Infant Baptism in a New Apostolic Age

Infant Baptism in a New Apostolic Age

Part One:  Presenting the Issues

Part Two:  Infant Baptism and Making Disciples


Jeff Krogstad
November 7, 1997

Introduction:  The Question

            All my life I have heard questions about infant baptism.  How can baptism of an infant be valid when the baby doesn’t even know what’s going on?  Where does faith come in?  Is infant baptism a kind of “magic”?  Can an unbaptized child go to heaven?  Can a baptized child go to hell?  As I have worked in the Lutheran church over the last decade, I have begun to wonder how, in practical terms, our practice of infant baptism affects us.  Also, what are the implications of infant baptism for the life of the church?  I don’t expect to answer all my own questions in this paper, but I am hoping to set forth a practical theology of infant baptism for the Lutheran church as it moves into an uncertain future.
            Infant baptism had its origins in the shadows of the early church.  Baptism of adult converts was certainly the most common form of baptism before the 300’s A.D.  However, when Christian families could reasonably be expected to raise children in faith so that no later conversion was necessary, infant baptism was an appropriate initiation into the church.  Though the New Testament is ambivalent regarding infant baptism, the practice was certainly common in such cases by the end of the second century.[1]
            When Christianity became the faith of the Empire in the fourth century, infant baptisms gradually replaced adult conversions as the standard means of entrance into the church.  The Church of the Empire could mandate and control faith instruction after baptism (though it did not always do so) and could tie the baptismal rite to later life transitions -- Confirmation, Marriage, Penance, Ordination, Extreme Unction, etc.[2] 
            In the title of this paper, “Infant Baptism in a New Apostolic Age,” I am loosely borrowing Loren Mead’s terminology from The Once and Future Church.  Mead applies the term “Apostolic” properly to the pre-Constantinian era of the church.[3]   His work has been appropriated into the vernacular of many congregations who see themselves returning to an “apostolic” style of being the church.  That is, they see their surrounding community, not the wilds of Madagascar or New Guinea, as their primary mission field.  The term “apostolic” may be helpful in that we remember our task of proclaiming the gospel, not only across the world but next door. 
            However, we are deluded if we see too close a parallel between the “Apostolic Age” and our own.  We live among the remains of Christendom, with its buildings and its attitudes in various states of disrepair around us.   As we look into the future, trying to discern the shape of the church to come, we may well question the usefulness of infant baptism.  It is one more shard of Christendom, left over from the days when membership in the Empire included membership in the Church, and to belong to society was to be a Christian, more or less.  Like the other leftovers of Christendom, infant baptism must be reconsidered as the church moves into the future.
            Taking the Great Commission -- perhaps the best known baptismal text -- as a paradigm, we can critique historical practices of baptism.  Our goal is to make disciples by (1) baptizing in the name of the Triune God and by (2) teaching these disciples to observe the commands of Christ.  Our practice of baptism is faithful as much as it carries out the church’s call to make disciples, to baptize them and to teach them.
            Within its limited use in the early church, in families of faith who were likely to raise children in faith, infant baptism made sense.  Baptism was conducted by the church for children belonging to Christian families.  The family was then responsible, along with the local congregation to which they belonged, for teaching their children.
            Within the confines of the Empire and a “cultural Christianity” where faith instruction permeated social structures, infant baptism made another kind of sense.  The Church, that mighty institution, conducted the baptism as a rite of entry into a church-dominated society.  The society then became responsible for teaching the commands of Christ. 
            What sense can we make of infant baptism in our own day, when an extremely low percentage of the baptized are raised within the church?  Today’s baptized infants will grow up in a world of many cultures, many religions, many choices.  Buddhism, Islam, and many other “isms” have become valid, even attractive, choices for us.  The church has not dealt well with the twin questions of pluralism and relativism. 
            To make matters worse, those baptized are not instructed effectively in faith.  Many families who remain within the church do an abysmal job of instructing their children in what it means to be a Christian.  The church’s traditional methods of fulfilling the command to teach -- primarily Sunday School and Confirmation -- are marginally effective at best.  Even if it is argued that this has always been the case -- that our children are, in fact, as well educated in faith as baptized children of any era -- we must still mourn the widespread complacency, the nominal faith, that clogs our congregations.  Some have argued that churches practicing adult or “believers” baptism face similar problems of complacency and shallow discipleship.  This argument, too, is beside the point.  We are responsible for the integrity of our own practice, for our faithfulness to the command of Jesus Christ to make disciples as best we know how.
            So the question comes in two parts.  First, can we say that  infant baptism is, here and now, a valid response to Christ’s command to baptize?  And second (assuming a positive answer to the first question), how will we handle catechesis -- training in faith -- when we baptize infants? 

