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Why the Church Baptizes Children PDF Print E-mail

While all Apostolic and the majority of mainline Protestant churches baptize children, some modern day ‘churches’ speak against child baptism, saying it is ‘unbiblical’.  Are they correct?  What does the Bible have to say about the baptism of children?  This article will examine why the Armenian Apostolic Church baptizes children; from both the perspective of the Bible and Church history.

Contracting with God

For the Armenian Apostolic Church, through baptism, one enters into a covenental relationship with God. Understanding the meaning of a covenental relationship is essential to understanding our church’s position on baptism. A covenant is a ‘contract’ offered by one party which can either be accepted or rejected, but not altered, by the second party.   Therefore a covenant is perhaps best described as the offer of a non-negotiable contract by one party which is then accepted by another party.  The Armenian Apostolic Church’s support of infant baptism is rooted in the covenental relationships established by God with Israel in the Old Testament.

In the Bible we read about a covenant that God offers Abraham.  God tells Abraham what God will do for him; and what he must do for God.  In the Book of Genesis we first read what God will do for Abraham and his descendants if Abraham accepts God’s offered covenant.....

(Gen 17:6-14 ) I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you.  And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you.  And I will give to you, and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God."  And God said to Abraham, "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations.

Just as God told Abraham what he would do for him and his descendants, so too, God placed requirements on Abraham as part of this covenant.  These requirements we read below...

This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your descendants after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.  You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.  He that is eight days old among you shall be circumcised; every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house, or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring,  both he that is born in your house and he that is bought with your money, shall be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant.  Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant."

God commanded that those men accepting the covenant must be circumcised.  In addition, God commanded that ALL eight day old boys be circumcised.  Why?  Why would God want a little boy to be marked with the sign of the covenant?  Did eight day old boys have the capacity to make a conscious decision to follow Abraham’s God?  Since the Bible does not directly address these issues, we are left to search scripture and to use our God given intellect to ponder God’s reasons for this covenantal requirement.

Why did God require Infant Circumcision?

So then, let us reason together.  Why would God want an infant to be entered into a covenental relationship with him; a relationship the infant has not yet the capacity to comprehend?  Since there is only one true God, it stands to reason that only he can bless.  Since God is the source of all life and goodness, doesn’t it make sense to ‘connect’ a child to their heavenly king in their infancy?  After all, parents do not wait until their baby ‘understands who they are’ before they care for him.  So too, God cares for infants and wants them to grow to know him; their source of life and joy. Perhaps this idea of introducing an infant into a covenantal relationship with God is best contemplated in light of the following two biblical passages.  The first encourages those who raise children to steer them toward a devout life, and the second reminds us that in a very real sense, the goal of Christian spirituality is to become more and more child-like in our faith.

  1. (Prov 22:6 )  Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.
  2. (Mat 18:1-5)  At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"  And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them,  and said, "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me;

While we may struggle to understand God’s reason’s for directing the circumcision of eight day old boys, we can not dispute that God directed Abraham to institute the practice of circumcision amongst all Jewish men and male infants.

Circumcision was replaced by baptism

The realization that God directed eight day old boys to be marked with the sign of the covenant is at the root of our church’s practice of infant baptism. In fact, it is precisely for this reason that the canons of the Armenian Apostolic Church advise baptism to be performed on the eighth, (up to the fortieth), day after birth.  For the Armenian Apostolic Church, whereas the Old testament sign of the covenant was circumcision, the New Testament sign of the acceptance of the new covenant between God and man is baptism.

In the New Testament Jesus taught that in order to get into heaven, one has to be baptized.  In fact, Jesus equated baptism with a second birth:

(John 3:1-5 )  Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.  This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him."  Jesus answered him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God."  Nicodemus said to him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?"  Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

Just as God wanted the Old Testament infant Jews to be circumcised, and dedicate their spirits to serving him, so too God in the New Testament requires baptism of children, and dedication of their spirits to serving him.  Through baptism and dedication to serving God in and through his Son Jesus we are spiritually reborn to a new life as children of the living God.

