What does the early Church’s experience of evangelism and discipleship have to say to us about baptizing infants?
Michael Green’s Evangelism In The Early Church (Eerdmans, 1970) is a stimulating read that has always rekindled a personal zeal for evangelism. Many churches and ministry contexts can actually work to numb Christians to the pressing need of evangelism. Reading realistic accounts of God’s triumphs in the early church helps stir us to remember Paul’s exhortation to “do the work of an evangelist” (II Timothy 4:5).
In the wake of evangelism, when the Spirit brought regenerating grace, how did the early Church handle baptism of new converts’ children? Green points out that this is not his main point, but his research sheds some light on the topic. Addressing the evangelism of fathers and husbands, Green states:
Whether or not the baptism of whole “houses” in this inclusive sense of the term indicates the baptism of children is beyond the purview of this study. To my mind the probabilities are that Jeremias rather than Aland is right in this matter, and that infants were sometimes (to put it no higher) baptized along with the rest of the familia of which they formed part, particularly in view of the solidarity of the Jewish family in circucmcision and proselyte baptism, which were administered to to infants and adults alike; and in view of the fact that Roman households were united in a common religious cult (the Lares) irrespective of age or personal beliefs. However that may be, the household proved the crucial medium for evangelism within natural groupings, whatever member of the family was first won to the faith. It was preferable, of course, if the father was converted first, for then he would bring over the whole family with him.
Green then brings up the example of Cornelius from Acts 10. He notes, “When Cornelius professed faith, his whole familia (and it was a large one. When Peter entered the house ‘he found many persons gathered’) was baptized with him.”
Though this section is on the baptism of husbands, Green reflects that this principle held no matter who was the legal/relational head of the family. His examination from Acts demonstrates this.
The action of the head of the family committed the rest of his dependent group. The same happened in the case of Lydia, a textile saleswoman from Thyatira operating for the time being in Philippi. Her whole household (no doubt largely slaves, together with some freedmen, but without spouse and children in this case, as she seems to have been unmarried), was baptized. So was that of the Philippian jailer when he professed faith. It was the natural thing.
Green’s remarks on the familial head committing the family in his actions could be read as congruent with a Reformed perspective on baptism with respect to the parents and infants. A federal, covenantal, understanding of family that stems from the Reformed confessions reading of Scripture would also support this connection of baptism to parents and children.
Green’s analysis is certainly no lynchpin argument that makes paedobaptism de rigueur. But these accounts of baptism in the early church do a few important things for us. First, they help sever the ritual of baptism from individualistic preferences. Baptism was a key aspect of conversion, and conversion was an issue for the whole family. Therefore, the children of converting parents (especially pater familia) would have been considered appropriate subjects for the whole process. Even if that doesn’t necessitate infant baptism – though note that Green shows family circumcision and proselyte baptism points in this direction – we must help our American, individualist, desires to be corrected in light of Scripture.
Second, evangelism was a matter for the whole family. Part of the problem with “household baptisms” in the credo-/paedo- debate is that, in the minds of many Baptists, the picture put forward is a nominal conversion on the part of a father with children brought kicking and screaming (at least internally) to the baptismal font. But Green’s analysis shows otherwise. Note again his remark that “the household proved the crucial medium for evangelism within natural groupings.” The point is that if family baptisms were occurring, it was only because family evangelism was already taking place. Did every child experience regeneration at same time their parents did? Probably not. But as the Westminster Confession of Faith reminds us, “the efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered” (XXVIII.vi). Just because regeneration does not occur at exactly the same time in each party does not change the fact that the graces of baptism are not truly depicted.
I often have the privilege of working with families who – for a variety of reasons – are raising or sheltering children who don’t fit the stereotypical “nuclear family” picture. Grandparents raising grandchildren, nephews and nieces coming to live with aunts and uncles, or even troubled teens turned out from their own broken homes looking for stability; these are the increasingly frequent opportunities in pastoral ministry. Sometimes requests for baptism are brought, sometimes reluctance/resistance from one or both parties are expressed. Green reminds us that “family religion” is a valuable concept in these (and “nuclear family”) situations. We want to practice family evangelism and family rituals – like baptism – to forge the bonds of family deeper than merely DNA or mailing address. Baptism feels “easy” to families in these circumstances; we want to help everyone do the harder work of evangelism. We want to press the reality of baptism home: dying with Christ to your sin, leading to heartfelt, daily, repentance; and rising with Christ to newness of life, leading to daily trusting His promises to walk by the Spirit (cf. Rom 6; 8:13).
The quotes from Evangelism In The Early Church are found on pages 321 – 322.