Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Question Desiring Answers: How Should Christians Reconcile Infant Baptism and Believer's Baptism?

In John 17:20-23, Jesus prays to His Father, saying, "I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. "

This theme of unity among believers runs throughout the New Testament. It is abundantly clear that Jesus both commands and desires that His followers be united.

In light of what Jesus has commanded, this is my question: How should Christians reconcile infant baptism and believer's baptism?

Here is a scenario: A group of followers of Jesus Christ enjoys fellowshipping with one another and believes that the Lord has called them together as a local body (I'm not dealing with the issue of church membership here). These believers are in complete agreement about the core doctrines of the faith (such as the divinity of Christ, the truth of the resurrection, etc.). They desperately want to be united and be biblical in how they function as a church family.

There is only one problem: some within the group have studied the scriptures and believe that infants should be baptized. Others within the group have studied the scriptures and believe that only believers should be baptized. How do they reconcile this difference?

Most of the time the group is together, this is not an issue. However, what do they do when a young couple within the body wants their infant to be baptized? If the couple decides to do this, how do the people within the body respond who believe it is unbiblical to baptize anyone who does not believe? Let's say they talk it over, listen to each other, pray about it together, and still cannot agree on the issue. What then?

Unfortunately, the typical answer to this question is that these folks should split into different churches along denominational lines. However, this does not seem to adhere whatsoever to what Jesus said in John chapter 17.

So, if this body of believers is determined to be biblical by remaining united, how do they deal with this issue of baptism?

I'd really like to hear what you think.

25 comments:

Jeff Nelson said...

Eric,

Huge question, especially in light of splits occurring over much smaller issues like what songs to sing. I really have to wrestle with this one for a while...

-jeff

Eric said...

I'm interested to hear the conclusion you come to.

I'm still struggling with this one, and I haven;t read a good answer to it anywhere.

Arthur Sido said...

Yikes. I have struggled with this one a lot. I firmly believe that infant baptism is an extra-Biblical tradition. As such we generally don't fellowship with those who practice it. I also don't think that is proper that we exclude paedobaptists from fellowship with us but it is an issue where we have trouble reconcilling the Biblical example and the practice in "real life" (like women teaching, administration of the Supper, etc, etc) Where I have come down is to dodge the issue entirely by questioning whether baptism is properly a function that is exclusive to the local gathering of the church. In other words, when the next one of my children makes a profession of faith in Christ, I will baptize my child myself. I know that is really dodging the issue, but I am not sure how else to reconcille it.

Eric said...

Arthur,

Thanks for your transparency on this one. I know I'm struggling with it.

witwaw said...

First, a caveat: I am a Baptist who holds fully to believer's baptism.

Given that, I would ask, what is the purpose of infant baptism? If it is for salvation, then we have a problem no matter how old the person is. If it is to declare them to be a member of the covenant community or some such, then it seems infant baptism has something in common with baby dedication.

The issue is what meaning is being drawn from baptism.

-Laura

Eric said...

Laura,

I'm also a Baptist, so we probably hold similar beliefs about what the meaning of biblical baptism is.

That said, I'd like to assume for the sake of this post that a group of Christians both wants to be united AND disagrees amongst themselves about what the biblical meaning of baptism is. If that is the case, how do they handle their disagreement?

Today, almost everyone in our country would, in this case, separate out into different churches in different denominations. But if they want to be united, what do they do?

micah7 said...

Here goes...If someone wants to have their baby baptized, as a covenental sign, why should we discourage it?

What do I mean by covenenatal sign? To explain, first I have to talk about circumcision (I know that seems like a different subject, just bear with me). In the old testament circumcision for the nation of Israel was symbolic of belonging to God's covenant family. God made the covenant with Abraham and He promised that he would be God to Abraham and his offspring (Genesis 17). Circumcision was symbloic of that promise and also of the circumcision of the heart (Romans 2:25-29). This doesn't mean that the little child was already regenerated but this was what the circumcision was pointing to, belonging to the family of God.

