Can a Pastor Baptize an Infant and Remain Baptist? (Some Thoughts about Identities)
Recently the pastor of an Ohio downtown First Baptist Church (American Baptist Churches, U.S.A.) baptized an infant. As one might expect, it caused a stir among Baptists of all kinds. This would be like a Lutheran pastor refusing to baptize an infant—advising the Lutheran parents to wait until the child is mature enough to decide for himself/herself whether to be baptized. Or it would be like a Presbyterian pastor placing himself and his church under the authority of an Episcopal bishop.
I’m a Baptist, so this ABCUSA pastor baptizing an infant gives me pause—to think about the meaning of being Baptist and whether “believer baptism” is an essential part of being that.
First, we have to realize that Baptists are extremely diverse—even if you don’t (with William McClendon) put the “b” in small case and include as “baptist” churches without the word “Baptist” in their name (many). We are probably about as diverse as any Protestant tradition. There are universalist Baptists, spiritualist Baptists, Bapto-Catholics, Pentecostal Baptists, white supremacist Baptists, African-American Baptists, liberal Baptists and fundamentalist Baptists.
But, traditionally, one thing (possibly more) has held them all together. Traditionally all Baptists have agreed that only believers should be baptized. The theological reasons given are many but three stand out as especially important: “to baptize” in the New Testament means “to immerse” and there are no clear examples of infants being baptized in the New Testament, and baptism is an act of commitment to God and to the church upon which one becomes a fully functioning member accountable not only to parents but to the congregation.
Why would a Baptist pastor of a First Baptist Church of a major American city break from that tradition? And should he still be regarded as Baptist for doing so?
His stated reason is that the parents wanted it and he believes it can be an important sign and symbol of the beginning of Christian nurture of the child—the same reason Baptist churches traditionally practice “infant dedication.” So, unless he means something more, it appears this was only a “dedication with water.” This raises an important question, of course, and that is—will he “re-baptize” the child if/when the child makes a mature profession of faith and wants to become a full member of the congregation? If not, how is this church different from a traditional Congregational church? Why doesn’t it join the United Church of Christ (the contemporary name for the older American Congregational Churches after the merger with the Evangelical and Reformed Synod)? Well, it doesn’t have to if it doesn’t want to. But what will the local Baptist association to which the church belongs say? It’s all something to watch.
Fortunately, in the United States, at least, anyone can call himself or herself “Baptist.” There are no legal impediments. Nobody can stop someone from calling himself or herself Baptist. I’m glad for that, but it also creates a lot of confusion. At the same time many Baptist churches are dropping the word Baptist from their name, many extremist churches are adopting it!
Is there anything one can assume will be the case about a church that calls itself Baptist? This event in Ohio raises that question to an intense pitch. The answer now is: apparently not.
Some will no doubt view this event as a breakthrough in ecumenism and inclusivity. I view it as a betrayal of tradition and trust. But, of course, there’s nothing new or unusual about that. It’s just that now, with this happening in a major, historic, “downtown,” First Baptist Church, with no repercussions, “Baptist” loses more meaning than ever. The result is confusion over the meaning of a label and category I embraced consciously and at some risk to myself in terms of family ties and friendships. You see, I wasn’t born into the Baptist tradition; I chose it. And one of the major reasons I chose it was its firm adherence to believer baptism which I believe is biblically and theologically correct (even as I am reluctant to say infant baptism is never “real baptism”).
Baptists have for some time now been gradually setting the stage for this event in Ohio by baptizing children younger and younger. And the issue isn’t age per se; it’s maturity. In Baptist theology, baptism is an act of commitment—to Christ and the church. It is also a public witness of one’s personal decision of faith and agreement to be accountable to the local congregation as to one’s parents (if not in place of one’s parents). Anabaptists typically reserve baptism until about age sixteen because they believe that’s the age when one is truly capable of becoming accountable to the church along with one’s parents or even in place of one’s parents. In the past, most Baptists have reserved baptism until at least age twelve if not older. But many Baptists, especially Southern Baptists, have been baptizing children as young as five. After all, if, at the end of Vacation Bible School, they “accept Jesus as their Savior,” why not baptize them? And, the denomination (or association, convention) keeps track of baptisms. The more the better it looks on paper (in the annual book).
Is there really that much difference in terms of accountability to keep commitments between a five year old and a five week old? Some of us can’t see it. The law doesn’t recognize it. So, this infant baptism by a Baptist pastor might just result, in part at least, from that gradual process of Baptists embracing “kiddie baptism.” (I have heard of one Southern Baptist church that has a special baptistery for young children that looks like a race car but can hold water!)
Having been a member of three ABCUSA churches in the past, I fear this infant baptism in a major First Baptist Church of the ABCUSA is really further evidence of a loss of concern with theology, doctrine and tradition. Many ABCUSA churches have succumbed to a culture of “niceness” that permits almost anything. Of course, they’re not alone in that; “mainline” Protestantism in general has been succumbing to that for years.
As anyone who has been reading this blog for very long knows, I’m quite a stickler for particularities. I believe strongly in ecumenism as “reconciled diversity,” not sameness. I want denominations to know and hold to their particularities insofar as they can be defended biblically—even if I happen to think they are based on faulty interpretations. In other words, if a Christian Reformed pastor becomes an Arminian, I would like him or her to switch to being, say, Wesleyan or Free Methodist. And if a Free Methodist pastor becomes Calvinist, I want him or her to switch to being Reformed. Both the Christian Reformed Church and the Free Methodist Church (using them only as examples to make a point) have something to contribute to Christianity. I grew up in a huge extended family and on all three sides (I had two mothers—a birth mother who died and a stepmother who raised me) there was lots of diversity. On my stepmother’s side there were Methodists, Pentecostals and Christian Reformed. Family reunions always included talk about religious beliefs and practices. There was some gentle arguing, but when we stood around the table to eat Thanksgiving dinner together the prayer was just Christian. Everyone held hands and prayed with joined hearts. I liked that then and I still like it.