Picture this. You have just purchased a new property that is going to serve as the ideal site for your future home. You are thrilled about it! The lot is expansive and untouched with a mixture of gently sloped open fields and thick woods. It’s perfect!
Shortly after acquiring the land you decide to go and explore the areas you have yet to see. And in the far back corner of the property, to your surprise, you happen to stumble upon an old split-rail fence. The lot was supposedly “untouched.” Why was the fence put here? Who put it here? Should you let it remain? Is it worth removing? What would you do?
Would you be inclined to remove the fence, assuming it has little or no purpose anymore? Would you leave it in place, assuming that it was put there for good reason? Or would you decide to keep it simply because you enjoy the aesthetics of the old rustic fence?
Author G.K. Chesterton used a similar illustration to talk about the role tradition plays in our lives and the challenge it presents to us. Many times these traditions, like fences, at face value seem to be unnecessary, outdated, or burdensome. We are unable to articulate why they are there in the first place. Yet, is it possible that they served a purpose that we don’t quite yet understand? And maybe it still serves that purpose?
On the other hand, we may come to find they do in fact serve no purpose anymore, but nonetheless we’re hesitant to remove them. Possibly it’s a scary proposition for us to remove that which has long provided a sense of security, regardless of whether they actually achieve that end or not. Or maybe we just enjoy the sense of nostalgia it brings to our lives.
This illustration is the best I’ve come across to explain the faith journey I’ve been on for the last decade. Growing up in a Lutheran church, I was surrounded by traditions: liturgical calendars, old hymns, candlelit services, creeds, and organ playing. The pastor wore traditional garments. I often served as the acolyte. The walls of the church were adorned with stained glass windows. There was the regular occurrence of infant baptism and confirmation ceremonies during services. The church experience was distinct from the other days of the week. In many ways, it felt like a step back in time and into a completely different world.
It was all I knew as a kid. And I didn’t really give it much thought. When asked by a friend in middle school if I was a Christian like him, I responded naively that, “No, I was a Lutheran.” I was baptized into this denomination. We attended nearly every week my entire childhood at Christ the King Lutheran Church while we lived in Maryland and then St. Paul’s Lutheran church we moved to Pennsylvania. Like a fish in a fish tank, I had as little understanding of what else was out there as the very water I was swimming in.
But then college came, and as is the case for many young adults, this new chapter in life presented me an opportunity to step outside of the bubble I grew up in. And I started to get connected with a variety of different friends who came from many different backgrounds.
One of those groups I started to connect with was through a non-denominational organization called Cru. The in essence considered Evangelical and attempted to avoid falling into a defined denomination by focusing on the fundamentals of the faith. This group opened a completely different world to me than the one I experienced in the mainline church I grew up in.
There wasn’t a liturgy that they read from or a liturgical calendar that directed the sermons. People prayed as they were moved and sermons were topical and changed as the leader sought fit. The music played by the worship band was composed within the last decade, not from centuries ago. There weren’t any candles. They didn’t recite any creeds. The pastors and ministry leaders wore the same casual attire the students did. And there wasn’t a single stained-glass window to be found.
But quite possibly the most suprising difference I found surprising during these years of exploring my faith in this new group was when I found out that adult baptisms were in fact a thing. I had never seen one before. And the fact that some churches exclusively did adult baptisms and refused to do infant baptisms was a completely foreign idea. These churches believed infant baptisms, like all of these other traditions, was essentially “added on” to and not reflective of the “pure” Christianity that was observed of the early church. It might not have been explicitly stated, but it was implied. Was my infant baptism like an old fence that deserved to be removed? Was it merely added to the faith for no reason for strictly ornamental or misguided reasons? Was my baptism legitimate at all?
Common to many Evangelical churches and groups is the notion of “Sola Scriptura,” a phrase that emerged in the Protestant Reformation. The idea being that the Bible holds the ultimate authority on the Christian faith, not church hierarchy based on apostolic succession or tradition. But coupled with that is the idea that anyone can approach the Bible in isolation and from a plain reading of the text, ascertain clearly what it prescribes. And that’s what I set out to do as I grappled with this question of baptism.
One quick read of the book of Acts, which summarizes the earliest stories of the Church, seemed to indicate this was in fact the case. An infant baptism does not appear anywhere explicitly in Acts (a historical account of the early church following Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension), or anywhere in the Bible for that matter. Countless examples of adult baptisms are detailed yet no infant baptisms with the ceremonial sprinkling of water are to be found. And so a clear divide between “tradition” and a “pure” Christianity was forged in my mind.
As a result, I found it most appropriate at the time to start distancing myself from “traditions,” at least as I understood them, to get back to the core of the Christian life without what I had deemed these unnecessary ornamental additions. At least try to recover what the Christian life looked like in the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ life. No more liturgy. No more stained glass windows. No more infant baptism.
