Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership

Presbyterian and Reformed Christianity

God's Grace extends to both infants and believers, but how do we bear witness to this?

Both "Infant" and "Believers" baptismal traditions are part of who Presbyterians are today. The Presbyterian Church of New Zealand, like the Church of North India and the United Reformed Church in Britain, includes within its membership both sets of practices with their overlapping symbolic actions and undergirding theological explanations often marked by a common view of God's grace despite the difference in symbolic representation.

Leaders in the church may be of either persuasion, but also need to understand and respect the other point of view.

Sincerity . . . is probably more important than practice, but we need . . . to have some respect for the discipline of our own churches. Some people are surprised to discover that there are Spirit-filled Christians who wish to have their infant children baptised and who believe that this is quite consistent with the teaching of the Scriptures.

This is an area where we may not resolve disagreements which have defeated wiser minds and more patient souls than ours, but there are some things which can reduce the size of the problem. The Church of South India now baptises adult converts by immersion unless there is reason to do otherwise. The Presbyterian Church of New Zealand permits a service of confirmation by immersion which seeks to avoid the idea of a "second baptism". Many congregations follow the wishes of parents as to whether they wish to have infant baptism or infant dedication.

John Roxborogh, The Charismatic Movement and the Churches, Impetus Publications (Bible College of New Zealand), 1995, p15f.

It is important that our congregations invite people to baptism and that teaching is given which emphasises a common theology of baptism which acknowledges the grace of God, the importance of repentance and faith, and the value of renewing our baptismal vows when others are baptised and when the example of Jesus' own baptism is remembered.

Our views are affected by many things, including our personal journey in faith and the social setting of our churches. It is not unknown for people to be baptised as infants, seek immersion after a conversion experience in their teenage years, and when they become parents want to affirm the place of their own children in the Kingdom by having them baptised. People whose background has only been in one tradition sometimes find it hard to understand those from another, and an effort is needed to get past the stereotypes.

The social situation of the two traditions is also a factor, including in the changes we now face where the church is becoming a minority option in a spiritual and fragmented society where the glue is provided by sport, media promoted brand images and the low end of popular culture.

The social setting and assumptions around infant baptism have frequently been of an at least nominally Christian society which nevertheless saw itself as the new Israel - often in theocratic terms as in Calvin's tendency to argue from the Lordship of Christ over all things to the Church being over the State (not so very different from the medieval popes in the investiture controversy) and Knox's harangues of Mary. Despite the deficiencies that these leaders saw in society, they believed it should all be under Christ whose will they interpreted. The Scottish National Covenant was a logical outcome though it took nearly a century to emerge. Catholics, Lutherans and Anglicans had their own rationales which led to similar assumptions: you are born Christian just as Jews were born Jewish. In both cases you could lose your birthright, but that's where you start out. These churches were often comfortable with power and used to being connected to it.

The social setting around believers baptism has quite often been one where the church experiences its relationship with the state as a minority, sometimes a persecuted minority. People are saved out of the wider society into the fellowship of the church and baptism as a believer is a sign that that is the step you have taken. 

An interesting thought is what happens when one tradition becomes the majority culture. With some exceptions it seems to lose its ability to critique the culture that it has accommodated to. In the long haul both traditions accommodate to the world around them. This is what Lesslie Newbigin was saying in his books Foolishness to the Greeks and The other side of 1984. 20 years later we are still struggling with the Gospel and Culture issues he identified when he returned from India to UK and found he was welcomed by Hindus into their homes in Birmingham, but not by Christians.

These differences in the two traditions also affect attitudes to ministry. The national church tradition which was Presbyterianism in Scotland and the Anglicans in England finds it easier to think in terms of professional ministerial leadership in a setting where it knows that its membership covers many degrees of commitment and is itself a mission field. The minority tradition has taken more care to ensure that its active membership is committed as evidenced by conversion testimonies and baptism. It is easier for them to claim that the priesthood of all believers leads to ministry gifts for all. But this needs a different style of leadership to make it work.

Some of the antagonism between the two traditions relates to how these two groups feel about each other - they often do not understand each other well. Each tradition and the theological perspectives and practices woven into them make sense in their own terms, and I would like to think God is not too bothered, except about how they affirm one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Some find it difficult to admit, but there is a real sense in which the actions in baptism and communion mean what we want them to mean. Different groups see that meaning differently without thereby taking themselves out of the wider family of the Church.

This is one reason why we need discussion about our different hermeneutical communities, including the assumptions they make about children, so that we can be in a position to discuss how much meaning in our words and actions is read out of our particular community with its memory and traditions, how much the meaning comes from the wider Christian tradition, and how much the history of these sacraments and how they have been understood points us to core understandings consistent with the NT stories and teachings. The core Christian beliefs about God's grace and our response show in the overlap of these hermeneutical circles.

Of course social setting does not determine truth but it does determine the language by which truths are expressed and how that language is heard.

Over the last two decades in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand we have moved to say that both major sets of attitudes and assumptions in regard to baptism are positively part of who we are. At the same time our differences and lack of mutual comprehension present a temptation to talk about it and teach about it less rather than more.

