Friday, May 7, 2010

Like a Child

Last weekend my pastor preached on Mark 10:13-16. The focus was on our necessity to receive the kingdom of God like a child, which means that we must believe our Father's goodness as our great Giver of his time, touch, and blessing (note that Jesus says we "receive" the kingdom). We must also learn to call on God as Abba, "Daddy." We don't bring our successes and achievements to the table in order to be fed. Those who are looking to their own merits or worth as a means of entering fellowship with God totally miss the point.

But, as before, this text made me think about faith. Jesus says that "the kingdom of God belongs to such as these" (10:14). He cannot mean that it belongs only to those adults or adolescents who trust God and come to him like children. It would be ludicrous to set forth children as models of faith ("I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will not enter it.") and yet preclude them from having such an exemplary faith themselves.

Mark tells us that these are "little children" (paidia). What age might these role models be? Matthew uses this term to describe toddlers and infants under two years of age (Matthew 2:8, 9, 11, 13, 14, 20, 21). So apparently even infants and toddlers can have faith and can enter the kingdom of God. Other Scripture corroborates this. John the Baptist leaped for joy over the Messiah's coming even while in his mother's womb (Luke 1:41, 44). King David testified in Psalm 22 that "From birth I was cast upon you [Lord]; from my mother's womb you have been my God" (v. 10). And if this was so in the age prior to Pentecost and the Holy Spirit's outpouring upon the church, how much more so now?

N. T. Wright illustrates this with a clever example:

I once was doing a children’s talk at a baptism. I asked two children to each blow up a balloon. I allowed the first child to only put two or three little puffs into the balloon. The second child went on puffing and puffing and puffing and blew up this enormous balloon. Then I held them up and asked the children, Which of these balloons is fuller? Of course they all said “the big one.” And I replied, “Are you sure? Both of these balloons are full. One is bigger because it has more air, but they are both full—all the space in them is used up.”

A very little person can be totally full of the love of God. Even though, of course, when she grows up and becomes a bigger person, she needs to be filled with more and more of the love of God. But that little person is not half full just because she’s a little person. I realize that this is not a great, well-argued theological justification of infant baptism. It’s simply a way of saying that I suspect that some of our Western cultural prejudices are at stake here. [You can read the full article here.]

Why does this strike or provoke me? Well, lately I have been really deliberating over (guess what?) what baptism means and who is to receive it. I'm beating a dead horse, I know, I know. I've been seeing a lot more validity to the view that while baptism still signifies and confirms participation in Christ through faith, it should only be administered to professing believers. (Gasp! Might I really become Baptist after this long?) But this text throws somewhat of a wrench in that. After all, nearly every example of believers' baptism in the New Testament is that people were baptized shortly after hearing the gospel and responding in faith. But if a child raised in the church and/or in a Christian home may very well believe at age eight months, two years, or whatever, shouldn't we immediately baptize them? What would happen to John the Baptist or to David, those who believed since birth? It seems rather abiblical to me for them to believe and live out this incipient child-faith, while adults refuse them baptism until they achieve a more mature ability to articulate and express their beliefs.

Besides that, if baptism is restricted to a credible profession of faith and regeneration, at what point does that profession really become credible enough to be considered evidence that the Holy Spirit indeed indwells a person? There were evidently plenty of professing believers in churches like Corinth who partook of church activities while nonetheless living unrepentant, "uncircumcised" lives (see 1 Corinthians 10:1-11). Similar warnings are given in Romans 11:20-22, Colossians 1:23, Hebrews 6:1-12, and 2 Peter 2:20-21.

Thoughts? Feedback?


Ted M. Gossard said...

I don't know. Interestingly enough our denomination (Evangelical Covenant Church) will do either, but pastors must choose one position or the other and state biblically and theologically why they hold to their position. Recently a young mother and her infant were baptized at our church. Not sure what Jack and Sharon (our pastors) hold to on it. But our roots are Lutheran.

I'm not sure if we can really make a clear call on this. Ben Witherington's book I think rather reinforces my own believer's baptism belief. Yet he ends up holding to infant baptism.

While Christian baptism is different than John's baptism, interesting that he turned leaders away, or some, as I recall, telling them to show fruit in their lives worthy of repentance they were professing, before he would baptize them.

As I get older, I don't care so much about which side is true, or the mode. But I believe baptism itself needs to be faithfully practiced. While I still hold to believer's baptism myself.

Halfmom said...

I think perhaps, that when I have grandchildren, you will understand the meaning of this passage a bit differently :)