Amazingly, we remain friends.
This is a low intensity disagreement within the wider evangelical world, but that is not to say that it is unimportant. When a new mom comes to you and asks you to dedicate her beautiful new baby you better know why you will or will not accommodate her request.
To help you think through that, I’ve organized what I perceive to be the most obvious pros and cons associated with the issue.
1. It reflects the obvious concern and affection that Jesus had for little children
The church is often better known for what it is against than for what it is for. We are against some stuff and we shouldn’t shy away from that, but we are also for some stuff that is really important to communicate.
We are for babies.
We are pro-life – not just anti-abortion.
We are baby people!
And we are baby people because we are Jesus people.
As the old song says, “Jesus loves the little children”.
Let’s get that message out!
The disciples of Jesus have not always understood that; sometimes they have even obscured or resisted that. Matthew 19 records:
“Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”” (Matthew 19:13–14 ESV)
Unless I am reading that wrong, it is a bad thing when the disciples of Jesus try to stop parents from bringing their babies to the Lord for prayer and blessing. Obviously we want to be careful, obviously we want to be clear about what is happening and what isn’t, but it seems pretty clear that Jesus is “pro-baby” and therefore it is a good thing when disciples encourage – or at least don’t oppose – parents bringing their children to the Lord for prayer and blessing.
Baby dedication allows us to reflect and communicate one of the most precious things about Jesus – his love and affection for our little ones.
Thanks be to God!
2. It facilitates the bonding process between pastor and people
In my experience, there are 4 events that cement the relationship between pastor and people:
Funerals, weddings, baptisms and dedications.
Those are the big four.
If you haven’t done any of those things for a family in your church it is hard to really feel as if you are their pastor. Once you have done all four of those things, you will be their pastor forever.
People are affected by familial milestones. Our memories and emotions have limited storage capacity and therefore while we appreciate faithful preaching and regular prayer – it is ministry in these critical moments that creates a lasting bond between the pastor and his people.
I remember the first moment that I held each of my beautiful babies. I have 4 biological babies and 1 adopted gift from God. Those are 5 moments that I will remember FOREVER. I remember their dedications as well. I remember Peyton grabbing a hold of poor Pastor Bill’s glasses as he tried to pray. She swung them around and jabbed him in the ear multiple times while he asked Jesus to bless her little soul. I remember the President of our denomination, Dr. Gary Nelson, holding my beautiful adopted baby girl – my gift from God – in his arms and singing sweetly to her and asking the Lord to show her kindness and favour.
I could go on and on but I am already starting to cry.
Those men will have a place in my heart forever because of those moments.
I am a human being and I’m a parent. If you do something nice for me I will say thank you. If you do something nice for my kid I will love you forever and defend you to the death.
That isn’t the best reason to do baby dedication, but it isn’t the worst reason either.
3. It reminds the church of its calling to be an extended family
Jesus said that we had to love him more than our biological family (Matthew 10:37-38). He said that becoming his disciple could conceivably cost us the support of our parents, our kindred and our community (Matthew 10:21). But he also said that if we pass through the eye of the needle – if we squeeze through the wicket gate, we will be greeted and welcomed by a whole new family. We will have mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunties and uncles on the other side. He said that in Mark 10:
“Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29–30 ESV)
A hundredfold now. And in the age to come, eternal life.
Jesus did more than promise us eternal life – as awesome as that is – he promised us an amazing family in the here and now. 100 mothers. 100 fathers. 100 brothers. 100 sisters. That’s what the church is supposed to be! And in a good family – like the church is supposed to be – we gather together and celebrate the birth of each new baby.
I’ve never been able to figure out why this is controversial.
If your brother doesn’t want to come and see your new baby then he isn’t much of a brother.
If your sister doesn’t want to coo over your precious new little one then she isn’t much of a sister.
Families celebrate this kind of stuff.
They see, they bond and in good families, they help. Casseroles are brought, gifts are given and further support is promised.
