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Baptism, Voluntarism, and Violence

One of the critiques often leveled at the Anabaptist churches is their alleged voluntarism.  The practice of believers baptism and the rejection of infant baptism has often been critiqued on the basis of how it seemingly ties together the human activity of personal commitment to discipleship with God’s divine act of saving grace.  In other words, it is alleged that refusing baptism to those who are unable to make a commitment to discipleship denies the gratuitousness of the grace of God and rather, in a Pelagian fashion makes the work of grace dependent upon our act of repentance.

To make a full argument against this characterization would be far more extensive than is possible here.  However, I want to underscore two fundamental points that are often neglected by critics of Anabaptist baptism.  First, the fundamental political reason why the Anabaptists rejected infant baptism was due to the way in which baptism in the context of medieval Christendom was basically coterminous with allegiance to the sovereign.  It not longer signified a break from the world, an induction into a radically new form of life in the Spirit, but rather sanctified and fused the world of domination and violence with the church in a synthesis that was contrary to the gospel.  As such, believers baptism, in addition to having stronger biblical support seemed the only way for the act of baptism to be reformed in a way that would enable it to “say” what baptism is supposed to proclaim.

Second, fundamental point that must be understood about the relationship between believers baptism and grace is rooted in the commitment of the Anabaptists to nonviolence.  Fundamental to the Free Church ethos is firm devotion to the teachings of Christ on non-coerciveness and peacemaking.  The reason that baptism is refused to those who are unable to make a profession of faith is because membership in the community of the cruciform Lord cannot be coerced.  No one can be born into membership in the community of the Spirit, they must be reborn into it.  To apply baptism to an infant does not yield an image the sovereignty of grace, but rather of grace as coercion.  The reason that baptism is only offered to those capable of making a confession of faith is because of the conviction that the radical grace of God is ultimately nonviolent and non-coercive.  God’s grace does not foist itself on us but rather woos us, drawing us to the Father, through the Son in the Spirit.  The insistence on believers baptism, far from denying the gratuity of grace is rather a testimony to the non-coercive nature of the event of grace as one of gift and response. For adherents of believers baptism the gift of baptism can never be imposed, it can only be recieved.  Properly understood, believers baptism is not voluntaristic in the least, but rather is a testament to the fact that grace of the triune God is not coercion, but liberation, new life, indeed the glorious creation of a new world.

For those who would critique the practice of believers baptism, I think these two points should be taken with much greater seriousness, and I have seen very little substantial engagement along these lines.  The tradition of the Free Churches with their insistence on the baptism of believers constitutes an important challenge to the practice infant baptism which should at least be taken with seriousness by exponents of the mainline tradition.

Also, for those wanting to see some of my further thoughts on this issue, as well as some qualifications about infant baptism, see my earlier post on Baptism, Voluntarism, and Politics.


  1. Thanks Halden
    Your first point is well taken, but I think that your second is off-base.

    No one I’ve met was baptized who actively refused it (unless you want to call crying at the cold water a refusal!), so to call infant baptism a coercion is inaccurate. Baptizing people who are clearly central to the life of the community, yet can’t on their own express the desire to be baptized (a category larger than infants…), trusts in the grace of God in the life of the community. Infant baptism is less “grace imposed” upon the unwilling than an expression of trust, that someone growing up in the presence of the word and sacrament of God will be drawn into personal faith, a faith that will grow and develop in the context of that believing community.

    In practice, believer’s baptism strikes me as a great deal more coercive, as most often, it is seven, eight, or twelve-year olds who are given the “choice” whether or not they want to be a part of the community that they have grown up in. Most often, it is the major authority figures in the child’s life who are offering this “choice,” and it is clear which answer they would prefer. So sure, baptism is not “imposed” on children who don’t want it, but to reach back to your first point, this mode of believer’s baptism does not really represent a radical break with the child’s former life. Here we could get into an interminable debate about just how ready people of certain ages are to make life commitments, but I think that would miss the point. I’ve yet to see believer’s baptism function in a community in a way that was less than coercive.

    On the other hand, practicing baptism in a way that recognizes that a child born into the life of the church through Christian parents is a part of the church community until he or she decides to leave, doesn’t strike me as a great imposition—as much as it strikes me as faith that God will make himself known in the church. And that, I hope, is central to folks on all sides of this issue.

