When Is My Child Old Enough to Get Baptized?

My daughter has never known a time when she did not believe in Jesus, she loves going to church, and she isn’t shy about telling people that she loves God. As far as she can tell, she’s always been a Christian.

But she hasn’t been baptized.

baptism, baptize, baptized, water, footprints, feet

Our Journey

My wife and I have had many conversations about when we should encourage her to get baptized. Those of you who are from traditions that baptize infants may not appreciate the significance of this issue. But those of us who believe that baptism is for those who have made a personal confession of faith, it gets a little tricky.

What is faith?

What makes it personal?

How do you know?

Questions like these defy easy answers.

And as we’ve wrestled with them over the years, we’ve changed our minds a bit. Earlier, we felt that most children should wait at least into their teen years to get baptized. And that probably stemmed from my experience as a youth pastor, watching so many students struggle with a faith they inherited and a childhood baptism they didn’t understand, students who now felt like their faith was a mask handed down by their parents, one they wore to keep everyone happy, but one that was now foreign and uncomfortable. Walking alongside those students through these struggles, and knowing that so many Christian teenagers wrestle with the same issues, I resonated with the argument that we should wait until they’ve worked through these issues before getting baptized. After all, that’s when their faith is really theirs.

But now I wonder. I still understand the legitimacy of those earlier concerns, but now we’re leaning in the other direction. Why should the fact that my daughter might struggle in her faith later prevent her from being baptized now? I’ve gone through many such challenging times, and I probably will in the future. Does any of that call into question the legitimacy of my faith? Of course not. As far as I can tell, doubt is part of the human condition on this side of the Fall. If my present and future doubts don’t preclude my own baptism, why should they hers?

And I’ve long worried about the implications of this focus on a sincere faith. Striving so hard to make sure that her faith is real and personal, don’t we risk raising questions when she faces later in life those times when her faith feels neither real nor personal? Having based her baptism on these things, will she not question them on that same basis?

None of this changes how I view the essential nature of Baptism itself. I remain convinced that baptism is for those who express a personal faith in Jesus Christ. But it does remind me that we Baptists need to do a better job of grounding baptism on the grace of God rather than the sincerity of our own faith. Only then will that which baptism signifies — our incorporation into Christ, dying and rising with him, participation in the body of Christ, and entrance into the blessings of salvation — be secure from the vicissitudes of life.

 A Different Perspective

In his new book Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church, Gregg Allison offers a very nice summary of the arguments for/against baptizing children (see pp. 360-361). And he comes to a slightly different conclusion than I have. So, for the sake of balance, I thought it would be good to present his arguments below.

First, Allison makes clear the indissoluble link, in his view, between baptism and a credible profession of faith.

The prerequisite for baptism is a credible profession of faith that flows from haring and understanding the gospel. Given this emphasis, the question of the proper age for baptism is secondary to the question of what constitutes a credible profession of faith.

Then, after briefly mentioning those who think that any profession of faith qualifies for baptism (even for children as young as three or four), Allison summarizes why many think that such a profession of faith would not qualify as “credible.”

For other credobaptists, such a profession cannot achieve an adequate level of credibility, for several reasons. Children cannot understand the abstract concepts of sin and grace, of Christ and hid each in the place of sinners and his resurrection; thus, they cannot grasp the gospel at such a young age. Moreover, children are designed by God to be responsive to their parents and others who exercise authority over them and instruct them. Thus, when a four-year-old  responds to the prompting of her parents or the encouragement of her Sunday school teacher to accept Jesus into her heart, her positive answer pleases her parents or her teacher and is the proper reaction to their encouragement, but it may do little in terms of constituting a credible profession of faith.

Allison then goes on to summarize a couple of historical arguments against the practice:

Furthermore, in terms of the specific administration of baptism by Baptists, they have historically baptized people when they were in their twenties. A case can be made that the lowering of the typical baptism age has contributed to the carnality of the church and its unregenerate membership. Correlatively, delay in the baptism of children should help to reduce professions of faith that later prove themselves to be false.

Finally, Allison argues that none of this means we should denigrate a child’s faith or even the child’s relationship to the church.

This view does not mean that children should not be evangelized and encouraged to repent of their sins and believe in Jesus Christ until they are older or almost adults. Nor does it mean that children cannot become genuine Christ-followers. Also, the position does not mean that because they are not baptized, children are not to be held accountable by the church. Indeed, the church has a sacred responsibility toward them in terms of praying for them, discipling them, equipping them for ministry, explaining the purpose for baptism, and so forth. But the position does insist that a credible profession of faith be offered before the church administers baptism.

For Allison, then, we should normally delay baptism until such time as the child is able to make a credible profession of faith. Although he makes room for exceptions, he thinks it would be wise to normally wait until at least the early teen years before administering baptism.

Now What?

