“I just can’t accept infant baptism”

That’s what people often tell me after they’ve heard all my arguments for welcoming Christians from other denominations into our membership without re-baptizing them.  To them baptism is believer’s baptism by immersion, and therefore infant baptism is no baptism at all since it isn’t (usually) by immersion and since an infant is incapable of making a profession of faith.  They say, “We’re not re-baptizing these people; we’re baptizing them!” 

And the argument starts all over again.

But at the end of it I rarely have the feeling that I have been understood.  So, let me see if I can put it another way, a way that would make sense to lifelong Baptists, and let’s talk about those people Baptists often place at the opposite end of the Christian spectrum—Catholics. 

  1. Baptists baptize believers by immersion; Catholics baptize infants by pouring water over their heads three times in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. 
  2. As Baptists, we do not believe that infant baptism is sufficient (as some Catholics apparently do).  We do not believe that it “saves” the child or “washes away the taint of original sin.”  We believe that salvation requires our faith as well as God’s grace.
  3. This is why we wait to baptize until a child is old enough to profess his faith.  Then baptism becomes a celebration of salvation in which the gift of God’s grace is received through the believer’s faith. 
  4. This is why we believe that infant baptism—on its own—is unacceptable.

But (and you knew it was coming), when infant baptism is followed by an extended period of Christian formation, by a confirmation process in which children learn what it means to believe in Jesus and belong to the church, and by a public opportunity to claim their baptism and profess their faith, then it becomes one piece of a process whereby the grace of God that was celebrated in baptism is received through faith.  As Paul might put it: grace + faith = salvation (Eph. 2:8).

What I’m trying to say is that I can’t accept infant baptism either, not on its own, but I can accept it as part of a process of authentic Christian discipleship.  Understood in that way it is almost identical to our own practice of baby dedication, and I don’t think any of us want to do away with that.  What we mean when we say “I can’t accept infant baptism” is that we don’t believe water, by itself, does anything for that child, but we need to carry that thinking all the way out.  Water, by itself, doesn’t do anything for the person who gets into our baptistry, either.  It’s just water.  We use it as a symbol of God’s grace and our surrender to it. 

Which makes me think that being a Christian is a matter of the heart, and not a matter of how much water was used or when it was applied.

What do you think?

20 thoughts on ““I just can’t accept infant baptism”

  1. Dr. Somerville:

    With all due respect and admiration, I still do not understand why you continue to force this issue on the congregation?

    “My beloved little vatican” (FBC Richmond) was theologically moderate for the 27 years that I was active there. I was comfortable with that.

    With an affirmative vote (which is your desire and the majority of the Board of Deacons), First Baptist will become a theological liberal church.

    It is my prayer that the church will disagree agreeably and come together after the vote.

    Respectfully,

    Mark Waggoner

  2. Mark: I disagree with you, agreeably. To recognize people from other denominations as Christians, to acknowledge that they are part of the body of Christ and therefore already members of His church, is not a “liberal” position. If they are members of His church, why can they not be members of “our” church? Are our standards higher than his?

    Respectfully,

    Jim

  3. As someone who was recently baptized as an adult at Calvary Baptist Church in DC, let me tell you what having the ability to make that choice for myself meant to me. Because Calvary did not separate me from participation in membership and in the community simply because I had not been baptized as an adult in the Baptist church, I had the time and the support that was necessary for me to come to my own, deep relationship with Christ. As that took shape in my life, requesting another baptism became an inevitability for me, despite my own personal deep fear of water. Because the community did not “require” it, because they loved and welcomed me anyway, because they respected my current understanding of my relationship with Christ, I was, in the very best Baptist tradition, able to work on my personal relationship with my Savior.

    And then, I was baptized. For those of you who disagree with Rev. Sommerville, I would invite you to see the value in removing any barriers that might drive a soul away from the wonderful community of faith that you have to offer. Sometimes, these decisions just take time.

