith or any other arguments that would be used to deem a profession of faith to be unnecessary for baptism.

Assumption 2: Water Baptism effects full communicant church membership

I came to baptistic convictions as a teenager. It seemed evident to me that the Bible says “Repent and be baptised” (Acts 2:38) and that the order matters. It wasn’t until several years later that I began to see the ecclesiological implications of baptism. Just as faith-producing Spirit baptism is the door to membership of the invisible body of Christ, so public water baptism is the door to the visible church. [11]

Christians across the centuries have recognised this. The question of “whom should we baptise” was identical to the question “whom should we admit to church membership”. So, when Thomas Shepard argues for infant baptism in seventeenth century New England, he entitles his treatise, “The Church Membership of Children.” [12]

Where Baptists have differed from paedobaptists in this is that Baptists have made no subdivision of members into full, adult, communicant members, and child, non-communicant membership. Baptists (along with the innovative Reformed paedocommunionists [13] ) have seen only one church membership and that is full membership.

However, in current, individualistic evangelicalism, this is often very confused. Baptism, church membership and admission to the Lord’s Table are seen as three largely unrelated events in the life of a disciple. I have been a member of one Baptist church with unbaptised (not even infant baptised) members, and of another where parents made the decision when a child was ready for the Lord’s Supper, not the church, sometimes a decade before their baptism. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard a baptismal candidate say, “I’m ready for baptism but not yet for church membership.” All three of these positions would have been utterly unthinkable to Christians from all denominations even a century ago.

My assumption is that baptism and church membership come together, or, more precisely that baptism is the Christian entry ritual into public identification with Jesus Christ (Rom 6:3) and with his body the church (1 Cor 12:13). Moreover, as Jonathan Leeman put it in a recent interview, “Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are just signs of the thing. Church membership is the thing itself.” [14] This is not to deny that the Lord’s Supper and Baptism are means of grace, but merely to assert that they are means of grace given in large part to make the invisible body of Christ seen through visible identification with Christ in baptism, and continued union with Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Or as George Beasley-Murray states, “to be baptised to Christ is to be baptised to his Body. And to be accepted by Christ into his church, but not by the local church into which he is baptised, would be preposterous.” [15]

Just as the marriage service and marital intercourse are signs of the marriage, so baptism and the Lord’s Supper are signs of church membership. Baptism without church membership is like getting married and returning to the parental home (without your spouse!). The Lord’s Supper before baptism is like sex before marriage. The Lord’s Supper without church membership is like sharing a bed with your wife but not actually sharing a life with her.

I shall rely heavily upon this second assumption. And any reader who doesn’t share this assumption will probably not agree with my conclusions, but they should know also, that they probably don’t agree with one of the key ecclesiological agreements that almost all churches, baptistic and paedobaptist, would have shared until the middle of thetwentieth century.

The responsibilities taken on with baptism

The direct responsibilities of water baptism

Baptism is public identification with the Lord Jesus Christ into his death and resurrection entailing the public responsibility of living “a new life” (Rom 6:1-3). Elsewhere baptism is “the pledge of a good conscience before God” (1 Pet 3:21). Thus, in the very act of baptism the candidate becomes a public representative of the Lord Jesus Christ and the life that he gives to all who believe. This is a graver responsibility than when someone merely professes faith, for in baptism the church is recognising that profession of faith to be credible and publicly giving thanks for it.

The responsibilities of church membership

When a person is baptised, not only are they baptised into Christ, but also into his body, taking on the responsibilities of church membership.

Though paedobaptists have held back certain responsibilities [16] from children who have been baptised but not yet entered into communicant membership, no such division is consistent with credobaptism. We should therefore delay baptism until such a time as a candidate is ready for all the privileges and responsibilities of church membership.

(1)  The Lord’s Supper

Though, as we have seen, there are direct responsibilities associated with being baptised, the warnings associated with coming to the Lord’s Table are far clearer. “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:27), for “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16).

