Friday, October 18, 2019

On the pastoral use of baptism

Steve Kneale asks some interesting questions of baptists who admit into church membership those who were baptised as infants.  Steve's concern is that churches are admitting people into membership whom they don't regard as validly baptised.  I think that is an important concern!  It's clear to me that baptism in the NT is the gateway to church membership; or to put it another way, the NT doesn't countenance people belonging to a local church (through membership) without first or also entering The Church (through baptism).

I've tried to unfold a doctrine of baptism here over the years.  It's developed with time - the most recent brief effort at pointing in the direction which I think Scripture points is here.  Short version: I think that it is mistaken to characterise baptism as (part of) the answer to the question 'what should I do now I've become a Christian?'; it should instead be seen as (part of) the answer to the question 'how do I become a Christian?'  I think that getting this right allows those of us who don't see any justification in Scripture for infant baptism to nevertheless regard it as the same thing as adult baptism, just administered at an improper time.  In answer to Steve's questions about who gets to come into membership, then, I would say that anyone who has received (Christian, Trinitarian) baptism at any stage can be admitted.  I would add that I would not rebaptise anyone who was baptised as an infant.

In some of the responses to Steve's post on the Twitter, I've been struck by the reliance on conscience as the main criterion of receiving someone.  A number of people have effectively said 'if the person genuinely believes their infant baptism to be valid, then we'll take them; although we might try to persuade them first that they're wrong and they need to be baptised as a believer'.  The problem with that, I think, is that it makes baptism something very subjective.  Is this person baptised?  Well, it rather depends on what they believe about their baptism.  Do they feel baptised?  Are they content in their own conscience that they are baptised?  That becomes the decisive question.  The absurdity of this is that you could have two people who were put through the same rite - they both received Trinitarian baptism as infants - and in the eyes of the church one of them is baptised and one is not, based purely on whether they think they are baptised.

To my mind this is to exalt the subjective above the objective, and in so doing to undermine the pastoral use of baptism in the NT.  For Paul, it seems to me, the objectivity of baptism is part of its appeal.  When he appeals to believers to live out their baptismal identity, as he does for example in Romans 6, the appeal is to something that has happened to them.  Don't you know that your baptism meant dying with Christ?  Don't you know that?  It is the very objectivity, the fact that however they may feel or whatever they may think, the Christians exist as those who are baptised, that forms the grounds of the appeal for them to bring their subjectivity into line with this objectivity - to live out this given identity.  Paul cannot make this appeal to a bunch of people who are unsure whether they are baptised or not.  He is calling them to build their identity on the event of their baptism; not to decide whether their baptism was real based on their sense of identity.

This has a corporate aspect, of course.  You were baptised into one body.  Baptism is not just a matter of the individual and their conscience; it is the objective bond uniting Christians and holding them together.  Again, Paul cannot make the appeal to unity on the grounds of baptism which he does make in 1 Corinthians if there are those within the Corinthian church who are not regarded as baptised by others in the church.

Both infant baptism and the subjectivist fudge seem to me to empty baptism of the use to which the NT puts it.  Paul's 'don't you know..?' appeals to people who have been objectively baptised.  But it appeals to them on the basis that they understood what they were doing when they were baptised.  Infant baptism ought not to happen, and so all of our responses to it are working out how to deal with a sub-optimal situation.  My answer is that at (almost) all costs the objectivity of baptism should be maintained.  I think that means recognising infant baptism as valid but improper baptism.  If you can't get there (and I'd love to have a proper debate about this with someone at some point), well, at least don't fudge it.


  1. I've taken a read through Steve's post and don't see any mention of confirmation. I don't mean the 'dress an eight year old up in white and have another party' variety but when a mid-teen / young adult reaches a point when they have made a commitment based on faith and understanding and want to confirm for themselves the promises made for them as a child.

    Disclaimer - my bias is that I was confirmed aged 18, having grown up in a Christian family. It would have made certain parts of my life simpler if I'd taken the offer to (re-)baptised the week before but now, the best part of 30 years later and having lived that commitment out, the thought that some churches would still expect me to go under the water again seems to theologically place salvation with the action rather than the Saviour.

    Where does confirmation fit in your contemplations?

    1. I guess Steve and I are both operating within a non-conformist setup which wouldn't recognise confirmation (because it's not biblically mandated); I've always felt that the practice of confirmation in the various episcopal churches (and I assume there is some sort of equivalent in Presbyterian circles, but I don't know what it is) is a tacit admission that infant baptism was a bad idea! Within our church setup, I suppose local church membership would be the closest analogue to confirmation - but it isn't very close. (Entering into membership would normally follow directly on baptism as a believer; and entering into membership would happen repeatedly as and when people moved between churches).

  2. Acts 16:33? Or was there an age limit on 'household'? I don't think Scripture offers explicit guidance on how children are drawn in to the community of faith although, if we take, for example, the Pauline epistles as instructions for the church, children are included and given guidance to follow (eg. Eph 6, Col 3). In the absence of a clear biblical mandate, at what age would you count a child as adult enough to confirm their faith through baptism?

    I don't think confirmation is analogous to membership of a local church - it is about declaring allegiance to Christ and commitment to life in the church universal. It is the completion of what was begun at baptism. Perhaps think of it as a very drawn out baptismal ritual where the two ends can be years apart? (And, yes, this often seems ignored in practice and, no, I'm not claiming that this is necessarily orthodox Anglican theology... if there really is any such thing!)

    Where it does have a bearing on someone coming into a church setting such as yours, is that if they were 'baptised' as an infant and didn't later undertake confirmation as their own expression of faith, that process is arguably not complete.

    FWIW, I think the historical origin of child baptism was a theology that baptism was necessary for salvation rather than a demonstration that followed at some point after, and was thus performed to protect infants from damnation.

    1. Confirmation is kinda like a drawn out baptismal ritual - and it's interesting evidence of this that the Eastern Orthodox baptise and confirm infants all in one go. The issue remains: given that confirmation is not a biblically mandated rite, what is the justification for it? I think it adds something that was never missing, because baptism is complete in itself.

      The question of at what age you should baptise is of course a lively one amongst baptists! I tend not to look for a hard and fast rule, but to look in each case for evidence of a desire to follow Christ and some (age appropriate) evidence of understanding what that means. Remembering that baptism is the beginning of the Christian life is helpful for not expecting too much before you get someone in the water.