The Classic Form of Baptism:  A place to begin

            The question is both wide and deep.  To understand some of the dynamics facing the church today, it may be helpful to review Robert Jenson’s description of baptism in its classic form in the third and fourth centuries.[4]   Jenson outlines three acts to the baptismal rite:  repentance (or preparation), baptism itself, and initiation (welcoming).
            The first movement is repentance or preparation, which served to separate the candidate from his or her old life.  Time in the “catechumenate” provided training in the Christian life, separation from pagan practices, time for prayer and fasting, and public examination in the faith.  This stage of preparation might last months or even years.  Each candidate was expected to undergo rigorous self-examination, exorcisms, and training in good works.
            The second act of baptism was the rite itself.  It began with a remembrance of the biblical stories of God’s saving acts in water -- Creation, the Flood, the Exodus, Jesus’ baptism, and finally baptism in the Christian Church.  Often this remembering took the form of an “epiclesis,” an invoking the Holy Spirit to come and inhabit the waters to be used in this  baptism.  Candidates were then stripped naked, recognizing the fact that they could “carry nothing but themselves through the waters from the old life into the new.”[5]   The candidate renounced Satan and his works, confessed faith in Christ, was perhaps anointed with oil, and then was (usually) immersed. 
            The third act of baptism began as the newly baptized persons came out of the water.  They were given new clothing, and led from the font to the place where the congregation had gathered to hold its vigil.  Then hands were laid on the newly baptized (usually by the bishop), they were anointed with oil, and a prayer was said for the newly baptized to be filled with the Holy Spirit.  Finally they joined the congregation for the Lord’s Supper, where they received “extra chalices of water and of milk and honey, the food of infants and of the promised land.”[6] 
            Jenson presents this account of baptism’s “classic” form as part of his declared agenda of liturgical renewal.  However, even if this is a somewhat idealized form of the ancient baptismal rite, it raises up some key elements that have been neglected in our own practice.   While we do not need to adopt this exact rite, there is an overall movement that we do well to examine as we evaluate our own baptismal practices.
            One place where this “classic” expression stands in judgment of our own time is in the tiresome arguments of infant versus adult baptism.  It seems clear that these two practices, whatever their origins, have come to emphasize different parts of baptism which are held tightly together in the rite Jenson describes.  Adult baptism tends to emphasize repentance and our role in standing up publicly to be baptized.  Infant baptism, on the other hand, emphasizes God’s action in declaring us righteous, in making us part of the Body of Christ (see Figure 1, page 5).
            Another difference in our appropriation of baptism seems at first to be just semantics.  In our metaphors for baptism, two camps seem to emerge.  Jenson and the liturgical renewal movement are prone to talk about baptism in terms of “washing” or “bath” to the exclusion of any other metaphor, even when quoting Paul in the sixth chapter of Romans.[7]   Luther is prone to more violent language -- drowning, putting to death, etc., and a corresponding resurrection to new life.[8]   Such differences in language may seem trivial at first, but there is a deep division in our understanding of the sacrament behind these metaphors.  If we would appropriate baptism as an effective rite of initiation, of repentance, and of our mutual identity, we must take great care in the language we use to talk about baptism itself and its meaning for us.  We will not be able to effectively evaluate infant baptism for our own time and place if we ignore the tension between these two dominant images.
Hope for the Future

            My goal in writing this paper is to flesh out a dream that I have for the Lutheran Church.  I dream that we can be a church sunk deep in our baptismal identity.  Infant baptism reflects the fact that God comes to us when we are still caught in sin and death.  Infant baptism captures the fact that baptism is in our past -- and only as faith remembers does baptism take on power.  I envision a church where children hear the stories of their own baptism -- and God’s claim on them -- hundreds of times before they begin Sunday School.  I see those children growing up with a secure knowledge that they belong to God, and that God has called them to live a new life.  I can imagine Christians exploring everything from vocational identity to ecumenical concerns to the abortion debate from the perspective that “I have been baptized ... and therefore, what is God’s claim on me in this situation?  What is God’s call to me?”
            These are my dreams.  In the second half of this paper, I hope to cast a vision of infant baptism that will help to enliven the church and open its doors to the world.
Infant Baptism -- Part 2
            A theology of infant baptism
            Current practices of infant baptism
            Child development and church practice
            Implications for individuals, families, and congregations
Why Infant Baptism?