  4. Jim: I think it is interesting that so many (perhaps most) Baptist churches today invite all persons who accept Jesus as Lord to share in their communion services. Very rarely do you hear of a Southern Baptist Church that still practices closed communion. Yet, most of those churches continue to practice “closed” Baptism – insisting that all members must be baptized by immersion. Isn’t it interesting that we believe the Lord will accept all believers at His table; yet, we will only accept those who share our mode of baptism into our church membership. Makes you kind of wonder whose church we think it is. My prayers will be with your congregation as they make this important decision on Sunday; and no matter the outcome I hope that FBC Richmond will continue to be the model church that it is today.

  5. Lessee, here, I am not sure if I am being agreeable or disagreeable. Oh well, whatever. Anyway, I was raised in another denomination. They said that they were not sacramental, BUT, they said that salvation occurs when one is baptized by imersion as an older person. I always had a problem with that, it always seemed to me to leave those who came to faith, for example, on their death bed or on the battlefield in a bad situation. However, when I joined my wife in the Baptist denomination, I learned that the Baptist perspective is that people are saved when they come to faith. Baptism, as a following of the Lord, can come later, however, if you are on the battlefield or on your death bed, faith is the key, you would still be saved. I think that the Lord IS “the Good Shepherd” seeking to save everyone up to the last nanosecond of life. It seems to me that if someone has come to faith in Christ, THAT should be the requirement for church membership. Do you believe? You can join the church, so it seems to me.

  6. My opinion probably won’t be popular to either side of this debate, but it’s been my thought all along that it really doesn’t matter. Baptism (immersion or otherwise) is simply an outward sign of someone’s faith. Someone else’s faith is none of my business.

    I was sprinkled as a child, confirmed in the Methodist church, then went through believer’s baptism in my late teens. I don’t remember my childhood baptism, but the other two processes meant a lot to me. I chose believer’s baptism despite having gone through other processes because Acts 2:38 says, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

    While I don’t understand why a believer would not want to be re-baptized, it’s simply not my business.

    Instead of arguing about the outward signs of “religion,” we should instead be working even harder to grow and mature our personal relationship with Christ.

    I hope we as a church will have a process of healing after this debate is over. I didn’t agree with bringing this issue up because it would cause such a divide. Let’s all take a step back and remember that we are a church — one body — and we are called to love each other.

  7. Rick:

    Thanks for these thoughts.

    I’m hoping the two sides of this issue can come together on Sunday like two parents trying to decide on the best way to raise their children.

    Jim

  8. The church membership discussion has been quite a journey, hasn’t it? For the most part, I have appreciated the honesty, candor, and opinions that have been expressed. I have learned a lot and been reminded of a great deal. I am looking forward to Sunday as we seek to bring closure to this process.

    I have been helped along the way to see this matter from 10,000 feet. I do believe that there are Christians who are not Baptists. I also believe that it is our shared faith in Christ that unites us. The amount of water and the sequence of baptism/profession or profession/baptism takes a back seat to what happens in the heart when one professes Christ. Doesn’t it?
    In many ways, those who were baptized as infants and have completeted an intentional process of confirmation/discipleship/coaching are potentially much further along in their faith discovery process than most Baptists I know. It has not been until recently that we have had regular classes to introduce the Christian way of living, the Baptist way of being Christian, and the FBC way of being Baptist. Most folk in our church (and most other Baptist churches for that matter) likely have had no systematic guidance through what it means to be a Christian and a member of a church. (I know all about Church Training) We have talked a lot about that, and that is so good!
    Sunday is a wonderful opportunity to witness to the world and to those who are in the room that our relationship to Christ makes a difference in how we live. Our devotion to Christ makes a difference in how we view Christians from other faith backgrounds. Are our Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc. brothers and sisters children of God, or step-children of Baptists? I would like to think that the blood of Christ runs through their veins as well, and that a Baptist tranfusion is unneccessary. These are our blood kin!
    Let’s take this opportunity to welcome them and demonstrate our Christian hospitality. Does that make us liberal? Labels are helpful in making honest and helpful distinctions. But, labels are far too often cheap weapons that are used merely to incite division and make judgements out of context.
    So, let’s open our arms, symbolizing that in Christ we say, “We welcome you,” rather than folding our arms across our chest to say “We welcome you…but first you need some more water.” Then, let’s label everyone in our fellowship “Christian,” for that is the only label that really counts.

