One of those intramural Baptist discussions that gets thrown around a bit is the question of how old a child needs to be before you are willing to baptise them. For the record – before any of my paedobaptist friends ask the inevitable – there is no “age of responsibility” so there is no straightforward answer to the question. At least, there isn’t an age given in the Bible.
For some, the answer lies in church membership. If your child is incapable of engaging with church membership meaningfully, then you should not be bringing them into membership. If you would not put the child under church discipline (if required), then you should not bring them into membership.
A few issues immediately arise from this mode of reasoning. The obvious comparator would be the mentally impaired adult. If they have a mental age of, say, 8, 9 or 10 – beyond which they will never advance – this line of reasoning would suggest they can never be part of the church. If an 8 year old is incapable of meaningfully engaging with church membership, then the adult with 8-year-old mental capacity must be similarly incapable. Are we really to suggest that such people could never join the church of Christ?
A further issue is whether they can meaningfully engage in church membership. Again, let us take our comparator of the person with mental incapacity. If we would say that such a person could join, we would presumably just accommodate membership in light of their mental capacity. That is to say, we would expect them to engage as a member in line with their ability. In truth, we do this all the time. We don’t expect elderly, infirm members to do everything that we might expect younger, fitter members to do. We don’t use this as grounds to remove all infirm folk from membership. We expect people to serve and function as members in line with their capacity. When it comes to the question of children, what is stopping us doing the same?
Another issue is whether we would discipline a child. In all honesty, I don’t see why we wouldn’t. If a child is persistently and unrepentantly sinning, or is denying the Lord Jesus, why wouldn’t you remove them from membership as you would with anyone else? If the question becomes, but ‘what do we do about the fact we baptised them?’, I’m not sure how that doesn’t apply to everyone else we might baptise too who later falls away. It happens to countless adults too and isn’t in any way unique to the question of children.
For those reasons I find that position somewhat unconvincing. At the same time, I feel the force of the argument that says children are built to love what their family loves. There is something, particularly in younger children, that wants to please much of the time. And there is no faster way to please Christian parents than to look like you love Jesus. The parenting philosophy in our house is largely, we’re not that bothered as long as they love Jesus (and that specific matter is above our paygrade!) The only disaster, as we see it, is one where they reject Christ. But we can’t make that happen, even if we can make it such that they believe or don’t because or in spite of us and things we did to help or hinder it. But the Lord is more gracious still and he will save whom he wills.
Which brings me back to the age question. The Bible simply doesn’t give one. Whatever else you make of the ‘let the little children come to me’, clearly Jesus has time for children. And nobody of any denominational stripe whatsoever denies that children can, indeed, trust the Lord. There is no question that young children can and do become believers. Which begs the question, if they can and do become believers, why would we deny the signs of covenant belief to them?
If our argument against paedobaptism is legitimate – that they go beyond the scriptural data and grant the signs of the covenant to people who have not expressed the faith required in order to enter into it – it is hard not to accept the same charge if we refuse to give the signs to those who have professed belief until they hit some arbitrary age. As much as paedobaptism is not (on a Baptist understanding) in the Bible, nor is denying the covenant signs to professing believers who are not in any evident and ongoing unrepentant sin. Whether someone is 8, 18 or 80, there doesn’t seem to be any biblical command, example or implied category that allows us to do that.
There may be more scope in looking at what amounts to a credible profession. As somebody who works with unchurched asylum seekers from non-Christian cultures, I can assure you what is credible differs. The very same words in one mouth might not seem so credible in another, what is affirmed in one place might be more credible than it being affirmed in another, for a whole host of cultural and contextual reasons. With church-raised children, whilst you expect them to present their understanding of the gospel just like children, at the same time, you would also expect them to have picked up on quite a lot of language and ideas that they might easily parrot back to someone. Discerning when they have truly understood and believed requires a lot of wisdom.
For that, and all the reasons preceding, I think it deeply unwise to put age limits on membership. I just do not think there are biblical grounds to do that nor do I think it any more guarantees you will rightly baptise a believer than if you do it a few years earlier. What matters – as with anyone else you might baptise – is whether they have understood the gospel and they can give a credible profession of how they came to be a believer. In many ways, you want to treat them just like you would any other adult. If those are the grounds of an adult getting baptised and joining in membership, they ought to be the same grounds for children too. If we would make allowances for culture and context for, say, asylum seekers or the mentally incapacitated, we should make those same allowances for children. If we want to make allowances (or more stringent) because they are children raised in church, it strikes me that is an outworking of the contextual principle of what makes a credible profession. But in the end, I would baptise if they can satisfy the same as what I would look for in anyone else.