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Fall 2002 · Vol. 31 No. 2 · pp. 148–58 

Children and Baptism in the Mennonite Brethren Church

Laura Kalmar

Dear Samantha,

You are quite an amazing young lady. You bring things to the table that surprise me, like baptism. You have asked a lot of questions about baptism and today you asked again.

“Mommy, tell me again about baptism.”

I explained it to you once more, that after you invite Jesus into your heart the Bible says to be baptized. It is one way that we show our friends and God and the world that we are Christ-followers.

You said, “Well, Mommy, I invited Jesus into my heart.”

“Yes, you did.” I agreed.

“Then, I should get baptized,” you said.

I said, “Well, usually people do it when they get older.”

“Why?” you asked.

“So they understand it better,” I said.

“I understand it. I want my friends to know that I am a Christ-follower.”

Oh, Samantha! Now I am wrestling! Do I do this now? Or do I make you wait? Will you remember? Or will it be more significant later? Or, is the Holy Spirit leading you to do this? Will this cement your love for God and be a catalyst in your walk with Christ? Is he filling you up to be little but great for his kingdom? I see the fruit of the Spirit in the things you do, and in the way you worship. I am praying about this.

I love you, I always will.

Mom. {149}

This touching letter from a young parent to her daughter is evidence of a debate going on in our Mennonite Brethren (MB) churches about the question of children and baptism. This is a real journal entry, dated June 4, 1999, written by a mother who attends a Canadian MB church. Samantha (not her real name) was baptized at the age of six.

Children who have made commitments of faith are part of the Christian family and should be treated as such.

Statistical reports from the Canadian Conference of MB Churches indicate that churches are baptizing more and more people under the age of eleven. In 1989, Canadian churches reported that only nine children eleven years and younger were baptized. That number increased by over 250 percent in the next decade, with twenty-five children eleven years or younger baptized in 1998.

Should we continue to baptize young children? How young is too young? What do Mennonite Brethren believe about baptism and children? What are the positive or negative implications of baptizing children? In order to answer these questions, we must look at the biblical text and consider several factors. First, we must look at Anabaptist history and theology. Second, we must glean wisdom from contemporary research on children and faith development. Finally, we must educate ourselves about the sociological characteristics of the current generation of children in our churches.


Our Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith (Article 8, “Christian Baptism”) affirms that baptism is a public sign of personal faith. The confessional statement lays out some general principles helping us determine whether a person is ready for baptism: “Baptism is for those who understand its meaning, are able to be accountable to Christ and the church, and voluntarily request it on the basis of their faith response to Jesus Christ” (88). In the pastoral application, a caveat is given to church leaders: “A temptation pastors face is to acquiesce to the pressure to baptize young children. Though their understanding of salvation may represent an authentic spiritual experience, it may not represent an adequate understanding for baptism” (94).

These comments expose two central Anabaptist ideas about baptism and the church. The Anabaptists rejected infant baptism, believing that {150} every member of the true church must voluntarily choose to be part of it. An important belief about the nature of the church lay behind this rejection. Anabaptists believed the church should be a pure community of Christ. According to pure church ideology, all members had to be receptive to discipline and accountability, even to the point of being banned from fellowship. The Anabaptists realized it would be difficult to hold children to this standard. Thus, children were not eligible for membership nor for baptism.

In light of this huge paradigm shift from Catholic or Lutheran practice, a new theology of children needed to arise. If infants and children were not baptized, where did they stand from a soteriological point of view? Early Anabaptist writers often raised this question in response to accusations that they were neglecting their children or even consigning them to hell because they refused to baptize their newborn babies.

Menno Simons and other early Anabaptist writers developed a doctrine called “complex innocence.” Complex innocence explains that both willful disobedience and intentional faithfulness are absent in children. Children are innocent and cannot be held accountable for their actions, since they cannot discern right from wrong. They cannot reason or understand the consequences of their actions, regardless of how sinful those actions may be. As well, children cannot be true followers of Christ because they are not cognitively or morally developed enough to make the decisions necessary for a life of discipleship. However, they are part of God’s kingdom due to the free grace offered at Calvary. Jesus’ atonement automatically guards the innocent.

