Should We Baptize Foster Children?

The state can’t raise kids, and they know it.  So they hire foster parents to help them.

What should foster parents do about their children at church?  Can they evangelize and disciple and baptize them and give them communion?

I write with little direct experience in the foster care system of the state.  Some of my assumptions may be off.  The key one is this: a foster parent is more limited by the state in what they can do with children, before they legally adopt the child.  The specifics may even vary from state to state, so this gets complicated.

I also write in response to a proposal that foster parents go ahead and baptize foster children, and give them communion weekly, before they have opportunity to legally adopt those children.  That will shape where I take this.

Finally, I write with admiration for foster parents, and the high and difficult calling they embrace, though I may have some hard words for them to hear.

We can and should evangelize and raise foster kids in the Lord Jesus, treating them as one of our own as far as discipling and teaching them God’s ways.  But we cannot see ourselves as saving kids from the state, when we enter the state’s foster system.  We may be a sanctifying presence for good in that system, and bring some to Christ who were in spiritually damaging situations.  But we cannot alter the off-base principle (that the state has a legitimate and primary role in raising abandoned children) by participating in that same system in a certain way.  This takes on an unnecessarily adversarial posture toward the state, which is also seeking the child’s best interest as an advocate, even if their view of their jurisdiction is too broad and unbiblical.

If we don’t want to grant the state more authority than it has, should we even enter the foster system, which assumes that authority exists?  I would argue we may, but our goal should be the reclamation of kids for Christ, not the transformation of the system or its principles.

The argument is made that we should go ahead and baptize foster kids, because we’re getting to the point where the state may take our own kids away, too.  This argument is invalid.  In foster care there is an explicit agreement that the child is ultimately under the care of the state, and the parents are agents.  The burden of proof is vastly higher for the state to take your own children away.  There is no agreement between the state and family to raise your own children in a certain way.  The unwritten rules that could get your kids taken away are far fewer than the rules foster parents need to abide by.  The comparison doesn’t hold.  To go ahead with baptism of foster children, because all children are in an unstable situation given the tyrannical state, is to vastly exaggerate the current situation with the state for Christian homes.  I say this fully aware of the abuses of Child Protective Services against good parents, over the years.

Baptizing foster children in temporary custody may enter the realm of being a rash vow.  If there is a real chance the state may remove our foster care without our permission (when the parents re-enter the picture, e.g.), it is rash to promise to raise the child long-term in the faith.  This differs from just not knowing the future generally.  You are in a knowingly unstable situation.  Often the foster parent needs objective counsel to realize how unstable it is.  Getting attached to the child and zealous to reclaim him from the state or for Christ in covenant families, foster parents may have more experience with the system, but be least objective of anyone about the situation.  They need friends and pastors outside the family to remind them of the instability when they get attached.

A foster child is not under your legal care in a stable enough situation to warrant baptism.  In baptism you promise to raise the child in the faith.  How can you do that if you aren’t sure of their situation 12 months from now?  It is similar to a grandparent taking temporary custody of a child in an unstable home.  Your home may be much more stable, but the child’s situation is not.  Foster parents intent to salvage children can come with too high a view of themselves, thus assuming the situation is stable once they are involved.  No.  Just because you want the state to butt out, doesn't mean the child will be much comforted and stabilized by your word, against their wreck of a family and the state.  Once the situation settles out and we see who the long-term guardian will be, then they can decide things like baptism.  Temporary matters of receiving the Lord’s Supper, though acutely painful in our circles that practice weekly communion with children, do not warrant the immediate baptism and communing of foster children.

Foster children are not in the position of widows and orphans partaking of the Old Testament feasts.  Their covenant status from their original home should be the default setting and not changed.  Foster children have no right to the feasts of God’s people if they do not believe or if they come from an unbelieving household.  Temporary oversight by a believing foster family is not sufficient warrant to bring them to the table, applying the “one rule” of Exodus 12.  That rule referred to ethnicity, not to varying degrees of arrangements of custody.

The church has struggled with this situation historically.  Christian orphanages may have baptized abandoned babies in the past or present, but parents acting as agents of the state providing temporary care ought not.  I would even advocate against Christian orphanages baptizing its children, though, until the child is placed in a godly home.  This is the role of legal parents, not surrogate parents, and the difference is important.  To an older child, a foster parent saying he is “really” your parent, just like our other children, is an obvious fiction, until legal adoption takes place.  It’s okay and right to try to give your foster child the sense of belonging in your family, but that comes fully with adoption.  Just as the state has a legitimate role to register marriages, so it does to recognize adoptions.

Charles Hodge summarized the Presbyterian Church Assembly’s view of orphanage baptisms in 1863.  After affirming the usual pattern of baptizing them if their parents (were they alive or present) were believers, he adds: “Let those children only be baptized, in every case, who are so committed to the mission, or other Christian tuition, as to secure effectually their entire religious education."  This shows the principle.  A child of believing parents can be baptized.  But if they aren’t believers, don’t baptize them, even if they are in an orphanage’s or foster parent’s temporary custody.  When a child is in any unstable situation where they have a temporary guardian (orphanage or foster parent), we should wait to baptize them until their own commitment, or a more stable family situation, make a Christian upbringing expected.

To go ahead with baptism and communion for foster children would be a pointed lack of submission to the state, rejecting the authority they have and that we accept by signing up for foster care.  It is NOT like the early Christians who searched the city gate for infants still alive who had been abandoned.  It is more like entering the temple of Apollo to foster abandoned children left there, signing an agreement to raise a child a certain way, and then going home and ignoring some parts of that agreement.  This is not submission to authority.  Two wrongs (the state’s over-reach, then our rejection of following the foster system while entering it) do not make a right.

Qualifications to only baptize foster children under certain conditions go a long way to alleviating my concerns above.  The long term situation is for them to be with you.  Parental rights with the birth family are terminated by the state.  The state says it’s fine to baptize them.

But before the termination of parental rights, the state really tells foster parents to act as if the child is their own, not to solemnize covenantal unions to that effect.  (The state can hardly be expected to understand the meaning of baptism.)

And why not then just wait until the adoption goes through?  It makes that adoption much more meaningful.  It recognizes the legitimate voice of the state to say, “This child who was not born in your house is yours.”  We cannot at the same time enjoy the benefits of receiving children (and funds) through the state’s system, while we also decry that system’s very existence and jurisdiction.  Our nation must be re-discipled for Christ before that system will change, and we can’t force it through small acts such as this.

If baptismal vows or confessions need to be adjusted to accommodate foster children, it should give us pause.  Are we getting out of sync with the historic church?  Are we trying to alleviate an immediate and acute point of tension more than we are following biblical principle and historic practice?

Though it is a moral and not a more ritual concern, we make the same argument to young people regarding sex before marriage.  Why wait? they ask, since we intend to marry very soon, anyway?  Why should we wait for foster children to enjoy the benefits of covenant with Christ?  Because it is God’s design in Scripture (Exodus 12; 1 Corinthians 7:14).  It makes the covenant bond all the more meaningful once the official ceremony of adoption is complete.
“Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:12-13).

We ought not jump the gun and baptize children not yet adopted, out of an understandable but exaggerated hostility to the over-reaching state.  We ought not enter into vows we have some reasonable doubt whether we can keep.

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