January 27, 2021

iMonk Classic: Special Needs Members OR How I Was Right and Wrong About Baptizing An Autistic Boy

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
from October 2009

Note from CM: In the Lutheran tradition, the debate described in this post would not have occurred. I present this today because (1) we have had some discussion this week about children with special needs, and (2) many of our readers come from credo-baptist traditions where questions like this test our understanding of the Gospel and our church’s practices.

Those of you who, like me, have come to accept other views of baptism might best sit this one out. I don’t really want a lot of people chiming in with, “The answer is simple: accept my view of baptism; yours is deficient!” I would rather have those who live and serve in churches that practice believers baptism only to wrestle together with what Michael said here. Fair enough?

• • •

In 1983 I was finishing seminary and serving as youth minister at a church near the seminary and populated by mostly seminary students and their families. Among the non-seminarians was a single mother and her 15-year old son Bryan. Bryan was what some would call “special needs.” Severely autistic, Bryan gave no outward signs of communication. He lived in a self-contained world of a few repeated movements.

Bryan and his mother had been part of the church for years and were much loved. Bryan accompanied his mom to adult Bible study, worship and Wednesday fellowship meals. She gave him commands for everything. To any observer, it appeared that nothing much registered with Bryan and nothing came from him in any form of communication.

One day, Bryan’s mother came to see our pastor and asked that he baptize Bryan. While we could not see his faith in Christ, she could, and as his mother, she was asking that he be baptized and be included as a professing member of the congregation.

If you aren’t a Baptist, let me give you the short course of why this was a problem. We believe that a person who is baptized must be able to make a credible and intelligible profession of faith as an individual before a local church. Not to be saved, but to become a member. Despite whatever we do on “infant dedication Sundays,” baptism remains, in every Baptist church, an entrance into the local congregation by way of one’s own confession of faith in Jesus.

Credo-baptism can be confusing to non-Baptists, because we don’t believe that there is any saving action in the act of immersion itself, but that the confession of faith in Christ that occurs in Baptism (or even AS baptism, if you like) is evidence that a person has placed faith in Christ and received the grace of God.

There are other, secondary, aspects to baptism that also come into play. For example, baptism is a “pledge” of a conscience that rests upon Christ and an “appeal” to enter into fellowship with the people of God and the Lord’s Table. I’m not trying to start baptism argument #256 here, but these aspects of our Baptist view of baptism are important to what happened next.

Our pastor- a brilliant preacher and scholar- stalled. He didn’t know what to do. He told Bryan’s mother that he needed to get a advisement and input from the leaders of the church, since he would be undertaking an action of behalf of that congregation.

As you can anticipate, the congregation and church leadership were divided. One group said that Bryan’s mother was the person who we should pay attention to. She, more than anyone else in the church, was capable of speaking to Bryan’s spiritual condition. If she said Bryan understood the Gospel and was trusting Jesus, then baptize him.

The other group, which included yours truly, said that Bryan could not fulfill our church’s constitutional requirements for church membership and should be treated as one of the church’s children. In this church, that was not a matter of being the target of exclusion or revivalistic preaching, but of nurture, care and inclusion in every way.

What happened? Our pastor baptized Bryan. In the water, he talked to the congregation about the love Jesus had for Bryan and how Bryan’s condition was a constant parable of our own condition apart from God’s grace. He was confident that Bryan, in his way, responded to that love and was a believer.

I was, I believe, both right and wrong.

Our church constitution was, as Baptist churches see these matters, correct. Bryan was not able to make a profession/confession of faith in the terms in which our church defined those things.

But the Gospel is a greater thing than a church constitution, and if you don’t know those occasions when one needs to give way to the other, there is no point in having a church constitution at all.

In our tradition, those who come seeking baptism are not doing a work, but are giving testimony to what God has done for and in them. In the saving grace of God, they are passive. Should we put the active aspect of baptism before the passive aspect of the grace of God in salvation, we will misrepresent the Gospel.

Bryan was that test. I was right in how I read our church order. I was wrong in not seeing that Bryan and his mother were giving us a chance to magnify the Gospel.

My pastor was a wiser man and today I am as well. I do not know what happened to Bryan, but I look forward to seeing him in the Kingdom that is to come, when all of our brokenness falls away. In the meantime, may the Christian community be a witness to greater and greater grace.

