June 5, 2020

Riffs: 10:01:09: Special Needs Members OR How I Was Right and Wrong About Baptizing An Autistic Boy

bapt55PLEASE keep this discussion on topic. No Baptist bashing.

First, read Matt Schmucker’s short piece regarding his advice on “special needs” church members. (Note to commenters: be respectful of Matt, please. If you disagree, do so graciously.)

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 (and I’ll moderate accordingly), 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, as Matt Schmucker says in his piece, 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. My oldest daughter is affected by prenatal exposure to alcohol. She has been diagnosed with partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. If anything drives me away from the church, it will be that the church has done a very poor job of developing a theology of disability. We don’t know how to include people with disabilities in our congregation. We don’t know how to support their families. And, on the whole, we cannot separate brain-based (mis)behaviors from sin. Thanks for addressing this important topic ~

    • I think one of the reasons the church has been behind the 8-ball on this is becasue 50, 30 or even 20 years ago, they wouldn’t have had to deal with most of the disabled population. Children either wouldn’t have survived or been institutionalized.

      My son just began attending religious education classes (we’re Catholic), and I think the Catholic church has made some good headway in attempting to address this need. It’s by no means the complete answer, but it’s a beginning.

      I have a high-functioning autistic son, and a nephew with Downs, and I wonder how much of what they hear in church they grasp. I do believe that God meets them and can minister to them, but on the particular question of baptism here, I’m totally befuddled.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      We don’t know how to include people with disabilities in our congregation.

      That might be due to the “Shiny Happy Perfect Christian” mentality of Church Growth, and disabilities are not Shiny or Happy. IMonk and others have written on this before, how churches present themselves as Shiny Happy & Hip to attract a certain demographic, and disabilities(especially the mental ones) are definintely NOT the target demographic. They might even scare away the Shiny Happy & Hip target demographic.

      Add “Name it and Claim it” healing obsession in the more fringie churches, and things can get very ugly very fast — especially if the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or Autism doesn’t go away immediately upon the first Name-and-Claim or laying on of hands. (And I’m not going to touch the “All caused by Demons, When in Doubt Cast it Out” of the real Spiritual Warfare drooling fanboys; that can get even uglier.)

  2. Very tough situation Imonk. I too, think you were both right and wrong, right maybe in regards to the all sacred church by-laws but wrong in the gospel application.

    Just curious.

    To those who were opposed was there a concern that baptizing someone this way and childlike might lead to accepting arguments for infant baptism and parents speaking for them?

    I think your pastor was right, always err on the gracious and merciful side

    • Having parents speak for kids, which is a big problem and one reason we baptize so many kids who later want to be re-baptized etc

      In fact, shortly after this we had an incident of a family wanting a very small child baptized strictly on the word of what the child said to them at hope. Conversations between child and pastor were blank.

      So that is a valid concern and I still have it.

      • Here is the question I’ve been wanting to ask a fellow baptist, and some, not you i’m sure, would want to kick me out for even asking it.

        If we as baptist do not believe that salvation per se is tied up in baptism, do we make too much of it?

        I mean, I think it is important, more important than most typical baptist think it is. And like I have read from you, I’m convinced that adult or credo-baptism was the start and infant baptism the development, but if we don’t think it is a salvation issue, couldn’t we as baptist, or should we as baptist, just be willing to make it a non-issue or a not so big issue? Couldn’t we agree to disagree with anyone who doesn’t believe that baptism is an act that brings salvaion and removes sin?

        Doesn’t that mean that we could accept almost all baptism traditions in the Protestant branch?


        and getting back to the young special needs boy, could your pastor have simply baptized him as a follower of Christ but not to get membership, I mean does baptism always have to be tied to “i want to be a member of your church” ?

        • On the second question, Baptists in our state don’t baptize just on profession. We baptize on profession into the fellowship of a local church. All rights and responsibilites of church membership come afterward. Whatever one thinks of church membership, that’s the typical credo-Baptist view. Just general baptizing on profession doesn’t need a minister or congregation. In our view, that person has made the profession to the congregation and the congregation accepts them on behalf of Christ.

          On the first, our view of baptism is that it is a secondary issue in salvation, but not an optional one. Calling an unbaptized person a Christian is “unusual” in Baptist practice, even if we say it’s not essential.

          The SBC makes too much and too little of it.

          • intersting

            and i know you were not looking for a baptism discussion but i have to ask this one last question

            if it is unusual for baptist to call an unbaptized person a Christian, as you say it is, and now that i think about it, I would agree, but we, or at least i know i would consider Methodist, Presby, Anglicans etc Christians

            And i think most baptist would as well, but a lot of baptist it seems try to hold to two logically exclusive ideas


            1. only credo-baptist baptisms are valid and we have de-churched almost everybody from the second century to the 17th


            2. those who have been baptized as infants but later confirmed their baptismal oaths are actually baptized and we as baptist should take a position of “believer immersion is best but not required”

            i mean intellectually honest and logically followed baptist doctrine on this is pretty simple and clear, in a sense either the landmarkers were right in that all other groups are not real “churches” and their ministers not valid neither their ordinances or they are

            again, believe me I’m not trying to argue, i’m just trying to work out what i see as my own internal logical issues

          • I don’t really understand the SBC position on this…. I was baptized by immersion in another denomination (of equal conservative nature) and yet my baptism almost didn’t count for the SBC… And I know a family who were formerly presbyterian who have attended a baptist church for probably well over 10 years, maybe 15 now, who will not join because they would be required to be re-baptized. It seems like if baptism is not “required” that a little flexibility could come into play here, but I know thats not going to happen…

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            I don’t really understand the SBC position on this….

