Household Baptisms In Acts And Teen-Aged Children Of Adult Converts

Adam writes to ask about the baptism of fifteen-year old children of an adult convert. Should they be baptized before or after catechesis?


Hi Adam,

This is a great question and a difficult one. I think it is correct to say that one could find orthodox Reformed writers on both sides of the question. I have been both sides of this one.

One view would be to follow the pattern of the book of Acts where whole households received the sign of baptism. The term house or household (οἶκος) has a range of meaning in Luke-Acts.1 In Luke 1:23, When Zechariah the priest finished his service, he is said to have returned to his οἶκος. There it means his particular home (see also 1:40, 1:56; 5:24, 25; 6:4, 48; 7:10). In v. 27, however, Joseph is said to be of the house of David, which refers to lineage (see also v.33; 2:4). In 11:17 it refers to an entire kingdom, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household (οἶκος) falls…” In 13:35 it refers to the entire nation of Israel: “Behold, your house is forsaken….” It has the same sense in Acts 2:36, “Let all the house (οἶκος) of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (see also 7:42). Acts 7:10 uses οἶκος for the “household” of Pharaoh, which certainly included a great number of servants and family. Acts 11:12–14 are interesting because house (οἶκος) is used in both verses in two senses. Verse 12 says “and we entered the man’s house” but v. 14 says, “ he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.” The ESV captures the distinction by using house in the first instance and household in the second. The building where people sleep and eat is not going to hear the message of salvation but a range of people whose familial relations and associations, who by synecdoche be described as a household (οἶκος) shall. The same phenomenon occurs in Acts 16:15:

And after she was baptized, and her household (οἶκος) as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house (οἶκος) and stay.”

We are not told specifically who those people were in the household but we know something about what a first-century household included and that would be both infants and adult servants. Apparently, then, both received the signed of baptism. Louw and Nida define “household” used in this sense, thus:

the family consisting of those related by blood and marriage, as well as slaves and servants, living in the same house or homestead—‘family, household.2

The same phenomenon occurs in Acts 16:31–34:

And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.  And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized immediately, he and all his. Then he brought them up into his house (οἶκος) and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household (οἶκος) that he had believed in God (Ac 16:31–34;).

As in the case of Lydia’s οἶκος here it refers both to the dwelling place and to the dwellers therein. The temptation some face is to limit who could potentially be counted as part of the household on the basis that, in v. 34, the whole household is said to have believed but that is more a priori assumption than inference from the text itself. We have seen that, in these contexts, when οἶκος is used to refer to a social unit (Pharaoh’s household, a city, a national people) it is quite inclusive. We have also seen that the word can be used in two distinct, if related, senses (e.g., a building and a group of people) in very close proximity. That may well be what is happening here. The Word was spoken to everyone in the house, i.e., the law and the gospel were preached. The Philippian jailer and “all his (καὶ οἱ αὐτοῦ πάντες) were baptized. The ESV adds “family” but that’s an inference that may or may not be present. In both cases, Lydia and the Philippian jailer, there were almost certainly others present. We cannot import to the 1st century our late modern idea of small nuclear families. These family units were likely extended and inclusive of slaves and infants. They were more like clans than what we think of as families. Then we must read v. 34 more carefully than is sometimes done. He, the Philippian jailer, rejoiced with his “whole household” (πανοικεὶ)—Luke is emphasizing the corporate nature of the event—”that he he had believed (πεπιστευκὼς) in God. The only person who said to have come to faith is the jailer. Lydia alone is said to believe: “and the Lord opened her heart” (διήνοιξεν τὴν καρδίαν προσέχειν) yet the whole household was baptized. The picture here is that the head of a household came to personal, saving faith and he and everyone one else, all the subsidiaries in his family corporation if you will, relatives, employees, all unnamed, were all baptized with him. They were all initiated into the visible covenant community. This practice, of course, rests on a different set of assumptions than are often made in American evangelicalism, which, since the Second Great-Awakening anyway, has tended toward radical individualism and a Baptistic view of the church and sacraments. Luke sees no incongruity between the gift of salvation being given immediately to Lydia and to the Jailer while, at the same time, understanding that, in the ordinary providence of God, people in covenant households are often brought gradually to faith. From the point of view of the Abrahamic covenant and promises this procedure is perfectly normal. In Genesis 17, Abraham and his whole house were circumcised. The first person circumcised was Ishmael, to whom the promise was not given.