Thus, Marvin Yoder writes,

We believe that children are born with a nature which will manifest itself as sinful as they mature. When they come to know themselves to be responsible to God, they must repent and trust in Christ in order to be saved. Before the age when children are accountable to God, their sins are atoned for through the sacrifice of Christ. Jesus himself assured us that children are in the kingdom of God. (Yoder, 10)

The early Anabaptists believed that only those who were old enough to make moral distinctions and choose between alternatives could confess faith and become a member of the church. Children were considered innocent until they developed conscience and reason. It then became important to determine when a person’s “coming of age” occurred. If baptism was to be reserved for those who had reached an {151} age of accountability, Anabaptists had to agree when this was. Commonly, it was thought to be at the beginning of adolescence, around eleven or twelve years of age (Wiebe, 46), although some early Anabaptists indicated it to be around age thirty (Schwartz, 106).

Although the early Anabaptists saw “innocents” in a positive light in regard to salvation, children were certainly not held up as models of ideal faith or Christian living. Many writers suggested that if children were left to the inclinations of their human nature, they were basically incapable of godly faith or behavior. Thus, child rearing focused on obedience, submission, and firm punishment, often with the use of the rod (Klassen, 22). In accordance with the cultural milieu of the time, children were relegated to a lower, inferior status until they could function as adults.


In contemporary discussions, children are given more credibility and esteem. Childhood is valued in its own right. The church is actively reconsidering the status of children in the community of believers. We are examining what it means for children to have living, growing faith. When we discuss children and faith, we look for particular signs of belief and commitment. Although the “age of accountability” is no longer a common term in our conversations about children, we still look for particular markers of maturity, especially if we are considering the question of baptism. We expect that those who get baptized will have a solid understanding of sin and repentance, and fully understand the work of Christ on the cross.

In regard to the latter, we are influenced by current evangelical theology, which stresses the penal substitutionary model of the atonement. The penal substitution model emphasizes Jesus’ suffering on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins. In his death, Christ took human punishment upon himself. Here, sin is defined as the particular behaviors for which humans deserve to be sentenced and condemned to eternal death. A clear knowledge of sin requires the ability to distinguish between right and wrong actions. Yet it is only in later stages of moral growth that people have such an understanding, i.e., external standards of good and bad (see Kohlberg 1981) and a mature concept of justice. If faith rests on the ability to perceive right from wrong, it seems reasonable to delay baptism until children can make such a distinction.

However, although it is prevalent in much of our current theology, the penal substitution model—with its emphasis on legal categories of right and wrong—highlights only certain metaphors for the {152} used in the New Testament. In addition to sacrificial imagery, for example, biblical writers also explain Jesus’ death on the cross as the climax of God’s covenant with humanity, as reconciliation, as promise, and as triumph over the powers (Green and Baker, 60). Based on these other images, sin takes on a different meaning:

Paul’s conception of “sin” is not one that accords particular emphasis to individual sinful acts, each of which, it might be thought, attracts divine punishment. Sin, rather, is a general disposition of hostility toward God and God’s purpose, a refusal to honor God as God. Sin is a relational problem. Hence, although Paul’s notion of atonement takes sin with utmost seriousness, it is concerned above all with the restoration of the divine-human relationship, not with the mollification of a God angered by masses of misdeeds. (Green and Baker, 95-96)

If we explain sin and atonement using a variety of metaphors and images, children may grasp Christian truths and express faith at an earlier age. Young children between the ages of three and six understand that relationships can be damaged (see the work of Erik Erikson and his eight stages of psychosocial development). Toddlers show signs of sadness or remorse if they disappoint their parents and express a desire to mend broken relationships. These children do not necessarily understand their actions to be wrong in a morally objective sense of the word. They simply know they have hurt another person. They know they have lost favor with a parent or adult.

