Question: Believer's or Household Baptism

Recently I met some people who told me that they had had their children baptised. Yet, I had thought that only believing Christians should be baptised. Is it right to baptise the children of Christian parents?

This is an interesting question. First, read the papers on Baptism as much of the answer below will assume that the studies so far have been read and understood.

Post-conversion baptism (or believer’s baptism).

The idea of a person putting their trust in the Lord Jesus and then being baptised is borne out by both scriptural and present experience. A sinner hears the gospel, is convicted, puts their trust in the Lord’s redeeming work and then, like the Ethiopian Eunuch desires to bury his old self in baptism and claim allegiance to the Lord. This is also seen in practically every situation where baptism occurred in the New Testament. Many see baptism as a testimony to others of the reality of conversion in a sinner although this is not actually shown in scripture. Some churches and assemblies insist on baptising them before they become a member or enter full fellowship with them.1

However ...

It does appear that there are two main problems with insisting on this as the only form of baptism.

The scriptures actually teaching about baptism indicate that baptism comes before “putting on Christ”, “remission of sins”, being “saved”. To profess otherwise would mean having to reverse the following scriptures to make them read that baptism happens after salvation:

"He that believes and is baptised shall be saved, and he that disbelieves shall be condemned." (Mark 16v16).

"And Peter said to them, Repent, and be baptised, each one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for remission of sins, and ye will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For to you is the promise and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God may call. And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, Be saved from this perverse generation. Those then who had accepted his word were baptised; and there were added in that day about three thousand souls". (Acts 2v38-41)

"For ye, as many as have been baptised unto Christ, have put on Christ. There is no Jew nor Greek; there is no bondman nor freeman; there is no male and female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3v27-28).

"And now why lingerest thou? Arise and get baptised, and have thy sins washed away, calling on his name." (Acts 22v16)

When looking at ‘Baptism: Who should be baptised?’ it was evident that it is sinners that are baptised meaning that the scripture doesn’t actually indicate that someone being baptised must necessarily be a believer (although practically someone usually wouldn’t ask to be baptised before they are saved). So, there doesn’t appear to be sufficient ground for saying that only believers should be baptised. Nevertheless, it is the way it most practically works out for most sinners being converted, both in scripture and around the world today. Salvation in connection with baptism is not the salvation of the soul but rather entering by faith into present salvation from an evil world and its influence. Let’s look at the other form of baptism you mentioned.

Household Baptism2 (as post-conversion baptism and potentially pre-conversion baptism)

Understanding the importance of Households in the Bible

In this type of baptism people may be baptised because they are part of the household of a believing head of that household. They are baptised on the basis of the faith of that head whether they personally are trusting in Christ or not. This may involve children but also servants, etc (i.e. all of his, see Abraham with circumcision in Genesis 17).

Before looking at household baptism it may be necessary to look at what is said about households in the bible.

In Genesis 17 God blesses Abraham and introduces circumcision as a covenant between Abraham and God. This was to carried out on every male and his whole household was therefore to enter into the blessings of God’s promises (later the nation of Israel).

“And the city shall be accursed, it and all that is in it, to Jehovah; only Rahab the harlot shall live, she and all that are with her in the house, because she hid the messengers that we sent.” (Joshua 6v17).

“By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with the unbelieving, having received the spies in peace.” (Hebrews 11v31).

Her whole household was saved from death in Jericho because of her faithfulness to the words of the spies.

“And Jehovah said to Noah, Go into the ark, thou and all thy house; for thee have I seen righteous before me in this generation.” (Genesis 7v1).

“Speak unto all the assembly of Israel, saying, On the tenth of this month let them take themselves each a lamb, for a father's house, a lamb for a house.” (Exodus 12v3).

“But Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor, and if I have taken anything from any man by false accusation, I return him fourfold. And Jesus said to him, To-day salvation is come to this house, inasmuch as he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of man has come to seek and to save that which is lost.” (Luke 19v8-10).

In Joshua 1v23-26 a man shows the children of Joseph how to get into the city and as a result his whole household is saved from destruction, but the rest of the city is destroyed.

“And the ark of Jehovah remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite three months; and Jehovah blessed Obed-Edom and all his household.” (2 Samuel 6v11).

"And a certain woman, by name Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, who worshipped God, heard; whose heart the Lord opened to attend to the things spoken by Paul. And when she had been baptised and her house, she besought us, saying, If ye have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house and abide there. And she constrained us." (Acts 16v14-15).