The theological basis for this would be that baptism is a sign of initiation into the covenant community not necessarily a confirmation of faith. This is a most important distinction that can be difficult to understand from a Baptistic perspective, in which the baptism tends to fulfill both functions of initiation and confirmation or renewal. It is true that the Philippian jailer believed and was baptized. He was an adult covert who was hitherto uninitiated into the visible covenant community. It is also true that Abraham, believed and was circumcised as an adult. That did not prevent the Lord from instituting paedocircumcision (infant circumcision), if you will. Circumcision and baptism are rites of initiation into the visible covenant community. Initiation, however, is not confirmation or covenant renewal. That is the function of the supper. In both the cases of the household of Lydia and that of the Philippian jailer the heads of the household believed and were baptized and then the rest of the household was initiated into the covenant community. We are not told, however, that they were given communion. It is evident from 1 Corinthians 11 that some instruction (catechesis) was given before communion. We do not know how long or extensive that catechesis was but in the early church they sometimes imitated the three years during which our Lord instructed the disciples.

On the pattern of Lydia and the Philippian jailer there would seem to be grounds for initiating one’s teen-aged children into the covenant community by baptism unless there was professed unbelief or rejection of the gospel and covenant promises.

On the other side, it has been argued that these are no longer children but rather young adults who should receive catechetical instruction before baptism on the ground that they are themselves adult converts. If we regard them as adult converts in their own right, there may be pastoral wisdom in this approach. Whether we should regard them so, however, is an open question. Certainly they were not so regarded in the 1st century. If we answer the question of their status from a cultural perspective the response is mixed. At this writing there is a surge of millennials (18–36) who have returned home to live with their parents as subsidiaries. Legally 15 year-olds are not adults. They cannot ordinarily drive without an adult and they cannot vote or exercise other adult responsibilities. In the church we do not ordinarily allow 15 year-olds to vote in congregational meetings.

One difficulty exegetical and biblical difficulty with regarding them as adult converts is in the case of the household of the Philippian jailer they were all baptized immediately (παραχρῆμα). There does not seem to have been any time even for the most rudimentary catechesis. If this is so, then we are pushed toward initiating teen-aged covenant children as members of the household with an eye toward instructing them for communion. In this sense, we are treating them as we treat all covenant children. We do not know that our covenant infants believe but we baptize them on the basis of the promise: “I will be a God to you and to your children,” which Peter repeated at Pentecost: “For the promise is to you and to your children….” We pray for them. We instruct them and, when the make a credible profession of faith, we admit them to the Lord’s table. Unless one’s teens rebel against being identified visibly with Christ—please note that I did not write “united to Christ” as that would be the Federal Vision error—then it seems that we are justified in following this pattern.

What if they refuse to make profession of faith? The answer is another question: what does the church do with covenant children who do not make a profession of faith or who, God forbid, should profess unbelief? We discipline them. They have not been admitted to the table but we proceed with the other steps of church discipline. We confront them about their unbelief and call them to repentance and faith. If they persist then, tragically, the church would be forced to recognize that state of affairs by announcing it to the congregation and calling for prayer and perhaps even fasting. Such a person is the object of evangelical prayer, concern, and words.

Is it absolutely certain that this is the correct response? No but the evidence from Acts 16 seems quite strong.


1. Moulton and Milligan The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1930), s.v., οἶκος illustrates the range of usage contemporary with the New Testament. That range of usage is reflected in the NT. See also s.v., οἶκος, Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament etc, 2nd edn (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979).

2. Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 112.

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  1. Acts 16:34 says “rejoiced, believing in God with all his house”. No infants there. Or if there were, there is no reason to believe that they had been baptized, any more than that they were rejoicing and believing in God.
    Actually, isn’t “Be baptized” a command to be obeyed? Why do we not see in Scripture a command to hand over an infant to receive the waters?

