Q+A 2: Why do some churches baptise infants?
We are part of what we call a Believers Baptism tradition.
For some of us, we have only ever been part of a church or tradition that defines baptism as something that is done when you can provide a credible, personal, testimony to your faith in Jesus as your Lord and Saviour.
And so it seems very odd, with this being what we believe, that some churches and traditions baptise infants or small children. And it can be very easy to think they are misguided, or heretical, or something else. So lets see if I can clear this up a little (with the understanding that I am referring to the Protestant traditions, not Roman Catholic ones, which are a whole other kettle of fish).
The practice of believers baptism is based on the idea that it is an outward sign of an inward change, something to signify to the world that we have accepted Jesus as our Lord and Saviour. We see that pattern in the New Testament – a profession of faith, followed by baptism.
The practice of infant baptism appears fairly early in church history, but not right at the start, and not uniformly throughout the church. For Biblical support it relies on certain assumptions about cultural and family situations in some New Testament passages (like the Philippian jailer’s situation in Acts 16), and with certain theological links.
I think the issue of believer’s baptism most likely arose from questions about when and how to include the children of believers into the life of the church. Are they Christian, or non-Christian? How do we understand their position before God, and, most significantly (in an era of high infant mortality) – what happens to them if they die as infants?
Some believers answered these questions by looking to God’s people in the Old Testament. The children would inherit the promises God made to their parents (accessed through faith in, and obedience to, God), but they were identified as part of the covenant community through circumcision.
This link between circumcision and baptism, as signs of the covenant community, is used to justify the baptism of infants.
The question then becomes, what does baptism mean in an infant-baptism tradition if it is divorced from the faith of the person being baptised?
Baptism, in an infant-baptism tradition, signifies that the parents are believers, wish to publicly proclaim that faith, and declare that they will raise their children to know and follow Jesus as Lord and Saviour.
This is, broadly speaking, the understanding of baptism that the early Protestant Reformers came back to during the Reformation.
Some Reformers, however, made a distinction between those born into a nominally Christian culture, and those who actually had faith in Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, and looking at the New Testament, determined the baptism should only follow a profession of faith, and so the tradition of believers baptism was reintroduced into the church.
You’ll find variations on those explanations both during the reformation and today, but I think, and hope, that this description is broadly fair.
Today, the practice of infant baptism can be seen, in many cases, as broadly analogous to the Baptist practice of dedication of an infant. And the practice of catechism, or confirmation classes in an infant baptism tradition is broadly analogous to the Baptist practice of believers baptism – although confirmation classes are often done at a certain age, often as a kind of education rite, and not always upon (what Baptists would describe as) being born again.
Again, its not always easy to define that point for children who have grown up in a family and church of faith.
This is not an issue which should divide Christians, or be used to separate believers from unbelievers. It is a difference in tradition and practice, and believers should bear with one another in love. There were differences in practice in different churches in the earliest records, but no record of churches having divided themselves over this issue.
I’ve tried to be quite fair in presenting the case for infant baptism as faithful Christians practice it. I have made it as brief as I can without resorting to the jokes and quips I have stored up on the topic to poke gentle fun at my infant-baptist brothers and sisters. I have worked in both believer-baptism and infant-baptism churches, and not seen it as a big issue, though I have not been convinced of the theological or biblical case for infant baptism.
Ultimately, whatever baptism tradition we adhere to, our salvation comes through faith in Jesus alone, with his death on the cross. This is what unites us to Christ, and from there to each other. And this is what we should focus on.