You called and you shouted
broke through my deafness
now I’m breathing in
and breathing out
I’m alive again!

You shattered my darkness
washed away my blindness
now I’m breathing in
and breathing out
I’m alive again!
I’m alive again!

• Matt Maher, “I’m Alive Again,” 2009


  1. Out here in Evangelical-land one of the best ethos that can be developed is “when in doubt give the benefit of the doubt.” Church membership is tricky. On one hand you want to have some standard that is testable, on the other hand you don’t want to start your own “traditions of men”.

    I remember being a young evangelical with a friend who had down syndrome. He was raised in the Church had a great group of friends from our Campus Crusade group. I tried to peer into his thoughts to determine if he had “given his life to Christ”. He was my friend and that was important to me. After asking him what he thought about the Bible it was clear to see he thought it was important but he couldn’t understand exactly (theologically) why. I was at an impass. There was no way he could confess his sin and need for a savior with intellectual integrity. He was forever mentally the child (clearly before the “age of accountability”). How on earth was I to deal with that? Could he ever “get saved”?

    At that time I settled the issue by letting God figure that out, and thought “well at least he goes to church and has Christian friends and family.” That’s when I developed the ethos of giving the benefit of the doubt. Consequently that’s also when I started down the road that lead out of legalism.

    Occasionally we have parents at our church who want their kids to be baptized. Not infants but children between the ages of 5-7. And the congregation is usually split as to whether or not they “truly have faith”. I usually visit with the family and cover an age appropriate lesson on the Apostle’s Creed. I also take a page from pedo-baptists and talk about how baptism is like being adopted into God’s family. With slightly older kids I talk about how baptism is like a wedding too. If they can grasp the basic understanding that in baptism they are becoming a part of God’s family forever, I dunk ’em on a Sunday morning. I get flak, for sure. But I usually like to pull the Reformed card and say, “Salvation isn’t about what we do for God, but what God does for us. This includes baptism.”

    Anywho, that’s how this Evangelical pastor handles it at his non-denom church.

  2. On Christmas Day 2011, I baptized my 13-year-old severely autistic son, Jack, in the Reformed Southern Baptist church where I am associate pastor. I struggled over some of the things mentioned here, too. When you preach and teach that people must have explicit faith in Christ alone to be saved, it’s hard to make that determination for someone who has the expressive capacity of a toddler (and probably always will).

    My wife and I came down to this:

    First, Jack knows the gospel. His religious life has been exclusively gospel-centered since his birth. There is no other possibility of belief for him. It is his metanarrative.

    Second, for someone like our Jack, belief is faith. I know that sounds redundant. Aren’t belief and faith synonymous? Yes, they are, or should be. But for the contemporary church, believing and trusting (i.e. having faith) have been disastrously separated so that belief means assent not trust. For Jack and others like him, it’s not that complicated. He’s literal. Dad is my dad, so he goes to work. Mommy is my mommy, so she takes care of me. Uncomplicated. Correct.

    Answering Jack’s baptism question has helped me, softened me, as have most questions about having a handicapped child have done. He wore huge snorkeling goggles during the ceremony. Think you’re cool? Be the officiating minister in that baptistery! Kind of takes all the pomp away, which is sometimes what needs to happen.

    I’ll close with a quote from R.C. Sproul, Jr., who also deals with all the questions of having a severely handicapped child. This thought has helped me greatly: “It is His holy habit to bless the children of believers with faith. It’s not a mathematical promise. Sometimes He gives us Esaus. But we do have reason to hope . . . ”


  3. I indicated in another post that I am the parent of a child with high functioning autism. In the case of my son, he was able to articulate his faith clearly and there was no problem when it came to baptizing him, so I cannot speak precisely to the situation that you described. I bring up my son again, however, to point out that parents usually understand their children much better than others. For those outside our family, my boy can be difficult to get to know — but I have come to know him very well. My sister is a special ed teacher, and over the years she has come to trust the parents’ evaluation of their own children more than any other criteria. Most of the pediatricians who have served us say the same thing, that they are inclined to trust a parent’s opinion.

    Parents can certainly be mistaken about their children, but if the mother was a trusted member of the congregation, then I am quite comfortable with her speaking for the child who could not speak for himself. I believe that your pastor did the right thing, CM.

