Believer Baptism and Mental Disabilities
Ben writes in to ask, “Is it right to baptize my severely autistic friend? If so, how can I explain the difference between baptizing my friend and infant baptism for friends and family?” This is a question we get on occasion, Pastor John, and it’s a question our friend John Knight has asked me to address on the Ask Pastor John podcast in the past. John is a dear colleague of ours at Desiring God. So Pastor John, with severe cognitive impairment in those in our churches — young men and women who cannot articulate a testimony — what’s the threshold a credobaptist church would hold to in deciding whether or not to baptize such an individual?
I am really glad Ben sent this in. I am glad John Knight underlined it for us. It gives me a chance to just say a little bit about a wider picture. So let me start general and get right down to the specifics of a child or a young adult who is mentally disabled.
Teach on Baptism
First, a church that is about to tackle this and either baptize or not baptize a person with cognitive impairment needs to teach widely on baptism, faith, and disability so you don’t spring this on your congregation. It shouldn’t come out of nowhere. This is a golden opportunity for a pastor to bring the sorrows and the joys of these families before the church and put the whole question in the bigger context of God’s sovereignty and his goodness and his ability to take the hardest situations and show his all-sufficiency in them. So that is the first thing I would say — put this issue in the bigger context of disability and God’s sovereign goodness in your church. Secondly, I would say, deal with believer’s baptism itself before you would try to deal with a marginal issue in believer’s baptism.
“Deal with believer’s baptism itself before you would try to deal with a marginal issue in believer’s baptism.”
As Baptists, we believe that before Jesus inaugurated the new covenant in his blood, the people of God were identified through a physical line of Jewishness. Therefore, it was fitting that the sign belonging to this people — the sign of the covenant belonging to this people — was given to their physical children, the Jews. And that sign was circumcision. But with the new covenant, God’s saving focus is no longer on any ethnic group, but is essentially defined by identification with Jesus, the Christ, through faith. And, thus, the new sign of this new covenant is no longer circumcision, but baptism, and it is no longer given to physical descendants, but to spiritual descendants — that is, to those who have faith. That is the fundamental picture of believer’s baptism.
Two Baptism Texts
Here are two texts for people to think about. First in 1 Peter 3:21, “Baptism, which corresponds to this” — the flood — “now saves you.” That sounds kind of dangerous. It sounds like baptismal regeneration. But listen: It saves you “not as a removal of dirt from the body” — so I am not talking about saving you by the effectiveness of the water — “but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
“Believer’s baptism is a conscience act of the candidate and, hence, we don’t do it to infants or children who can’t make that appeal.”
So, baptism is pictured here as an event in which the baptismal candidate is making an appeal to God for a good conscience through submitting to this water baptism which is symbolic of his death and resurrection with Christ. And so that is a conscience act of the candidate and, hence, we don’t do it to infants or children who can’t make that appeal.
Or here is one other text, Colossians 2:12, “Having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith.” That was so big for me when I was in Germany, trying to battle with these Lutherans in all my classes. I was the only Baptist in the group and this text was hugely important for me. It is “through faith” that we were raised with him. So those are two texts that point me to believer’s baptism.
What Baptism Is and Isn’t
Now that leaves us asking, what about those with severe cognitive impairment — both the inability to grasp ideas at the front end and the inability to express them at the back end? I think the first thing we should do is make clear that if a family moves forward with baptism, it is not because these young people belong to a Christian family, either by birth or adoption. That would signify a wrong theology. Namely, it would signify that connectedness by flesh is spiritually saving. So if you are saying that the reason this child — this eighteen-year-old — should be baptized is because he is in my family and I am a Christian, that is a bad theology. We are not saved by belonging to families.
Another thing to make clear is that we don’t believe that someone who, for reasons beyond their control, is not baptized would therefore be lost. The thief on the cross was not baptized. And Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43) because there was an extenuating circumstance. And so we shouldn’t communicate that we must get this person baptized because if they are not baptized, they may not go to heaven. That would be a wrong view of why we might want to move with these young people toward baptism.
Two Final Pieces of Counsel
So here is my practical counsel. I can imagine godly, biblically informed pastors taking a different approach than me, so I am not absolutizing this. I would say if the child or the young adult gives evidence that he is perceiving the love of God in Christ, if he is sensing in some way his own sin and need and responding with some signs of humble gladness because of Christ, it would be fitting to trust the perceptions of the mature believers closest to him and baptize him. If I were the pastor, I would give serious thought and preparation to the liturgy — the words that will be spoken over the child — so that everyone knows how seriously this has been considered and how it is being understood.
“The parents should continue to bathe their child in word and prayer and trust that God in his mercy will work savingly in ways that no one but he can understand.”
And finally, I would say that if the child is so impaired that the he or she has no perception of spiritual things — no perceptible signs of response — I think those who are responsible for him should not pursue baptism. However, the mindset of the parents or the caregivers should be this — and this is very important — it is not because he is not saved. Rather, we will not pursue baptism in order to preserve the integrity of baptism rather than giving the impression that it is a magical ritual: “Well, you have got to be baptized even though there is no evidence of salvation.” In this case, it seems to me we would not be upholding baptism if we didn’t baptize him, but we would be upholding grace. The parents should continue to bathe the child or the young adult in word and prayer and trust that God in his mercy will work savingly in ways that no one but he can understand.