            The practice of infant baptism assumes that a Christian family will raise the child in faith.  Part of a baptismal liturgy in the Lutheran Brethren church states the situation this way:  “Infant baptism is not magic.  It is meaningful in the context  of a Christian home and congregation that takes the command to teach as seriously as the command to baptize.”[9]   The critique of infant baptism from those practicing adult or “believer’s” baptism has always been that infant baptism seems like so much magic -- in other words, no faith is required from the one being baptized.  What effect can baptism have if the one being baptized does not have faith?
            It is a valid question, and one that brings out the true genius of infant baptism.  The child cannot believe for herself as she is baptized, but parents and sponsors and the whole body of Christ believe for her.  She is not independent, able to function on her own, but she needs others -- both for physical care and for the nurturing of her faith.  The beauty of her baptism is precisely this:  She does nothing.  God has called her through an intricate web of relationships and family history.  God has shaped the faith of this family, and this family’s faith carries the child to the water.  God has created an assembly of the people of God in this place, centered around the water, looking on as the child is baptized.  The congregation participates by speaking the words of the faith to the one being baptized, and by promising to continue that witness through proclamation and relationship.  Sponsors stand with the family as representatives of the extended family, of friends, and of the congregation -- in short, all outside the immediate family who will nurture this child in faith.  Many people are working in this rite.  Pouring the water, invoking the name of God, bringing the child, speaking the faith, making promises, and the messy business of getting a baby wet -- all this is work. 
            The beauty of infant baptism is that we are not saved by works, we are saved by the grace of God (Ephesians 2:8-10).  But this crowd of people, all working together for this infant’s baptism, is working hard.  They work not for their own salvation but for the salvation of another.  They work on behalf of the one who cannot work for herself.  The call of God to her and the claim of God upon her come through the voices and hands of many others, who have themselves been called and claimed.  Someday she will stand with the congregation or at the font, working on behalf of another infant.  But the message for us is that we do not save ourselves.  We are carried, we are led, we are baptized by God and by God’s people.  This is true not only for those who are physically helpless, but for us all.
            Problems with infant baptism can begin when we forget this truth.  When we neglect the fact that work is required in baptism, we begin to dispense cheap grace.  God works in baptism, but not alone.  The congregation works, the one who baptizes works, and the family works most of all.  When we forget this, we begin to do private baptisms (because they’re more convenient), we baptize grandchildren whose families will never darken a church door again (because Grandma really wants it done), and we promptly forget that baptism is in the highest and best sense of the word “liturgy” -- the work of the people. 
            Private baptisms are (fortunately!) becoming less and less common as we rediscover the truth that this claiming, this calling, this baptism is a public event.  It has to be public because it takes so many people’s work to accomplish it!  Of course God is powerful enough to do what God wills, to accomplish faith in a person.  But God chooses to work through the webs of human relationship.  Congregations and families become the primary dwelling place of God.  Why else should we be called the Body of Christ? 
            The token baptism of a child whose family does not believe is a greater problem in our congregations.  How can the church deal with these who just want to get the child “done” for the sake of family peace?  We will take up this question again later.  It is at the root of many of the problems that plague American Lutheranism.
            Cheap grace begins to rear its head again when we mistake the true nature of baptism.  Because baptism involves babies, we have too often fallen prey to the temptation to make baptism “nice.”  Baptism becomes a rite of cooing babies and camcorders, proud parents and doting grandparents.  But baptism is not nice.  There is violence here of the deepest sort.  If we forget this fact, we are well on the way to destroying the church.  Baptism in any form is God’s claiming and calling a person out of death and into life, and that transition is a difficult one.  It requires death.  If we deny this death, we deny our own identity as those who have been crucified and raised with Christ.  We deny our own baptism.
            First and foremost, baptism requires the death of Jesus Christ.  The cross is God’s primary act of claiming us and calling us.  Here God demonstrates his love for us, as he takes our sufferings, our death, our alienation, our sin, into himself.  The cross is God’s act of bridging the gap that stood between us, of erasing the boundaries that separated us.  It is God’s invasion of this world, claiming us as his own and destroying the powers of sin, death, and the devil.
            Second, this transition requires that we be identified with the death and resurrection of Jesus.  For us to move from death into life means that we, too, must die, because we have belonged to the powers of sin and death which oppose God.  This is not saying that we are slimy, evil creatures, but that our inclination is to serve only ourselves -- that we demand to be lords of our own lives, gods unto ourselves, masters of our own destiny.  This “Old Adam” and “Old Eve” in us must die in the waters.  Baptism is about death.  It is not so much about bathing as it is about drowning.  The theological doctrine of “total depravity” does not mean that we are only evil, but it does mean that every aspect of our being is tainted with sin.  We cannot simply be scrubbed and made acceptable, as we usually think of washing.  As washing, a brief dip in the pool (or sprinkling from a bowl!) is a less than powerful symbol.  But any parent knows the terrible fear of leaving a baby alone in a washtub, or of a toddler wandering off at the lakeshore.  Parenting books contain dire warnings about kids and water: 

“... drowning is the second leading cause of accidental injury-related deaths to children under 14.  It happens in bathtubs and pools, buckets and toilets.  It happens in seconds that will be remembered in slow motion forever ... Babies can drown in an inch of water and a few moments ...”[10]

