Two centuries ago, few Baptists would have even raised these questions. Many churches required their converts to be 18 years old before baptism.
Today, the situation is remarkably different. As Baptists, we still reject the practice of “infant baptism” because we believe baptism to be immersion of a professing believer, not the sprinkling of an unbelieving baby. And yet, many Baptist pastors baptize children at very young ages without sensing any sort of disconnect.
Gina Welch, the atheist who faked a conversion experience at Thomas Road Baptist Church, put her finger on the problem: If salvation is about making a conscious choice to believe the gospel, why the emphasis in Baptist churches on baptizing small kids? Welch describes children’s baptism in a way that should stir up numerous discussions about the nature of true faith:
“Here at Thomas Road, they baptize a lot of children who grow up in the church. When this happens, the child is often so small that he can’t walk down into the pool – one pastor floats the child off into the arms of the baptizing pastor like a paper boat. When the child is immersed, sometimes he’s so light that he has to be pushed under. And sometimes his legs fly up out of the water. This seemed strange to me: Woody had told me they didn’t baptize babies at the church because they believed a person had to choose to get saved, had to understand what it meant to be a sinner and to have Jesus sacrifice on your behalf. How could a little child apprehend these concepts?”
Growing up, I never questioned the baptism of small children. It’s what I was used to. But after living in Romania for several years, I noticed that children under 12 were rarely baptized. What made the biggest impression on me was the weight and significance given to baptism, such that I never saw anyone ask to be “rebaptized” after realizing “they didn’t understand what they were doing the first time” – a problem that plagues many Baptist churches in the U.S. (Check out a forum of Romanian pastors discussing childhood baptism here.)
Baptizing Small Children: My Position
The Bible does not provide us with a one-size-fits-all method for handling childhood conversions. Yet in applying biblical wisdom to this question, I believe we can glean several principles.
1. We should actively share the gospel with our children, and we should encourage them when they trust Christ.
We should never communicate to children that they are too young to understand the gospel or must wait before trusting in Christ. Jesus said, “Let the little children come!”
2. Those who are baptized must be able to make a credible profession of faith.
Why must the profession of faith be credible? Because baptism is the entryway into church membership, which comes with all the responsibilities and privileges of being part of the covenant community.
3. There is wisdom in delaying baptism for young children.
In this regard, I follow the lead of W.A. Criswell, long-time pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, TX, who encouraged and affirmed childhood decisions for Christ, but postponed baptism until a child was around 10 years of age.
I once heard a deacon say, “If your child still believes in Santa, he’s probably too young for you to know just what he believes about Jesus.” Likewise, if we consider a kindergartner too young to vote in a church business meeting, perhaps we ought to hold off on baptism until the rights and responsibilities of the covenant community can be fulfilled.
4. Delaying baptism does not mean we should consider childhood baptisms invalid.
Because Scripture does not shackle us to a certain age or make clear prescriptions in this area, we must exercise restraint in making dogmatic assertions regarding the “proper age” for baptism. It’s wisdom we are after, not uniformity. Faithful pastors may disagree.
To be clear, I do not consider childhood baptisms invalid. I myself was baptized when I was eight.
But I do believe that we should be very careful in how we handle the precious little ones that the Lord has entrusted to our care – neither discouraging them from believing in Christ nor giving them false assurance of their decision by speedily baptizing them.