Once upon a time an 11-year-old girl was studying the Scriptures in a class run by her Wesleyan pastor. She was hungry for God and sensitive to spiritual things.
She would later tell people that it was at this age she was converted and the next year baptised, becoming a member of the Methodist Church.
When she was 13, she listened to an itinerant preacher tell about the soon coming of Christ and began to call herself an Adventist. Within herself, however, she still sensed she was not worthy or holy enough to meet Jesus. At the age of 15, while attending another set of Adventist outreach meetings, she had a revelation that Jesus fully accepted her and loved her because of what He had done for her. She was overwhelmed with love for Him.
Despite ups and downs, this joyful experience would flavour her work and ministry for the rest of her youth and adult life. The year was 1842, and the girl’s name was Ellen Gould Harmon (See Early Writings preface, pp. 11,12).
The worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church, of which young Ellen Harmon (later White) was a co-founder, has in its DNA a desire to avoid some of the unscriptural practices that arose within wider Christianity during the medieval period. However, sometimes when trying to avoid one unscriptural extreme, it is possible to take ourselves to another. One of the practices we have traditionally made a concerted effort to avoid is infant baptism.
During the late patristic period of Christianity, for various practical and theological reasons (eg, limited availability of water in desert areas, inability to discern the eternal destiny of babies who died unbaptised, etc), the practice of believer baptism by full immersion as we see it in the New Testament began to be substituted for the pouring of water on the head of infants.
As Adventists we have taught that infant baptism takes significance away from the meaning and function of biblical baptism. In order to be baptised, one must believe (Mark 16:16) and in order to believe, one must first have at least some level of understanding of God’s Word (Romans 10:17). We take our example from Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian, where he first preaches Christ from the scroll of Isaiah and afterward baptises (Acts 8:29-38). All of that has a biblical basis.
However, in many places we have also taken one step away from the Scripture and said that in order to hear and understand God’s Word, a person must have attained a certain age.
Exactly what age this is, we actually have no united position on. In some places we do the “double digit dunk” (age 10+). Elsewhere 12 or 13 is okay because of the Jewish bar mitzvah/bat mitzvah “age of accountability” tradition. In some places we say 16 is too young because they haven’t finished school yet. In other places 19 and 20-year-old men and women still have questions raised in board meetings when their names are presented for baptism. “Are you really sure they are old enough to get it?” Ironically these candidates are often university students grappling with far more difficult things than the profound simplicity of the gospel story. All of these “set ages” for baptism are completely arbitrary and unbiblical.
We make this unscriptural practice sound very holy by saying, “They must be old enough to understand!” Which is true. What we don’t say is what we mean by that statement: “I’m the only one who can judge when they are old enough to understand.”
That is categorically not true—the reason being that God is involved with this process. Because of His powerful and dynamic ways, and because every human mind is different, it is actually impossible for one person to really know exactly when another person has comprehended the gospel. In fact, if young Ellen Harmon’s experience is any indication, it seems normal that people’s understanding of God’s love will develop and grow over time—even long after their baptism.
Luckily God doesn’t require a full and complete understanding of every line of His Word as a prerequisite for entry into His kingdom. All He requires is faith (Ephesians 2:8). That’s the reason why we don’t ask people to articulate our doctrines during their baptismal service vows; we only ask if they believe them.
I really praise Him for this because I’m continually shocked at how many church members of many years cannot themselves articulate some of the basic fundamentals of our faith.
The next time you are sitting in an adult Sabbath School class, try asking the question “What is the gospel?” and see how many people stare at you like you just put out bacon at a potluck!
It’s possible that, because at times we don’t understand these things ourselves, we imagine that there is no way someone younger than us ever could. Praise God, that idea is a load of Bologna. And anyone who really believes it has simply never attempted to communicate with young people.
"All of these 'set ages' for baptism are completely arbitrary and unbiblical."
When I was a chaplain at a primary school, I observed this heartbreaking process over and over again. I would study the Bible with a child for years. They understood everything I showed them. They were ready and excited about being baptised. But the service would be blocked because they were “too young to understand”.
With one group I spent a year studying all our fundamental doctrines and another year going systematically through the books of Daniel and Revelation. All of the kids in the group were on fire. Only one family let their child be baptised. Guess what? Now that child is the only one who is still interested in spiritual things. When the rest grew old enough to satisfy their families, they had lost interest. What difference would have been made in their lives if they had the Holy Spirit’s gifts to guide, help and direct them through their adolescence?
Look, I don’t judge those families and churches. It’s hard when you’ve watched a child from infancy to see them as really ready for the next stage in their journey. It’s for this reason I actually believe friends and family aren’t always the best judge of when a child is ready for baptism. I think that the person who studies with them tends to be in the best position to make that appraisal. But these kids had been told they weren’t good enough to join with Christ so many times that they just decided they never would be. And that’s sad.
Current research into youth retention in our denomination is sustaining my experience as common. It seems that the age when most people make their real decision for Christ is in what we would call the upper primary/junior/early teen age bracket. That decision needs to be affirmed and supported by their community of faith or they will tend to fall away . . . and increasingly they aren’t coming back.
And yet this is the group we devote the least attention, money and human resources to, isn’t it? It’s the group we take least seriously. No wonder we have a youth retention problem.
A few weeks ago I watched online as an early teen friend of mine was baptised. While sharing his testimony he told how long he had been waiting for that day, how many times he had asked for Bible studies and how many times he had filled out cards at camps and other events begging for baptism. For the longest time, no-one had taken him seriously because he was “too young to understand”. How many like him are out there and grew discouraged, never making it through?
Each year many homes, schools, local churches and conferences in our Division run amazing home groups, Sabbath Schools, weeks of worship, camps, concerts and VBS programs. Children’s ministry programs are something we tend to execute well, and often. During those programs God gives us many kids, including many who have never been to church before. Solid biblical messages are given through the mediums of preaching, Bible study and memorisation, stories, craft, activities, object lessons and songs. The gospel is presented. Appeals are made. In response to fervent prayer, many of those kids make real decisions to become followers of Christ. Some indicate they would like someone to study the Bible with them and others of those precious young people indicate that they would like to be baptised at some stage in the future. What we don’t do well is to take those decisions seriously.
What is your church doing with these kids after those results are reported?
I suggest you heed the words of Jesus: “ . . . suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:14, KJV).
Daniel Matteo is Youth Ministries director for the Tasmanian Conference and pastor of New Norfolk church. He is married to Katy and has two children, Grace and Samuel.