    • John,

      Please re-read the post. It is impossible to say, “no infants there.” Only one person is said to have believed and yet the others are said to have been baptized. That’s a fact. No infants? That’s sheer speculation and supposition that does not accord with the evidence of how the word was used.

  2. What if they refuse to make profession of faith? The answer is another question: what does the church do with covenant children who do not make a profession of faith or who, God forbid, should profess unbelief? We discipline them.

    The church has only been given responsibility and authority to discipline members of the church, and unbaptized persons are not members of the church. I think the appropriate another question is, what does the church do with unbaptized, visitors/attenders who do not make a profession of faith or who, God forbid, should profess unbelief? Answer: preach the gospel to them (and engage in apologetics, if that’s different).

  3. Very good analysis. In the American Church I think this most often comes up when baptists convert to the reformed faith and have children who are not ready to make their own profession. I’ve seen several family baptisms this way (well, minus the parents who are usually already baptized), and my wife was baptized as an older child with her younger sibling.

    You mention that you don’t ordinarily allow 15 year-olds to vote. Is this because they aren’t usually communing members yet? I think communion around the age of 12 is not at all unusual in the presbyterian church–certainly by age 14. The PCA actually doesn’t allow age to be barrier to voting, but it doesn’t always work out that way in practice.

    • Hi Scott,

      Voting age may vary from place to place but in my experience, in mostly German and Dutch Reformed settings, members don’t vote until they are older. Sometimes this is by by policy and sometimes by practice. I’ve argued to Dutch Reformed folk that we should separate the age of communion from the age of voting in congregational meetings. The fear of young people voting causes them sometimes to unduly delay profession and communion.

  4. Scott, re the point about disciplining baptized but unprofessing members (i.e. children who have been baptized but refuse profession), could you say a bit more? How is discipline warranted one who hasn’t been admitted to the table yet (not enough of a member to sup but member enough to be formally disciplined)? Is there a difference between “refusal” and “delayed”?

    • Erasure is a disciplinary process. It’s letting one go his own way, presumably after judicious pastoral measures to reclaim him. Discipline in an informal sense is one way of describing daily life of the whole church, including the teaching ministry from the pulpit.

      Once the church is dealing with a covenant-child who is old enough to depart his former home, and abandon the fellowship of faith–once it is clear he is throwing off the yoke and refuses all admonition–what’s left but to warn the prodigal (with tears) and let him alone, Hos.4:17?

        • Hi Zrim,

          Sorry to delay. Some thoughts.

          1. Baptized members are members and as such are under obligation to profess faith and to live accordingly. That is to say, we’re not Baptists. If the Abrahamic covenant is the pattern, and it is, then there are consequent obligations of being in the covenant of grace. E.g., those boys who had been born during the wilderness journey had not been circumcised (Josh 5:5). It wasn’t their fault, nevertheless they had to be circumcised as adults.

          2. Erasure is a silent discipline. There have long been silent steps in discipline but it’s difficult to square the final step in a disciplinary process that is silent. Matt 18 says “tell it to the church.” If a person is of an age where they may reasonably be expected to have professed faith, they should not be sent silently into the world. Their unbelief and rejection of the covenant promises should, arguably, be announced to the congregation and prayers should be said in the congregation for that person, just as we pray by name in the final step of discipline of someone who’s made profession and walked away.

          3. Consider Hebrews 6, which describes those who’ve been “enlightened” and “tasted of the powers of the age to come.” That’s a good description of baptized members. Hebrews 10:29 is even more pointed:

          How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?

          This is a good description of those who’ve been publicly identified with Christ, who’ve been catechized, who nevertheless, walk away from the visible covenant community. Is a silent erasure a sufficient recognition of the gravity of the jeopardy faced by the baptized member who refuses to profess faith?

          • Thanks, Scott. I think I can see what you’re saying. But it’s your final rhetorical question that nags at me. I understand you mean to answer by asking, i.e. no, silent measure isn’t sufficient. But I wonder, because it seems like handling a baptized (outward) member the same as a communicant (inward) member. I can’t help but think something is getting rushed over here–one isn’t afforded the benefit of inward membership (communion) being held accountable in the same manner as one who is afforded that benefit (ex-communication)? A civil example in reverse might be drafting a citizen for war but disallowing him the right to vote–you can die for us but you can’t participate in the democratic process.

