When are the covenant signs appropriate for children?

There has been a conversation doing the rounds regarding polity, ordinances and the place of children within the church. Jonathan Leeman, of 9Marks, started it with this. Mark Jones, writing at Reformation21, countered from a Presbyterian perspective with this. Tom Chantry shot back from a baptist stance with this. Finally, Andrew Wilson – at ThinkTheology – rounds up the whole debate with this.

The main debate centred around a question sent to the 9Marks mailbag. Jonathan Leeman answered in the context of a discussion between father and daughter:

Daughter: Daddy, am I a Christian?

Me: If you’re repenting of your sins, and putting your trust in Jesus, then yes.

Daughter: I am.

Me: If you are, then praise God! Keep doing that, sweetheart!

Daughter: Can I get baptized?

Me: At some point, honey. Right now, while you’re young, let’s continue to learn and grow. We’ll think about this more when you are older. I want you stand on your own two feet as a follower of Jesus, and not just believe these things because I do. But I’m so glad you want to follow Jesus with me! This is the most important decision you’ll ever make. There’s no one better than him.

Mark Jones responded (in part) this way:

His words, “if you are” (the second time), are regrettable. “Since you are” – based on the judgment of charity – would be a more appropriate response to such a wonderful declaration by a child, in my view.

Does anyone else think the daughter might be really confused after this conversation as to whether she is a Christian or not? She believes she meets the conditions for being a Christian, but she is told she can’t be baptized. Why? Because the church refuses to formally affirm her (child-like) faith. In short, she has to “prove” herself.

From this,  Jones goes on to list four questions – all valid and worth thinking about – and proceeds to explain how (he perceives) baptists and presbyterians differ in answer to them. Andrew Wilson summarises Jones’ position this way:

Presbyterians are confident, reassuring, pastorally sensitive fathers, and Baptists can’t even teach their kids to pray the Lord’s prayer without what-iffing about it. Presbyterians are Lloyd George (“Do it now!”), and Baptists are Asquith (“Wait and see.”) Mark Jones has been much too winsome to put it like this, but that’s certainly the direction it is pointing. How can someone be a Baptist and a good parent at the same time?

As a counter to Jones, Tom Chantry says:

I know there is a theological answer to give, but our concern here seems to be to somehow avoid confusing the kids, so what’s the simple answer? “You’re a Christian, but you cannot come to the Christian feast”? “We’ve baptized you, but now we’re barring you from communion”? We Baptists have a word for that: “excommunication.” It seems a tad harsh, but then, we wouldn’t want to confuse the kids, so let’s use plain language.

The truth is, once we get past the rhetoric, any serious paedobaptist still has to work out how and when to answer the very questions which Jones assigns solely to the Baptists – questions like “Does this toddler really believe in Jesus, or would she also believe in fairies if her mother told her to?” and “How exactly do we say that this little boy is a ‘disciple,’ which Jesus told us involved taking up a cross’?” Sorry, folks, but your baptismal program is not a get-out-of-awkward-conversations-free card.

At least when I baptize someone, I immediately and automatically admit him to the Table. Like, you know, they did in the book of Acts.

Summing up the whole discussion, Wilson states:

Both paedo- and credobaptists distinguish between the faith commitment of a five year old and the faith commitment of a thirty-five year old, even though we all know that the five year old often perseveres in faith, and the thirty-five year old often doesn’t. For the paedobaptist, communion is delayed until (probably) the teenage years, at confirmation; for the credobaptist, it is baptism which is delayed; but both regard the full receipt and practice of the covenant signs as inappropriate for a young child. In that sense, Anglicans, Baptists and Presbyterians all have the same theological position when their child asks them Jonathan’s question, whether or not it’s what they actually say.

It is here I would like to take the discussion on and depart from what seems to be something of a consensus. I think it is entirely possible to give assurance to our children without presbyterian overconfidence (though still refusing to grant communion) nor uncertain “baptist what-iffing”.

Let’s start with Jonathan Leeman’s imagined conversation. I completely sympathise with Mark Jones’ view that the second “if you are” is thoroughly regrettable. The profession of the child is as clear a profession of faith as that of the Ethiopian Eunuch or the Philippian jailer. It strikes me that the only credible response to such a profession is – especially in light of the conversation being in the context of seeking baptism – to give thanks to God and proceed in baptising your child.

We must be clear on the criteria for baptism. It is not works or fruit. Rather, the criteria for baptism is a credible profession of faith. The example given by Leeman strikes me as perfectly credible. The only reason to ask your child to wait is if you have some solid reason, as their parent, to doubt the credibility to their profession. In that case, the correct response would not be “let’s wait and see” but rather “we are convinced you are not yet a believer for X, Y and Z reason. Therefore, it wouldn’t be appropriate just yet”. As Leeman offered no such qualification in the conversation, one can only presume the profession is genuine. To not go ahead and baptise on that basis is to stop your child from obeying a command of Christ (which, given that is what they are requesting to do, is surely some evidence of the fruit of change as well!)

In line with Chantry, and against the Presbyterian position, once I had baptised my child – on the strenghth of their profession of faith alone – I would then permit them to partake of communion. If they are professing faith, have been baptised according to the command of Christ then there can be no reason to deny them admission to the communion table. Like any other baptised church member, unless there is some evidence of ongoing unrepentant sin, what possible reason is there to deny either ordinance?

Let me pick up on Andrew Wilson’s comment regarding the faith of a 35 year old compared to a 5 year old. I would make no such distinction. In fact, it strikes me that it flies in the face of various biblical passages to differentiate between faith based on little more than age. If we insist on a “wait and see” approach to children, we must at least be consistent enough to expect the same from adults. If we are happy to take a credible profession from an adult as the sole criteria for baptism, and hence admission to the communion table, it is right and proper to do the same for a child.

