Writings: All Writings

Believers Baptism and the Formation of Youth

A Conversation between Two Traditions

The Ekklesia Project

Author: John C. Nugent

07/10/15+ Share

At the 2015 Ekklesia Project gathering, Debra Dean Murphy and I presented papers on how the practice of baptism impacts the way our congregations apporach the formation of youth. Debra represented the infant baptist perspective and I represented the believers church perspective.

The goal of these presentations was not to debate when people ought to be baptized but to foster understanding of each baptismal tradition. Too often people belittle specific traditions without understanding them on their own terms. These papers shed helpful light on both traditions. 

This is my presentation. It is also available at the Ekklesia Project website along with Debra's presentation and a podcast of the entire session. 

Page 1

Opening Remarks

Debra and I are pleased to participate in this conversation about baptism. We are pleased because we think it has potential to encourage unity in an area that has been rife with conflict for centuries. Though the topic we have been given is baptism, this session is really about ecumenism. It is about whether 150+ believers who are committed to radical discipleship in Christian community can be unified despite real differences in core practices.

Though Debra and I represent different baptismal traditions, we have NOT framed this session as “point vs. counterpoint.” This isn’t a debate. Neither of us is secretly hoping to convince anyone to switch baptismal traditions. What we want is to help each tradition truly understand the other.

I should probably clarify why we have framed this discussion in terms of only two baptismal traditions: those that begin baptizing people in infancy (aka pedobaptists) and those that baptize people only after they profess faith (aka credobaptists or those who practice “believers baptism”). By clustering them into two groups we do not mean to ignore the variety within each one. We only mean to acknowledge that there is a rift between these two clusters, that the differences between them impact how they think about forming youth, and that those same differences ideally position us to learn from one another.

You may be thinking this is elementary stuff. Perhaps you’ve taken upper level classes on this subject, or even taught them. That’s great, and we hope your expertise will enrich the conversations we will be having around tables. But if you’ve been paying attention at all to wider conversations about baptism, then you know that the church’s language still betrays at least moderate prejudice.

You’ve heard people say things like:

“That’s not baptism, that’s just someone getting wet. They don’t even know what’s happening to them, and half the people requesting it have no intention of being deeply involved in church life or walking in the way of Jesus when it might cost them dearly.’

Or

“That’s not baptism, that’s just modern western individualism dictating theology. They’re woefully ignorant of the church’s rich tradition, and they’re enamored with the naïve notion that every individual has the right or freedom to choose to become their own person.”

These statements are troubling because they’re partly true. It would be easy to produce evidence from church history and contemporary practice that this has and continues to happen among God’s people. But let’s set that reality to the side for a moment.

Instead, let us turn to one another and listen carefully what is happening and has been happening among people with Ekklesia Project (EP) sensibilities—people who are not swept up in American individualism, people who are deeply committed to costly discipleship and genuine involvement in church life. Of those attending this conference who named their faith tradition, there are 73 people here from churches that practice infant baptism and 72 from those that practice believers baptism. So the ratio of attendees from these two traditions is nearly 1:1. I find it ironic that a month ago, our list of registered attendees indictaed that ratio was more like 2:1. Apparently, we credobaptists take our time with more than just baptism.

Be that as it may, we are uniquely positioned in this place to learn from one another what people who have a strong view of the church and a radical commitment to Jesus are and have been striving to do. Let us be open to the possibility that we might learn to say to one another in upcoming days or even years, “Wow, that’s not the starting point of our baptismal tradition, but if it were, we would want to do it the way that you all are trying to do it.”

Let us affirm and encourage what is good and godly in the other. Let us spark one another’s imaginations that we may see potential for improvement within our own tradition because we have listened sympathetically to others.

Five Dimensions of Baptism

I’ve been asked to represent believers baptism. Articulating a believers church theology of baptism is challenging, not least of all because this tradition has a long history of being suspicious of theology. I would love to acquaint you with that fascinating history, but time does not allow. It is enough to say that most streams of this tradition share a common commitment to practicing baptism according to their best understanding of the New Testament’s witness and example.

You can write off this approach as naïve primitivism, but it need not be. There is such thing as thoughtful, historically-aware, and theologically-astute commitment to restorationism. If you’ve not encountered that yet, it may be time to expand your list of “go to” publishing houses.

Nevertheless, when believers church thinkers examine the NT, several dimensions of baptism come to the forefront. I focus on five. These dimensions are not unique to the believers church perspective. They are quite similar to what one finds in the World Council of Church’s Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry document.

