One of the more contentious issues in the church, for centuries, has been about the nature of baptism. Must baptism be reserved for only believing adults (or older children), or can babies be baptized, too? A targeted study in Acts 16 shows us why this issue can be difficult to resolve.
Two key individuals in Acts 16 become believers, resulting from the Apostle Paul’s preaching: Lydia and the Philippian jailer. But what generates confusion is that for both Lydia and the jailer, not only were they individually baptized, the text tells us that all in each “household” were then baptized as well (Acts 16:15, and Acts 16:30-34, respectively).
Were there infants in the households of each? Unfortunately, the text never tells us, as the original word for “household” is ambiguous.
Advocates for infant baptism look to the broadest interpretation of household, assuming that infants would have been implicitly present in those houses. Advocates of believer’s baptism argue less broadly, saying that without explicit reference to infants being in those houses, we have no warrant to baptize infants.
What really throws a wrench into the whole thing can be seen in the account of the Philippian jailer. Look at what we read in the ESV (English Standard Version translation), and see if you can see the issue:
- Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God (Acts 16:30-34 ESV).
First, you can see that when the Philippian jailer asked about what he must do, Paul and company instructed that he should believe, in order to be saved. Interestingly, we find that his “household,” is included here. Paul and company preach to the entire household. However, aside from the jailer himself, we know little about the state of belief among the others. Did they believe, along with the jailer?
A question is raised here: Does this mean that the other members of the Philippian jailer’s household would be saved, on the basis of the jailer’s faith, a kind of “salvation by proxy?”
I have heard a similar argument before, but this is hard to square with the rest of Scripture. As Paul teaches elsewhere in the New Testament, salvation comes by believing in the Lord, with no exceptions mentioned, as in Romans 10:10-13. More likely, it means that as the Philippian jailer was head of his household, God would providentially use the Philippian jailer’s influence to bring the others in his household to believe in the Lord Jesus, and experience salvation. This happened quite frequently in the ancient world, when the believing faith of the leader in the home would eventually lead to believing faith among others in that same home, including slaves and servants.
But how long would it take for that to happen? Would the others believe in Jesus right away, or at some future time? Specifically, if there were infants or other small children in the home, does this imply that they would come to faith at a later time, under the instruction of the Philippian jailer? The text is unclear at this point.
What we do know from what follows is that the entire “household” was baptized (the ESV translates “household” here as “family,” as some other translations do, too). But notice how the ESV ends the episode: “He rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.” The rest of the household rejoices, along with the jailer, that the jailer had believed in Christ. But it is not clear if the others themselves had believed in Christ at this point…. even though they had all been baptized!
A paedobaptist; that is, someone who believes in the validity of infant baptism, might be affirmed in their view. Presumably, this would allow for the practice of infants to be baptized, assuming that as the children grow up in the home, with proper instruction, they might eventually come to believe in Jesus.
A credobaptist; that is, someone who rejects the validity of infant baptism, and insisting that belief is a prerequisite for baptism, would object to this ambiguity. Does this not suggest that the entire household rejoiced for the jailer, because they all themselves believed, as well? The credobaptist might contend that infants would not have been in the position to rejoice for the jailer’s belief. But then, if a young child sees that the parent is rejoicing, would that child not also rejoice together, despite knowing the reason?
This is where looking at another Bible translation might give us some further insight. Here is that last verse again in that passage, from the Kings James Version:
- And when he had brought them into his house, he set meat before them, and rejoiced, believing in God with all his house (Acts 16:34 KJV).
Notice how the KJV not only has the household members rejoicing, they had all come to believe, along with the Philippian jailer! This chimes in well with the theme of how baptism was practiced earlier in Acts, as in Acts 2:38, where the order was established, “Repent, and then be baptized.” But before you score a point for the credobaptist, consider what is going on with these different translations.
In the world of Bible translations, some translations are more word-for-word oriented; technically called, formal equivalence, whereas other translations are more thought-for-thought oriented; technically called, dynamic equivalence. But the relationship between word-for-word and thought-for-thought translations is actually pretty fluid within translations themselves. For example, the KJV has the reputation for being a more word-for-word oriented translation. But here the KJV takes a more thought-for-thought approach, as opposed to the ESV, which follows the original Greek word ordering more tightly.
Looking at another translation, in this case the NET Bible, shows this difficulty more clearly:
- At that hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and all his family were baptized right away. The jailer brought them into his house and set food before them, and he rejoiced greatly that he had come to believe in God, together with his entire household (Acts 16:33-34 NET).
The NET Bible follows the KJV more closely than the ESV, moving a phrase around, and gives the reason in a footnote:
- The phrase “together with his entire household” is placed at the end of the English sentence so that it refers to both the rejoicing and the belief. A formal equivalence translation would have “and he rejoiced greatly with his entire household that he had come to believe in God,” but the reference to the entire household being baptized in v. 33 presumes that all in the household believed.
So, is the NET correct in presuming that all in the household believed? As we have seen, making such a presumption is not always made clear by the evidence given in the text.
Back to the main question: Is belief always a prerequisite for baptism? Unfortunately, a targeted look at Acts 16, as we have done here, does not really resolve the issue. Paedobaptists read the text one way. Credobaptists read it another. An examination of Scripture as a whole is necessary to make progress here on this debate.
The question of infant baptism vs. believer’s baptism has been a source of division among Christians for generations. By default, today many evangelical churches that defer to one’s conscience on the matter, publicly celebrate believer’s baptism, for adults and older children. Nevertheless, they offer “baby dedication” for infants, a workable solution that fulfills some of the intentions behind infant baptism, while technically not being “baptism,” and yet where the whole idea of “dedication” is surprisingly lost on most parents. Thankfully, this is not an essential issue that impinges upon one’s salvation. It is a non-essential matter in which different Christians will continue to “agree to disagree” on. Let the conversation continue.