Entire families were baptized in the New Testament

Another indication of the New Testament’s support of baptism regardless of age can be deduced from the following four passages.  In each you will note that an entire household is baptized.  Now, while none of these passages specifically states children were baptized as part of the family, it is more likely than not, that at least one family had a child.

The household of Lydia

(Acts 16:14-15 )  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 give heed to what was said by Paul.  And when she was baptized, with her household, she besought us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay." And she prevailed upon us.

Paul’s jailer’s household

(Acts 16:27-34 )  When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped.  But Paul cried with a loud voice, "Do not harm yourself, for we are all here."  And he called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas,  and brought them out and said, "Men, 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 that were in his house.  And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their wounds, and he was baptized at once, with all his family.  Then he brought them up into his house, and set food before them; and he rejoiced with all his household that he had believed in God.

The household of Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue

(Acts 18:8 )  Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with all his household; and many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized.

The household of Stephanas

(1 Cor 1:16 )  I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any one else.

What’s Baptism without Belief?

Some opponents of child baptism however, would still argue, “well, just because a child is baptized, that doesn’t mean they are going to heaven; baptism is not magic.”  To this statement the apostolic church says ‘amen’.  The issue of the insufficiency of receiving the sign of the covenant is not a new issue.  Even the Jews who received circumcision in the Old Testament did not always give their hearts to the Lord.  In the Old Testament we read that God was angry with those who had received circumcision, but had not lived a life devoted to serving him.  God referred to these people as those who were “circumcised, yet uncircumcised.”  Or as those who were ‘uncircumcised in heart’.  The following passage illustrates God’s anger with those who thought that circumcision (accepting the sign of the covenant) was sufficient to be on good terms with God.

(Jer 9:25-26 )  "Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will punish all those who are circumcised but yet uncircumcised--  Egypt, Judah, Edom, the sons of Ammon, Moab, (These were all non-Jews and non-Jewish nations that practiced circumcision), ... for all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart."

In the preceding passage God is equating the Jews with any of the various other nations that practiced circumcision. God is saying, ‘Just as they are circumcised and do not follow me, so too you have been circumcised but do not follow me.  There is no difference between you and the pagan nations’.  St. Stephen, the first martyr of the Christian church, also admonished the Jews, saying their circumcision was wanting.  In the Book of Acts, Stephen says,

"You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. (Acts 7:51 )

Just as God desired children to be circumcised in the Old Testament and grow into a living faith, so too God now desires children to be baptized and grow into a faithful relationship with him.

Isn’t Faith in Jesus Enough?

Some opponents of child baptism are simply against the practice of baptism in general, stating that, according to the Bible, all you have to do is believe to be saved.  In defense of this position they often cite the following passages:

(Rom 10:9-10 )  if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved.

(Acts 2:21 )  And it shall be that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'

One problem with citing only the above kinds of passages in addressing the issue of baptism (and by extension, the importance of holy communion), is that it takes certain scripture verses as valid and ignores other verses.  When reading the Bible one must look at it in toto and not simply choose bits and pieces that suit one’s own preferred belief system.  Those content to quote the above verses in saying that only faith is necessary for salvation would do well to recall the following Bible verses:

(John 3:5 )  Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

(John 6:53-54 )  So Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.

(James 2:24 )  You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.

(Mat 3:16-17)  And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."

(Eph 5:1 )  Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.

The importance of oral tradition

Despite the many scriptural references made: to child circumcision, to the replacement of circumcision with baptism, and to entire households being baptized; some still argue, “The Bible no where specifically states to baptize children.” This is literally correct; although in so saying one must quickly acknowledge two facts:  First, there is nowhere where the Bible says not to baptize children.  And second,  scripture dictates that one can not follow only scripture and be following God’s full revelation. So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter. (2 Th 2:15) The preceding Bible verse from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians brings out an important source of Christian doctrine; that of Oral Tradition.

