Sunday, April 26, 2009

On Mandatory Age Thresholds for Believer's Baptism

I am opposed.

First, my misgivings. Although I hold my viewpoint adamantly, I do so with some measure of fear and trembling for the following reasons:

  1. I do encounter people who convincingly argue that the churches should indeed refuse to baptize anyone younger than some threshold age. Some of these people are beloved to me. Some of them are inordinately smarter than I am. The very fact that I am so outgunned intellectually in this debate makes me tremble to bring it up, but I bring it up nonetheless as a learning opportunity for us all.

  2. I do see powerful demographic and anecdotal evidence in our churches that we are baptizing enormous numbers of people who give very little evidence of having experienced conversion (or who even testify of themselves later that they were not converted at the time of their baptism). I do agree that this is a bad thing and that churches need to take action to stop it. I do not know that setting a threshold age for baptism is the right action, nor that it will be an effective action, but I agree that we must do something else if we do not do this.

  3. I do agree that churches are sometimes under inappropriate pressure to baptize children who have not yet been converted. Sometimes it is the pressure of a desire for higher numbers of baptisms. Other times it is the pressure of parents who are eager for their child to “make a decision” right away. The clarity of the gospel and the spiritual well-being of children demands that we beware those pressures upon ourselves and that as pastors we do not inflict them upon others. Simply saying that nobody under the age of, say, 15 will be baptized is indeed one way to remove that pressure entirely.

  4. I do agree that there is no foolproof way to sit down with any given six-year-old and effectively determine whether that child is merely curious about all of that splashing in the water up there on Sunday morning or has genuinely experienced conversion.

  5. I do agree that the predominant New Testament narrative is one of adult conversions, that a church unable or unwilling to reach adults with the gospel is unhealthy, and that the unhealthiness of some churches in this regard has been masked by their increasing dependence upon the conversion of a younger and younger set of prospects.

All of these things I readily admit, not only with regard to their veracity, but also with regard to their gravity. Nonetheless, I am opposed to setting a threshold in age for baptism. Here's why:

  1. I see no biblical warrant for it. Where in the New Testament do we find instructions for limiting baptism by age? Nowhere. The Bible associates baptism with conversion. It is the sign of the burial of the old man with Christ and the raising up of the new man to walk in newness of life with the risen Christ. It is the spiritual circumcision marking those who have just been spiritually born through conversion. It is the immediate action of obedience for those who repent, believe, and are saved in the New Testament narratives. Baptism is too important for me to impose upon he or she who is not a believer; and likewise it is too important for me to forbid it to he or she who is a believer.

  2. Young children can indeed experience genuine conversion. I was five (nearly six). I was genuinely converted. I was genuinely convicted of sin by the Holy Spirit. I was genuinely repentant. I was genuinely trusting in Christ for my salvation. I genuinely understood that Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for my sins and that He rose again the third day. I genuinely understood that by God's grace I could go to Heaven but that apart from it I was bound for Hell. I genuinely experienced a powerful, inward, spiritual new birth at that moment. My commitment to Christ genuinely issued forth in changed behavior in my life.

    In all of this I eventually grew and matured, but all of it was present from the beginning.

    So, I confess that I come to all of this with personal baggage, good and wonderful baggage that it is. Might I suggest that others may come to the question with baggage of their own? Isn't it possible that some of those who were not converted as children—perhaps especially those who experienced some false profession of faith as a little child—might approach this topic with the presumption that God operates in everyone's life in the same manner as He has worked in theirs? Is it not possible that they are wrong?

  3. I see no strong indicator that false professions of faith are any less likely at 16 than they are at 6. If our records are any indicator, a great many people profess conversion in late youth or young adulthood without any lasting evidence of genuine conversion. I can say that I have only one demographic category of people in which every individual whom I have baptized has turned out to be undeniably the real thing: People over the age of 65. Each and every senior adult that I have baptized (and I've had the privilege of doing that several times) has given every ongoing indication of having been entirely sincere and truthful in the testimony of what God had done in their lives. Now please understand, I'm no more able to see the inward hearts of 75-year-olds than I am able to see the inward hearts of 9-year-olds, but I'm just reporting on the fruit that I've seen.

    Given that experience, should the threshold be 50 or so?

