A little something about baptizing children… (or “let the little children come unto me and do not hinder them”)

Last night at Bloom (during the first service), I had the wonderful privilege of baptizing one of the newer members of the Bloom family, Emma Johnson.  The experience was totally thrilling.  An immense honor and joy.  As long as I live, I will never forget making the sign of the cross on Emma’s forehead with oil and watching her face light up (I swear I’ve never seen a baby smile like that) as I prayed over her and pleaded that every good purpose of God for her life would come to pass.  It was just SO special.

Since Emma’s was the first such baptism we’ve done at Bloom, I thought it might be worth saying a few things about it… how it came about, what our “position” on baptism is, etc etc.

About two years ago, the Johnson family began attending Bloom.  Mega-interesting and wonderful couple.  The husband (Nathan) grew up a pretty straightforward, card-carrying, devoted evangelical.  The wife (Bri) grew up a pretty straightforward, card-carrying, devoted Catholic.  Naturally, when they met in college, they fell madly in love.  Haha.  (I absolutely love this stuff.)

Of course, wanting to respect and be enriched by each other’s traditions, Nathan and Bri had a lot of questions to answer, chief among them being, “Where do we go to church?”  Neither of them wanted their experience to cannibalize the other’s, and so they settled on a compromise, which ultimately deeply enriched both of their respective faith journeys: in the mornings they would attend Mass, and in the evenings would attend a more or less evangelical worship service.  A pretty awesome arrangement if you ask me…

…until you have kids, and of course that turns into a wildly taxing Sunday.  Somethin’ had to give, and when Nathan and Bri discovered Bloom, they found what was (to their minds) the perfect blend of what they most desired out of a church experience: evangelical fervor combined with a deep respect, appreciation for, and enfleshment-of the great Tradition of the Church.  So they started coming, and instantly found the Bloom community to be “home.”

Their oldest two children had been baptized in the Catholic Church, and when they had baby Emma last year, the question became, obviously, “What will we do with her?”  At that point, Bloom had basically just done Baby Dedications for newborns, and there wasn’t a ton of conversation about whether we should do more (except from one of our staffers, Rusty, a Lutheran-turned-Baptist-turned-Neo-Reformed-turned-quasi-charismatic-turned-whatever-it-is-Bloom-is who constantly bugged me about it).  When Nathan and Bri brought the question up to us, it forced the issue.

Now I should admit that as a born and bred non-denominational charismatic, infant baptism totally freaks me out (I can’t even tell you how nervous I was last night… I was a total mess before the service).  I have no idea why, it just does.  For me, Baby Dedication always made so much sense.  We anoint the baby with oil (a symbol of the Holy Spirit) and trust that even from that moment, the Spirit who awakens saving faith would begin his gracious work in the life of the child.  When the child is old enough to make a public, credible profession of faith, they can be baptized.  Makes total sense…

EXCEPT that there was always this sort of theological and practical “hanging chad” (get the year 2000 reference there?) – namely, that in my tradition, we didn’t treat our children (the unbaptized) as though they were unbaptized.  We treated them like “little disciples” of Jesus who were being taught to obey all that he commanded, and were even capable of loving and responding to him in faith.  We would teach them to worship Jesus as Lord (who can do that but the regenerate?), to pray (ditto), to read the Bible in faith (ditto), to follow Jesus’ teaching (ditto), to take Communion (ditto), and even – oddity of all oddities – to share their faith.  Haha.  Somehow the irony of that escaped our grasp.  We didn’t *formally* accept them as full members of the Body of Christ, but we expected them to act like they were.  Strange stuff, eh?

All of that always bothered me, but I didn’t really know what to do about it.  I think the biggest part of me was afraid that if I “surrendered” on the infant baptism piece, I’d have my low-church credentials revoked.  Could I ever seriously claim my non-denominational charismatic-ness again after walking down that road???  (Fear is never a good way to make or not make decisions, by the way.)

Having Nathan and Bri pose the question about Emma to us forced some reflection… in the end (greatly helped by a marvelous study of baptism by the New Testament scholar Ben Witherington… definitely worth the read if you’re interested in the subject), we landed on a few biblical and theological convictions that have helped clarify how we should think about this matter.  All Christians everywhere (to my knowledge), whether they believe in believer’s or infant baptism believe points #1-3; most Christians in most places believe point #4.  Together these can help us think through the issue with clarity.