If we are to admit someone to the Lord’s Table, we need to recognise the weightiness of that admission, and the real danger we are putting people in if they are not ready to participate in a worthy manner.

(2)  Church discipline

There are two ways in which church discipline becomes a responsibility for those who have been baptised and welcomed into church membership: firstly as one who may come under church discipline, and secondly as one who must participate in the church discipline of others.

Those who have entered membership in a church are subject to its discipline. The congregation may not allow one of its members to remain in unrepentant sin without publically removing them from membership (Matt 18:15-17; 1 Cor 5:1-5). One should ask if such public discipline is the best way to deal with unrepentant sin in pre-teens and younger teenagers. God has kindly given children families to be the nurturing structure in which children will be brought up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph 6:4). However, as soon as someone is baptised and enters church membership, if they fall into persistent, unrepentant sin, it cannot remain the sole responsibility of the parents to lovingly correct and discipline them, for their church membership may not be allowed to continue.

It is a real challenge for a pre-teenager or younger teenager to recognise that discipline can be an act of love even when it comes from his or her parents. When it must come from the whole church, I fear that it will cause too many who sincerely professed faith, but were never truly converted, to flee from the church and never return, feeling that they received only judgment. Because it seems harsh to discipline someone before they have even reached their majority, in practise it means that such discipline is rarely practised, and the teenager merely stops attending church, whilst still being a church member. Yet, having taken a young person into membership, a seemingly gentle refusal to practise church discipline may be worse for their soul even than discipline at a young age, as they would then be taught by the church continuing to allow them membership and the Lord’s Supper, that serious unrepentant sin should not cause them to doubt their salvation.

Perhaps even weightier for young shoulders than the possibility of receiving church discipline is the responsibility to be involved in exercising it in the lives of others. Both Jesus (Matt 18:17) and Paul (1 Cor 5:4) insist that it is the responsibility of the entire gathered congregation to speak to the unrepentant sinner within the congregation and to ultimately put that sinner out of fellowship. If we are welcoming children into our membership this is the responsibility that we are giving them. Should a thirteen year-old schoolboy have the responsibility in being one of the voices speaking into the life of a 32 year-old adulterer? I cannot clearly see how such a responsibility would be appropriate or helpful for such a young person. If Pharisaism and self-importance are two of the chief temptations for children of believers who profess faith young, then by prematurely giving them very adult responsibilities we will only exacerbate such temptations.

(3)  Maintaining doctrinal purity

When addressing the potential abandonment of the gospel in the Galatian churches Paul writes not to the elders of the churches (some of whom may have been involved in teaching another gospel) nor any other subdivision of the church, but he writes “to the churches in Galatia” in their entirety (Gal 1:2). He gives them the highest possible mandate of authority in the area of doctrinal authority: they are to declare as anathema even Paul himself or an angel from heaven if either were to preach another gospel (Gal 1:8-9). Each church in Galatia had corporate responsibility to silence false teaching, whether it was from an apostle, an angel, or anyone else. Are we to give children a share in this responsibility?

The removal of a pastor who has abandoned the gospel is one of the most painful actions that any church may ever have to take. Should not those whom we would not even recognise as legally being mature enough to get married be put potentially under such a weighty and heart-wrenching responsibility as this? Would it not rather be wiser to shield them – allow them to grow to greater maturity without such great responsibilities?

The responsibilities of the family

Love and authority are to be experienced by children from their parents, not only where discipline is necessary, but in through every area of childhood. [17] Parents are responsible for bringing up their children. It is true that all wise parents will grant their children increasing responsibilities, privileges and freedoms.

I have recently allowed my oldest child her first trip to a High Street shopping centre with a similar-aged friend. The temptation as a father to follow on my bicycle at a short distance, or to phone her every five minutes was almost too much to resist! Parents must allow their children to grow in responsibility. Parents may also choose to incorporate many other influences upon their children’s lives in their education and discipleship. But whether a parent decides to educate their child at home or send them to a state or private school, it is the parent who remains responsible for them. Similarly parents may choose different ways in which to partner with the ministries provided by the local church in their children’s discipleship. But the parents remain responsible.

