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"Household Baptism" is a generic term used by those who believe in the validity of baptizing the infants and children of believers.   Over the centuries it has become a source of contention..  The following articles published in BI Update No 61 demonstrate such differences - but at the same time we feel it is important that the issues are clearly set out for individual consideration and study.

“Household Baptism”

By Scott Sauls, Greentree Community Church  

It is the regular practice at Greentree Webster to baptize two groups of people. The first group consists of men, women, and children who demonstrate both a genuine faith in Jesus Christ and a desire to join the Greentree church family (i.e., "believer's baptism"). The second group consists of the infants and children of our church members. Perhaps one of the most common questions asked of us is, "Why do you baptize infants and children who have not yet made a public profession of faith in Christ?" The simple answer to this question is that (1) while we firmly believe this is not an issue over which Christians should divide, yet (2) we are convinced that both the Bible and early church history support the practice of household baptism, which includes infants and young children. Following are some of the factors that have led us to this conclusion.  

Biblical Rationale

It is the belief of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) and of Greentree Webster that God's covenant of grace (His promise to be our God and have us as His people), in a mysterious way that we cannot quite grasp, extends to the children, "offspring," or "seed" of believers. Such children, we believe, therefore have a right to the covenant sign, which in the New Testament is baptism (in the Old Testament the sign was circumcision). Following is a detailed reasoning of why we, at the request of those who share our beliefs on this matter, will baptize infants, as well as other children in a believing household who have not yet made a profession of faith.

In the New Testament, baptism replaces circumcision as the sign of the covenant.

Colossians 2:11-12 teaches that baptism is the full expression of circumcision The covenant of circumcision required that the infant male be circumcised as a newborn infant (Genesis 17 12), and this covenant was to be an everlasting covenant (Genesis 17 13) Physical circumcision is clearly no longer in effect (Galatians 6.11-18), but the covenant it represents is still in effect (Romans 2 29), The new outward sign of this "everlasting" covenant with believers and their children is baptism (Colossians 2 11-12) T

Acts 2:38-39 describes baptism with virtually the same language and terms with which Genesis 17:9-14 describes circumcision. The promise connected with baptism in Acts 2:38-39 explicitly includes the children of believers, as did the promise connected with circumcision in Genesis 17 9-14. No mention of a required age or profession of faith is made with respect to such children  

As circumcision was a requirement for the Old Testament household (Genesis 17 10, 12-13), so we believe, was baptism for the New Testament household (Acts 16:15, 31-33, 1 Corinthians 1:16). Never once are children said to be excluded from a household baptism, except in the case of the Ethiopian eunuch, who obviously had no children.  

There is no biblical command given for believers to cease the application of the covenant sign with their children.

In the New Testament, believers' children were regarded as members of the covenant community.

In Luke 18:15-17, Jesus said that God's Kingdom belongs to little children (from the Greek brephe, which literally means "baby" or "infant").  

In Ephesians 6:1-4 and Colossians 3:20-21 Paul addresses children (from the Greek tekna, meaning "child") as believers in Christ. He speaks to them as he would any saint, regardless of age.

In 1 Corinthians 7:14 Paul refers to the children (tekna) of believers as "holy" (meaning set apart for God). The word translated "holy" (hagia) is the exact same word used elsewhere by the apostles in reference to believers (translated "saints" – see Ephesians 1 1 . for example) The New Testament assumption. then, is that children of believers should be regarded and treated as believers unless or until they prove themselves to be covenant breakers.  

In 2 Timothy 3 15, Timothy is said to have known the Scriptures from infancy (brephe)  

In Luke 1 15. John the Baptist is said to have been filled with the Spirit. 'even from his mother's womb".  

The New Testament suggests nowhere that the sign of the covenant (previously circumcision now baptism) is to be withheld from the children of believers until they make an informed profession of faith in Christ.  

Disclaimer

Our position on household baptism does not reflect a belief that baptism itself saves a child. In order to be saved, a child must possess his / her own personal faith in Jesus as Saviour and Lord. The initial seeds of faith may or may not be in chronological union with the time of baptism. When a child professes faith at some point after baptism, that is the time in which the baptism and all that it signifies takes full effect. Until that time, the child's baptism is regarded as the sign of the child's inclusion in the church community (and all its benefits, except the Lord's Supper) by virtue of his / her parents' faith and the promise of God to be "their God and the God of their children.”  

Historical Rationale

It is a well-attested fact that household / infant baptism was the universal practice of the early church. No reputable biblical historian or scholar, whether Presbyterian or Baptist or otherwise. will dispute this fact.  

Irenaeus (a disciple of Polycarp who was a disciple of the apostle John) speaks of infant baptism as a universal practice in the early church.

Tertullian (end of 2nd  century) acknowledged the universal practice of infant baptism  

Origen (2nd and 3rd centuries) spoke of infant baptism as the common practice of the early church.  

