Should we dedicate our children?

Once upon a time all infants were baptized. Baptism carried with it two meanings: one of state citizenship and one of supernatural citizenship. So, when the anabaptists came along and not only refused to baptize children but re-baptized adults they were not just attacking the ruling church’s authority but that of the state’s as well.

Fast forward to today, we have largely left the state connection to baptism behind, but are still divided on the question of infant’s and what to do with them. Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodox, Lutherans, Presbyterians and some others still baptize infants, while Baptists, Anabaptists, most independents and others do not. Over the years this has left a bit of emotional hole in the psyche of some Christian parents who don’t hold to infant baptism, but none-the-less feel the need to “do something” with their children. It is important to note that not all paedobaptists (those who baptize infants) believe that anything in particular “happens” when the water hits the skin. Presbyterians don’t believe that baptism represents a washing away of sin as the Catholic Church teaches, but they still see a scriptural and historical warrant for it.(1)

Enter infant dedication. Infant dedication is a ceremony (or “event” if you prefer) where a child and their parents come before God and their congregation, friends and family and promise with the help of God and the community to raise the child according to their faith in Christ. The ultimate hope is that one day that child will choose to enter into a relationship with Christ themselves.

You wouldn’t call dedication a sacrament, nor is it even an ordinance, for it is nowhere commanded by Jesus. That’s because it doesn’t really have any basis in scared scripture as something Christians should do. It is borrowed from our Jewish friends and their tradition of taking a newborn child to the temple for dedication and naming. We see this recorded in the gospels in the case of Jesus (Luke 2:22-24).

I’ve been to a handful of Christian dedications and I’m even been privileged to do one for some dear friends of mine. I am, however, becoming less and less convinced that this is a practice the church should engage in. Now, to be sure, I have never heard anyone say “you must dedicate your child”, indeed, quite the opposite if true. There is nothing salvific or even particularly metaphysical about the event as opposed to some version of infant baptism that see the child being remitted of all original sin.

So, if it doesn’t do anything, then it’s not necessary. And if we mandate it then we’re doing it as tradition and wouldn’t that be terrible?! (slight sarcasm)

There was one dedication ceremony in particular that set me on this path of thinking about the validity and wisdom of infant dedication. It was for the beautiful new son for some friends of ours. It was a great and special time, but I came away thinking “the only difference between this and a baptism, was the water” (some even refer to dedications as “dry baptisms”). For some reason this really bugged me. Is this what we’re arguing about is this substance called water? I mean, if the words the minister/pastor says are virtually identical to a baptism, then are we just kidding ourselves? Are we truly being consistent with our beliefs by instituting something in place of something that we say we shouldn’t do. Are we somehow assenting to the very practice we’re eschewing?

Of the small group of anabaptists and baptists I’ve consulted for this article, they’ve all said it’s not essential, but appreciate the meaning behind the ceremony. One even said, if he had the choice, he wouldn’t do them, but because of the sentimentality attached, he would perform a dedication if pressed. He would be very clear however that this is not baptism and the child still needs to come to faith on its own and choose to be baptized.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s sinful, I’m just not sure it’s consistent. Baptize or don’t, but if you’re not going to baptize maybe we shouldn’t import a ritual from another faith (even if it is our faith of origin as it were) to fill that gap that is purely cultural and sociological.

I’d welcome your thoughts. What do you think? Can we dedicate our children while having complete integrity with our faith and stated position about baptism?

(1) Redeemer Presbyterian in New York (Tim Keller’s church) has a good explanation of it’s position on infant baptism (PDF).

4 thoughts on “Should we dedicate our children?

  1. Hrm… not sure I agree with your admonition to not “import a ritual from another faith.” Here’s why:

    In my understanding of baby dedication in the Mennonite church where I have experienced it, it is not necessarily a blessing saying “this kid is now God’s kid” nor is it standing in place of a baptism or anything, instead, it’s an acknowledgement by the parents, in front of the community of faith, that raising the child is not something they can do on their own, nor should they do it on their own. And it is a recognition by the community of faith of their rather solemn responsibility for this child. Everything that is done, by the parents and by the community, will shape and form this child’s life. As Anabaptists, Mennonites are all about (or should be all about) discipleship… and not just discipleship that happens when you meet a certain “age of accountability” but the process of shaping and forming even children to grow up to be part of the “priesthood of believers”.

    So… perhaps we did “import a ritual”, but then if we go back and take a look at that Jewish ritual, there’s a lot more going on there than just some genital mutilation and spiritual mumbo-jumbo… there’s an acknowledgement by the parents that the child is part of a community of faith and making a very solemn connection to that community. I think the Protestant/Anabaptist practice of “dedication” fills that same VERY necessary role, especially in a culture where folks are feeling increasingly separated from each other. Our culture is so fragmented and we almost “encourage” it with our social media networking and everything where we can be separate from everyone else and still be “connected”. The loneliness out there in Western culture were people are DESPERATE to connect to SOMETHING… We need these reminders that, yes, as parents, we are NOT alone in raising our kids and that there are all sorts of surrogate grandparents, aunts, uncles, big sisters, big brothers, little sisters, little brothers, and so forth who are involved with making sure this child is discipled and raised to be a healthy person. In light of this, I think dedications are necessarily counter-cultural.

    Are they spiritually necessary in the sense of salvific work or anything? No. If society changes and shifts again to a more communal focus will they be necessary any more? Probably not. But I think right now, especially, at least in the West, this communal acknowledgement of responsibility is vitally important for that counter-cultural message.

    But then… I could be wrong. 🙂

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  3. I think Robert has hit the nail on the head. Infant dedication has become a pastoral necessity for Mennonites, as a response to the inescapable need for some kind of public initiation of infants into the community of faith. The early Anabaptists simply never imagined that their descendants would raise children within that tradition (yes, Anabaptism is a tradition; that’s inescapable too) in full freedom for generations to follow. Since they believed that the eschaton was imminent and that persecution was the mark of the true church, the question of what to do with children born into their communities was a non-issue. But here we are five centuries later, no longer being persecuted and still awaiting the eschaton, and the question becomes a pressing one. And it’s not even fully answered by infant dedication: the ambiguous membership status of unbaptized children becomes particularly awkward at communion, for example. But that’s all the more reason not to deprive children of a fundamental initiatory experience that at least fills one important gap, addressing the unavoidable human need for ritual at key moments in life and the Christian witness to the life of the community of disciples.

    • Thank you both for your invaluable contributions. Julia, it’s good to see you in the comments again.

      I can’t respond fully at the moment, but appreciate what both of you have contributed. I appreciate the value of infant dedication, so long as its not used as a replacement for baptism and we acknowledge that it’s a development out of tradition and not a scriptural mandate.

      Thanks again.

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