Infant or Believers Baptism and High or Low Church

It has become more clear to me recently how tightly the the mode of baptism ties to your view of Christian cultural engagement, and how both of these are correlated to where you live on the high or low church spectrum. Here is the simplified version.

For most of Christian history baptism was practiced on infants. Now, from a Reformed viewpoint, this is a debate about covenant theology — are the children members of the covenant or not. From a Catholic viewpoint, its about something similar, but not looked at in exactly the same way. Baptism is about being a member of the church, the one saving community. Therefore, everyone must be baptized.

Now, what became obvious to the later reformers is that a baptized baby does not a Christian make. Whole societies full of baptized people could live just like the devil with no problem. Furthermore, they found no examples of infant baptism in the Scripture, so they moved to believer’s baptism. In doing so, however, something much bigger was happening. And what exactly this is can be seen in the life of Roger Williams and the later founding of America.

Roger Williams was basically a Puritan oriented type who started to believe in liberty of conscience rather than the more authority oriented view of the Puritans. The puritan society was a covenant community — where everyone had to be a believer and submitted to the authority of the General Court in matters both spiritual and temporal. For them, it was absolutely logical that you would baptize infants. They are part of the community by birth. Williams thought that each person must have the right to their own beliefs, not submitted to the state. After he was banished from the colony, this eventually led him to the believer’s baptism viewpoint. Only those who truly believe should be baptized.

The outworking of these two views is significant, and reads backwards into the great commission discussion in the prior post. The Baptistic view is by its nature more individualistic. It allows space in the society for anyone to think anything and does not expect that the church will be discipling the society. Some are in and some are out, and that should be fine with everyone. This Baptistic view was the one to get enshrined in the American civil tradition through Jefferson, the first amendment, and the subsequent outworking of those ideas. It was in fact Roger Williams who first talked about a “wall of separation”  between the Church and the civil sphere.

The innate problem with this view has taken two centuries to manifest — it leads to a form of church “self marginalization” where we literally abandon the culture and it’s government to the world — that is those who are not baptized. Spiritually speaking — believers have the Kingdom of God and unbelievers the Kingdom of this world. Where this has eventually led is that the unbelievers disciple our youth through their control of all of societies institutions, and we try to resist their power through our every shrinking “home” sphere. By contrast, baptizing infants, by its very nature implies authority beyond the believer, but over the entire society. This is what was both believed and practiced by all groups who held to it.

Furthermore, look back at the Great Commission text. If “discipling all nations” means cultures then the later verbs would logically seem to apply to all as well “baptizing, teaching, etc.” But if it means disciple some out of those nations, then the baptism would logically apply to some individuals.

Now it gets more interesting when you add the dimension of “high church” versus “low church.” What do these terms mean? Well think of high church as the most formal, and low church as the least formal. What is fascinating, however is that the place believers of these systems naturally occupy in society moves directly from the top down. Here is how I would rank major groups from “high to low” church. Those above the stars are infant baptism, and below are believer’s baptism

  • Catholic
  • Anglican
  • Lutheran
  • Presbyterian
  • Methodist
  • Baptist
  • Pentecostal

For a simple example, who is on our supreme court? Catholics. What were the founding fathers primarily? Anglicans. And how many Pentecostals and Baptist are big time government figures? In all of American history? A scant few.

Now there are reasons beyond believer’s baptism for this as well. I would posit partly that formalism is the natural religion of those with power, and emotionalism is the natural religion of those who lack power. In American society, which is perhaps history’s only truly free market of religion, what you see is a fairly tight correlation between how “high church” someone is and how high they are in the social ladder as well (counting only those Catholics that actively believe and practice, that is) CEO’s and judges do not usually attend wild Pentecostal churches. And poor people rarely attend Anglican churches.

Now, where does all of this lead us? Is it time for us all to don our vestments and baptize our infants? Or perhaps to simply abandon society for the future Kingdom? Neither of these is workable. After all, abandoning society to the unbelievers has utterly failed. They have been and continue to teach each successive generation to be more heathen than the last. This literally robs heaven of souls.

And I think that is the key we are searching for here — the understanding that discipleship of culture is an ultimately evangelistic project. It is something that we do for the souls of future generations. Not because of covenant or catholic communities or dominion theology. Furthermore, even if the Great Commission is implying that we do cultural work and therefore “baptize all nations” this does not mean by extension that baptism can be valid or happen for someone apart from faith, or their own will. We go teaching, with the intent to baptize, but only baptizing on consent. Thus our evangelistic project is universal and involves cultural discipleship and redemption, but does not co-opt the entire society into the church community.

And about formalism we see in the life of Jesus neither formalism or emotionalism at work. He was a controlled and mature adult.  He was canned heat, power in a person. And he intentionally recruited from the “Middle” or “working” class which would tend to also be in the middle of this formal/emotional scale. The lesson here for those of us who are Spirit filled, is that power and flash are not the same thing.  A circus like service robs us of part of what it takes to disciple the culture. Paul saw and corrected this in 1 Corinthians, and I believe Jesus practiced it as a lifestyle.

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