Baptism, Discipleship, and Kids
Ever since my son first asked about being baptized three years ago (he was 4) my wife and I have wrestled through what we think on the subject. I grew up in a tradition where baptism was reserved for children who had reached the mystical “age of accountability”–usually believed to be somewhere around twelve. This was the time when children moved from concrete operational to formal operational thinking and were therefore capable of understanding the significance of baptism. As is often true, I adopted this position as my own. However, wrestling with this topic in recent years has brought me to a different landing point–and that point has a lot to do with discipleship. In a nutshell it is this…
Baptism is a response of obedience for those who want to be disciples of Jesus; we invite children to be disciples of Jesus; therefore, we should encourage children to be baptized.
Biblically baptism is tied to repentance and faith in Jesus. In Evangelicalism we place great emphasis on leading children to pray prayers of repentance for the forgiveness of sin and the gift of salvation. I prayed these prayers at least fifteen times between ages four and seven. From that point forward it is assumed that children will live as disciples of Jesus to the best of their ability.
It goes without saying that a child is better able to understand what it means to be a disciple of Jesus at fifteen than at five. However, it is also true that a person is understands this better at twenty-five than at fifteen. As maturity grows so does the ability to understand the way of Jesus and walk in accordance with it (or not). I understand the physiological changes the body goes through that effect the brain and change the way a person thinks at some point during adolescence. However, if faith and obedience are so impossible before these changes take place then perhaps we should hold off on asking anyone to be a disciple of Jesus before they go through those changes.
If a child is baptized early in life (say 5 or 6 years old), there is no doubt that they will wrestle with doubts about their faith, grow in their understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, and possibly even walk away from their faith in Jesus. All of those things are true of a child who makes a verbal profession of faith as well–does that negate the sincerity of that confession? Does that mean they should not have made that confession in the first place?
Part of discipleship is helping children grow in their understanding as they grow. They will have a fuller understanding of their baptism when they are fifteen than when they’re five (if the church/spiritual leaders in their life are doing their job), but that doesn’t negate the power or sincerity of their baptism, it just means they’re being discipled. If we want children to be disciples of Jesus that includes being baptized. We can’t pick certain directives of Jesus for them to follow and ignore others.