Let’s admit it. We live in a part of the world where the baptism of infants can sometimes put us in a posture of justifying what we believe and practice. “How can you defend the baptism of babies?” someone asks. Or, more often, another church’s literature says something like, “The New Testament shows no example of baptism when the person did not request it.” Thus, baptism of infants is, according to these communities, negated by scripture itself and, therefore, wrong.
But did you know that the majority of Christians around the world practice infant baptism? And the rationale behind such a practice is biblically sound and theologically important. Consider these words from the United Methodist Church’s official statement on baptism entitled, By Water and the Spirit: Infant baptism has been the historic practice of the overwhelming majority of the Church throughout the Christian centuries. While the New Testament contains no explicit mandate, there is ample evidence for the baptism of infants in Scripture (Acts 2:38-41, 16:15, 33) and in early Christian doctrine and practice. Infant baptism rests firmly on the understanding that God prepares the way of faith before we request or even know that we need help (prevenient grace). The sacrament is a powerful expression of the reality that all persons come before God as no more than helpless infants, unable to do anything to save ourselves, dependent upon the grace of our loving God. The faithful covenant community of the Church serves as a means of grace for those whose lives are impacted by its ministry. Through the Church, God claims infants as well as adults to be participants in the gracious covenant of which baptism is the sign. This understanding of the workings of divine grace also applies to persons who for reasons of handicapping conditions or other limitations are unable to answer for themselves the questions of the baptismal ritual. While we may not be able to comprehend how God works in their lives, our faith teaches us that God’s grace is sufficient for their needs and, thus, they are appropriate recipients of baptism. (By Water and the Spirit, emphasis mine. The entire document can be accessed at www.gbod.org/lead-your-church/by-water-the-spiritbaptism-study.)
As Christianity was first established, the emphasis was on the evangelization and baptism of adult converts to the faith who consciously became a part of God’s family in Christ. Yet even in the earliest day we believe, as was the practice in so many family activities, that when the adults in the household made the decision to become Christian, the whole family was initiated by baptism. Later, infant baptism became the norm as children were born into Christian families and communities with a Christian ethos. Interestingly, we live in a culture today where we are called to be in ministry with persons who have little to no church experience and, therefore, a practice of both infant and adult baptism is becoming the expected norm in many United Methodist churches today.
Even so, we still claim the significance and relevance of Christian baptism for all ages without apology. No, an infant cannot give voice to a profession of faith. Neither can they profess their citizenship of a particular country. But the family and church commits to speak in words, signs, and symbols the truth of who the baptized infant is: beloved child of God. And as our infants grow and mature in faith, we will remind them that God has been their source of grace and strength throughout their journey. Like them, we will see baptism not as a one-time event of long ago, but as a way of life and something that calls us to continued commitment to Christ even as we experience God’s commitment to us throughout our lives.
On the baptismal journey with you,