Baptism Belongs to the Church
My life's road on the doctrine of baptism is a rocky one. So take what follows as from one who has some serious dirt under his nails. I am currently in a Reformed resting station. I make no promises on where my final destination will be. I'm a child of the reformation. I love systematic theology but refuse to cozy up to systems. I'm all about the hermeneutics and I remain free to follow where I think the Scriptures lead (the lone exception would be any denial of the historic creeds). I retain the individual right to determine what I think the Scriptures teach. Is my individualism showing?
This confession though is important. I agree that as individuals we have the right to determine which view of baptism is most biblical. However, I do not believe a church should let each family decide on when to baptize their children. Hear me out. I am all for credo-baptists attending paedobaptist churches and even being members. I am also all for paedobaptists attending credo-baptist churches and being members. But I am not okay with a church who's official position is to let each and every family determine the doctrine. My thesis: Baptism belongs to the church.
This concept has arisen a couple time in my transition from the baptist view to the Presbyterian world. At each stage of development, I have stumbled into individuals (typical non-confessional baptists) who sought churches that had no official position on the subject of baptism. In this hypothetical church, the preacher could say nothing with authority. Children's teachers could teach everything but baptism with confidence. The families would be permitted to decide on an individual basis. The ministers of God's word becoming conduits for mere preference. At every turn, I have rejected this type of thinking. Despite my acceptance of differing views on baptism I retain the assertion: baptism belongs to the church.
By this I mean a couple of things. First, baptism is not an individualistic sacrament. What is to stop a child from pouring water on another child with the Trinitarian formula? Or, what is to stop a person from baptizing themselves with the Trinitarian formula? Yes, they are silly examples but why are they silly? Because they lack any sense of community. They lack the church. Baptism is not something that one does on their own. It is not something done apart from an audience. I am aware that some parachurch ministries (especially the campus sort) blur the lines here but I'd rather not dig too deeply into their corner case. Instead, I'd rather focus upon the widely acknowledged understanding that baptism is a communal event. One is not baptized into a family household. One does not become a legitimate child of their birth parents solely upon baptism. They become a member of Christ's household. They become a child of the church. That parents should be the arbiter of baptism is rather silly. Baptism belongs to the church.
The second point proceeds naturally from the first. It is the negative pronouncement that is merely an echo of the first. Baptism does not belong to parents. Baptism is a doctrine. One's view upon it can be swayed via some study of the Scriptures. I uphold that parents can come to a private conviction. They can align themselves with a like-minded church. But baptism is not theirs to administer in private. This is where the confusion lies. Many of the "no dogmatism" individuals seek a church where every member accepts every individual baptized. Essentially, a parent's belief is imposed upon the church. Whether it be the delaying of baptism or the ultra-pietist 8th-day baptism. The church will administer it when the parent's demand.
Just as it would be foolish for parents to baptize their children in private (for this would deny the first point) it is foolish to baptize a child in front of families who deny infant baptism. The church that takes no stance on infant baptism effectual removes any obligation for congregants who disagree. Catch this. Families are never authorities over other parents. Thus, the baptism of one family's conviction can not be binding on another. If it is merely preference than it cannot be binding. Parents are never the entity that determines the doctrinal demands of other families. Only the church can do that.
Advocates of this position are aware of these issues. They suggest that all who would enter into such a church would be in covenant with each other to respect differing baptismal convictions. So any who entered these unique churches would be willing to accept infant baptism and the congregational responsibilities that come with it.
This might seem reasonable. It's a free country. In an age where we split over worship styles, why not just turn baptism into a doctrinal preference? It is one thing to have personal preferences and opinions. It is a completely different thing to gather as a group of people to declare an institution has no authority over you. Baptism belongs to the church.