  4. Refusal of baptism is a sin. If I refuse to baptize a genuinely converted child, I am forcing them not to do what Jesus has commanded them to do. Nay, all the worse, I am refusing to do what Jesus has commanded me to do in the Great Commission. Those who have been made disciples are to be baptized. No, their salvation is not dependent upon their baptism. Yes, if they are genuine believers, they will still be around to be baptized later. But none of that contradicts the plain biblical commandment to be baptized upon conversion. I want to be obedient, and I want to encourage new converts to be obedient, and so I have no artificial, unbiblical policy to prevent the genuinely converted from being baptized, merely because of how many birthdays they have or have not celebrated as of yet.

  5. I think that another, better, alternative exists. Baptize only those who can and will give to the church a credible and orthodox testimony of having experienced conversion. It may be videotaped. It may be live and in person. But however it takes place, let the churches hear the testimonies and determine whether the content of the gospel and the evidence of the gospel's work in conversion is genuinely there. Baptize those whose testimonies give every indication of sincere and informed embrace of the biblical gospel. Do not baptize others. Practice this consistently regardless of age. Where the church decides wrongly (and we will indeed err), then correct the error when it become evident, either by excluding from membership those who give no appearance of having been genuinely converted or by baptizing those who give every appearance of having the indwelling Christ.

Thanks to all for your patience in hearing me on this topic.


peter lumpkins said...


A very good post. And, I agree that some good observations are readily available which argue for "limiting" baptism to adult believers.

Personally, my heart-rate speeds up a bit when I experience the baptism of a little one who can hardly be seen over the top of baptistery. I always wonder...

Then again, the reservations you present concerning the age requirement, lays to rest, for me, any validity from the 'other side' that insists the problem demands as a response, an unbiblical notion.

A couple of points. First, with you I have no hesitancy in conceding "the predominant New Testament narrative is one of adult conversions." Yet I personally see this as another question entirely. As you make clear, the NT associates baptism with conversion itself.

Furthermore, the focus is definitively on believers' baptism, not adult baptism. The question, then, is not about age but belief.

For my part, churches (and baptismal administrators) who abuse the sacred duty of believers' baptism with children give us no reason whatsoever to hope they would be any less likely to abuse the rite with adults. This is especially so with churches mesmerized by quotas to maintain. However, this is not a gospel problem nor a gospel believer problem, whether adult or children.

Rather it is an integrity issue with the pastor and the church who acquiesces to the sub-christian view of NT baptism.

Thanks again for a great post, Bart.

With that, I am...


Dave Miller said...

I can only see one requirement for biblical baptism - a credible profession of faith in Christ.

I admit I am always a little uncomfortable when I baptize a child, wondering if I did enough to clearly explain the gospel and to make sure that the child understands what is going on.

But I do not see a biblical warrant to refuse baptism to someone of any age who makes a clear profession of faith in Christ.

Bart, I was much older than you when I trusted Christ. I was 6.

Anonymous said...

I trusted Jesus as my Saviour when I was five years old.
David R. Brumbelow

Darby Livingston said...

Well thought out and excellent points. I'm glad you made them. You're not alone in your assessment and the way forward.

Anonymous said...

The NT is clear about the people's name who were baptized that were adults but remains unclear when it follows that the whole household professed and were baptized. Acts 10:44 records that the Holy Spirit descended upon all who heard the message. This was a home so there is no indication that the children of Cornelius were not present.

Bart Barber said...


You are correct. All we know about the "household baptisms" in the New Testament is that, as we read at Philippi, every member of the household who was able to hear the message and believe was also baptized.

Bart Barber said...

Dave, David, and Darby,

Thanks for your affirming comments. Now we will be receiving comments next from people whose first names begin with the letter 'E'.


Tim G said...

You handled this well! I agree 100%! I work hard regardless of age and yet I have fear and trembling with children (it was that way with my own two)and I was honored to baptize them both. I made them beg me (prove to me with their own testimony of repentence)!

Well written and applied!

Bob Cleveland said...


I agree with the others in their kudos for a fine post.

This whole idea really drives home, to me, the point of the great commission .. to make disciples. If our discipling is effective, then the little ones who have been baptized will grow into adults who realize the process, and make it whole in their lives. And .. for those who fall away, it is to the church's shame that they did that, but doggone, the church at least did what it could.

Perhaps is just shows up our imperfections. At least we were trying to do the right thing.