"And leading them out said, Sirs, what must I do that I may be saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus and thou shalt be saved, thou and thy house. And they spoke to him the word of the Lord, with all that were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed [them] from their stripes; and was baptised, he and all his straightway. And having brought them into his house he laid the table for them, and rejoiced with all his house, having believed in God." (Acts 16v30-34).

“And he related to us how he had seen the angel in his house, standing and saying to him, Send men to Joppa and fetch Simon, who is surnamed Peter, who shall speak words to thee whereby thou shalt be saved, thou and all thy house.” (Acts 11v13-15).

"But Crispus the ruler of the synagogue believed in the Lord with all his house; and many of the Corinthians hearing, believed, and were baptised." (Acts 18v7-9).

This example indicates that all Crispus' household believed before being baptised.

There does appear to be a definite trend throughout scripture where God has blessed a household because of the faith of the head of the household. It was also seen in the Law (see Deuteronomy 12v6-7). Whereas the Jew was to send away gentile wives and children (Nehemiah 13v23), in Christianity the unbelieving spouse and their children (i.e. their household) are sanctified - not saved, but sanctified (see 1 Corinthians 7v14). God has seemed to bless people in the scriptures on the basis of “thou and thy house”.

The Philippian jailor is often talked about (Acts 16) but as with all the households in the New Testament the scripture is not clear on whether children were involved or not. It is not even definite in some cases that all the adults believed. The word used in the case of the Philippian jailor believing is apparently in the singular so we can only state with certainty that the whole household heard the word of the Lord, he believed, the whole household was baptised and they all rejoiced. Whether they were all saved from their sins or not is a matter for conjecture.

Are there any examples of people being baptised without faith in the bible?

So, households are seen throughout scripture and also the fact that they are blessed in an earthly way through the faith of their head.3

As already mentioned, the cases of household baptisms in the New Testament don’t make clear if children/servants/family members without faith were baptised or not. There may or may not have been unbelieving household members who were baptised or they may have been all believing (hopefully it was the latter).

"For I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and all were baptised unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank of a spiritual rock which followed them: (now the rock was the Christ;) yet God was not pleased with the most of them, for they were strewed in the desert." (1 Corinthians 10v1-5).

But I would put you in remembrance, you who once knew all things, that the Lord, having saved a people out of the land of Egypt, in the second place destroyed those who had not believed.” (Jude 1v5).

The Israelites passed through the Red Sea. They were a whole nation composed of old and young, men and women. It is interesting that scripture would say that they were baptised to Moses. It doesn't say this is a picture of baptism, but rather it says it was a baptism. They all ate and drank the same spiritual food and drink, yet not all had faith and God says that they shall not enter His rest (see Hebrews 3v18). Most of them died in the desert for their unfaithfulness and lack of belief towards God and to Moses (to whose name they had been baptised). Some were faithful and entered the land but not many (i.e. Caleb and Joshua).

They were all baptised, they all were circumcised and all experienced the blessings of God's covenant with them, the same spiritual food and drink, yet not all had faith in God and many died as though they had had no part in the nation at all. Paul says in Romans 3 that the Jews were blessed because they had all the covenant promises but many did not follow them. They needed faith in God like everyone else. They were a people separated out for God (see Exodus where Moses said to Pharaoh "let my people go and worship”). The Church is the same today in that it is people separated out for worship to God. However, the Church is made up of all nations not one, yet it is now united into one "holy nation" (2 Peter 2v9).

For Christ indeed has once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God; being put to death in flesh, but made alive in the Spirit, in which also going he preached to the spirits which are in prison, heretofore disobedient, when the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah while the ark was preparing, into which few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water: which figure also now saves you, even baptism, not a putting away of the filth of flesh, but the demand as before God of a good conscience, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ." (1 Peter 3v18-21).

Looking back at Noah in Genesis 6 we don't hear anything about his household's faith, but his whole household was preserved because of his own faith. From what we read of Ham after the flood it would appear he may not have had faith, merely being saved from God's judgement of the world because he was a member of his father's household. Indeed it was from his line that the greatness of man was established in Nimrod building Babylon. Whether he was saved eternally remains to be seen, but through this figure of baptism he was saved from the present world and its judgement because of Noah's faith in building the ark. The ark didn't put away the flesh in him but it preserved him from its influences and judgement.

