For the average child, the physical act of being baptized presents no significant risk to her or his health.
However, for some children with special needs, this same act can represent a substantial risk to health and even life. To some people this risk may sound exaggerated, but it’s absolutely true.
My younger daughter is an example of a child in this situation.
My daughter has cerebral palsy. This medical condition severely limits her ability to move her arms and her legs. She also has difficulty with speaking. And it’s clear that she has severe limits on her ability to consciously control her breathing. She cannot hold her breath for any significant length of time. This is particularly true in stressful situations.
Yet her cognitive development is normal. She reads books like they were disappearing from the earth. And her math skills and other mental abilities are no different from those of most other children. She’s also made a commitment to Christ.
But because of her physical limitations, it will not be possible for her to be baptized in the way I believe the Bible teaches that believers should normally be baptized.
Exceptions Are OK in Exceptional Circumstances
I believe the Bible provides exceptions in unusual circumstances like this. For a full treatment of the Biblical basis for this approach, see Safety First! Baptizing Children with Special Needs.
If you are in a situation where your child has significant limitations — either physical or cognitive — that would put her or him at risk during a standard baptism, let me urge this: Do not feel obligated to risk your child’s safety for the sake of a “proper” baptism.
However, even though your child cannot be baptized according to “standard procedure,” I would still urge you to baptize your child, but in a way that avoids risk while still achieving a meaningful ceremony. I believe that the Biblical mandate to be baptized applies to all believers, whenever possible, even if modifications must be made.
For example, one possible approach would be to use partial immersion, perhaps up to the chest or neck.
Make Reasonable Arrangements
Don’t hesitate to discuss with your pastor possible ways to accommodate your child’s special needs. I imagine that most pastors will gladly work with you to come up with a solution that fulfills the intent of baptism without risking your child’s well-being.
If it turns out, however, that your church insists that baptism be performed in a way that you feel presents significant risk, I would suggest you stand your ground. While you may feel a great deal of pressure to give in, it will not be worth the risk if your child is harmed during the baptism ceremony.
If your church leadership is unwilling to accommodate your child’s special needs, you can find someone else to perform the baptism of your child. Or in the extreme, if you yourself are a believer in Christ, you can perform the ceremony yourself. I’m aware of nothing in Scripture that requires baptism to be performed by a church leader.
Personally, I would only do the baptism myself in a private ceremony as a very last resort. I think there is much value when baptism takes place as part of a public celebration within the community of believers. And especially when a child with special needs is baptized, the ceremony can present a particularly powerful witness of Christ’s overwhelming love for each and every one of us.
Special needs can present unique challenges when it comes to baptizing your child. Make sure your child’s baptism remains a positive experience by making sure it’s safe. Accommodate your child in a way that fulfills Biblical intent while keeping your child free from danger. This approach will display both your love for your child and your reverence for God’s purpose in baptism.
Coming Up: In our next mini newsletter article we will cover
My Church Will Prepare My Child for Baptism – Should I Too?.