            It is a sobering reminder for parents who bring a child to be baptized that they are, in essence, giving up the life of their child to God.  The story of Samuel in the Old Testament could be effectively used with parents before baptism.  Hannah gave up her son to the service of God, saying, “As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him [to the tabernacle] that he may appear in the presence of the Lord, and remain there forever; I will offer him as a nazirite for all time” (I Samuel 1:22).  In baptism the life of a child is given to God, and given up by the parents.  When the child comes from the water, she has a new life, and that life is the gift of God.  The words from the baptismal liturgy, “... child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever,”[11] carry a sense of this death and new life.  The child has been transferred from death into life, from the household of the world into the household of God.  The child belongs to God, and the parental role becomes that of a steward, a caretaker of this treasure which is God’s. 
            Perhaps this is a heavy word to those who bring children to be baptized.  Why should we make baptism such a dramatic, even morbid, event?  We too often forget that it is a serious matter to get involved with the living God.  This sense of death and life, of giving up a child to God, can communicate to parents the seriousness of the upcoming baptism.  It also helps the whole congregation reflect on their own baptism and the fact that they, too, belong to God and not to themselves.  “You are not your own; you were bought with a price” (I Corinthians 6:19-20).   The price is the cross, in which we participate through baptism.
            As the church moves away from Christendom, the boundary between the church and the world will need to be closely defined.  Baptism is the sacrament by which we are brought across this boundary into the community which lives by the death and resurrection of Christ.  We are the community of people who can echo Paul’s words:  “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).    Drowning is an appropriate way to talk about what happens to us in baptism.  We no longer live -- our lives are lost in the water.  We drown in the font, and only faith -- the faith of the community that makes promises for us -- brings us forth from the water into a brand new life. 
            This language of death and new life, cost and payment sounds foreign to baptism in most of our congregations.  What does baptism look like in the church?  Will this be enough to carry the church in a post-Christian age?
Current Practices of Infant Baptism

            When parents call the church to set up a baptism, a chain of events is set in place.  A typical scenario might look like this:  The church secretary checks the schedule and affirms that the requested Sunday is an appropriate time for a baptism.  The secretary consults the pastor who affirms the date, and the family is contacted to schedule a pre-baptismal session.  Actual practice of pre-baptismal meetings varies widely.  Some congregations require a series of classes; others require nothing at all aside from a brief meeting before the service to arrange who will stand where.  The average is probably one meeting with a pastor to discuss the order of the baptismal service, the promises made in baptism, and the logistics of sponsors, names, candles, etc.   Following this session, someone (pastor or church secretary, usually) makes out a baptismal certificate, perhaps a card for sponsors, a baptismal towel, and other items.  A candle is usually prepared for the one baptized, to be presented during the rite.
            The day of the baptism the family is eager.  They sit toward the front of the sanctuary, worrying that the infant (or older siblings) may need to be taken out during worship.  Pastors usually look forward to baptisms, and the best of them have personalized the baptismal liturgy a little.  The crowd gathers at the appropriate time around the font, the liturgy is more or less followed, and the baby gets damp.  The pastor will often present the baby to the congregation, and everyone oohs and aahs at a wide-eyed smiler, or laughs sympathetically at an angry screecher.  The family sits down, the service goes on ... then what?  What follow-up do congregations provide for the promises which have been made by the parents, sponsors, and congregation itself? 
            The norm is that the congregation does nothing -- except perhaps a parenting class or two -- until the child is about four years old, when she can start Sunday School.  After age four, regular Sunday School is available.  The child usually receives a Bible around third grade -- assuming that the parents are still in touch with the church and that the child is involved in Sunday School.  Perhaps in fifth grade, she is enrolled in First Communion classes.  About seventh grade she begins Confirmation instruction -- time to learn about the promises made for her in baptism so she can decide if she will take them on for herself.
            This is an outline of typical congregational practices of infant baptism.  Some congregations are experimenting with different programs, especially in regard to Confirmation.  A great deal of money and time has been spent in the last decade on innovative programs for junior high Confirmation instruction.  Other congregations have begun to focus on the ongoing faith development of children through creative approaches to Sunday School and mid-week Christian education.

Troubling Research in Infant Development

            But there’s a dangerous gap here.  From the day of baptism until age four, the family is almost entirely responsible for the child’s faith development.  Few congregations provide resources, incentives, or accountability for families to intentionally disciple a child from birth through age five.  These are throwaway years as far as congregational involvement.  Yet recent research into infant and child development has demonstrated that the first three years -- according to some researchers, the first three months -- are an incredibly crucial time.  During the first months of life, the brain is developing synapses -- pathways for processing information -- that will be used throughout life to interpret the world.  A report to the National Governor’s Association recently asserted that “... the period of greatest brain development comes very early. It is not third grade, when last-chance efforts to learn to read are what's most important. It is not even age 3. A more propitious time for learning is age 3 months.”[12]   By neglecting faith development in these initial months of life, we essentially allow the child to become hard-wired to whatever system the family provides.  In essence, given the marginal spirituality of most families -- even church-going families -- we are hardwiring infants to think, act, and interpret the world in functionally agnostic ways.  Then, about age four, when this hardwiring is locked in place, we spend a great deal of time and effort trying to educate kids into faith.  Anyone who has worked with children or teenagers in the church can verify that as a rule, kids with faith come from families with faith.  Sunday School can’t hold a candle to family devotions when it comes to faith development. 
            The church places a great deal of emphasis on education and intellectual development of faith, but we have neglected the time when people are most educable.  Our allocation of resources in the church parallels the allocation of public education funds, which were graphed on a chart presented to the National Governor’s Association:

