|"So, Mr. Tom, tell us why you think you're old enough."|
Training is the initial disciple-making that is supposed to take place and is the church’s responsibility to provide. Examination and training were common in North Carolina Baptist churches a century ago, and continue to be important in other parts of the world today. Young children are one area to consider.
As late as the early 1800s, during the tenure of the famous Richard Furman as pastor of First Baptist Church of Charleston, SC, children were carefully taught the church’s catechism, but “the greatest care was exercised in guarding against premature professions of piety.” Among earlier Baptists, the supposed conversion of someone under age 16-18 was considered unusual at best and more often suspect. Believer’s baptism was seen as synonymous with adult baptism.
Baptism of children is rare among Baptists worldwide. The United States is the exception. Today, Baptists in Romania, Ukraine, Brazil, France, and nearly everywhere except the American South expect to baptize their young people no earlier than age 14.
In many of our Southern Baptist churches, while we do not practice infant baptism, we do practice toddler baptism. Between 1996 and 1993, baptisms of children under 6 years of age tripled. Recently, the only age group among Southern Baptists showing an increase in baptisms was preschoolers, a statistic not even kept until 1966. Certainly many had a genuine conversion, but many baptized as young children have never experienced a redeemed life. How do we know?
We know because of the disturbing numbers of re-baptisms. A 1993 survey by the old Home Mission Board found that of adult baptisms (age 18+) in SBC churches, 3 of every 5 had been previously baptized. Some of course were coming from previous traditions, but 36% of all adults baptized in SBC churches in 1993 had been previously baptized in SBC churches.
This is heinous. More than one third of those previously baptized Southern Baptists asked for re-baptism because they had just experienced conversion. It seems we are guilty of prematurely baptizing people, especially children, without insuring that they understand the gospel and are indeed responding to the leading of the Holy Spirit to submit themselves to Jesus Christ.
So what is a minimum age at which a child can be truly saved? That answer is impossible, but there is cognitive information in the Gospel that is beyond preschoolers’ concrete thinking skills. Art Murphy, Children’s Pastor at FBC, Orlando, says that “we have found that most children who make that decision under the age of 7 tend to need to make another decision later” and points to the high numbers of rebaptisms as evidence. Some people place a lot of emphasis on the age of 12. It is the age at which Jesus assumed spiritual responsibility (Luke 2:49); it seems to be the age at which Paul saw one as spiritually accountable (Rom. 7:9), what used to be called the age of accountability. It is the age of bar mitzvah and confirmation in paedobaptist churches). It is within the age-range that many developmental psychologists say significant cognitive abilities blossom. It was the age of conversion mentioned overwhelmingly in a Southern Baptist survey (more mentioned 12 than 11 and 13 combined; overall 67% were converted between 7 and 16).
How do we deal with a child age 4 or 5 who might come forward, who have asked Jesus into their hearts, and who are requesting baptism and church membership? First of all, we should encourage that child. At FBC, Dallas, young children making professions of faith are a cause for celebration that the Holy Spirit is at work in that child, but there is no hard conclusion drawn conversion has occurred nor that they should be immediately baptized. They take the attitude that the child has taken an important step in their relationship with Jesus, and a time is planned with the parents to further counsel the child.
God can move at any age in a person, but when does the church certify that? The church is in no way hurting him or keeping him from obedience. If his conversion was indeed genuine, then there is nothing the church can do to damage his salvation. If on the other hand, the church baptizes the child and receives him into church membership without a genuine conversion, then the church has hurt the child by providing a false sense of hope to him and his parents. Speaking as a pastor, usually it is the parents who want the pastor to do something who apply the pressure to baptize their child. The child is usually easily led in these circumstances. All the child wants is to be obedient to the Lord at that point. Here’s a rule of thumb: If a child is too young to read the church covenant, then he is probably too young to join the church!
Second, we need to be clear that salvation and baptism are separate issues. Salvation is God’s business, and he can save whomever he wants whenever he wants. Baptism is the responsibility of the church, and should occur only when the church has reason to believe that the one to be baptized has experienced salvation in Jesus Christ. Since baptism doesn’t complete salvation, there is no rush to baptize except to give a person freedom to partake in communion. Give the child’s commitment time to take root and grow and for the church to see evidence of new life in that little person.
Third, some churches, like FBC Orlando, make baptism contingent on completing a four-week new Christian’s class and younger children are encouraged to grow and enroll in the class when they reach second grade. I don’t favor making baptism contingent on taking a class. In fact, I am growing in the idea that once converted one needs not to wait a long time to be baptized, but I like the idea of encouraging children to wait to be part of a new Christian’s class when they can, in fact, read the material presented to them!
Some churches deal with that issue by baptizing children but adding other requirements to be a voting church member, such as age 16 or 18. Such a requirement seems to betray the idea that young children understand what they are doing. It doesn’t make sense that a congregation says a child can understand the most important decision of their lives at age 4 but they cannot understand how to vote on whether to pave the parking lot until they are 16.
Everyone who comes forward at an invitation should be warmly welcomed, but the church must take its responsibility seriously as a baptizing body. The church needs to have reason to believe the candidate for baptism is genuinely a believer. It is the church who decides who are to be church members, not the individuals coming forward. Christ Himself gave the church the competence and authority to make this decision, but we have exalted soul competence and neglected church competence. In order to make an intelligent vote on admitting someone to membership, they need some basis on which to vote.