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.