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