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Acts 16 tells two accounts of Philippians being saved under the preaching of Paul. First is a woman named Lydia:

One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us. (Acts 16:14-15 ESV)

And again, of a jailor:

Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God. (Acts 16:30-34 ESV)

Both of these accounts tell of someone who comes to believe in the gospel, and subsequently a baptism follows. Both stories, however, also seem to leave some degree of ambiguity over who precisely who believes and who is saved.

In the former passage, Luke tells us that the Lord opened Lydia's heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. After this happened, Lydia was baptized--this much seems clear. By then, we encounter the phrase "and her household as well." Though there is no mention of the belief of her whole household, this phrase seems to imply that the whole household is baptized. After saying this, Luke switches again to the singular "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay", ostensibly asking to be judged (by Paul and Luke) on the basis of only her faith.

Is this phrase "and her household as well" referring to baptism only, or to the Lord opening their heart as well? Modern-day Christian baptism is typically done for the one who becomes saved, but if this phrase refers only to the household being baptized (and not their faith), does this make Lydia's faith sufficient for the baptism of the whole house? Does it mean that her whole house is saved?

Again in the account of the jailor, a similar pattern is encountered. I will highlight the pronouns referring to the jailor and his house:

And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.

Again, there is this strange switching between he (the jailor) and they (those in the house). What I see, however, is while Luke mentions that he and his family were baptized, and that he and his family rejoiced, he again only mentions that he (the jailor) "had believed in God".

What is going on here? Are we to understand these two passages to say that Paul would baptize entire households on the basis of the belief of one member? Or do we presume that, if the rest of the household is baptized, they must have made in unrecorded conversion?

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Related information: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infant_baptism –  cwallenpoole Dec 9 '11 at 5:58
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Interesting. I'd rather avoid modern-day infant vs believer baptism; I'm just trying to understand what scripture says. –  Ray Dec 9 '11 at 12:19
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They are inseparable in my experience. Infant baptism says that baptism's efficacy can hinge on the faith of another. Unfortunately, I can't really speak to the Biblical texts here (as I don't really think that much can be added beyond what you have said), I only know the behavior of the church in early through late antiquity. –  cwallenpoole Dec 9 '11 at 19:59

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To understand these passages, it is necessary to understand the way covenant functions in relation to individuals and groups in the Scripture.

  1. The Biblical mindset does not seem to be troubled by the same stark one/many dichotomy that plagues Western philosophy. Read through the Scriptures and you will find many instances that are unsettling to our Western individualism (the story of Achan, for example), and yet you will also find that collectivism is eschewed.
  2. Trinitarian theology must result in a balance of emphasis between the individual and the community.
  3. Volumes can be filled in the study of covenant theology. I take it here as a sufficient example to reference the fact that the fall into sin and the rescue from it each came through one man. This federal or representative theology is woven throughout Scripture.
  4. Interestingly, the relation of the benefits received in Christ displays a similar dynamic. When commingled, these benefits are destroyed (to conflate sanctification and justification is disastrous). However, to view them in separation also destroys them, allowing for many forms of pernicious error, such as a holding fast to justification by faith while downplaying the power of regeneration. It also shifts the onus off the person of Christ, emphasizing the discrete, impersonal benefits of the person rather than the person himself, which is misses the point of the Gospel: God himself is my inheritance.

Based on this type of thinking, we can make sense of the fact that people can enter the covenant community either as individuals (slaves or wives of unsaved men, for example) or as groups (when the covenantal representative or leader of the group professes faith).

Are we to understand these two passages to say that Paul would baptize entire households on the basis of the belief of one member?

Yes, if that one member was the head of the household. The silence of the passages as to the faith of the rest of the household shows that it was not necessary for them to profess faith as individuals to be included in the covenant community.

Do we presume that, if the rest of the household is baptized, they must have made in unrecorded conversion?

No. It can be demonstrated from other passages that the faith of the individual is necessary for the individual's salvation, and that inclusion in the covenant community does not necessarily imply salvation. Because of this, it should not be disconcerting that other members of the household would be baptized whether or not they professed faith (and perhaps some or all of them did, but this cannot be inferred from the passage).

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+1 It's interesting that the various baptism controversies began arising when Western culture began to shift toward individualism. –  Jon Ericson Jan 5 '12 at 23:09

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