            What might be coming into play on this is that credobaptism-by-immersion is the trademark of the Baptists, the distinguishing feature (along with teetotaling and before Culture War) that defines their identity. And they’ve naturally fallen into the rut of My Way Is The Only Way, and Only SBC-approved baptisms are Baptism. I mean, this distinguishing feature is even in their name — Baptist!

          • One thing you must keep in mind is that Southern Baptist Churches are autonomous. Therefore, you may go to a SBC church on one side of town that would not require a former Presbyterian to be “re-baptized” and then go to another SBC church on the other side of town that would require such.

            Second, we would ask someone who was baptized by sprinkling (for example) to be baptized by immersion because we see that as the biblical model–as well as the method by which Jesus was baptized and commanded. The church where I serve would ask such unless the person is physically unable to be baptized by immersion. For example, I just met with a lady who has a terrible fear of water–almost to the point of being debilitating. After talking and explaining our method of baptism, she was okay with being immersed. However, if we would have “forced” her to be baptized then I suspect it would have taken away from the holiness of the ceremony and/or she would have refused to follow through.

            So in short, there is no cut-and-dry answer because one of the identifying traits of Baptist is their autonomy. Every church will probably hold to immersion but will apply that differently in different logistical manners.

          • Exactly how much confession does one need before baptism? Is there a mionimum amount? I was baptised when I was 10 on the confession of my belief in God and that Jesus died for my sins. I had very little concept of sin an no knowledge of what it truly meant to be a disciple of Christ. Do I need to be baptised every time I gain new knowledge, revelation, or insight, or is it that basic childlike faith in God that is required? I can see why so many ‘believers baptism’ converts feel guilty because they have greater insight into faith now that when they were baptised and want to be re-baptised.

  3. Good example of why the Gospel is greater than the Law.

  4. Michael,

    As a former Baptist, I can see that, from the perspective of credo-baptist theology and the church constitution, you were technically correct. I would have to agree with Austin, that even in such a context though, the pastoral concern should trump. Not to start an argument about Baptism, but it is interesting to me that this is the situation that you would raise… one of the most difficult theological issues for me to deal with upon becoming Anglican was the issue of paedo-baptism (not surprising coming from old-school Southern Baptist and Missionary Baptist families). In effect, I had moved away from Baptist theology on nearly everything else, but held on to a credo-baptist understanding for a long time (even into my first year of seminary, when I was in the MA program). For me, a discussion about the nature of faith and the disabled led to reflections on the faith of children that led me to embrace paedo-baptism. I just want to affirm that this is probably one of the most difficult types of situation for a credo-baptist position from my perspective.

  5. I should probably have said “having moved away from *distinctively Baptist* theology on nearly everything else..”, of course I didn’t move away in areas of “mere Christianity.”

  6. Jonathan J. says

    As an ordained pastor who, for the time being, works with developmentally disabled adults with a regional non-profit I can safely say that the inability to articulate personal belief and understanding in a conventional way does not mean that the individual is incapable of such things. Not to romanticize the condition, but I have experienced love offered genuinely and sincerely in the most unconventional ways by those deemed as “special needs.” One gentleman, in particular, constantly asked for me to pray for him and his roommate. He was seeking God, and who am I to stand in the way?

    Their lives are filled with both joy and hardship, big dreams and the day-to-day minutae. And they experience life in a fallen world perhaps more profoundly than the vast majority of the population. But they are also sinners in need of a Redeemer. They need joy in the midst of sorrow, and strength when they are weak. They need the assurance that they are children of God, washed in the blood of the Savior, and set-free just as much as you or me.

    What I’m learning is that if we listen, really listen, we will hear remarkable expressions of belief coming from our wounded brothers and sisters.

    • Michael Thompson says

      Thank you for this statement. A disabled adult is not a child! If a full understanding of the meaning of grace and forgiveness is necessary for salvation, I’m not sure that anyone could meet thattest. I also think that Baptists may have erred in making baptism the gateway to church membership. I don’t believe you can find that in the Bible, and was a serious stumbling block to me as a young man.

  7. I didn’t mean to imply that Baptists see other denoms as not Christian. That’s an issue of fundamentalism and plenty of Baptists love and labor with their bros and sisters of other denoms. I am only speaking “in house.” i.e. in our tradition a person is a Christian when they are baptized.

    Let’s PLEASE not have a baptism debate or Baptist bashing thread. Please!

  8. Let me agree with Jonathan J and ask a question. Is the problem that we expect an adult to have a certain level of intellectual capacity, whereas Pastor Jonathan is saying that perhaps we need to look at the level of affective capacity with Jesus? (Remember the Orthodox baptize adults who have never been baptized, so we face the problems of adult baptism periodically.)

