On Baptism

Note: I delivered these remarks Sept. 23, 2012, just before baptizing two-month-old Olive Elizabeth Perdue, a beautiful child of God.

I’m going to take time this morning to deal with the red elephant. That’s what a former co-worker of mine would call a troubling issue most of us prefer to ignore.

“We’ve got to deal with the red elephant in the living room first,” he would say at the start of a meeting.

For Methodists and some other denominations in the southern United States, the red elephant in the sanctuary is our practice of infant baptism. Elsewhere, I wouldn’t have to spend much time on the subject—I would just remind parishioners from time to time that globally, the vast majority of Christians understand an infant, particularly one born of Christian parents, is covered by God’s loving grace. We believe that opening the door to God’s work through baptism makes a real difference in the child’s life.

In the South, however, many of our Christian brothers and sisters belong to denominations that protest vigorously against infant baptism; because they are our neighbors, we sometimes hear from them. So I feel it necessary to equip my Methodist brothers and sisters to understand and explain why we do what we do.

I come at this issue from a unique perspective, having been raised Southern Baptist but eventually becoming a United Methodist pastor. I had to study baptism to be comfortable with the doctrine I was accepting. It is a complicated controversy, of course, but I’m going to try to share with you my understanding as best I can.

First of all, the Bible is silent on the matter of whether infants should or shouldn’t be baptized. (In fact, we don’t receive a clear biblical description of how baptism is supposed to happen, even for adults professing faith for the first time.) We read about entire households being baptized, and the Greek word for “household” included children. That’s not conclusive proof, however, that babies got their heads wet.

On the flip side, there’s not a single biblical account of a child being born into a Christian family and then waiting to receive baptism after growing in age and wisdom. You cannot argue either way biblically.

The next step is to look to early church writings outside the Bible. Again, the results are arguable; if they weren’t, we wouldn’t still be arguing about the issue today. Third-century writings on the subject do indicate the church baptized infants in at least some places. What they argued then was whether these baptisms should happen the day of birth or on the eighth day of the child’s life, to imitate the Jewish ritual of circumcision.

Some quotes from early church fathers I find helpful:

Hippolytus, A.D. 215: “Baptize first the children, and if they can speak for themselves let them do so. Otherwise, let their parents or other relatives speak for them.”

Origen, A.D. 248: “The Church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants. The apostles, to whom were committed the secrets of the divine sacraments, knew there are in everyone innate strains of [original] sin, which must be washed away through water and the Spirit.”

There also is an intriguing reference by an even earlier church father, the man we now know as Justin Martyr, who lived in the first 60 or 70 years of the second century. In what is know as the First Apology, written sometime between A.D. 155 and 157, he says he knows Christians who have been “disciples from childhood” and “remain pure at the age of 60 or 70 years.” If infant baptism can be read into this statement, some simple math would indicate these baptisms were happening late in the life of the Apostle John.

Frankly, I wish we would stop allowing this matter within the universal church to be divisive and simply acknowledge that some varying traditions have evolved. For some reason, while emphasizing the importance of baptism, God did not give us clear instructions in the Bible on the details of baptism.

Perhaps that was so we would emphasize the availability of God’s Spirit at every stage of our lives. I know the Spirit was with me as a young Baptist; I see the Spirit with us as we work in the world as Methodists, our baptized babies in our arms.

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