  9. I just wanted to add to the above by sharing that I have a twin brother. We were both raised in an independent Christian Church. During his mid 20s, he became an Episcopalian. The Episcopal Church accepted his Christian Church baptism and then he was confirmed, as they say, by a Bishop. Subsequently, my brother went on to become a member of the Roman Catholic Church. Again, the Roman Catholic Church accepted his Christian Church baptism, as had the Episcopal Church, because water was used (in his case, by imersion) and it was done in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. So long as those requirements are met, the Episcopal Church and Roman Catholic Church accept baptisms from several denominations, including Baptist, without regard to the age at which they were done. I should also mention that at First Baptist, I have known of a number of people who attended regularly, were very active in church service and then, after several even many years, finally joined First Baptist by being baptized although, as children or young people, they had been baptized by “sprinkling” elsewhere. It just seemed to me as though they were already defacto members and I admired their evident great faith and Christian service.

  10. I am not a member of First Baptist, but I have been attending the church for a little over two years now. Not being a member, I will not be voting one way or the other this coming Sunday on whether the church should change its policy regarding baptism. Even though I am not a member of First Baptist, I hope that no one will mind if I offer my opinion regarding this matter. Having been raised in the Pentecostal Holiness faith, I am very familiar with the process of baptism by immersion. I was raised to believe that the act of baptism was a public declaration to the church and the world of a person’s belief and faith in Jesus Christ. I do not believe that there is one set way by which a person can make that declaration. I am afraid that we have gotten too caught up in the mechanics regarding under what circumstances that declaration is made. The important thing is that the person is declaring his belief and faith in Jesus Christ. I do not think that it matters whether that declaration happens while that person is being fully immersed in the baptismal pool or the James River, is having water sprinkled over their head, or is having their feet washed. As long as that person makes his or her profession of faith in Jesus Christ and makes that profession publicly, then the matter in which they are baptised should not really matter. Again, I believe that people have put too much stock in the mechanics by which a person is baptised and not enough stock in what is supposed to be represented by the act of baptism, a declaration and profession of belief and faith in Jesus Christ.

    As mentioned earlier, I have been attending First Baptist for a little over two years now. At this particular time, I have no intention of joining the church. However, I have enjoyed attending the services at the church and I been interested in seeing how the matter of baptism would be resolved by the church. I do not think that this is either an liberal or conservative issue and I think that it can only be devisive when we start couching the matter as being either a conservative or liberal issue. I am not sure that one can determine if Jesus Christ was either a conservative or a liberal and I think that he probably would not be too pleased by us trying to attach either label to him. I do believe that Jesus Christ would want his church to be inclusive because I believe that was how he conducted his ministry on Earth. I think that most prople associate being a Christian with being Christ-like. If one truly wants to called a Christian then, maybe that person must be willing to include more people as opposed to trying to exclude them.

    However the vote goes on Sunday, I hope that everyone involved in the vote can handle the outcome gracefully and will behave in a Christ-like manner.

    Respectfully yours,

    Ron Smith

  11. “But at the end of it I rarely have the feeling that I have been understood. So, let me see if I can put it another way, a way that would make sense to lifelong Baptists…”

    Here’s another nonmember chiming in.

