This evening we consider our second lesson on the baptism of children. My specific focus is children under the age of ten. I am not indicating that above ten is the age for baptism. I use that age because under ten more easily illustrates the situation.

I am only sharing my understanding from my perspective and experience. This is an extremely difficult matter to discuss. I do not ask you to accept my thinking or my conclusions. All I ask is that you pursue a deeper understanding.

Tonight we look at the "big picture." We are not using a microscope. We are surveying from horizon to horizon. Certainly, exceptions exist.

  1. I want to begin by sharing my basic, "horizon to horizon," concept of sin.
    1. Sin exists in my life when my human will becomes aware and defiant.
      1. When I am aware of the significance of my choices and actions, and with understanding, I intentionally rebel against God, sin exists within me.
        1. I realize that I am talking about children and adults who have a basic knowledge of God and understand that good and evil exist.
        2. I also understand that sin exists in adults even when the adult does not know that God exists and has a distorted sense of good and evil.
        3. However, that is not our children's situation, and they are our focus.
        4. No child who has zero awareness of God and no awareness of the existence of good and evil has asked me about being baptized.
      2. That moment when sin comes to life in our lives is inseparably connected to the awakening and the exercise of our will.
        1. That moment involves much more than making a choice.
        2. A child can perform an evil act at a time when he or she is not capable of understanding the significance of the act.
        3. As an example, that is the cruel, horrible, continuing consequence of the sexual molestation of a child.
          1. The child has a sexual experience and that makes him or her sexually aware of realities that are not a part of childhood knowledge.
          2. But the child does not understand the significance of the experience.
          3. Because of the experience, the child can "act out" parts of the experience with no awareness of the significance of what he or she is doing.
    2. This illustrates a devastating situation we face in today's society.
      1. Consider another example.
      2. For many reasons, children today are exposed to many forms of violence.
      3. A child can be very knowledgeable in the "how" and "what" of violence and have no comprehension of the significance of violence.
      4. He or she factually can understand acts of violence, but have no comprehension of the impact and consequence of violence on relationships or futures.
      5. In our society some children perform unthinkable acts of violence.
      6. Yet, laws are an ineffective deterrent because children do not comprehend the significance or long term consequence of the violent act.
      7. What is an eight year old's comprehension of ten years in prison?