This all changes when a child is baptised and welcomed into church membership. Now the church has its own responsibilities to disciple that child. Immediately that child has two spiritual authorities in their life: the parents’ and the church’s. Are parents ready to share that responsibility with the church? Ought they to be ready for that in the case of a 10, 12 or 14 year old? Are they, in fact, partially abdicating a responsibility that should still be theirs alone? Is the lowering of the age of baptism and church membership in fact a recipe for undermining the responsibilities of parents in bringing up their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord, for they see, functionally at least, that this has now become the church’s job and no longer theirs? [18]

George Barna claims that though “85% of parents believe that they have the primary responsibility for the moral and spiritual development of their children… more than two thirds of them abdicate that responsibility to the church… For instance, we discovered that in a typical week, fewer than 10 per cent of parents who regularly attend church with their kids read the Bible together, pray together (other than at meal times) or participate in an act of service.” [19]

Because of the need for some Christian spiritual oversight, it does mean that I might cautiously suggest a lower baptismal age for those professing faith from a non-Christian background. In the case of a clear profession of faith by one who is not following their parents’ faith, the need for Christian leadership from the church may be a reason to consider baptising sooner. However, this too is not without huge sensitivities pastorally. Will respect for parents be able to be well communicated, even as faith in Christ is being publically professed in baptism? Are they ready to take on the responsibilities of membership? Might there be ways to give a clearer pastoral oversight of such children without giving them the burden of church membership? I still have un-answered questions here, but I also hear few asking them. These questions require the wisdom of elders who know the church and know the teenager and their circumstances.

The responsibilities of the pastors

As already stated, unless a pastor has very good reasons not too, the temptation will be assume that any child who takes the initiative to request baptism must be ready to receive it. It is a pressured situation but every pastor must recognise his responsibilities to that candidate, their parents and the wider church.

Responsibilities to the candidate

The younger people are the more vulnerable they are, and the more direction they need. We are neither to doubt the sincerity of a child’s profession of faith, nor the boldness of their request for baptism. Every step to profess faith in Christ should be verbally and prayerfully encouraged but not immediately certified by baptism. Though children can live as disciples of Christ from when they are very young, much of the discipleship of the young is training for the future responsibilities of adulthood. When a child expresses a premature desire for such responsibilities, whether it be a sexual relationship, leaving home, stopping their education and getting a job or being baptised, they should always be encouraged in recognising that this is a good thing that they should desire for the future, but that the present will be a time of preparation for that, not a time to prematurely grasp at it. Much of discipleship of the young is to be the learning of patience and humility, both of which will be aided through delaying baptism until adulthood.

One should also have a conversation with the child to ensure that they realise that baptism is necessary neither for faith, nor for assurance of faith. It will not be a wasted conversation that begins with a request for baptism and ends with an encouragement for a young person to read through 1 John and to know that the atoning work of Christ is of far greater value than baptism, and that genuine salvation is evidenced in continuing faith, love and obedience before it is evidenced in baptism.

Responsibilities to the parents

We have a responsibility towards parents to disciple them into understanding their responsibility as parents. It is good to instruct parents that it is not their role as parents to lead their children to “pray the sinners’ prayer”; there are plenty of children who have prayed the sinner’s prayer with well-meaning parents, and place their assurance of salvation firmly in the fact that they can “name the day” when they prayed it, but whose assurance proves tragically false in due time. [20] While continually clarifying the gospel and the call to respond to that gospel in repentance and faith, it is important for parents to resist attempting to “define the moment”, nor even to seek to discern whether their child is regenerate, rather to consistently teach and model what the regenerate life looks like, knowing that time will tell whether their child is regenerate. All professions and evidences of faith should be met with encouragement and prayer, without parents feeling that it is their responsibility to tell their children that they are most certainly credible.

