I recently had two quite separate discussions regarding the administration of baptism. Both conversations seemed to revolve around the same key questions: When is it appropriate to administer baptism?; is it ever right to ask someone to wait for baptism?; what responsibility does the church leadership carry for administering baptism to someone who later falls away? All these questions are valid and seem worth exploring here in a little more detail.
A point worth making from the outset is that many now section off conversion, baptism and membership as three independent undertakings. It is not uncommon to hear churches urge conversion then, when some time has passed, press the case for baptism and later, when some further time has elapsed, suggest membership with each deemed a separate, unconnected act. This seems to be a move away from the biblical pattern. In Acts 8 we see Philip sharing the gospel with an Ethiopian eunuch. Following Philip’s explanation of the scriptures we read:
And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized [sic]?” And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he replied, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized [sic] him (Acts 8:36-38, ESV).
Similarly, we read of the Phillipian jailer who asked “Sirs, what must I do to be saved? (Acts 16:30, ESV)” and again the pattern is clear:
…they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized [sic] at once, he and all his family (Acts 16:31-33, ESV).
In each of these cases, and several others recorded in scripture, there is no period of waiting between conversion and baptism. The only criteria for baptism in scripture is that of a credible testimony (1) and baptism is administered immediately following. Indeed, even the testimony of the Ethiopian eunuch is basic and simple yet Philip considered him immediately suitable for baptism. Therefore, if we are to follow the biblical pattern we should be encouraging those who become Christians to get baptised and join in membership as soon as possible because these things are clearly part and parcel of the same act; namely, joining the actual church and in the process joining the visible church (see 1 John 1:3, 7).
It was certainly my experience, as a child who wanted to be baptised, that there was a sense in which baptism was only for those who had reached an undisclosed age (or at least an undisclosed age of understanding). I have little doubt that this is born out of the laudable desire of church leaders to see some spiritual fruit before administering baptism and allowing someone to join the church who may not be truly saved. Laudable though this may be, biblical it is not. Both the examples of the Ethiopian eunuch and Phillipian jailer suggest that the baptism was immediate and not administered after a period of waiting to see the exhibition of spiritual fruit. Moreover, Jesus makes clear that the visible church will always incorporate some who are not saved. He comments:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matt 7:21-23, ESV).
Similarly, Peter notes ‘false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction (2 Pet 2:1, ESV)’. It is therefore apparent that the church cannot guard itself wholly against including those who are not truly saved. Does this mean that we should therefore simply baptise anybody? Clearly not. However, the criteria for baptism is not exhibition of spiritual fruit nor, surprisingly, proof beyond doubt of salvation. Rather, the criteria is simply a credible testimony.
Given that baptism seems to immediately follow conversion in the scriptures and the only criteria for its administration is a credible testimony, this brings us back to our three original questions. The first two questions have relatively straightforward answers. When is it appropriate to administer baptism? Whenever somebody gives a credible testimony. Is it ever right to suggest somebody should wait for baptism? No. The only appropriate responses are either ‘Yes, you have a credible testimony’ or ‘No, we do not believe you are saved’. Never is there the response in scripture ‘just wait because we don’t feel you’re ready yet’.
The third question is less straightforward. What responsibility does the church leadership carry for administering baptism to someone who later falls away? In the first instance, I think it is worth noting that Christ commands believers to be baptised. If the church leadership refuses baptism to an individual who is saved it is only the church leadership who is stopping that person from carrying out Christ’s command. However, if an individual is baptised by the church leadership and later falls away, if they have given a credible testimony, then the church leadership cannot be held responsible – if anyone is in the wrong it can only be the one who gave a false testimony. As such, if somebody asks the church leadership for baptism and offers a credible testimony it would seem right for the church to baptise that person as the responsibility for refusing a Christian baptism lies solely with the church leadership whereas the responsibility for baptising one who gives a credible testimony but later proves unsaved lies solely with the one who gave false testimony.
I would suggest that baptism should be administered irrespective of age, maturity and exhibition of spiritual fruit. In reality, where a credible testimony exists baptism should be administered. If a young child seeks baptism and can offer a credible testimony then they are eligible – the Bible does not give an age of consent as a prerequisite. When somebody has recently converted, where there is a credible testimony, they are eligible for baptism – the Bible does not give the demonstration of spiritual fruit as a criteria. The only criteria is that of a credible testimony – where that exists any individual is eligible for baptism.
