Teaching Infant Baptism in Rural America

If there was a seminary course that focused on “things you do not discuss” in the church, I believe infant baptism in rural America would be on the syllabus.

Fortunately for me (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), I failed to take that class. I probably wouldn’t have attended it if it was offered. I believe in teaching the difficult and embracing the challenging. That means teaching why I support infant baptism.

Infant baptism is a frowned upon practice in some rural communities in America. Defined by a belief in the practice of believers baptism, infant baptism is seen as going against Scripture or a bad theology. It is one of the United Methodist Church’s practices that prevents some in rural America from understanding our theology and mission. It is also one of the least understood practices.

In his book “Outward Sign and Inward Grace: The Place of Sacraments in Wesleyan Spirituality,” Rob Staples discusses the theological history and tradition that informs our practice of infant baptism. He focuses on five areas that John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, used in articulating his support for infant baptism.

  1. “Infants are proper subjects of baptism because of the sin of Adam in which all persons participated (169).” In other words, we were created pure in the image of God. Adam’s act of disobedience altered that creation. This is what is known as “original sin.” Humanity is not as it was intended because of this act of disobedience. The same is true for infants, which makes them appropriate candidates for baptism.
  2. “Baptism is proper for children because of the continuity of the covenant of grace God made with Abraham (169).” The covenant with Abraham was confirmed with circumcision, which was a ritual that was done very early in the young child’s life. Baptism serves as the “seal of the covenant established by Christ,” which means it is available for infants (170).
  3. “Small children should be brought to Christ, and that therefore they are capable of coming to Him and being admitted into the church (170).” With this line of thought, Wesley builds a theology around Matthew 19:13-14. In this passage, Christ calls for the children to be brought to him.” He also says we should not “hinder” them from experiencing Christ. Part of this includes, Wesley believed, the administration of baptism. If children are to be brought to Christ in a relationship, how can we deny an infant baptism?
  4. “If they (Apostles) baptized infants, then infants are proper subjects of baptism (171).” Wesley, as well as Martin Luther, looked at the ministry of the Apostles in Acts and assumes that infants were baptized, especially in references to entire households being baptized. Staples also makes references to Peter’s Pentecost sermon of the promise being given to the children in Acts 2:39, which would likely include infants.
  5. “Wesley finds support for infant baptism in the practice of the church (171).” Wesley looks at the entire history of the church and sees that no theologian denied infant baptism. If they did, they would have wrote about it.

Of course, baptism is both a divine and human act. It is the divine act of God’s grace working in our lives, and it is a human act of our recognition of God’s activity in us. With infant baptism, the parent makes the announcement of recognition of what Christ has already done in the child’s life by dying for the child’s sin on the cross. Christ’s grace doesn’t begin to work on us the moment we believe, but is present in our life from the time we were being developed in the womb. This makes infants eligible for baptism as much as an adult.

There is much we can say about infant baptism. We could write posts after posts on the subject. That being said, we should not ignore deep theological principles simply because they might go against the prevailing practices of our communities. You gain more respect in a community for being open and willing to discuss these topics than you would by running away from them.

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2 thoughts on “Teaching Infant Baptism in Rural America

  1. I really like this post. Though I am still unsure about what to do with infant baptism, I appreciate how the practice/sacrament (depending on your denomination), shows that God’s grace works at all stages of our lives, not just when we feel an emotional experience with Christ later in our lives.

    Thanks for this!

    • We definitely see it as sacrament, Sarah. I used the term practice to speak to the direct issue of whether we use believers, infant, or both. I believe there is truth in both and both are applicable in the life of Christ.

      The emotional experience, in my opinion, gets overplayed. It’s not about us, but about what God has done in us and began to do in us from the beginning of time. We are not the agent. God is.

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