            This is why I asked also whether you distinguish between “refusal” and “delayed.” Instead of the baptized but as yet unprofessing member, Hebrews 6 actually seems like a better description of either the baptized but denying or the the baptized and communicant member who now spurns the grace of God.

            So do you allow for the category of silent erasure at all? If so, what would that look like if not the baptized but delayed/agnostic member?

            • Zrim,

              I’ve argued against erasure in the past. It might be the right thing to do in some cases but it should at least be announced to the congregation. A baptized member is a member. There may be a case where it’s best (for whatever reasons) to allow someone to slip away silently but I’m not sure what those circumstances would be. The elders and pastor(s) should pursue a lost or straying sheep. When to quit pursuing and to discipline is a judgment call.

              I’m not troubled by drafting boys who can’t vote. I remember those arguments. It seems a little confused to say, “if able to follow orders and fire a weapon, then able to make decisions about the body politic.” I don’t think that follows.

              Some measure of public discipline recognizes the genuine privilege of being entered into and raised in the midst of the covenant community. I’m in no hurry about this and would counsel a consistory to err on the side of patience and caution. It might be a salutary thing for young people see a public act of discipline, to illustrate that being in the covenant community is a serious thing.

    • Dr Clark, what level of profession would you require to avoid the discipline of erasure, whether public or private? Are you saying that if a paedobaptized person doesn’t proceed to the Lord’s Table within a reasonable period of time, they should be disciplined just for that? I’ve never come across a paedobaptist denomination in which this is done! Certainly not the FPCofS, to which Albert Hemd belongs. Maybe when they either drift away from attending the services, verbally deny the truth of what they have been taught, or start to live scandalously? I remember reading about a non-communicant young woman in 18th century Scotland, made pregnant by her fiance and expecting to be publicly rebuked in church (She then meditated on how she would expose some of the elders’ sins, but instead of doing any such thing, she got genuinely converted), so such policies are not entirely without precedent.
      In my brand of Baptist belief, children of believers are initiated into the Covenant by birth, same as Isaac was, who only received the then Sign of the Covenant some seven days after he was born, i.e., In my view, infant initiation, except by birth, did not even belong to the Old Covenant or the Abrahamic Covenant, let alone its expression in the New.

  5. Greeting Scott,

    This is an excellent post. We have had several new families join our church (Amen!) and have had a family baptism which included father, mother and infant. We also have some “messy” family situations as well which makes this question timely.

    Reading Genesis 17:26,27:

    That very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised. And all the men of his house, those born in the house and thought bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.

    We have then the explicit parameters being
    1. male,
    2. household/house: family and servants and slaves,
    3. explicitly 8 days old up to age 13 (Ishmael)

    The last parameter then is the upper age limit and that is dependent on how one interprets the word “men” in verse 27.

    ‘ If the word men is to mean and adult male, when does a male reach adulthood?
    Does the mention of Ishmael’s age, 13, suggest that 13 is the age of maturing in adulthood?’

    Regardless, it makes no sense that there would be a gap in circumcision, considering verse 14;

    ‘ Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people, he has broken my covenant. ‘

    Could we say baptism within the household (anyone under your care or guardianship) is a sign of the Covenant of Grace that God made with the spiritual head of that household? regardless of how old one’s children are that are within your care.

    I can’t see a biblical reason why anyone living under guardianship of parents, especially under their own roof would be granted a pass on baptism due to age. Yes it may take more teaching, which would be handled in whatever Basic Belief class one must attend to become a member anyway. In this situation the teaching is first and foremost on the adult parent(s) and spiritual head(s). After that and in case of a disagreement of the parents great prayer and wisdom is needed, but ultimately is it is a commandment of God and man’s views should always be subordinate.

    I can say this easily since my children were born into a covenant family and baptized almost immediately. Many in the reformed churches today can not say this. They come from many and various routes and through lots of mire and muck. The cleansing process may be long, and it should above all be gentle and loving. Let us live with each other remembering that God draws all children to himself in his own good providence, and that those of us that are of the household of faith should live prayerfully and diligently seeking the good of those around us in all love and kindness.

    Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

    Thanks for this post.