To be sure, Allison’s arguments are close to my own. Both of us believe that the biblical pattern is to connect baptism to an individual’s profession of faith. And we’re both concerned to ensure that we’re taking that connection seriously, not just accepting any verbal utterance as an expression of faith. And we’re both inclined to see evidence of such a profession of faith at a younger age than has tended to be normative in the baptist tradition, which often delayed baptism into the late teens or early twenties.

Nonetheless, my position has gradually slid toward the younger end of this spectrum. Maybe we’ve tried to load too much into the “credible” aspect of a child’s profession of faith. And maybe it’s time to emphasize more strongly that we are all saved by grace, and that our subsequent baptism into the community of faith corresponds to professions of faith that, as important as they are, will always be plagued by the doubts, flaws, and fears that are part and parcel of life in this fallen world.

Perfection eludes us, grace does not. Praise be to God.

Comments

comments

19 Responses to “When Is My Child Old Enough to Get Baptized?”

  1. Jen Ellison October 1, 2013 at 7:51 am #

    My story sounds similar to your daughter’s. I grew up in the church, can’t remember a time when I didn’t follow Jesus and believed (both then and now) that my faith was sincere. I wanted to be baptized when I was in early elementary, my pastors put it off until high school. It has always frustrated me. I was as “all in” as an elementary kid as I knew how. I really wish I would have been allowed to be baptized earlier.

    • Marc Cortez October 2, 2013 at 7:07 am #

      Thanks for sharing. Do you think that not being baptized made any difference in your spiritual growth during your teen years? Or was it more just frustrating not to be allowed to do something so important to you?

  2. Adam Shields October 1, 2013 at 8:04 am #

    As someone who was baptised young (7 and 3/4s) I have gone back and forth about whether it was a good idea. Right now I think it is a good idea. But I also think it is good to emphasize with your daught (and others) that questions about the faith do not mean rejection of the faith.

    I think I would have been better of spiritually if I had been prepared for periods of questioning (that I think are inevitable as you mature in the faith). Instead I kept thinking that I had never had a real profession of faith and for a while rejected the fact that my baptism was a real and legitimate action.

    I now think it was good and I would do it again. But when my own child is of age to make that decision I will spend time working through some of the implications of early baptism for her later faith.

    • Marc Cortez October 2, 2013 at 7:10 am #

      Yes, I think it’s vitally important to talk with young Christians about the inevitability of doubting/questioning and that it doesn’t mean your faith isn’t genuine. I’ve known far too many teens who assumed otherwise and ran into some real problems, especially because it made them less likely to share their doubts with anyone else.

  3. Brandon Jones October 1, 2013 at 8:22 am #

    Marc, thanks for sharing your thoughts as well as Allison’s on this important issue.

    Personally, I found that a lot of the confusion regarding at which age to baptize our Baptist youth stems from the confusion among Baptists about the meaning of believer baptism itself. In my book, “Waters of Promise: Finding Meaning in Believer Baptism,” I argue that there is no way to pinpoint the appropriate age for each child, but around 13 or so seems to make sense for most people, considering both God’s confirming grace in baptism and the baptizand’s confirming faith in God. I argue for this not because of foreseen doubt or struggles, but rather because baptism means one is ready to be confirmed as a disciple and can enjoy the privileges as well as personally undertake the duties therein.

    This is a discussion we need to have more often, so thanks for sharing.
    Brandon

  4. Marc Cortez October 2, 2013 at 7:22 am #

    Thanks Brandon, and that looks like an interesting book. I’ll have to check it out sometime. I’m particularly interested to know why you settled on 13ish as the right age to be “confirmed as a disciple.” From that language, it sounds like you think kids before that can be disciples even though they haven’t yet been confirmed as such. If so, I’d be curious how you developed that argument since I don’t see much of a gap in the Bible between being a disciple and being baptized as one. But maybe I’m reading to much into your confirmation language.

  5. Brandon Jones October 2, 2013 at 10:11 am #

    Hi Marc,

    You ask a good question Marc. In the Bible we do not have any unconfirmed disciples that I know of except perhaps the thief on the cross. But in practice we do have to deal with situations not laid out in the New Testament when youth grow up in a Christian church. I do, in fact, think kids can be disciples and am proud of my oldest son who is 9 and is certainly showing fruits of the Spirit. I even encourage churches to consider letting kids who show fruits of the Spirit partake of the Lord’s Supper. But what is the meaning of baptism? Is it a rite intended for kids and grown-ups who can vocally explain the gospel message in front of their churches, or is it something more than that?

