Nathan Finn on Baptizing Children and Church Membership

One of the important points to address in recovering a regenerate church membership is the issue of baptizing young children.  Nathan Finn was recently interviewed by Michael Spencer (iMonk) on the important issue of church membership, and I have provided a portion of Nathan’s answer to the question of baptizing children.  Reconnecting the ordinance of baptism with church membership will play a key role in strengthening the integrity of church membership.  Here’s the excerpt from Nathan’s answer (emphasis mine):

Baptizing small children is an innovation in American Baptist life. I think that this is a clear area where we have been influenced by some of the fundamentalists, though it worked in tandem with our home-grown programmatic emphasis on enlistment. The average age of baptism increasingly declined during the 20th century. In 1995, the old Home Mission Board published a study that showed the only age group where baptisms were increasing was the “under 5” category. I have a hard time seeing how this makes us very different than pedobaptists. A perusal of church records and associational minutes will show that our American Baptist forefathers did not regularly baptize pre-teens, though there were occasional exceptions when a child gave extraordinary evidence of both genuine conversion and an understanding of the cost of discipleship as entailed through meaningful church membership.

The practice of baptizing pre-teens has affected church membership in a number of ways. First, it has contributed to the growth of our membership roles—the majority of our baptisms are of elementary aged children and preschoolers. Second, it has contributed to the phenomena of multiple “baptisms” and rededications as teenagers and adults have to assess the validity of childhood spiritual decisions that they can sometimes hardly remember. Third, when coupled with an inadequate view of eternal security, it has led to millions of inactive members who are convinced they are Christians because they walked the aisle as a kindergartener during Vacation Bible School forty years ago. Finally, it has greatly contributed to the decline in redemptive church discipline: what church wants to discipline an eleven year old for having premarital sex, vocal racism, or habitually getting into fistfights with his classmates?

I do want to offer one clarification before moving on. I think it is very possible for small children to be regenerated. There are many people I know who can clearly remember being converted at a relatively young age. But being able to understand the basics of sin, judgment, redemption, and faith and being able to maturely covenant in membership with a local church are two different things, in my opinion. Some will argue that virtually all of the New Testament baptisms happen almost immediately after conversion. This is true. I would respond that almost all New Testament examples are clearly adults who are older than even teenagers. Furthermore, we have absolutely zero examples in the New Testament of when to baptize children who are raised in Christian families. Our pedobaptist friends address this situation by baptizing infants. Most Southern Baptists and Independent Baptists address this by baptizing anyone who can articulate a prayer for salvation. I am an old-fashioned Baptist who believes we should withhold baptism until a child is old enough to publicly identify with a local church through covenant, meaningful membership, though I would be reluctant to arbitrarily set a particular age requirement for baptism.

Read the whole interview.

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7 Comments on “Nathan Finn on Baptizing Children and Church Membership”

  1. David Says:

    Perhaps as the token pedobaptist. I’m not sure how accurate it is to suggest that we baptize infants as a matter of expediency due to a lack of NT verses on when to baptize babes of believers.

    I am sure that if we pressed on this with Dr. Finn, we’d find that it’s not the sum total of his thinking, and to his credit, it’s not highlighted in bold in the original over at IM, so I assume he didn’t speak especially loud at that point, nor submit answers with underscores. That seems to have been added here.

    I don’t know, If I was to read this as you’ve highlighted, (i.e., the bold bits) I would come away with the idea that the most useful part of the entire interview could be summarized as “We don’t want anything to do with those flakey Pedobaptists who sprinkle anyone willynilly without any Scriptural Warrant and wind up making millions of deluded ‘believers’.”

    I’m not sure that the OPC or the PCA is filled with millions of anything, let alone those deceived by poor, benighted parents who took them for a quick shower up the front 20, 30, 40 years ago…

  2. Greg Alford Says:

    Nathan,

    What would the SBC Baptism and Membership numbers look like over the last 40 or so years if one did not count all those pre-teens? I dare say that the impact of not counting them would be staggering to the PRIDE of the SBC.

    Baptism, according to the NT, is an expression of one’s repentance/confession (see Matt. 3:5-12). Therefore Baptism without Repentance is of no value to the soul whatsoever. If a child is not pressed by the weight of his sinfulness in the light of God’s perfect standard (which I find very hard for a 5 year old to comprehend) then what is the child confessing or repenting of during Baptism?

    If the child does not see himself as a great sinner, in need of a great savior, then Baptism should be postponed until such a time as the child full understands what it is that they are confessing by submitting unto Baptism.

    Grace Always

  3. phil simpson Says:

    Question: Aren’t we commanded to baptize those who profess the name of Jesus (Mt 18:18-20)? And isn’t baptism a command given to all who have trusted in Christ for their salvation (Acts 2:38-41)? In the Scriptures, it seems that those who genuinely trusted Christ were baptized immediately (again, Acts 2:38-41, and also Acts 8:12, 8:36-38, 9:18, 16:33, 18:8, 19:5, and 22:16). Therefore, the issue seems to me to be about whether the child has genuinely trusted Christ, rather than whether they are children or not.

