Baby Dedications vs. Church Covenants: A Lesson From Baptist History
Who doesn’t love a baby dedication service? Cute babies wiggle, cry, and coo while their parents self-consciously attempt to maintain a level of decorum. After the parents utter a brief vow filled with biblical language, they all scurry back to the nursery. Though mom and dad appreciate the communal recognition, most parents would confess that the blue Bibles, pink flowers, and paper certificates that mark the day lacked transformational power. So why do Baptists do the dedications?
A Quick History of Baby Dedications
Baptists drifted into parent-child dedications to keep pace with their Presbyterian, Methodist, and Lutheran friends who practice infant baptism. Paedobaptists sprinkle their infants because they think the sacrament enables the children of believers to experiences “some benefit” of God’s blessing. The waters do not save or guarantee salvation, but they do make the salvation of the child more probable. John Calvin believed infant baptism placed a “tiny spark” into the heart of the young soul which could lead the child to “future repentance and faith.”
Baptists desire to grant their children access to their tradition’s deposit of spiritual blessing. But Baptist cannot baptize their infants. They believe that baptism has been reserved for souls who willingly and knowingly affirm that they have repented of their sins and believed on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for salvation. Though Baptists like Spurgeon may concur with Calvin’s and Martin Luther’s assessment that God can and does save children who die in infancy, Baptists cannot baptize these little ones because they cannot testify of their experiences.
To find alternative way to bless their children, Baptist churches embrace baby dedications, pulling from the Old Testament Law which required parents to dedicate their “firstborn” child to the Lord (Ex. 13:2). Despite this biblical justification, Baptist’s dedications still borrow both language and symbolism from the Reformed peodobaptist tradition. Following Calvin’s order of baptism, Baptists pastors ask the infant’s parents and then the congregation to affirm the child’s, the parents’, and the church’s commitment to the gospel, incorporating the ceremony into the church’s liturgical experience. In short, parent-baby dedications often amount to causal, waterless infant baptisms that fail to achieve the spiritual and emotional significance of paedobaptism.
Why Church Covenants?
Baptists pastors should not feel compelled to mimic their pedobaptist friends. According to the Scriptures, baptism and by extension baby dedications provide no saving benefit to the lost. Salvation comes not through church sacraments, sprinkling, or dedication certificates. Salvation comes through the preaching of the Word. Paul writes, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” The children of believers do not get fast tracked to heaven because they took part in a ceremony. Parents who desire to point their children towards Christ need to expose their children to the Bible. As the Word flows over young hearts, children gain the opportunity to repent and believe. The Holy Spirit saves souls through the Word. Baptists need to diligently teach their children that the Jesus saves sinners.
Sometimes parent-baby dedications facilitate the advancement of the gospel, encouraging parents to disciple their children. But pastors often commit pastoral malpractice when they attempt to remind parents of their duty to teach their children the gospel while the new moms and dads struggle to change diapers, follow bottle feeding schedules, and lose weeks of sleep. Pastors will better serve young parents when they locate their church’s family discipleship instructions in the church’s covenant and new members class.
Baptist churches until the 1900’s typically required their members to sign a church covenant which touched upon many doctrinal issues including family discipleship. To join a local Baptist church, men and women had to promise to teach their families the gospel. One covenant from a 1783 North Carolina Church required members “To live orderly in our families in keeping up the worship of God.” Another covenant from 1790 reads, “We who are heads of families will maintain the duty of Worship of God in our houses, and endeavor to instruct those under our care, both by our words and actions.” The New Hampshire Convention of 1833 required its member to promise that, “we will not omit closet and family religion at home; nor to allow ourselves in the too common neglect of the great duty of religiously training up our children.” Historically, Baptist pastors and churches have used covenants to ensure that family discipleship became part of their church’s culture.
If Baptists want to expose their infants to the blessings of the gospel, they should follow the example their forefathers in the faith and make family discipleship part of their membership process. If pastors place family discipleship at the church’s front door, children will be more likely to be exposed to the Word. Every member from the teenager, to the senior adult, to the newlyweds, to the established parents will know they are called to teach the next generation the truth. They can freely discuss their failures and their successes. Moreover, they will be more likely to disciple, praying with their children, singing with their parents, and reading the Scriptures with their spouses. As discipleship moves forward through the church’s culture, children reap the benefits of gospel exposure. The great Baptist Benjamin Keach summed up the sentiment of his day which should also be the sentiment of our day writing, “O neglect not Prayer, Reading, and Meditation! Take care also to Educate and Catechize your Children.”
To bless our kids, we do not need to sprinkle them or dedicate them. We need to equip parents and church members with the tools they need to teach the gospel to the next generation. How are we doing?