“[The chart] depicted a nearly vertical line describing a child's brain growth from birth to age 5 and another line representing public investments that remained almost flat until about age 5.  The visual display of the mismatch between resources and the ages when the resources would be most useful is extremely persuasive.”[13]

The obvious solution to this problem is to follow infant baptism with some kind of faith development programming.  But what to do and how to do it are not simple questions.
            It may be helpful at this point to reexamine the Great Commission, which has historic-ally served as a paradigm for the church’s baptismal practice:

“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
The primary command to the Twelve, and by extension to the church, is to make disciples.  This task is accomplished by baptizing and by teaching.  The whole process depends on the presence of Christ. 
            We in the Lutheran church have certainly been baptizing.  We baptize scads of babies.  But are we, in fact, making disciples?  So many families, as noted above, bring a child to be baptized out of a sense of family tradition or obligation.  Baptism functions for them as a sort of “christening” in the weakest sense of the word -- a “naming party.”  In fact, it has even lost that sense of power, for naming is done at (or before) birth.  It becomes a lukewarm rite to procure the blessing of a distant deity.  Certainly the church does not intend it to be so weak, but for the family and, by extension, for the one baptized, the rite becomes meaningless.  (I do not believe it is meaningless; certainly such a person who later came to an active faith would have no need to be re-baptized.  Functionally, though, it is an empty rite.)  A disciple has not been made, though a baptism has been performed. 
            What has gone wrong, and how can it be corrected?  The immediate answer is that something has been neglected on the “teaching” end of Christ’s command.  Teaching about the Christian life is not a matter to be left until later.  Just as the family, the sponsors, and the congregation carry the child to the font in faith -- believing for the child -- so the congregation, the sponsors, and the family can be taught on behalf of the child.  This web of relationships, strengthened and built up in faith, provides an incubator for the faith which can grow in the child.  At this stage of life, teaching the family is, in fact, teaching the child, for the family will have the greatest influence on the child’s faith.  Groundwork laid now will provide fertile ground for Sunday School, First Communion, Confirmation, and beyond.
            Such teaching begins, as stated above, with clear communication about the nature of baptism.  Parents looking for a sweetness-and-light, “feel good” baptism will have to think hard whether they want to drown their child at the font.  For many parents (especially those who have little sense that they themselves belong to God) the idea of giving up the life of their child to God -- like Hannah gave up Samuel -- is unpleasant.  The practical implications of this view of baptism are easy enough to draw.  When the child is choosing a career, for instance, what happens when the child -- now a young adult -- feels strongly called by God to volunteer for a year with the Lutheran Volunteer Corps in the inner city?  Or to take on a two year commitment as a missionary in eastern Europe?  What happens to the parent’s dreams that their child will become a doctor, or a teacher, or a software engineer?  If we take baptism seriously, the parent’s role has been to raise that child on behalf of the God to whom  the child belongs.  When it comes to choosing, God’s desires should take priority over the parents’ desires.  This priority should be reflected in the choice of the one baptized.  Such a choice is a direct implication of baptism, and one the parents should think through before they present the child to be baptized.
            This is one example of a way to appropriate infant baptism for our church after Christendom.  If we hold a strong theology of infant baptism as death and new life, we can draw out other implications for individuals, families, and congregations.

Implications for Individuals

            What does it mean in our individualistic society to live as a baptized person -- as one who has died and lives now through faith in the Son of God?  What does it mean to belong to the Body of Christ?  What does it mean to be a child of God, born of water and the Spirit?  These are all, essentially, the same question.  Baptism initiates us into the corporate Body of Christ and gives us a new identity as children of God.  Given this identity, how do we live as individuals in the world?
            One crucial part of an individual’s life consists of making choices.  Belief in individual choice -- freedom of the individual -- is one of the cornerstones of western culture, and it permeates the church as well.  This belief in itself is not a bad thing, but our baptismal theology must take into account the need of individuals for some kind of decision making criteria.  Baptism provides a two-layered question for the baptized person facing any decision.  These two questions are:
What is God’s claim on me in this situation?
What is God’s call to me in this situation?
Baptism is integrally tied with both of these questions.  In baptism we are claimed by God -- given a new identity, given a new family, given a new life.  All these are part of being claimed by God.  We hear the Law in a new way -- “I am the Lord your God” -- as the gracious love of God for us.  In claiming us, God has become willing to be claimed by us as well.  Over and over again God promises to hear, to answer, to be found, to be attentive.  We are claimed by the God who now  becomes our own.  So the question, “What is God’s claim on me in this situation?” is about our identity as God’s own people, and also about our position as individuals privileged to call on God in confidence.  When I face a decision -- “How shall I respond to statistics on teen pregnancy and abortion?” for instance, or “Should I marry this person whom I have begun to love?” -- I must first of all remember that I belong to God, I am called by the name of God.  As a child of God, what claim does God have on me in this situation?  How will my actions, my decisions, impact my God, my family, and my identity as a Christian?  My identity provides a screen through which I can view the decisions I must make.
            Second, what is God’s call to me in this situation?  We belong to a God who calls us, over and over, beyond where we are.  We are called to follow.  Does God call me in this situation to reach out in compassion to those whose lives have been scarred by abortion?  Is God calling me to touch the lives of teens who are at risk before their behavior leads to teenage pregnancy?  Am I called to take a stand, to reach out to a neighbor, to be an agent of reconciliation, to faithfully disciple my children?  What is the call of God to me specifically, right here, right now?
            Children can learn these two simple questions as a helpful guide in Christian decision making.  These questions are also useful for adults who want their faith to be a reality beyond Sunday morning.  The questions do not come with an agenda; they simply place our identity and our mission as the people of God squarely in front of us as we make decisions.  Each individual who has been baptized can use these criteria to shape a life of faithful discipleship.
            Another implication for individuals involves the relationship between baptism and death.  Martin Luther talked about baptism as the “big death” and the death of the body as “the little death.”  What comfort in these words for those who fear death!  Our understanding shifts as we can echo with Paul that “I have died ...”  If the death of our bodies is, truly, a sinking deep in the baptismal water, we need not fear it.  Just as God was in our baptism, giving us new life, so God is in our death, finalizing the transaction.  There is room for a whole array of devotional material, Biblical study, sermon and teaching material in this theological perspective that lies beyond the scope of this paper.  However, for individuals concerned about death, this kind of baptismal theology may prove very helpful.