    I realize this takes a great deal of discernment on the part of the pastor and the parents; I also realize that we baptize far too many children, giving them a false security when really they just “asked Jesus into their hearts” in order to please Mommy and Daddy. However, I am concerned that if we make blanket judgments such as “no pre-teen baptisms”, we will actually be causing those children who were genuinely converted to disobey the Lord by not following Him in baptism. Any thoughts?

    -Phil

  4. johnMark Says:

    Phil,

    I wish we could infallibly know who “genuinely” trusted Christ. If one professes is baptized then “falls away” we would say that the profession was never genuine, right? Well, have you seen the numbers of teens who leave the church once leaving high school for college?

    I don’t believe the case would be that anyone forbids the child from baptism. The child would just wait longer until they are older. I have some notes from Jim Elliff when he last spoke here in Atlanta on this topic. I should pull them out and post them. He makes a lot of good points.

    Mark

  5. phil simpson Says:

    Mark,

    Thanks for that insight; I would enjoy reading Eliff’s comments.

    I guess my real question is this: is postponed obedience really disobedience until the obedience occurs? If a true believer is commanded to be baptized, yet does not do so until a much later date (i.e., years), then isn’t that believer in disobedience until the command is obeyed?

    I am honestly just struggling with this issue, not asserting dogma. These are my genuine questions. I do not consider this issue idle speculation; it concerns the obedience, or disobedience, of the children of God toward their Heavenly Father. These are issues I wrestled with when our children (especially my daughter) asked to be baptized at an early age.

    I look forward to more insight from others on this topic. In Christ,

    -Phil

  6. Jamison Says:

    All this talk about Baptism is interesting but misguided, right? Isn’t walking the aisle the true sacrament of many of our Baptist churches? The outward sign of the inward change, right? We don’t look to our Baptisms as the profession, but rather to the aisle-walking as the profession.

    In our church, Baptisms are performed before (or after, I’m not sure) the service and rebroadcast into the service on the big screen. Worse, once the names are announced the choir and orchestra kick in and the baptisms quickly become a secondary focus. And worse still, more energy and effort are given to the invitation than to baptism. After all, it’s “the most important part of our service, holy ground, and the time when the Spirit moves in the hearts of those who need to walk down these aisles and ‘come into the family.'” I still haven’t figured out how we know that the Invitation is the only time that the Spirit moves in unbelievers’ hearts, and I somehow thought that the entire worship service was the most important part. Sheesh.


  7. David and Phil,

    Regarding the Baptist critique of paedobaptism, there are several places I could point you, including

    1. The Baptism of Disciples Alone by Fred Malone
    http://www.founderspress.com/shop/store.php?crn=206&rn=422&action=show_detail

    2. Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ
    http://www.amazon.com/Believers-Baptism-Covenant-Studies-Theology/dp/0805432493/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1220020060&sr=1-1

    (see esp. Stephen Wellum’s “Baptism and the Relation Between the Covenants” and Shawn Wright’s “Baptism and the Logic of Reformed Paedobaptists”)

    David is right to assert that the highlighted portions are my doing, and not to the behest of my Presbyterian friends. In the SBC, Calvinists have been charged with bringing “Presbyterian theology” into Baptist life; ironically however, the non-Calvinists have exhibited more Presbyterian-like convictions with the baptisms of young children barely beyond infancy. But I suppose that is an intramural discussion. 🙂

    Phil wrote,

    the issue seems to me to be about whether the child has genuinely trusted Christ, rather than whether they are children or not.

    I agree totally, and this is where Southern Baptists are missing the boat on baptism. The ordinance of baptism has been treated with disrespect, in my opinion, with people being rebaptized again and again (one church where I served almost half of the baptisms were repeats) or for other rededications. Furthermore, there has been little to no regard to examine and see whether the child has “genuinely trusted Christ” (as Phil rightly points out). John Mark is also correct to say that we are no infallible guides, but we should be as careful and discerning as humanly possible, guided by a biblical understanding of regeneration and conversion, that prevents children from having a false sense of assurance when there has been no credible evidence or confidence that indeed this child has been born again.

    The contribution of Baptists to evangelical life has been the belief and practice of a pure church (as compared to a mixed church). A church is to be comprised only of regenerate and baptized believers. Over the past 100 years, this chief contribution of Baptists has almost disappeared due to a wrong understanding of regeneration (decisional regeneration) and poor oversight over leaders in the church in counseling and directing sinners in their understanding of the gospel, conversion, etc. The result is that there are now twice as many people on our Baptists membership who bear no marks of regeneration but have been baptized and considered as good standing in the church. The issue of baptizing children is a major component as to why and how this came about.

    I am not of the conviction that we must set an arbitrary age for baptizing people (like 16 or something), but I do believe that we must take greater care in the shepherding of the souls in our care. We have declared peace, peace when there is no peace and healed the wounds lightly, to use the words of the prophets of old.

    I know there is much more that could be said about this, and I think this would make for good discussion in the future. I hope to get back to the issue of regenerate church membership in the months to come, and this topic will likely be brought up again. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and let’s continue to ask, discuss, learn, and sharpen one another, even if in the end we disagree on some matters.


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