    Many developmentally disabled persons have a large degree of affective capacity even when their intellectual capacity is severely diminished. Are we confusing a desire to love God with the capacity to put together long explanatory logical paragraphs? I know that it is difficult sometimes to discern the faith of a developmentally disabled person, but I think I would err on the side of baptism.

    Even in the case of severe autism, I would simply say that we are baptizing in faith and hope. Even the man who was lowered through the roof by his friends was healed simply based on the faith that his friends had. In the case of that mother, I would say she was lowering her child through the roof.

    • Fr. Ernesto,

      You’ve articulated very well some of the issues underlying my own thinking on this matter.

    • I like the comparison to the man whose friends lowered him through the roof – thats exactly what this was…. (Though I don’t negate the possibility that the mother really truly did see signs of faith in her son, that someone not as familiar with him would not have seen)

    • Ooooh, good answer! Like that one!

  9. Michael,

    It’s not the same from the perspective of credo-baptism, but I recall a discussion several years ago on an email list where a similar question of sound doctrine was raised in a particularly painful pastoral context. The situation was that of a mother requesting baptism for her still-born baby. In a Baptist context, I don’t know that this would ever be an issue (unless, perhaps, the person had been raised in a paedo-baptist tradition), and Baptist folks and others are probably the better for it. At any rate, if I remember correctly, the pastor in question was from a reformed tradition that baptized infants. He refused, noting that the child was already dead and there was no reason for baptism. We discussed a similar scenario in seminary and the concern was raised that, if one baptized a still-born infant, one would be perpetuating a view of baptism as “fire insurance” as well as the view that unbaptized children go to hell (still a view that one occasionally runs across–or that I have at least–in some Roman Catholic and Episcopalian families). Our pastoral theology professor, after we’d discussed the pros and cons for quite a while, was asked what she would do, to which she said that there would be plenty of time to correct any misconceptions in theology later on, but that the imminent concern would be the pastoral care of the person grieving.

    In a similar way, I think the Gospel route in the situation you describe was the one taken by the pastor–to Baptize but also to catechize and teach what the particular Baptist understanding of the ordinance is, and why this action might fit within it. In the end, we’re all trusting in God’s grace, and we shouldn’t be afraid to admit that, especially in difficult circumstances for which there is no “good” answer.

    I hope my comment wasn’t seen as leading toward Baptist bashing, that wasn’t my intent. I was simply saying that this sort of scenario was one that had a major impact on my own thinking in regard to the nature of faith.

  10. Christiane says

    My son Patrick, whom I love, lives now in a group home on the grounds of Eastern Christian Childrens’ Retreat, in Wyckoff NJ., which is run under the auspices of the Dutch Reformed Church.
    He does not speak.
    Patrick communicates in other ways,
    and he teaches me about God’s love.
    My son has Down Syndrome
    with many medical problems.
    He also has many gifts.
    One of God’s gifts to Patrick is that he is able to walk.

    One day, I watched my son get up and walk to a shelf. He chose a musical toy and carried it over to a stretcher-bound resident and very, very gently, laid the toy in his hands.
    And then Patrick returned to his seat.

    The staff tells me that Patrick will frequently show kindness in this way.
    I have two sons.
    They are both Guardians.
    One is in the Coast Guard and watches over his country.
    One is in a group home and watches over its stretcher-bound residents.
    I am proud of both.
    My Patrick has become his brothers’ keeper and Jesus will welcome him into the Kingdom.
    Why do I share this?
    Because I believe that, at some very deep level, we are all called to help others.
    No one has taught this to Patrick: at least no earthly person.
    But still, he knows.
    By some grace, some special gift of the Holy One, my son knows to care for another less fortunate than himself.

    Our Lord said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, for such is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
    If Baptism is requsted by a parent for her special needs child, do it, out of overflowing loving-kindness, if you can’t do it out of faith.

    I have photographs of my son receiving Holy Communion from a priest. (The pictures were taken and sent to me by Susan Dorward, the Home’s Chaplain. )

    My son is smiling.

  11. I am a Lutheran who studied for 3 years in a non-denominational, yet anabaptist, Bible college.
    Over the years I have also worked with a child or two with autism as a teacher & home assistant.

    They see and understand. For some people with autism whom I’ve met, remaining peaceful in the tank in front of a crowd would be a sign of loud testimony that they felt baptism was meaningful. It is written “if we confess with our mouth…” and for some, a well timed silence speaks louder than words.

    Perhaps a Baptist constitution just needs an expanded definition of testimony. 😀

    I enjoy your blog.

  12. My “authority” to speak on this topic is that my sister (who was adopted) is a high functioning developmentally disabled young woman. She has fetal alcohol syndrome among other difficulties.

    All situations vary from individual to individual. My sister professed faith and was baptized. Yet as she approached adulthood she bolted from our family and faith in a procession of acts that I cannot begin to grasp fully. My hope that in her very confused mind that her profession was genuine is not misplaced.

    The situation that iMonk humbly illustrates is a perfect example of the often drastic difference between the INTENT and the LETTER of the Law. The intent is to help frame the love of Christ, even if the letter makes that tricky or difficult.


