Before my son was born, my wife and I argued about when to baptize. My wife grew up in an American Baptist church, so she wanted him to make his own decision. I grew up a Lutheran, so wanted him baptized as an infant. To be fair, I was ten when baptized, so it wasn’t that big a deal for me. As I reflect on the decline of the church in America, though, I’m not convinced that was the right decision.
Baptizing Infants Is Biblical
I was once told by a pastor that the argument for baptizing infants was an “argument from the gaps.” By this he meant that there was no biblical evidence that the practice ever existed. Many pastors like him believe that children should first understand baptism. Baptism is the “outward expression of an inward change,” or so the saying goes. One cannot take part in the outward expression until they have made the inward change.
The problem is this is also an “argument from the gaps” as there is no biblical example for this practice. Nor is there any biblical rule for this “inward change.” In truth, my research doesn’t seem to discover where this idea actually came from. It may be time to leave the expression behind.
The early church baptized entire households (see Acts 16:33 and 1 Cor 1:16). It’s difficult to tell whether this included children, but that would be logical. “Households” was a term that included servants and, yes, the children.
Baptism is more than a mere ritual. Putting focus on the inward change turns the outward expression into a symbolic act. Baptism is more than just an expression of change; it’s an act that redeems humanity with God.
Baptism is for the Forgiveness of Sins, not Fostering Relationship
John the Baptist was the first to introduce baptism in the New Testament. His audience wasn’t a group of unbelievers first coming into a relationship with God. They were Jews, people who built their society on practices meant to bring them closer to God. Relationship was already a part of their culture’s DNA.
John baptized for the forgiveness of sins; the relationship already existed. Nowhere in his speech recorded in Matthew 3 do we hear him saying that baptism brings us closer to God. Nor do we hear John describe baptism as anything to do with an inward change. Instead, he said, “I baptize you with water for repentance . . .” (Matt 3:11). Baptism is about confessing sin and bringing us into repentance.
Ah, but you might point out that a child cannot sin. Perhaps that is the case, though again we’re going back to arguing from the gaps. The funny thing is that those say we should not be baptizing infants are the same ones who say we are sinful from birth. This being the case, withholding baptism is withholding an infant’s ability to repent.
Baptism Is Community
To reiterate, baptism is not about an inward change. How would one actually express this inward change, anyway? Do you know many teenagers that express their hearts well? I was a youth pastor, and not a single one was capable of expressing a deep spiritual change. In truth, I know few adults capable of this. When we expect our youth to express this, we place the burden their faith on their shoulders.
In our individualist society, we’ve come to believe that faith is a personal choice. This idea is so prevelant that many Millennials today feel no need to take part in a faith community. When we wait for a child to express the inward change, we place the burden of their faith on their shoulders. It’s no wonder they leave the church when they become adults. They’ve already been doing faith on their own.
The more individualistic we treat our most sacred acts, we feel no need for a community of believers. When parents take responsibility for their baby’s spirituality, faith becomes community. Parenting is hard enough—teaching a child faith is even moreso. Parents who take on the responsibility of their baby’s faith need community. This leads to community taking responsibility for the care of families. We are not meant to be individuals, carrying the burdens of our faith on our own. We must stop treating our most sacred acts as if they are.
All throughout Christianity, we talk about relationships and community, about family and support. You cannot be a Christian on your own; you need the support of loving family and friends; worship takes community; so on and so forth. Why then do we leave the sacrament of baptism to the sole discretion of an individual? We hamstring community when we treat it this way.
When Parents Aren’t Religious, Children Aren’t Religious
This might seem like a no brainer, but stop and consider exactly what this means. A recent survey found that four in ten (39%) young adults (ages 18–29) are no longer religious. 60% said they stopped believing. 32% said their families were never that religious to begin with.
Placing the burden of baptism on our children teaches them that faith is individual. Rather than treating it like the importance it holds, we’ve turned it into a ritual. Religious rituals are often lost on this society and get ignored.
It’s no wonder youth stop believing. When churches have turned important moment into mere rituals, who cares? Baptizing our infants brings them into the life of the church from the beginning. We then raise them to understand their faith and take responsibility for it. By waiting until they are “old enough,” we tell them that there is yet one more thing in life they don’t get to take part in.
It turns out that infant baptism may actually play a vital role in the church. No, it’s not going to fix all the woes of the church. It may not even bring back those who have left. But it might help remind us of what’s important. Most people reject infant baptism because there’s no biblical evidence it was ever done. But this practice brings us together as a community and teaches us to care for one another’s faith.
By reducing the power of baptism to a mere symbol, we have stripped it of it’s purpose. Baptism isn’t about an inward change; it’s for the forgiveness of sins. When we force children to figure it out on their own, faith becomes individualistic. It’s no wonder they are leaving the church.
Even if infant baptism isn’t practiced in our churches, we must stop leaving the burden on our youth. They deserve better from us, better from our community. Children deserver a church that takes its religion seriously. If we don’t, why do we expect they will?