Commitment Issues: Why Do We Baptize Younger, but Marry Older?

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There was a Baptism service at my church this past weekend and not the usual indoctrinated from birth teenager either.  This was a married couple in their thirties come in from outside the Mennonite religious tradition.

We had Communion that night and the devotional was about how Jesus asked “take this cup from me” when considering the suffering he would soon endure.  The cup we drink at Communion is a voluntary commitment to “take up the cross” and suffer with Jesus.

Baptism is a serious commitment.  Jesus urged to “count the cost” before making a commitment to follow after him and his converts were adults.  This seems in stark contrast to the evangelical emotional appeals for a decision and child conversion of the current conservative Mennonite culture.

Mennonites, or rather our Anabaptist ancestors, suffered persecution because they (among other things) rejected infant Baptism in defiance of the established religious order of their day and tied the ritual back to profession of faith.  This is called “Believer’s Baptism” and a commitment made with keen awareness that it could come at a tremendous cost.

Baptism Age: Then Compared To Now…

We, as Mennonites, especially conservative Mennonites, take pride in our Anabaptist identity, we like to use it as something that makes us unique, special or separated and, put plainly, better than other Christian denominations.

But are we?

Are we much like early Anabaptists and Mennonites who came before us?

In my own church experience, as noted, the ‘conversion’ to Christianity often comes at a very young age and most are Baptized as teenagers.  This is probably a reflection of a departure from our Anabaptist roots and embrace of more recent Evangelical innovations.  We, unlike our predecessors, have pulpits to pound on, Sunday school hours aimed at children and Revival meetings with strong emotional appeals.

So, what about our Anabaptist heritage, how does *their* normal for conversion compare to our own?

When did *they* get Baptized?

According to a GAMEO article on age of Baptism this is the answer:

“The estimated average age of baptism for 10 representative Anabaptist men and women, 1525-1536, was 36.4, with none under the age of 20, two between the ages of 20 and 29, four between 30 and 39, and four between 40 and 49.”

Early Anabaptist converts were often adults who could likely more fully understand the commitment that they made and knew it could be a death sentence.  Mennonite converts today, by contrast, are often children, products of a careful indoctrination from a young age, taught to please parents and through ‘conversion’ gain access to the perks of cultural acceptance rather than lose it.

Which leaves a question of whether or not our child converts actually able to count the cost of being a disciple of Jesus or are they simply doing what is culturally expedient and trying to keep up with their religious peers?

Sure, we could say that our children (because of our great teaching and example) are more ready for a serious commitment than say, for example, a 16th century German peasant facing death, a safe assumption, right?

However, then we get to the topic of marriage commitment…

Marriage Age: Then Compared To Now…

As far as I can tell our Amish and Old Order cousins are doing just fine in regards to courtship and marriage—It seems to be business as usual for them.  However, in the conservative Mennonite subset I am a part of there also seems to have been a shift away from marriage commitment.

When compared to prior generations we are waiting longer and longer to tie the knot.  My great grandma, not uncommon in her day, married as a teenager, and my grandparents married just into their twenties like my parents did.  But in my own church today there’s nearly two pews of those twenty-five or older who never married and hardly even dated.

The subset of Mennonite I belong to came under the influence of fundamentalist voices, men like Bill Gothard (who remains single) and others, that taught a courtship model.  They have embraced an idea that basically turns a first date into an engagement.  Friendship, let alone development of a romance, has become nearly impossible and it is because there’s this fear instilled in both genders to prevent even healthy interaction.

These fundamentalist Mennonites have also come under the influence of worldly entertainment.  Despite our traditional dress and slightly more cloistered communities, we are exposed (through internet and other media) to secular millennial generation values.  Mennonite fundamentalists, like their worldly counterparts, are postponing a marriage commitment longer and more never do tie the knot.

Could it be possible that we value freedom from responsibility over commitment and our temporal pleasures (like freedom to travel or other self-satisfactory personal projects both religiously or otherwise justified) over the risk of a long-term relationship?

But, more importantly, what does this reluctance to show romantic love say about our faith?  Can we claim to be committed to God when we can’t even make a serious commitment to loving each other?

Why Do We Baptize Younger, but Marry Older?

I believe our practices betray our inconsistency of thought and departure from the identity we claim as our own.  It is cognitive dissonance, hypocrisy, etc.  We urge our children to commitment before they are able to count the cost as an adult, but then continue to mistrust that decision after they do so as if we do secretly know better. 