Likewise baptism is similar in that it is the "circumcision of Christ" (Colossians 2:11-14). It is symbolic of the washing away of sin, renewal by the Holy Spirit, and membership in the body of Christ.

Now of course we know that Gentiles do not undergo circumcision as a means of identification with God's family. Instead it is our faith in Christ that has made us just as much children of Abraham. It was after all Abraham's faith, not his circumcision that was counted to him as righteouness (Romans 4:2-3).

So baptism, while not directly identical to circumcision, corresponds to it as a symbol of belonging, covenant, and faith, as a sign of the new convenant in this New Testament era.

So if a Christian couple wants to baptize their infant as a symbol of their baby being a "covenant child", just like a Jewish person in the OT would circumcise their infant as a symbol of their baby being a "covenant child", then why not baptize little one? Now let me also say, this in no way replaces or supercedes believer's baptism. As a professing believer in Christ, you should be baptized, according to the scriptures, as an act of obedience and symbol of being buried with Christ, dying to sin and the world, and being raised with Christ and being born again.

Kevin DeYoung has a great post about this issue titled, "Why I Baptize Babies" on his blog. He explaines in much greater detail why He and his church practice infant baptism: revkevindeyoung.com/2009/07/why-i-baptize-babies.html I encourage everyone to read it and I promise it will give you more to think about.

micah7 said...

Also, I think I may have not answered the other part of your question. In the interest of unity, in one hand we have the core doctrines, such as the virgin birth, the humanity of Christ, the deity of Christ, substitutionary atonement, justification by faith, etc. Things like these we must agree on. In the other hand we have secondary or tertiary issues such as eschatology, Christian liberties, and yes, infant baptism as a covenental symbol. For these issues, as Mark Driscoll said, "we will only suffer paper cuts ...not deep paper cuts", but we will not suffer our unity as a church. In other words, we can agree to disagree on these issues and remain united.

witwaw said...

In his post, A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity, Al Mohler suggests three levels of theological disagreement: first-order (essential to Christian faith), second-order (disagreements that need not separate, but can create boundaries--he puts baptism here), and third-order (can disagree and remain in close fellowship).

The issue I spoke of in my first comment--the meaning given to baptism--decides which order the issue belongs to. Bottom line is, if unity is a higher order issue than baptism, then the group will stay united.

As for procedure, I would suggest gathering those who are able to keep emotions in check, study the topic in Scripture, and be willing to respond to its teaching. This may seem like a cop-out, but it is not, for such a procedure would be incredibly difficult and would ask much of all sides of the issue.

For the immediate situation, I expect the believer's baptism folks could infuse infant baptism with their own meaning--making it like baby dedication--but this may, at bottom, be self deception. At the very least, it likely misrepresents what the infant baptism folks mean.

Honestly, it's a tough issue. Speaking as a Baptist, we tend to get hung up on the mode and on who may be baptized; emotions flare. We seldom take the time to sit down with those who disagree with us and honestly listen to their position.

I disagree with my church on a specific issue (which I won't go into here) and when this issue arises, I separate myself for that time period only. It is of a high enough order (~2.5) that I will not participate, but not so high that I find another congregation. This is a workable, if sad, option.

-Laura

Eric said...

Micah,

Thanks a lot for answering.

In also appreciate the thought and thorough nature of your responses.

Two things jump to mind: first, if babies are baptized, and then believer's are baptized, this seems like it would naturally lead to people being baptized twice. What do you think?

Second, if people agree to disagree on baptism (and this is probably the best way to go on this), then how should those who hold to believer's baptism act/respond when an infant is being baptized?

Eric said...

Laura,

I find that I agree with Dr. Mohler on almost everything. However, this is one place where I don't. The reason for this that I can't find any biblical basis for what are called second-order doctrines. I see Christ wanting all His followers to be united around the gospel.

I agree with you on your suggestion for a procedure. In fact, I have no idea what other alternative there would be.

I also agree with you that this is a tough issue. From the perspective of a Baptist, I'm wondering how I should respond if an infant baptism takes place. If I want to remain united, what do I actually do? How am I to feel about it? Does my presence implicitly suggest that I agree with it?

