Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Infant baptism among Baptists

“[Sunday April 19, 2015, Pastor Rodney] Kennedy held the infant over a small bowl of warm water, used his hands to cup and pour the water over the baby’s head. He also anointed the child with oil and made the sign of cross on his forehead in name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

Nothing about that is likely to seem unusual -- unless one knows that Pastor Kennedy a Baptist and the place was First Baptist Church of Dayton, Ohio.[1] In Aiming to deepen rite’s meaning, Baptist pastor in Ohio baptizes infant, Jeff Brumley tells us the story of one Baptist church that not only accepts members who have previously received a rite of baptism as an infant, but has now actively performed such a baptism. (Well, a sprinkling anyway.) In the practice diverts from two important Baptist essentials -- immersion and confession of faith. That is, for Baptists, baptism is by the mode of immersion and that only on those who profess faith in Christ.

Elizabeth Newman, Professor of Theology at the moderate/liberal Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, Virginia says that “Kennedy is the first Baptist pastor...she’s known to baptize an infant.”[2] From Brumley’s article we can gain some idea of the chain of events that led to infant baptism in/by a Baptist Church.

  • A couple, church members, asked Pastor Kennedy to baptize their 7-month-old son
  • There was a month of prayer and discussion between the pastor and leaders of the congregation
  • Many years preceded over which the church and pastor had increased it liturgical practice
  • The church already accepted of the validity of infant baptism performed by others

What in Dayton, Ohio became perhaps a first for Baptists will not be a last. Many Baptists on the left edge have been moving this way for years. And the other edge the approval and adaptation of elements of Reformed theology points some of them in that direction as well.[3] What factors contribute or lead to Baptists practicing infant baptism?

Open membership
In 2005 John Piper, well-known and influential pastor Bethlehem Baptist Church of Minneapolis, Minnesota proposed “that excluding from membership a truly regenerate person who gives credible evidence of his saving faith is a more serious mistake than viewing the time and mode of baptism as essential to the qualifications for membership.” Under such as open membership plan those baptized as infants who feel they cannot submit to believer’s baptism in good conscience are allowed to join the church without being immersed on a profession of faith.[4] This is not new, but perhaps surprising due to the Piper’s prominence among conservative Baptist types. At the time they performed the infant sprinkling, the church and Pastor Kennedy “already accepted the validity of infant baptism and we don’t make people get baptized” before joining First Baptist even if they were baptized as infants. So their position regarding baptism and open membership supported their decision to baptize an infant.

The ecumenical desire to break down walls between denominations fosters this idea. The Baptist distinctive of believer’s immersion as the only scriptural form of baptism is a barrier to the stated goal. Pastor Kennedy said, “I want to move closer to the ecumenical fellowship of the Christian church and by accepting infant baptism, and then practicing it, we are not set off from Presbyterians and Methodists and Catholics.” Removing the distinctions in baptism is one step to closer ecumenical fellowship, and supported, for example, by the Baptist Union of Great Britain: “To date, the BU maintains that the mutual recognition of baptism as a concession to the liberty of conscience which they defend for all believers is, at present, the only tenable way forward for Baptists in the ecumenical movement.” (Baptism and the Baptists, Anthony R. Cross)

Baby dedications
Baby dedications have become popular in many Baptist churches. While this does not necessarily lead to infant baptism, in the minds of many it dulls the distinction between the baptist theology and paedobaptist theology.[5] Professor Newman notes that “A lot of Baptist churches [are doing] baby dedications, which are a way of welcoming the child into the family — though not the membership — of the church.” In his “arguments for welcoming Christians from other denominations into our membership without re-baptizing them,” First Baptist, Richmond, Virginia,[6] Pastor Jim Somerville says that infant baptism “is almost identical to our own practice of baby dedication...”