Despite being baptized as an infant myself and growing up in the Lutheran church, a few years of being involved in non-denominational and evangelical churches and college campus groups led me to believe that an adult baptism was the most responsible thing I could do in response to Christ’s command to be baptized found in Matthew 28. I was at an age where I could decide for myself to follow Christ, and so it seemed that the most obedient thing for me to do at this time was to make this public declaration of my faith. And about a year after graduating college, I decided to get baptized at the non-denominational church I was regularly attending.
That was over eight years ago, and I have many positive memories associated with it. At that time, I would have viewed this as my legitimate baptism. I was so confident in my beliefs… So sure of everything. There was no way you could change my mind. And yet… here I am several years later and I see things a bit differently.
It’s difficult to say exactly caused this change in perspective. I’m no longer single and on my own. I’m married and have two kids now. Those are substantial life moments that have altered the way I see the world. I’ve met many people of varying denominations that I respect with conflicting views on this topic. That has certainly made me less dogmatic. And well, I’ve had several more years to see how God works in my life and others and He acts differently than I thought he did back then. I think He’s humbled me.
And over the past few years, a growing interest in church history led me to learn the surprising facts that infant baptism has been prevalent since the early church and is still widely practiced in most branches and denominations of Christianity. In fact, the rejection of infant baptism is a relatively recent phenomenon only emerging in what were peripheral groups during the Reformation (the Anabaptists). That’s not to say that minority-held positions cannot be correct on an issue. But it is to say, maybe I’ve been missing something. Maybe there’s more to this than a simple “plain” reading of the scriptures. Maybe this newfound “pure” Christianity I’ve adopted is just another tradition that is worthy of investigation and scrutiny.
While it’s true that we don’t see an explicit description of an infant baptism in the Bible, we do see the jailer and his entire household get baptized in Acts 16 as a result of Paul and Silas’ mercy towards him when the prison gates were opened and their chains came loose. While the specific age of those in the household are not mentioned, the very fact that this redemption and restoration was not limited to one man but provided to an entire family I think is worth noting. Our culture puts much emphasis on the individual, but it does seem that the Gospel also provides hope and restoration for whole families and communities. And maybe baptism plays a role in that.
It’s also interesting to note the comparison of circumcision to baptism in a passage like Colossians 2. Throughout the Old Testament, we see God build the nation of Israel through the circumcision of males at young ages. God doesn’t exclude the inclusion of children in the nation of Israel in the Old Testament on the basis of how intellectually developed they are and their own ability to ascent to a set of doctrinal beliefs. His approach is quite the contrary. And there are indications that this same pattern, the availability of the Kingdom to even the youngest among us, is present in the New Testament (Mark 10).
I’m no professional seminarian or theologian. People who dedicate their lives to studying this topic come out on different sides on this topic. But as a layman, I can’t help but wonder could it be that baptism is a way of bringing people, both children and adults, into the church community? Is it really true that the only way we can be baptized into the church, is when we’re old enough, self-aware enough, and wise enough to assent to our own saving faith? Or is it possible that in addition to adult baptisms, children of other disciples can also experience being a part of the covenant family? That God can be active in both expressions of baptism?
Here I am years later with a newfound appreciation for the baptism I received as an infant. I appreciate that the community invested in me for all those years and included me within the church. I appreciate that God gave me the family I did and raised me in a Christian household. I appreciate that His providence, although not giving me the most exciting conversion story that would often be applauded by many in Evangelical churches today, consisted of an environment that would provide the foundation for a deep trust and reliance on Him later in life.
In some ways I regret getting rebaptized. And yet, I know that this has been a process of working through two very different ways of reflecting on the traditions that were handed to me. What’s unfortunate is that, the photo from my more recent baptism doesn’t capture what’s just outside the edge of the frame. My parents standing up on stage, supporting me as I was baptized again. And my siblings and grandparents in attendance in the congregation. A community and family that have walked alongside me and been a support from the beginning, when at the time I thought I was doing this alone. And the same God was present the whole time as well.
Despite all of these changes in perspective, we are still invested within the Evangelical church and while child dedications are done in lieu of infant baptisms, the spirit of what was graciously given to me, I hope to pass on to my own kids. Inclusion in this messy, beautiful, enduring and life-giving community that is the Church. The laying of foundations for them to continue to have deepening trust in their God. And that by sharing in Jesus’ death and resurrection, that they may experience abundant life.
And maybe, just maybe, I can convince a few of my fellow brothers and sisters to give a second consideration to some of these older “traditions.” That maybe some of what we’ve discarded would be worthwhile to bring back. That maybe our ancestors had something valuable to share with us. And that even when we struggle to articulate exactly the reason for why they were there in the first place, we should be more cautious before dispensing with them.
I’ll end with this quote from Martin Luther.
“God is acting here, not the human creature... If it’s possible that children don’t have faith and that they cannot demonstrate it, nevertheless, we should piously believe that God himself baptizes children and gives them faith and the Holy Spirit. That follows from the text. Therefore, regard baptism as a divine word for God himself does it. There would be no church at all on earth, if God did not assemble it through baptism.”