Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Child Dedication Services Are Not Such a Good Thing

My good friend, Paul Carter, recently posted an article on Baby Dedication services that jogged a memory. I recall spending a lot of time thinking through these things when I was a young pastor. There seemed to be a great deal of confusion over what a dedication service was and, more importantly, what it did
As much as I love Paul and appreciated his article, I disagreed with his conclusion. Since he really is my friend, I thought I would offer a different opinion here, in part so you can see that pastors who really do love each other really can disagree about stuff. 
I should note that Paul is the best kind of baby dedicator I can think of! He makes clear what he is doing and what he is not doing. I still disagree with him, but at least he is not all loopy. 
Here is how I thought through the matter. For an opposite conclusion, be sure to read Paul’s post.

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Where Does the Idea of a Baby Dedication Come From?
The only Biblical reference for a baby dedication is 1 Samuel 1:28 “So I have also dedicated him to the Lord; as long as he lives he is dedicated to the Lord.”  These were Hannah’s words as she brought her freshly-weaned son, Samuel,  to the temple and gave him to the priest, Eli.  Hannah had prayed fervently for a child to end her barrenness, and had promised the Lord that, should He enable her to conceive, she would (literally and physically) give her child to God.  The practical, geographical location to do this was the Temple in Jerusalem.  So when she dedicated Samuel to the Lord, she actually gave the child to God’s human representative on earth, the High Priest. It was here in the temple that Samuel grew up and received an annual visit from his mother from far-off Ephraim (1 Samuel 2:19).
Thus, the only biblical example of dedicating a child to God consisted of actually giving the child to the God… and walking away.  This is affirmed by Eli’s prayer for Hannah to have more children “in place of the one she dedicated to the Lord” (1 Samuel 2:20).  The Hebrew word translated “dedicated” (used only here in the Old Testament in this way) means, “to lend.”  It is a business or commercial term that means to either “borrow or lend some valuable asset to another.”  In Samuel’s case, he was permanently lent to the Lord by his parents to do the Lord’s work. If we work from this example, to dedicate a child to God means to permanently lend him/her to God. 

Are There Other Examples in the Bible of Parents Dedicating Their Children to God?
No. The only other times the word “dedicate” was used refer to items being handed over to the temple or the Lord for His use (especially those items recovered in war or given to Israel as a gift from other nations.) 

Why Do Some Churches Hold Child Dedication Services Today?
There is probably a wide range of answers to this question including the infamous, “We don’t know! It is just what we have always done.” But I think on the whole, there is generally one good motivation and one not so good.

Genuine Love
Christians love their children and acknowledge them as a gift from the Lord (Psalm 127). They note how Jesus invited little children to come to Him that He might pray for them (Matthew 19:13-15). In a desire to thank the Lord for the real gift of these children, many churches feel some kind of public ceremony of thanks to God and prayer for the child is appropriate.
This is a good motivation. We ought to be thankful to God for our children and we ought to rejoice when parents are blessed with a newborn. However, there might be other ways to do this that do not involve a dedication service. 

Theological Envy?
A less noble motivation is theological envy. Some Christians understand infant baptism to be a parallel to the Old Covenant requirement of male circumcision. Children (infants) are therefore sprinkled with water (baptized) as a sign of entering into the “covenant community.”  Although it is expressed in many different ways, the underlying result of this baptism is a supposed “inclination” or “better chance” of responding to the gospel later in life. This drifts dangerously close to superstition.
Unfortunately, some of our Baptist churches seem to have wanted a similar ordinance for their children to perhaps give a similar kind of confidence to parents. Churches developed their own kind of kingdom initiation rite called “baby dedication.”  J. I. Packer, accurately (although with tongue in cheek), suggests these baby dedications are nothing more than “dry baptisms” and adult (believer) baptisms are simply “wet confirmations!”  In other words, they are accomplishing the same thing. He has a point.
We do not baptize babies because there is no biblical example or instruction to do so and the whole concept is contrary to the biblical definition of baptism as that which follows conversion. In the same way, we would be better off not practising Baby Dedications as there is no Biblical precedent for them and to do so confuses the dedication service with something like an infant baptism.



Don’t You Love Children?
At Grace Fellowship Church, we love children.  Our theology, however, teaches us that as sweet as our children are, they are born under the curse of sin (Romans 5:12ff). As sinners, they are not any more predisposed to the gospel of grace than the child of the witch doctor in some forgotten land.  Both children need the enlightening work of the Holy Spirit to bring about the new birth.  Both need to turn to Jesus in repentance and faith.  This is their only hope for salvation.  
It is true that the child who grows up under the “sound of the Gospel” is given many benefits that the child of the witch doctor does not receive, but the Bible is crystal clear that both need the same Saviour in the same way.
One of our hopes in omitting Child Dedications from the formal worship services of our church is that parents will be more motivated to do the four most important things they can for their children: 
  • pray for their salvation
  • preach to them the gospel
  • model to them a growing Christian life
  • and train them up in the discipline and instruction of His Word. 

A parent who (perhaps even subconsciously) holds on to the false hope of some supposed “dedication” may be prone to depend on a ceremony rather than the Saviour of sinners.

Why Make Such a Big Deal About Baby Dedications?
Part of the responsibility of churches is to teach. As a pastor who formerly practiced baby dedications, my own experience was that I would spend more time explaining what the ceremony was not than I would actually praying for the child and parents. The reason for this was who came to the ceremony. Generally it would be the family and friends of the parents, many of whom were unbelievers or who came from churches where infant baptism was practiced. In order to ensure they understood we were not ushering the child into some kind of safety net for babies we would go to great lengths to explain this was more a ceremony of accountability for the parents to fulfill their biblical parenting obligations than it was of anything to do with the child. Is it incorrect to publicly pray for a newborn child?  Not for a second. We want to receive children in the spirit with which Jesus held them and blessed them.  However, we feel that it is important to express this love in a way that is consistent with the Word and does not mislead any (the parents, the relatives and friends, the church and even, later on, the child himself).

Is Holding a Child Dedication Service a Sin?
Not if it is accompanied with correct teaching and those in attendance are not led to believe it means anything more than simply praying for the Lord’s blessing on the child’s life and the parents’ parenting.  It is a sin, however, if it pretends to be ushering the infant into some kind of special relationship with the Lord that He never promised.
The line between what is taught and what is perceived, however, is not always easy to keep sharp.  Therefore, since omitting such a service would not be a sin, and would certainly keep anyone from misunderstanding, it might be better for all churches to stop having them.