Responsibilities to the church

Though I would argue that admission to baptism should be on the basis of a case-by-case decision by the elders of the church rather than a set age, nevertheless a culture will be built up within the church as to the age and stage that is considered appropriate for baptism. We cannot get away from the fact that a precedent is being set by each young candidate for baptism being accepted. There will be expectations from other young people, other parents and the congregation at large that if the last three teenagers within the church were baptised around their 13th birthday: isn’t it about time that Linda is baptised now she has turned 13? Though similar problems might arise with adults: “But you baptised Mahmoud two months after he professed faith, and I’ve been a Christian for six months!” the pressure will be harder when the delay to see the mature fruit of repentance might take years in the case of a child compared with perhaps a few months in the case of an adult.

An even more pressing pastoral responsibility towards the whole church that the pastor must take into consideration is the impact of admitting younger members into the church upon the purity of the church. As Tony Hemphill has observed within Southern Baptist churches, the proliferation of childhood baptisms has been a major factor in the abandonment of church discipline and the purity of the church in its doctrine and lifestyle. [21]

Responsibilities to the head of the church

The church has been given the power of the keys to the visible church (Matt 18:18), and to a large extent these are administered by pastors holding conversations with potential church members. This is a very serious responsibility. We do not wish to wrongly shut people out of the visible church. But we also do not wish to casually name as sheep those who as yet show only fledgling evidence. The local church, as Christ’s body is to display Christ’s character. If we admit young children to membership because we don’t have the heart to say “no”, then likely we won’t have the heart to say “no” to their continued membership if they start living clearly non-Christian lives.

It will be the path of least resistance for a pastor to decide to baptise anyone who requests baptism. But in the end such a policy is one that displays more of the fear of man and desire to be loved, than the true shepherd-like love for the individual child, or the church as a whole, let alone the Good Shepherd himself.

The voice of the past

We have seen from the first arguments against Infant Baptism that Tertullian insisted upon awaiting other adult responsibilities such as marriage, or at least tested adult celibacy outside of marriage. Baptists have tended to follow suit through the centuries, waiting at least until young people have some other independence, such as a jobs of their own, before admitting them to baptism.

Cyprian was born around 200 AD and baptised around 246 AD (aged 46). Jerome was born around 347 AD and baptised around 366 AD (aged 19). Chrysostom was born around 350 AD and baptised around 367 AD (aged 17 or 18) by Meletius, bishop of Antioch. John Gill was brought up in a Baptist home and was baptised at age 19, Nov. 1, 1716 (just 3 weeks shy of his 20th birthday). John Ryland was brought up in a Baptist minister’s home in Northampton, England, and was baptised in 1767 at age 14. Samuel Pearce was brought up in Baptist home and was baptized on July 20, 1783, Pearce’s 17th birthday. [22]

These ages were typical throughout the eighteenth century. We start to see some Baptist ministers lowering the age of baptism during the second half of the nineteenth century after the Second Great Awakening. For example, though Charles Spurgeon himself wasn’t baptised until 6 months after his very clear conversion at 16, and didn’t baptise his sons until they were 18 despite being involved in evangelistic ministry for some years prior to that, he did argue for baptising children much younger, and is known to have baptised 12, 11 and even 10 year olds. And so he preached:

Brothers and Sisters, it would be very greatly sinning against children if the moment their little susceptible minds were made to feel terror on account of sin, we should put that down as repentance. Or the moment they felt some joy at the thought of the love of Christ we should assure them that they possessed faith. This would be to educate them in self-deception. We should not look to find in the young more than in the old. But so far as faith and repentance are concerned, we must require quite as much. I mean that the same repentance which is necessary in an adult in order to salvation is indispensable in a child.

Let us judge them righteously, but let us not judge them censoriously. Let us be willing to receive them to Baptism and to the Lord’s Table, and when they are received, instead of thinking of them as though they were less valuable than other members, let us count them to be the very pride of the flock! [23]

If anything we should delay longer not shorter than the past. We often hear that children have to grow up so quickly today. This may be the case compared to the 1950s in terms of exposure to the world. However, in terms of responsibility, children are caused to grow up less quickly, particularly in the West, than their Victorian forebears. How many of the 12 year olds baptised by Spurgeon would have been in full-time employment, for example?

