Believer’s baptism: Registering for the missionary draft

May 1, 2014 by

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Those of us who favor believer’s or adult baptism over infant baptism haven’t always agreed on what stage in life a child should take this important step. Should it be at whatever age he or she requests it? Or at some yet undefined age of accountability? Or not until he or she is actually of age as an adult?

Some years ago I asked 53 juniors and seniors in classes I taught at Eastern Mennonite High School in Harrisonburg, Va., to describe what their own baptism meant to them.

Only a third reported having really positive feelings about their experience. One wrote, “I was excited. God seemed to be saying, ‘Now you are part of my body, work for me.’ ” Another said, “It was a big step in my life.”

Fully two-thirds of the students, however, disagreed. A typical response was, “I knew it was the right thing to do, but I still feel I missed out on the purpose at the time. It never had any real meaning,” and another, “All the other kids were doing it. It looked good, and it was a way to be seen and noticed by the congregation as being an adult.”

One admitted, “I wanted to be baptized because everyone who is a Christian usually is sometime,” while another lamented, “I think I was about 13, and really too young for me. I don’t feel I really knew what I was doing, and why. I was influenced by the fact that all the members of my Sunday school class were joining the church.”

Most of our questions about an appropriate life stage for baptism have been based on a concept of an “age of accountability,” at which time children become personally responsible for their past misdeeds and need to seek God’s forgiveness for their own wrongdoing.

The first-century church, however, chose the word sacramentum for baptism, the same word used  for the oath of induction one took in becoming a fully commissioned Roman soldier. To Christians, baptism meant an equally decisive step of leaving one’s civilian life behind and accepting the dangerous commitment of becoming a “living sacrifice” for God’s service.

So baptism was not just about washing away guilt for past sins, but a commissioning to a future life of faithfully following Jesus.

Here is where I find the gospel passage in which Jesus blesses the children helpful. Jesus takes the young in his arms and commends them as modeling a vital faith. We adults, he says, are to become like them in our laying no claim to power or possessions of our own. Children entrust their whole lives to their parents, who serve as their “priests” before God. Thus Jesus didn’t call infants or adolescents to “follow me” as he frequently did to the adults who came to him, but blessed them and released them to the care of their parents.

However, in each of the first three gospels, this story is immediately followed by that of the “rich young ruler” who comes to Jesus (on his own) to ask him about how he can have eternal life. To this young adult, who has personal control over his possessions and his future life direction, Jesus gives a hard choice: “You must renounce ownership of all your possessions, give what you have to the poor, then come and follow me.”

Might this suggest that baptism should be the choice one makes at the point of making the transition from being accountable primarily to one’s parents to where one has the full right (and the responsibility) to turn over own life and future for God’s service?

Meanwhile children of all ages should be welcomed, blessed and made to feel like celebrated members of their congregations — until they are old enough to be able to reject and leave them. Only then, when they have the right and ability to say “no,” can they say a valid “yes.” If they choose yes, the locus of control shifts from primarily that of their parents to that of fellow members of their family of faith.

Prior to that time we should anticipate having children, while still securely under their parents’ care, experiencing many meaningful times of renewing and celebrating their faith. They are safe within the security of others taking major responsibility for their lives. This is as it should be.

In our culture, that responsibility shifts significantly for those in their late teens, when as emerging adults our daughters and sons prepare to leave home, pursue their own careers and choose their own life partner. With this kind of personal autonomy comes personal responsibility — directly to God and to the peaceful army of believing adults.

Is that what it means to reach the “age of accountability”?

Harvey Yoder is an ordained pastor and member of Family of Hope, a small Virginia Mennonite Conference house church congregation.

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