My goal is to present the basic meaning of each dimension when viewed with Ekklesia Project sensibilities from a credobaptist or believers church perspective. I do so while recognizing that these same dimensions can be viewed with the same sensibilities from a pedobaptist perspective. In some cases, our interpretation and application will be nearly identical. In others it will be slightly or perhaps significantly different. I don’t focus on what is unique to the credobaptist perspective, but on how this perspective understands various dimensions of baptism and how that understanding impacts our approach to forming youth in our congregations.

1.  Missional: Baptized to seek first God’s kingdom and receive the empowerment of the Holy Spirit (Matt 3:13-15)

I begin with the missional dimension of baptism. Matthew 3 tells the story of Jesus’s baptism. This passage is an important one for credobaptists. Unfortunately, it has often been reduced to a prooftext for the necessity of baptism. The logic goes: Jesus didn’t really need to be baptized since he was without sin, but he did so anyway so we could be certain that we must do it, too.

We can do better than this. We can take at face value Jesus’s claim that he needed to be baptized, and we can observe that his life changed dramatically after his baptism. Jesus didn’t need to leave behind a life of sinfulness, but he did need to abandon a life in which his biological family and contribution to the local economy determined his basic place in society. The Gospels make clear that after his baptism, Jesus built his life around proclaiming God’s kingdom and forming a community around its coming. Both his family and his hometown felt betrayed by his new priorities. The son of man has no hometown—no place to lay his head—and his new family are those who do the will of the Father. A life like this—one that prioritizes God’s kingdom in all things—is not lived by human strength alone. So God gave his Spirit to Jesus at his baptism.

It was necessary for Jesus to be baptized for many of the same reasons it is necessary for us to be baptized. So, from a believers church perspective, we prefer to baptize those who are committed to seeking first God’s kingdom by the power of God’s Spirit. It marks a change from a posture of learning about and preparing for God’s kingdom to a posture of centering one’s whole life on God’s kingdom.

This missional dimension of baptism helps credobaptists think about how to prepare our youth for baptism. We are preparing them not only with right knowledge about God and right conviction about our sinfulness and need for a savior; we are preparing them for lifelong mission. God grants us his Spirit not only to make us holy, but to empower us to bear witness to his kingdom. Though each of us continues to grow in our understanding of God’s mission and our role in it, we prefer not to baptize people until they, like Jesus, commit to prioritizing God’s kingdom above all else in their life.

This usually leads us into conversations about other commitments that compete for our allegiance. Our biological families often expect us to prioritize them, as Jesus’s family did when they tried to drag him away from his teaching. So we talk about the specific place of families in God’s kingdom. Our employers will expect us to put our jobs first or, perhaps, second only to our families. So we talk about what it means to view our occupations in light of our primary vocation to seek first God’s kingdom in Christian community. Our desire for companionship will tempt us to enter dating and perhaps even marital relationships with unbelievers. So we talk about Scripture’s clear teaching that believers may only marry fellow believers.

As we prepare our youth for baptism we stress the centrality of mission to the Christian walk and the need to decouple ourselves from other fundamental loyalties. For Jesus, this did not mean total separation, and nor should it for us. But after his baptism, Jesus’s relationship with his family, circle of friends, and wider community was never quite the same.

2.  Salvific: Baptized to identify with Christ and his victory over sin and death (Acts 2:38; Acts 22:16; Rom 6:3-4; Col 2:9-15; 1 Pet 3:21)

Next we consider the salvific dimension of baptism. There has been considerable debate among credobaptists as to the precise relationship between baptism and sin. Some have reduced baptism to an outward symbol of an inward reality. Others affirm that in baptism God washes away sin. If it is symbolic in some way, they affirm, it must be an effectual symbol—God is truly doing something through our baptism. Believers churches that take radical discipleship seriously typically affirm “repenters baptism” as much as believers baptism. It is important to us not only that Jesus is the messiah through whom God has reconciled all things to himself and through whom God washes away our sins in baptism, but also that we repent of the sin that has ruled over our lives.

For credobaptists, being buried and raised with Christ is not only about dying to sin and rising to a new life that is free from sin. It means identifying with all that the death of Christ means. According to Romans 6, it means death no longer has dominion over us. We are truly alive to God. Dying with Christ in baptism, we renounce death’s claim on our lives. Fear of death must no longer determine our decisions. Like Christ, we can live for God’s kingdom despite threats to our lives and our livelihood. We can make choices that seem out of place in a culture of fear and death. We can love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We can trust God with both our lives and the lives of our loved ones.

Colossians 2 goes further. The death of Christ into which we were baptized disarmed the rulers and authorities, made a public example of them, and triumphed over them. To rise with Christ in baptism therefore means participating in his victory over all powers and principalities. We don’t serve and we don’t fear the sword of the state or of any other power.

