What If He Can’t Be Baptized?

Recently, I received an email from a pastor friend asking advice about a dicey baptism situation. It’s not the first time a pastor has asked me about this issue. It’s also a question I get from students nearly every semester. What should we do if someone comes to faith in Christ and desires to be baptized and join our church, but she cannot be baptized due to some sort of medical condition?

I’m aware of at least four views held among different Baptists. There are probably others, but these are the ones I’ve heard over the years.

First, some Baptists argue that the individual should not be baptized and should not become a member of the church or receive the Lord’s Supper. After all, Baptists do not believe the ordinances and church membership contribute to one’s salvation; we are saved by grace through faith. To allow an unbaptized person to join the church and participate in communion is to act contrary to biblical precedent. (Some Baptists offer a variation of this view where the person can be invited to the Lord’s Table, but not join the church.) I reject this view because I believe all believers should be covenantally united with a particular local church for the sake of their own spiritual maturity and the health of the body they join.

Second, some Baptists argue that you should immerse the person anyway, claiming that there are no “real life” medical conditions that would prevent someone from being baptized. Yes, I’ve actually heard this view — several times. I reject this position because I believe it is medically ill-informed and lacks pastoral sensibility.

Third, some Baptists argue that you should “baptize” the person by sprinkling or pouring. Proponents admit this is without New Testament precedent, but argue that it is an exceptional circumstance and the person is still receiving an initiatory rite using water. Once the person has received this non-immersion “baptism,” they are of course free to join the church and participate in communion. I reject this view because I do not believe a practice other than immersion is ever a biblical baptism, even in exceptional circumstances.

Fourth, some Baptists argue that you should not baptize the individual at all, but should allow her to become an unbaptized church member with the full rights of membership (including communion). Should the individual reach a point where she could be baptized, she should be. But so long as the medical condition prevents it, the desire to be baptized is enough. As with the previous option, proponents admit this practice is without New Testament precedent, but argue that it is an exceptional circumstance. Unlike the previous view, proponents of this view do not believe that sprinkling or pouring is a biblical baptism, so they don’t advocate those measures — even in an exceptional circumstance. (Remember, I’m assuming a traditionally Baptist context that rejects other “modes” of baptism in principle.)

I hold to the fourth view as the least theologically objectionable, most pastorally sensitive practice in an admittedly exceptional circumstance. Perhaps there is another option I haven’t considered. But of the options I’m aware of, the fourth is the one I suggest to others and would practice if I were faced with this sort of scenario.

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Some Thoughts on the Baptism of Children

Earlier this week, Trevin Wax wrote an interesting blog post titled “Should We Baptize Small Children?” A couple of days later, John Starke of The Gospel Coalition responded to Trevin’s article with his own article, titled “Should We Baptize Small Children? Yes.” I would commend them both to you for your careful consideration.

For what it’s worth, my own thoughts on this subject have evolved in the past couple of years. I used to be a strong advocate of artificially delaying baptism until the teenaged years. For example, in 2008 I gave an interview with the late Michael Spencer and argued the following:

Baptizing small children is an innovation in American Baptist life. I think that this is a clear area where we have been influenced by some of the fundamentalists, though it worked in tandem with our home-grown programmatic emphasis on enlistment. The average age of baptism increasingly declined during the 20th century. In 1995, the old Home Mission Board published a study that showed the only age group where baptisms were increasing was the “under 5” category. I have a hard time seeing how this makes us very different than pedobaptists. A perusal of church records and associational minutes will show that our American Baptist forefathers did not regularly baptize pre-teens, though there were occasional exceptions when a child gave extraordinary evidence of both genuine conversion and an understanding of the cost of discipleship as entailed through meaningful church membership.

The practice of baptizing pre-teens has affected church membership in a number of ways. First, it has contributed to the growth of our membership roles-the majority of our baptisms are of elementary aged children and preschoolers. Second, it has contributed to the phenomena of multiple “baptisms” and rededications as teenagers and adults have to assess the validity of childhood spiritual decisions that they can sometimes hardly remember. Third, when coupled with an inadequate view of eternal security, it has led to millions of inactive members who are convinced they are Christians because they walked the aisle as a kindergartener during Vacation Bible School forty years ago. Finally, it has greatly contributed to the decline in redemptive church discipline: what church wants to discipline an eleven year old for having premarital sex, vocal racism, or habitually getting into fistfights with his classmates?

I do want to offer one clarification before moving on. I think it is very possible for small children to be regenerated. There are many people I know who can clearly remember being converted at a relatively young age. But being able to understand the basics of sin, judgment, redemption, and faith and being able to maturely covenant in membership with a local church are two different things, in my opinion. Some will argue that virtually all of the New Testament baptisms happen almost immediately after conversion. This is true. I would respond that almost all New Testament examples are clearly adults who are older than even teenagers. Furthermore, we have absolutely zero examples in the New Testament of when to baptize children who are raised in Christian families. Our pedobaptist friends address this situation by baptizing infants. Most Southern Baptists and Independent Baptists address this by baptizing anyone who can articulate a prayer for salvation. I am an old-fashioned Baptist who believes we should withhold baptism until a child is old enough to publicly identify with a local church through covenant, meaningful membership, though I would be reluctant to arbitrarily set a particular age requirement for baptism.

I stand by my first paragraph, but would articulate each of the latter two paragraphs somewhat differently today. To be clear, I have not become an advocate of rushing every small child who can “repeat-after-me” into the waters. But I’ve come to believe the problem isn’t with baptismal ages per se, but rather with our evangelistic methods; we are often far to incautious when it comes to pressing children to profess faith. Almost any kindergartner who is being raised in a Christian family and/or is involved in church activities is ready to repeat-after-me, whether under the Spirit’s conviction or not. In fact, I’d be worried about a churched kid who wasn’t interested to some degree in spiritual things, even if superficially or simplistically so.

If we were more careful in how we articulate the gospel and press for a response (and I do believe we should do the latter), I suspect the average age of baptism would go up a bit, for churched kids at least. While the average baptismal age may not rise to pre-20th century levels, I don’t see this as a problem, for two reasons. One, church history isn’t our only trustworthy and sufficient guide for faith and practice. Second, it is just as possible that earlier Baptists artificially postponed baptism as it is contemporary Baptists are too quick to dunk someone; I believe they did just that.

I believe we should baptize anyone who can articulate a credible profession of faith, regardless of his or her age. This seems to match the New Testament pattern. John Starke pretty much perfectly articulates my own view (which, BTW, I think is essentially Trevin’s view as well). This puts the burden on parents and pastors to shepherd and counsel in such a way that, with the Lord’s help, they can discern with some level of confident hope a credible profession of faith. And when they get it wrong–and sometimes they will–that’s when church discipline comes in. To say it another way, we don’t baptize someone based upon assurance of regeneration, but rather based upon what seems to be a legitimate conversion testimony. This seems to be exactly what they did in the New Testament.

(Cross-posted at One Baptist Perspective under the title “More Thoughts on the Baptism of Children“)