    In addition to Pastor Brendan’s “when in doubt give the benefit of the doubt”, (which I appreciated) I would add “when in doubt, err on the side of mercy.”

  4. I hope this is permissible, because I think it falls in the same vein. Lutherans face the same issue with communion. Do you give the bread and body to unconfirmed disabled adults, who cannot intellectually understand or discern that the body and blood are present?

    I’ve argued that if a person is baptized, they have faith, and therefore the capacity to receive grace. Unless a baptized person abandons or rejects that faith, it remains with them until death. So worthiness isn’t about accepting truths, it’s about not rejecting Gospel promises in the body and blood. The problem is that logic doesn’t just permit disabled adults to commune, it leads to the communing of infants, as the Orthodox do. Some Lutheran churches are doing that now, which I think is awesome and more in line with Lutheran teaching on single predestination, but it’s obviously controversial.

    • boaz asks, “Do you give the bread and body to unconfirmed disabled adults, who cannot intellectually understand or discern that the body and blood are present?”

      And how about this…in the book I am reading by John Cassian called The Conferences he is talking with the desert fathers in the late 300s, early 400s. Abba Serenus is talking about monks who become possessed by demons. He said that they should not be kept from Holy Communion and that, in fact, if possible they should receive Holy Communion daily. He says that in Holy Communion “it burns out as it were by a kind of fire the spirit that occupies his members and that is trying to hide in them, and it flees. It was thus that we recently saw Abba Andronicus cured as well as many others. For the enemy will revile the one he is beseiging all the more when he sees him cut off from the heavenly medicine, and the more he thinks he is removed from the spiritual remedy, the more fearfully and frequently he will make trial of him.” He goes on to talk about how men who choose evil (as opposed to getting possessed and not being in control) often seem to live a good life but that they will have to suffer in the life to come.

      I like Holy Communion being called “heavenly medicine” and “spiritual remedy.” It is what God gives us and I think it is good that Michael Spencer’s pastor baptized the boy and I agree with Chill who wrote up above, “In addition to Pastor Brendan’s ‘when in doubt give the benefit of the doubt’, (which I appreciated) I would add ‘when in doubt, err on the side of mercy.’ ”

      NOTE: I am NOT equating being possessed with any mental illnesses or conditions. I am just pointing out that even in cases such as being possessed, the wise monks did not want to keep believers away from sacramental life.

      And if this is too far away from the post about baptizing, feel free to delete it.

  5. Grace trumps Law. Here’s the paragraph from Michael’s essay that said it for me:

    “In our tradition, those who come seeking baptism are not doing a work, but are giving testimony to what God has done for and in them. In the saving grace of God, they are passive. Should we put the active aspect of baptism before the passive aspect of the grace of God in salvation, we will misrepresent the Gospel.”

  6. The modern Greek Baptism that most church’s administer has little resemblance to the Mikveh or Baptism that John the Baptist administered to Jesus the Christ. The original Baptism was simply a cleansing both figurative and physical. Today many synagogue’s support or even maintain a Mikveh for the ceremonial cleansing of it’s women and even occasionally men who are beginning a time of service to God.

    If we accept a Baptism as a ceremonial cleansing then please invite every child and adult to be cleansed just as Jesus cleansed the feet of Peter at the last supper. And in the vein of cleansing I doubt that many Downs syndrome kids need any cleansing, they exhibit the very essence of what we ascribe to become as Christians. Peace out!

    • RevRicky says

      I only comment because the article is from a Baptist point of view (I won’t say ‘the’ Baptist’ point of view because there is no such thing). I don’t believe in our history we ever viewed Baptism as a ‘ceremonial’ cleansing – nor do we consider it to be the baptism that John offered. We follow Paul’s teaching of it being symbolic of following Jesus in his death, burial, and re-birth (I believe the official line would be ‘an outward sign of an inward change). If ‘ceremonial’ cleansing is your faith view then I can understand the comment. I have baptised down-syndrom kids – and others who congregation members might take issue with. As an 11 year old I was baptised and probably could have been baptised earlier because I knew the teaching and what it meant. The moment we make the tradition more important than the individual we have erred. It is not our place to judge the heart. I often find it funny how congregation members are given such prominence in making these decisions (I know – that is very ‘un’baptist of me) considering many of them are not practising the faith that should have been attested to at their own baptism. God knows the heart of the individual – I’ll leave the judging up to him.