    If the meaning of baptism does not include any covenantal obligations or duties, then perhaps we should baptize children as young as four and up. But I argue for a covenantal view that sees baptism as a confirming rite both from God to the believer and from the believer to God all mediated by his church. I tie baptism to church membership and recommend 13ish because “it is difficult to apprehend one’s baptism as his or her own decision to take hold of God’s covenant, to profess renouncement of the devil and all his ways, and to pledge to become a full member of God’s covenant community by sharing in its duties, when that baptism was performed at a very young age” (p. 148-49). I do say “difficult,” though, instead of “impossible.” I was baptized at the age of ten, and I kinda sorta remember it, but not really. Perhaps it would have meant more to me as a teenager, perhaps not. Everyone is different.

    The age of thirteen echoes other Christian traditions in their confirmation rites, so I believe there is some wisdom we Baptists could glean from them. However, I do say that exceptions can and should be made for exceptional youth and that 13ish is merely a suggestion. Without a suggestion, though, I have found broad confusion in which churches either adopt an arbitrary age without much support for their decision or just leave the age at the sole discretion of the parents. I found promise in delving into baptism’s meaning for help in this practical area and others.

    One last note about Baptist history. In my book I also argue that historically Baptists had an interest in covenant theology and viewed baptism covenantally. That view was eclipsed during the nineteenth century, especially here in the States. As the theology that supported delaying baptism disappeared people started baptizing their kids at younger and younger ages. That’s at least my theory. I didn’t explore that in my book, but would be interested in testing it out some time.

    Thanks again for taking the time on this discussion.
    Brandon

  6. Hal October 2, 2013 at 12:29 pm #

    Thanks for this post. Helps me to articulate my thoughts. Here they are for what it is worth.

    This article brings up two different issues.
    1. What is a credible profession of faith and when can an individual make it?
    2. How do we handle young people who dont walk with the Lord? Do we exclude them on the front end, or exclude them later?

    First some questions for adults.
    What constitutes a credible profession of faith for an adult? Understanding the gospel and life change.
    What do we do with an adult who makes a credible profession of faith? We baptize them.
    What do we do with that same adult who walks away from the Lord and back into sin? We discipline them, remove them from the church and tell them they can have no assurance they are a Christian.
    Jesus has given us instructions for this.

    Now reread the lines, replacing adult with child. It works. Rightly we can talk about what constitutes a credible profession of faith. But we cannot let what might happen later control what we do now. In that case we would never baptize any adult!

    In my previous church we required children to demonstrate 3Rs. Regeneration, Readiness, Reasoning. By reasoning we meant an understanding of the substitutionary death of Christ in their place. By readiness, the child had to approach an elder on their own in public. By regeneration, we meant that the parents needed to see life change in the child. As elders, we sent children back to their parents if they were not ready on any of these.

    I am now in a church that seems to hold that baptistic position of waiting until their twenties, I see several concerns.
    One – Practically and emotionally you are excluding children and even young adults. They may not take communion. They may not minister. They are not fully “accepted” because the jury is still out. Children feel that exclusion as would any adult. Christ has accepted them but the church will not.
    Second – The logical question for churches who hold this position is “What changes in their twenties? Why not wait until they are thirty? Or even forty? Then we can be really sure.”

    My proposed position.
    1. Baptize when the three Rs are there. Practically this seems to be around 8-9 years old and up. (I am ok with waiting until 12/13).
    2. Teach that with their profession they have become seekers of God. Rather than being “all set,” a truly changed heart will result in desire to seek God. They, like all of us, are called to examine themselves to see if they are truly in the faith. (2 Cor 13:5). These teenage years are a time to make their calling and election sure proving to themselves that their heart was converted.
    3. Discipline those who walk away in high school/college.

    It seems simple. What am I missing?

  7. Celeste Watson October 2, 2013 at 1:03 pm #

    Thank you for this thought-provoking article. The Lord saved me when I saw 3 or 4, but I was not baptized until 17,though it could have happened earlier. A really important factor I think is that the initiative for baptism come from the child himself and not from parent, although parents should teach their children about baptism. As an act of obedience and identification flowing from a relationship with God, the Holy Spirit will be active in the young person’s life convicting them off the necessity of baptism. Thanks for writing.

  8. HeatherHH October 2, 2013 at 2:33 pm #

    Our fourth child was baptized at the age of 4 1/2. To be honest, that was earlier than what we really wanted. But, she’s a very articulate girl with good understanding. She made a profession several months before and continued. We didn’t mention baptism, but she did, saying that she wanted to show people that she wanted to follow Jesus and didn’t want to sin. We explained that we’d have to pray about it, because sometimes young children say something but don’t really understand what they mean. This was a child that had trouble persevering in anything and was easily swayed, and we prayed if it wasn’t the right time that she’d lose interest like she often did. She didn’t. She had a good attitude about it, but prayed for months that Daddy and Mommy would let her be baptized. She also was more willing to accept correction, prayed on her own initiative regularly, was more interactive during family devotions than ever before, was more often grieved by her sin when it was simply pointed out (i.e. no guilt-inducing lectures), etc. So, we allowed her to be baptized; we couldn’t see holding her back. Now 1.5 years later, she’s 6 years old, and we can see God’s continuing work in her. She obviously has a very sensitive heart that desires to please God. She does not have the sophisticated understanding of every point of doctrine that an adult might be able to have, but she has the faith of a child that Jesus praised so highly.