Baptismal ages begin to drop rapidly, however, through the twentieth century, just as growing affluence in the West means that the ages of employment and marriage are increasing. Dale Moody was baptized at 12 in 1927 in Grapevine, Texas. Jimmy Carter was baptized at 11 in 1935 (or 1936) in Plains, Georgia. Paige Patterson was baptized at age 9 in 1951 by his father, a Baptist pastor in Beaumont, Texas.

Come the twenty-first century, among Southern Baptists it is not uncommon for 4 year olds to be baptised. As one writer put it, “It is alarming to realize that fully one third of all first baptisms in the SBC are children who have not yet learned how to choose their own clothes”. [24] Though believers’ baptism has rarely been practised so early in Britain, it has still been common at least from the mid-twentieth century to baptise children as young as 8. [25] But without a principled argument to delay baptism, the pressure upon the age of baptism will remain downwards.

How long should we delay?

The question amongst credobaptists is not whether we should delay baptism, but to what extent should we delay. I do not yet know of any credobaptists who would baptise a two year old, though I have no doubt that a two year old can profess faith in Christ, nor do I have any reason to believe that there may not be many two year olds who have come to genuine, if immature faith. Yet Baptists have recognised that it is very difficult to discern with young children whether a profession of faith is more than a repetition of the faith of their parents. And, by definition, credobaptists will not baptise on the basis of parental faith that has not yet also become their own.

We should delay so that evidence of faith is given

The younger a professing believer, the longer one should wait in order to discern whether faith is genuine, particularly those children who have believing parents. Children are both designed and commanded in the Scriptures to obey their parents, and to follow them. Without ever questioning the sincerity of a child’s profession of faith, we would be unwise to underline it in baptism until sufficient evidence is given that this is a faith that is owned by the child. In most circumstances it will be very hard to distinguish a healthy desire to trust and follow parents from a Spirit-wrought desire to follow the Lord Jesus, and it will be unhelpful to attempt do this. We should teach children what it means to follow Jesus, and how to find full assurance of salvation in him without declaring their faith real in baptism.

In terms of the Parable of the Sower, when assessing baptismal candidates we are dealing with those who are either good soil, rocky soil or thorny soil. We are by no means requiring a criterion of certainty before we would baptise anyone. We simply do not have the ability or the responsibility to look into a baptismal candidate’s heart in order to discern whether a profession of faith is credible. In order to have reasonable evidence that someone has genuine faith, and is therefore good soil, we need also to have reasonable evidence that they are not thorny or rocky soil, that is, they are not those whose profession of faith will cave under the pressures of persecution and worldliness (Mark 4:13-20). If a mere profession of faith is required rather than a credible profession of faith then baptism, designed by the Lord to be a great aid in the assurance of the believers’ faith, will offer false assurance to many.

In the case of those still living in the parental home with little independence, there is a real question concerning the extent to which such evidence is possible. How much has such a profession of faith faced the pressure of persecution and the pull of the world? The answer is not to send children out like sheep amongst wolves so that they will show earlier evidence of regeneration, but to recognise the huge opportunities that the safety of childhood gives for instruction, for patience, and for preparation for a lifetime of discipleship that we pray they will have.

Children are designed by the Lord to be malleable, even gullible. It is natural for children to believe what their parents tell them. They are able to be shaped, and formed by teaching and instruction due to their natural childlike trust. Paul expects church members to be unlike children “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” (Eph 4:14, ESV). In order to discern if a child’s faith is credible, one has two choices: either to accept their faith upon the basis of the credibility of the parents’ faith (but then we really have become paedobaptists) or to try to distinguish between faith in Christ and faith in the parents, which is extremely difficult, and has doubtful spiritual benefits. Rather we should allow children to profess faith within the nurturing environment of the family home until such time as childhood is left behind, and a credible profession of faith is possible. If credibility of belief is at all an aim, there is something seriously awry when we count someone’s faith in Christ credible at an age when many of their peers believe in Father Christmas.