  13. w.w.c.d.: What would Capon do? 😉

  14. I got really concerned about my confirmation. I was confirmed when I was 12 or so, and I started to wonder about it when I was 20 or so. I confessed to my pastor that the whole confirmation profess was confusing to me, I was way more interested in the after class pizza than the theology of the moment. He assured me that God would make things happen whether or not I was intellectually or emotionally involved. Thus, the Catholic understanding of Sacrament, huh? How much do you have to get to be ready for Baptism? Is there a threshhold that someone can point to? How much do we realize now that we really don’t get even now? I think the Baptist few is works based: you must understand this ___ much to consent! I don’t buy it.

  15. There is a woman in the anabaptist church I grew up in who has been developmentally disabled from birth. By now she is in her early forties but has been in church virtually every Sunday all of her life. She is part of the community.

    Every time I see her, my heart aches that she will never be baptized into the death and new life of Jesus Christ (Rom. 6) of which she is clearly a part.

    • Wow, Dave, that’s about the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. Am I correct in assuming that her church has refused to baptise her? For what reasons? Is she, like Bryan, not able to communicate in an understandable way, or does the church not consider her intelligent enough to made such a decision?
      Whatever the reason, I don’t think that God is anywhere near the stickler for religious technicalities that much of the religious world tries to make Him out to be. If He were, we would all be without hope. And I believe that if Jesus has chosen to reside in this dear lady’s heart and life, and if He has chosen to grant her a place with Him in the world to come, then all the religious rules, laws, by-laws, doctrines, and theological assertions ever devised by men or religious institutions all added together and taken to the tenth power would not suffice in annulling that reality.

      • She cannot express herself in any verbal way and thus cannot make the public profession of faith (including the circumstances of her “receiving Christ as her personal savior”) required by this church. To the best of my knowledge, her parents have never asked to have her baptized–I honestly don’t think that this would even occur to them. In the mind of this church, if you cannot understand what you are doing in baptism (note the focus there) because of age or incapacity you cannot be baptized.

        The question about people like her is interesting because it really goes to the heart of the matter: is baptism about us and our human capacities? (categories like “understanding it” “making it meaningful”) or is it about grace? Of course you can tell that I’m pushing for the latter.

    • Dave N., there is always hope. If no-one is willing to pour water over her, still the grace of God can find a way; she is definitely, by your description of her, a catechumen and, as the Catechism says:


      1257 The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation. He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them. Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament. The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are “reborn of water and the Spirit.” God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.

      1258 The Church has always held the firm conviction that those who suffer death for the sake of the faith without having received Baptism are baptized by their death for and with Christ. This Baptism of blood, like the desire for Baptism, brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament.

      1259 For catechumens who die before their Baptism, their explicit desire to receive it, together with repentance for their sins, and charity, assures them the salvation that they were not able to receive through the sacrament.”

      If she cannot receive the Baptism of water, she can still attain to the baptism of desire. “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but He Himself is not bound by His sacraments.”

  16. Though I can’t remember His exact words or chapter and verse, I seem to recall that Jesus said something about God’s expectations or requirements of a person being in direct proportion to what that person has been given. For someone like Bryan, he has been given very, very little in regards to his ability to communicate with other people — so, in that respect, I think any church body or institution would do well in not requiring more of him than he is capable of giving. If subtle signs only a mother can interpret are the closest he can come to a public confession of Christ, then I think that has to be honored. And I think the mother should be trusted. As a member of the church, I think she should be able in this instance to stand as witness to Bryan’s confession of faith, if the church collectively approves of this. And some churches might want to consider amending their constitutions to allow individual church members to serve or act as an embodiment of the church body as a whole in extreme or unusual circumstances, so long as prior or after-the-fact approval is given by the church in whatever way that church decides such things. Such an amendment might be helpful in dealing with cases of severe disabilities or even in cases where someone makes a profession of faith to a church member but either dies or is rendered unable to communicate before this profession can be made before the whole church or a member of the clergy.

  17. “The other group, which included yours truly, said that Bryan could not fulfill our church’s constitutional requirements for church membership and should, as Matt Schmucker says in his piece, 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.”

    iMonk, or another Baptist, can you help me understand here?

    1. In the Baptist tradition, is baptism into the Body of Christ by way of profession the same as joining a particular church?

    2. Say someone is baptized in one Baptist church that has a certain constitution. If he moves to another Baptist church with a different constitution, does he need to be rebaptized?

    In the specific case you discussed with Bryan, it seems that his mother could have been looked upon as being Bryan’s interpreter, possibly in the same way she might have interpreted for a deaf child. We would trust an American Sign Language interpreter to convey what a deaf child would have to say about faith in God. Wouldn’t we trust a mother of an autistic child, who is doing a different kind of interpretation, in the same way?

    I think your pastor made the right decision, but I can see where it would have been difficult. Did this incident cause your church to develop some additional/different provisions in your constitution for future cases like this?

    • aaron arledge says

      1. In the Baptist tradition, is baptism into the Body of Christ by way of profession the same as joining a particular church?
      Yes, this is the way it is generally done. One comes forward to profess faith gets baptized and becomes a member of the church. In many churches there is an affirmation vote right there at the end of the service to accept this member. Some Baptist churches have membership classes or a covenant that is signed before becoming an official member.
      2. Say someone is baptized in one Baptist church that has a certain constitution. If he moves to another Baptist church with a different constitution, does he need to be rebaptized?
      No. and the vast majority of Baptist churches accept adult baptisms from other denominations.

