Youth and Church Membership—Or, Stop Baptizing Children into the Ether
So as to begin on the surest footing, allow me to list all the verses that directly address the topic of young people (that is, under 18 years old) and church membership:
That’s right. There are none. Never does the Lord tell us: this is how the new covenant people of God ought to embrace children into its number. (As I say this, paedobaptists grouse and facepalm.)
This conversation ought to happen in the realm of prudence and wisdom. This isn’t “Thus sayeth the Lord”; it’s “because the Lord hath sayeth thus about this and this and this, we’re inclined to believe this is the best way forward on that.” But the best prudential decisions are informed by principles; the best wisdom considers the law.
So what principles inform our understanding of youth and church membership? I can think of a few.
1. God saves young people.
If you were to take a straw poll at church this Sunday and ask your people a simple question—“How many of you were saved before your 18th birthday?”—it’s safe to say that many if not most people would raise their hands. Why? Because God saves young people. He saves 17-year-olds whose friends invite them to youth group. He saves 5-year-olds who show up at VBS because their unsaved parent simply needed a break and some free child care. God saves young people.
2. Church membership is only for those whom God has saved.
Our local churches—that is, our gatherings of the new covenant people of God; that is, our embassies of true Israel, now reconstituted under the headship of the risen and reigning Christ, filled by Spirit-filled priests—are not mixed bodies by design. National Israel followed a different story, of course: she was mixed by design. But not true Israel. In the new covenant age, God wanted to make crystal clear that new hearts aren’t given at the end of a birth canal, but at the beginning of a life of faith.
3. When discerning an individual’s salvation, we look for a credible profession of faith.
When discerning whether or not someone should be recommended for membership—regardless of their age—we ought to listen for a clear understanding of the gospel, a clear sense that one has indeed been converted from death to life (even if they can’t pinpoint the day, month, or even the year), and a clear change in lifestyle and desires. If any of those three are absent, you should at least be willing to pause and consider whether or not the person in front of you has indeed been born again.
Not everyone who asks “What must I do to be saved?” really wants to be saved. Don’t believe me? Just consider the rich young ruler whose credible profession dissolved in an instant when Jesus asked him a single question about his life (Mark 10:17–22).
At least for credobaptists, these three principles are relatively uncontroversial. Unfortunately, I fear this fourth one has been largely jettisoned by many if not most credobaptist churches.
4. Baptism almost always accompanies church membership.
In 2002, I was baptized at a church but not into a church. I stood in the baptismal as a free-agent Christian, I went down into the water as a free-agent Christian, and I came up out of the water as a free-agent Christian. Never once did it occur to me—or, apparently, to anyone else—that baptism not only serves as an outward sign of an inward reality, but also as an outward introduction into a spiritual institution: the local church. I knew that baptism began my so-called Christian life, but I had no idea that my Christian life ought to be shaped around my submission to a local church.
Simply put, church membership should almost always accompany baptism. This is the nearly uniform witness of the New Testament, with the only exception that I can think of coming from Acts 8 when Philip baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch. But that exception proves the rule because it’s a baptism that occurs in a region and among a people where no church yet exists.
When we don’t keep baptism and membership close together, we turn membership into something unbiblical. So, unless you’re doing parachurch ministry among some remote tribe, baptism should accompany church membership.
That I was baptized without any connection to a church could only happen in a world that diminishes the role of the local church in a Christian’s life and discipleship. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon.
ONE OPTION OFF THE TABLE
Therefore, a church should not baptize young people apart from church membership. To do so is unbiblical, unhelpful, and unloving.
It’s unbiblical because the Bible never envisions baptized Christians living apart from membership in a local church (except on the missionary frontier, as with the Ethiopian eunuch).
It’s unhelpful because when young people begin to stray, their youth pastors are given a toolbelt with valuable tools already taken out. They can’t push a young person toward his elders; he has no elders. They can’t lay out the process of church discipline that lies before him should he continue on a particular path; he has no church who can discipline him, nor has he ever agreed to any kind of covenant that, upon breaching, would warrant his knowing removal.
And finally, it’s unloving because it hardwires in an individualistic understanding of the Christian life. For example, I was baptized at 12 and only about a decade later did I learn how Jesus intends for my discipleship to be shaped by and connected to a local church—under the authority of godly leaders, in fellowship with other saints.
That’s ten years where I was free to gallivant anywhere I wanted with no one in particular tasked before God to look out for me. Thankfully, God preserved me, but I think of my brother, or I think of literally dozens of friends whose baptism into the ether proved to be just that, the first step on a journey to nowhere. Their Christian life has dissolved, their Christian profession is now silent, and whatever tenuous connection to the local church their baptism established has been severed by a decade and a half of inattention. If a baptized person gets lost in a forest and no one is there to see it, does it really make a difference? Jesus seems to say it should (John 10:1–21).
Sadly, thousands of kids will face the same fate, and the churches they’re connected to have made it so.
They’ve been affirmed in their faith as a young person through baptism. Maybe they were 7-years-old; maybe they were 17. The moment accompanied such joy; it occasioned both a beginning and an ending, the old being washed away and the new finally coming.