    • Ginger (aka Z-mom),
      Good to see your name! I hope all is well with you and yours. And glad to hear numbers are being adding to the church. I found your comments helpful for further thinking through some of the practical implications of baptism… and so well said. Thanks.

  6. Dr. Clark,

    Is there any merit to the idea that the commandment to Abraham to circumise his whole household was meant both for his immediate household and for every Hebrew male thereafter who, by extension, would be “of the household” of Abraham? It seems that people forget that the practice began with Abraham, but did not need to be continually re-commanded to future Israelite families. Once instituted, it “echoed” forward through history.

    If so, could the NT command and practice of baptism of a “whole household” be seen as pointing back to this Abrahamic mandate and, by definition, include all the progeny of any baptized believer from the point of his/her own salvation forward? Wouldn’t this command mean all living children at the time of conversion as well as any future children of the convert? In the same sense as circumcision, it seems covenantally consistent that once instituted within the household of a new believer, the practice of baptism would “echo” forward within that particular household exactly as circumcision did within all of Israel, the children of Abraham.

    Also, I never hear the Baptistic side explain why there is not a NT command for new believers to withhold baptism from their children until they make a “profession of faith”.

  7. What if they refuse to make profession of faith? The answer is another question: what does the church do with covenant children who do not make a profession of faith or who, God forbid, should profess unbelief? We discipline them… To be clear, I was speaking to the question of what to do with baptizedpersons who refuse to make profession of faith.

    Dr. Clark, can you clarify the difference, in your mind, between not making a profession of faith and professing unbelief? I believe this gets at the question that Zrim and John Rokos were asking above.

    • In Reformed churches “profession of faith” is a formal act. Covenant children ordinarily make informal professions of faith to their parents very early but we’re talking about what happens after catechesis, when a covenant child appears before the elders and makes profession, is received as a member, and makes public profession of faith before the congregation. We may distinguish between formal and informal or public and private.

      As part of the catechetical process, which I’ve described here, and here, children are bound to ask questions and even, especially during the “pert” phase, express doubts. What we’re discussing is the crisis that occurs when a covenant child or young person simply refuses to profess faith (perhaps because of doubts or agnosticism) or professes active unbelief, which is different from doubting. At that point, what does a consistory do, how do they respond?

      • And this is what my questioning was getting at. We seem to have two types of baptized non-professors, the passive and the aggressive. I know you disagree, Scott, but it still seems like formal erasure would befit the passive while formal ex-communication the aggressive. I don’t think the former is to be any less serious about what baptism signifies or what membership means, just that different instances call for different treatment.

          • Why is it spiritually best or wisest to allow baptized members simply to walk away from the church without any public response?

            It isn’t and it’s not what I’m suggesting. What I’m suggesting is the possibility of those baptized but passively non-professing receive what has been called here “erasure,” which would seem at once less severe than ex-communication for baptized but aggressively denying the faith but also just as public.

            • Zrim,

              Erasure is usually done silently. Help me understand what you mean by “passively non-professing” and how this helps one who refuses to profess faith.

              To be clear, if someone comes to the pastor or to the consistory and says,

              “Look, I’m really struggling here. Some lectures in college really shook my faith but I want to continue attending and I’m asking for time to work through the issues.”

              that’s one thing. To one who is honestly struggling we ought to show grace, patience, and mercy. To one who is indifferent, another stance is warranted. If someone is unresponsive to overtures from the consistory, that’s another. If they ignore the consistory or simply walk away from the congregation, that seems to demand a response from the church beyond a silent erasure from the rolls of the church.

              I’m influenced here by Matt 10:32–33:

              So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven

              Rev 3:5 is likely referring to a similar situation. In the early 90s through the 1st quarter of the 2nd century (and beyond) Christians were being asked not to confess Christ and particularly in the 2nd century they were asked by the magistrate to confess Caesar, to pour out an offering, and to deny Christ. Those who confessed Christ were martyred.

              In other words, being silent was not always an option. I think Christ’s words in Matthew anticipate that circumstance and should color how we think about a baptized member’s refusal to confess Christ before the congregation. Shouldn’t we publicly acknowledge that such a person is still under the law and not under grace? Might not that prick a baptized member’s conscience, as the law does, to push him toward Christ as the refuge of sinners?