“Kiddie” baptisms
Many otherwise staunchly conservative advocates of believer’s baptism engage in the practice of “kiddie baptisms”.[7] An example of the increasingly young age for so-called believer’s baptism can be traced through Annual Church Profile reports of the Southern Baptist Convention. In 2014 the SBC’s Pastors’ Task Force on SBC Evangelistic Impact and Declining Baptisms reported that “the only consistently growing age group in baptisms is age five and under.” [8] One writer said that in the SBC “the preschool age group saw a 96 percent increase from 1974 to 2010.” The 2007 Annual Church Profile listed total baptisms by seven age groups, including Preschool B-5 (3878) Children 6-8 (45,825); Children 9-11 (61,792). Newer forms reduce the categories to four: 11 years and under; 12 to 17 years of age; 18 to 29 years of age; and 30 and up; thereby concealing the number of very young age baptisms.

Southwestern Professor of Theology James Leo Garrett Jr., rightly says that “believer’s baptism by immersion is probably the all-time central Baptist distinctive.” Baylor Professor of Theology Roger Olson points out that “big-B” Baptists are extremely diverse -- but they have commonly been held together by the thread of believer’s baptism by immersion. This thread is unraveling. Olson is an Arminian Baptist of the moderate/liberal spectrum.[9] He might be expected to approve of the choice of FBC, Dayton. Yet he concludes: “Some will no doubt view this event as a breakthrough in ecumenism and inclusivity. I view it as a betrayal of tradition and trust.”

Faithfulness to the practice and of the New Testament demands the practice of believer’s baptism. Baby dedications may meet an emotional need of the parents, but there is little evidence that such was a common New Testament practice (some point to Jesus blessing the children brought to him). If these are performed they should be kept distinct and eternal diligence should distinguish this from the practice and theology of infant baptism. “Kiddie baptism” is a latent and disguised form of infant baptism that should be rejected. There is no real theological or practical difference between baptizing a two year old who can parrot “I believe Jesus” and a two week old who cannot. The gradual growth of Baptists condoning “kiddie baptism” supports the prospect of infant baptism. Ecumenical efforts that cast off doctrinal truth ought to be avoided.

For Baptists (and we believe biblically), baptism means a confession of faith, identification with Christ, and a radical life commitment. It is given by God for adults who can confess and commit.[10]

Related links
Can a Pastor Baptize an Infant and Remain Baptist? (Some Thoughts about Identities)
Was Infant Baptism Practiced in Early Christianity
Baptism: Infant vs. Child Baptism among Baptists
The Problem with Open Membership: Where I Disagree with John Piper

[1] First Baptist Church of Dayton belongs to American Baptist Churches U.S.A. and the Alliance of Baptists. On their website page about membership First Baptist states, “Persons joining First Baptist Church from other denominations are not obligated to be baptized by immersion. First Baptist Church accepts the baptism of all Christian churches.”
[2] Newman’s position among the more moderate ecumenical type Baptists puts her in a good position to be aware of infant baptism in Baptist churches.
[3] Though in their case it may move them away from being called by the name Baptist.
[4] At the time the church did not pass the plan. I am not sure of its current status.
[5] For example, Great Bridge Baptist Church affirms that “Baby Dedication is a commitment service where parents promise to raise their child in a God honoring way” and informs that they do “not baptize children until they are old enough to articulate their understanding and belief. The Bible assures us that every baby is secure in the Grace of God.”
[6] Jeremiah Bell Jeter pastored FBC Richmond 1836 to 1849.
[7] One extreme example of the aura, not just the age, surrounding these “kiddie baptisms” is the firetruck baptistry at Springdale, Arkansas. (I have a record that shows a child, one month shy of three years old, was a member of First Baptist Church of [name withheld] Texas.) “A third important development [concerning baptism, 1955-1970] is the problem of the baptism of young children...They find themselves coming closer and closer to infant baptism. In 1969 Southern Baptists baptized 1422 children under six years of age...” (Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists, Vol. 3, page 1585)
[8] This is based on the ACP for 2012.
[9] Olson is a five-point Arminian and has an ecumenically broad view of what constitutes Christian orthodoxy. He advocates an ecumenism of “reconciled diversity, not sameness.”
[10] This does not question whether God can save who he chooses at what age he chooses. But baptism following profession signifies confession and commitment, which small children cannot do.

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