My Conflict with Believer’s Baptism

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.

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12 comments on “My Conflict with Believer’s Baptism

  1. Theophilus says:

    I grew up in a very similar tradition, and was also rebuffed in my attempts to be baptized at an age younger than the church thought acceptable. The explanation I received, and which I generally found satisfactory, was that the ordinances practiced by the church were symbolic of the prior work of God, rather than being effective upon God in their own right. This is illustrated by the tradition of inscribing the words “Do this in remembrance of me” on the altar in many Mennonite Brethren churches. Since the ordinances of the church were symbolic responses, they always followed the work of God, rather than constituting it. I was therefore told that even though I was being baptized as a teenager, my faith and participation in the church prior to my baptism were real and honoured by God. I expect something similar would be said about conversion.

    This view contains a rather low sacramental theology, doubly emphasized by the use of the word “ordinances” rather than “sacraments” in the MB tradition. It also contains a very high view of the sovereignty of God. How does it sound to you?

  2. Thanks for this. I wonder if a constructive way forward is to reflect on the biblical notion of ‘household’ (being comprised of anything from a single individual to multiple-generations). As I understand it proponents of infant baptism looked at phrases about entire ‘households’ becoming Christian or the Joshua phrase ‘as for me and my house we will serve the Lord’. My hunch is that baptizing an infant would have made no sense in the immediate context but it this imagery does shift attention away from conversion as solely an individual process but also acknowledges that at some point people we will likely form part of the ‘head’ of a household. This does not resolve the tension but allows for both participation and development. Just an initial thought.

  3. Tony Hunt says:

    I had a very similar experience. I also experienced much the same thing with respect to the need of a ‘conversion experience,’ which, being raised a Christian, I’ve never had.

  4. Kampen says:

    Thanks for the feedback guys. I was hoping that this wouldn’t just be another interesting post people read since it is a conflict and what we do with conflicts is engage them.

    Theo: That sound pretty good actually. It is a much more continuous and nuanced understanding of participation in an ecclesial body, conversion, and baptism (among other ordinances). I guess I have have a fairly high sacramental theology (for a Mennonite) that often gets me strange looks from other Mennos who engage me on ordinances, bewildered as to where that came from.

    Dave: Your point sounds interesting but I’m not sure what about what the implications you are drawing for infant/believer’s baptism. Could you say more?

    Tony: One of the interesting things about the Apostle Paul’s conversion is that it isn’t a complete stripping of the old self for the new. Paul very much claims his Jewish identity along with his Christian one (in fact at the time they couldn’t be thought of separately) which is something contemporary readings often fail to acknowledge. Which is why the stereotypical “I had a decent life but then got into drugs but then met Jesus and everything changed” conversion story can’t be raised as quintessential conversion. It’s violent. I think.

  5. My thought is really quite simple in that a further developed notion of ‘household’ faith may simply be able to embrace the conflict you articulated. As part of the household you will participate but once you establish your own household it is up to you which God you will serve. There is a difference between adult and child then there is a blurring of those lines (being perhaps neither) then later there is again clarity. The point is not that we can clarify and clean up the lines around those transitions but that there are transitions.

  6. Phil Newton says:

    I have been thinking about Baptism lately in terms of the emphasis in my tradition (Uniting Church) on what God is doing in baptism rather than what the individual is doing.

    Because the grace of God is not dependent on the “magic” of the sacrament, the reality of that grace is already present. What we do in baptism is doxology in response to a deep and abiding reality we as Christians affirm. Not that baptism is unnecessary. Far from it. But the person being baptized’s ability to understand the reality of grace the baptism points to, is neither here nor there.

    If receiving God’s grace was dependent on understanding that grace, how many of us would pass? Not to mention Jesus’ disciples.

    We baptize not in knowledge, but in faith and as such, a precondition of knowledge or even knowledge disguised as faith, is unhelpful and misleading.

  7. Kampen says:

    Part of what I found frustrating reading through 16th Century Anabaptist sources was the emphasis on the capacity for understanding the cost of discipleship and leading a repentant life as being the result of an inner transformation of which baptism is merely a symbol. What is problematic for me here is that the act of baptism itself is not an event, that is, God isn’t doing anything in baptism. Which I disagree with. Certainly I wouldn’t say that the event of baptism is exhausted in an account of the immersion or pouring or whatever actual practice of the ecclesia but I do want to say that the practice thereof is more than merely a symbol. (I get more into this distinction between symbol and sign in Part II of My Conflict with Believer’s Baptism, which allows me to speak both of what God is doing and what the individual is doing).

    I agree that what we are doing in baptism is doxology, but in addition to that form of response to God is our reception of the Holy Spirit. And it is this reception, this gift, this grace, that enables us to live as disciples and repentant lives. (Not prior to baptism).

  8. […] who go by Kampen and Theophilus. The blog is teeming with great theological discussions about baptism, the analogia entis, and Mennonites (and John Howard Yoder!).  And, if one wants to evoke […]

  9. A.J. Smith says:

    What I can’t understand about believers baptism is the contention that you must be of a specific age before you can be baptized. Simple volition is not enough. This rests, as I understand it, on the premise that you don’t fully understand what you’re doing when you’re younger. You can only fully cognize the significance of your decision (to be baptized) when you’re older. Only then do you believe. This is too rationalistic I think. The problem is you never understand the significance of being baptized. (On this rationale, then, could we even baptize adults? Why is adulthood so spiritually privileged?) How does this affect people with mental disabilities or cognitive handicaps?

    And, is there not something prima facie slightly theologically perverse in telling a someone, even (or perhaps especially)a child, that she cannot be baptized, no matter whater theological rationale is used for justifying this decision?

    • Theophilus says:

      Does your (Lutheran, according to your blog) tradition catechize adult converts before baptizing them? If so, what is their justification for this practice? I think the whole question of infant versus adult baptism would do well to consider why pedobaptist traditions catechize adult converts before baptism rather than afterwards, as they do for children born to parents who adhere to the tradition.

      I’m also curious because I’ve seen some very interesting cases of baptism among Lutherans. Specifically, I know one Lutheran minister, originally from Germany, who was rebaptized as an adult because his parents’ faith was purely nominal. He believed that this meant that they had no faith to transfer to him by baptism, rendering his infant baptism invalid.

      • A.J. Smith says:

        You’re right, of course.

        My Lutheran denomination (ELCIC) does catechize adult converts before baptism (although I must mention that I was not personally catechized before I was baptized as an adult).

        I also retain some suspicions of pedeo-baptism. For the most part in my tradition, its oddly non-churchgoers that are baptized, not sure why they go for this. These parents recite all this baptismal liturgy about being in the Christian community, etc., and then they are never seen from again in the context of the church. Its rather odd, and I always wonder what it is they think they’ve done for their children.

  10. Kampen says:

    That, of course, happens in believer’s baptism traditions as well, only it seems even less “justifiable” because those baptized supposedly have a pretty good idea of what kind of life they are committing themselves to, both as disciples of Christ as well as members of a particular congregation. And yet…

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