My church’s news site recently noted a gathering down in Jamaica which was a consultation on believers’ baptism. There were a couple of ministers from my church there, along with representatives of the World Council of Churches.
I’m always nervous when our ministers get involved with WCC people and events. They are like young Siegfried, innocent and without fear, but unaware of the dangers that lurk. (I used a Wagnerian analogy about my church in another context here.) Most Pentecostal churches, as is the case with “Bill Clinton’s Eucharistic Theology“, simply continued with believers’ (adult) baptism, although in this case the results were better.
My own saga with this is complicated. The “five” years in decades seem to be replete with anniversaries good and bad alike. Fifty years ago this year I was baptised in the Episcopal Church after a direct encounter with God which, among other things, made me ask whether I had been baptised or not. My mother excused her lack of having me baptised as an infant on my poor health. But it was an excuse; I think she, raised Southern Baptist, was deeply conflicted about pedobaptism, and used that (and my father’s indifference) to skip it.
In any case, we went to our Rector, Robert Appleyard, who later was Bishop of Pittsburgh and performed the first “legal” ordinations of women in the Episcopal Church. He even agreed with my mother’s request for a private baptism. He was unimpressed with my direct encounter with God, and well he should have been; it’s jaundiced my view of any kind of “preacher religion” since.
In any case most “Main Line” churches (along with their Catholic and Orthodox counterparts) practice pedobaptism, while most Evangelical and Pentecostal ones practice adult or “believers’ baptism” after a conscious profession of faith. It seems to me that this is the New Testament pattern which got changed with changes in the church, most of them not for the better. It’s an issue that is, in many ways, the “stickiest wicket” between me and my Anglican and Catholic roots. Yet these and other churches are very insistent that infants be baptised.
The strongest theological justification of this came from Augustine, who taught that everyone comes into this world with original sin and that baptism cleanses this. The alternative (I’m not sure whether it’s Augustinian or not, but the RCC taught it for many years) is that unbaptised infants, guilty of no other sins, literally ended up in Limbo, as Dante vividly illustrated.
Reformed types, while getting away from Limbo and in some cases a sacramental concept of baptism, nevertheless continued the practice of pedobaptism. These churches, along with just about everyone else in Europe, regarded the concept of believers’ baptism that the Anabaptists set forth with horror, persecutions following.
In recent times we’ve seen even the RCC backtrack on the Limbo business, which in turn backtracks on the original sin problem. But that’s lead to the emphasis (obsession?) with another aspect of baptism: the marking of a person as a Christian, albeit an infant with no decision-making capacity. It’s analogous in some ways to the Islāmic concept that, once you’re born of a Muslim parent, you’re a Muslim and that’s it. Christianity has never benefited from picking up bad Islāmic habits. The most egregious manifestation of this is the Episcopal Church’s “Baptismal Covenant”, which I describe as “the Contract on the Episcopalians”. Sometimes I think that the radical left in TEC thinks that this commits the faithful from the cradle to join every left-wing cause and vote Democrat.
The things that divide people on baptism, such as sacrament vs. ordinance, or immersion vs. sprinkling, or any of the others, in many ways obscure what is, as far as I am concerned, the central issue with baptism. That central issue centres around how people become Christians and the nature of the church.
To be a Christian is a decision which is made possible by the grace of God. That’s more obvious to people who have to prove and defend being a Christian more than those who either float along with the culture or don’t venture much outside their Christian circles. Baptism, by all considered the initiation rite into Christianity, needs to be connected with that decision, which can only be done by someone with enough faculties to do so. (And I’m not one to set the lower age limit too high on that, it depends on the person.) To do otherwise is to make cultural Christianity–which is becoming a rarer and rarer bird these days–normative. A reasonable reading of the New Testament should make it clear this is not the case.
Once a person has made such a decision and has been baptised, the next question comes up: what kind of church are they joining? The Greek term ecclesia means the “called out ones”, but many have argued that restricting the church to true believers is too exclusivistic. They use the “wheat and tares” parable to back themselves up. But we need to ask the serious question: is the church a wheat field with tares, or a tare field with wheat? Too many churches have been the latter, but we really don’t have the luxury of that any more, if we ever did.
This is why I think that believers’ baptism is the best.