    I suppose my view reflects my experience. You may have a different opinion on just what age someone must be to qualify to confess themselves as a believer, or a different experience. If so, I’d love to hear…


    Thursday, January 10, 2008 at 12:24 pm | Permalink
  2. IndieFaith wrote:

    Nice post. I just started reading your blog. I recently began pastoring a Mennonite church after spending many years outside of it. I am beginning to revisit Anabaptist core beliefs . . . particularly around peace and violence. Here is one of my more relevant posts on the subject.

    Thursday, January 10, 2008 at 12:50 pm | Permalink
  3. freder1ck wrote:

    I guess it depends on how you understand baptism. If baptism is mainly a commitment to live according to the ethics of the Kingdom, then infant baptism is laying a heavy burden upon somebody else without their consent. If baptism, however, is the beginning of a life of freedom from sin, then not baptizing infants would be to cooperate in the tyranny of sin over them.

    My experience of infant baptism is this: sin and grace grew up in me side by side, like wheat and tares. As I grew up, I learned that baptism (being born again) is not merely a single, decisive moment, but a daily invitation from Christ to repent and believe the Good News, to take up my cross daily and follow him. The more I grow in Christ, the more important my baptism is to me and the more thankful I am that my parents gave me the earliest start possible.

    Thursday, January 10, 2008 at 12:59 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Eric, you make some good points about the way in which believers baptism can be abused, and those are well-taken. Personally, I felt no such experience in regard to my own baptism, but I know that such experiences take place. However, I wonder how this is really any different than confirmation pedobaptist churches? It seems like the same dynamic is there, it is simply transferred to another event.

    I suppose all forms of baptism are potentially coercive. However, the ultimate difference between infant and believers baptism is that the former is always involuntary and imposed while the later is at least potentially non-coercive and voluntary.

    And my fundamental conviction remains that one cannot be born into the church, but must be reborn into it. That does not preclude children of believers being in some significant sense “part” of the church prior to baptism, but it does emphasize the nature of baptism as a boundary marker between life in the old age and the new, which I think is more biblical.

    Also, regarding the age of the subjects of baptism, my own church has generally refused baptism to people under 17 or 18, though that’s not a hard and fast rule. Our form of instruction for our children involves communicating to them the radical commitment to discipleship and the church that baptism entails. One of the things that we actually strive most for in this is refraining from coercion or pressure to get baptized. For whatever that’s worth.

    Thursday, January 10, 2008 at 1:04 pm | Permalink
  5. bobby grow wrote:


    I agree with you… and I think Colossians 2 makes the same point.

    Thursday, January 10, 2008 at 1:32 pm | Permalink
  6. Drew wrote:

    As an aside to this post, I would highly recommend reading the novel Q written by four Italian authors under the pseudonym of Luther Blisset. It’s violent, loaded with bad language, gives a fascinating take on Luther, Melanchthon and others, and moves even if the narrative structure is wacky. But it’s about an Anabaptist being pursued by a Catholic during the peasant revolt.

    Thursday, January 10, 2008 at 8:16 pm | Permalink
  7. anthony wrote:

    While we’re on the topic of discussing material related to the initial post we shouldn’t forget Barth’s Church Dogmatics, IV.4. In this volume I think we see the beginnings of an account of how believers baptism can be something other than purely Pelagian as Halden suggests. It’s odd that many readers of Barth either ignore this section or charge that it isn’t congruent with the rest of his work.

    Saturday, January 12, 2008 at 11:16 am | Permalink
  8. Andy wrote:

    Balthasar throws us an interesting twist here.

    Reflecting on Romans 6.5 (we ‘have grown into the likeness (homoioma) of his death, that we may also grow into the likeness (homoioma) of his resurrection’), he says that by homoioma Paul wishes to indicate “the process whereby the thing itself impresses its form on us on its own initiative. The ‘thing’ is the dying of Jesus Christ as a historical reality; the ‘impressing of its form’ is its actualisation in the sacrament of baptism.” Later, “The sacramental death lies precisely in the symphytoi, which from the dative case it takes, requires an objective content; it is in being con-formed to this content that the catechumen undergoes sacramental death.” But wait for it: “From this it is clear that the baptism of infants is inadequate as a model for the sacramental event. To say that the entrance into God’s Kingdom occurs unconciously–that is, in such a way that the subject involved neither perceives nor understands Christ’s gesture–is in fact so conspicuously alien to Scripture (and to the baptismal practice of the Old Testament and of John) that it must without question be regarded as an exception. The decision for infant-baptism was perhaps the most portentous decision in the entire history of the Church (and that, long before Constantine). This is so not only because infant-baptism obscures the normal image of the personal encounter with Christ and the decision for Christ that take place in every sacrament (thus making of it merely an opus operatum), but also because all Christian existence is henceforth grounded upon a fact which is quasi-natural because it is not initially ratified by the subject. The subsequent ratification of this fact at the age of discretion always has something dubious and not quite plausible about it, since no decision whatever can now undo what has been done” (Glory of the Lord I, 578-80).