  18. I know what I am about to write here is going to set me up for a lot of criticism. I do not mean to hijack this thread, but I wanted to share a story from my own tribe (Methodism). Several years ago a very good friend of mine was a pastor at a medium size Methodist church. A young family had just joined the church and a few months later gave birth to a baby boy. About a week later the pastor got a very distressing phone call from the parents. The parents had found their child dead in his crib. The pastor rushed to the hospital to find the parents obviously devastated. The hospital allowed the parents to see their child one last time before the funeral home came to take him away. The parents asked their pastor to go with them back into the emergency room. When they got there the pastor prayed with the family. After the prayer, the father told the pastor that he was looking so forward to having his son baptized. (you know where this is heading…and I can here the bloggers screaming!!) The pastor walked over to the nearest sink, grabbed a cup of water, picked the baby up and baptized him, said a prayer over the child and placed him back on the bed. I would have given a lot to see that. With all of that said, I understand the theological “issues.” I would propose that sometimes pastoral concerns for the individuals involved are more important than theological correctness. Surely we can find Jesus more concern about the person than a process or formula. I cannot help but get chills every time I think of my friend picking up that child and baptizing him in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as he proclaim the world to come where there is no death or sickness but only life…surely that is living out the Gospel in real ways…let the criticisms fly…


    • Something to consider in such cases is that we don’t know exactly when death occurs, i.e. the soul separates from the body. Maybe in some mysterious way this child was still alive and able to receive the grace of baptism. Or maybe not. We cannot be sure, so I think the pastor was right to baptize.

    • Blessings on that Pastor for doing that. It was a naked plea for Jesus and His grace. . Theology be damned.

    • Utterly without any Scriptural backing, but there is an old folk belief among some in the East that the soul remains with the body for three days just like Christ’s soul descended for three days.

      • Fr. Ernesto, that chimes in with something I was taught by the nuns when I was eleven or so – about Last Rites and anointing the dead – that it could still be done if the priest arrived after the person had died, because the presumption was that the soul was still united to the body and did not completely disengage until an unspecified time (three days the maximum).

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Though as I understand it, the absolution over a recently-dead person was conditional — prefaced with “If you are still alive…”

          And I also understand this was discontinued after the medical discovery of the three-to-five-minute brain death window, when clinical death becomes irreversible biological death. Today it is assumed the soul completely disengages at that point.

    • Margaret Catherine says

      My older brother Michael was stillborn, at home; as the story goes our father immediately carried him to the bathroom sink and baptized him there. I don’t know if he was alive at that point and I doubt if my parents knew. If there is any chance that the child is alive, then he should be baptized; but the or later (pastoral concerns, etc) it needs to be understood in the context of that ‘if’.

  19. We don’t have to be “theological wizards” and understand everything in Scripture to make a profession of faith in Christ and be baptized. There are only 3 basic steps: A-admit we are sinners, B-believe that Jesus died on the cross for our sins/mistakes, C-choose to follow His ways. That’s the profession of faith part; baptism is the outward expression. People become a saved child of God by making that important choice. They may not be able to participate in baptism right away or even at all, depending on the type of congregation in which they are a member; they may attend a church that does not have baptism facilities and they need to wait until there is the opportunity to use someone’s swimming pool or lake property.
    I agree with the pastor who baptized Bryan. He put the Gospel and faith above the church by-laws and trusted that Bryan’s mom had a strong enough relationship with her son and understood his communication methods to know that he was genuine in his decision to follow Jesus’ ways. Go God!

  20. What a hard decision to make, how to be both compassionate and true to your theology.

    A Baptist pastor once said, in talking about children’s baptism, “They are trusting all that they know about themselves to all that they know about Jesus”.

  21. In brief, i’m with Jody+’s pastoral care professor and mason’s Methodist minister friend — there may be theological work to do later around the edges, but the baptism of a stillborn infant makes sense to me. The harder problem, as Michael alluded to in a later comment, is when you do a baptism based on a parental affirmation, and later a similar but less well founded request comes from a parent. Practically and theologically, the church leadership needs to know how they will explain why they would grant one parent’s wish but reject the desire of a second.

    More broadly – i’m a Disciples of Christ pastor, Restoration Movement tradition (Stone-Campbell, the Church of Christ our more conservative brethren). Our theology is almost proudly haphazard, but our historical roots and what ecclesial theology of baptism we have is that “something happens” in baptism, and that the act of immersion is intrinsically important, while acknowledging that the initiative is understood to be God’s in the water and the washing.

    For both baptism and communion, the two ordinances accepted as sacramental in Restoration Movement churches, there’s a consubstantiation sort of understanding — the Body is made real both in the elements and in the act of the congregation in eating and drinking, under the direction of the Biblical warrant and the words of institution. Likewise, baptism is a public act, often done at the beginning of the worship service, in many RM churches on Easter Sunday particularly — baptism fulfills Jesus’ example and command for both the one baptized, and for those witnessing, as we (to borrow a page from our esteemed cousin Martin Luther) remember our baptism. The Body is re-membered in baptism no less than in the acts around the communion table.