That’s what a dedication is!
It is a celebration and a promise. It is all your mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters standing up and saying: “If you need some help in a week or two, please let us know. You are not alone. Your baby has an uncle who will give good advice. She has an auntie who will whisper words of encouragement. She has a grandma who thinks she can do no wrong. And she has a grandpa who can work magic with a chainsaw. We’ve got you covered – FOR LIFE.”
I like that.
I like it a lot.
4. It provides opportunities to share the Gospel with unbelievers
I would estimate that about 10% of the requests that we get at our church for baby dedications are from people who are not regularly associated with our church. When many people have babies they begin to think in spiritual terms. Babies make you think about the future. Babies make you want to be good.
That isn’t a bad thing.
When such folks call me I always take the time to explain what dedication is and is not. I also explain that what their baby really needs is a mom and dad who know and love Jesus. They need a mom and a dad who are reading the Word of God and walking with the people of God and growing up in the Spirit of God.
We’ve seen people saved and added to the church through such conversations.
Baby dedications also give us a chance to preach the Gospel to a number of people who would never otherwise darken the doors of the church. Our attendance goes up by about 25 people every time we do a baby dedication. Uncle Joe from down south makes the trip. Aunt Sue from out west comes. Grandma and Grandpa are there of course. And a handful of brothers, sisters, cousins and nephews too. Many of those people will have never heard the Gospel before. Baby dedications are one of the ways we help believing couples share their Gospel faith with extended family. There will be a lunch after and plenty of time to debrief what the pastor had to say.
These are the main reasons that we continue to practice and appreciate infant dedication. But that isn’t to say that there aren’t real problems, concerns and costs to be paid.
1. It can be confused with infant baptism
The most common objection that I hear to the practice of infant dedication is that it can easily be confused for infant baptism.
That is true.
If people come to your church out of a nominal Roman Catholic or Anglican background they may assume that what you are doing up there at the front of the church is roughly analogous to the practice of infant baptism. Therefore you will need to be very clear as to what you are and are not doing.
I usually preface our infant dedications by explaining precisely how dedication is not baptism. I usually say something like this:
“If you are visiting with us this morning and you have a little bit of church background you may be wondering precisely what it is that you are witnessing. You may wonder where the font is and why the baby isn’t wearing a proper Christening gown. The reason is that this is NOT an infant baptism. At this church we believe that the Scriptures indicate that baptism best follows a credible profession of faith. Therefore we wait until the child is able to articulate his or her own faith in Jesus as their Lord and Savior before we administrate that ordinance. This is something different. This is analogous to what we see in the Gospel of Matthew where it says that parents were bringing their children to Jesus that he might lay hands on them, pray for them and bless them. This is that. This is our attempt to reflect and respond to the obvious affection and concern that Jesus had for children. He loved them. He welcomed them and prayed for them and so we want to do the same. We want to pray for these beautiful babies and we want to promise our support to mom and dad in the great and awesome responsibility of parenting.”
The possibility for confusion is real – but it is not by any means insurmountable. Take a moment and explain what you are doing and what you are not doing. Make yourself available afterwards to clear up any misunderstandings. In my mind this is more of an opportunity than a deal breaker.
2. It may lead to pastoral and personal conundrums
What do you do if a non-Christian couple asks to have their baby dedicated? What do you do if the mom is a Christian but the dad isn’t? What do you do if the grandparents of the child are active members in your church but the actual parents are not? What do you do if the parents are professed believers but living together in open sin?
I have faced each and every one of those conundrums on multiple occasions over the last 13 years that I have served as the Lead Pastor of my present church.
The possibility for offense and hard feelings is real.
The possibility that you will spend the next two weeks responding to email and angry phone calls is real.
But again, I see this more as an opportunity than an argument against.
