How old do you need to be for baptism?

In a booklet for people preparing for baptism I wrote:

Baptism is a dramatic way of declaring that we belong to Jesus. The only prop needed is a large quantity of water. The spectators are asked to imagine that this water is a watery grave. So when you go under the water, you will identity yourself with Jesus who died and was buried, as for one split second you will disappear, like Jesus, off the face of the earth (in most Baptist churches as you are baptised you will be taken backwards into the horizontal position of a coffin!). Then like Jesus, you will symbolically rise from death. In baptism then you will in effect be saying: ‘Yes, Lord, you died for me. Yes, Lord, you rose for me.’

Baptism is more than a dramatic statement of belief. From Paul’s declaration of the newly baptised as, rising to “live a new life” (Romans 6.4 GNB) it is clear that there are ethical implications too. As you go under the water you will be declaring your resolve to die to your old way of living and, as you rise from the water, you will be declaring your resolve to follow Jesus’ pattern for living. The implications for your attitude, for instance, to work, to money, to sex and to relationships are enormous. It is no exaggeration to describe baptism as a revolutionary act.

Yes, I know that there is more to baptism than this. Baptism is the place where God’s grace meets our faith – it is where the believer responds to the grace of God. In baptism God blesses us with his Spirit; through baptism we become members of Christ’s church. Baptism too is the moment when hands are laid on us and prayer is made that we may be filled afresh with God’s Spirit for witness and service. But in this blog the aspect of baptism I wish to highlight is ‘the cost of discipleship’. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

When Christ calls a man (sic), He bids him (sic) come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow Him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man (sic) at his call.

It is precisely because of this understanding of baptism that Baptist churches in the UK do not baptise children – although I gather that in parts of the USA  some ‘Southern Baptists’ can baptise children as young as six or seven. Baptism is much more than simply saying ‘I love Jesus’; rather it is the great moment when we nail our colours to the mast and declare that we belong to Jesus, for now and for eternity. Baptism goes way beyond the Gospel truth of John 3.16: rather it is our response to the call of Jesus to deny self, to take up our cross and to follow him (Mark 8.34). Baptism is not just for believers, it is for disciples. Baptism is not for children who have no understanding of the cost of discipleship, rather it is for those who have begun to feel the weight of the cross.

It is this understanding of baptism which underlies the fact that in a small survey of retired Baptist ministers I discovered that the average age for baptism was seventeen. Over the years I have baptised hundreds of people – only rarely did I baptise somebody under fourteen years of age. I wanted to ensure that my baptismal candidates appreciated that to be a Christian is to go against the stream (see Romans 12.2).

Of the twenty people in the survey, thirteen had been brought up in a Christian home. I would imagine that for most – if not all – of these thirteen people there had never been a time when they did not love Jesus. Nonetheless they had to wait until they were older before they were baptised. I am glad, for instance, that although I ‘opened my life to Christ’ when I was eight years old, I was not baptised until I was thirteen. At eight I was not ready for baptism, for I had yet to become clear about the demands of Christian discipleship. By the time I was thirteen, as a result of living in Switzerland for two years, I was well aware of the thousands of Anabaptists who had been burnt at the stake. Indeed, I was baptised in Zurich only a stone’s throw away from the River Limmat where Ulrich Zwingli, the great Swiss Reformer had drowned hundreds of Anabaptist women on so-called ‘ducking’ stools (the men were burnt). I had non-conformity etched on my soul!

It would be interesting to do a survey of the ages of people being baptised in Baptist churches today. I have a feeling that the average age for young people could be significantly lower. Some argue that that if ‘the age of discretion’ is twelve, then churches should not hesitate to baptise twelve-year-olds – this, of course, is the age for a Jewish boy or girl to become a ‘son’ or ‘daughter’ of the law (bar or bath mitzwah). Others argue that even by the age of twelve children from Christian families are beginning to realise that following Jesus today is no soft option – certainly in terms of sexual mores twelve year olds are much more ‘savvy’ than many of us were. Or could it be that many British Baptists today have ‘dumbed down’ the significance of baptism? Waiting for a young person to reach their mid-teens could bring down the minister’s baptismal statistics!

One final thought: presumably the same arguments apply to the age when people should consider confirmation?

2 comments

  1. I wonder if one might also ask the question, “Can you be too old for baptism?”

    I don’t know if this is still the case, but it used to be that Baptist churches usually contained a number of folk who had been active members or participants for years, yet had never been baptised and now felt that they couldn’t be. Usually this was because they felt – possibly because of the teaching being given – that they “weren’t good enough Christians” to be baptised when they were younger. Later they either felt embarrassed to ask or believed that the opportunity had passed.

    I believe strongly in baptism as an initiatory experience. Of course we only want to baptise people who confess Christ as Saviour (and I agree that there is a problem in baptising very young people who haven’t yet faced the pressures of living as Christians in the world). However I think we can place too much emphasis on preparation, theological knowledge and “being ready” that we scare people off! That can’t be right.

    I grant that the disciples quickly baptised at Pentecost were Jews who had a good knowledge of God and, possibly, some understanding of Jesus as well. That wouldn’t apply to some other folk who were baptised quickly, such as the Philippian jailor. I know that people say we shouldn’t baptise too soon as we don’t know if folk will continue as disciples or drop away. However the converse could be true: the very remembrance of baptism helps people to continue their Christian walk.

  2. Dear Paul,
    according to my experience age must be considered together with other aspects like maturity and personal – and family – background.

    Our son Helge was almost 12, our daughter Henrike was almost 10 when they wanted to be baptized. We had asked them several times to wait in the years before and as they were quite persistent we had decided “to agree the next time they will ask to be baptized”. That´s what we did.
    There was a lot of discussion at the church at that time. We had Dr. Wiard Popkes from the Hamburg Baptist Seminary giving a lecture and a seminar on baptism and age, many members said they had been about as young as the two, others contradicted.
    I realize that Helge and Henrike probably did not understand the full theological and personal impact of baptism as explained in the blogg, but that goes for many adults as well. As a lay leader of our church I remember many intensive talks with members to be before their baptism and I chaired many church meetings and discussions on the subject from the 1980es up to 2015.

    I was 24 when I was baptized and still remember Hans Luckey explaining the watergrave in the service. I still can hear him pronouncing the word “Wassergrab”, the sound comes back every time I think about it. Talking about my way to baptism would be too long for this comment.

    Hanno, our other son was about 14, Hille, our other daughter was a bit older. They, too, still are active members at their church. Helge is a Baptist Minister now, Henrike is a Lutheran Minister, the confirmation of their eldest daughter will be on Sunday, May 26. Her husband is a Lutheran Minister, too, they share the ministry at their church in Schwaebisch-Hall.
    I wonder if there is a survey about the correlation of the age of baptism and being – and remaining – an active member of the church. I have seen quite some adults and youngsters we baptized in the 80es leave and some stay, but we did not do a survey. That would be interesting.
    Kind regards from Hamburg
    Harald

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