The Conversion of Households and Infant Baptism

An ancient miqveh in Jerusalem

Then he called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas, and brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house. And they spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes; and was baptized, he and all his, straightway. And when he had brought them into his house, he set meat before them, and rejoiced, believing in God with all his house.

Acts 16.29-34 (KJV; cf. Acts 11.14, 16.15, 18.8; 1 Corinthians 1.16, 16.15)

The Bible records the conversion of several households. Should we conclude that the (unbelieving) infants and young children in these households were baptized, and (therefore) that faith is not a requirement for candidates for baptism?

Though none of the biblical household conversion accounts specify the ages of the members of those households, there were almost certainly young children (including infants) in at least some of them. Even supposing that there were, however, we cannot yet conclude that any such unbelieving children or infants were baptized, for at least two reasons.

First, at least one of the biblical household conversion accounts suggests that faith was a requirement for candidates for baptism. In Luke’s account in Acts 16 of the conversion of the Philippian jailer’s household (reproduced in part above), we are told that the jailer’s household believed in God (v. 34; cf. Acts 18.8) after Paul and Silas spoke the word of the Lord to them (v. 32), and that Paul and Silas’ answer to the jailer’s question “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” was to believe (v. 31). It is therefore doubtful whether Paul and Silas baptized any not-yet-believing members of the jailer’s household (such as infants and young children). For the text suggests that only believing members of the household were baptized.

Second, “all” does not always mean “literally all.” Joshua 5.8 (for instance) recounts the circumcision of “all the people” of Israel. But of course not literally all of Israel was circumcised (at the very least, the women of Israel were not circumcised). Similarly, Mark 1.5 tells us that “all the land of Judaea” went out to John the Baptist. But not literally all residents of Judea went out to John; hundreds of thousands of people lived in Judea during the first century, far too many to visit John in the wilderness.

It is likewise entirely possible that not literally all members of converted households were baptized, and that the word “household” in scriptures like 1 Corinthians 1.16 is a synecdoche referring specifically to those household members who could believe (just as “all the people” in Joshua 5.8 refers specifically to those Israelites who could be circumcised). In other words, it is entirely possible that the household conversion accounts were written not as accounts of conversions of literally all household members (regardless of age) but as accounts of conversions of believing household members.

Of course, whether or not that is how these accounts were written depends upon the apostles’ theology and practice of baptism, and in particular whether or not they practiced infant baptism. But that is just to say that the household conversion accounts themselves cannot settle the question whether the apostles practiced infant baptism. Just as a proper interpretation of Joshua 5.8 requires us to look elsewhere to understand the meaning and practice of circumcision, so a proper interpretation of the household conversion accounts requires us to look elsewhere to understand the theology and practice of baptism.

What’s the upshot? Context matters. (In this case, theological context matters.) Consider the following analogy: Suppose a Catholic missionary (who practices infant baptism) and a Baptist missionary (who does not) each preach the gospel to a village and then return home and tell their respective congregations, “I baptized an entire village!” How would each congregation interpret this statement?

The Catholic congregation (i.e., parish) would assume (rightly!) that the Catholic missionary had baptized everyone in the village regardless of age, including infants and young children. The Baptist congregation would assume (also rightly!) that the Baptist missionary had baptized only those village members who were old enough to come to faith. Each congregation would interpret the exact same sentence (“I baptized an entire village!”) differently but correctly; because the two missionaries have different theologies and practices, their words can be properly understood only in light of those differing theologies and practices.

In the same way, the household conversion accounts can be properly understood only in light of the apostles’ theology and practice of baptism. If the apostles practiced infant baptism (like Catholics), then the right way to read the household conversion accounts would be as accounts of the baptisms of all household members regardless of age. If they did not (like Baptists), then the right way to read these accounts would be as accounts of the baptisms of (only) believing household members. Until we know more about the apostles’ theology and practice of baptism, we cannot say which reading is right.

Thankfully, the New Testament has much more to say about the theology and practice of baptism, and in my view what it says about baptism rules out infant baptism. The point here, however, is just that the household conversion accounts don’t imply that the apostles practiced infant baptism. (If anything, they imply the opposite; as we have seen, the account of the conversion of the Philippian jailer’s household in Acts 16 suggests that faith is a requirement for candidates for baptism and that the apostles baptized only those old enough to believe in and follow Jesus.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s