Attentiveness: Baptism - Gordon Conwell

Attentiveness: Baptism

Dr. Scott W. Sunquist

This past Sunday one of our grandchildren was baptized. Nancy (my wife) was raised Baptist, so this was a baptism in her tradition: believer’s baptism.

As a fourth grader our granddaughter decided she, like her older brother, wanted to be “all in” following Jesus. She knew what this was about (she had seen the Christian life in family and friends for years now), and she knew this is what she wanted.

In the Baptist tradition, this was done well at a Vineyard Church. She was dedicated as an infant, treated as a child of the covenant as she grew up, but encouraged to make her own decision, affirming her family’s loyalty when she was ready.

I am Presbyterian, and I remember very well the time I decided I would stay in that tradition. (Truth be told, Nancy has been a Presbyterian elder, and since 1987 I have been an ordained Presbyterian pastor/teaching elder.) In seminary, I came under conviction about baptism when I heard Dr. Meredith Kline talk about God’s holy covenant and the meaning of covenant for families. One line actually is still a moving concept to me today. “An understanding of covenant in the family means that you treat the child as a child of God’s covenant family and assume God’s grace is sufficient for the family. The other choice is to treat the child as if they are pagan in need of conversion.” It still makes sense to me that within the covenant family, children are born into the covenant community and received as God’s blessing. Their inclusion is assumed (and so they are baptized), and later affirmed (and so confirmation).

There was much more, but the reasoning of covenant family, and the reasoning of families being baptized in the early church (households) made perfect sense. And it still does.

However, for the next generation (our four children) they have chosen different patterns in raising their children. Some of our grandchildren were baptized as infants (paedobaptist tradition) and others were dedicated (credobaptist or believer’s baptism tradition). As a Presbyterian I have gained greater respect for the credobaptist practice watching our children raise our grandchildren. It is a great wonder when we watch our grandchildren affirm their faith and “cross the line.”

When they make that decision to be baptized, I write them a letter about what this means. I also give them some theology, church history, and pastoral advice.

What I have learned is that either practice (infant or believer’s baptism), when it is done with integrity, humility, and intentionality is a family affair and it pushes against Western individualism.

Infant baptism often requires sponsors and/or godparents to stand with the family to pray for the child and to help guide them in the faith. I have stood in that place before, and it is a deep responsibility for your life! Families and the church affirm that they will stand with and guide the child as she or he grows up.

In believer’s baptism, the child comes to the point of seeking baptism as a result of being raised in a Christian family and being exposed to the teaching of Scripture. In either case, the family and church community are absolutely integral in baptism.

Last Sunday we (two grandparents) watched the sacrament with great interest on our computers. The other grandmother was in the congregation as a witness (and helping with the other children). The church cheered when our granddaughter came out of the waters with soaked hair and smiling face. It is really a miracle.

I wrote about many things in my three-page single spaced letter to my granddaughter (too much for a fourth grader, but something for her to look back on later). What I wanted to say also, and will say to her this summer, is that many people in the world risk their lives when they are baptized. They can not make a “public” confession without being killed or imprisoned. Over 10% of the Christians in the world live where it is illegal to be a Christian. Every day about 11 Christians are killed for their faith.[1] One of our alumni told me that three of his classmates from Gordon-Conwell have been martyred. Baptism is an act of solidarity (with Christians and with Jesus), and it is an act of resistance (against evil).

Baptism declares your loyalty, your community, your solidarity, and it can be dangerous. I think our granddaughter is courageous, and if called upon she will be faithful unto death.

Baptism, whether for an infant, or as a believer, is a mystery (sacramentum) as well as a declaration of intent for a person and a community.

As I reflect on one family member’s baptism, I am reminded to pray for the many people whose baptism marks them as enemies of state. They too are part of our family.

[1] For additional information, please see “Christian Martyrdom as a Pervasive Phenomenon” by Dr. Todd Johnson and Dr. Gina Zurlo.

Scott W. Sunquist, the President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, writes a weekly blog, “Attentiveness” which is posted each Tuesday on the Gordon-Conwell web site. He welcomes comments, responses, and good ideas.


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