We should not look for an “age of accountability”

The question therefore is not whether to delay, but how long to delay. Until a child is four? Six? Ten?

Many have argued that the biblical age is twelve citing a notion of an “age of accountability”, as Jewish boys might first read the Scriptures publicly at 12 after their bar mitzvah, and Jesus himself visited the temple at Passover aged twelve (Luke 2:41-52). [26] However the term “age of accountability” is nowhere found in the New Testament, and if we look through the Old Testament to glean what age a child comes to full accountability, twenty seems a more likely candidate than twelve: Only those over twenty should serve in the army (Num 1:1-4) participate in offerings (Exod 30:14) or commence service as a Levite (1 Chron 23:27; 2 Chron 31:17; Ezra 3:8). And only those over twenty died in the wilderness as a result of God’s judgment upon their unbelief (Num 14:29).

So, it is difficult to argue that twelve is an age of full accountability. We are left once again without a clear answer of how long to delay, but only with the need to exercise biblical wisdom.

We should delay until adulthood

All this leads me strongly in the direction of concluding that the appropriate stage of life in which someone should take on the responsibilities of baptism, membership and the Lord’s Supper is when they are taking on other adult responsibilities. I don’t want to put an age on this because different teenagers take on adult responsibilities at different ages.

A sixteen year old single mother recently converted from a non-Christian background may well be seen to have a great deal more adult responsibility for their faith than an eighteen year old home-educated pastor’s son who quietly professes faith while still living in the parental home.

For elders considering whether a teenager is mature enough for the responsibilities of baptism and church membership, they would do well to ask themselves what they would be saying if the same person was asking advice on whether the elders considered them mature enough to take on other responsibilities such as leaving full-time education to get a job, leaving home, or even getting married. Elders who would shrink back from advising the teenager to take on any of these other responsibilities, yet rush into laying upon that young soul the burdens of holding the keys of the kingdom of heaven, have either overestimated the maturity needed for responsibility in the world, or underestimated the maturity needed for responsibility within the church.

Objections anticipated

Are we being just plain disobedient?

Our wisdom falls woefully short of God’s wisdom. If it seems wise for us to prevent children from receiving baptism, whereas the word of God commands it, our wisdom is foolishness indeed.

Are we like the disciples preventing children to come to Jesus (Luke 18:15-17)? Are we leading children into disobedience because they are commanded to repent and be baptised upon their profession of faith (Acts 2:38-39)? Are we ourselves being disobedient to the Great Commission of Jesus in failing to baptise children as soon as they become disciples? As one blogger has put it,

Refusal of baptism is a sin. If I refuse to baptize a genuinely converted child, I am forcing them not to do what Jesus has commanded them to do. Nay, all the worse, I am refusing to do what Jesus has commanded me to do in the Great Commission. [27]

Or, as Ted Christman argues,

In short, it regrettably “forbids the children” who are truly converted to obey the Great Commission. It forbids them membership in the church. It forbids them the Lord’s Table. It forbids them the pastoral oversight that rightfully belongs to all members of the church. It forbids them the sense of belonging to the family of God, even though they do in fact belong to Christ. [28]

Luke 18:15-17 [29]

The first text proves either too much or too little: it is often used by paedobaptists and will be of no use for those who argue for believer’s baptism of children, because there were not just young children, but babies present. Whereas Matthew and Mark use only the word τὰ παιδία in their accounts Luke uses two Greek words τὰ βρέφη and τὰ παιδία suggesting that Luke was “thinking especially of babies” [30] .

In any regard, there is little to connect this account with baptism. As Spurgeon once put it, “There is no line of connection so substantial as a spider’s web between this incident and baptism, or at least my imagination is not vivid enough to conceive one.”

He backs this claim up with three arguments.