  7. I liken this to the division in Southern Baptist churches over whether a young child should be baptized. The pastor of the Southern Baptist church I grew up in took very seriously Jesus’ words to allow the children to come to Him and not to be hindered from it. His view was that if a child wanted to be baptized, even if he was too young to completely understand, he should be allowed to be baptized and then placed into what he called the watchcare of the church, rather like the second group described in Michael’s post. My current pastor, also Southern Baptist, feels exactly the same way.

    Bottom line, we don’t know what work the Holy Spirit is able to do in the mind of a special-needs child or adult. It seems a fearful thing to me to withhold a sacrament from someone in that situation, especially if a close family member or caretaker who spends time with that person will vouch for his understanding. Far better to err on the side of offering grace.

    • I used to face the dilemma over young children. When I was at a fundamentalist mega-church, I was trained to “counsel” those who “walked the aisle”. I had a 3 old “walk the aisle” and tell me “I want to follow Jesus”.

      An older member said “Go ahead and baptize him, if he has doubts when he is older he can get baptized again”

      Looking back now, I absolutely hate that answer.

      My favorite answer now was something I read in one of Billy Graham’s auto-biography. His wife, Ruth, grew up Presbyterian and never made a baptist like “confession of faith”. Her answer was “I was raised to follow Christ by my parents, and I can never remember saying no to Christ”.

      • The answer itself was kind of flippant, but the principle behind it is my testimony as well as the testimonies of my brother and sister. All of us “walked the aisle”as you say at the age of 5 or so, after our parents had spent some time talking to us. All of us were accepted by the church and baptized. Then, after we had been taught and trained by our parents and the church, we all reached a point where we realized that we needed to make a decision about following Christ. So all of us “made a profession of faith” and were baptized again. I regard the second incident as the true moment of salvation, but had my parents stopped us from being baptized on the grounds that we didn’t understand what we were doing, who knows what might have happened? They didn’t dare prevent us from doing what we understood to be following Christ, but guided and taught us through it.

        Now the same pattern is repeating itself in my own children and in my brother’s children. My daughter was baptized at about the same age I was; she’s now 14 and has made a conscious commitment to Christ and has been baptized again. My son and nephews were baptized together two years ago at the ages of 4, 7, and 8 and we expect (though do not take for granted) that they will likely be so again when they understand it better. We as parents and our pastor all talked to them and came away satisfied that they understood what they were doing, so far as they were capable of understanding it.

    • RevRicky says

      I think that it is pushing it a bit to say that Jesus ‘allowing the children to come to him’ is tied to baptism. That might be inferring a wee bit too much. Being Canadian – but having spent my formative years in the greater-Louisville KY area as my father took his training at SBTS then pastoring in Southern IN – I have always been amused by the testimonies of friends who ‘were saved at 2 or 3’ – but then follow it up with the line ‘but I don’t remember it.’ In my baptist belief it is about repentance and change of heart – something that I find many adults have no understanding of. Of course I am a believer in an ‘age of accountability’ and see no point in scaring little children into heaven – from my understanding ‘not wanting to go to hell’ is not an acceptable reason for baptism. Though I whole heartedly agree with you on erring on the side of grace.

      • I didn’t mean to tie it to baptism per se, but children who are familiar with baptism often see it as something Christians do and to them it often equals following Christ. I’d never dare stop a child or a mentally challenged adult from it, if that is how he/she understands what being a Christian means.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      His view was that if a child wanted to be baptized, even if he was too young to completely understand, he should be allowed to be baptized and then placed into what he called the watchcare of the church, rather like the second group described in Michael’s post.

      Sounds like a halfway point between credo- and paedo-baptism. I DO know the “baptized and then placed into what he called the watchcare of the church” was the rationale behind paedobaptism (at least according to my catechism).

      • If by halfway point you mean allowing a child to come to Christ as he understands it, but not taking for granted that it’s automatic salvation, then yes.

  8. Can any of us fully understand the mystery of faith and of baptism? We are all growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ. We all have imperfect understandings of salvation.