  2. A child begins to comprehend significance as the child develops the ability to do abstract thinking.
    1. Abstract thinking is thinking that understands concepts, the significance of concepts, and the interaction of concepts.
    2. For years a child's thoughts are based on the oversimplified examination of facts, but not on abstract considerations.
      1. Consider as an example Mom and Dad's love for each other.
      2. Ask the child, "Should Mom and Dad love each other?"
        1. Declared as a fact, the child says, "Yes."
        2. Ask the child how Mom and Dad should build and sustain this love, and the child does not understand the question.
        3. There is no "how" to be considered; Mom and Dad just love each other.
      3. Mom and Dad's love dies, and Mom and Dad decide to divorce.
        1. Have you tried to explain impending divorce to a child?
        2. It is not possible because the child is not capable of understanding an adult's abstract reasoning.
      4. What are the adult reasons behind their decision to divorce? Consider some common ones.
        1. "I am suffocating in this relationship; I will die inside if I don't get out of it."
        2. "I feel totally abandoned, intensely alone, and deeply depressed."
        3. "He/she treats me like I don't exist, like I am a non-person--it is as if I am not a part of his/her life."
        4. "Our marriage is sucking the life out of me; I feel like I am lost in a sea of darkness."
        5. "I am so tired of hurting; I am emotionally exhausted."
        6. "I feel so empty, like I have nothing left to give this relationship."
      5. Do you understand the meaning of those statements?
        1. Most adults understand the meaning of these instantly--even if they totally disagree with the statements, adults understand their meaning.
        2. Try to explain the meaning of those statements to a child.
      6. Because we can't explain them to the child, we interpret them with a horrible oversimplification: "Mom and Dad don't love each other any more, so we are not going to live together anymore."
      7. The child searches for an understandable reason for this devastating news.
        1. In past months, as the marriage grew worse and worse, there was anger, hostility, cold silence, and hot arguments.
        2. The child witnessed every feeling.
        3. In his or her oversimplified world of factual thought, he or she decides, "It is my fault--I see the anger, I feel the hostility, I hear the silence, I hear the arguments--they occur when I am around."
        4. They tell me, "Be quiet and eat your supper," or, "Go watch television," or they refuse to answer my questions--but I see anger when Mom and Dad look at me."
        5. "I caused this to happen. I didn't clean up my room, or turn down the TV, or feed the dog, or make less noise, or get my homework."
        6. "If I do what I am supposed to do perfectly, I will fix it, and it will be okay."
      8. Then he or she is totally confused when he or she tries hard and can't fix it.
      9. That often begins a life of anger, or guilt, or rebellion, or all three.
    3. A child thinks in factual terms long before he or she has the ability to think in abstract terms.
      1. A child can respond to facts long before he or she can commit to concepts.
      2. He or she is capable of making a serious, short-term commitment long before he or she is capable of making a significant, long-term commitment.
      3. Let me use another illustration.
        1. What was the agreement your child made when he or she wanted you to buy the dog?
        2. "Please, Mom, please! Ple-e-e-ease Dad! I will take care of it! I will fed it, and water it, and walk it, and play with it! I will! I will! Please!"
        3. So you buy the dog, and what happens?
          1. Short term, the commitment was serious and sincere.
          2. But he or she did not comprehend the significance of eight years of dog care (even one!); trips to the vet; conflicts with other activities; that cute, playful puppies become not so cute, not so playful dogs; and that responsibility is work.
      4. When our oldest son Jon was six years old, he declared that he would marry Patti, another six year, and they would live in this huge white house.
        1. Patti's parents and Joyce and I thought that was cute.
        2. It was cute because it was an impossible commitment.
          1. Neither Jon nor Patti understood the significance of that commitment.
          2. Neither Jon nor Patti understood the significance of marriage.
          3. Neither Jon nor Patti understood the significance of the changes that would occur in their lives before they became young adults.
      5. Aside from baptism, can you think of a long-term or life-time commitment that we leave up to the personal choice of an eight year old?
        1. Even when parents divorce, an eight year old is not permitted to chose the parent he or she will live with.
        2. Why do we withhold such decisions from eight year olds?
        3. We know that they can not comprehend the significance of long term commitments.

  3. There are several reasons for baptism.
    1. When John baptized, baptism was:
      1. Based on repentance (Matthew 3:1-2,6; Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3).
      2. For the forgiveness of sin (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3).
    2. Jesus himself, who had no sin, was baptized to "fulfill all righteousness" (Matthew 3:13-15).
    3. After Jesus' death and resurrection, those who were converted were baptized:
      1. As a declaration of life-redirecting faith in Jesus as the Christ and/or life- redirecting faith in the kingdom of God (Acts 8:12,13; 18:8).
      2. As an expression of repentance (there was a powerful emphasis on repentance: Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 20:18-21).
      3. For the forgiveness or the washing away of sin (Acts 2:38; 10:43; 22:16).
      4. To save a person (Acts 16:31-33; 1 Peter 3:21)
      5. To place a person in Christ (Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27).
      6. To let a person participate in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (Romans 6:3-5; Colossians 2:12).
      7. To place a person in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12,13).
      8. To clothe a person in Christ (Galatians 3:27).
      9. It appears to me that all of those reasons are more than facts to be recognized; all require the comprehension of abstract thinking.