1) Water Baptism is a rite of passage that unites a person with the covenant community, the visible Body of Christ.  Paul writes that “We were all baptized by one Spirit as to form one Body” (1 Co 12:13).  In much the same way that the rite of circumcision marked one out as belonging to the commonwealth of Israel in the Old Testament, in the New Testament baptism marks one out as belonging to the Church.

2) Water Baptism looks back to and preaches the death of Christ.  When the New Testament believers sank into the watery depths, it seems that they were harkening back to and, in a sense, “proclaiming” the death of Christ as THE determinative event in world history… and they saw themselves as participating in that event.  Paul, again – “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death…” (Rom 6:4)

3) Water Baptism looks forward to and depicts the Baptism of the Holy Spirit.  John the Baptist declared, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt 3:11).  The immersion in water looked forward to (or “depicted”, which is an important qualifier, since many in the New Testament were baptized with water AFTER being “filled with the Holy Spirit”) the far greater (and more important) baptism/immersion-in and filling-of the Holy Spirit.

4) Finally, Water Baptism is a SACRAMENT that PUTS INTO MOTION the very things that it declares.  In the same way that we believe that when we take the Bread and the Cup of Communion into our bodies, that some mystical encounter is taking place with the body and blood of Christ (Paul says, “Is not the bread that we break a koinonia in the body of Christ?” – 1 Co 10:16), so we believe that in baptism the realities depicted are also, in some way that is beyond human comprehension, going into motion.  That is, the initiate is somehow from that moment beginning to experience that union with Christ that will hopefully grow into a mature faith.

Now, before any of my low-church friends start chucking their tambourines at me… let me just make a point of connection.  In our tradition, when we anointed the babies (or the sick, or those we were consecrating for ministry) with oil, what did we think was happening there?  If we didn’t think ANYTHING “special” or “supernatural” was happening, why the heck did we do it at all?

The truth is that we did it because we believed that through the physical act of anointing the person, the reality depicted by the anointing was in fact beginning to happen… that the Spirit was working through OUR faith IN the act of anointing to awaken saving faith in the life of the child (or to heal, or to consecrate and fill for a special task).

[For at least my charismatic brethren and sistren… y’all have always been pretty dang mystical and sacramental.  Just fess up to it already!  In fact, I’ve always said that it was my charismatic roots that laid the groundwork for me to be as mystical and sacramental as I am… So you’re to blame for all of my shenanigans]

All of this being the case, and given the diversity of the Body of Christ, it seemed wise for us to follow suit with what many denominations have chosen to do and simply (for the time being anyway) to leave it up to the family to decide what they’d like to do.  We’re not in the business of violating anyone’s conscience, so if a family is not for it… we’re not going to force it upon them.  But we’re also not going to let one group’s view of baptism determine the whole.  We think there’s space enough within the Body of Christ for a diversity here.

And truth be told, our great hope is that this gesture will result in (1) more baptisms and (2) a reclaiming of the centrality of this sacrament for our liturgical space.  That latter hope is a concern we’ve constantly wrestled with–if baptism is so important and so central for the Church, why do we do it only a few times a year, and OUTSIDE OF the normal flow of our worship services (“down by the river” as it were)?  We hope to bring this sacrament front and center for our community, where it should be.

So there’s our story.  I should close by saying I totally love Bloom, and love the journey we’re on.  Reclaiming and re-imagining how to “do” our faith is a constantly inspiring and challenging part of my job… just SO much fun.

If you’d like to read a little “whitepaper” (a position paper, essentially) we wrote up for our Bloom family to read – click here

If you’d like a sample of the liturgy we wrote up for Emma’s baptism, email me at andrew@bloomchurchdenver.com

Grace and peace to you, the Baptized

Andrew

7 thoughts on “A little something about baptizing children… (or “let the little children come unto me and do not hinder them”)

  1. Growing up in a card-carrying evangelical church myself and then marrying a liturgical-minded United Methodist, we had to wrestle this issue down before we even said “I do.” What I learned over the years, in more and more profound ways, is that the act of baptizing our children as babies marked them as little disciples, spoke a word of identity that they could, and must, later either confirm or deny. It has never been an issue for us that we deemed worth drawing lines in the sand and staking claims, but it is a part of our story. And the beauty of it challenges us as we press on in parenting little disciples. Thank you for sharing your own thought processes and the results of them.