Implications for Families

            The family is a hot topic in our society right now.  “Family values” has become a trigger phrase for any number of different political and religious agendas.  In this context we are dealing only with the family as it relates to baptism; however, that relationship can be far reaching.  The implications of baptism can reach deep into family relationships.  This section will only scratch the surface of some ways families may live out their baptismal identity.
            Many discussions of “family” are further complicated by endless debates over what exactly constitutes a family.  For the purposes of discussing infant baptism, a family is whatever immediate context of people nurture and support the child on an ongoing basis.  Blended families, foster families, adoptive families, single parent families, or any other permutation of “families” -- all provide basic nurture for growing children.  It is that nurturing activity that provides an opportunity for the beginnings of baptismal education.
            What happens for the family at baptism?  Here we can recover Jenson’s “classic form” of baptism (see above).  There are three distinct movements to baptism when we view it in terms of the family and not just the infant.
            Jenson’s first movement is Preparation and Repentance.  This introduction encompasses family meetings with the person who will officiate at the baptism, any “homework” that might come out of that meeting / meetings, the family’s own spiritual preparation, and the details of arranging sponsors, dates, etc.  There is a great deal of room here for families to prepare themselves to effectively nurture the faith of the infant; some of these possibilities will be addressed in detail under “Implications for Congregations” below. 
            A few concrete family activities to prepare for the baptism might include:

Buy appropriate children’s books -- Bible stories or other books that teach faith -- that can be read over and over again to an infant
Incorporate themes of faith into the baby’s room -- pictures, decorations, etc.
Discuss the upcoming baptism with older siblings, helping them participate
Parents should consider “personalizing” the baptismal service; discuss this with the pastor or whoever will officiate
Find and buy a good children’s Bible that will be interesting to younger children

Parents may need guidance to work through what it means to lead a Christian family.  This topic will be taken up again in the next section. 
            The second movement in the classic form of baptism is the baptismal rite itself.  Here we can enrich the participation of families by highlighting their roles not only in this rite, but in the nurturing of the child being baptized.  Siblings and extended family can be lifted up through their involvement in the service.  Sermons that deal openly with the action of baptism and the baptismal identity of each Christian are entirely appropriate any time a baptism is part of worship.  We must not neglect the fact that this is water together with the word of God.  That word is not simply the formula, “I baptize you in the name ...” but it involves all our words surrounding this baptism.  Liturgy, sermon, scriptures, and the informal explanations accompanying the rite -- all become vehicles for the word of God to reach the people of God.  The family is a special recipient of this word, and must be lifted up as such during worship.  If pastors do not recognize the importance of the family in baptism, families should educate their pastors.
            The third movement in baptism is that of welcoming the infant into the Body of Christ, into the family of God.  This movement begins at baptism and continues indefinitely.  Bedtime stories, special songs, family celebrations, baptismal birthdays, attending worship together, family devotions ... all these are part of enacting and re-enacting the welcome of that child into this family and into the family of God.  Here is the family’s greatest responsibility in baptism:  The family becomes the primary context in which the child is welcomed into the Body of Christ.  It is the focus of Christian discipleship for the child, and the arena in which the child will first begin to discover her gifts and passions for her own walk of faith.  Whatever welcoming rituals are part of the baptismal rite -- presenting the infant to the congregation, receptions after worship, bringing the infant to the Lord’s Supper -- the family will provide the ongoing relationship in which the welcome becomes reality.

