Saturday, January 19, 2008

Corporate Incorporation and Baptism

These are my thoughts semi-spinning off a seminar held at Wycliffe with the (very intelligent and well-read) Dr Benno van den Torren. It's quite possible I've mangled the arguments beyond recognition – if I've done so it's my fault.

Who makes decisions?

It's very interesting that the credobaptist movement only really got going during the Enlightenment, because it assumes some ideas which don't seem to have existed in the same way before then.

One of them is the notion of individual autonomy. In the modern world, we tend to think that the fundamental decision-making unit of society is the individual person, which incidentally is part of the reason for family breakdown and so on. Interestingly, the Bible teaches individual responsibility a lot, but doesn't teach individual autonomy, though we often read it back in from our culture.

Even in our culture, if we look at what actually happens with decision-making, not all individuals are autonomous. Some married couples or best friends always make decisions as a couple. Some types of disability mean that people depend on others for their decisions. The same could be said of some elderly people, who no longer make decisions for themselves, and some children, who do not yet make decisions for themselves.

In other cultures, it's even stronger. Some tribal cultures, the tribal chief will decide everything that matters. In some cultures, the corporation makes many important decisions. Where there is slavery, often the slaves do not get to make decisions for themselves, which is part of the reason we in the West hate the idea so much, because we value our own autonomy so highly. We even tend to describe relationships where one person does not have as much decision-making ability as we would like as “abusive”, but abusive relationships exist too.

Children are a particularly interesting example. The process of growing up, with all the stresses and strains of that, can usually be described in the (post-)modern West as going from the child having zero autonomy – they don't decide what to wear or where to go or anything to full autonomy.

So even in the West, the situation is a lot more complex than simply being individuals making their own decisions. There are still some corporate decision-making units, and there are lots of shades of grey.

The New Testament

The same was true in the Roman world in which the events in the New Testament take place. Slavery was very much legal, though with a large number of freedmen – ex-slaves. Wives and children were legally property of the husband / father, to the point where Paul could say that the difference between a slave and a son is that the son will one day inherit.

Some slaves do seem to have made their own decisions – Onesimus being a good example, even if he is most famous for running away, but there was wide variation in terms of both the educational level and the degree of autonomy that slaves had. Some were effectively estate managers, others were effectively treated as machines. Likewise with some wives – there are several places where Christian wives of non-Christian husbands are addressed.

What is interesting when we come to consider baptism in the New Testament world is that sometime individuals were baptised (for example the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, who seems to have been a very powerful slave), and sometimes whole corporate units are baptised because the person in charge becomes a Christian.


One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay." And she prevailed upon us.
Acts 16:14-15, ESV

There's no evidence of individual faith there from anyone in the household except Lydia. The household of a trader of purple goods would probably have included quite a few slaves and so on. Were there children? I don't think it matters. There's baptism without any record of individual profession of faith here.

And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" 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 at once, he and all his family. Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.
Acts 16:29-34, ESV

Here, the whole household gets to hear, but only the jailer is recorded as believing, and the whole household gets baptised.

In that culture, it would have been very unusual for one of his slaves to refuse to go along with the master's beliefs. Which is why there's quite a bit in the New Testament about the difficult situation where a slave does become a Christian without the master doing so.

Other people who get baptised with their entire households: Crispus in Acts 18:8, Stephanas in 1 Corinthians 1:16. It's interesting that a decent fraction of all the baptisms we have recorded in the New Testament are baptising whole households. And whole households, not just everyone in the household except scullery maid number 3, who doesn't actually seem to have an individual faith.

The point is that baptism in the New Testament isn't just baptising people who believe; it also seems to be baptising anyone who is dependent on the believer for decision-making. They don't wait until the slaves profess individual faith or until they are free and so can believe without compulsion. If there were children in those households, would they have been baptised, or would they have waited? Waited for what? If slaves are being baptised, then children would be too.

The application to infant baptism today is obvious.


Anonymous said...

It's a bit of an argument from extreme silence though isn't it! So with Cornelius you have the Holy Spirit falling on all present -that is the signal for baptism.

In Acts 16 -the word is spoken to all the household.

I think there are some important things in terms of corporate involvement -think of Vincent Donavan's book -cultures outside of our own are certainly less individualistic -there seems to be more likelihood that people will decide together. But that is not the same as deciding on behalf of.

It is intersting that in Titus, part of the requirement for eldership is children who are believers.

Why is there such a retreat from faith in God that we cannot trust him to save whole households by convicting them of sin and righteousness.

In that context of lack of belief in God's power that a rush to baptise children looks like a rush to force God's hand by declaring as believers those that God will redeem for himself.

John said...

It's probably worth saying this is the latest in a kind-of-series of three posts on infant baptism.


And yes, I completely agree that arguments both for and against infant baptism are by and large arguments from silence, and hence it is very much a secondary issue.

Yes, that is interesting in Titus. How old do you think an "elder" would be though?

I really don't think it is the context of a lack of faith in God - I think it's baptism as being about entry into the visible Church, where the evil be ever intermingled with the good, rather than baptism as linked to individual membership of the invisible Church.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your response

Yes I agree to a certain extent that it is a secondary issue. However, it can be a pimary issue. I think it was primary in terms of the Baptist reaction to baptismal regeneration. I think it could become potentially primary again if you look at the arguments being used by people liek Leithart and Wilson. Not that they would see it as such -but the way the argument is going is to say the least concerning.

Entry to the visible church -in what sense -and indeed in what sense is the visible church visible. Article 19 of the 39 talks about a congregation of faithful men where the pure word is preached and the sacraments... Ch XXV of the Westminster confession relates the visible church to those professing faith.

