Church,  Theology

Are the Household Baptisms an Argument for Infant Baptism?

Does the mention of household baptisms in Acts provide biblical evidence of infant baptism? Many theologians have argued just that. When arguing for infant baptism, paedobaptists of all kinds (Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed) will often appeal to the household baptisms in Acts and 1 Corinthians as examples of when infants might have been baptized (cf. Acts 10:1-2; 16:13-15; 16:32-34; 18:8; 1 Cor 1:14-16). In the words of one Catholic paedobaptist:

Catholics (and other advocates of infant baptism) do not claim that these verses prove that the Bible teaches infant baptism. However, a straightforward reading of them suggests that children were likely baptized along with the household or family of which they were a part. Thus, these verses pose a difficulty for Protestants who oppose infant baptism and must be explained differently.

picture of household baptism

The Household Argument for Infant Baptism Explained

The argument is that when the Bible talks about a household—especially when the phrase includes the modifier “all” or “entire”—every member of that household is included in the description. Thus, when we read that an individual and “all his family” (Acts 16:33) or “his entire household” (Acts 18:8) were baptized, that means, in the words of Joachim Jeremias, “no single member of the household was excluded from baptism” (Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, 19–20). If no single household member is excluded in these passages, that would mean that if infants were present in the family, they would also have been baptized.

Paedobaptists appeal to Genesis 17 as support for this idea. In Genesis 17:23, “every male” of the household was circumcised, a statement which includes infants of eight days and older (cf. Gen 17:12). Importantly, paedobaptists claim it is not just the link between baptism and circumcision at play in Genesis 17, but the concept of family solidarity as well. Therefore, any New Testament reference to “his entire household” or “all his family” must refer to all the family members without exception, just like in Genesis 17 (although there, ironically, it is only males). Assuming the exhaustive nature of the word “all” or “entire,” many paedobaptists argue that infants would have been baptized in the household baptism texts mentioned above.

Notably, while many paedobaptists argue an entire household includes children, some paedobaptists argue that slaves were not included (e.g., Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, 19–21) This concession seems to be made because, according to the paedobaptist, slaves would have had to make a profession of faith prior to baptism. Thus, although some paedobaptists are willing to include slaves in household baptisms, many do not include slaves because of the need for a profession of faith.

To summarize, the argument that household baptisms support infant baptism can be stated this way:

  1. All agree that the Bible refers to entire households being baptized (because of three explicit passages).
  2. It is altogether reasonable to assume that most households (especially in the ancient world) would include children.
  3. The Bible specifically places children … within the parameters of those persons included in a household.
  4. Therefore, it is quite likely that baptisms of entire households would include baptisms of children, at least in some cases, if not in all.
  5. It is quite unlikely that baptisms of entire households (granting the premise that the households can and usually do include children) would never include children.
  6. Therefore, infants (in the greatest likelihood) were baptized, and infant baptism is sanctioned in Scripture and apostolic example.

Problems with the Household Argument for Infant Baptism

There are two significant points of consideration to the above argumentation. First, in contrast to some paedobaptists, we must point out that household slaves should be included in the household formula. The paedobaptist appeal to Genesis 17 undermines the idea that household slaves would have been excluded from the New Testament household formula. Genesis 17:12–13 specifies that foreign slaves were considered to be a part of Abraham’s household, and thus they were to be circumcised. Therefore, it is inconsistent to say children would be included in the household, but not slaves, when the Old Testament paradigm is to include both.

This is important because adult conversion and baptism require a profession of faith and confession of one’s sins. Even paedobaptists agree with this. However, it is difficult to see every slave professing faith in Christ at the same time their master does. Many of these households had a significant number of slaves. Historians estimate 16–20% of the entire population were slaves. Are we to suppose that in each case, every slave professed Christ immediately along with the master of the house?

Alternatively, a paedobaptist could argue that the master forced the slaves to be baptized without a profession of faith. One can see the obvious problems with that! Therefore, it is understandable why paedobaptists often exclude household slaves from the household formula, even though the Old Testament paradigm certainly included slaves as part of the household.

A second challenge to the household formula is the specific examples where Scripture talks about the whole household, but certain family members are intentionally excluded. The classic example of this is 1 Samuel 1:21–22. The Greek version of this text uses the same language as the New Testament examples in Acts. The story reveals, “The man Elkanah and all his house went up to offer to the LORD the yearly sacrifice and to pay his vow” (v. 21, emphasis added).

Although the Greek of Samuel uses the same household formula as Acts in verse 21, verse 22 quickly reveals that Hannah stayed behind. The reason Hannah didn’t go up with Elkanah was that she was caring for an infant child. Although the text does not say the child stayed with Hannah, we obviously should not include the child as part of “all his house” that went up to offer the yearly sacrifice.

The story of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1 is an obvious example of the household formula being used when at least two individuals (and probably more) were not included. Thus, we see that there are verifiable examples in Scripture that exclude individuals from this supposed household formula. Therefore, one cannot argue, as paedobaptist advocates often do, that the mention of the entire household always means every member of the household without exception.

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

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