  2. Andrew!

    Thanks for your thoughtful explanation of infant baptism! Shannon and I had a similar experience in our own clashing of faith and tradition. Shannon a Southern Baptist and me a Methodist/closet Catholic had more than one meaningful discussions on “what’s baptism all about and how will that happen with our children when that time comes?” In the end, we both agreed that we wanted to celebrate that “God is for our kids and so are we” (emphasis on his loving us first) and that as a family bearing the last name “Christian,” we wanted to celebrate and consider our children as a part of our covenant family and community of faith (and that they’d actually have to make a conscience choice to walk away from it). We came to the understanding that baptism doesn’t save anyone, but is a faith response of a love act first given and offered by God. As a melding of our traditions, we actually immersed our kids as babies. What a beautiful image of spitting and sputtering as they experienced a dying and rising again with Christ (much like when they were born physically).

    My family grew up in the conservative Wesleyan tradition where dedication was the norm. What we discovered, however, was that dedication (though precious in its own rite) had more to do with the response of parents and the Body more than the celebration of God’s initiative and work in the child’s life. We came to understand that as a believer, everyday would be a decision and response to “take up one’s cross and follow Jesus” from here on out. So, baptism for us became more of what God was up to than how we responded (although we greatly acknowledge that both his giving and our responding are a part of the faith equation).

    Reading your post made me greatly miss and appreciate my father (who, by the way, was a colleague of Ben Witherington at Asbury Seminary). I wish you two could have met this side of heaven. I think you would have had many deepening conversations in both directions. Anyway, my father helped me immensely (both as a son and seminary student) to understand baptism in general and infant baptism in particular. He taught me that one’s view of sacramental theology (i.e., who does what in the taking, blessing, breaking, giving of God’s love) was crucial in understanding baptism and the eucharist. He also helped me see that baptism is more about a covenantal community response (i.e. circumcision) than an individual response (though, again, both are at work).

    Over the years of pastoring it was amazing how many lines were drawn and turf defended over baptism (the means of grace has been the source of contention and dividing line for the church throughout history, or among denominations anyway). While I have some firm convictions about baptism, I came to the conclusion I wasn’t going to die on that hill, but would do my best to walk people toward grappling with some truths that most of them hadn’t considered (i.e., why has the larger church been doing baptism since the first century? And God’s grace and love … is it more about what He does for us or more about our response to him? etc.). In the end, love trumps baptismal arguments (at least that will forever be our hope).

    A really good book (theological, practical, balanced) on the matter of infant baptism is: Geoffrey W. Bromley, Children of Promise: The Case for Baptizing Infants. I highly recommend it.

    Thanks for letting me ramble … you touched a dear place in my heart. In closing, here’s a picture of my dad with Aidan some 12 years ago. It sums up to me the essence of what baptism (infant or otherwise) is really all about.

    Grace and peace dear pastor, friend, and brother,
    John

    [Father’s Blessing.jpg]

  3. Hahaha, bravo, Andrew, bravo!

    What you’ve broken is much more than just an Evangelical norm, you’ve dissed the quasi neo-Gnostic, Enlightenment-animated, belief that one achieves salvation based on his or her intellectual capacity.

  4. Andrew,
    I’ve only read a few of these blog posts and I admit, I’ve only been to Bloom once or twice but as a recent transplant to Denver, it’s as much of a church home as anywhere for me (I am in a house church). I really appreciate your grace in how you talk about these sticky issues where Christians might differ and how open you are. Though I was raised sort of a-religious, I’ve always had Catholicism and Orthodoxy deep in my bones, which sometimes makes me uncomfortable around my more evangelical brothers and sisters who can be rather harsh. All that to say, I so appreciate Bloom’s acknowledgment of the diversity of the Body of Christ : )

  5. Great job thinking through and wrestling with this issue Andrew. I live in a community that straddles this divide too, and it’s always best when it can be explored and thought through in love and hope. God bless!

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