First we often urge them to wait to be Baptized.  We save that public confirmation for teenagers who went through a young believers class, which is nothing like the Baptism immediately upon profession of faith as was the case in the early church. 

But then, even after that, we continue to mistrust the commitment when it comes to courtship practice.  Mennonite suitors are not treated as an actual brother in Christ when it comes time to ask.  No, instead they are treated as if a hostile invader who must prove himself worthy by running a gauntlet and can be instantly disqualified if he dare be too honest about his own imperfection.

We might ridicule Catholics and Lutherans for doing the opposite of us (for Baptizing their infants and then confirming them as believers later on) but should probably be careful not to throw stones from our glass houses.  We should instead consider the beam in our own eye and ask why we are urging commitments that we don’t fully recognize or completely respect later on.

We tell tales of Constantine marching his troops through a river and calling them Baptized.  Yet could it be that we are really only manufacturing pre-programmed religious robots?  Sure, we produce children who recite back memory verses, spout out our dogmas on cue, and give all the right sounding answers with a smile on their face, but are as evil as the world at heart?

Adult Commitment Rather Than Premature Birth and Underdeveloped Faith

In Christian commitment (as in marriage) we should probably be encouraging our adults to commitment and telling our children to wait until ready.  If a person is too young to commit to marriage then they are also likely too young to comprehend the true cost of discipleship and make a commitment to God.

As one who was physically born early (my mother’s labor induced rather than natural) there is clear danger in going ahead of schedule like this.  I spent weeks in the hospital, in plastic box seperated from my mom because of a collapsed lung, and seemed to have developmental issues since as a result.

Likewise, encouraging premature spiritual birth could be to our detriment and leading our converts to struggles down the road.  Perhaps we have become like Abraham who tried to create a fulfilment of God’s plan through his own efforts?  Ultimately our children are not saved by our good parenting, frequent altar calls or courtship standards.

We need to return to a radical faith that emphasizes the cost of discipleship and encourages adult decision rather than urge premature commitments.  Perhaps the our young adults would be less fearful of lessor commitments and more ready to sacrifice all for love than cling forever to their childish fears?

Whatever the case, there is something very special about an adult Baptism and a decision made by one more fully aware of the cost of commitment.  May God bless Dan and Dina for their testimony of faith and their public commitment yesterday.

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11 thoughts on “Commitment Issues: Why Do We Baptize Younger, but Marry Older?

  1. Lucinda J

    I understand and agree that in our Christian culture, children often “give their hearts to the Lord” or “accept Jesus” before they are old enough to fully understand the commitment. However, I don’t think we should criticize or discourage commitments made by the young…of course they’re not mature enough to understand as fully now as they will later, but their desire is still precious to God and he will continue to stretch them as they grow older.

    I was old enough at age 9 to understand Jesus dying on the cross for me and to experience a genuine, sweet conversion.

    At 22, I understood in a deeper way that God was asking for a complete surrender of myself to Him, and made a definite decision to do so.

    Both experiences were equally precious, valid, and life-changing. Of course I didn’t have the understanding at 9 that I did at 22, but I believe it was right for me to come to God with the understanding I did have, and would have been wrong of my parents to tell me I wasn’t old enough to make a commitment.

    If they had held me back, I can only envision their actions as damaging the trust I had in them, keeping my mind in suspense and guilt, and delaying the friendship with my Savior that began that night when I was 9 years old.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I would neither pressure a child to make a commitment nor stop them from praying as they feel led to pray. 

      However, it was Jesus who urged his disciples (who were adults with life experience) to count the cost and I believe there are costs for our downplaying what is clearly spoken.  We should not ignore the example given in Scripture because of teachings and an emphasis that is only a few centuries old.  But our most grievous failure in accepting this popular new approach to evangelism is the neglect of true discipleship and Christian community to teach.  Instead we use inventions like young believer’s classes and revival meetings that don’t produce as strong a faith as what it ought.  We tempt God to perform miracles for us rather than follow the example he gave.

      I suppose you and I are both those miracle babies born premature and survived.  But we have many spiritual zombies amongst us or so it seems when you compare our expectations of faith to those who came before us.  Jesus promised we would do greater things, but many of us seem like spiritual infants still on life support grasping for breath and graduate to weather wildernesses of deep uncertainty about their prior commitment.  By contrast, the adult converts I know know where they came from and know where they are going…

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      • Titus K

        (Typo in the penultimate line of the penultimate paragraph; lessor)

        Lucinda’s ‘dual conversion’ experience is the way forward. A child commits everything they are and that is good. We don’t want to kick that.