  4. Both the drop out rate and rebaptism decisions are old realities.
    1. But, within my experience, there have been fairly recent changes.
    2. Twenty-six years of my preaching life were spent working for congregations with college or university programs.
      1. For years, it was not uncommon for college students to request rebaptism.
        1. Typically, dedicated, involved students who were active in the student program and/or active helping lead worship made that request.
        2. The two most common reasons given were, "I did not know what I was doing," or, "I was baptized because a friend was baptized."
      2. This was the way I responded to the situation.
        1. We discussed the reality of spiritual growth.
        2. We carefully studied baptism.
        3. I stressed there is no example of rebaptism of a saved person.
        4. I said his or her rebaptism declared that he or she was not a Christian.
        5. The person was to think and pray about it for at least 24 hours; if the person returned requesting baptism, I would baptize him or her.
        6. We did it privately to avoid influencing other Christian students to conclude, "If he or she needs to be baptized again, then I surely need to be baptized again."
      3. It was always true that the drop out rate among college or university students was much higher than the request for rebaptism. Commonly, the drop out occurred the day they arrived on campus--the decision was made pre-arrival.
    3. The change I saw was this: the number of students requesting rebaptism declined, and the drop out rate increased.
      1. I know this is a complex matter; I know many factors are involved.
      2. I have no desire to exaggerate or misrepresent the situation.
      3. This is my observation:
        1. Today, children who are baptized before they develop the ability to use abstract thinking are more likely to drop out when he or she later experiences serious temptation or a sin crisis.
        2. Today, more adolescents who were baptized prior to entering adolescence seem to decide the following when he or she encounters crisis temptation or sin:
          1. "If my baptism had the power to make me a Christian, I would not experience this temptation or sin crisis."
          2. "If my baptism was significant, God would protect me from this sin or temptation."
          3. "Something was wrong; something was false; baptism would prevent these experiences if baptism were real."
      4. To me, this is one of the great dangers of baptizing a child for the remission of sins before he or she comprehends sin, experiences sin, or has sin.

There is an additional factor that makes this matter even more confusing. The book of Acts deals only with the conversion of first generation Christians, all of whom are adults. Most of the epistles are written to first generation Christians. The New Testament contains no information about the conversion of the children of those first Christians.

It is not a simple problem. It is a very serious problem.

David Chadwell

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Evening Sermon, 25 October 1998


Excerpts from Why Churches Grow, by Flavil R. Yeakley, Jr., Ph.D., Chapter 2, "A Profile of the Convert," pp. 26-29, "The Age Factor."

In the study of 720 subjects discussed throughout this chapter [adults, from various religious backgrounds], one of the individual characteristic variables that did not turn out to be significant in distinguishing among converts, drop-outs, and non-converts was the age factor. . . . There is reason to suspect that the conversion process is somewhat different for children who are brought up by members of the church of Christ. For them, there is no alienation from an earlier reference group identification. . . . A follow-up study was done to investigate this matter.

The records of several randomly selected congregations were studied for the period 1965-1970 in order to identify 200 subjects who were baptized at various ages. In no case was there any record in these congregations of children being baptized before the age of 8, so that was selected as the starting point.

Subject Categories
Age at which Subject
was Baptized
8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15
Still Faithful 7 9 11 12 15 15 16 17 102
Drop-Outs 18 16 14 13 10 10 9 8 98
TOTALS 25 25 25 25 25 25 25 25 200

The relation shown in Table 5 is quite weak, although statistically significant. As you go across the row for those who are still faithful, notice how the numbers in the cells get larger and larger as the age of baptism increases and notice how the reverse is true with those who dropped out of the church.

Results of a test comparing those who were rebaptized and those who were not rebaptized on the variable of the age at which they were baptized originally are presented in Table 6. Notice how the younger the subject was at the time of his original baptism, the more likely he was to be rebaptized.

Subject Categories
Age at which Subject
was Baptized Originally
8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15
Re-Baptized 7 8 7 7 4 3 0 0 36
Not Re-Baptized 0 1 4 5 11 12 16 17 66
TOTALS 7 9 11 12 15 15 16 17 102

One final test was done with these data. In this test, the subjects who were eventually rebaptized were grouped with those who dropped out and this group was compared with those subjects who were not rebaptized and did not drop out. Results of that test are shown in Table 7.

Subject Categories
Age at which Subject
was Baptized Originally
8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15
Still Faithful,
  Not Re-Baptized
0 1 4 5 11 12 16 17 66
Re-Baptized or
  Dropped Out
25 24 21 20 14 13 9 8 134
TOTALS 25 25 25 25 25 25 25 25 200

The data reported in Table 7 make it very clear that age at the time of baptism is an important factor. Only 2 percent of those who were baptized before the age of 10 remained faithful and were satisfied with their original baptism.

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