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Infant Baptism in the Orthodox Church
By Fr Kaleeg Hainsworth
Every night my family gathers around the dinner table. We pray, we dish out the food, we laugh and argue and ask and answer questions. The scene is sometimes chaotic, sometimes serious, sometimes silly, but whether openly acknowledged or not, this scene defines our family. This table becomes the heart of our family gathering, and in a real way reveals us as a family. My girls, when they come to the table, come as full members of the family. They are not invited to the table but excluded from the food. By simply being born into our household they, by right, belong to the household, and therefore belong at the dinner table. This right is never questioned, there status never challenged. Do they understand the significance of belonging to the family? Do they appreciate the blessings inherent in membership? Of course not, at least not yet. Will they ever reject this family? Will they break the holy fellowship of that dinner table? Probably not, but even if I worry that they will, I cannot keep from them the family status which they have as a birthright. On the contrary, honoring that status, rejoicing and raising them in it, will do more to preserve them as valuable family members than waiting to offer this membership until I am sure they truly appreciate their full status as a member of my family.
Why start at the dinner table to talk about the practice of baptizing children in the Orthodox Church? Well, in case it is not already obvious, the family table, and the family itself are biblically ideal images for the church altar and the church family. We are born into an earthly family, and born again (Jn 3:3) into the heavenly family; we eat together at the dinner table, and we feast together at the altar. With God our Father, the Church our Mother (Rev 12:1ff), we gather as children of a holy family, each of us enjoying the full privileges of membership by a baptismal birthright. Do we all fathom the significance of this membership? Do we even know how many blessings we could receive just for the asking by virtue of belonging to this family? We could not, for to do so would be to fathom the depths of the riches of God. Does God still honour us, treat us as His children, still welcome us to His table, still call us His own? Always and forever. We may reject Him, rebel against Him, flee to a far off country, but if we return, we do not return a steward of His Household, we return as His child, we return as a prodigal member of His family. If we do not return, we know that God will never stop His vigil at the gates of our hearts, waiting for the return of His own.
Nevertheless, the ancient, apostolic, and biblically Christian practice of baptizing infants and children in the Orthodox Church has been challenged by some in recent times and some background to this debate, as well the arguments, both popular and academic, need to be addressed, before we address what it means for the Orthodox to baptize children.