    So i would have had no problem seeing the baptism of a young man, whose Christian profession is not immediately clear to me, as an act of the church together, with the mother’s testimony as the basis for “why this person, under these non-communicative circumstances.” But it then renders immediately problematic the parent who comes up the next month — and they will, they surely will! — who says their 7 year old said something in the car the other day that convinces them that Susie is ready to be baptized.

    I’ll only speak broadly of my own tradition, but Disciples are not alone in “believer’s baptism” traditions that have steadily worked the age of Pastor’s Class and baptism down to 8 or 9. Each of the last three churches i served i had a real struggle as i tried to walk the age back up to 11 or 12 or even 13, after usually about ten years of the baptismal “standard” age working their way down to 4th grade or so. It meant a) i’d have a first few years of no sweet little kids baptized at the beginning of the Easter service, and b) some awkward, not to say tense conversations with parents.

    But they were teaching opportunities, all of them, a chance to actually talk out loud and directly about what the church means when it baptizes. And i had to sit down and actually speak directly with kids about their faith, in front of parents, and figure out when/where a faith statement meant it was time for me to say “yes” as opposed to saying to the parents “your child will remember and appreciate the meaning and power of this moment much more through their lives if we give them another year or two to understand it a bit better.”

    That’s this Disciples of Christ pastoral reaction to the discussion. Thank you, Michael, for inviting all our traditions to consider the subject.

    • As I told Austin earlier, the “parent as spokesperson” problem did manifest itself after this, and with very young children. I can’t oppose the baptism on those grounds, but it’s an inevitable result and one that concerns me. It is a shift from credo-baptism to paedo-type thinking (and probably shows likely evidence for the early emergence of paedo baptism imo.)

      • Well, that can be a teaching moment, and on a subject where teaching is needed. I wouldn’t create a circumstance to provoke that kind of conversation, but i wouldn’t let the prospect stop me. Not that those can’t be incredibly frustrating and potentially conversations . . . much like when you have to sit down with the church matriarch and explain why you won’t marry her granddaughter, six months pregnant, engaged to a near stranger, who has never been in your building and told you on the phone “I’m not sure i even want to get married . . .” to which the matriarch sniffs “well, you married Gladys Jones’ boy, and his hair hung down below his collar.”

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        …and probably shows likely evidence for the early emergence of paedo baptism…

        That and the Third World infant mortality rate that was universal back then. If the kid’s gonna die early (as in a couple years, max), you want to get him on the Salvation train before that happens. (In the words of M*A*S*H, “The Fix takes, so he goes Up”.)

        Sometimes this went off into the ozone, like special holy water squirters to baptize a baby in the womb before bad childbirth killed the kid (and mother) without actual birth. (My original source on this said that these in-the-womb holy water squirters were used before Medieval abortions to Save the Soul, but I don’t know how much of that to believe.) Paedobaptism accreted a LOT of superstition (regarding the magical value of Baptism in and of itself) over the centuries. Kind of like a Paedo version of “Once Saved, Always Saved” with Baptism instead of Walking the Aisle.

      • IM,

        I think your last sentence hits the nail on the head. Something caused that mother to come to the conclusion that her boy needed baptism, despite opposition in the congregation. This also despite the fact that he was probably already socially accepted in the congregation (I assume he wasn’t being ostracized) and despite the fact that even if he became a member he wasn’t going to be voting in congregational meetings.

        I would say, echoing Father Ernesto up there, that it was the Spirit, working through the mother, to get that boy into the waters of Holy Baptism. It is a shift away from credo-baptism.

    • Jeff,

      slightly off topic and not to set off a different discussion but to satisfy my curiosity:

      My exposure to RM has been CoC exclusively, here in Austria. Out of curiosity shortly afte my conversion I answered a newspaper ad offering English language Bible study as a way of learning the language. Went and met with Otis Gatewood, veteran CoC missionary to central and eastern Europe, and was very impressed by the concern and conviction he expessed thar if I walked out of his office and across the street, if I should be hit by a car and die, I would be lost because I hadn’t been baptized.

      In view of this conviction how can RM churches wait till Easter Sunday to baptize people who might after all die while waiting? Or wait till a child reaches a certain age once that child gives evidence of accountability, when that child might die waiting for that age?

      Or is that strong conviction of the necessity of baptism limited to CoC and not shared by other RM churches?

      • Thanks for the question, Wolf Paul.

        I’ve mentioned in another comment that I’m currently serving in some small UMC congregations, but I am ordained in and have standing with the Disciples. That and the fact that no one has answered in the last week has prompted me to reply.

        Warning, though–Restoration churches are wildly independent from one another even within their respective branches, so all I can really do is reflect on my own practices and those of the DoC churches I’ve served. With that in mind, in my churches the procession of sweet children into the baptistry on Easter was not so much the goal as the opportunity. Pastor’s Class was designed to end around Holy Week, providing some additional rhetorical weight towards a decision–what better way to celebrate than to join the Savior in death, burial, and resurrection? (And this was not necessarily a group thing! My classes tended to have adults as well as junior high students, and there was always somebody taking the class a second or even a third time. Peer pressure was never the issue–but PARENT pressure often was!)