While the Bible is our greatest source of doctrine, it is not our only source of doctrine.  The Bible recognizes that there are teachings which must be followed which are not included in the Bible.  This is why, in the preceding passage,  Paul instructed the church at Thessalonica to also remember to follow what they had been taught orally.  The Armenian Apostolic Church teaches that the Holy Spirit which was sent to us at Pentecost has always been involved in the life of the church.  The Holy Spirit has steered the church, century by century, to be God-directed.  The Holy Spirit has also directed the church in the ways in which baptism is to be practiced.

Since the inception of the church, the oral tradition which has been inspired by the Spirit and passed on by word of mouth has always maintained the importance of baptizing children.  This is why ALL apostolic churches, (Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic), ALL baptize children.  The church, led by the Holy Spirit, was baptizing children, according to church history, from its inception until today.  In fact the earliest recorded baptismal liturgy has an instruction which reads, “and they shall baptize the little children first.  And if they can answer for themselves let them answer; but if they can not let their parents answer or someone from the family.”(Hippolytus of Rome 256 AD).  This tradition our church still maintains in that our baptismal liturgy directs the priest to ask the godparents just prior to baptism, “Godparents, what does this child request”.  The Godparents then request baptism on behalf of the child.  Thus it is not only through relationship with one parents, but also through relationship with one’s Godparents that a child is to grow into a life of holiness.  {A similar of idea of ‘consecrating’ someone else to the Lord has a biblical basis.  For the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is they are holy. (1 Cor 7:14 )}  Children are, therefore, to be consecrated in the New Testament church, through the faith of their parents, Godparents, and faith community.  We emphasize there is this ‘communal’ nature to faith during each Sunday Badarak when the deacon intones, “let us commit ourselves, and one another, to the Lord God almighty.”  (zantseenus mer yes uzmeemeeanus Dyarn Asdoodzoh amenagaleen hantsn arastsook).

With all this evidence from scripture and church history, one might well ask, how could any church with an understanding of the Bible and church history oppose child baptism? Historically, opposition to child baptism did not arise until the time of the 15th-16th century Reformation.  During the reformation an unbiblical teaching of sola scriptura developed which in brief said, all church doctrine should come only from scripture.  The problem with this position is that scripture states not to follow only scripture.  Scripture was given to the church to be read and interpreted by the church through the faith community.  Scriptural interpretation must, therefore, in order to be accurately accomplished, be done through the faith community that also maintains the scripturally mandated oral tradition.

Those who oppose child baptism take the position that the church was not practicing her faith correctly for 1500 plus years.  Such opponents argue that all the apostolic churches (the same church that produced the Bible), misunderstood, and acted against God’s will regarding baptism for 1500 years, and it took a certain minority group of Protestants to set them right.   Such a view, if maintained, means that the apostolic church, the very church established and maintained by God throughout the centuries,  has always opposed the will of God in regards to infant baptism.   Our church however, as all apostolic churches, believes that the practice of infant baptism arose out of God’s will as directed by the Holy Spirit in both scripture, oral tradition, and the lived life of the faithful community.

God is sovereign.  He is not subject to anyone, but is above all.  God has sovereignly decided to set the covenant of baptism before us and directed us, through his holy church, to bring children for spiritual rebirth in the blessed waters of baptism.  While God’s ways are not fully comprehensible to us, we are still obligated to follow his teachings.   The God given sacrament of baptism is, at its core, mysterious to us.  Yet it is only in faithfully embracing God’s mysterious ways that we can be raised to eternal life.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us each commit ourselves to living out our baptismal vows by continuing in faith, hope, and love, and by coming for communion with regularity to be justified by the blood of Christ, and to be freed from demons.  And let us who are creatures at all times serve our Creator with a sense of deep respect and awe. Therefore, my beloved baptized brethren, in the words of St. Paul, ...work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. (Phil 2:12 )

Der Tavit


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Rev. Fr. Tavit Boyajian
Parish Priest

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