"And ye are complete in him, who is the head of all principality and authority, in whom also ye have been circumcised with circumcision not done by hand, in the putting off of the body of the flesh, in the circumcision of the Christ; buried with him in baptism, in which ye have been also raised with him through faith of the working of God who raised him from among the dead." (Colossians 2v10-12).

Another parallel is with circumcision itself. The sign of God's covenant with Abraham and later in the covenant on Sinai (see Leviticus 12v3 and Joshua 5) was circumcision. While this was only applied to males it was performed on the eighth day before the child would have reached an age of responsibility. Circumcision was for a covenant which had earthly blessings in view but nevertheless God set up a covenant sign in which people with no faith could be brought into the environment of God's people and the blessings of their covenant.

Likewise, Abraham circumcised all the males in his household despite the fact that Ishmael was only a young child at the time and later on completely rejected the importance of Isaac (a picture of Christ). This led to him going out into the wilderness and eventually marrying an Egyptian woman (a picture of the world). Some Israelites later would have committed their sons to God’s covenant but perhaps failed to bring them up in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord” appropriately.

The Holy Spirit links circumcision, the sign of the old covenant, with baptism, the sign of the new covenant, in Colossians 2. In Galatians (see 5v1-6) Paul makes clear that circumcision has been replaced along with the old covenant and that the Galatian saints should not take on the signs of the old covenant (for then they would have to keep the whole law) because they had been replaced by the new.

In these three examples seen in scripture of which there may be more, it is evident that God has placed an importance on the household. Indeed, we are called the "household of God" (see Ephesians 2v19). The whole household of God is to be characterised by Him. Hence we are to imitate Him as we would our earthly father (see Ephesians 5v1). Repeatedly God has blessed households on the basis of the faith of their 'head of house' and 1 Corinthians 10 makes it clear that in Christianity it is no different. Even one believing spouse can be an influence for sanctification ('separating to God') to their spouse and children, keeping them from the influences of the world. So in previous baptisms and covenants, persons without faith have been blessed and set apart as part of a godly household simply because of the faith of the head of the household. It had no effect on their eternal future because that is not the point of baptism—it is to preserve us from the world’s influence now by marking someone out for God. Everyone must personally enter into a relationship with God but they can be brought into a household that is characterised by service to God.

Household Baptism: A summary

There is a clear trend in scripture showing households and the people of God being brought into earthly covenant blessings through the faith of the head of their household. The teaching on baptism in scripture makes clear that baptism is for salvation. As scripture shows that salvation from our sins is through faith in Christ's blood alone, then this cannot be referring to eternal salvation but present earthly salvation for our life down here. Colossians 2 clearly shows that circumcision and baptism, as signs of their respective covenants, are linked and as such similar principles of God's thought can be seen in both.

However, the examples in the New Testament show that people were saved and then baptised. The misunderstanding of the purpose of baptism as a witness that someone is going to come under the influence God, either as part of a household or individually, has led to much confusion on this issue and many Christians taking strong views on either.

Some might ask why children are not specifically mentioned in the New Testament examples but this fails as a conclusive argument because if looked at in the context of the whole of scripture it may simply be that the gospel writers saw it as normal given their experience of circumcision and the household nature of God’s dealings with the children of Israel.

Believer’s or household baptism: Concluding comments

I deliberately phrased the section titles to indicate whether the baptisms being mentioned involved people post or pre– conversion. The biggest contention over this is because many believe that baptism is a means of bringing people into the Church. We have seen that, while someone is not a member of the Church until they have repented and been saved eternally from their sins, people can and have been identified with what is of God on earth through baptism or circumcision. The conclusion of this study is that there is no ground in scripture for rejecting household baptism but rather that the whole of scripture seems to support it. So both household baptism and post-conversion baptism are entirely scriptural.

1Though, this is contrary to scripture. I can find nowhere where scripture says that baptism is the means for entering the Church. Faith in Christ makes us members of the Church, not baptism. Otherwise a deathbed convert wouldn’t be a member of the Church. (The Roman Catholic Church teaches that people are baptised into the Church).

2There are different reasons why some churches teach that households or children are to be baptised as though in doing so they are conferring some sort of covenant status on children. See “Baptism: Who should be baptised?” for why baptism doesn’t confer anything on anyone. We are being careful to stick to the scriptures only in this study.

3Circumcision was in view of earthly blessing not a heavenly blessing. We saw in “Baptism and Salvation” that baptism also is connected with earthly salvation and is not necessary for eternal salvation.

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