I'm largely in agreement regards baptism in regards to adults.
however, being able to judge whether the testimony of a child is “credible” is very difficult. desire (however unconscious) to please parents and unquestioned acceptance of something that a child has heard from birth do not, to my mind, signify faith. how you tell the difference, I really don't know.
to be fair, it took several attempts before Eli realised the Lord was calling Samuel. (A story in which there are various important lessons regards children).
A “smaller” point is your reference to church membership – I see it nowhere in the NT in terms of the way you describe it. that's not to say it is wrong, but for me it is extra-Biblical
I've been thinking along a very similar line for a while myself. I was saved at the age of 9 but never really had baptism explained to me nor was it ever said to me that it was the correct thing to do immediately after conversion. It was only when I was 14 and had looked into baptism myself and talked it over with my parents, not to mention feeling utterly convicted that it was something that should have been done much earlier, that I approached my pastor asking to be baptised. In our church then, I think someone had to express the desire to be baptised before they were even considered as being eligible for baptism. Membership was much the same. Indeed, I think you had to be 17 and a half (no idea why!) before you could be accepted as a member-something that was written into the constitution when the church was first founded.
After looking at the passages you also mentioned here, I too became strongly convicted that baptism goes hand in hand with salvation. We believe and are baptised, then we join a local church and get stuck in! The problem in most churches today is that baptism is either not taught properly or is not taught at all. Unfortunately, much is lacking in the way of strong, biblical leadership in this area some of which I can't help feeling is due to a desire for some elders either not to be seen to be heavy-sheperding the congregation, or at least they don't want people to mistake baptism as a means of salvation.
We need to cut through the unnecessary red tape that so prevents the church's faithfulness to Christ.
I think the issue you raise re children highlights my point. You're right to note that there may be conscious or unconscious desires that do not necessarily signify faith; however, there is every reason to extend that concern as much to adults as to children. Nevertheless, that is to miss the main point which is that the onus is not on the church leadership to prove the faith of the applicant, or even to be wholly and undoubtedly convinced of salvation but rather, the onus is on the applicant to give a credible testimony.
Consider the Ethiopian eunuch's testimony of one short sentence (admittedly within the context of a wider conversation to which we are not privy). I would suggest that his testimony would probably not hold water in most churches nowadays which surely means we have confused 'credible testimony' with balance of probability of salvation. Bearing in mind that 'credible' only means capable of being believed a profession of faith, which in and of itself is capable of being believed, is surely enough to make one eligible for baptism.
You comment that you are largely in agreement re baptism for adults. I would suggest, in the case of children, there is no added criteria in scripture which changes this basic eligibility. There is no age of consent nor are there any added criteria for children which do not apply to adults. Therefore, despite all sorts of very real reasons which may later prove a profession of faith to be untrue they are a) no less a problem for adults – exchange 'parents', in your original suggestion, for 'family' or 'friends' – and b) never stated in scripture as a barrier to baptism for either child or adult. Indeed, Jesus and Peter's comment make fairly clear that we will never avoid admitting unbelievers to the church and yet do not use that opportunity to tighten up the fairly loose criteria of credible testimony.
Re membership – what would you see as extra-biblical? The very concept of membership or something specifically about how I describe it (which I'm not sure I really do describe it rather just mention membership exists)?
The above was directed specifically to Neil (in a loving and non-threatening manner of course brother!).
Vicky: Thanks for your comment. I've been part of numerous churches that have all sorts of slightly different views on baptism. It's amazing how often we add extra strictures on scripture often without even noticing!
I think the tendency in most churches is to wait for someone to 'apply' for baptism though I am convinced that teaching in churches should seek to direct people toward baptism rather than waiting for them to ask.
It's interesting you mention about the 17.5 age limit. I would imagine that would be because your church tied baptism and membership together but were then concerned at the thought of having very young teenagers and children voting on church matters in members meetings (certainly I have come across a few churches with a similar policy for that reason). I have encountered churches who allow baptism and church membership to children but won't let them vote on church matters until they're 18 for exactly that reason (which always struck me as odd that they were mature enough to join the church but not mature enough to take part in it).
Valuable response re children Steve. Thanks
Re membership, you imply (to me) some sort of formal process, some list of “approved” people. If there is no such formal system, then we could not encourage people “to join in membership as soon as possible”. It's the formal process that I can find nowhere in the NT in regard to the church.
Certainly didn't intend to suggest a 'formal process'. In fact, I'm almost saying the opposite of that – when one gets baptised that acts as your visible 'membership'. I suspect, as I mentioned, the problem comes with this separating out conversion, baptism and membership. All taken as one there should almost be a seamlessness between all three – shouldn't really be anything formal about that, just a matter of facts.
thanks for clarification 🙂
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