My advice would be to work through each of the above listed scenarios together as a board. That is what plurality of leadership is for! I would make a study of Matthew 19:13-15. I would ask your elders what sort of screening process is in evidence in that passage. I would ask them if they are crystal clear as to how dedication is different than baptism and membership. I would agree on some basic standards and guidelines for these sorts of situations. I would write them down but not codify them. Slip them in a file marked “Best Pastoral Practices”. Pull it out and use it and improve it as needed.
I would also make sure to communicate this to the church – but probably not on a dedication Sunday. Write a blog. Send a letter. Teach.
Again, I recognize the reality of this problem, but I don’t think it is a good reason not to do it. Good ministry is hard. It’s messy. It’s complicated. But it’s worth it.
3. It may obscure the heart and essence of the Gospel
Some worry that the practice of infant dedication may obscure the essence and nature of the Gospel. It may accidentally teach a sort of ritualism or weak sacramentalism.
That is true.
I’ve had to remind panicked grandparents that their grandchild does not NEED to be dedicated. If mom and dad aren’t ready the absence of this ceremony does not endanger the soul of the child. That isn’t how the Gospel works.
Most of our people know that – until that belief is tested under live fire.
We are human beings and we have human hearts, and as John Calvin famously said, the human heart is an idol factory. Ritualism is the default religion of every man, woman and child on this earth. We love magic water, magic potions and magic words. We’d love to think that the brush of the pastors fingers across the brow of the baby’s head while he speaks the ancient words will somehow improve the standing of this precious little one before their Maker.
But of course, if we are true believers, we know that isn’t so.
That is not to say that the ceremony doesn’t matter. The ceremony, at its heart, is about prayer – and prayer does matter. Prayer is an ordinary means. But it is not magic. That’s a fine distinction – and one easily lost and obscured by emotion, but again, I see this as a pastoral opportunity, not as a compelling argument against the practice of infant dedication.
Just talk to your people.
Sit down with grandma and grandpa.
Walk them through it.
Pray with them.
And reach out to mom and dad.
Let this potential confusion result in increased prayer and evangelistic fervor on the part of all.
4. It could cause people to accuse the church of inconsistency
Why did you dedicate Bob and Sue’s child but you wouldn’t officiate their wedding? Why do you say that it is a sin to live together before getting married, but then still bless the child that was produced by that sinful union?
Those are good questions – and as stated above, those are potential pastoral and personal conundrums. They are also, potentially, signs of inconsistency to the rest of the watching church – unless you communicate and teach clearly on this matter.
Most churches have some kind of wedding guideline for their pastor. In my church for example, I am not allowed to conduct a wedding for a professed believer to an unbeliever. However, if the marriage occurred and a child was produced and the believer brought said child to me and asked for us to pray over and bless the child through dedication, we would.
Is that inconsistent?
I can see why some would say so, but I don’t think it is. The bible does clearly teach that believers are not to be yoked to unbelievers – 2 Corinthians 6:14, 1 Corinthians 7:39 – so most evangelical churches do not allow their pastors to perform such a wedding. But the Bible does not provide any similar restriction when it comes to praying for and blessing babies.
Go back and read Matthew 19:13-15.
There is no mention that any of those parents were refused because of their marital status. They wanted their children to be prayed for and blessed and Jesus told the disciples to get out of the way.
Life is complicated and subtle distinctions abound.
Neat isn’t always better.
Clean isn’t always the Jesus way.
There are real lines in the Bible and those lines should be consistently and courageously observed. But where the lines end, charity and generosity should begin. Woe unto the one who goes beyond what is written and woe unto the one who in his zeal to be holy, actually gets in the way of the kindness and mercy of Jesus.
“Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:14 ESV)
That’s what Jesus said and while I recognize and acknowledge the legitimacy of several of these common objections, I want to do everything I can to remain on the right side of that text.
I respect those who land elsewhere on this issue, as many of my closest friends in ministry do. This is not even close to being a fellowship issue for me. But in my church, as we read the Bible together, this is something that we love and will continue to do.
And may God alone be glorified!
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast visit the TGC Canada website; you can also find it on iTunes.