It is very clear, Dear Friends, that these young children were not brought to Jesus Christ by their friends to be baptized. “They brought young children to him, that he should touch them,” says Mark… In the next place, if they brought the children to Jesus Christ to be baptized, they brought them to the wrong person; for the Evangelist, John, in the fourth chapter, and the second verse, expressly assures us that Jesus Christ baptized not, but his disciples: this settles the question once for all, and proves beyond all dispute that there is no connection between this incident and baptism.

But you will say, “Perhaps they brought the children to be baptized by the disciples?” Brethren, the disciples were not in the habit of baptizing infants, and this is clear from the case in hand. If they had been in the habit of baptizing infants, would they have rebuked the parents for bringing them? If it had been a customary thing for parents to bring children with such an object, would the disciples, who had been in the constant habit of performing the ceremony, have rebuked them for attending to it? [31]

Acts 2:38-39

Again a classic text in the conversation between credobaptists and paedobaptists, Peter’s command to “Repent and be baptised” is applied to “you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.” Credobaptists have traditionally emphasised the facts that the promise is not for all children, but those who repent, those who are called, and that this excludes infants. Can it, however, also exclude children old enough to repent and to profess faith? Are we stopping children from obeying Jesus’ commands by refusing them baptism when they themselves request it?

We should firstly ask what is meant by “children” in Acts 2:39. The Greek phrase is “τοῖς τέκνοις ὑμῶν”. This “denotes the child in relation to his parents and forefathers” [32] not children as opposed to adults. Therefore, many times the word τέκνον is used in the New Testament to refer to adults. The point being made is not that this is for children as well as for adults, but that this is for people from every generation and from every nation. Each generation of believers in every nation must come to repent and be baptised.

The fact that this is a command does not automatically imply that it is a command that children must obey if they are to be faithful disciples of Jesus. There are many other commands in the New Testament given to disciples which we infer do not apply to children, and that in no way is their discipleship compromised as a result. So, we do not think that “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat” (2 Thess 3:10) applies to ten year olds! Neither would we see commands to marry (1 Cor 7: 9, 36), or even to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28) as applying to children.

To suggest that we must baptise children because the command to repent and be baptised applies to children begs the question.

Matthew 28:18-20

Similarly to the previous passage, here we have a clear biblical command concerning the baptism of disciples. However, here the command is given to us as the church to baptise them, rather than to the individual disciple to be baptised.

Again, one must ask whether one can ever be faithful to the command to “make disciples of all nations, baptising them…” if one delays baptism in order to perceive the credibility of their profession of faith. Again, all credobaptists agree. Their two year old may sing, “I have dethided to follow Jethuth” but they do not immediately baptise her. The question remains, “how long a delay is wise in the case of children?”

Are we avoiding a clear implication of the New Testament?

Is the baptism of believing children strongly implied if not directly commanded? Does the near immediate baptism of people coming to faith in Acts imply that a long wait between faith and baptism is always wrong? Does Titus 1:6 imply the necessity of discerning a child’s faith in a way that this paper denies?

Acts 2:41 etc.

The immediate baptism of three thousand who profess faith on the day of Pentecost might be seen as strong evidence against the need to delay baptism until evidence of faith is observed. Other evidence could also be mounted from Acts to suggest that baptism was fairly immediate upon profession of faith. [33] Firstly, we should note that the baptisms in Acts are largely happening in the context of a persecuted church. For example, on the day of Pentecost, the three thousand baptised were all professing faith in Christ in the city where he had recently been crucified. There was little doubt that the cost of discipleship was extremely evident to them.

Titus 1:6

Does Titus 1:6 insist that an elder must be “a man whose children believe?” (NIV). If this is a criterion for eldership, then surely it must also be a sufficiently credible evidence of faith for baptism, must it not?

I would simply disagree with the translation, and suggest that πιστά would be better translated “faithful” or “trustworthy”, as in the NIV footnote. [34] What is clear from this qualification for eldership, however, is that the family is a great testing ground for eldership: for the father has pastoral responsibility within the family, just as the pastor has pastoral responsibility within the church.

