This blog has been discontinued. See Adam Gonnerman for all future posts.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Baptizing a Household?

In 2002 I was a young evangelical missionary in Brazil. I had been doing some personal Bible studies in one neighborhood of Uberlandia, and my brother-in-law was doing the same in another neighborhood. Though I loved meeting people and talking about the Bible, no one was coming to the point of a decision to be baptized. One day word got to me that my brother-in-law had baptized an entire household, and that they would form the core of a new congregation. I was very pleased to hear this, and also very conscious of the fact that my efforts weren't  showing such progress. Not long after, my brother-in-law came to me, asking that I join him with the new church. There was too much for him to handle alone, as the church was already growing and the members needed preparation and discipleship to lead. I gladly did so.  

As an ordained minister of the independent Christian Churches, and my brother-in-law an evangelist of the a cappella Churches of Christ, we practiced only believer baptism by immersion. So, when we talked about 'baptizing a household,' we meant the adults capable of making decisions. The children in the home came into the life of the church, but were not baptized, nor could they be until they were older and able to think for themselves. To others, particularly those of communions that christen infants, 'baptizing a household' means every single member of the family, including any children and babies. A key passage on this topic is found in Acts 16:

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34 He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

Back it up, and notice these two lines:
  • "Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household."
  • "...then he and his entire family were baptized without delay."
It's feels quite odd to me, trying to imagine this from the perspective of Christians who believe in infant baptism. Everywhere in the New Testament, baptism is portrayed as a decision someone makes, having believed and being in a repentant state. Further, a reading of this passage that admits infant baptism also suggests that, because the man of the house believed, so therefore everyone in the family had to as well. That doesn't make a lot of sense, given that the mainstream of Christianity does not consider valid the baptisms of unwilling participants (though of course the established church did so for centuries). 

The word 'baptism' itself refers to immersing. As I noted in in a previous post about baptism, it is likely based on the Jewish mikveh, and Orthodox Christians immerse infants rather than sprinkling them. In fact, they're rather insistent on immersion, considering other options valid only under extreme duress. In this case, we are being asked to visualize the apostle Paul, a man trained in the religion of the Pharisees, immersing every living, breathing human being in the family, just because the head of the household believed. To me, it's a stretch. To others, it's somehow perfectly reasonable. 

Although I have a strong opinion on the matter from the perspective of historical accuracy, I don't exactly have skin in the game. In Unitarian Universalism we don't normally practice any form of baptism. We do have an infant dedication ceremony that many congregations use. I've witnessed a few at the congregation where I'm a member, and I've heard of others that sound very similar carried out elsewhere. The extended is recognized in the service, words are said, a flower is dipped in the communal water that the congregation uses for such events, and the flower is touched to the child. We do not believe that there is any salvation, but a covenant is formed between the parents, their families, and the congregation to work together to help the child grow up healthy, happy, and ethical.

There's really no way I can see coming around to a different understanding of these verses in Acts 16. At the same time, that doesn't take away from the meaning that people create with infant baptism in whatever religious tradition they practice. Whether they view it as a moment of salvation, an entering into a divine covenant, or simply a symbol, that has value to them. The same can be said of people who practice adult immersion. For them it can be a decisive moment of crossing the River Jordan into the promised land. Whatever the case, as with every ritual and symbolic act, it means what we bring to it.