It’s a mystery. So, before we try to solve it, let’s get our head in the game which, you should know by now, is afoot).  Here are a few quotes to ponder:

  • “There are four kinds of homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy.” (Ambrose Bierce)
  • “I knew one thing: as soon as anyone said you didn’t need a gun, you’d better take one along.” (Raymond Chandler)
  • “The problem with putting two and two together is that sometimes you get four, and sometimes you get twenty-two.” (Dashiell Hammett) 
  • You have a grand gift for silence, Watson. It makes you quite invaluable as a companion.” (Sherlock Holmes via Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

And my favorite:

  • “Except for cases that clearly involve a homicidal maniac, the police like to believe murders are committed by those we know and love, and most of the time they’re right—a chilling thought when you sit down to dinner with a family of five. All those potential killers passing their plates.” (Sue Grafton)

Again and again in the New Testament, we read about various “households” who either believed and were baptized or at least were offered salvation.  Here’s the mystery: who is included in a household? But before we turn to that, here’s some of the evidence:

  • John 4:53 –Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he and his whole household believed.
  • Acts 11:14 — He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.
  • Acts 16:15 — When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.
  • Acts 16:31 — They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.”
  • Acts 16:33-34 — At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.
  • Acts 18:8 — Crispus, the synagogue leader, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul believed and were baptized.
  • 1 Cor. 1:16 — (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.)
  • 1 Cor. 16:15 — You know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the Lord’s people. 

Again, here’s the mystery we need to solve: who is included in a household? Now, that sounds like a rather easy question. After all, if I asked you who was in your household, you not only could give me an accurate number, but you could give me all the names. You would name yourself, your spouse, your children (if you have any still at home) and maybe an occasional parent or two. But things weren’t so easy back in the New Testament world. According to the Dictionary of New Testament Background (published by IVP) while well-to-do Roman households would include all the family members living together and all the slaves (already an accurate count is more difficult), impoverished families would have an even more difficult time getting an accurate account (and remember, peasants made up the vast majority of the free people in the Roman world). Why? Because “their houses were terribly overcrowded (sometimes twenty-five to a one-room house).” And these 25 people would all be under the authority of the father. It was his household. 

Now, that doesn’t make much sense to us because we live in a totally different culture. Underline those words, “a totally different culture,” because that is the clue that unlocks everything we are talking about today. We need to understand how religion, life, and family worked back in New Testament times. So, to solve our mystery, we will need to transport ourselves back into first century thought; and the best way to do that is to gather some reliable background information (trust me, all of our comments can be proven by looking at competent studies on biblical backgrounds, ancient Near East culture and the intellectual milieu of the first century Roman world or you can dismiss me and do the background studies yourself–you get to choose, but I see you’re still reading!). We are asking a simple question: Were children and infants included in the term, “household,” when the New Testament speaks of “households” being baptized. Here are the critical background insights you need to know (hang on, there are six of them).

First, religion in the ancient world was always a family affair. To say it rather crassly, you inherited your religion from your family. Scot McKnight in his book, It Takes a Church to Baptize, writes (pg. 63): 

“In ancient Israel, as in all religions of the Greek and Roman world, one did not choose one’s religion. One’s religion was inherited. Religion was something passed on to one’s children by way of culture, instruction and family traditions. So, typical for the ancient world, and central to how God chose to work with Israel, the covenant God made with father Abraham became effective for his whole household, as it did for the rest of Israel’s history.” 

Does this sound fair? Does this sound right? It would if we lived in the first century! We are so individualistic in our culture, we find it hard to understand how people in the first century could simply follow the lead of their father; but they understood that the family stood together or not at all.  They were one. And that meant that if the father (the paterfamilias) believed, the whole family would (far more times than not) follow him into his belief. To quote Scot McKnight again (pg. 67): 

In the Roman Empire, a child’s religion was determined not by some choice made in the teenage years, but by that child’s family. Religion and nation and family were all but indistinguishable. In rare cases when a parent chose to be involved in another religious practice, that parent inevitably drew the rest of the household, especially the children, into that new religion.” 

Now, let’s not throw too many stones at the first century. It sounds so strange to us to have a parent decide something so important for us. In fact, the very thought sounds ludicrous. We would never do that to our kids. We would never buy our infants Ravens’ pajamas. We would never inculcate our kids into our belief in the O’s. We would never invite our kids to watch the Cap’s game with us. Why? Because we would be so afraid that they follow our lead and not get to decide for themselves to be Ravens, O’s and Caps fans. Of course, not! And so we keep our deepest beliefs quiet and wait until they are older to make up their own mind about what sports teams they will worship (I’m sorry, I meant to write embrace). And hopefully, when they are older and wiser, they will choose to leave the sports of their fathers and start pulling for the Bruins and the Red Sox! All that to say, let him who is without sin, cast the first stone at the first century.

