Baptized Too Early? What do you think?

Baptized Too Early? What do you think? November 5, 2014

Pastor Roger, speaking from a “free” church baptistic context (no infant baptism) and concerned about a failure to understand what one is getting into, wonders aloud if churches are baptizing by profession too many too young:

What is your wisdom on this one?

I was seven years old. I was baptized by immersion on Mothers’ Day, 1957.

Two weeks later I sensed that God was telling me that He wanted me to be a pastor. Six years later I preached my first sermon. My life’s work was laid out before me. I never wavered.

My story is highly unusual. I made a deep commitment to Christ and stuck to it. Few determine the course of their lives at the age of seven–and stick to it. Of course, some do.

In an Evangelical Church culture where the age of children baptized reaches down to five or four, it is no wonder that so many of our church children are getting baptized too early and grow up with little whole-hearted dedication to Christ.

Maybe it is time to stop baptizing children and wait until they are twenty or so and in the process of putting in place their life-long values and commitments. It seems to me that we have an intriguing model of twenty-year-old conversions put in place by God when the spies returned and God punished Israel for their lack of faith. He declared that no one over the age of twenty could cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land.

You may have heard the term, the “age of accountability,” which uses the same idea as the story above. The idea is a child has until twenty to make up their mind whether or not they want to follow Christ. The age of accountability varies from person to person–some older/younger than others. If they die before reaching the age of accountability they are not responsible for their sins and thus go to Heaven. However, after reaching the age of accountability they are responsible for their sins and need a personal savior–one who is both Lord and Savior.

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  • Cosmo

    My experience after 30 years in an independent evangelical church is that there is a good bit of pressure put on children to “make a decision for Christ” and get saved as soon in life as possible. Baptism would surely follow soon after. Could it be that many of these children were effectively coerced, manipulated, and even scared into speaking certain words, assuring anxious parents that their kids were now “in”? In my experience absolutely so.

    Some of this is caused by social pressure put on parents to be able to point to their young children and say, “They have been saved.” In other cases it is simply bad theology that assumes that we need to get our kids saved ASAP so they won’t step out of the house, get hit by a bus, die and go to Hell – all because we were slacker parents. Little wonder that 10-15 years later many of these kids are in spiritual disarray. In their hearts they know they are far from God, yet they have been told for all of those years that because of the prayer they prayed and their baptism way back when that they are Christians, and so they ought to think and act accordingly.

    Parents and youth leaders need to focus more on grace-filled shepherding and discipleship, be patient with God’s work and timing, and stop the coercive evangelism techniques. In this environment our kids can be drawn to God (and baptism) in a more honest and genuine way.

  • wolfeevolution

    I wholeheartedly agree. I have always regretted being baptized even at twelve. I wish I had waited until later when it would have been more meaningful to me.

  • I grew up in the SBC tradition and we didn’t baptize infants. And I grew up with many kids who had been baptized, but didn’t reflect Christ.

    That said, I agree with about half of the post. Yes, we should have an understanding that, as people transition from child to adult, they will be free to abandon family and/or faith. But I have a hard time reconciling this recommendation with the actual words of Jesus. Whenever the issue of children comes up, he turns the notion that they need to be more adult-like to enter the kingdom on its head. How do we square the “they don’t know what they’re getting into” argument with Jesus’ own words, and his critique of our (adult) faith compared to the faith of children? Finally, what role does baptism actually play here?

  • Another Roger (Olson) whose work appears frequently on this site has some interesting thoughts that relate to this topic:

    He suggests how the different baptism practices of our different traditions could be brought together if we were all able and willing to give just a little.

    My own history almost requires some such perspective. I was not baptized as an infant, but was brought up in a rural Methodist church under the tutelage of my mother who was of Restorationist background. During my childhood and adolescence, most of my pastors were either evangelical Nazarene seminary students or (some moderate, some liberal) mainline Methodist seminary students. My believers’ sprinkling baptism conducted by a Nazarene pastor occurred in 1957, on Palm Sunday, just after my eighth birthday and just a few weeks before the present Roger’s Mother’s Day baptism. On the Sunday I was baptized, my mother placed her membership in the Methodist church where she went on to become a licensed lay leader. Completely inconsistently, when I was twelve, I was taught in confirmation class by a Methodist student pastor (most of what I remember was about John Wesley) and confirmed (as if I had been baptized as an infant).

    Interestingly, my seven-year-old daughter was later baptized by immersion on the same Sunday that I was being installed as the pastor of a Disciples of Christ congregation. I since have acquired qualms about practicing believer’s baptism so early, although both intellectually and spiritually she could answer any question that I would have expected an adult candidate for baptism to be able to answer, and there was no doubting the sincerity of her faith. Interestingly, she is now an Anglican.

    Just to complete the confusions of my history, when I was pastoring a later congregation, the youth leader indicated that because her previous church (Church of God, Anderson) did not require baptism, she had not been baptized and that she wanted to be baptized by immersion by her uncle, who was a Wesleyan missionary home on furlough. She wanted it to be done as part of the worship service in our Disciples church. The deepening of my spiritual life that had been going on for about two decades since God started challenging my mainline seminary training clicked in, and I decided to let her uncle immerse me too. My immersion baptism was for me the completion of my inner dying to demythologizing and my coming alive to the living, reigning God. My congregation understood because those who cared about such things had been walking on this journey with me.