These things being the case, were household (and consequently infant) baptism not the New Testament church practice, then the conclusion must be made that a full reversal of the early church’s practice occurred immediately following the death of the last apostle.  Because there is neither biblical not extra-biblical evidence indicating so much as a debate about this issue in the first or second centuries, such a reversal is extremely unlikely.  We conclude this in a large part because there is a wealth of documentation about virtually every other theological debate and/or alleged “heresy” in the early church.  

Greentree Webster’s Attitude about Household Baptism

We encourage household baptism at Greentree, but do not require it of those who cannot accept it.  To us the biblical and supporting historical teaching seems clear, so we encourage Greentree parents to have their children baptized.  However, parents who are not convinced of our position are not required to have their children baptized in order to be active and foully received church members, and will not in any way be pressured to do so.  This is an issue about which we are happy to disagree without it being any hindrance at all to full Christian fellowship. (Editor's emphasis)  

Why? Oh why?

Long-standing BI Member Canon Walter Goundry takes a saddened view of household baptism within our coalition!

Why did the Church decide to baptise infants? We cannot rewrite the past, but also we cannot write it in stone.  If the interpretation of ‘whole households’ excludes children, children being no different from servants (Gal. 4.1), and history tells us it was later, what pushed the Church this way? We know Tertullian wrote against it.  

If it was theological, what was the theology? Was the belief that as a result of the Fall everything and everybody was condemned? The conclusion in that case is that the sooner we get out of this position the better. Until recently ‘limbo’ suggested this. Was baptism seen to be the equivalent of circumcision? Were the pressures also socio-cultural? Whatever the reasons for the introduction of infant baptism, the baby seems to have gone down the plug hole with the bath water.  

In one sense then this is an ideal opportunity to change our practice. Many parents want to mark a birth but do not want to make promises which they know they can’t and won’t keep. At this level the Service of Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child fits the bill exactly. I also believe it is theologically sound!It took the Church almost four centuries of discussion, some of it bloody, to produce a story, a meta-narrative, a big picture, an understanding of God, Creation and human beings. That story united a very disparate and disorderly world, more in the west than in the east. That story provided foundation stones for 2000 years of western life. That is a remarkable achievement. That story has been unravelling and not without some good reasons for more than a century. The chaos of western life consequently is all too apparent. Bishop Nazir Ali recently called for a shared story to do the same for our world now.

In fact slowly but surely it is taking place. Theologians and scientists who are Christians are producing a new story. I am not sure that all theologians or scientists, and certainly not the Church at large, are aware of the challenge which this new story puts to our current belief and practice.  

This is not the place to go into all the details of this new story but briefly it looks a bit like this. Evolution suggests that the theology of the Fall is not a true account of the spiritual state of creation and human nature, if evolution suggests the restoration of nature and natural theology, (the way God works) if evolution suggests a progressive revelation of God by himself and of himself to humans in their development being progressively more able to receive and interpret it, culminating in our Lord and the promise in the Spirit of more to come. In practical terms we as humans stand where Adam stood, at the beginning, through being created with unlimited potential.  

A thanksgiving for birth, a thanksgiving for creation, a new life is exactly right, theologically right  and sound, leaving the door open as Jesus did for growth, an acknowledgement of our commonness, created by God. We have to overcome the desire to be wanted and loved, valued in a small community (which is right) but that makes us define ourselves by those we exclude and destroy. If we are to identify ourselves by our differences then we need to be careful how we do it. Jesus, against his culture, talked to women, to Samaritans and a Syro-Phoenician woman and rewrote some laws, including the Sabbath.  

G K Chesterton was especially scathing of those who downplayed the human and common:- “human was human before it was Christian”, “no Church manufactured legs by which men walked or danced, either in pilgrimage or ballet”, “once men sang round a table in chorus, now one man sings alone because he can sing better”, before long “only one man can laugh because he can laugh better than the rest.”  “There is no innate contradiction between our earthly natural lives and our supernatural destiny.

Even mere existence reduced to it primary limits was extraordinary enough to be exciting. I am ordinary in the correct sense of that term, which means an acceptance of order, a Creator and Creation, the common sense of gratitude for creation, life and love as gifts permanently good.” 

John Drane: “An easy assumption is that there is an easy divide between what is secular and sacred”. “Christians operate with an unhealthy and certainly unbiblical mindset which places God in opposition to his world.”  

I have quoted these at length. There are of course others , because they make further sense for Christians who believe in evolution. Further, they give us the beginnings of a theology of thanksgiving for all without distinction and leave baptism for those of Christian faith later.  