Second, an obvious point, but necessary. Households in the ancient world were led by the father. The Dictionary of New Testament Backgrounds makes this clear (pg. 366):

Ancient thinkers most frequently defined household relationships in terms of the male householder’s appropriate authority relationships with regards to various groups, especially wives, children, grandchildren and slaves.” 

Third, since religion was a family affair and since the father was the authority in the home, we can now make a stab at providing a working definition of a household. A household included a father and all the people under his authority or benevolence. This would include his wife, his children, their families, the father’s (younger or female) siblings, the father’s parents (if they were elderly), any relatives who needed assistance (and had pledged allegiance to the father), domestic slaves and even the homeless if they had been given shelter and depended upon the generosity of the family. Of course, status and rights within the family would vary greatly, but everyone would be considered part of the family.  Bottom line: a household was composed of everyone in the family. Everyone.

Fourth, if this is the case, when the New Testament talks about household baptisms, unless it specifically tells us that someone from the family was being excluded, we would expect it to mean everyone in the household was being baptized. Let me make that clear. If the father came for baptism, everyone in his household would be baptized with him. We can make this claim ironclad by appealing to Jewish practice.  In speaking of a Gentile conversion to Judaism, Scot McKnight writes (pg. 67):

When a gentile converted to Judaism, that gentile often had other males in the family circumcised. Every Jew thus was entitled to participation in the covenant on the basis of his or her parent’s covenant membership.”

That’s right. If you were the son and your father converted to full Judaism, he would not go under the knife alone. You would go with him (as a result, I would bet good money that the number one prayer request of all young Gentile men was to beg their gods to keep their fathers from converting to Judaism!). In any case, this was the practice of Jews since the beginning. When the father came to faith, he would bring his whole household and mark them with the sign of the covenant. And since this was the practice of the Old Testament, we would expect either to see a detailed explanation for why it was no longer to be practiced in the New Covenant or to see this practice continued in the New Testament (albeit with water baptism instead of circumcision). For those looking for clues, there is no trace of any explanation that this practice was stopped, but we see plenty of evidence that it was continued.

Fifth (but closely related), since the term “household” includes everyone in the house, we would be shocked if household baptisms were restricted to adults only. And we would be shocked, not only because this breaks a pattern that finds deep roots in the Old Testament, but also because there is no corresponding explanation about this major change in policy. Worse, in changing this long-established pattern, they didn’t change the name! See, if the New Testament intended to say adult-only baptism, then all they had to do is erase “household” and insert “adult-only.” But they didn’t. Instead, they continued to use the term “household” which (we all know) includes everyone in the house.  Joachim Jeremias, the great German New Testament scholar, in his study of Old Testament and Jewish sources that utilized the word “household,” concluded this:

The picture is always the same. The phrase, ‘he and his (whole) house’ denotes the complete family; normally husband, wife, and children. In no single case is the term ‘house’ restricted to the adult members of  the house.

(And let’s face it, it didn’t matter what he said, once you read his name, Joachim Jeremias, you knew he was right!).

Sixth, since we have proven that the word “household” includes everybody in the house, all that is needed to win the day is to say that in the first century, households almost always included children and infants.  Is it possible that, in the New Testament passages cited above, these particular families didn’t include small children and infants? Sure.  Is it likely? Not at all. J.I. Packer (another name you can trust) writes: “It is unrealistic, if not actually evasive, to suppose that when the apostles and others baptized households there were not very young children in any of the families.”  Countless others argue the same point, saying that, historically, it would be nearly impossible for this many households not to include any small children or infants. Families, the size and scope we are talking about here, always had young kids.

There is one more point I need to make, but we will hold off talking about the curious case of Crispus’ household until next week.  Today, we have seen that both testaments lead us to believe that the parents’ faith (or better, one of the parents’ faith) incorporates the child into the covenant community. This is further supported by the fact that “household” includes everyone in the house. And historically speaking, everyone in the house in Judaism in the first century more than likely included young children and infants. There is more to say, but even now, I sense some skepticism, so let me leave you with one last quote.  This is from Sherlock Holmes; and it is his secret to solving any type of mystery, even biblical ones. Sherlock Holmes, speaking to Watson, said: “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” It sure seems to me that we are eliminating all sorts of impossible notions, and what is left you may feel is improbable; but trust Sherlock, it’s the truth.