A scholarly minister writes, “I am leading a study this summer with five other families, all having children who have expressed an interest in baptism or a desire to be baptized. The children range from seven to 13 years of age. What are your thoughts on this subject?”
On this question, gracEmail readers (like Christians for the past 16 centuries), do not all share the same understanding. I would like to call attention first to a few historical details. Although some believe they see infant baptism implied in the New Testament, it explicitly originated among early Roman Catholics who believed, in an era of very high infant mortality, that no person could be saved without water baptism. Today, however, many Roman Catholics are returning to immersion of believers, which they describe as baptism’s original form. And evangelical conviction has permeated some Roman Catholicism, especially in the United States and particularly through the charismatic movement.
Lutherans and Anglicans emphasize that baptism does not save apart from faith, but retain the practice of baptizing their own infants. Methodists and other Wesleyans continue the Anglican practice and, officially, the same theology, although many of them practically view infant baptism more as a dedication and a parental promise to rear the child in the Lord.
Reformed or Calvinistic Christians baptize their babies to signify that they are part of the covenant community, much as circumcision identifies covenant males while in infancy among the Jews (Gen. 17:9-14). Yet some Reformed theologians from Karl Barth to Paul K. Jewett have questioned infant baptism, noting that the new covenant expects a personal faith-response as a prerequisite for admission into the believing community.
During the Reformation, the Anabaptists insisted that baptism was only for professing believers and that one did not become a Christian automatically by birth into a “Christian nation.” This doctrine directly challenged the state churches of the Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists and Anglicans, which often used secular power to persecute to death those who taught it. (In retrospect, we can suggest that the fatal heresy of the Anabaptists — whose name meant “Re-baptizers” — was as much political as theological).
Churches today practicing believer baptism include the Brethren and Mennonites (usually by pouring), Baptists of all kinds, Restoration Movement (Churches of Christ, Christian Churches and Disciples of Christ), Adventists (Advent Christians and Seventh-day Adventists), many Pentecostals and most charismatic and Bible churches. With the passing of time, however, the age at which these churches have been willing to regard their children as believers, and therefore as candidates for baptism, has fallen lower and lower.