I grew up in Baptist circles, where baptism is only for those who have made a conscious decision to follow Christ–“believer’s baptism” it is called. Infant baptism is a no-no in that group–it is invalid, non-binding, what have you. I now belong to a denomination in which both infant baptism and believer’s baptism is practiced. If a parent decides they want to baptize their infant, our pastors will do so; if the parents would rather dedicate their infant (“dry baptism”, according to infant baptizers), that’s acceptable, too. I’m okay with this. I’ve never heard a convincing argument against infant-baptism, as the argument from silence (i.e. the Bible never explicitly mentions it) is always unconvincing, and for reasons given below. I may have heard good arguments in favour of infant baptism, but I don’t remember them. So I choose to remain agnostic and let someone else make those decisions for me. And I happen to find myself in a denomination which walks the middle ground: they do both.
A couple of days ago I was having a conversation with someone in which “the sinner’s prayer” came up, and it suddenly dawned on me that the anti-infant-baptism position of the churches of my youth is rather inconsistent. As far as I recall, all the churches attended prior to joining our current denomination were non-sacramental. That is, to them things like the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist, communion) or baptism have no efficacy, they are not “an outward sign of an inward grace”–Jesus is in no way present in the Lord’s Supper, but is simply remembered through it; baptism is not a means of grace, nor is it the path to membership in the body of Christ, but simply a public declaration of one’s faith (it is this declaration, rather than the baptism itself, which marks one’s joining the body of Christ).
Even during the communion service at my mom’s church this morning, while the pastor repeatedly asserted that Jesus is actually always with us, when we consumed the bread and juice, he declared that we remembered Jesus as we did so. That seemed strangely incongruous to me. Perhaps he meant that we remember Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, but in using the term “remember” we do mean something that has happened, something in the past, rather than something in the present. Perhaps I digress.
For churches that see things like communion and baptism merely as symbolic acts with no intrinstic effect or deeper meaning, they seem to be remarkably adamant about who can be baptized and how they are to be baptized. If it’s merely a symbolic act, what difference does the who and how really make? The problem is probably precisely the fact that baptism is seen as non-sacramental. If it is a declaration and nothing more, how can an infant make such a declaration?
Still, there is the dry baptism–the baby dedication. Is it much different than an infant baptism? I don’t know; I haven’t witnessed an infant baptism. I suspect, however, that the difference between a baptism and a dedication is mostly in how much water is used (some vs. none), though some of the wording might also be different.
And then there’s the classic Toddler Point of Conversion. If you grew up in a Christian family, you might be familiar with it. It was quite common among my church-going peers to say something like, “I became a Christian when I was four years old.” (Age four really does seem like the magic year.) This inevitably means that they said “The Sinner’s Prayer” some time that year. The Sinner’s Prayer (for a four-year-old) in summary: you say you’re sorry for your sins and you ask Jesus to come into your heart so that you can go to heaven. I quite clearly remember my Point of Conversion, and from what I can recall and what my mom recounts, I did in avery simplistic way understand what that prayer was all about. What that meant in my life immediately afterwards, I don’t know, but I suspect very strongly that it had less to do with me and more to do with the Spirit of Christ. But I digress again.
But is a four-year-old asking Jesus into his or her heart and thereby being declared “saved” much different than a baby being baptized and thereby being declared a member of the body of Christ? Ah, you say, but the four-year-old has made his or her own decision to follow Christ—there’s the difference. To which I respond, firstly, has he or she really made his or her own decision? How informed can a four-year-old really be? And secondly, isn’t this business of making one’s own decision decidedly modern and individualistic? Sure, we must all choose at some point–but is it the personal decision what gives conversion its efficacy? What makes us think we can do this on our own anyway? What if the decision isn’t exclusively mine? What if I never really make a “decision for Christ” but merely find myself in and with him?
To that end, I like Lauren Winner’s community-oriented perspective on the question of baptism:
Sometimes people wonder how babies can be baptized; indeed, that very wondering is the genesis of the Baptist church. Baptists believe babies shouldn’t be baptized. They say there’s no scriptural precedent for it, that Jesus and John were both baptized as adults. Hannah, who’s a Baptist, often says that a baby can’t promise to do everything one promises in baptism. I have never found this a very persuasive argument. It strikes me as too individualistic. The very point is that no baptismal candidate, even an adult, can promise to do those things all by himself. The community is promising for you, with you, on your behalf. It is for that reason that I love to see a baby baptized. When a baby is baptized, we cannot labor under the atomizing illusion that individuals in Christ can or should go this road alone. When a baby is baptized we are struck unavoidably with the fact that this is a community covenant, a community relationship, that these are communal promises. (Lauren Winner, Girl Meets God, 80)
“The community is promising for you, with you, on your behalf.” I like that. We do the same thing when we dedicate a baby, of course, but we skip the water. I’m not sure why.
I wonder if all this “Jesus is your personal saviour” business, even if it is true, is undermining our sense of community, of being part of the body of Christ, of being inextricably linked to each other through Christ, that we are all in this together, not just a bunch of individually saved people who happen to meet together on Sunday mornings and occasionally mid-week.
It’s strange, now that I think about it, how we don’t like this idea of making a promise on somebody’s behalf, which is what both baptism and dedication are. We don’t like it because we think we should make all of our own choices–no one should make them for us, and if they do, they are invalid promises and I don’t have to honour them.
On behalf of someone. On behalf of people. Isn’t that precisely the story of Christ’s death and resurrection? Why are we so afraid, so resistant to this idea of doing things on behalf of others when this is precisely what Christians believe about the cross? Doesn’t this resistance move us away from the cross, even to the point of saying, No thanks, Jesus. You can’t do that on my behalf. You’re infringing on my right to choose for myself. Stay out of my business, thanks.
I don’t know. There’s much more that could be said. As I was writing this I began to realize that the theological rabbit hole goes deep and I’ve only skimmed the surface. But there you have it, for now.