God's Grace extends to infants and believers, but how should we bear witness to this?

Both "Infant" and "Believers" baptismal traditions are part of who Presbyterians are today. The Presbyterian Church of New Zealand, like the Church of North India and the United Reformed Church in Britain, includes within its membership both sets of practices with their overlapping symbolic actions and undergirding theological explanations often marked by a common view of God's grace despite the difference in symbolic representation.

Leaders in the church may be of either persuasion, but also need to understand and respect the other point of view.

Sincerity . . . is probably more important than practice, but we need . . . to have some respect for the discipline of our own churches. Some people are surprised to discover that there are Spirit-filled Christians who wish to have their infant children baptised and who believe that this is quite consistent with the teaching of the Scriptures.

This is an area where we may not resolve disagreements which have defeated wiser minds and more patient souls than ours, but there are some things which can reduce the size of the problem. The Church of South India now baptises adult converts by immersion unless there is reason to do otherwise. The Presbyterian Church of New Zealand permits a service of confirmation by immersion which seeks to avoid the idea of a "second baptism". Many congregations follow the wishes of parents as to whether they wish to have infant baptism or infant dedication.

John Roxborogh, The Charismatic Movement and the Churches, Impetus Publications (Bible College of New Zealand), 1995, p15f.

It is important that our congregations invite people to baptism and that teaching is given which emphasises a common theology of baptism which acknowledges the grace of God, the importance of repentance and faith, and the value of renewing our baptismal vows when others are baptised and when the example of Jesus' own baptism is remembered.

Our views are affected by many things, including our personal journey in faith and the social setting of our churches. It is not unknown for people to be baptised as infants, seek immersion after a conversion experience in their teenage years, and when they become parents want to affirm the place of their own children in the Kingdom by having them baptised. People whose background has only been in one tradition sometimes find it hard to understand those from another, and an effort is needed to get past the stereotypes.

The social situation of the two traditions is also a factor, including in the changes we now face where the church is becoming a minority option in a spiritual and fragmented society where the glue is provided by sport, media promoted brand images and the low end of popular culture.

The social setting and assumptions around infant baptism have frequently been of an at least nominally Christian society which nevertheless saw itself as the new Israel - often in theocratic terms as in Calvin's tendency to argue from the Lordship of Christ over all things to the Church being over the State (not so very different from the medieval popes in the investiture controversy) and Knox's harangues of Mary. Despite the deficiencies that these leaders saw in society, they believed it should all be under Christ whose will they interpreted. The Scottish National Covenant was a logical outcome though it took nearly a century to emerge. Catholics, Lutherans and Anglicans had their own rationales which led to similar assumptions: you are born Christian just as Jews were born Jewish. In both cases you could lose your birthright, but that's where you start out. These churches were often comfortable with power and used to being connected to it. 

The social setting around believers baptism has quite often been one where the church experiences its relationship with the state as a minority, sometimes a persecuted minority. People are saved out of the wider society into the fellowship of the church and baptism as a believer is a sign that that is the step you have taken.  

An interesting thought is what happens when one tradition becomes the majority culture. With some exceptions it seems to lose its ability to critique the culture that it has accommodated to. In the long haul both traditions accommodate to the world around them. This is what Lesslie Newbigin was saying in his books Foolishness to the Greeks and The other side of 1984. 20 years later we are still struggling with the Gospel and Culture issues he identified when he returned from India to UK and found he was welcomed by Hindus into their homes in Birmingham, but not by Christians. 

These differences in the two traditions also affect attitudes to ministry. The national church tradition which was Presbyterianism in Scotland and the Anglicans in England finds it easier to think in terms of professional ministerial leadership in a setting where it knows that its membership covers many degrees of commitment and is itself a mission field. The minority tradition has taken more care to ensure that its active membership is committed as evidenced by conversion testimonies and baptism. It is easier for them to claim that the priesthood of all believers leads to ministry gifts for all. But this needs a different style of leadership to make it work. 

Some of the antagonism between the two traditions relates to how these two groups feel about each other - they often do not understand each other well. Each tradition and the theological perspectives and practices woven into them make sense in their own terms, and I would like to think God is not too bothered, except about how they affirm one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. 

Some find it difficult to admit, but there is a real sense in which the actions in baptism and communion mean what we want them to mean. Different groups see that meaning differently without thereby taking themselves out of the wider family of the Church.

This is one reason why we need discussion about our different hermeneutical communities, including the assumptions they make about children, so that we can be in a position to discuss how much meaning in our words and actions is read out of our particular community with its memory and traditions, how much the meaning comes from the wider Christian tradition, and how much the history of these sacraments and how they have been understood points us to core understandings consistent with the NT stories and teachings. The core Christian beliefs about God's grace and our response show in the overlap of these hermeneutical circles.

Of course social setting does not determine truth but it does determine the language by which truths are expressed and how that language is heard.

Over the last two decades in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand we have moved to say that both major sets of attitudes and assumptions in regard to baptism are positively part of who we are. At the same time our differences and lack of mutual comprehension present a temptation to talk about it and teach about it less rather than more.

Baptising and teaching are central elements in what Jesus commanded his followers to do. We have an opportunity to talk about it and understand it better - whatever the practice in a particular situation. Both traditions need to be more positive about making baptisms happen, teaching what it means, and encouraging old and new Christians to renew their baptismal vows.

A question I see is whether we sense this equips us better for a post-modern society which may be about to swing back to some modernist certainties, or whether it is all just confusing. I think if we do it well, it puts us in a better place.

We need to identify the real strengths we have laid down in our church and work with them. We need to talk about initiation into faith and membership of the church generally.

We also need to reflect critically on the significance of what has become a widespread move to invite not only baptised children, but children in general, to communion. It seems that along with this our theology of grace has shifted from baptism to communion. Is this what we intended?

Our reading of the history and theology of initiation into faith and the responsible membership of the church may tell us that we have a permission to do things in a range of ways consistent with Christian faith and discipline, but we need to exercise that freedom with a deeper sense of the underlying theology and awareness of the symbols and commitments needed to mark the milestones of life and faith in our cultures today.

John Roxborogh, May 2006.