Note: I asked our youth to write down any questions that they had about faith, the church, or life in general. This is a part of that series.
Question: Why don’t we baptize older children?
The original question I received from our youth was why it seems like older children are required to belong to the church for a while before we will baptize them. The questioner also wonders if it has to do with accepting the Lord fully or completely.
Honestly, there is no rule about baptizing older children. As I noted in my last blog (Why do we Baptize Infants?), our church baptizes babies, so baptizing children shouldn’t really be a problem either, and the reality is that we will, and we do. It may seem like we wait for older children for some reasons that often have more to do with the parents than the children. Generally, children who are not baptized fall into two groups, those who weren’t baptized simply because the parents didn’t get around to it or weren’t going to church when the children were born, and those whose parents wanted them to be old enough to either choose baptism for themselves or simply be old enough to remember their baptism when they were adults.
Parents who aren’t active in church often “forget” to baptize their children for a variety of reasons but more than likely if church isn’t a priority for them, then baptism probably isn’t a pressing item on their agenda either. But when these same parents return to church, there is no reason that their children cannot be baptized and I have done such baptisms several times. What often happens in these cases is that the children are already old enough to go to school. They can talk, read, write and think and so their parents may want to make sure that they understand what is happening before they are baptized. At some point the children are close to the age when they can take confirmation classes and join the church, so perhaps parents are thinking, “We’ve waited this long, why not wait until then?” In any case, we see parents with older children return to church and it appears that they wait for a while before baptism. Theologically, there is no need to wait, but whenever everyone feels “ready” then baptism can happen.
The second group of parents have thought about it and made a conscious decision not to have their children baptized. Some, despite our church’s belief in the effectiveness of infant baptism, find their personal theology to be more in line with a “believer’s baptism” (see my blog about this) and want their children to be old enough to choose. Other parents simply want their children to remember the experience of being baptized. John Wesley preferred infant baptism, but did not require it saying, “I believe infants ought to be baptized, and this may be done by either dipping or sprinkling. If you are otherwise persuaded, be so still, and follow your own persuasion.”[i] Remember that The United Methodist Church came about through the merger of the Methodist Episcopal (ME) Church and the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) Church. The ME Church commonly performed infant baptisms, but the EUB church performed both infant baptism and infant dedication. In dedication, parents bring their children to the church, and before God, to commit their lives to God and both they, and the church, make many of the same vows that are made at baptism, but they choose to wait until the children are older for baptism to happen. Because the remnants of both the ME and the EUB churches remain a part of us and who we are, there are United Methodist churches where this continues to happen.
Kenneth J. Collins, A Faithful Witness, John Wesley’s Homiletical Theology
(Wilmore, KY, Wesley Heritage Press, 1993), 94.