    Two of our other children were baptized at 8 and at 6 1/2. They showed clear signs of conversion, increased willingness to accept correction, interest in prayer and Bible reading, etc and definitely seemed like new creations.

    And our current 8-year old has not been baptized. She watched her older and younger sisters be baptized early last year, has a good knowledge of the gospel, but isn’t sure yet that she wants to be follow Jesus. And so we pray. And then there are a couple more younger children, and we don’t know at what age they’ll be converted and baptized. But, I think in Christian homes the norm (not every child, but most) for conversion and baptism of children should be younger than 10.

  9. Kelly October 3, 2013 at 11:03 am #

    I was baptized when I was nine and I think it was a good age for me. The pastor made sure to talk with me individually beforehand and to make sure that I understood what I was affirming and what the baptism meant. It was a very meaningful event for me. I think the age varies with the child. If he or she is able to articulate the basic significance of it and to express a desire to be baptized, I think they are probably ready.

  10. Mamaof6 October 4, 2013 at 11:51 am #

    I remember very clearly kneeling to pray (with my Mom) to confess my sins and receive Jesus. Fifty four years later I still wholly believe that I was saved at that time. Of course I did not understand all the theology behind it, but I doubt any new convert knows all of that no matter what their age.

    I was not baptized until I was 12 just because of circumstances in our family (and I had a fear of water and having to put my head under water :))My baptism was probably more meaningful because I waited, but I believe that it would have been permissible for me to be baptized at age 4 when I made my confession.

    My husband and I have been missionaries for 34 years and our six children have had their own experiences. It is different for each one.

  11. PGR October 4, 2013 at 12:53 pm #

    I like the way you are moving Marc! You’re grandchildren might end up Presbyterian:-)

    Seriously, here are some articles by Vern Poythress along the lines you were talking/thinking. He was raised Baptist but came to Reformed convictions. That said, he is not trying to get Baptists to be Reformed but simply engage in practical theology about baptism and discipleship that challenges both groups.

    http://www.frame-poythress.org/indifferentism-and-rigorism/

    http://www.frame-poythress.org/linking-small-children-with-infants-in-the-theology-of-baptizing/

  12. Shelby October 7, 2013 at 9:09 am #

    I’ve been thinking through this issue a lot lately. I was baptized at age 9, after accepting Christ at the age of 5. To this day I’m convinced that my profession of faith was genuine, because I was the one who initiated the process and started asking questions; it was in no way coerced. But I think a lot of that was due to the fact that I was raised in a Christian home. I used to be envious of those who had dramatic testimonies, because I assumed they were less likely than I was to doubt the legitimacy of their faith. They were baptized at older ages, and their life change was undeniable. However, now that I’m a parent, I’m starting to wonder whether the normative thing should in fact be for kids to be raised in the faith and come to a genuine faith at an early age based on what they have been learning and seeing at home, like the Deut. 6 Shema concept. If this is true, perhaps we should be much more supportive of early decisions than we typically see in the church. What do you think?

  13. Rev. Dr. Roger H. Dallman October 10, 2013 at 1:35 pm #

    I am not going to say that I am sorry because I am certain that God works through the baptism of children and also infants. Being baptized by God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit cleanses us and unites us with God whether we are one month or one hundred years.

    Our Christian churches need not wrestle with a faith declaration baptism or a baby baptism.

    God is good. By His working by Spirit and by Word we are cleansed and received into His Kingdom.

    Secondly, if a Christian is insistent on being baptized again as an adult because they cognitively acknowledge their faith in Christ and or they think they get it now-can we not baptize again?

    Surely we can. God works through our serving His purposes not our machinations. Peace and Joy in the Lord, R

  14. Calera December 5, 2013 at 12:12 pm #

    I really agree with you on the belief that baptism depends upon more than just “any verbal utterance” as you say. Jesus wasn’t baptized till he was 30, so I don’t think there’s any rush!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks:

  1. When Is My Child Old Enough to Get Baptized? | Kidsworker Blog - October 3, 2013

    [...] following stimulating blog post from Marc Cortez starts the process of looking for a response to this question which is based on [...]

  2. Pastor’s Blog 10/8 @ missio dei community - October 8, 2013

    [...] the same age, and similar experiences working with students.  I would encourage you to look at his blog post here, even if you don’t have children, as it helps orient our community around [...]

  3. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! | The Pilgrim Explorer - October 14, 2013

    [...] When Is My Child Old Enough to Get Baptized? (marccortez.com) [...]

Leave a Reply:

Gravatar Image