Baptising and teaching are central elements in what Jesus commanded his followers to do. We have an opportunity to talk about it and understand it better - whatever the practice in a particular situation. Both traditions need to be more positive about making baptisms happen, teaching what it means, and encouraging old and new Christians to renew their baptismal vows.

A question I see is whether we sense this equips us better for a post-modern society which may be about to swing back to some modernist certainties, or whether it is all just confusing. I think if we do it well, it puts us in a better place.

We need to identify the real strengths we have laid down in our church and work with them. We need to talk about initiation into faith and membership of the church generally.

We also need to reflect critically on the significance of what has become a widespread move to invite not only baptised children, but children in general, to communion. It seems that along with this our theology of grace has shifted from baptism to communion. Is this what we intended?

Our reading of the history and theology of initiation into faith and the responsible membership of the church may tell us that we have a permission to do things in a range of ways consistent with Christian faith and discipline, but we need to exercise that freedom with a deeper sense of the underlying theology and awareness of the symbols and commitments needed to mark the milestones of life and faith in our cultures today.

John Roxborogh

John Rush's response to the 2009 discussion question
(used with permission):

A church has people who believe in infant baptism and people who believe in infant dedication and believers baptism. How would you help them understand each other?

When the gospel was shared with me it was without reference to the matter
of baptism.  I had no background in Christianity and because of my
rationalist worldview, I lacked any ability to see how a ritual would have
any real influence on faith or life.  When I was approached, about a year
later, by my Pentecostal minister and encouraged to be part of an upcoming
baptism service, I was stumped.  Hadn’t I already been saved- connected to
Jesus- speaking in tongues- even preaching on Sun. nights?  Now they said
that obedience to Jesus meant I must be placed under water in a special
tank in order to seal the deal!

And to make it even weirder, our church didn’t have a tank so we had to
have the service at the SDA church- I had been told they were a cult- but
a dip in their tank was now necessary for me to be the whole thing!  How
many of my AOG congregants were actually dunked at the cultic SDA church?

I had learned that Jesus was baptized in a river- why didn’t we use one of
the many rivers nearby?  Certainly that would be more Biblical that the
SDA church!  There was no catechism in my church and when I read the NT on the matter, without the benefit of any extra-biblical context about the
meaning of Baptism in the 1st century, I was left clueless.  What could
possibly be so important about getting wet at the SDA church?

Actually, the fact of my mercy ship visit to Pitcairn (an officially SDA
country) and having led worship in the SDA church there has allowed me the
privilege of preaching in SDA pulpits- not so cultish after all- but it
was a wonder that I stayed with the program back then.  I agreed to be
baptized out of peer pressure but it was a meaningless and confusing
experience for me.  I figured you had to take some weirdness along with
the human territory of church life.

My confusion was multiplied when I told my atheist parents I had been
baptized. My father was angry about my being part of a superstitious
ritual.  Inscrutably, my mother produced a very old certificate and
informed me that it was all unnecessary since I had been baptized as an
infant!  I was incredulous.  “You made me go through this as a baby!  What
possible meaning or understanding or reason would there be for that?”  It
was the first I was to learn of the practice of paedobaptism.  My atheist
mother had apparently also given in to peer pressure when she was
encouraged, by Episcopal relatives, one a priest, to have her baby
baptized.  So uncle Tony Baptized his tiny nephew- inscribed on the old
card were the words that John Volney Rush III was “destined to become a
child of God.”  The prophecy left me speechless!  I have kept the card- it
is a reminder of the promise of God to a confused rationalist orphan.

I tell this story and also give a copy of the great book Children of
Promise by Geoffrey Bromiley when I am asked about this mystery.  I am
still a little clueless- but I have become more at home in the world of
symbol and sacrament.

These have been very important questions for a post-Woodstock convert of
the Jesus Movement who was raised by philosophical atheists.  From the
very beginning, Christianity was a journey into a whole new world of the
supernatural and the symbolic.  For some, conversion is the realization of
childhood instruction and culture.  For me it was the upheaval of a whole
world view and entering into a new wild world of Pentecostal spirituality
and Evangelical sensibilities seeking to come to grips with a
counter-culture harvest.  We had no interest in or understanding of
denominational distinctions or theological nuance.

I met my best lifetime friend at a Christian counter-culture coffee house
run by local churches.  I had been converted from being a very studious
leader of the town High School Atheist group while he was still showing
the effects of long time pot abuse.  I would try to discuss astrophysics
and God while he would slowly, turn, nod and focus- “That’s heavvvy man.”
I learned all the new lingo and how to play the guitar from him while he
learned sobriety from me.

We both became leaders in the local AOG church where we learned something of the distance between denominational/doctrinal “distinctives” and the claim that the Bible was the only real authority for truth and practice.
I went on to start an independent and “truly Biblical” community church
while he reconnected with his Jewish roots, became a computer guru and a
Rabbi for a Messianic Congregation in the Silicon Valley. It has been a
vital dimension of my own faith to be in dialog with Rabbi Cohen and to be
connected with this community as I preach for them about once a year.

These connections with historic Jewish spirituality, as well as my own
subsequent service as an Evangelical minister and Episcopal priest,
provide an interesting dialog with my own experience in independent church
development and the global YWAM culture.