To not do this, we can end up creating an unnecessary lack of assurance in our children and potentially crush the faith of some. Certainly the Presbyterians face the same problem in that they deny communion to children. If anything, the Presbyterian is in a worse position. The baptist position advocated by Leeman is at least consistent in doubting the covenant position of the child and therefore denies the ordinances on that basis. The Presbyterian faces the difficult balancing act of insisting the child belongs to the covenant community whilst simultaneously denying them one of the ordinances that belongs by rights to all those in the covenant. Nevertheless, we must be clear on what admittance to the covenant is based upon and how we decide anyone – child or adult – can be deemed a member of the covenant community.

If a credible profession of faith is the base criteria – and I would argue on the baptist position it is – then a credible profession of a child means they are a member of the covenant community. And, if a member of the covenant community, entitled to partake of the ordinances given by Christ to such members. It strikes me as wholly appropriate to then baptise children based on such credible profession and to admit them to the Lord’s table once they have been baptised.

Of course, we cannot overlook the inevitable “what if they fall away?” question. But let’s not pretend that only pertains to children. Anyone who makes a profession may fall away, child and adult alike. If we then only baptise those who we are certain will not fall away, which one of us would have ever been baptised at the point of our request? In fact, such a line of reasoning leads almost to the Gospel Standard position where many folk never got baptised because they could never be 100% certain they would not fall away. Even after decades of Christian service and clear fruit, the small nagging doubt seemed to override the patent reality of a ongoing practiced faith. We either baptise on a credible profession or otherwise we are tied to the search for fruit or a certain level of assurance that this person will not fall away. The latter position certainly has no biblical warrant, gives the impression that we are counting inclusion in the covenant based on works and can lead to a lifetime of “waiting and seeing” that never quite meets our undisclosed standard of certainty.

This is not a theoretical discussion for me. I grew up in a credo-baptist home and became a Christian aged 6. I certainly made a profession before this age but lacked assurance. My dad took my lack of assurance as a sign I may be a believer, but it was not entirely clear. By age 6, I not only professed faith but had assurance of that faith as well. Had I so requested, I am quite certain my parents would been happy to let me be baptised. Incidentally, it was the strict and particular baptist church in which I grew up that led me to believe I could not request baptism until I was older and I did not do so until my mid-teens, despite being certain I was a believer. To be fair to the church, I don’t know what their response would have been had I requested baptism much sooner but I was under the sense that I could not ask until later (though, not doubt, this is something I probably inferred). My faith has clearly proven true, had I requested baptism aged 6 is it really fair – despite my inclusion in the covenant community by faith – for the church to deny me the the blessings of the ordinances given by Christ? It strikes me the church, had I made such a request, would be the only ones stopping me from fulfilling a clear command of Jesus that I was seeking to obey.

To that end, I say the child in Jonathan Leeman’s discussion should be baptised. Unless there is solid reason to doubt the profession itself (of which, there is no indication in the discussion), we must surely say that child is a member of the covenant community. And, if a member, then it is sinful of the church to deny the ordinances given by Christ to one who is under no discipline and is simply seeking to do what scripture commands.

3 comments

  1. Stephen, having seen and read Jones' initial post on Ref21 a few days ago, I was glad to read your piece. And I totally agree with your conclusion.
    My daughter came to me, soon after her 8th birthday and asked if she could be baptised. It took me by surprise but was a good moment to then have a deeper (than usual) conversation with her in which I was assured that so far as an 8 year old can, she understood the gospel and was professing repentance and faith in Jesus. Interestingly, though in an Anglican church at the time, we'd deliberately had only a thanksgiving and dedication for her as a child and her profession of faith was the outcome we'd prayed for and sowed into. She was baptised by myself and the rector of the church, by full immersion and from that point on, took communion as would anyone else. My son followed similarly a couple of years later, aged 9.
    My wife grew up in a closed Brethren assembly with a similar policy as that which you describe of your childhood. She vividly remembers feeling crushed when, as a 9 year old, she told her father that she loved Jesus and believed in Him and wanted to be baptised, only to be told that she couldn't possibly and would need to wait until she was 12 until she could make such a profession. Appalling!
    There is something of a grave arrogance and presumptuousness in any parent or church leader who does not take seriously the profession of a child. It is unreasonable for us to expect a person to grasp the details of salvation at any greater depth than their age and maturity allow. Inasmuch as we are 'being saved' though already saved, I can't help but think that growing in “all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God's mystery, which is Christ” (Col 2:2) is something as meaningful, relevant and appropriate for a child who professes faith as it is for an adult.
    Finally, to be deliberately though importantly provocative, this whole discussion takes a further big twist as soon as one considers the complexities of mental disability. Those who argue that a child cannot fully comprehend the gospel and profess faith would seemingly be unable to ever acknowledge a 40 year old with a 10 year old mental age as being a Christian and would therefore have to both refuse to baptise them and exclude them from communion and full church membership. How horrific such a decision and actions would be!

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  2. Thanks for your comment.

    Interestingly, I first grew up in the Brethren before moving into particular baptist circles. For what it's worth, I still subscribe to PB theology and practice myself but I would apply it as I outlined above.

    You raise a very good point regarding the mentally disabled. As you infer, I would have no problem baptising someone with a young mental age who can offer a basic profession of faith. I suspect other churches would either be consistent on the issue and act in the appalling way you suggest or, more likely in the majority of cases, be totally inconsistent on their own position by refusing a child but not the adult of child-like capacity.

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