The Administration of Baptism

Among historic Christian communities there is no question that baptism is a requirement for entrance into the Church, the Body of Christ. We should all understand that there are two issues that confront us in baptism. One is the mode and the other is the subjects. The historic Christian communities do not agree on these. For those of the Baptist persuasion, which includes all who profess “believer baptism,” the only acceptable mode is immersion and the only acceptable subjects are those who are mature enough to make their own confession of repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Reformed denominations, Methodists and a few others including Roman Catholics practice what is commonly called infant baptism, or paedo-baptism as well as the baptism of confessing adults. For most of these any mode is acceptable, but the most commonly used is sprinkling.

I do not have the ability in this brief article to argue the relative Biblical merits of the paedo-baptist versus the believer-baptist positions, nor am I concerned about the mode. I would like to point out, however, that baptism is a visible ordinance of the church. This has two consequences. First, it identifies people as Christians before a watching world. This is the reason that it should be performed publicly in the presence of the congregation. Secondly, it raises the question  of the connection of the visible to the invisible. I think I can safely state that the outward administration of baptism never ever guarantees the inward possession of graces it signifies. No matter how hard the practitioners of “believer baptism” try, they can never guarantee that everyone they baptize is really a true believer. The Bible is full of examples of church members who have apostasized, and undoubtedly baptist pastors have experienced the same. The value of an outward sign is identification and authentication and the inward reality may differ.

Having said this, I wish to focus on the actual administration of the sacrament. I have reference particularly to those who are paedo-baptists. It is the parents who bring their little ones to be baptized. The parents therefore should be baptized members in good standing of the Church of Christ, or they cannot keep the vows that are usually made at baptism. They acknowledge their child’s need of the cleansing blood of Christ, and claim God’s covenant promises for their child, and they dedicate their child to God and promise to bring the child up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. I wish in no way to minimize the importance of parents role in fulfilling their sacred obligations, but it is at this point that many pastors fail. Those churches who hold to believer-baptism often have dedication ceremonies for their children. As a consequence many who practice paedo-baptism tend to treat the baptismal ceremony in the same way; as merely a dedication of the child to the Lord by the parents. However, there are no examples of any dedication of infants in Scripture other than the command in Exodus 13:1 and 2 to consecrate every first born child to the Lord. This applied only to the first born and is certainly not a substitute for circumcision in the Old Testament, or baptism in the New Testament. The result is that the way paedo-baptism is often presented is that all the obligation of the ceremony is laid upon the parents, and none upon the child.

The Reformation view of infant baptism is much deeper than human dedication. It involves the dedication  of God. In the Old Testament circumcision was a sign and seal given to people to assure them that they belonged to the true and living God. It was God’s way of saying that He would keep His promises to them and their children. In the same way, baptism is not OUR sign, it is GOD’S sign. When a man gives a girl an engagement ring he is saying, “You belong to me,” and in accepting it she is agreeing to that contract or covenant. God’s sign says, “You belong to me.” Thus in the baptism of a child, God is acting and claiming that child for his own . This means that the child, as well as the parents, has an obligation because he has been graciously accepted by God. He is identified in the world as belonging to someone else and the child must be taught that he is not his own, he has been bought with a price. Historically, the failure to do this has consistently led to the loss of youth in the church because they think it’s just up to them and feel no obligation. They do not understand that their parents have obligated them. And it has also led to an adversarial relationship between growing children and their parents because the child has been taught that he is on the outside looking in instead of the inside looking out.

Of course when children come to an age when they can articulate their repentance and faith, they should be examined by the elders and admitted to the communion. This is the normal progression for one who is part of the body of Christ and blessed by its ministries. As a result I vowed long ago never to say at a baptism that parents were coming to dedicate their child. They are, but baptism is a solemn ordinance commanded by God in which he is acting in the world to say something. What he is saying is this baby is mine, so world, flesh, devil, keep your hand off. He is also saying parents and congregation, remember that this is one of my little lambs and treat them accordingly. In the end baptism cannot save and failure to baptize cannot jeopardize our salvation, but, still, it is God’s witness that we are compromising when we fail to administer it properly.