              • Scott, I think you’re right. Much of my own concern here has been for that person you describe, the one who is delayed and perhaps not ready at the usual time to undergo examination and profess publicly, etc. I’ve been trying to carve out a space for that person, however poorly. I suppose the discussion seemed like an emphasis on the indifferent or aggressively denier, which then lends itself to emphasizing a more uncomfortable (albeit necessary) posture. Call me soft, but I’d prefer an emphasis on “grace, patience, and mercy” toward the honest struggler.

                • Zrim,

                  So it seems that we’re talking about two different cases. I’ve no interest in disciplining the struggler, the honest doubter, or the like. My question is what to do with the one who simply walks away from the church. Is that person really honestly engaging the questions? In my experience, no. They’ve decided that Sunday is better spent in bed, at the park, the mall, whatever. They’ve just checked out. I doubt that it’s helpful for that person to be allowed to walk away silently. I think the church should say something.

                  • Scott, agreed. I imagine part of the difficulty is in sorting out when it’s a matter of delayed or apathetic or flat denial.

                    • One good test is whether someone is showing good faith. The image behind the verb “to struggle” is engagement. When two wrestlers are engaged, they are grappling, they’re in contact. One one breaks off and moves away or, to change imagery, the boxer begins dancing around the ring, he’s no longer engaged, especially if he leaves the mat, the ring, and the arena.

                    • I like it. Let’s just hope for the struggler’s sake that we don’t have any pietists accusing him or her of “going through the motions.” Sometimes that’s all a sinner has.

    • Thanks. So you believe that a non-communicant member who has come of age but does not make a credible profession of saving faith in Christ in order to become a communicant member should be excommunicated from the church, correct?

      In my reply to HL above (still awaiting moderation), I included the following quote

      In Europe and in early America the children of baptized but non-communicant members were regularly baptized. Robert Ellis Thompson, in ‘A History of the Presbyterian Churches in the United States’ (1895, p. 14) reports [in reference to Congregationalists]: “The absence of regularly constituted sessions for the administration of church discipline, and the refusal of baptism to the children of baptized person who were not communicants, marked the local congregation as un-Presbyterian.” That is, communicant membership was not essential for the parents of infants to be baptized; and the author notes this was the rule in all the Reformed churches.

      1) Non-communicant members who came of age and did not become communicant members remained members of the church.
      2) Their children could/should still be baptized.
      3) This was the practice in all Reformed churches.

      Do you know when this practice changed into what you hold to?

      • 1. Baptized members, who have not made profession of faith, are not communicant members and therefore cannot be excommunicated but they can and may be disciplined for failing to make formal profession of faith. What is in question is when and how they should be disciplined.

        2. I’m not making any historical claims about the historic practice of American Presbyterians. I’m reflecting on the historic Reformed tradition as I understand it.

        3. I’m seeking to address the question of baptized members. Reformed churches are not Baptist. We have baptized members who have yet to make profession.

        4. If a person has not made profession of faith, their children would not ordinarily be baptized in a Reformed church. I don’t know of a confessional Reformed church that baptizes the children of those who do not make profession of faith.

    • Thanks. To clarify, do you believe that Thompson is in error when he says

      the refusal of baptism to the children of baptized persons who were not communicants marked the local congregation as un-Presbyterian. The latter rule was a rejection of the judgment of charity accepted by all the Reformed churches. It was one of the moot points between the two parties in the Westminster Assembly and in 1662 the severer rule had to be relaxed even in New England by the Half Way Covenant.

      (note, this is not a question specifically about American Presbyterians but “all the Reformed churches”)

      • Yes. I doubt this claim. I’ve never read a Reformed church order that allowed for the baptism of a child of unbaptized parents. Unbaptized parents wouldn’t be members in good standing in any rightly ordered Reformed or Presbyterian church. Nominally, they aren’t even Christians! How can they ask the church to acknowledge their children as covenant children when they themselves are outside the visible covenant community?

        I doubt that the Westminster Divines, who confessed:

        5. Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it; or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated. (WCF 28.5)

        Would have allowed for someone in a state of impenitent sin, i.e., someone who was themselves unbaptized, to present their children for baptism.