John said...

And then you get back to the issue of what it means for a 2 year old to profess faith, or not to profess faith.

You probably end up having to say that different types of faith are right for different people, and what matters is having a faith appropriate to one's age and developmental stage and so on...

Either that or you end up saying that being a Christian is about knowing a certain amount of intellectual content, which is essentially Gnostic.

Anonymous said...

I think it comes down to what does the Bible tell us that we need to know.

There are two dangers.

1. To create intellectual or gnostic systems. Note, lets be careful about the gnostic bit -do we know of anyone who is claiming to hold onto some special, secretly revealed knowledge that isn't readily proclaimed in the public domain

2. To ignore what the Bible says in terms of content full step. The whole idea that they need a preacher.

There are things we need to know in order to believe -and yes a two year old can believe them, as incidently can someone who has severe disabilities such as downs syndrome.

I don't think I personally know any credo-baptists who argue that a young child cannot have faith -indeed I know of a number -including myself-who became Christians very early on in life.

There is a question about when to baptise. There seems to be three elements there. Whether they are right or wrong -well we can ponder -but it is worth making sure we know the actual arguments employed

1. I was encouraged to wait for baptism because it was suggested that it would be helpful to have such a marker in adult life -so that if the devil ever tempted me to think that Christianity was just somthing I chose as a child I would have an objective marker there.
2. There is the issue in congregational government of baptism being tied to membership being then tied to decision making, discipline etc.
3. I think people like Dever do talk from time to time in terms of giving someone time to show that it is a mature decision. I'm not so sure about that one.

With regards to point 1 -I do think it is helpful to provide such markers. Perhaps for those baptised young we can hav an 18th/21st birthday covenant renewal service using something like the annual Methodist Covenant service.

With regards to 2 -perhaps something along the Douglas Wilson model -although he is paedo-baptist of acknowledging children as members but voting through heads of families -children converted from outside might be included under their Sunday School Teacher or such like. This is perhaps better than things like Junior membership.

Speaker for the Dead said...

(I love the Latin redundancy of "corporate incorporation.")

I will admit that I had never thought of this before, mostly (I would imagine) because of my culture's indoctrinating me with individual autonomy. So thank you.

I'm not sure I agree with the conclusions, though. This article says it better than I can:

I think the main point is that we cannot forget the overall emphasis the Bible places on faith and repentance. Deuteronomy 1 speaks of little children who could not discern right and wrong; I think it's safe to say that children who cannot discern right and wrong would have difficulties having faith and repenting.

But I could be wrong.


John said...

Thanks speaker for the dead.

One thing I think is quite funny in that article you linked to is the way it uses completely circular logic in the case of Lydia's household, which was the main one I used to make my point.

It's also worth pointing out that it's asking the question about whether there were children in those households, which my argument completely avoided. And do they really think that a slave had complete autonomy of belief?

Anonymous said...

On the subject of slaves -it's worth a full visit in itself -to see what exact autonomy they did and didn't have.

I would be wary. First because you can't neccessarily generalise -different slaves had different statuses.

Secondly -because conversion in itself may have had an impact on the attitude of the household head in what he expected of and how he treated his household.

Think Philemon and Onesimus -who leaves as a slave and comes back from Paul a brother.

Think in terms of other aspects of the household -that in 1 Corinthians 7 Paul deals not only with the situation where a wife converts without hr husband but also where a husband converts without his wife.

Put them together with my earlier reference to Titus -and it does start to look problematic for your corporate narrative.

Indeed we might start to think about the specific references to "whole households" actually being significant rather than the norm, worthy of mention because Luke wants to demonstrate the completeness, the bigness of salvation that comes not just to one man/woman but their whole house.

John said...

I agree it's wrong to generalise - I think I pointed out that some slaves had a lot more autonomy than others.

Socially, there was a significant distinction between educated slaves (e.g. clerks) and manual labouring slaves.

The household thing is still obviously true though in some cases.

Speaker for the Dead said...

I guess we'll never really know enough about the household baptisms to stand firmly on them...

I wonder if that means that God didn't want us to put too much significance into them.

The Bible often refers to the saved as a community of believers, so I really don't think that baptism would be extended to people who could or would not believe. Since none of us (to my knowledge) currently own slaves, the important thing really seems to be how all this relates to infant baptism.

The question seems to be phrased this way: When (or how early) should someone be baptized?

But we're basically asking "Under what conditions should someone be baptized?"

In the Bible, only adult baptisms are specifically mentioned, although no specific age distinctions are required anywhere in the NT (I think). What is required seems to be some sort of profession of faith (authentic or not, as evidenced by Simon the Sorcerer) and repentance. I think we can all agree that no slave or child of Lydia's would be saved if their baptisms were unaccompanied by faith and repentance. Which is why Simon wasn't really baptized, in my opinion; he was just dipped in water.

But how early can someone profess faith and (attempt to) repent? This is something that is obviously open to discussion. I was baptized when I was fifteen, which is pretty late. I actually think it is too late; I'm pretty sure I understood what faith and repentance meant years before I was baptized.

But should we copy the early church's model exactly? Should we baptize anyone who walks into a church and says they believe? I'm not sure someone like that could truly understand what being a Christian means. Of course, Simon obviously didn't... But can it be good for the church to incorporate people off the street when some of them will almost immediately leave because of fundamental misconceptions?

Anonymous said...

I would say -that wasn't the early church's practise.

It's practise seems to be evidence based. Which is perhaps a tad easier for the Apostles when there is a visible manifestation of the Holy Spirit.

So fairly early -The Didache -people are being catechised for baptism. Incidently -flowing water -sprinkling being the last last resort :o)