Implications for the Congregation

            Given recent child development research, and the universally accepted fact that children learn best between birth and about three years, it seems quite obvious that the church should be putting a strong emphasis on early childhood education.  The question is how to go about it.  Infants don’t learn well in a classroom setting.  They pay little or no attention in lecture.  Chalkboards bore them until about two years of age, when they enjoy scribbling and eating chalk.  Let’s face it -- little kids don’t deal well with our traditional methods of discipleship.
            Infants learn from hearing, watching, and interacting with those they love.  Repetition is crucial.  Because of these factors, parents and families are the key to discipling children at this stage of life.  The church must focus on parents and families in order to disciple newly baptized children.  This focus can be carried out in a number of ways, depending on the congregation’s gifts and resources.  Here are a few ideas:
            One congregation I know has begun baptismal “classes” rather than meeting with each set of parents individually.  In these classes, they bring together all those who have requested baptism in a given period of time, spend some time talking about the meaning of baptism and its implications, and in the process build a bond between some of these young families.  A potential outgrowth of this program might be development of ongoing small groups of parents who support each other in parenting and in living out their baptismal commitment.  Such a small group might be a context for sharing of ideas and encouragement as well as resources for parenting and discipleship.  It might involve Bible study or be a group centered around parenting concerns and fellowship.  It seems like a natural way to begin a small group for parents who have children roughly the same age and are dealing with many of the same issues.
            Such a small group might also be a good context to provide a “congregational sponsor” for baptisms -- a person who can be a resource, a support, and a positive connection between the congregation and the family.  A congregational sponsor serves as a representative to the family of the whole congregation, and serves as a way for the congregation to gently provide some accountability for the family’s baptismal promises.  The sponsor can point to congregational resources and could provide a feedback mechanism to the congregation’s leadership if families feel the need for resources that are not offered.  This congregational sponsor might even serve as the facilitator for a baptismal small group.  In any case, one congregational sponsor could be assigned to more than one family, and perhaps one person could be a sponsor for an entire small group.  (This would make the recruitment and training of congregational sponsors a less labor-intensive task for the congregation’s leadership, and would provide one more connection between the families in the small group.)
            A rural congregation I know has chosen one Sunday each fall to emphasize baptism.  They open the church records during the coffee hour so people can find their own baptismal date if they don’t know it.  (Most of the congregation’s members have always lived in the area and find their own baptism date in this congregation’s records.)  For two or three Sundays before the celebration, they work to fill out a name tag for each person which includes their name, the words “Child of God” and the date of their baptism.  On the baptism emphasis day, every person in the congregation has such a name tag.  It is a fun and personal way to talk about the benefits we receive in baptism, and the three-week emphasis keeps baptism in the front of people’s minds.  As a part of this celebration, parents are encouraged to talk with their children about the child’s baptism.  Resources are sent home through Sunday School or are handed out to parents at worship to help them discuss the meaning of baptism with their own children.
            Another potential way congregations may help parents is to provide a good church library with a strong emphasis on quality children’s materials.  Bedtime stories, quality videos, games, and Bible story books can easily be provided for families.
            One key to this kind of parenting and family faith emphasis is that our worship, our Christian education, small group opportunities, congregational mailings, and whatever other resources we provide must repeatedly emphasize the need for parents to disciple their children.  If we communicate in the life of the congregation that this catechesis is important, people will begin to take it seriously.  If we back up our words with resources and programming, it carries more weight.
            A final way for congregations to lift up the role of the family in discipling newly baptized children is in the baptismal liturgy itself.  Most baptismal liturgies -- including the LBW -- make only cursory mention of the parents’ role in discipleship.  And when that role is mentioned, too often it centers around teaching the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments -- a valuable activity, to be sure, but one that cannot begin until about three or four years of age at the earliest.  The baptismal rite can be a time for the whole congregation to remember their own baptism and to hear anew their responsibilities to those baptized today.  The use of a candle in the rite functions this way in some congregations -- parents are encouraged to take this candle home and light it on a regular basis as a reminder of baptism.  Other possibilities would be to lift up common child-rearing activities and tie them to baptism.  The obvious parallel is bathtime.  Parents can be encouraged to remember this day and re-tell the story every time they bathe their child -- from this day forward. 
            The beauty of these possibilities is that they are not costly in terms of money.  They are programs that can be led primarily by volunteers if the pastoral staff is publicly enthusiastic and supportive.  And these ideas are just a beginning of what the congregation might find to help families accomplish their task of “teaching” the faith to their children.


