I have sometimes had the distinction between infant baptism and believer’s baptism put to me in the following, general, way:
In infant baptism you begin your life within the church through baptism and later on decide whether or not you choose to stay (confirmation) upon your confession of faith.
In believer’s baptism you begin your life outside the church (though you might be part of a worshiping body that commits to raising you to believe – child dedication) and later on upon your confession of faith you enter into the church.
Both of these accounts of baptism adhere to the understanding that baptism is the sacrament through which membership into the body of Christ is bound. It is an act in which what is bound on earth is also bound in heaven. The distinguishing feature is that believer’s baptism requires knowledge prior to baptism – in short, you need to have some sort of idea of what you’re getting yourself into. My conflict with this emerges from personal experience first of all:
When I was eight years old my family was reading our daily evening devotion together (you know, the good ‘ol focus on the family kind) and the story was about conversion but in the language of “asking Jesus into your heart” (which children supposedly can understand better than conversion). In any case, I was struck by this idea that I was the one responsible for asking Jesus into my heart, for deciding whether I wanted to follow Christ with my life or not. When my parents prayed with me that night I prayed that typical prayer of “asking Jesus into my heart” but I distinctly remember feeling uneasy and confused about the whole thing for one sole reason: I thought Jesus was already in my heart by virtue of the fact that I was a participating child in a worshiping body. Apparently this was not enough.
The second experience of conflict and uneasiness was when I began to understand this performance of baptism that happened at church every year on Pentacost. When I learned that this was a public declaration of one’s faith I immediately wanted to sign up. Of course, I was 11, too young, so I couldn’t. I continued to bring up my requests for baptism with adults in the church, for the most part afraid to because I was consistently denied my request because of my age. Finally when I was 15, I was seen as fit enough to join the annual catechism classes for people interested in baptism. I still sensed some hesitancy around this allowance because of my age but I was permitted to proceed, and after several weeks of study and the giving of a testimony, I was accepted to be baptized. Finally, after participating in a worshiping body for 15 years, 15 years of praying, praising, confessing, lamenting, adoring, a God I loved, I was permitted membership into his body that I secretly believed I had been a part of since the day of my dedication to it.
In both of these experiences what was going on theologically made absolutely no sense to me. Of course, I wouldn’t have been able to explain to anyone at the time why I was both thankful and upset at my baptism (the upset part wouldn’t have been an acceptable emotion anyway), but I intuited that something was not right.
I’ve been reading all kinds of tracts, articles, and letters of the early Anabaptists (Menno Simons, Balthasar Hubmaier, Michael Sattler, Hans Denck) and they all basically concede to the notion that knowledge of discipleship must somehow be achieved prior to baptism. Denck puts it this way: “When you baptize before a person has become a disciple you are by that act saying, in effect, that baptism is more important than teaching and knowledge.” The problem with this is, how do you measure this kind of knowledge of the faith or of discipleship? Moreover, wouldn’t it be violent to? And yet, at the same time, if we take the act of baptism seriously as a binding act, there needs to be some sort of way to determine the eligibility of a person into the messianic community, for them to understand their responsibilities to it by choosing to enter into it. The problem is that the kind of a priori knowledge described here is one that seems to be somehow separate from the rest of the practices of the ecclesial body. What I mean is, how ought one to understand, abstract from participation in the responsibilities or implications of faith, what they mean? what one is getting oneself into? This is of course the position I found myself in – I didn’t learn discipleship apart from the worshiping community and yet my official and whole membership was deferred for so long (“whole” in the sense that post-baptism I could participate in all the practice of the church, most importantly Communion).
In summary, my conflict is this: the theology of believer’s baptism isn’t congruent with the theology of the practicing body of believers. To put it differently, the kind of knowledge necessary for full membership, for baptism, is abstracted from what the church claims to be doing already, as it committed to in child dedications and all its other forms of worship. This is the conflict.