Both Fr. Greg and Abu Daoud have weighed in on this post, itself a follow-up to my reflections on the Orthodox view of the Eucharist. Let me respond to both and, in doing so, make some observations about these two important subjects.
To start with the end of Fr. Greg’s response: on a practical level, not all churches which practice believers’ baptism apply the concept of the age of accountability as rigidly as the one you described did. Pentecostal churches can be very flexible about this. I am a member of a local church that thinks nothing of baptising five and six year olds. Some of these children make more coherent declarations of faith than the adults! Some churches need to lighten up on this issue.
Getting back to the beginning, we really don’t know that the church baptised infants from the start. The evidence, in fact, leads in the opposite direction, at least in the first century and a half. We do know that infant baptism wasn’t the enforced norm until the end of the Western Roman Empire (don’t stick the knife in that our end collapsed first.) One major reason for this was the fact that people delayed baptism because of the severities of the penitential system. For some people, baptism represented their last rites! Probably the most illustrious example of this was the Emperor Constantine, who presided over the most important gathering in the history of the church (Nicea I) unbaptised! But he had spiritual advisors such as Eusebius of Caeserea, which shows that they don’t make bishops like they used to. (Ambrose of Milan was another example of an unbaptised person thrust into a high profile Christian position.)
But that gets to Abu Daoud’s point: the nature of baptism is tied to the nature of the church. And that’s where the problem is. The triumph of infant baptism as the enforced norm of the church came hand in hand with the lowering of the church’s standards as to what it expected out of its people. Once the penitential system fell down, the risk of baptising an infant relative to their subsequent conduct dropped as well. One of the thing that fuelled the whole monastic movement was that men and women desired a higher walk with God that was unavailable in normal parish and diocesan life. Although this also was driven by Late Roman social forces, if real life in Christ is that hard to find in a church, you’ve got problems. And I experienced some of those both in TEC and the RCC.
Believers’ baptism speaks of a higher standard for Christians. Since you brought up parental control over children, a good start would be for churches such as yours to give parents an open option regarding their children’s baptism. But a better way would be to lower the age at which children’s declaration of faith in Jesus Christ is accepted a valid in preparation for baptism.
Let me say that I am aware that real life produces results that don’t always go with the ideal. I had some fun on the very issue of baptism and salvation while writing this.
And now I can turn to Fr. Greg’s matter of ecclesiology. I dealt with that issue (from a RCC perspective, at least) a long time ago in my piece We May Not Be a Church After All. I’m fairly confident, however, that most of what I said applies to Orthodox churches as well. But I think I need to make some further exposition relative to how I view the history of the church, because I tend to formulate things historically rather than theologically.
There are basically two ideas of what the history of the church is about.
The RCC/Anglican/Orthodox view is that Jesus Christ founded one church with his Apostles, and their successors constitute the only true church. All the rest are schismatics. The tricky part comes in when the successors don’t agree. This can be interpreted as proof that these churches do in fact have the apostolic chrism, because the originals argued amongst themselves over who would be first as they do now.
The Protestant/Evangelical view is that Jesus Christ came to found a church based on his written Word and the body of believers’ faithful adherence to same. All the rest are lost as geese. The tricky part comes in that, since they deny their churches to be active redemptive agents, their assumption that everyone else are lost as geese cannot be automatically assumed.
I don’t really adhere to either school. IMHO, the apostolic succession churches were the “original plan,” so to speak. But their failure to effectively challenge their flocks to experience the radical transforming power of the risen Saviour–which is essential to eternal life–led to the raising up of other groups which would do the job. I describe this process in an Anglican/Evangelical context in Taming the Rowdies, but other examples can be found.
Finally, to answer Abu Daoud’s question about the definition of a sacrament, as I explained to my Pentecostal bretheren some time back, I still prefer the Prayer Book one: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. But the differences between the two are minor. However, I have come to realise that the integrity of any sacramental system–and the grace derived therefrom–depends on prior volition. And that’s a major problem with infant baptism.
Fr. Greg mentioned that the arguments for infant baptism came after it was ensconced in the practice of the church. But this may be an example of a method that a Russian friend attributed to his own people: act first, think later. Perhaps this is one reason why they were herded into the Dniepr so willingly for their own first Orthodox baptism over one thousand years ago.