I'll leave it to others to discern how "good" the church is at making disciples vs. "winning souls".

Nathan Finn said...


As someone who has argued strongly for the possibility of delaying baptism for young children, but like you is also opposed to a mandatory threshold, I resonate strongly with your call for public (or publicly viewed) conversion testimonies. My local church has no official threshold, but we have seen in the last few years that our average age of baptism has crept up. The biggest reasons: better spiritual counseling (all candidates must meet with a pastor) and the requirement that the candidate read his/her conversion testimony before the body prior to baptism. While these practices do not of course guarantee we will not baptize an unregenerate individual, they do help us to be more responsible as we baptize only those who can articulate a credible conversion narrative.

Good post.


Todd Benkert said...


Great post. I have been wrestling back and forth on this issue and it is currently being discussed among our church leadership.

I think you posit a credible way forward.
One question: Could you offer a brief description of what you would expect in a credible testimony of conversion (especially as it would be presented by a very young convert)?

Again, great post. Your views helpfully contribute to the discussion on this issue.


Anonymous said...

Please note that Bart is obligated to imply sympathy with my view(s), without regard to his real opinion.

Having spent some 17 years directing Church Bus Ministries in 2 southern cities; I’ve had a lot of ‘experience’ counseling hundreds of children, generally between 6 and 18 years of age, regarding salvation and baptism. I’ll leave the theological discussion to those so educated (and refuse to acknowledge anyone who thinks they were ‘trained’, like doggie). So, ‘experientially’ speaking:

We dealt almost exclusively with un-churched kids, a fair number of hard cases, various minorities and lots of heart breakingly bad home environments. So all of the sermons that they had heard came from myself or the one living human being, who may actually be to my 'right'.

1. Asking, “Billy, do you understand that the word sin just means doing things that the Bible says not to do”?
Was consistently affirmed.

2. "Sally, have you done things that the Bible tells us not to do?"
Was 99+ % of the time answered simply and sincerely: "Yes" (even a few yes, sirs).
With absolutely none of the adult, "Oh, I suppose everyone..." equivocation.
And I believe that I hid my smile from a couple of wide eyed (6 year old), "no sirs".

This was after a Very low key invitation:
1. No music, etc.
2. Everyone bow your head and close your eyes, (Billy, I SAID, close your eyes).
3. If anyone 'wants to accept Jesus' most weeks (and every month or two, 'wants to be baptized');
Hold your hand up.
4. And an adult took them by the hand and led them out of the room (some still walking with dutifully closed eyes).
5. And then they had to convince us that they did understand the gravity of the decision.

In my humble (but most accurate)* opinion; I was privileged to see decisions whose sincerity generally exceeded that of tearful adults. I haven’t a clue who/what/when proposed the 'minimum age' that Bart referenced (and I have no obligation or ministerial interest in expressing understanding of/with said position --- please, please, tell me that this was not someone whom I previously respected.) And my personal expectation of Heavenly sightings of those kids; exceeds my hopes for some of the professionals that we'll see at the SBC convention.

The problem, brethren; is Not with the child or his understanding.

The problem is the blasphemous 'senior pastor'/(I fear that the terminology I prefer wouldn't pass muster) who pleads/badgers/manipulates for baptismal count/ego salve. And scripture plainly identifies his 'mill stone'.
I would love to see us publicly denounce both that practice and THE PRACTICER.

For goodness sake, let's not put ourselves in that position with His 'little ones'.


* Shamelessly stolen from Bro. Sam

Blake said...

I had not thought much about baptismal practices before attending the Mennonite seminary I'm currently attending and found a very different view of baptismal practice. The early Anabaptists held strictly to an adult believer's baptism (don't ask when someone becomes an adult). Mennonite churches today by and large will not baptize anyone younger than 15. However, Mennonites will admit that they believe children can truly be Christians before the age of 15. The issue for them is not conversion but accountability.

I'm in favor of a threshold (I recommend 21) because I think it takes more seriously the church's responsibility and commitment to disciple people rather than convert them. Conversion is a step along the path of discipleship. Churches should be concerned about discipleship and not nearly so much about conversion. When we are discipling people they will be converted, but it doesn't happen so much the other way that when people are converted they become disciples.

