I am all about believers’ baptism. Dunk ‘em. Let’s do it. A couple weeks into my time as assistant rector at my local parish, we celebrated as a church family when the father of one of our members was baptized as an adult Christian believer.
I am also all about infant baptism. Sprinkle that child. Let’s do it. In a little over two months as assistant rector, I have been blessed to take part in two of these sacred occasions.
Both? Really? This comes as a surprise to a lot of my friends.
What is perhaps even more surprising is how, having been raised a Baptist, I could be an advocate for infant baptism. Admittedly, this was the last theological bump (or “hurdle,” if you will) in the road on my journey down the road to Anglicanism.
What I discovered on that journey was profound (at least for me): it was not simply an understanding of baptism that was my obstacle, but also how I understood discipleship.
Communal Discipleship is the Goal of Baptism
At the time of a baptism, a promise occurs. In an infant baptism, the parents, Godparents, and church family make a promise to raise the child up in the faith. This messy, dysfunctional family of Christians commits to walk this journey together.
During a believer’s baptism, a similar promise is made. Family and friends, all believers doing life together, promise to walk the faith journey with this newly baptized convert.
Notice two themes here:
- Baptism is a community sacrament and
- The end goal is not conversion but discipleship.
Let’s talk about this.
For those of us who grew up in a believers’ baptism tradition, there was an emphasis on faith as an individual decision.
My mind goes right to Philip and the eunuch. After Philip answers the eunuch’s questions about the faith, the eunuch states: “See, here is water! What is preventing me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36).
The eunuch clearly makes a personal decision in this event. There is a personal, individual element to the Christian faith, but it is not the only element, nor is it necessarily the primary element of the faith.
Whereas the eunuch made an individual commitment to the faith, the story of the Philippian jailor is different. You might be familiar with it. The Apostle Paul and Silas are imprisoned in Philippi. Through their imprisonment, and a subsequent miracle, their jailor becomes a Christian.
It does not stop there. The jailor and his whole household were baptized that very night (Acts 16:33). Faith has a family element to it.
Ancient Israel provides perhaps the clearest example of this reality. Parents, and the greater community, made a commitment to raise up Hebrew children in the faith. While it is clear that the children eventually had to choose for themselves either to remain in or depart from the covenant people, there was a distinct emphasis on the communal aspect of faith.
I grew up in a Baptist household, and we had a primarily individualistic approach to the Christian faith. But I cannot remember a time when I was treated as anything less than Christian.
My parents prayed with me and over me, my church family instructed me in the faith. I was discipled before I could even say “Jesus.”
I bring this up to show us that, despite our Western proclivity to view Christianity as individualistic, it is a core and natural part of being human to engage in community. The Christian faith reminds us of this truth.
Baptism is not simply an individual decision, even for an adult. It is not “fire insurance”. It is a community covenant.
When someone is baptized, regardless of their age, a promise is made. Families commit to raising the child in the faith. The church promises to take part in the faith of the family.
Perhaps the real theological debate around baptism should not be whether a baby is ready to be baptized, but whether a church family is ready to baptize!
The Importance of Family Discipleship
When we baptize an infant as a church, we are committing to discipleship. This is a core component of the liturgy of Holy Baptism.
However, while the church commits to come alongside family, it is not the clergy nor the church at large who takes on sole responsibility for this endeavor. Winfield Bevins makes this astute observation: “Many parents believe that it is the church’s responsibility to raise their children in the faith…The church is meant to support parents in discipling their children.”
While an obvious criterion for an infant baptism is that the parents (or guardians) are believers, just as important is their commitment to disciple the child.
The most common argument I get from those opposed to infant baptism is the matter of a child who was baptized and renounces the faith. But, of course, plenty of people who receive “believers’ baptism” also renounce the faith.
I don’t want to remove individual responsibility here, but abandoning the faith is not an isolated decision of the individual. Whether a child’s faith endures through a lifetime, while definitely a work of the Holy Spirit, is also correlated to the focus the family gives to the discipleship of their child.
According to a survey done by Search Institute, there are five primary factors which play into the vitality of a child’s faith through their lifetime. Surprise: none of them was how cool the youth pastor was.
The top five factors which contributed to the lifelong vitality of a child’s faith were:
- The mother had frequent conversations about faith with the child.
- The father had frequent conversations about faith with the child.
- Other family members had frequent conversations about faith with the child.
- The family frequently participated in devotions together.
- The family frequently served their community together.
Those five factors are decisive acts of discipleship. But I would add baptism to this list. Baptism is one of the first acts of discipleship, where the family makes a public promise to make disciples out of their children.
Infant baptism is a promise between the parents and God, the parents and the church, and the parents and the child. The promise is to disciple this baptized child. If we cannot commit to discipling our children, we should not baptize them, either. To do otherwise is to be a liar.
How Do We Disciple Our Families?
If baptism and family discipleship go together, a question remains. How do we disciple our families?
There is no one way to do it (see Winfield Bevins for more on this).
My advice? Keep it simple.
Think back to the five factors that the Search Institute found to be pivotal in the vitality of the faith of the child. They are not complicated. Will it be hard to commit at times? Yes, but not because it’s hard, but because we are finite. And that’s OK. It’s why the church makes a commitment to come alongside the parents in the liturgy at Holy Baptism.
We are all in this together. It has been said that no one is an island, but no family is an island, either.
While taking your child to church on Sunday and even getting them involved with a youth group has its benefits, this is only part of discipleship.
Think about discipleship like feeding your child. If you only fed them two meals a week, they would be very hungry! But remember, not every meal has to be a gourmet buffet.
Many people, including myself, have fallen into the trap of over-complicating spirituality. When it comes to family discipleship, the key is to keep it simple and to keep it consistent.
Try these simple family discipleship practices to feed your family on a regular basis:
- Read the Bible. For babies and toddlers, even just reading them one verse a day can have a great impact.
- Pray with and for your children and your spouse. Also, teach them how to pray. Serve. Find something simple you and your family can commit to doing on a regular basis (weekly to monthly). Show your family how to love the community.
- Ask them questions. Get into the habit of talking and asking about faith with your family.
I cannot promise that by discipling our children, they will remain faithful. We may sow and water, but God causes the seeds to grow (1 Cor. 3:6). In the end, the results are not up to us.
But we can walk the journey with our children and trust God with the outcome. Discipling our children is not simply about them remaining in the faith, but keeping ourselves honest to the promises we make at their baptism.
Zachary Jones is married to his best friend, Bethany. He serves as assistant rector of Christ Church Westshore and is a chaplain candidate canonically resident in the Special Jurisdiction of the Armed Forces and Chaplaincy. Zach is currently finishing his Master of Sacred Theology at Trinity School for Ministry. You can follow him on Twitter at @thelittlevicar.