This baptismal profession means a lot for how we form youth in our congregations. It means first of all that the church family must live such lives before our children that they can see that we are no longer held captive by sin, death, and world powers. It means that the instruction we offer youth does not shy away from the political implications of the gospel. It means that the stories of Daniel, Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael should be taught not only in light of their anti-idolatry sentiments, but also in light of the state’s disordered desire to rule over our lives. Preparation for baptism should not be the first time our youth encounter such themes. Having counted the costs, baptism should be their public pledge to walk in love and not fear.

3.  Moral: Baptized into a new way of life (Acts 2:38; Rom 6:3-4)

This leads to a third dimension of baptism: the moral dimension. This dimension focuses less on the old life we are leaving behind and more on the new life that God has given us. This newness is not a redo. It is not reclaiming the gift of life we received at birth and trying to do better this time around. It is embracing God’s gift of new life—embracing the kingdom that Jesus brought in his life, death, and resurrection. It is to accept that a new day has dawned in world history—the day that Israel’s prophets foretold, that kings drooled over and angels jealously look into.

It is to recognize that the present form of this world is passing away, that everything has become new, that new creation is everything, that all things in heaven and earth have been reconciled to God through Christ, and that God’s people are the first fruits of new creation. It is to be born from above, born anew by the word of God, born again into a living hope. In this new life our inner nature is renewed daily. We have been washed, regenerated, and renewed according to the image of God.

Newness of life means receiving God’s promised Spirit, being enlightened, tasting the heavenly gift, experiencing God’s goodness, tasting the powers of the coming age, and receiving an unshakeable kingdom. According to the Apostle Paul, all things are ours because God has given them to us.

These are lofty statements, but they permeate the New Testament. When we look around at this broken world, things certainly don’t appear to be this way. But through faith we see that they are. Through our baptismal goggles, we no longer view anyone or anything from a human point of view. The Christian walk is not a moral code to keep; it is a gift we receive and a privilege we enjoy. It’s a serious walk because a lot is riding on it. That we walk in newness of life, loving one another as God has loved us, is essential to our neighbors’ salvation. They will know we are Christians by our love for one another. They will know that God sent Jesus when we live together in unity the new life we’ve been given.

The gift of new life that God offers us deeply impacts how we form youth in our congregations. We want more than anything for them to see God’s offer as the gift that it is. We don’t want it to seem like an obligation. We don’t want to coerce them into godliness. We don’t want to frame it as “an offer they can’t refuse.” No baptismal tradition wants that. But for those who withhold baptism until the age of disciple-ability, it is especially tempting to sell conversion, to push people along before it’s too late, to instill fear as to what might happen if they wait too long.

So we do our best to frame the formation of youth as exposure to God’s generous offer. We try not to expect Christlikeness from those who lack key resources of faith, including new birth, regeneration, and the Holy Spirit. In word, deed, and our life together, we want to paint for them the clearest picture possible of what God’s kingdom is like. We want our love and unity to draw them to God’s love—the way that it drew us and continues to draw others.

This is one of the greatest challenges facing the believers baptism tradition. We want our youth to behold the kingdom as a precious pearl and a priceless treasure despite the fact that it is, in a real sense, also a family heirloom—and, for that reason, a gift they would be tempted to take for granted. We are not so much looking for a dramatic conversion experience, but we want them to see, grasp, and rejoice in the magnitude of God’s gracious gift. We want them to embrace new life with joy and not dilute the pool of Christian witness, which is watered down enough as it is.

So it is tempting for us to overcompensate. To remain hands off as much as possible while still pointing our youth in the right direction. But there are two passages that warn us from taking this too far. One is 1 Corinthians 7:14, where the Apostle Paul encourages believers to remain married to unbelievers, saying, “the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.” Something about being raised by a Christian parent sets children apart. Their closeness to God’s family privileges them somehow in God’s sight. And we must be careful not to withhold a privilege that God is extending.

This interpretation is supported by Titus 1:6. One attribute of a potential elder is that their children are believers. It’s expected. This could be interpreted in many ways. Is it expected because the parents expect it of their children and raise them accordingly? Or is it expected because the parents live such kingdom-centered lives that those who have a front row seat cannot help but see the gospel as the good gift that it is? At the very least, it means that good Christian parenting leads children to believe.

4.  Ecclesial: Baptized into the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12-13; Gal 3:26-29; Acts 2:41, 47)

The fourth dimension of baptism is ecclesial. We are baptized into the body of Christ. This meaning is perhaps most evident to those who would attend an Ekklesia Project conference. I doubt that anyone here is tempted to baptize anyone into a purely personal relationship with Jesus.