            I have two daughters.  Erica is five and Mathea is two.  From the time they were baptized, whenever I bathe them we have enacted a simple little ritual that goes like this:  As I finish rinsing the shampoo out of their hair, I begin to tell them the story. The story is tailored to the child; Erica’s goes like this.  “When you were just a little baby, we took you to the church.  Pastor Karl was there, and Patty and Phil, and Jack and Mary and Maddie, and Steve and Kelly -- lots of people who love you were there.  During the service, we brought you up front, and Pastor Karl took water” -- here I fill up the glass that I have been using to rinse her hair -- “and he poured water on your head and said, ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’” -- at the mention of each person of the Trinity I pour a little water on her hair.  Then we do a short interpretive piece that has become highly interactive:
            I say, “And that meant that Erica was ...”
            She interrupts, “Baptized!” 
            “... and she became ...”
            “Part of God’s Family!”
            “... and God ...”
            “LOVES ME VERY MUCH!”
            This ritual has changed very little in the five years since Erica’s baptism.  Though I don’t always do the bathing, we have enacted that conversation at least two or three times a month for her whole life.  As she gets older, I have added more details of the day into the story.  So now she knows more about her baptismal sponsors, and she knows I got to preach that day.  Mathea hears how the Pastor Jan carried her up and down the aisle and preached the sermon to her on the Sunday she was baptized.  Instead of a dead story, this has become a living memory for these two children.
            A couple months ago, shortly after some friends of ours had their baby baptized, Erica asked me, “What does baptism mean?”  I began to explain in simple terms Luther’s teaching in the catechism about the Old Adam who is drowned in the waters, and the new life that God gives. She pondered, and replied, “So it’s kind of like a snake shedding its skin, except that in baptism it’s our heart that we shed and God gives us a new one.”  I was pretty well floored by this parallel, and told her that was a great picture. 
            The conversation continued, and I explained that our old self doesn’t die very easily, and it keeps on trying to take over instead of letting God be in control of our lives.  She wanted some practical examples of what it looks like when our old self takes over, so we talked about fights with her sister, disobeying parents, selfishness, and so on.  Again, she took a minute to think about these things and then said, “So that old self is kind of like germs in our bodies.  They keep coming back and we fight them off again and again.”  We talked about that parallel for a while, and talked also about the importance of remembering her baptism -- remembering that God had drowned her old self and given her a brand new life.  She immediately connected this remembering to our bathtime ritual.
            Mathea, for her part, reenacts her baptism almost daily.  She does this in several ways, but one of her favorites is baptizing dolls in the bathroom sink.  In the tub, she loves to baptize Erica.  She acts out the story of her own faith even as it has been acted out for her.
            Erica and Mathea are growing into a strong faith in Jesus Christ. That faith is, at least in part, the product of consistent parental catechesis from the time they were born until the present.  Their parents, sponsors, family friends, extended family, and congregation have all played important roles in their faith development.  Erica and Mathea have been raised fully aware of their baptism, fully informed that God has claimed them and called them out of a deep love, to be God’s very own.
            This is my dream for the church, that baptism might be the cornerstone of faith for children as they grow.  I dream that parents will work together to teach the child about God’s deep love; that children will grow with the knowledge that they are precious to God; that congregations and families can work together to help children grow, each day, deeper into their baptism.  As this baptismal awareness grows, it will, I believe, draw the whole people of God deeper into faith, and will help the church grow to face the challenges of the world after Christendom.  As we grow into our baptism, we as a church can ask, “What is God’s claim on us?  What is God’s call to us?”
            I believe infant baptism has the potential to convey all that is best within the tradition of Lutheran Christianity.  My prayer is that the church can rediscover this sacrament of repentance, water, and welcoming as a rite of initiation that speaks to the church and to the world of the boundless love of God.

[1] Jenson, p. 318.
[2] Jenson, pp.326ff.
[3] Mead, pp. 9ff.
[4] Jenson, pp. 321ff.
[5] Jenson, p.322.
[6] ibid.
[7] Jenson, e.g., p.323.
[8] See esp. the Small and Large Catechisms on Baptism, where this language is ubiquitous.
[9] Alternative Order for Baptism, Lutheran Brethren Hymnal.
[10] Keep Kids Safe:  A Parent’s Guide to Child Safety, p.34.
[11] Lutheran Book of Worship, p.124.
[12]Learning our lessons about early learning,” Phi Delta Kappan, April 1997
[13] ibid.


  1. I understand the difference from a theological perspective and we (our denominations) may simple have to agree to disagree. However, my question for you is from a more practical perspective. For the average congregant (parent of a child) is there substantial difference between your rite of infant baptism and our rite of baby dedication?

  2. The outward Church sacrament of baptism is not the inner sacred confession of personal sin [not just faith profession] in that the sin nature is in fallen nature -- disease, dis-ease, murder, chaos and war -- from the super nature of God. Babies crave physical food not the Word. Water baptism is not The Living Water. Water baptism ought to be "washed out" as mere traditionalism from rejected Catholicism.

    1. As you say, babies crave physical food. We are not simply spiritual beings, but physical ones as well. So the practice of baptism, from John the Baptist through the early church's history, long before the practices and theology of the Roman Catholic Church, involved real, physical water. We need much more than just a spiritual reminder. We need the every day details of water, of bread, of wine. All these physical reminders are important just as it was important for Jesus to be physically "incarnated" in a real, physical body. Baptism is a complex business, commanded by Jesus, and there's no legitimate biblical argument that Jesus didn't intend for us to use real water. Quite the opposite.