By Bob Allen
While a recent Baptist News Global story about a Baptist church in Ohio sprinkling an infant is newsworthy, baptizing babies isn’t as far-fetched as many conservative Southern Baptist churches assume, a seminary president said in a May 4 blog.
Jason Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., said the first-ever infant baptism at First Baptist Church in Dayton, Ohio, made news because “by definition, a Baptist church does not baptize infants.”
Allen said progressives, however, aren’t the only ones revisiting the rite of “believer’s baptism” in Baptist churches.
“Within Southern Baptist life, we have been on a steady march towards infant baptism, routinely baptizing children younger and younger in age,” Allen said.
A North American Mission Board task force on baptism and evangelism in 2014 found the only consistently growing age group in Southern Baptist Convention baptisms is 5 and under. Allen said the trend should prompt careful reflection and remind Southern Baptists of some of the dangers associated with baptizing young children.
“As a convictional Baptist, it is hard for me to admit this, but when we baptize children too young to grasp the gospel and, as a result, whose hearts haven’t been affected by it, it is more troubling than a sprinkling of an infant,” Allen said.
“Why is this? Because when Presbyterians, for example, sprinkle infants, they anticipate the child will one day be converted. When we baptize young children we are testifying they have been converted.”
Allen said parents and churches should encourage children to follow Christ at every age, including the early years. “However, if we are not careful we can find ourselves routinely baptizing young children before they understand the gospel — or have been affected by it.”
“The point is not that a child cannot be converted,” he said. “The point is that we should do our best to make sure conversion has happened in our children before baptizing them.”
Allen said he isn’t for age-based criteria or a wait-and-see approach to baptizing new converts, and that spurious conversions occur regardless of the age.
Denominationally speaking, Allen wondered if in their zeal for increasing baptism numbers, some Southern Baptists haven’t always given enough thought about who should be baptized. He said that has contributed, in part, “to the plague of unregenerate church members” in the SBC.
“The challenge of unregenerate church membership is systemic within our convention,” Allen said. “With some 16 million members on our rolls, but only about a third of those in church attendance on any given Sunday, one doesn’t have to be exceedingly scrupulous to sense a problem.”
As a father of five, Allen said he understands parents’ urge to see their children converted. “I live with it daily, and strive to balance leading them to Christ without over-leading them into a premature profession of faith,” he said.
Allen described sensing that tension in a personal way once while presenting the gospel during a vacation Bible school rally.
“It became clear to me I could get most every kid in the room, including my own children, to raise their hand, express their desire to avoid Hell, and simply to ‘repeat after me’ to miss it,” he said.
Allen said the topic reminded him of a 2009 article in the BBC about atheists in the United Kingdom seeking “de-baptism certificates,” in part because their christening was involuntary.
“I sometimes wonder how many on SBC church membership rolls, who were baptized so young as to have almost no choice in the matter, would renounce their membership if presented with the option,” Allen said. “Or, perhaps more accurately put, if they realized they were still on a church’s membership roll in the first place.”