In a young child’s mind, sin is inextricably tied to relationship. Thus, it is possible for children to understand that Christ’s death repaired the friendship between God and humanity. In the context of relationship, many young children ask Jesus to be their “Forever Friend” and make simple confessions of faith. Childhood faith may be simple, but it is valid. As Catherine Stonehouse writes,

In the Christian faith, the ultimate center of value is to be the Creator, the redeemer God. If we truly live the Christian faith, God will be the focus of our trust, loyalty, and love. We will understand the meaning of our lives in terms of God’s activity on our behalf and of our involvement in God’s plans. (Stonehouse, 147) {153}

Since many children walk in this truth, and express personal faith, having God as the focus of their trust, loyalty, and love, their level of understanding is adequate to qualify them for believers baptism.

In valuing young faith, we are not devaluing the significance of baptism, faithful obedience, or commitment to community. We are simply acknowledging that faith is a lifelong journey, one that can begin at a young age. Many children are ready to publicly declare their faith and say, along with Paul, “I believed; therefore I have spoken” (2 Cor. 4:13 NIV, passim). Many children express a hope and assurance in an unseen God (Heb. 11:1). Many young children demonstrate commitment, faithfulness, and a longing to become more like Jesus. Many children have very real spiritual experiences with God, hearing from him in prayer and sensing his presence in worship. Many children have an authentic relationship with Christ. Although cognitive and theological understanding is far from complete, children can express and experience faith.

Jesus praised childlike faith. In our circles of fellowship, we may be hesitant to give credence to childhood declarations of faith. However, Scripture clearly teaches us to celebrate when children come to Jesus. Children can serve as models for adults. They can teach us to accept God’s reign in our lives with unpretentious trust and belief (Mark 10:13-16). They can teach us that faith is more often about mystery than reason. We do not have to doubt the reality or validity of childhood faith. Faith is faith, even if it is as new as a sunrise or as small as a mustard seed (Matt. 17:20).

Paul praises the young disciple, Timothy, for his faithfulness, recognizing the significance of Timothy’s childhood faith and training. Paul writes:

Continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Tim. 3:14-15)

Childhood experiences of faith are important and valid. And because faith, no matter how basic or intuitive, is the most important criterion for believers baptism (Acts 8:12; 16:31-33), we should not obstruct children of faith when they express a desire to be baptized.

What if a child is baptized and then goes through a period of doubt or “backsliding?” Does this suggest that baptism had no personal {154} significance for the child? Does it mean the child’s faith was not mature enough to make the commitment necessary for baptism? Baptism does not signal the climax or pinnacle of a person’s spiritual journey. A person’s faith grows and develops long after baptism is over. Even adults do not have it “all together” when they are baptized.

There are many twists, turns, highs and lows along the road of discipleship. For example, a child may express a very confident faith at the age of nine, only to experience serious doubts about God at the age of sixteen. This is a normal characteristic of faith development and not something that should dissuade us from baptizing children. Researcher James Fowler indicates that between the ages of eleven and fifteen, children begin to develop synthetic-conventional faith in which the beliefs of the surrounding community become personalized. Children may explore and even question the religious belief systems in which they were raised. Often, struggle is part of the journey.

Some of the most beloved figures from the Bible expressed doubt, frustration, and angst in their Christian walks, such as David (Ps. 22) and Paul (Rom. 7:14-20). If a baptized person experiences a period of spiritual uncertainty, we should not feel a sense of failure for having allowed the baptism to occur. Doubt does not necessarily indicate artificial faith. It simply means that we, as a community, must continue to encourage and walk alongside that person.


As we continue to discuss the issue of children and baptism, we must also take a serious look at the sociological characteristics of the children to whom we are ministering. Children born between the years 1982 and 2003, commonly known as the Millennial Generation, were conceived in an era of rapid technology, globalization, and child-targeted advertising and media. Millennials are being raised in a time of highly positive and protective attitudes toward children (Howe and Strauss, 13). They have specific spiritual needs and characteristics that distinguish them from other generations. These needs and characteristics, while never substitutes for scriptural truth and teaching, can help us determine how to best reach young people with the gospel message.