Thanks for your input. I'm not sure what the answer is, but I think this is a healthy discussion.

adubhigg said...

In my opinion, this issue is wrapped up with the same garb/baggage as mode of baptism (sprinkling, pouring, or immersion): same theological symbology, same emotional ties

This issue also has separated my college best friend and I for a time: we still love each other, but we just can't go to church together.

Eric said...

adubhigg,

It saddens me that so many people have separated/are separated over this issue. Baptism is such a wonderful thing, and yet instead of joy, it often brings separation.

So how do we deal with this? Do we say meaning doesn't really matter, do we separate, or do we do something else? If so, what?

witwaw said...

Eric,

Thank you for bringing up this issue; it certainly puts unity issues in sharp relief.

As for Mohler's second-order, I don't think it's biblical either. It seems to be a compromise in response to human weakness. Personallly, that bucket should be kept empty, if possible.

- Laura

The Pilgrim Pundit said...

Eric, In your last response to micah you said ,
"Two things jump to mind: first, if babies are baptized, and then believer's are baptized, this seems like it would naturally lead to people being baptized twice. What do you think?"

For the paedo side( baby- baptizers) I would like to throw in that we never see this leading to two baptisms. For us, all first generation Christians may only be baptized upon profession of faith in Chrit, just like what happened in the New Testament, and all members of that persons household, regardless of age, are to then be baptized, just like in the New Testament. And now those young baptized persons are under the same One Lord, One faith, and One Baptism that we all share. They are not to be re-baptized when they finally come to an assurance, and or public commitment, rather they are to then be counselled concerning the one sacrament that does require faith and knowledge before a person can partake..The Table of the Lord.This is the area that we feel more attention and concern for 'personal confession' is demanded and it is here that we must forbid children to tread because the New Testament warns against ignorant use of the Table, whereas with circumcision, which is now baptism, we are commanded to perform it to our children just like Moses was.
In our thinking, it would indeed be difficult to relegate a direct command like this to some 'second-tier' position, and yet we still have many brothers and sisters who refuse to baptize their children because their tradition has bound their conscience. We love and pray for them, but we now exactly whether or not God has called us to form a Church together by whether or not we agree in doctrine.
Hope that isn't too circular and is a help on Collosians chapter two.

Eric said...

Laura,

Thanks for your input in this conversation. I'm glad to know that I'm not the only one struggling with this issue.

Eric said...

Pilgrim Pundit,

Thanks for jumping in on this conversation.

First, let me acknowledge that I'm a Baptist, so we obviously disagree on the meaning of baptism. However, let me also say that I have respect for the infant baptism position.

I think the question remains: how do those who disagree on the meaning of this ordinance come together as a church body?

In your comment, you wrote, "We love and pray for them, but we now exactly whether or not God has called us to form a Church together by whether or not we agree in doctrine." This suggests that you are dividing/separating over the meaning of baptism. Baptists do exactly the same thing.

The problem I have is this: I never see anywhere in the NT that calls on Christians to divide over anything other than the gospel itself. So, how can we gather as a church family if we disagree on this ordinance/sacrament?

It is a tough issue.

Slow Learner said...

Eric,

Sin is the ultimate basis of all disunity in the church. But, there are legitimate disagreements - genuine differences of opinion - regarding the interpretation of portions of Scripture that are not sinful in themselves, but they can be a major hinderance to corporate unity in the church. These differances can be in regard to points of doctrine, administration of the sacraments, style or order of worship, or any number of other details. I believe this is where the existance of denominations becomes important. Without different denominations there would be constant haggling over the correct interpretation of some details in Scripture which would result not only in a lack of unity, but a poor witness to the world as well. With different denominations available the differing interpretations can be accomodated and preserve the peace and unity of the church with regard to the basic tenants of Christianity, and still accomodate varying interpretations of Scripture in areas that are not crucial to the fundimentals of the faith. It would be wonderful if churches that have basic agreement on the fundimentals of the faith could have opportunities for Christian fellowship (even in worship), but we get busy in our own activities, and it doesn't happen. The mutual respect and admiration that are seen between R. C. Sproul and John MacArthur is a good model for other Christians who differ on the administration of the sign of the covenant to follow. They differ on that detail, but they agree wholeheartedly on the doctrines of grace.

