If you’ve ever had a child with special needs in your classroom …
You’ve probably viewed their presence as a unique opportunity to minister God’s love to someone less fortunate than a typical child.
Yet if we’re completely open, you may have also felt feelings of fear and inadequacy as you made your best attempts to meet the special needs of the child.
Believe me, I know the feeling. You see, my daughter has cerebral palsy. The way her medical condition affects her body is in her ability to walk and to speak clearly. And while I feel completely comfortable interacting with her, many are the times that I feel inadequate to help her live the most normal life that she can.
A Potential Safety Problem
For some children with special needs, baptism can present a unique risk. Physical or cognitive restrictions of a child can present a dangerous situation during the physical act of baptism. A child with special needs may be incapable of holding her or his breath for a sufficiently long period of time to be safely immersed under water, even briefly.
What can you as a children’s ministry teacher or leader do to ensure that the baptism of a child with special needs does not endanger a child’s health or life?
Before we get to the main topic, I’d like to make clear my understanding of what I believe the Bible teaches about baptism.
A Review of the Method of Baptism
I believe the Biblical method of baptism is by immersion. Without getting into a long discussion, I believe this for the following reasons:
- The Greek word for baptism is “baptizo,” which in many contexts means to immerse, dip, plunge or bury in water.
- The baptism of Jesus in Matthew 3:13-16 describes Jesus coming up out of the water. Although Jesus’ baptism was not a “Christian” baptism (since Jesus had no need to acknowledge and celebrate the salvation of His soul), this scene gives evidence that the common understanding of baptism at the time was by immersion.
- Paul’s use of imagery in Romans 6:3-5 likens baptism to burial, which only makes sense if baptism is done by immersion.
I therefore believe that under normal circumstances, God expects believers to be baptized by immersion, both as a celebration of their salvation and as an act of obedience to God.
Are Exceptions Really Possible — Biblically?
Yet I believe exceptions can be made for exceptional circumstances. I base this belief on some examples in the Bible where special accommodations were made to handle circumstances that were out of the ordinary.
For example Luke 14:1-5 says:
One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. There in front of him was a man suffering from dropsy. Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?’ But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him away. Then he asked them, ‘If one of you has a son or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull him out?’
Here Jesus justifies healing a person in need on the Sabbath by appealing to an exceptional circumstance. Jesus relies on the common understanding that rescuing a child or an ox from a well would constitute work. He also knows that such work for an exceptional situation like this would clearly be considered an acceptable form of work on the Sabbath by His audience. In the process He also indicates His approval of this type of exception.
An even more shocking example – one that I personally find very surprising – appears in Matthew 12. Verses 1-4 say:
At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, ‘Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.’ He answered, ‘Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests.’
In this passage Jesus speaks approvingly of the actions of King David in eating bread reserved for priests.
Given the strict requirement for ceremonial worship of God prescribed in Old Testament Law, I would expect King David’s act of eating the consecrated bread to be an extremely grave action. Yet Jesus implies that the circumstances of King David’s hunger justified his actions.
These two examples provide more than enough justification to modify baptism in whatever ways are necessary to ensure a safe ceremony.
A Powerful Opportunity to Serve
When it comes to baptism you have a tremendous opportunity to serve, in a powerful way, a child with special needs and his or her parents. It is likely that the parents will have some misgivings about how to have their child participate in the rite of baptism. And they may approach you expecting you to push them to have their child baptized through full immersion.
Based on the example of David and of our Lord, you can offer them the opportunity to have their child baptized in a way that is acceptable to God and safe for their child. Your willingness to accommodate their child’s special needs will help make their child’s baptism a truly meaningful ceremony that helps them to worship God fully for His great mercy.
Coming Up: In our next mini newsletter article we will cover
5 Creative Ideas to Spice Up Joey’s Baptism.