    Interesting, nay?

    Sunday, January 13, 2008 at 9:50 pm | Permalink
  9. freder1ck wrote:

    Kudos to Andy for digging this out of Balthasar! I’ll take a look at it.

    Sunday, January 13, 2008 at 10:28 pm | Permalink
  10. Thom Stark wrote:

    Frederick, what is the difference between “a life of freedom from sin” and “a commitment to live according to the ethics of the Kingdom”?

    Monday, January 14, 2008 at 5:46 pm | Permalink
  11. freder1ck wrote:

    Good question, Thom.

    I’ve never been sympathetic to ethics, a consequence of reading too much Balthasar at a formative age. Balthasar would say that ethics is a system that establishes universal norms – whereas the counsels of Christ are ever greater.

    As for freedom, it’s the gift which makes it possible to ask that every circumstance be an occasion for God’s will to be done.

    You may be interested to know that I was quite startled by the above quote from Balthasar – and I’ve started to examine this issue over at Deep Furrows.

    Monday, January 14, 2008 at 9:05 pm | Permalink
  12. Thom Stark wrote:

    “Balthasar would say that ethics is a system that establishes universal norms.”

    This is certainly true of many approaches to ethics, but certainly not all of them. I read too much Hauerwas in my formative years, so to me ethics is a community’s moral improvisation within the parameters set by a common narrative history, especially the narrative history of the teachings, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. In this framework, there is nothing universal about ethics, other than that our particular narrative is the story of the Creator of the universe, and that Creator’s work to redeem it.

    I certainly agree with your definition of freedom. I actually take a Thomistic line on freedom myself. Freedom is not freedom to choose between good and evil. That is the corruption and undoing of freedom. Freedom is the power to choose to do God’s will.

    My intention in asking the question originally was this: How can one know a life of freedom from sin if one is not committed to live according to the ethics of the kingdom (these were your words originally, by the way), if the “ethics of the kingdom” are understood as nothing other than “doing God’s will”? My point was that if one does not comprehend God’s will, and if one has not subsequently committed oneself to carrying out God’s will, one cannot reasonably expect to live a life free from sin. That is why the Incarnation is such a gift of God’s grace: because it makes freedom (i.e., living according to God’s will) possible, by displaying what God’s will looks like, and that it is possible for us. It seems to me that the notion of a “life of freedom from sin” that lacks the knowledge (habitual and cognitive) of and a commitment to the “ethics of the Kingdom” is insufficient to sustain itself.

    We can call a commitment to the kingdom “faith,” which would be a more correct use of pistis (loyalty). I am saying that a baptism without “faith” is insufficient to produce the kind of life you claimed above is the gift given at baptism. I do not deny that freedom is given at baptism. I agree! But if baptism alone is insufficient to establish a life of freedom from sin, then something else (faith) must be in place in order for baptism to be able to do its proper work. If faith is not in place, then the baptized is not able to receive what baptism is intended to give. It is stripped of its power and becomes merely a symbol that encourages the witnesses of baptism.

    My view would be that baptism without faith is insufficient for a life of freedom. Faith becomes solidified in baptism, but necessarily precedes it. Faith without baptism is an aberration. On this approach, the objection to infant baptism is that it puts the baptism in the wrong location grammatically.

    I think this is similar to what Balthasar was saying. Of course, Balthasar says it with a great deal more fecundity. I’m glad you’re stumbling over its grace.

    Tuesday, January 15, 2008 at 6:34 pm | Permalink
  13. freder1ck wrote:

    It’s funny that you say that infant baptism becomes merely a symbol because a commentator on my blog said the same thing about the rejection of infant baptism. In other words, if the efficacy of baptism depends upon the subjective intention of the baptized, then it’s essentially a symbolic transaction. I think you’re both overstating your case.

    Regarding grammar, Erasmus said that God does not mind bad grammar, but takes no particular pleasure in it. What’s interesting to me is that I was baptized as an infant and yet recognize the fruits of that baptism in my life today.