Eric said...

Slow Learner,

Thanks for commenting.

I agree with you that sin is the basis for disunity in the church - no doubt there.

I also agree that there are genuine differences of opinion over scriptural interpretation.

Where I would respectfully disagree is in differences leading to denominations. I've come to the conclusion that denominations allow us to rationalize our disunity. I don't see how this can be biblical at all.

I would rather have folks sit down, discuss their differences, agree to disagree if necessary, and remain united in one body. I realize that may lend itself to some difficulties, but in the end it is obedient to the scriptural admonition to be united.

That said, I'm still wondering how to resolve the issue of baptism while remaining united.

Slow Learner said...

Eric,

It would indeed be wonderful to resolve the issue of baptism while remaining united, but if the paedo/believer distinction is regarded as a fundamental tenant of the faith it is by its very nature divisive. Even mode of baptism is often devise for the same reason. But it's not just baptism. In some denominations paedo communion is, or is becoming, a divisive issue in similar fashion. If a Christian is sincerely convinced that adherence and/or obedience to Scripture requires a certain practice then he will not for long abide a deviation from his understanding of what is Scriptural. If he can be convinced that the practice - whatever it is - is not contrary to scriptural requirement, and not a serious impediment to Christian fellowship, then I think there is hope for resolving the issue for that individual. When many individuals are involved it becomes difficult to say the least.

Arthur Sido said...

I still think that removing baptism as a function of the local gathering of the church is the best solution. That was we avoid disunity over the issue in the local gathering because frankly there is no Scriptural support for breaking fellowship based on differences in practice.

Or better yet, our paedo brothers could stop sprinkling babies and get with the New Covenant. Unity would be so much easier if everyone would just agree with me.

Eric said...

Slow Learner,

This is certainly a difficult issue. I appreciate your input.

You referred to those things that are "fundamental tenant(s) of the faith." That is one of the keys in all this.

I understand why Christians have ended up in denominations, but because I see no mandate for that in scripture, I struggle with division along denominational lines (and this is coming from a Southern Baptist).

Eric said...

Arthur,

I'm going to have to think on what you have suggested. You might be right.

Hmmmmm.

Jeff Nelson said...

Eric,

This is the most difficult question I have ever attempted to answer, and I do so with fear and trembling.

I don't see anything in Scripture (or anywhere else) that would suggest a split is necessary. As long as the two opposing sides can come to terms with one another's beliefs, and how they are going to deal with those differences on a practical level, what is the problem?

I can't ignore the fact though that infant baptism is not in the text. Disagreeing over a certain interpretation of a verse or passage is commonplace. You have to use eisegesis to make paedobaptism fit.

Is this in of itself likely to cause any issues? I doubt it, unless you have many expectant mothers. The question I would ask is what is the plan for the congregation the next time the congregation wants to add something that isn't in the text?

The point I'm trying to make is maintaining unity is almost always going to entail compromise, which I would maintain is healthy, even essential. Once you compromise the text though, where do you stop?

God Bless,
-jeff

Eric said...

Jeff,

Thank you for your honesty and input.

I agree with you that there is nothing scriptural to suggest that division is necessary - at least not over issues that are not core to the gospel.

I also agree with your concern about adding things to the text of the bible. However, there are many, many folks who I respect a great deal who are in favor of infant baptism.

That said, I agree that this probably is a place to compromise. Unfortunately, the word "compromise" in Christian circles almost always carries a negative meaning. My hope is that it can be positive in this case. We may have to agree to disagree.

I find it interesting (and sad) that so many Christians are ready to split/divide very quickly with the thought that they are being biblical. The reality is that when we divide (on non-gospel issues), we are being unbiblical.