    It is easy to have an understanding salvation – my husband understood at 3 that Jesus died for him because he did bad things. He understood again at 7 that Jesus gave up the glories of Heaven to come to earth to save those in the world who would listen to Him. He understood at 15 what Jesus suffered on the cross. He understood at 18 the price that believing in Jesus can extract from you if you won’t recant your faith. He understood again at 27 the price the Father had when his Son left to walk the road to death and resurrection.

    At which point should he have been baptized? At which point is his intellect strong enough to express his salvation with true understanding? This is if intellect is the measure of our understanding.

    Sophia Cavalletti the esteemed child educator stated after years of observation of very young children: “There exists a relationship between the child and God that is more deeply rooted than in the intellect alone.” One must be flexible enough to recognize the mystery of the deep root in man that cries out to God and trust that God can communicate with all people in a language that they can understand.

  9. Since over on this side of the Tiber we baptize as soon as feasable after birth, so it is a non-issue for us. As Joanie mentooned, OUR dilemna comes into play when it is time for reception of the Eucharist and/or Confirmation.

  10. We just love to baptize infants and very small children in our congregation. We believe that it is pleasing to God to let the little ones come to Him with hindering them.

    One of the best parts about it is that the little tykes haven’t got a clue as to what is happening.

    But since it is God who is actually doing the Baptizing and making promises to the infant or child, it really doesn’t matter what the child thinks about it.

    And since the Holy Spirit speaks to us in “sighs too deep for words”…who can say what He is speaking to that child? Even John the Baptist lept for joy (in the womb – how can that be!?) in the nearness of Jesus (also in the womb).

    Baptizing babies gets the order correct…Grace BEFORE faith. Baptism, we believe, is God’s decision…for us!

    We believe this is wonderfully great news!

    Bring ’em on…young or old. we will baptize anyone…anytime. 😀

  11. Dan Crawford says

    Back in the days when I was in an evangelical Anglican seminary and classmates argued incessantly over infant baptism, I used to take such debates seriously though I had some rather serious reservations since it seemed to me that the requirements for receiving Baptism in some circles amounted to Protestant works righteousness. I stopped taking the arguments seriously as a result of an experience during my CPE in a children’s hospital.

    One evening a three-year old girl hit by a car in front of her father was rushed to the hospital emergency room. She was then sent to the ICU where I met her father and her family, all devout Baptists. The father was an elder in his church. Her condition was grave, she was in a coma and the pediatric neurologist had little hope that she might regain consciousness. I prayed with the family, then the girl’s father asked me if I would baptize the girl. I said yes I would if that was his wish. I went to the nurses’ station and got a small bottle of distilled water, and with the family surrounding the bed, I baptized her. As I poured the water over her head, the water mixed with the blood from her wound and streamed down her cheeks. I remembered John 19.34. I anointed her with oil saying the words from the Book of Common Prayer, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” From that day forward, I have not nor will I argue infant baptism with anyone. Baptism is not what we do, it is not a prize for our knowing the right answers to denominational questions, nor our response to formulaic questions. It is what Christ does, it comes from his sacrifice on the cross, and the only thing he asks of us is that we freely accept the salvation he offers. Baptizing the anacephalic child, the autistic child, the retarded child, the gifted child – any child – presents no problem for me.

  12. Elizabeth says

    my brother was a hosptial chaplain and had a similar experience. We are Baptist and apparently so where the family whose newborn was not going to survive. They asked my brother to baptise the baby as an act of surrender to God and he did so. Unfortunately not before he had to take their pastor out into the hall and tell him to be quiet and stop arguing with the famiy or he would call security.

    There is the believer’s baptism that gives testimony TO the church of one’s decision to follow Christ and there is the rare baptism that give testimony OF the church of their love – both have their places.

    • Elizabeth says

      That was in response to Dan Crawford’s post – sorry, I put it in the wrong spot

    • That is a good way of putting it – testimony TO one’s decision and the testimony OF the church. – I haven’t thought of it like that before. Thank you.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Unfortunately not before he had to take their pastor out into the hall and tell him to be quiet and stop arguing with the famiy or he would call security.

      That sounds more like a recipe for “pastor gets taken out into the parking lot by the kid’s father” than taken into the hall by the hospital chaplain.

    • +1. Well said, Elizabeth.

Speak Your Mind