I would like to hear why anyone thinks the scriptures regarding baptism has more to do with conversion instead of accountability. Sure children can be converted, but there is absolutely no way to keep children accountable for their faith and witness the rest of their lives. Children are too intellectually underdeveloped to understand the issues to know what they are really getting themselves into. For example, even if it were legal for minors to "choose" to be sexually active, I doubt anyone here would say that they can, could or should be making that choice. Why? Because they have no idea what they are getting themselves into. Why should we make identity with the Church to be of lesser consequence than sexual relationships?

Children are too emotionally immature. I'm pretty sure the day I was baptized (at the ripe old age of 10) I had fought with my brother before I had gone to bed. Don't even ask about what I did in middle school and high school. If a child becomes unruly no one is going to excommunicate or ban them, but those things might and should happen to adults. Maybe this is one of the reasons SBC churches tend to have very weak church disciplinary procedures. We're not really clear when people become adults so we keep discipling them like children which is not at all sufficient for adults.

When someone is baptized they are making a public profession of belonging to a community that holds a set of values. The baptism has to do with entering and committing oneself to an identity and, by association, to a community. The community doesn't receive them as another yes-person but as someone who is going to be a witness to their values and be involved in the accountability of the community.

That's in short why I think we should have some kind of threshold for baptism.

Bart Barber said...


I offer this critique:

1. I am uncomfortable with the inauguration of a category of converted-yet-unaccountable people. Is that not the necessary implication of having a class of people whom we acknowledge to have been converted, yet whom we will not baptize, and that explicitly because we refuse to hold them accountable. Is that biblical? I think not.

2. I see in the New Testament (and indeed, even in the Old) a robust concept of accountability for children. Elders are evaluated in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 with regard to the presumption that their children both believe and are living lives of accountability. This in addition to other passages that directly address the behavior of children.

3. The tradition of rumspringa among some Mennonite communities reveals, I think, that the Mennonite tradition of belief and piety among legal minors has departed from the wisdom of the Bible.

4. The baseline question before us is really one of pneumatology as much as it is one of soteriology and ecclesiology. Indeed, it is something of a measure of how well we integrate the three. Have all of the converted received the Holy Spirit? What is it that qualifies a person to be a full participant in the life of the church, physical maturity or the grace endowed by the indwelling Holy Spirit?

Thanks for contributing to our conversation.

Bart Barber said...

DBrady, my good friends, is my father-in-law. One of the children whom he led to Christ is a beautiful young lady who prays beside me every day with my children and with whom I pray to grow old and go to glory.

He knows whereof he speaks.

Blake said...

1. I disagree. It's not an abandonment of accountability for children on behalf of the congregation, rather it is recognizing that children can not be held to the level of accountability that adults can. Boys get in fights on playgrounds and girls become cliquey and create division. Middle schoolers and high schoolers will experiment with drugs, pornography and maybe with sex. Kids are also very inquisitive to the point of frustrating their teachers or bring in views from school that are unscriptural. All of this is a part of growing up. However, I doubt anyone is actually going to follow the Bible in these cases and ban or excommunicate eight year old boys for fighting on the church playground or whatever. But if these actions and attitudes are happening among adults the church will get them to leave.

2. I don't see the system you see of accountability for children. I see a few verses here and there about honoring parents and listening to your elders, but nothing that compares to what I see in scripture about church discipline. Please elaborate.

3. Rumspringa is a practice of the Amish. It is not practiced by contemporary Mennonite churches and, so far as I know, never was.

4. You're trying to categorize things too neatly. Every Christian is expected to mature spiritually, but when one becomes a Christian as a child that spiritual maturity has to be dealt with alongside maturing, physically, emotionally, socially and intellectually. This will create problems in the spiritual life of children that are natural to their circumstances. Adults may have their issues but not to the extent and depth that children do. Adults are already developed in the other areas and should have some modicum of wisdom from life experiences. With such advantages we reasonably hold adults to different standards than children.

A person is a full participant in the Church (Body of Christ) with the Holy Spirit. The congregation as the local expression of the Church is a different deal. It is in and through the congregation that one is accountable to the Church.

Children are not held accountable for their actions by the same standards adults are. That's the way it is and should be. Do you allow kids to vote in business meetings and to represent their own interests and concerns to the rest of the congregation? Are they allowed to serve on committees?

Anonymous said...