    I believe that I and many others completely understand Dr. Sommerville’s positin. We simply don’t agree. There is no harm in disagreement. If we all agreed, there would be no need for the diversity of denominations that we have today. Having grown up in a Southern Baptist home with an ordained Southern Baptist minister for a father, I am very familiar with the basic Soutern Baptist tenets, one of which is “Baptism by Immersion.” The vote that FBC is about to cast is a significant one; whether or not to change a practice that has been a part of the Southern Baptist tradition for hundreds of years. There is sound Biblical theological support for this practice. Obviously, many other denominations do not agree. That’s fine. Those of us who support immersion believe it is an integral component of membership. We do not believe, as some have suggested that it determines whether or not one is a Christian. We are not intolerant “phobes”. Further I would say that if the vote supports rescinding the requirement of immersion, there will be members, some lifelong, who will move to other churches, not because of intolerance and hard feelings but because they believe that they can be more effective and worship in a way that is closer to thier personal beliefs in a congregation whose traditions and practices more closely align with thier own. I don’t see anything ‘unchristian’ in this. Another of our dearly held Southern Baptist beliefs is democracy and independence of the individual church. How fortunate we are that we have choices in where and how we worship. Were I a member who disagreed with the outcome of the vote–whatever that outcome might be–and chose to move my membership to a sister church, I would wish FBC well with no hard feelings and I would rejoice that each of us has the right in this country to worship however he/she chooses.

  12. Jim: Couple thoughts.
    Your church referendum on Baptism has taken discussion at Baptistlife.com. There I think you in particular will want to consider the musings of novelist Ron Rash of the Baptist Tradition, and Luc Sante of a Belgian Catholic now secular tradition, their fascination with River Baptism.
    Bottom line as Ircel Harrison points out at his insightful Barnabas File Blog, each church has its own culture, a condition that often flowers in the Baptist autonomy ecclesiology, but sometimes not.
    In re your Pilgrimage to the Mosque, I imagine you have seen John Pierce’s blog about the Mosque in Vineville, Ga; and hope you go straightaway to the grand piece online in current Nybooks.com about Nativists of 1840, Catholic experience in America and the NYC Mosque project; along with the Religion Dispatches piece that invokes Roger Williams into the discussion, two of the best pieces I have seen to date on the whole brouhaha.

  13. This is not your pastor, I am another Jim Somerville from Port Orchard Washington and If you would be so kind as to let me express my thoughts on this topic . My Children and I were Babtized into the christian faith as infants. On that day we became part of a christian family that was and is devoted to raise us in the faith. It was a commitment made by those present in body and mind and(through the power of the holy spirit and prayer) to guide us on a journey.Now this is a powerful thing getting a bunch of us christians behind a newborns moral path in life and it strengthens our own commitment to Christ and brings us closer to grace. So Babtism to me is a bond between the newly babtized and their christian family plain and simple and when you fast foreward to the day when they have grown to internaly accept Christ (now that’s a full immersion moment!) and they feel like celebrating through a full babtism by all means take a dip! Babtism to me is a christian commitment to guiding young ones twords that glorious day of accepting Christ and most importantly protecting their innoce. God Bless

  14. I don’t see how Christians can divide over baptism. Drawing lines in the sand over when and how a person is baptized doesn’t make any sense to me. If we are Baptists, then we believe baptism is an outward expression of an inward reality. What is a Christian by definition? Arguing over secondary issues does nothing but once again separate the flock and make the Christian front weaker against the evil of the world.
    As long as we can’t stay focused and organized as a team, the evil of the world has nothing to fear, because we are too busy pointing fingers and arguing to fight the real enemy.
    Wake up folks!
    The Devil is out there laughing!

  15. Dear Jim, are you still wondering why are infants also to be baptized? Here comes some clues…Infants are to be baptized because

    They are included in all nations.

    Matt. 28:19: Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing…

    They too are spiritually dead, and must be born again through faith in Christ in order to be saved.

    Joh. 3:3,5: Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God… Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

    The covenant of grace and the promise of the kingdom of heaven also belong to children. Therefore, the seal of the covenant and of the promise, Baptism, also belongs to them.

    Gen. 17:7: I will establish… an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.

    Acts 2:38-39: Repent and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children.

    Mark 10:14: Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of God.

    The Holy Spirit creates faith also in infants.

    Mark 10:14-15: Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.