        Nothing in the Directory of Publick Worship would support the notion that those who are themselves unbaptized have any expectation that their children may be baptized.

        One possible exception would be in the case of adoption. Listen to Heidelcast ep. 12 where I argued that adopted children should indeed be baptized.

        The solution is relatively easy. If the parents want their children to be baptized then presumably they profess to believe. Given that, they should make profession of faith themselves before the elders, unite themselves to a true church, and present their children for baptism.

    • Dr. C,
      The practice in the early American context (of baptizing the child of the baptized-but-non-communicant member) was a hold-over from the European establishment era, and the single-parish-church fixture of ordinary community life. The assumptions of “Christendom” remained intact, transplanted over the Atlantic.

      Furthermore, especially the later period in Congregational New England was burdened with the conflicting principles of covenant-theology and existential-crisis-conversion. The latter took the place of formal catechesis, and the ordinary assumption of communicant duty as a simple matter of adult and reasonable faith following.

      The politico-social demands of the day further compromised membership in that church (which was neither Reformed nor Presbyterian, but non-conformist Anglican) by mandating that voting citizens had to be enrolled in the church. Many such persons were baptized but non-communicants. Colonial Congregationalists then faced the bleak prospect of considerable numbers of progeny in the second and later generations who were not viable subjects for baptism, leading to the “half-way covenant” expedient baptism sponsorship under those conditions.

      So, here is a perfect storm of political (secular) concerns trumping spiritual, ortho-adfectus elevated over orthodoxy, and absence of proper church discipline (and structure).

      That is to say: it would surprise me if there were more than a few adult, baptized but non-communicant members with children in any stable Reformed or Presbyterian parish in Europe or the American Colonies. Perpetuating the establishment-parish model in the American disestablished and free-church context could lead naturally to a few more baptisms of the children of non-communicant adherents. But the careful exercise of elder oversight should then have been accompanying those conditions (which the presented quotation assumes).

      With the dismantling of all vestiges of western “Christendom,” and the general individualistic (anti-discipline) strain of American religion, it should surprise no one that there are virtually no “parishes” left of any meaningful kind outside certain ethnic enclaves. Consequently, there are few (if any) baptisms of the children of non-communicants; provided church discipline is maintained. There is no stigma upon abandoning the church altogether, or finding another place more welcoming, and less spiritually demanding.

      There may be some mainliners who baptize anyone’s children who comes in the door, in the hopes that the parents will bring the children back occasionally to “their” church. Obviously, that’s not what was envisioned by the orderly Reformed churches. Members are subject to discipline, which means preparation for the Lord’s Supper–however long that takes. Unless they refuse instruction; under those conditions, in due time they won’t be members any longer.

    • I’ve never read a Reformed church order that allowed for the baptism of a child of unbaptized parents.

      Please re-read what I said and the quote I provided. None of it is talking about baptizing the children of someone who is unbaptized. Not sure where you got that from.

      After re-reading the quote from Thompson, can you again clarify if you think he is in error?


      • Sorry. I did misunderstand the question.

        So,to be clear, we’re talking about baptized members, who are not communicants, who are asking to have their children baptized?

        I would have to check but I’ve done a fair bit of reading in the church orders of the Dutch Reformed Churches in the 16th and early 17th centuries and I don’t recall provision being made for this.

        A baptized member is a sort of provisional membership. They are members but they are so with the expectation that they will make profession of faith. Someone who fails to make profession of faith is not normally entered into the membership rolls as a member in good standing. Communicant membership is, as far as I know, a prerequisite for having one’s children baptized.

        I defer to Bruce’s comments regarding early American practice. I haven’t researched it relative to the divines so I can only say that I would be surprised if the divines (as a group) intended that those who’ve not made profession of faith (who, in my view should probably be under discipline), should present their children for baptism.

        Again, if people want their children baptized, presumably they believe. If they believe, why don’t they make profession? That’s very puzzling.

        I understand the impulse to “have the baby done.” I’ve had people approach me over the years to ask me to baptize their child but it seems to me to baptize the children of people who are not not members in good standing of a true church is irregular to say the least.

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