        But as a child grows, they grow beyond what they committed. Their new parts are theirs and theirs alone and need to be brought into the service of Christ.
        A normal, reasonable, self-aware adult cannot live from commitment of his 6 year old self.

        We don’t want a single conversion, we need a continual conversion.
        We need to replace the narrative of “I was saved back when…” with “I am now being saved and transformed…”

        Liked by 1 person

      • I agree, there is a process (transformation or theosis) that is mysterious and my own experience is similar to Lucinda’s. However, I do feel need to warn against this idea that conversion is a child hood experience of being coached through a “sinner’s prayer” because you got in a fight with a sibling and are starting to feel some remorse. There should be no desperation on our part (as parents) to push our children to an early commitment. Instead we must rest in the power of the Spirit and trust God’s grace. I believe Jesus still calls his sheep.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Hey Joel, you have some interesting thoughts here. Ultimately, since Jesus never said, “You must be this old to be My disciple,” we cannot draw any hard-and-fast rules.

    There are several other verses/passages I would submit for your consideration:

    They were bringing to him little children, that he should touch them, but the disciples rebuked those who were bringing them. But when Jesus saw it, he was moved with indignation, and said to them, “Allow the little children to come to me! Don’t forbid them, for God’s Kingdom belongs to such as these. Most certainly I tell you, whoever will not receive God’s Kingdom like a little child, he will in no way enter into it.”
    (Mark 10:13-15)

    Jesus called a little child to himself, and set him in the middle of them, and said, “Most certainly I tell you, unless you turn, and become as little children, you will in no way enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Whoever therefore humbles himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Whoever receives one such little child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him that a huge millstone should be hung around his neck, and that he should be sunk in the depths of the sea.
    (Matthew 18:2-6)

    See that you don’t despise one of these little ones, for I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.
    (Matthew 18:10)

    I do not believe that children should be pressured into making a commitment to Christ. They have to make that decision of their own accord. They also should not be manipulated or brainwashed into doing so.

    I got saved at age four. I remember, by age 6, praying a “make sure” prayer, in case it hadn’t been real at age 4. At 16, after reading some frightening things from Ray Comfort, I prayed yet another “make sure” prayer. (I had been baptized at age 10.) Then, a couple years ago, at age 25, God led me to re-dedicate my life to Him and fully surrender everything. That was definitely a breakthrough period in my life.

    However, reading Jesus’ words above, I also have come to know that, yes, I really did become a child of God at age four. And I am so thankful that I did.

    I would say this: if a child, however old, of their own accord, wants to believe on Jesus Christ and trust Him as their Savior, we MUST NOT ever tell them that they are too young and to wait until they are older. Perhaps we should try to impress on them the gravity of their decision, and what it can really mean to follow Jesus, that it’s not just a “feel good” decision.

    But if God is drawing a child to Himself, I dare not stand in the way.

    I will add, by the way, that I do not believe that high-emotion appeals are a good evangelistic tool for any age group. People need to come to Jesus, not because they like the story, not just because they’re scared, not because someone made a compelling intellectual argument, but because they realize the power of God and want to trust completely in the all-powerful Creator of the Universe.

    My speech and my preaching were not in persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith wouldn’t stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.
    (1 Corinthians 2:4-5)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m certainly not advocating for cookie cutter uniformity of experience.  But do wonder why you would ever doubt your salvation had you known what saved is.  I had the same struggles until I realized that my only chance of pleasing a perfect God is by a miracle of grace and since that time I trust God.

      This is some of my response on Facebook to Matthew 19…

      “Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them.  Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’  When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.” (Matthew 19:13-15)

      That doesn’t mention that they converted or made a commitment.  It says Jesus let children physically come to him and that he prayed for them.  That is a far cry from the emotional manipulation and pressure too common in our own conservative Mennonite circles.  I believe we have lost faith in God’s ability to speak, that’s the issue I’m trying to address…

      It is interesting, but the proof-text offered where Jesus prays for the children continues with the rich man who had done everything right according to the Scriptural tradition he was given and then is told to do something that absolutely astounds the disciples who ask, rightly, “who then can be saved?”  Jesus answers by telling them, “with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”  This is where Peter contemplates aloud about the things he and the disciples (all adults) gave up to follow him.  I do not believe the proof-text of Matthew 19:13-15 should be separated from the point about faith and impossibility made in the continuation.  The breaks in the text were added later, I believe the overall point is that we need to be possessed with a child-like faith that would sell all and trust God.