    Matt. 18:6: Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in Me…

    Matt. 21:16: Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise.

    Baptism replaced circumcision.

    Col. 2:11-12: In Whom (Christ) also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; buried with Him in Baptism, wherein also ye are risen with Him through the faith of the operation of God, Who hath raised Him from the dead.

    Through Baptism, the Holy Spirit creates faith and regenerates.

    Col. 2:12: Buried with Him in Baptism, wherein also ye are risen with Him through the faith of the operation of God.

    Baptism belongs to the entire Church of Christ, to which also believing children belong.

    Eph. 5:25-26: Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for it, that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the Word.

    God has not given us any other means besides Baptism, through which infants can believe and become partakers of the redemption.

    Matt. 18:10-11: Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, that in heaven their angels do always behold the face of My Father which is in heaven. For the Son of Man is come to save that which was lost.

    The Apostles baptized entire households.

    Assignment: Read Acts 10 and 11: the household of Cornelius, 16:13- 15: of Lydia, 16:25-34: of the jailor of Philippi, 18:8: of Crispus, and 1 Cor. 1:16: of Stephanas.

    The church father, Origen (182-254): “The Church has, from the Apostles, received the custom of also baptizing infants.”

    Luther: “Having come to be baptized and… as the officiant in the stead of Christ administers the Sacrament, Christ blesses infants, giving them faith and the kingdom of heaven.” (Church Postil)

  16. Thank you Roberto , AMEN ! All people are the children of God , all people need to be baptized. In God’s word (John 11:43-44) God called a dead man from the tomb. The unborn child, John the Baptist, leaped in his mother’s womb when he heard the word of God ( Luke 1:41-44) . Why is there any doubt that in and through the WORD and the promise of Baptizm. God works a similar gift of faith in the infant. If we mis understand Baptism to be our work, then we will always cast doubt on it. When we recognize that it is NOT OUR WORK, but God’s gracious promise and work, we realize that infants are to be baptized and receive the treasures offered in and through Baptism. “The promise is for you and your children” (Acts 2:39) and “Baptism now saves you” (1peter 3:21)

  17. Well stated. Other than the Bible, what books led you to this position? Do you recommend any in particular? I’ve been studying this for about 2 years, and I have come to a similar position… but it’s difficult to express it in layman’s terms. I think you do a great job with that.

  18. Thanks, Joel. There are a few good books out there. For Baptists: “Baptism: We’ve Got It Right…and Wrong,” by John Tyler, and “The Water that Divides” by Donald Bridge. Most of what I’ve learned has come through scripture, reason, and experience.

  19. I find everyone’s comments to be very interesting. I was originally a Southern Baptist who became a Christian at the age of 10, and then was baptized (immersed) a week later. At about the age of 20 I joined the OPC (Orthodox Presbyterian Church). I was convinced from scripture of God’s sovereignty and choice in our salvation, among other things. Subsequently, my children were baptized as infants, were taught about the Lord, and put their faith in Him.
    Later, we moved to a city without a Reformed church of any type. We have attended a Baptist church for many years, off and on. But they would not accept us as members unless our children were rebaptized. This I understood, having come from a Baptist background. But I now longer agreed with that, so we never became members. I believe that affusion (pouring or sprinkling) is actually more scriptural than immersion. In the Old Covenant, adults became believers in the true God, but their children were commanded to be circumcised before having faith. In the New Covenant children are not excluded either (Acts 2:38-39), but the promise is to us and our children. They are to be baptized by sprinkling, as done in Old Covenant ceremonies. Baptism is from God not man, as symbolized by the Holy Spirit being poured down upon Jesus in His Baptism. It is a symbol of being cleansed and being united to Christ, not being buried in the dirt. Our salvation is from God too. We did not choose Him, but He chose us. Just as we contributed nothing to our first birth, we contributed nothing to our second birth. We are first regenerated by the Holy Spirit, and then enabled by Him to have faith, resulting in salvation. But I have no problem accepting the baptism of other Christian churches. The important part is their salvation.

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