I count 'Accountable'(ability) nine (9) times and references to discipline. You worry at length about sins that children are likely to be unaccountable for. Leaving the implication that accountability/discipline are applied to adult believers --- you are joking, right?

Surely, that has to be a joke?

Would you care to compile a list of preacher/deacon sins that offend God less than those of children? How many hired holy men have had their despicable sin(s) publicized? How many equally blatant offenders are still unnamed -- publicly known but NOT named and disciplined?

Scripture contains hundreds of God's condemnations of sin(s) that were rebuked, punished, and counted for the destruction of peoples and nations. These children's sins that you emphasize; just don't seem to rise to that level of blatantly defying God.

One can only hope that this isn’t leading to the old (self righteous?) 'accountability' partners/teams/etc.; shibboleths.

When our Lord said to ‘suffer the little ones to come to Him’, I had always thought that he was likely referring to children who were not yet old enough to be seminarians.


Blake said...

dbrady: "These children's sins that you emphasize; just don't seem to rise to that level of blatantly defying God."

They don't rise to that "level of blatantly defying God" PURELY BECAUSE THEY ARE CHILDREN. When adults "act like children" people get concerned and we begin a process of church discipline. If grown men have a fist fight or grown women are causing division over petty social matters, others in the church are supposed to step in and begin a biblical process of church discipline. That's my whole point. We don't biblically discipline children because they are children. We DO biblically discipline adults because they are NOT children.

I'm NOT suggesting children need to be treated and disciplined like adults. If that happened we probably wouldn't have many in our churches under the age of 25. I'm only suggesting that if there were an age threshold for baptism at least we would be consistent in how we are treating people with regard to accountability in the congregation.

At the risk of beating a dead horse I'll illustrate further. If two deacons had a fist fight at the altar in your church, how would/should the church respond? If two six year olds had fight at the altar in your church, how would/should the church respond? I'm going to bet (or hope) there is a big difference in the actions taken by the church in the two circumstances. When someone joins a congregation there is a set level of accountability for all members across the board. We don't make different disciplinary procedures based on race, gender, ethnicity, economic class or age (except, as I hope is obvious by now, in the case of children). If we're going to take seriously being a part of a congregation and baptism's role in being a part of a congregation then the methods of accountability need to remain the same for all who are baptized and involved officially in the congregation; thus the age threshold.

dbrady: "I count 'Accountable'(ability) nine (9) times and references to discipline. You worry at length about sins that children are likely to be unaccountable for. Leaving the implication that accountability/discipline are applied to adult believers --- you are joking, right?"

I have no idea what you mean by this. Please explain.

Anonymous said...


“accountability/discipline are applied to adult believers --- you are joking, right?"
I have no idea what you mean by this. Please explain.

If you are really suggesting that church discipline of adults is actively practiced; you must have totally ignored Baptist blogging, SBC annual meetings, and church life for a good many years.

In summary; the debate has centered on how many years a member must have been completely out of contact with the church and how many (several) attempts to establish contact, must be made before the possibility of removing said member from the roll can even be considered. And there is still considerable discussion whether removing a member after any number of years would be acceptable, without proof of death.

Church member accountability and/or discipline, hasn’t even risen to serious discussion—not for the last 80 or 90 years. Your lengthy discussion of such, is at least 75 years out of date. It is, quite frankly, so out of date that suggesting it as reality, is a joke. Lest there be any confusion; building an argument on the church accountability that you imagine to be a 21st century reality, is the joke.

If worthy of consideration at all in the current discussion, ‘accountability/discipline’ argues for (not against) baptism of children.
(I can testify that ‘church children’ have been held accountable for most of those years.)


Blake said...

I'm aware that it isn't actively practiced in most places in the SBC. Lots of things aren't practiced and that's why the GCR was drafted to correct some of those things (whatever one thinks of the GCR). Resolutions are brought up at the annual meeting to create policies and practices that are deemed helpful. If I'm out of date and that's a bad thing then that would explain why the SBC is in such terrible shape right now.

I don't mind being out of date because the Bible and all the ancient truths it contains are also "out of date" for our society. I'm not going to reject the Bible because the culture around me deems it old and irrelevant. I'm not going to reject biblical models of discipline because fellow SBCers think that chunk of biblical wisdom is "out of date." If our attitude has become so unbiblical then I suggest it's time we start talking about it again. Why fight for inerrancy if we're going to continue ignore it's implications?