      The example of Jesus himself, called to his Father’s business as a child, not Baptized and starting his ministry until being well into adulthood.  Jesus picked adults, bidding them “follow me,” and not small children who were not yet weaned.  Are we actually better than the Lord Jesus?

      My own spiritual journey started in childhood where I was encouraged through a sinner’s prayer by my mother.  I do not discredit that experience.  However, my truer conversion started much later, an act of God’s grace upon my life rather than a human effort, and that is when the real inside out change began.  I was religious before then, but still quite lost.

      There is no mention of a “sinners prayer” in Scripture or a parent’s fear motivated “I will” effort to save their own child.  Faith, true child-like faith, rests in God’s power to save us rather than our human abilities.  It is the faith Abraham eventually was possessed by when he realized that the God who asked him to sacrifice Issac could also raise his most precious child back to life.  Abraham wasn’t reckless, he simply understood commitment to faith and knew God’s miraculous power after having witnessed it in the impossible birth of his son.  Can we trust God with our children as Abraham did Issac?

      We are ridiculed by skeptics and rightly so.  They see our cognitive dissonance and hypocrisy clearly, our trust of brainwashing children rather than relying on the Spirit of God as we claim to believe.  Don’t let your children be tainted by your faithless over reliance on your own abilities, that is not the child-like faith.  We need to be examples of child-like faith rather than rely on our own adult religious methods and means.  Let our children be God’s handiwork rather than a reflection of our own imperfection.

      God is the Father who gave his only son and we should be perfect like our Father in heaven and give our children over to God in prayer.  We should follow the lead of Jesus who did lay hands on children and prayed for them, but we should also follow him in finding adults to disciple.  We can trust God will not fail our children when it is their turn to choose.

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  3. Jesus called all men to repentance. He never specified how old a person should be to become a Christian so nether should we. Actually, if an adult does not take on child-like faith in God, then they can’t become a Christian.
    Luke 18:16-17 “But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. 17 Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein.”
    I would say becoming a Christian as a child is best and in no case should they be told to wait. However, they must be well decided as they grow older and that is where many parents fall short.

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    • I already addressed that argument as it applies to the parallel account:

      “Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them. Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’ When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.” (Matthew 19:13-15)

      That doesn’t mention that the children converted or made a commitment. It says Jesus let children *physically* come to him and that he prayed for them.

      The account in both Matthew and Luke continue with the rich man who had done everything right according to the Scriptural tradition he was given and then is told to do something that absolutely astounds the disciples who ask, rightly, “who then can be saved?”  Jesus answers by telling them, “with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”  This is where Peter contemplates aloud about the things he and the disciples (all adults) gave up to follow him. 

      I do not believe the first part about needing to be like children should be separated from the point about faith and impossibility made in the continuation.  The breaks in the text were added later, but the overall point is that we (as those capable of counting the cost as Jesus commanded) need to be possessed with a child-like faith that would sell all and trust God.

      We should consider the example of Jesus himself, he was called to his Father’s business as a child, yet was not Baptized and did not start his ministry until being well into adulthood.  Jesus picked adults for disciples, bidding them “follow me,” and not small children who were not yet weaned.  Are we actually better than the Lord Jesus?

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    • To be absolutely clear: I am not for turning anyone away and that includes small children. My point is that we should not manipulate our children into early commitments and instead should put our trust fully in God.

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  4. This statement I found striking:

    “We urge our children to commitment before they are able to count the cost as an adult, but then continue to mistrust that decision after they do so as if we do secretly know better.”

    I never thought about the dissonance between our baptism and marriage customs in this way before.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It struck me as odd when I paired the two together. The mistrust goes deeper than just marriage or courtship practice too. It seems there is a general mistrust that becomes the basis for more and more ‘guardrail’ rules to keep them safe and saved. Our idea of conversion seems to be incomplete, a shallow commitment that needs ‘revival’ over and over again. That doesn’t seem like the faith of someone who has truly counted the cost, does it?

      Liked by 1 person

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