        In the churches I served, the custom was rather that if anyone made a profession of faith, the baptistry was ready next Sunday. Even if this was in the middle of the class. Even if the profession was made privately to me on Saturday night. We brooked as little delay as possible, and my lay elders were clear that the possibility of tragedy was the reason.

        It’s a slightly different branch, so I’m not quite sure where the CofC is at the moment on this theological and (they would shudder at me using the word, but it’s still applicable) liturgical point. But what should come across in your conversation is Brother Gatewood’s deep concern for *you.* That’s the mark of pastoral urgency! Okay, so it’s true that he was using some rhetorical pathos on you to persuade you to act with immediacy–as I was with using Easter on my class. But I have no doubt that his words rose out of his looking at you and seeing a child of God, for whom Christ died, and worrying that the opportunity to respond to that deep love might be missed.

        I’m not sure this answered your question. But I hope it came close.

  22. I’m a Reformed father of two higher functioning autistic boys who were baptized as infants.

    They may never “pass the test” the denomination requires to become communicant members. This is the closest equivalent to credo-baptism in the Reformed world.

    However, what matters is what they believe. If they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, however simple that faith may be and even if they can’t express it pro forma they will be saved.

    With regards to the autistic children in our congregations. Current rates show that 1 in 150 children are diagnosed with autism. The Christian school (K-12) I graduated from has no place for my children as they don’t have the resources to deal with autism. My church is helpless at the moment to educate my children in Sunday school, not for lack of trying. The larger church we visited which had a special ed Sunday school was chaotic and loud. (For those not familiar with autism, that’s probably the worst offense in trying to deal with it.)

    I don’t have an answer, but felt the need to state the problem. Our autistic children are, in many cases, being left out.

    • As the parent of a hig-functioning autistic child, I understand. I believe that God meets and ministers to kids like ours. I hope you’re able to find a solution for your boys . God bless.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Just what is the boundary between “high-functioning autistic” and “Aspergers”?

  23. Try it this way.

    Let’s say that a member of a church has limited eyesight. As part of a service the church shows a film on a projection screen. The person with limited eyesight can’t see all the detail. Much is missed. And yet it is possible the person will still find something significant in the presentation. While everyone else is focused with the visuals, this person hears something the others overlooked in the spoken words.

    A person who cannot articulate or interact because of a disability, may still understand God in their own way. The church should take the time to understand this person, rather than exclude because understanding may be limited or impossible to articulate.

    Do we believe Romans 8:16
    “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”

    • You’re confusing a physical disability with a mental/developmental one. Some autistics function at a very high level, others much lower. Same thing with Downs Syndrome children. So for more severely disbled children, we don’t really know how much, if any they can understand.

      The blind person can understand and relate to what’s going on despite their handicap; a deaf person can read or have someone interpret.

      • No, I’m really not. I’m saying that people have different perceptions depending on abilities, both physical and mental. You can’t expect someone who can’t articulate to articulate in the same way as one who can. You can’t do that anymore than you can expect a person with limited eyesight to see every visual detail in a film.

        I used to care for a teen girl with the mental capacity of a toddler. She couldn’t say much. She couldn’t even tell me when she needed her diaper changed. She could point to the cabinet where I kept her favorite oatmeal cookies.

        No way could she articulate a belief about anything. Bud does this mean she knew nothing of the presence of God?

        • Agree with you on that – God will reach out to us wherever our mind is at. Just wanted to make sure you understood the difference (and the others here), which appears to be the case.

  24. And of course Romans 8:26
    “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”

    If this is true for those of us who can speak and write with some degree of articulation, how much more must it be true for those who cannot?

  25. Really NOT to be snarky this time, but I think it comes down to Jesus YES, church NO.

    Just because we profess Christ with our voices doesn’t mean we profess Him with our hearts. And we don’t even know our own hearts. I say YAY for baptising Bryan.

  26. I just thought of something that would be interesting to research. Do we have any examples in Scripture of someone with “special needs” being baptized and/or being accepted into fellowship? This is something I have never thought to look for in the Scriptures before this discussion arose. Anyone out there know of an example?

  27. Good post,.

    Allow me to invoke Luther here. He believed in baptizing infants, not simply on covenantal grounds (which he did), or that he believed baptism saved (which he did), but also on the grounds that even infants can excercize faith. And I’m not a Lutheran.

    Depends what you mean by faith. Intelligent fully informed profession of faith…hmmmmm.

    The thief on the cross: Lord remember me when you come into your Kingdom.

    The woman with bleeding: She touches Jesus.

    The man on a mat lowered by his friends: He does nothing.

    The centurion: Speak the word lord, and my daughter will be healed.

    The Syo-Phonecian woman: even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table.

    Nothing complicated about these “professions” of faith. Pretty much “Get me to Jesus.”. In the case of the man lowered on the mat, “Yeah, OK whatever.”

    You pastor was right for baptizing him. His instinct was not only charitable, it was covenantal. That boy was part of the people of God — give him the mark.



  28. Fascinating story, iMonk. The fundamentalism of my youth is filled with experiences which, like this one, reveal that any system of rules has trouble with “edge cases.”