Millennials focus heavily on relationships and experiences. They are increasingly postmodern in their thinking and living. Faith is not about propositional truth, intellectual knowledge, or cognitive assent. For Millennials, faith is not an abstract concept. It is centered in experience, action, and relationships. These children are not seeking to bypass knowledge, but to “make that knowledge real in actual experience” {155} (McAllister, 105). For Millennial kids, the outer form and ritual of baptism is significant, perhaps more significant than a cognitive understanding of it. Leonard Sweet says,

Postmodern culture is altering forever what it means to know something. In classical physics one could “know” something by taking that thing apart and achieving distance from it. The modsern scientific method taught us to look at things with a moon’s eye, unblinking and remote. But now the postmodern scientific method of “knowing” something requires us to enter into a relationship with it. (Sweet, 63)

The event of being lowered and raised out of the water may facilitate profound faith and life change in these children. The act of baptism, as it is experienced and lived, may actually deepen a child’s relationship with Jesus.

Baptism is a concrete symbol of faith. It not only provides an excellent way for children to express faith, but also to experience and learn more about that faith. Children’s “love of the dramatic, the fascination with mystery, and the desire to explore it prepare [them] to participate in the rituals of the faith” (Stonehouse, 156). Baptism can be an important part of a child’s story of faith. As well, there may be some negative repercussions of denying baptism to young children in the Millennial generation. Asking children who have already made a decision to follow Jesus and be part of the family of God to postpone baptism until they are older may only serve to stall their development, frustrate their faith, and drive them away from the church.


These realities compel us to reexamine our thinking about the nature of the church and those who can be a legitimate part of it. We must reassess whether the MB Confession of Faith’s rejection of child baptism is valid. Since we believe that “baptism is a sign of a believer’s incorporation into the body of Christ as expressed in the local church” (Article 8, “Christian Baptism,” 88), we expect a certain level of accountability and participation from those who are baptized. The question is whether children can be accountable and truly participate in church life. Do youngsters understand the responsibility and obligation of being part of a covenant community?

Marlin Jeschke argues that even secular society does not confer major responsibility or obligation upon children, such as driving a car {156} or voting, until they are in their later teen years, so we “are deluding ourselves if we ask them to make authentic decisions with respect to personal faith at a much earlier age” (Jeschke, 113). Can we expect children to be responsible enough to make the commitment necessary for baptism and participation in the local church?

There are many biblical examples that can help us answer this question affirmatively. The Hebrew Scriptures provide numerous examples of children being included meaningfully and responsibly in the life of faith. For example, when Israel faced an enemy attack, King Jehoshaphat gathered the whole community together to pray: “All the men of Judah, with their wives and children and little ones, stood there before the Lord” (2 Chron. 20:13, emphasis added). Children’s involvement in the corporate life of faith was valuable and sought after. Children who have made commitments of faith are part of the Christian family and should be treated as such. They should feel like part of the community, being invited to worship, pray, and serve together with adults. They can be held accountable to a life of discipleship with age-appropriate expectations.

Since we have linked baptism and membership in the MB Church, an important issue connected to children and baptism is congregational decision-making. If young children are baptized, should they be allowed to vote in congregational matters? As we have seen, children’s cognitive and moral abilities are not fully developed. Their level of discernment and wisdom is not the same as that of a mature Christian. Perhaps we could withhold voting privileges until the age of sixteen or eighteen, while still offering membership to baptized children. This would allow children to experience a certain level of commitment and accountability without having the full weight of adult responsibility. This would also reinforce the idea that baptism is a starting point, not the pinnacle of faith or faithfulness.

