Baptism: “Infant” or “believer’s” style?

One congregation’s story of attempting faithfulness to the truth in both historic traditions

        When Circle of Mercy Congregation began in 2001, the founding pastors—Joyce Hollyday and Nancy & Ken Sehested—intended affiliation in both the Alliance of Baptists and in the United Church of Christ. This choice required making some kind of decision on the practice of baptism, since the Alliance is faithful to the Radical Reformation's tradition of “believers” baptism, the UCC to Reformed and Catholic tradition of “infant” baptism.

        To prepare for this part of the discussion leading toward the congregation’s bylaws, Ken Sehested wrote the reflection below. The congregation later approved specific language for its policy (posted below, following the initial “policy reflection”).

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Policy reflection on baptism

      It’s likely that the single-most divergent religious practice in our Circle is our respective confessional traditions’ theology and style of baptism.

      In the history of the church, the vast majority of Christian communities have practiced some form of baptism. (Our Quaker friends are among the exceptions.) It seems clear from the New Testament and from other early Christian documents that baptism was a common (probably required) rite of initiation into membership. The form was likely some kind of immersion in a fresh-water lake or stream; and the actual mechanics probably involved squatting in water, at least up to the chin—but there’s no scholarly consensus on this question.

      But the earliest known manual of church discipline indicated that, if running water was not available, pouring a pitcher of water over the baptismal candidate would be an acceptable substitute.

      Nowadays, most churches practice baptism by “sprinkling” water on the heard ("aspersion"), pouring water over the head or by immersion. Some groups stemming from the 16th-17th century Radical Reformation—generally referred to as the “Anabaptists”—practice baptism by affusion (pouring water over the head of the candidate). Many modern descendants of the Anabaptists (Mennonites, Amish, Brethren) still practice this form of baptism.

      More significantly, however, is the question of: Who is invited to the baptismal waters?

      Two traditions prevail: those who believe in baptizing the children (including infants) of baptized members, and those who hold to the “believer's baptism” tradition of baptizing only those who make personal affirmations of faith.

      We are proposing that the Circle of Mercy apply for membership in two denominational bodies, the Alliance of Baptists and the United Church of Christ, which have different baptismal policies. So what are we to do?

      I do not believe we should simply say: “Oh . . . whichever you prefer . . . doesn’t matter.” I have my bias, as a deeply-rooted baptist; and I also believe, on objective grounds, that baptism by immersion is a more powerful religious ritual. But I also believe COM should honor the various forms of baptism we represent (as well as the conscientious objection to this ritual); and that we should develop rhythms and rituals which allow both for “infant baptism” and “believers’ baptism” traditions.

      I think it can be done. My argument rests on an important theological premise.

      In its variant practices with regards to baptism—and in its best moments—the church has always attempted to say two important things about God’s redemptive work in the world.

      First, that the initiative of grace is God’s, not our own. We are not self-sufficient, nor are we self-generated. Those who argue for infant baptism have (in their best moments) emphasized this reality, along with the insistence that faith is communally-formed, that the spiritual formation of individuals involves being nurtured and cultivated in a community. And this cultivation begins with the first breath (if not before).

      This tradition of baptism—at its best—the responsibility of the entire believing community is emphasized.

      Second, for a relationship to thrive it must be mutual. The Radical Reformers’ “believers’ baptism” tradition began not as an argument over how much water was necessary. The argument centered around this controversial assertion: Membership in the State and membership in the Church are not the same thing. Being a citizen is not the same as being a Christian. They argued that, in the New Testament, the decision to “follow” Jesus very often involved a rupture of social life, even a conflict with ruling authorities.

      In this tradition of baptism—at its best—sought to emphasize the personal investment (and risk) in the decision to follow Jesus. Such decisions, they argued, could not be made until one reached an appropriate age of accountability, until one could intentionally and conscientiously make the decision.

      Interestingly enough, both traditions—at their best—also developed supplemental rites and habits to reflect their liturgical opponents’ position. Those practicing infant baptism developed various forms of “confirmation” or “rites of initiation” programs—usually a period of intensive education for children approaching puberty. And those upholding believers’ baptism practiced “baby dedications” as part of worship and developed intensive early childhood religious education programs.

      These variant practices tended to produce distinct institutional styles and patterns.

      Those practicing infant baptism tend to be more fluid and ambiguous about the precise moral content of membership requirements, more indulgent of the foibles of any particular member. (Picture: from the “Godfather” movie, the alternating scenes of mafia boss Michael Corlione, during the baptism of his child in a Roman Catholic Church, at the precise moment when members of his “family” were undertaking a bloody massacre of a rival group.)

      Those practicing believers’ baptism tend to be more disciplined, stricter about the shape of moral character among church members, less indulgent on questions of character. (“We don’t smoke and we don’t chew and we don’t go with the girls who do.”)

      I believe we should develop a baptismal policy—and a general culture which reflects this policy—combining the insights of both these traditions (and, hopefully, minimizing the blind spots of both); that we should allow for both infant and believers’ baptism (as well as for the possibility of conscientious objection to the ritual); and that we should develop a vision of spiritual formation that includes the relevance of communal nurture and the need for personal decision.

      (Here is one scene from my imagination for the coupling of these traditions. It involves doing baptism in the late spring or summer, when streams and lakes are warmer. When a person seeks baptism, or a child is presented for baptism by its family, the entire congregation adjourns for worship at a lake or stream. For a “believers’” style rite, the person and his/her family—biological or self-selected—would wade out in the water for the candidate’s immersion. For the baptism of an infant, the entire family—maybe the entire congregation—could wade out into the water together for the sprinkling rite.)

      Whatever practice/policy finally agree on, it will affect our understanding of membership requirements and communion. More comments for reflection on those matters in subsequent notes.

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Section 4 – Baptism
(from the Circle of Mercy Congregation's bylaws)

       Our congregation seeks to pioneer a new path in the practice of baptism. Our founding represents the merging of two ancient baptismal traditions within the Christian community: of what are commonly called the traditions of “infant baptism” and “believer’s baptism.” (See the “Reflections on Principles and Policies” document for a fuller discussion.)

        We believe that “loving enemies” was the central message of Jesus and thus the principal character of God. Paul wrote that “while we were still enemies” (Romans 5:10) God sent Jesus as a unilateral, transforming act of disarmament.

        We mirror this conviction in the presentation of children to the community of faith (signified by some as “infant baptism,” by others as “blessing” or “dedication”). In this act, the community enfolds the young, long before they are able to reciprocate. Then, once an age of accountability is reached, those same young ones are challenged to embrace the community of faith and its mission (signified by some in the “confirmation” process, by others as “believer’s baptism”).

        In the first act, the community embraces the child; in the second, the child—upon maturity—embraces the community.

        The awkward part for us is that the church has one dramatic ritual (baptism) but deep and competing biases as to when in a person’s spiritual journey this ritual is to be performed. There is no simple recommendation for our practice.

        The important thing is that we communicate the holistic vision of the paradox that we are both chosen by God and that we choose God: that God is the one who initiates the drama of reconciliation; that the awareness of being embraced by God is essential for the human capacity to embrace God and God’s purposes in creation and redemption; and that all are called to intentionally align themselves with “the God Movement” (Clarence Jordan).

        Therefore, we recognize the legitimacy of both forms. Those desiring to signify the initiation of the faith journey may, after discussion with the pastors, choose the form of their baptism. We urge the parents (or legal guardians) of all children to allow the congregation to baptize, or to bless, their young ones as an indicator of covenant responsibility for the community’s role in the forming of faith.

        While the pastors will serve as overseers, they may involve any others in leadership as seems appropriate.

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