    What’s interesting about this for me is that the Baptist rules are necessary for Baptists, and shouldn’t just be overthrown because of an edge case here or there, and yet without the willingness of that pastor to bend the rules, there was potentially a lack of grace there that could have been very unfortunate.

    I’ve come to appreciate fuzzy edges, and think many theological approaches suffer greatly by trying to spell out every little detail of things. I’m a fan of keeping denominational distinctives, but always remembering what’s True and what’s merely true.

  29. Bryan was the most severe case of autism I’ve seen. In fact, when he was baptized, it was pretty tough on him. I remember that vividly. This wasn’t a church that would have balked at anyone who could have given even the slightest bit of evidence of the most rudimentary understanding, but Bryan was different. His condition left the pastor and cong nothing to go on but what mom said, so it was a real dilemma, and one that has nothing to do- as one now banned commenter said- with me “have a tizzy.” I was against it for the same reason I oppose a parent telling me their 3 year old should be a member.

  30. Having been directed to this page I find it a fascinating discussion.

    Back in 2002 I was invited by a High Functioning Aautistic teen to witness her Baptism by immersion, so I went along.

    I may have created a bit of a disturbance because from the back I called out something like “I am not going to do that ever”

    That was both a combination of shock at seeing this process that I had never witnessed before, and my thought at the time how uneccessary it was to the proffession of being a Christian.

    An astute member of the congregation pointed out that people who protest against it as loudly as I did were usually the next to be Baptised. That member was right, because I started having discussions with the Pastor after that and sure enough became convinced that the Baptist way of doijng it was right.

    Although I had been Baptised by sprinkling as an Infant in the Church of England, that meant nothing to me, and my parents did not put my younger brother through that having come to believe that it was up to the child to decide what faith to follow.

    Well this is the actual testimony I gave.

    “”For a long time I have been a seeker after truth, and gradually came to believe with my mind, but not with my heart. I thought especially when I learnt about my Asperger’s syndrome that it would shut me off forever from a real relationship with Jesus. I know now that I was wrong, and that God has been watching over me ever since I was born into the world, leading me gently to this point in my life.

    I know that Jesus died for me and what a sacrifice this was, and because of that I want to follow Jesus, and for that reason I know that baptism is what Jesus wants me to do, so that I can show to everybody that I have become a Christian.”

    So there you go. I too was afraid of water ever since an unpleasant childhood experience. I really feared drowning as I went under, but I thought, if Jesus could get himself crucified which was a lot worse than that, it was the least I could do to demonstrate my faith.

  31. I’m Catholic, and in our diocese we have a program for disabled children and adults called the Holy Innocence Society. This program began for mostly downs and mentally disabled children. That was over thirty years ago. Students receive instruction in the sacraments and then receive them.

    Today, in the groups that have a younger population, the main disability is autism. There is such a wide range of abilities. Yet, even the most severely disabled students are able to receive the sacraments. Who are we to know the graces God has bestowed on them? Who are we to deny or even guess what is in their hearts? God is full of mercy and love. It is truly a wonderful experience, teaching these children. Both of us are blessed.

    It is understood that many parishes do not have the facilities and teachers to provide instruction to the most severe handicapped students, The HIS program is regional, with students from many surrounding parishes. Today more and more parishes are starting programs for students with disabilitiesl.

  32. One final thought on this topic. Philippians says, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.”

    Another way to put it is that by so strongly limiting Himself, the Son of God chose to become severely disabled (in comparison to his Godly attributes) in order to bring about our salvation. The Incarnation was the omnipresent and omnipotent God throwing much of that aside in order to save us. If such a severely disabled Person of the Trinity can be baptized by Saint John the Baptist, can we not also baptize those who are severely disabled?

  33. Good post. It raises the question of how much one must be able to apprehend to have a demonstrable faith. After 40 years as a believer, I’d have to say not a whole lot. A basic apprehension of the love and forgiveness of Jesus on some level is all it takes, and I’m not the one to judge what level. Many times those with handicaps, special needs and extraordinary challenges apprehend this better and more deeply than those of us who live under the delusion that we’re somehow whole and without handicap. That’s one of the great beauties of the gospel, so much simpler and more beautiful than any church constitution, baptist or otherwise.

  34. I am Baptist and my son has autism. This past spring our pastor approached my wife & I on whether we would like him to be baptized. My was hesitant, as I was concerned as to whether he could truly understand what this all meant. Later that day, another church member told us a story of what had happened the prior Sunday. This person is a carpenter who had done a lot of work at our home in the months prior and had got to spend a lot of time with all our kids. He told us that while worshiping in song the prior Sunday, he had his eyes closed as he sang. He said in the middle of one of the songs, he felt Jesus give him a hug. He said he opened his eyes, and looked down to see my son hugging him and smiling back. After hearing this, I realized that others had seen something in him that I had missed. The next Sunday I got the joy of watching my son eagerly answer yes to all the pastor’s questions and see the smile when he came up out of the water.

  35. Casual Observer says

    It seems to me that much as Christians parents want children to be unambiguously identified with the family name from birth, there are — even for those who do not see baptism as sacramental — compelling reasons to establish an unambiguous identity with the name of Christ early on. From there, many will grow in understanding their baptismal identity; some will opt out. But in either case it remains a gift.