Oikobaptism: Pastoral Applications

From the time of the rise of the Radical Reformers, Christian churches have differed and divided over baptismal practices. In recent decades, perhaps due in part to the resurgence of Reformed Theology and the rise of the so-called “New Calvinism” many evangelical Christians have started re-considering things like covenant, family, children, and baptism in light of all the scriptures.

While oikobaptism is (at least) part of the original apostolic practice, not all Christians and churches subscribe to it. Some who wish to see their churches restore this apostolic practice encounter resistance. Others simply leave their credo-baptist-only churches in favor of paedo-baptist churches. Thus, the sign of our union in Christ remains a source of division. However, a few pastors and their churches have found an ally in a dual-practice approach to baptism.

Though not ideal, dual-practice baptism has captured the attention of some Christian churches and leaders[1] because it offers a both/and alternative to what some consider to be divisive either/or approaches that are so prevalent among Protestant evangelical churches. If nothing else, dual-practice is a step in the right direction. It is mentioned here because it more closely resembles the apostolic practice of oikobaptism than a credo-baptist-only approach to baptism.

In some ways, a dual-practice approach to baptism recaptures the spirit of oikobaptism. Missionally, it asks all new converts to be baptized upon their profession of faith in Christ. Ecclesially, it allows Christian parents to decide whether their children should receive baptism either as young children (even infants) or as adolescents when they make their own profession of faith in Christ. Dual-practice does not allow for a person to be baptized two (or more!) times -– once as a child and once again as an adult. There is one baptism.

This “optional” approach of dual-practice baptism might seem strange to both traditional and contemporary Christians, but it is not without historical precedent. According to church historian Philip Schaff,

it seems an almost certain fact, though by many disputed, that, with the baptism of converts, the optional baptism of the children of Christian parents in established congregations, comes down from the apostolic age.[2]

Perhaps. However, as noted above, the historical record shows that children of Christian parents were baptized into the Church along with their parents as a rule, not an exception.

A dual-practice approach to baptism seems to be getting attention and even gaining traction in some Christian circles. Proponents acknowledge that baptism is a source of controversy and a matter of conscience for many Christians, and they argue that dual-practice is a concession that guards the consciences of fellow Christians on both sides of the watershed without contradicting the gospel (See Romans 14).

Some critics warn that dual-practice baptism is driven by pragmatism. That might be true for some, but certainly not for all. For many, the notion of dual-practice baptism actually flows out of a true pastoral concern for the unity of the Church and the integrity of God’s people. In fact, dual-practice baptism might actually serve as a much needed suspension bridge over the troubled waters of baptism. It might help credo-baptists and paedobaptists acept one another in the Lord and unite in one local body, rather than divide into separate local bodies over their preferences over the water-rite of baptism.

That said, dual-practice baptism is not a “fix-all” solution. It comes with its own set of weaknesses and strengths.[3]

Regarding strengths, the dual-practice approach to baptism encourages Christian parents to develop a biblical theology of children and family. Also, it encourages parents to devote themselves to the principle of making disciples of their children (Mat 28:18-20; Eph 6:1-4). Finally, it grants the parents the freedom to decide (according to the gospel, faith, and conscience) whether their children should be baptized first (as infants or young children) and then taught to obey Jesus; or taught first to obey Jesus and then baptized (as young children or adolescents). Either way, dual-practice actually encourages Christian parents to bring their children to the Lord Jesus Christ sooner rather than later according to the word of the Lord (Luke 18:15-17).

Regarding weaknesses, while the dual-practice approach to baptism allows a congregation the opportunity to explore Christian baptism more fully in the clear light of scripture and history, it does not guarantee that such a congregation will transition all the way from practicing credo-baptism-only to practicing oikobaptism. In fact, dual-practice might generate more problems than solutions. For example, some adult members of a dual-practice congregation may experience uncertainty over how to view the children of their own family and those of other families in the church. Those in favor of oikobaptism will regard baptized children as members of Christ and his church; and they will regard unbaptized children as not-yet members. Those in favor of credo-baptism-only will regard all children as non-members of Christ and the church unless/until they are capable of making a credible profession of faith before they experience baptism.

In theory, dual-practice allows those with credo-baptist-only convictions and those with paedo-baptist convictions to practice baptism according to faith and a good conscience without dividing the church or destroying brothers and sisters for whom Christ died. In practice, it simply asks that all Christians do the hard work of accepting one another in Christ without quarreling and dividing over disputable matters — even the method and mode of baptism (Rom 14:1ff).[4]

In sum, dual-practice approach requires adherents to take a calculated faith-risk; but it is a faith-risk based on a deep commitment to covenantal integrity, ecclesial unity, doctrinal purity, and parental responsibility. Not to mention evangelical fidelity.

The foundational desire of those who embrace dual-practice baptism is to hold in a closed hand matters of first importance (such as the gospel of God’s grace) and to hold in an open hand matters of opinion (such the mode and method of baptism). The hope is that, in such a Christ-centered context, the covenant community might be formed, re-formed, and transformed by the power of the truth of the gospel of grace–especially as it conforms to apostolic teaching and learns from historic orthodox Christian tradition.

Since dual-practice more closely resembles oikobaptism than some other baptismal approaches referenced here, it is presented as a possible baptismal alternative for congregational life. If nothing else, it is a step in the right direction towards the apostles’ practice of covenant household baptism.[5]

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Note: At the time the above was written (2013) our congregation was not affiliated with any denomination. We adopted a dual-practice approach to baptism to apply our understanding of the gospel and covenant theology, and to accomodate Christian families who wanted their children to receive the sacrament of baptism. As a result, many young children and babies were baptized by immersion or affusion. Some were not. More recently our congregation became part of the Presbyterian Church in America (2016). While we encourage Christian parents to present their children to the Lord in baptism, we must respect the decision of those who cannot bring themselves to do so. As our standards clearly state, God alone is Lord of the conscience. In all these things, we have kept the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace with joy.

Next: Conclusion


[1]               See the interesting essay on dual-practice baptism by Anthony N.S. Lane in Baptism: Three Views. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2009. Also, see the online article by Michael Bird http://www.patheos.com/blogs/euangelion/2011/08/the-case-for-dual-baptism-part-1/ See the URC manual on Baptism and the Basis of Union http://www.vtsdemo.co.uk/oldurc/what_we_do/the_manual/baptism_and_the_basis_of_union.html Finally, see Christian Baptism: Where Do We Go From Here? by David F. Wright

[2]              Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325.  http://www.ccel.com

[3]               See Dr Sinclair Ferguson’s gracious critique of Dual-Practice Baptism in Baptism: Three Views, pp 177-186.

[4]               See the World Council of Churches statement on dual-practice baptism in Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry.

[5]               New Hope Church (now Christ Covenant Church) adopted a dual-practice approach to baptism. See the Article on Sacraments in our Church Constitution online http://newhopec.com/#/constitution/article-ii

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