In my last post I talked about the difference between making disciple and raising disciples.
When it comes to making disciples, no group of Christians has been more committed than Baptists. We take the Great Commission seriously, heeding Jesus’ call to “go into all the world and make disciples of every nation, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19-20). When I talk to people of other denominations about what it means to be Baptist I say that one of the things that sets us apart is our historic emphasis on missions and evangelism. We see it as our duty to share the good news about Jesus with the whole world. But it occurs to me that in both missions and evangelism we are bringing the Gospel to adults, primarily, just as those first apostles did. In that sense we are being truly biblical, following the pattern of the Book of Acts by going to those places and people who have yet to hear about Christ and boldly sharing our faith. When those people respond to the invitation to become disciples we baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Nothing could be more biblical.
But again, the Bible doesn’t tells us what happened when those new Christians began to bring their children and grandchildren to church. We’ve had to “invent” that part of our tradition. Early on in the history of the church people began baptizing babies, because they didn’t want them to be left out of this wonderful new life they had discovered. For centuries that was the norm in the undivided Church of Jesus Christ. But during the years of the Protestant Reformation people began to read the Bible for themselves and the people who came to be called “Baptists” noticed that there was no mention of infant baptism in the Bible. Partly out of reverence for Scripture, and partly as an act of protest against the state-controlled church, they stopped bringing their babies for baptism, waiting instead until their children were old enough to make up their own minds about Jesus and profess their faith for themselves. Only then would they baptize them, initially by pouring water over their heads but eventually by immersion, plunging them under the water just as the Greek word baptizo suggests.
That’s been “the Baptist way” ever since.
But we don’t ignore our children in those early years. We don’t wait until they reach the age of accountability and then start telling them about Jesus. On the contrary, we bring them to church as soon as possible after they are born (Elmer West jokes that his mother brought him to church a good while before he was born). We dedicate them in a beautiful ceremony which acknowledges the truth that even before they have done one thing right or wrong God loves these children and wants them to be his. We bring them to the church nursery, where dedicated Christians hold them and rock them and sing to them and change their diapers. We teach them about Jesus in Sunday school and Vacation Bible School; we do everything we can to raise them in “the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” Eventually they come to that place where they are ready to make up their own minds about Jesus and when they do we celebrate. We baptize them publicly and rejoice right along with the angels in heaven.
What strikes me is the similarity between that approach and the approach of almost every other Christian denomination. In the Presbyterian church of my childhood, for example, I was baptized as an infant. Yes, some water was sprinkled on my head in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, but essentially it was a way of acknowledging that even before I had done one thing right or wrong God loved me and wanted me for his own. I grew up in that grace, shining my sturdy Buster Brown shoes on Sunday morning and clipping on my bow tie for church; studying the tiny pink paperback catechism I had been given so I could answer questions like, “What is the chief end of man?” (Answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever); and learning to recite the Apostle’s Creed, which begins “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord…” If I had stayed in that church long enough I would have eventually attended confirmation classes, where the pastor would talk to me about what it means to be a Christian and belong to a church. Finally, at the age of 12 or 13, I would have stood before the congregation and professed my faith, saying out loud so everyone could hear me, “Jesus is Lord!”
When you look at these two ways side by side—the Baptist way and the Presbyterian way—you see that in each we do something in infancy to acknowledge God’s grace and we do something at a later point to acknowledge the child’s faith. In between the two we do everything we can to help the child grow up Christian, because it’s not only Baptists who want their children to become mature believers some day: it’s Methodists, Lutherans, Catholics, Pentecostals, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians as well.
When I look back through the difficult questions in that little catechism and the dense theology of the Apostle’s Creed I think somebody was trying hard to make a thoughtful Christian out of me, and so if it sometimes seems that I think too much about these things you can do what I always do:
Blame the Presbyterians.