    Anyway, I think it is time for Christians of all stripes to come together to decide how we can practice baptism in ways that indicate that God’s grace touches and begins to form us before we are able to respond, that there comes a point when we must make the faith journey our own, and there comes a (usually) much later point when we recognize that there is much sin and unbelief to which we must die if we are to be raised to walk in fullness of life. If we can begin to view baptism as a process with several stages that need to be marked, I think that many of our baptism practices could be made compatible rather than unnecessarily divisive.
    But I have to be pretty humble about my messy history with baptism.

  • Being part of the Catholic Church I was baptized at a few weeks. My sense, now that I am an adult, well a senior adult, is that the Baptism was God claiming me and allowing me to grow in his Grace until such time as I came to the age of accountability and sought him out; thereby being Baptized by the spirit.

  • David Grant

    Important stuff to think about. I’m equally as concerned about a transactional conversion decision where a child / student “prays the prayer” and becomes a Christian. Often when that happens it’s a sure thing and baptism follows.

    Perhaps there is a point of conversion but the gospel should continually be shared with children no matter their age. My hope for my children has been that there would never be a time they didn’t hear and believe the gospel. That doesn’t really fit in with a “you should know your spiritual birthday” mentality.

    I love what Chad says

    “Parents and youth leaders need to focus more on grace-filled shepherding
    and discipleship, be patient with God’s work and timing, and stop the
    coercive evangelism techniques”

    In my opinion many children are baptized a little too young. As they become older the beauty of declaring “Jesus is Lord” and celebrating with the Body of Christ has a little more meaning.

  • DMH

    I tend to see children as already “in”. Pushing them to make a decision to be “in”, and then prove it with baptism is just wrong headed. Baptism can be done later as a way of fully embracing /acknowledging the reality that’s been there all along.

  • Israelite babies received the sign of circumcision even with the full knowledge that some would be unfaithful later in life. Baptism is more about entrance into God’s covenant people than it is about a private understanding of faith or future dedication to it.

    I think a question behind your question is, “Are we putting too much weight on a child’s profession of faith?” And a question behind that is, “Is someone praying a sinner’s prayer and meaning it at the time the same as becoming a Christian?” I would say the answer to that is No.

  • Jon Altman

    “The age of accountability” is pretty much made up to fit a theology. I think surrounding people with the love of God and of the people of God is not a “problem.” Who of us actually “understands” the grace of God, at any age?

  • NathanMichael

    Was Jesus too young when he was circumcised? How could he understand the covenant He was entering into? (I use this as an example as Paul equates the covenant of baptism with the covenant of circumcision.)

    Jesus’ parents (particularly his father) as the head of his household was responsible for his children learning and keeping the covenant. So it is with us who were baptized as infants or baptize our infants. The family and the church work together to raise the child in faith.

    The issue here is very much more one of philosophical world view than Biblical theology. The equation of faith with knowledge or cognisance is a philosophy, not a Biblical revelation. Biblical faith includes much more than knowledge and doctrine.

    Some people stay with faith they’ve received others choose differently. I’ve seen just as many adults walk away as I have people who were raised in faith. The issue isn’t so much when they enter into covenant as it is the support of family and church who support them in their covenant and faith walk. And of course with every individual there is the issue of how an individual chooses to respond to Jesus every day.

  • mark austin

    why don’t we as The Church make apologetics mandatory for our 17/18/19 year olds and have them come before the church after they go through a year of apologetics and affirm before the church: “Now that I’m adult I affirm my childhood decision to follow Christ. Now that I’m adult I affirm my childhood baptism. Now that I’m adult I am glad that I know why I believe and not just what I believe.”

  • newenglandsun

    If we did this, then no one would ever be baptised. Raise your hand if you committed no sin and were fully and wholly dedicated to Christ 100% after your baptism (we’re not talking about 99.999999999%…just 100% and no less).

  • Peter Davids

    I often refer to baptistic church baptism between ages of 5 and 12 as “delayed infant baptism” in that (1) there is pressure on the child to “make a decision” and (2) there is pressure to be baptized either as part of or after the decision, depending on the church’s polity. Piaget pointed out that it is only after 12 or so that the necessary higher level cognitive process are in place for a truly independent decision about something like God. Other groups, such as the Bruderhof, have argued cogently that it is not until one is independent, i.e. able to support oneself, that one should not be suspected of making any decision based on parental pressure. They will not baptize until the youth has gone through university or technical training and could earn a living outside the community, if they wished. This is taking the idea of making an adult decision seriously.

    While there is no real biblical passage for an “age of accountability” there is biblical basis for familial solidarity. If, then, the child is part of the believing family, even if their faith is hardly an adult decision, why not baptize as an infant, when the faith is first spoken over them by their family? They are already part of the community. If that is not acceptable, then by all means wait until the later teens at least so that the adult decision is truly independent and truly adult.

    I do not doubt that many children make decisions that deepen as time went on (e.g. my wife). I also realize that most of them had faith before that point and that point was a culturally dictated crisis that the must be able to point to. In my case, I made a decision privately at age 5 because of a Sunday School teacher who said I would be left behind if the rapture came and I had not done so. I did this repeatedly in my bed at night for weeks, if not months. This did not change my faith status, for I believed before and believed afterwards. It was just well-meaning but still hurtful child abuse. In my case I see faith continuity from my earliest years to adulthood, marked with periodic times when I made this or that turn that depended my faith as I had more and more mature encounters with God.

  • scotmcknight

    Wonderful comment, Peter.