This appraisal of our theology makes us ask questions too about the Eucharist and the atonement (the meaning of the cross). Just as it is possible to have different theologies of atonement, exemplarist and penal,, so it is with other doctrines, and still remain faithful to scripture. My favourite Psalm is 139:- “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works, that I know very well…”  

A national/international Church needs a common practice. A common practice will only come from a common theology. With regard to baptism, many clergy do their best in difficult circumstances with more or less success, but if what works in one place for whatever reason, is not acceptable universally, then such practice would not do. For example, what seems to succeed in the “Sssh Free” Church (cf, Update 60) would not be good enough. Specifically in that account it looks as though children are admitted to communion because we read: “devise a service that is radically inclusive of children on the basis of their full membership of the Church through baptism”. Full membership of the church means the right to receive communion.  

I am not against children being admitted to communion, or indeed anyone else for that matter, for I think our vision of God in the Eucharist is too small and too narrow. Cathy Ross in ‘Creating Space, Hospitality as a Metaphor for Mission ’ writes that hospitality is important. The gospels have much to teach us about meals. But that is another story!  

Time to look at our web site for wisdom !  

Again we want to reiterate that BI respects differing views relating to  infant baptism and indeed to the attestation from the early historical writings (“Patristic Evidence”)  The following link from our web site was written many years ago by Bishop Colin Buchanan. Here we have both scriptural and historical argument in favour of infant baptism.

Readers should use the following link to view :

http://www.baptism.org.uk/ratcob.htm  

But some doubt there were ANY infant baptisms....

Time to challenge an assumption

David Perry

“The assumption of the general practice of infant baptism [from New Testament times] has obscured the significance of the fact that, although we know the names of many children of Christian parents in the fourth century not baptised until their teens or later, explicit testimony is lacking that would permit us to name the first Christian baptised as an infant whose baptism was not a case of clinical baptism.” Ferguson , Baptism in the early Church (2009) p. 626 

Note the phrase “explicit testimony is lacking”. Perhaps we should start from the contrary assumption that baptism was from the very beginning a rite for adults or, in Jewish terms, for those who were beyond the age of bar mitzvah and now responsible for their actions.  

If we assume there was no baptism of infants, there is nothing in the New Testament to conflict with that assumption and everything to support it. Consider just the following:

John the Baptist’s baptism of repentance was aimed at those of adult status. John and the crowds around him would have found inconceivable the idea that infants and young children should undergo a baptism of repentance  

Jesus was baptised by John as a 30 year old.  

Jesus blessed the little children; he did not ask them to be disciples.

Jesus’ disciples (the Twelve and the Seventy) were adults and it is the continuity of that group which evolves into Followers of the Way and into Christian fellowships dotted around the ancient world. 

These four considerations create a presumption that Christian baptism would be for those old enough to be responsible for their actions.

Consider also the unsuitability of infants as candidates for baptism, John the Baptist was beheaded, Jesus was crucified and Stephen was stoned. Jewish-Christian antagonism was there from the start.  Could the first Christian congregations really have thrust baptism upon babies and young children? With the threat of persecution hanging over them they would surely have kept them out of the firing line, hopefully bringing them up to seek baptism when mature enough to accept the daunting implications of confessing Christ in a hostile world. 

Acts 8.12 tells us explicitly that “men and women were baptised” – no mention of babes or children and Acts 9 records that Saul went to Damascus to arrest “both men and women”.  This contradicts the  notion that “household” baptisms did include babies, which is a hypothesis with no supporting evidence. 

Becoming a Christian was a grown up activity that was entered into through responding to the Gospel, e.g. Rom. 10.10 “For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.” This all presupposes a process of evangelism and catechesis prior to baptism. 

The first Christians were already circumcised. John the Baptist baptised circumcised Jews.  The direct link between John’s baptism and that of the infant Church cannot be over emphasised. When asked by what authority he operated, Jesus replied “The ministry of John the Baptist, was it of God or man?” John the Baptist shows no interest in circumcision and warns his hearers not to say “We have Abraham for our father”.. The word circumcision never crosses Jesus’ lips except as part of an argument over the Sabbath in John 7.22. St Paul says bluntly “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avail anything but a new creature”. To say that baptism is the Christian version of Jewish circumcision is as unreasonable as saying “football is the new cricket.” 

Who's "Right"?

The following is an edited extract form an admirable policy statement by Trent Vineyard

If we are objective and impartial it seems  that the Bible is not clear enough on this issue to be categoric about 'right' and 'wrong'

There is no proof text which shows Jesus or the disciples either baptizing infants nor excluding them

There is nowhere in the Bible which  clearly teaches that babies should or should not be baptized

Even early church history is too scan to be conclusive.

"Had the Lord wanted to make sure we got it 'right' and the timing of baptism meant as much to him as it does to some of us, he would surely have made it clearer."

Makes you think!   

Readers are encouraged to explore all the links at the top left hand margin.

 

 

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