Aren’t we withholding wonderful blessings from children?

We see baptism, church membership and the Lord’s Supper as means of grace, that the Lord has given his church for her blessing and edification. Are we really saying that we want to withhold such blessings from our children, whom we love? Yes, we are!

We regularly withhold God’s blessings from our children because we do not think that they are appropriate blessings for children. Who but the most hardened allegorist can read Song of Solomon and not see the Lord’s blessing upon sexual love? Yet whilst teaching our children to prepare for the blessings of a God-honouring marriage, we are rightly horrified when we hear of children who have either sought (or worse, received social pressure to seek) such blessing prematurely. We could add to this the blessings of earning a living, of leaving home, of financial independence from parents and the list goes on. These are all good things we should all prepare our children for, whilst rightly holding them back from them.

Concerning the blessing of pastoral oversight, for those raised with Christian parents, such pastoral oversight is more appropriately given by parents than by the elders of a local church. Interestingly, both in Titus 2, and in 1 Tim 5-6 Paul instructs Timothy and Titus to discharge pastoral responsibility towards older men, younger men, older women, younger women, elders, slaves and masters, but never children. When such a seemingly comprehensive survey of pastoral responsibility is outlined in these chapters, it would seem very strange if children under Timothy and Titus’ pastoral care would be so absent. Is Paul, even under the divine inspiration of the Spirit, refusing to instruct pastors as to how to let the little children come to Jesus, or does he merely see this as the pastoral responsibility of fathers not pastors, as we see in Eph 6:4 and Col 3:21?

Conclusion: a positive vision for children of believers

I have argued in this paper largely about what is good for children. The baptism of young children is not good for them, or for their peers.

However, the consideration must be not only the individual child, but the ultimate glory of God. The purity of a church that is accountable to one another and responsible before God is ultimately undermined by child baptism. If the purity of the church is undermined, then so also is her witness to every generation of children.

In the end we must have far more concern about whether children are in the invisible, eternal church, than at what age they are admitted into membership in the visible, temporal church. We should share the gospel with children, we should encourage them to repent and believe, we should encourage parents to take an active interest in their children’s discipleship and encourage all fledgling signs of faith. We should teach children to grow in the grace of evangelism, service and love within the community. We can and should do all this without baptising them.

We should not deny all responsibilities from younger teenagers, and even pre-teens. We need not merely tell teenagers to wait until they are older before they are ready to be baptised and join the membership of the church. Such a negative vision is insufficient, just as in other realms of growth. For example, we would be foolish to tell a teenager struggling with a growing sex drive only to abstain from sex until they are old enough to get married. [35] In both cases, the reason they should wait is because of the need to grow in maturity. A positive vision for that time of growth towards maturity must be held out.

In preparing children for the responsibilities of marriage we would encourage them to learn how to have appropriate and healthy relationships with members of the opposite sex. In preparing them for church membership we would seek to train them in loving people of different ages and stages of life across the spectrum of the church.

This learning curve does not need to wait until teenage years. When visiting a member of the church in hospital I will often take one of my children with me as I visit, read the word, listen and pray. This is good both for the congregation member I am visiting and for the child. Within the life of the church there are some areas of service that are restricted to members of the congregation, but there are many that are not. Teenagers and younger children have helped serve within the corporate gathering of the church in many ways from serving refreshments afterwards, to helping with the public address system, to playing a musical instrument, to helping with childcare. It is appropriate to give growing responsibilities and opportunities for service without the weighty responsibilities or holding the power of the keys, or even drinking judgment upon oneself.

My hope is that by delaying baptism until adulthood the discipleship of children will be less burdensome, and the coming to baptism and church membership will be more meaningful for the one who is old enough to be incorporated into the body of the church will all its privileges and responsibilities, and see them not as a burden, but, like the groom on his wedding night, as a long anticipated privilege now enjoyed.