by Jonny Atkinson
I’ve heard, more than once, an argument for infant baptism that goes something like this: “well, we teach our children to pray, that’s something that disciples do, and disciples ought to be baptized based on Matthew 28:19, so if we teach our children to pray we should be consistent and also baptize them.” For example—granted he makes the comment within an argument for the “promises” (I still can’t find those in my Bible) of covenant succession—see Doug Wilson make such a comment here, around the 4:50 mark.
In this short post, I’m not going to engage covenant succession, covenant theology, the nature of baptism, etc., all important topics to understand to get baptism right since those topics affect one’s understanding of baptism. Rather, I just want to highlight the similarity that the flimsy argument for infant baptism mentioned above has with something in the missions world, something called Disciple Making Movements (DMM).
If you’re not familiar with it, DMMs are the (relatively) new fad replacing Church Planting Movements (CPMs). DMMs employ the method of obedience-based discipleship (OBD) through Discovery Bible Studies (DBSs)—more acronyms anyone? (The podcasts by Defend and Confirm are a helpful introduction to, and critique of the method if you want to learn more.)
In sum, what this often looks like is a believer gets a group of people together to study the Bible. So far so good. This group, not a church, is made up of believers and unbelievers depending on the context. Each Bible story ends with a reflection (what did you learn?) and a clear application that requires obedience (what should you do?). Such obedience may entail forgiving someone, confessing sin, or telling someone else the Bible story. Telling someone outside the group the weekly Bible story and inviting them to the group is central to a DBS methodology for this is how they increase in number and multiply groups, resulting in a “movement,” a DMM. I had one practitioner brag to me that he had one individual multiple his group four times “and he’s not even a believer yet!” When the group meets next, every individual is asked, “did you do what you were asked to do?” This is the obedience-based discipleship component, accountability in their obedience to a simple task.
Practitioners of DMMs, DBSs, etc. no longer speak of evangelism (proclaiming the gospel), but of discipling people into the faith. Speaking to an indigenous leader of such movements in a closed country, he told me “I never introduce Jesus until Jesus introduces himself” and “exegetically” supported his method with “Jesus took thousands of years to introduce himself in history.” In other words we don’t need to evangelize and tell people the good news about Jesus, rather we just need to get people to obey all Jesus commanded. So rather than the gospel, we just get people to obey Jesus—whether they know who Jesus is or not. In DMM, discipleship is for unbelievers.
Isn’t this just semantics?
Now, if all we mean by “discipleship” is “teaching someone about the Bible,” then sure, based on this understanding, we “disciple” unbelievers all the time because we have to tell them content from the Bible—most importantly the gospel! But this is not a biblical definition of “discipleship.” Discipleship is for disciples, and disciples follow and obey their master. Disciples don’t simply obey commands, they obey because of who commands, they obey the one they are following. So, understood biblically, you cannot “disciple” someone who is not a disciple, that is, a follower.
Such a method as DMM which includes inductive Bible study, inviting others to study the Bible, and holding each other accountable to be obedient has much to commend it. Many churches throughout the world and certainly the West would do well to implement such a ministry within their church, that is, among believers. However, the fundamental problem with the DMM methodology is that it overlooks the necessity of the Holy Spirit indwelling Christians so they can obey Christ from a new heart. It overlooks or minimizes spiritual conversion and the radical difference between an unbeliever and a believer.
Don Little, in his book Effecting Discipling in Muslim Communities, very helpfully says regarding DMMs:
“Though I wholeheartedly agree that this is often the way things work, and I use pre conversion welcome into community as a primary strategy in evangelism with Muslims, I am still not comfortable with calling this vital initiation process discipleship. There is clearly an important spiritual change that takes place at the point of conversion.…Discipling people towards fullness in Christ really takes off once they have encountered Christ and chosen to follow him.…Discipleship is following him, and I do not think it is accurate or helpful to say that we help people in their discipleship to Jesus until they have chosen to accept Jesus’ call to become his disciple.…The need for solid conversion setting the stage for effective discipleship is so important.”
I’m not saying that these practitioners should stop telling Bible stories to unbelievers. But like Moses and Joshua (Deut 29:4, Josh 24:18-19), it would be unfaithful to not also tell the hearers that they will not be able to obey unless God has enabled them to obey. They need the supernatural work of God to give them a new heart that will cause them to obey (Ezk 36:27). And so, the first and foundational act of obedience for all other obedience is to obey Jesus by repenting and following him (Acts 17:30, Mk 8:34).
An unbeliever may “obey” some Christian morals, but they are not obeying because they follow Jesus. Therefore it is not true discipleship and they are not a disciple. True obedience occurs because we are disciples, we don’t obey to become disciples.
One line of argumentation for infant baptism is, at least according to Doug Wilson in that video above, that “we treated them (our children) like Christians” by teaching them to pray and confess their sin, and so we should baptize them. The implication is Baptists are inconsistent because we also treat our children like Christians by teaching children to pray, read the Bible, confess sin etc. and thus, we should “put our water where our mouth is.”
Even if we grant the assumption that we treat our children like Christians, reformed Christians would agree that unbelieving children are not born-again Christians. The issue, then, has nothing to do with how we treat our children, but who we understand our children to be. Are they Christians or not? And who ought to receive baptism?
But granting the premise that unbelieving children are to be treated as Christians is wrong. It is theologically in error to say you treat your children like Christians. Would we treat any other unbelievers “like Christians”? And teaching someone the Bible, teaching them the Catechism, teaching them to confess their sin, and pray etc. is not treating them like they are Christians. If we host an evangelistic Bible study with unbelievers, are we treating them like Christians because we are reading the Bible to them? Furthermore, part of teaching unbelievers the Bible, including our children, is to teach them that part where Moses told the Israelites (which would have included his own children who, under the Old Covenant, truly were under covenant succession, but who still didn’t turn out too good! see Judges 18:30) that they cannot obey God until God gives them a heart to understand (Deut 29:4).
Thus, the issue is not that Baptists are inconsistent and ought to put their water where their mouth is. Rather, we should stop treating unbelievers like Christians. We should stop thinking that simply teaching the Bible to someone or teaching them how to pray means we are treating them as a Christian. We should stop calling unbelievers “disciples” or think we are “discipling” them. And we should stop putting forth such flimsy arguments for infant baptism or faulty missiological methods.