If we decide that young girls and boys in our congregations can be candidates for baptism, we must stand together as a community, both parents and church family, to discern whether baptism is right for the young children who request it. Baptism is not appropriate for every child. It is not something to decide lightly or without prayer. We must not consent too quickly when a child asks to be baptized. We must discern whether the child’s request is being made on the basis of authentic faith, or from a desire to imitate or conform with other children. We want to be sure that a child does indeed have a relationship with Jesus before taking the step of baptism.

This judgment can only be made in the context of community. We {157} must be sensitive and prayerful in dealing with each individual child, careful not to frustrate a child’s faith or manipulate premature faith decisions. We must recognize that the Holy Spirit calls each person to himself in a unique manner. Our intention is not to create a culture of young “baptists,” but simply to build a community where each person’s faith journey is seen as distinctive and special. If a child does get baptized, we must also make the commitment to support that child as he or she continues to grow and develop in the years that follow. Christian education and nurture cannot end at baptism.


If George Barna’s 1999 research is correct, the probability of accepting Christ is highest among kids under age fourteen, with the largest percentage (thirty-two percent) choosing to follow Jesus between five and thirteen years of age. This research points to the fact that children are coming to faith at a young age and asking Jesus to be the leader of their lives. Those of us in the Mennonite Brethren denomination who wish to minister to children have an important task in front of us.

We must be ready to acknowledge and honor the early faith experiences of children. We must be ready to discuss the symbols and rituals of our faith with the boys and girls in our churches, and even celebrate when a child expresses the desire to receive baptism. We must be ready to have conversations with them about the significance of baptism and being part of God’s family. We must be ready to join children on their journey of faith, seeing baptism as an exciting and important part of the adventure.


  • Barna, George. “Teens and Adults Have Little Chance of Accepting Christ as Their Savior,” Barna Research Online, 15 November 1999. Accessed 5 July 2002; available from; Internet.
  • Board of Faith and Life. Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith: Commentary and Pastoral Application. Winnipeg, MB, and Hillsboro, KS: Kindred, 2000.
  • Erikson, Erik. Childhood and Society. New York: W. W. Norton, 1985.
  • Fowler, James. Stages of Faith. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1987. {158}
  • George, Timothy. “You Must Be Born Again—But at What Age?” Christianity Today, 1 March 1999, 62.
  • Green, Joel B., and Mark D. Baker. Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000.
  • Howe, Neil, and William Strauss. Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. New York: Vintage, 2000.
  • Jeschke, Marlin. Believers Baptism for Children of the Church. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1983.
  • Klassen, William. “The Role of the Child in Anabaptism.” In Mennonite Images: Historical, Cultural and Literary Essays Dealing with Mennonite Issues, ed. Harry Loewen, 17-32. Winnipeg, MB: Hyperion, 1980.
  • Kohlberg, Lawrence. The Philosophy of Moral Development: Essays on Moral Development, vol. 1. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1981.
  • McAllister, Dawson. Saving the Millennial Generation: New Ways to Reach the Kids You Care About in These Uncertain Times. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1999.
  • Miller, Keith Graber. “Complex Innocence, Obligatory Nurturance, and Parental Vigilance: ‘The Child’ in the Work of Menno Simons.” In The Child in Christian Thought, ed. Marcia Bunge, 194-226. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001.
  • Schwartz, Hillel. “Early Anabaptist Ideas About the Nature of Children.” The Mennonite Quarterly Review 47 (April 1973): 102-14.
  • Stonehouse, Catherine. Joining Children on the Spiritual Journey: Nurturing a Life of Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998.
  • Sweet, Leonard. SoulSalsa: 17 Surprising Steps for Godly Living in the 21st Century. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000.
  • Wiebe, David. “Toward a Theology of Children.” Direction 22 (1993): 33-50.
  • Yoder, Marvin. What We Believe About Children. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1984.
Laura Kalmar received a B.Ed. from Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, and an M.Div. from Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California. She currently serves Bakerview Mennonite Brethren Church in Abbotsford, British Columbia, as an Associate Pastor in Children’s Ministry.

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