But baptism apart from membership has led these young Christians through a doorway to nowhere.
It has ushered them into a place that looks like a beautiful home—a space where they can grow up and learn and explore. But it’s a façade. You see, when we baptize any new Christian, we tell them they’re family, that they can move in here with us, that they can plop down on the couch and pick out a bedroom and fill the refrigerator with their favorite food. After all, they’re going to be here a while. They’re home. But when we baptize someone apart from membership, apart from mutual commitment, we’re not inviting them into a home, but to an open house, 10am–2pm every Sunday. The furniture is staged, no one actually sleeps in these beds, and the appliances don’t even work. It’s all for show.
Churches and pastors and youth groups who make of practice of doing this, I encourage you to reconsider. It’s an unbiblical practice that bears bad fruit. Consider instead what might be helpful for that young person in five or 10 years. Consider how double-minded it is to affirm someone has been born again by God’s Spirit, but to keep them formally shut out of God’s people. Consider how—though I know it seems unthinkable right now, in a moment of such joy—you will one day forget about them, and they will forget about you, and all this would have stood for nothing.
THREE POTENTIAL APPROACHES
So, don’t baptize kids into the ether. That’s not a viable option. As I see it, however, there are at least three ways to approach this question without compromising any of the aforementioned principles. I’ll discuss these below, offering my own assessment as to how they adhere to biblical wisdom and best practices.
Approach #1: Except in unusual circumstances, a church will not accept any youth into membership because they will not baptize them.
A church like Capitol Hill Baptist would agree with the horror story I described above and, so as to avoid complicity in perpetuating that story to future generations, they will generally not baptize a young person who is still under the authority of their Christian parents. I think this practice properly underscores the seriousness with which any person—regardless of age—should take their profession of faith. See CHBC’s statement on children and baptism here.
An added bonus is that it clarifies that baptism is not a familial rite of passage. Baptism means a church has embraced an individual and an individual has submitted him- or herself to an institution other than their family.
The whirring engine behind this approach is that it’s simply hard to discern the credibility of a Christian child’s profession of faith. It’s easy to mistake obedience for regeneration.
Now, in unusual circumstances, a church like CHBC will show more flexibility: perhaps a neighborhood kid from a Muslim family starts going to church on his own and believes in Jesus; perhaps a 15-year-old has gone to public school his whole life and has a flourishing evangelistic ministry. In these made-up situations, the evidence would pile high enough so as to at least consider that young person a candidate for baptism and membership.
This is not my own view, but I’m sympathetic to this practice because it correctly identifies a problem: the scourge of nominal young people that scores of churches baptize year after year after year with no intention of ever bringing those individuals up for church discipline should their lives begin to undermine their profession of faith. In these cases, the problem isn’t the presence of baptism, but the absence of meaningful church membership and church discipline.
Sidenote: If you’re at a church that doesn’t practice church discipline at all, then you should follow this road if only because it keeps you from future disobedience.
Approach #2: A church will baptize a young person into membership-with-an-asterisk.
I’m currently the youth pastor of a church—North Shore Baptist Church in Queens, NY—that takes this second route. It’s a practice I inherited, and it works like this: We’ll baptize a young person into “provisional membership”—which means they can attend members’ meetings, serve in various capacities, receive free biblical counseling, and even be disciplined should they begin to live in unrepentant sin.
In almost every respect, they are members of NSBC except they can’t vote at our meetings, and they might be asked to leave should the topic be deemed (either by their parents or us as elders) too mature for them.
This approach acknowledges reality: they’re children, though most if not all are juniors or seniors in high school. But it also treats them in many respects as equals. It raises our expectations for them even as we’ve raised our own commitment to them—not just through their graduation from youth group but through the rest of their lives should the Lord tarry and should they stay nearby.
Approach #3: A church will baptize a young person into full voting membership.
This is basically the same as above, but with any restrictions removed. Sure, a parent may choose to withhold their child from a particular conversation, but it would not be required of them.
For what it’s worth, I’m partial to this choice because it’s cleanest. “Provisional membership” is an extrabiblical category. If a young person has been born again by God the Holy Spirit; if they are being renewed day by day into the image of Christ; if the Holy Spirit is producing in them such fruit as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control, then I’m happy for them to cast their vote on questions of membership, leadership, doctrine, and all the rest. Wielding the keys of the kingdom is a privilege reserved not for adults, but for those who have received the Lord Jesus, those who have believed in his name and in so doing have been given the right to become children of God.
Lest I be scolded by my higher-ups, I’m not offering the “9Marks view” on this topic, if there is one—only my own.
No matter which of the three options above you choose, you should help young people understand that the Lord’s Supper belongs to members of the church (or members of other churches in attendance). Like baptism and membership, the Supper is a sign that we belong to the body (1 Cor. 10:17). And so it makes no sense to give someone the Supper but not baptism, as parents sometimes do with their children. We must keep these three things tied together—membership, baptism, and the Supper. To divide them changes their meaning into something unbiblical.
It’s true the Bible never directly addresses the topic of how we ought to introduce young people into the membership of our churches. But it does offer principles about salvation and processes of membership that are non-negotiable and therefore must inform and shape our practice.