But this is where the problem lies for some streams of the believers church tradition. Our postponement of baptism gives the impression that baptismal candidates must wait until they have some sort of personal encounter with God, which assures them that they are ready. These sorts of encounters often happen at revivals, conferences, and retreats. Such events focus a person’s attention on their relationship with God with a degree of intensity that often exceeds ordinary church gatherings. And so their baptism is associated with their personal experience, and the church becomes the community that serves and supports that experience.

Yet this does not represent the approach of credobaptists with a strong view of the church. For us, believers baptism is baptism into the community of believers. But not just any sort of community. First Corinthians 12 speaks of baptism into Christ’s body in order to launch a discussion of what membership in the body looks like. All members are graced by God’s Spirit so they can actively serve other members of the body. Each one is called to edify the other. The body cannot function properly if any member is not doing his or her part.

This impacts how credobaptists form youth in our congregations. We form them to become contributing members. We show them what membership is like. We teach them what membership means. We make clear that being baptized means entering into body life in a way quite different from their childhood. They are no longer “along for the ride.” If they are not ready to accept responsibility for service to the body, we do not baptize them. Once they become members, we put them on the prayer list, expect them to actively serve in our gatherings, and involve them in the most tedious of church life meetings. Though they were welcome to do such things prior to their baptisms, they are expected to do so afterward. They are also expected to participate in the ministry of reconciliation, to bind and loose in the manner of Matthew 18. An eager desire to function as an indispensable part of the church family is therefore a key indicator that someone truly believes that Jesus has inaugurated God’s kingdom and gathered the new covenant community.

5.  Social: Baptized into a social reality that transcends social differences (1 Cor 12:12-13; Gal 3:26-29; Col 2:10-12…3:9-11; cf. 2 Cor 5:16-17)

Fifth, and finally, to be baptized into the body of Christ is to be baptized into a new social reality that transcends social differences. Paul said it most famously in Galatians 3: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek…slave or free…male and female.” He said this sort of thing so often that some scholars believe that the earliest baptismal confessions included a line like this. By word of mouth, they deliberately baptized people into a new creation in which they no longer viewed each other from a human point of view.

Part of the old self that dies in baptism is the self that discriminates against people based on birth status, heritage, and societal standing. The early church experienced this in a concrete way. Church gatherings were the first times that many Jews would have eaten with Gentiles, Romans with barbarians, and rich with poor. Christian homes were likely the only places where believers experienced such unity amid diversity. Paul refers to this new social reality as the new humanity, the new creation. It is one of the most concrete ways God’s people experience and bear witness to God’s kingdom.

Believers churches that are committed to reflecting God’s kingdom find concrete ways to incorporate the new humanity into their baptismal practice. Whether youth or adult, those who are unwilling to die to old prejudices are unprepared to enter the waters of new life. This is not because the new humanity serves as the entrance requirements for new life; it’s because new humanity is the new life into which God welcomes us. It’s part of the gospel. It’s the world to come breaking into the world that is and supplanting the world that was.

The new social reality into which God welcomes us in baptism directly impacts the believers church approach youth. Like the early church, we strive live such lives together that our youth see and experience a social dynamic among God’s people unlike what they experience at school, on the team, or in the neighborhood. So it is crucial that they are present among us as we relate to one another in ways that reflect God’s kingdom. We want them to experience how we make decisions together, how we strive to hear every voice, and how we expect God’s Spirit to speak through any of us regardless of age, gender, education, or longevity in the community.

We want them to interact with the diverse set of guests that we welcome into our homes. They need to see that Christians don’t always hang out with people who are just like them. God has given us a strangely diverse group of friends. As in all things, this example should be reinforced in preaching, teaching, and every other facet of the church’s worship life. Youth should not be caught off guard by questions about this only after they begin contemplating baptism. It should seem natural to them because it’s the air we breathe in our life together.

Concluding Thoughts

These are some of the ways that credobaptists with Ekklesia Project sensibilities strive to be obedient in baptism. What makes us credobaptists is not that we take these dimensions seriously, but that we delay baptism until a person is eager to receive and enter into them. This delay would mean precious little, of course, if as church families we did not strive to order our life together according to the nature of this gift. The trickiest part for us is presenting God’s offer to our children as a gift that they may accept or reject. This is less about the nature of human freedom and more about the nature of God’s saving initiative, as we understand it.

Fortunately for those of us who are here today, framing baptism as a divine gift is something that pedobaptists do quite well. And so I look forward to learning what Debra has to teach us.