    That is why the Incarnation is such a gift of God’s grace: because it makes freedom (i.e., living according to God’s will) possible, by displaying what God’s will looks like, and that it is possible for us.
    It’s off topic for this thread, but isn’t this making the Pelagian error of seeing Christ mainly as an example?

    Tuesday, January 15, 2008 at 10:27 pm | Permalink
  14. Thom Stark wrote:

    No. It’s just not making the Augustinian mistake of internalizing Christ’s ethics, or (when that wasn’t possible) of making Christ’s ethics superhuman. The mistake you’re making in this case is assuming that one thing I said about Jesus, or about the Incarnation, is all I have to say about Jesus, or the Incarnation.

    Wednesday, January 16, 2008 at 8:05 am | Permalink
  15. Thom Stark wrote:

    Baptism’s dependence on the “subjective intention of the baptized,” to use your language, certainly does not reduce it to a symbol. It just indicates that there are more ingredients in a sacrament then just a priest, some water, and a target. Baptism is truly sacramental when it is truly a conscious turning over of the self to the will of God. No one can turn another human being over to God, except in a symbolic way. The self-conscious turning over is part of, though not all of, what is necessary for baptism to be truly sacramental. Your display of how the commentator overstated his case does not help me understand why you think I overstated mine.

    Wednesday, January 16, 2008 at 8:15 am | Permalink
  16. Thom Stark wrote:

    Re Erasmus’s comment on grammar: one would think one would prefer to do what would give God particular pleasure, over against what wouldn’t. At any rate, I’m using grammar in a Wittgensteinian sense.

    Wednesday, January 16, 2008 at 8:17 am | Permalink
  17. freder1ck wrote:

    Andy’s quote from Seeing the Form, (along with the full text of the second paragraph) is interesting because it offers a neat example of Balthasar negotiating between Barth (anti-infant baptism) and Origen (pro-infant baptism). Any comment, Andy???

    Christian parents can and do hand their children over to Christ. How could they do otherwise and retain the name of father? What I mean by this is that Christian parents do not normally introduce their children to two realities: 1 the world, and 2 Christ. No, what they do is they introduce their children to the good that they have found in life, which means handing them over to Christ. Now, we can dispute whether this means baptizing them first or waiting until they ask for baptism themselves – but in either case, the parents hand on what they have received. And returning to the original post, I don’t think that it’s violence to give a child the necessary things in life before they know to ask for them. Is it child abuse (as Sinead O’Connor famously claimed) to teach children about the incarnation of Christ?

    As I see it, this discussion highlights a whole range of differences between us…

    1. anthropology: I see individuality as something that arises in tension with social relationships – the I is most itself, most free, in communion.
    2. I see ethical norms as in tension with the ever-greater call of Christ. It’s not that the Church has a higher norm that others; it’s that every norm must give way to an obedience of the whole self. This is not superhuman but the fulfillment of humanity in grace.
    3. sacraments have an objective validity that typically but not always involve the whole person (intellect, will, awareness, etc). For example, anointing of the sick is validly conferred on one in a coma. People with mental illness are baptized even though their intellect and will are impaired.
    4. I recognize the authority of the Catholic Church in determining the validity of baptism and the other sacraments. And so, I receive the gift of my own baptism and respond by freely affirming it every Easter. You may well regard me as unbaptized, but it would be coercion to require me to get rebaptized…

    Wednesday, January 16, 2008 at 1:25 pm | Permalink
  18. Halden wrote:

    Fred, for my part I would most definitely be opposed to you being rebaptized. I guess I don’t go “all the way” with the anabaptists (though, had I been one in their time, I may have felt that more necessary). From my perspective what is necessary about baptism is that it be owned and reaffirmed by the baptized. Insofar as that is the case for you, I would never dare to dispute the validity of your baptism. To my mind the question of “validity” is very secondary to the question of what is the “normative” mode of baptism. And on that point I fall more in line with believers baptism.

    Wednesday, January 16, 2008 at 1:39 pm | Permalink
  19. freder1ck wrote:

    Thank you, Halden.

    My questions on infant baptism are a bit different. What concerns me is the scandal of grown people who were baptized as infants but never had an adequate education in Christianity. I’m pleased to see the emphasis on adult baptism with the RCIA program, but I’d like to see better catechesis for children.

    Wednesday, January 16, 2008 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

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