Thursday, April 28, 2016

Why We Do Baby Dedications

Three families from Riverview brought
their children to be dedicated on 4.24.16.
This past Sunday at Riverview, three families from our congregation brought their newly-born children to be dedicated in front of our church.  To me, this is a serious, yet joyful, celebration that acknowledges the sovereignty of God over the lives of parents and children, and affords parents an opportunity to publicly dedicate themselves to raising their children in the fear and discipline of the Lord.  I think it is a great practice, and it is one that we will continue to observe at Riverview for the foreseeable future.

This week, however, I providentially read an article by Andrew Wilson entitled "The Problem with Baby Dedications."  In this article, Wilson lightheartedly outlines what he perceives as four potential problems with the practice of baby dedication ceremonies in evangelical churches (it should be noted that while Wilson finds the practice of child dedication problematic, he readily admits that both of his children have been dedicated, and he has performed dedication ceremonies as well).  I find myself partially in agreement with him, but mostly not.  In large part, Wilson's main point of contention seems to be the use of the word "dedication," in that he believes it is a misunderstood term.  This may be, and perhaps it would be wise to change our terminology in what we are actually doing in a baby dedication (more on that below).  In light of this article and the fact that we just dedicated three babies at Riverview this past Sunday, I figured now would be as good a time as any to think publicly about why we do baby dedications at our church.  In what follows, I hope to respond to some of Wilson's concerns, and make an argument for why baby dedication ceremonies are a good practice for the church.

1. Wilson asserts that there is no biblical precedent for baby dedications, and he cites Jesus' dedication at the temple after his birth as an instance that is not parallel to our present-day baby dedications.  This may be true, but there are several practices, traditions, and symbols within the church today that do not find their source from the pages of scripture.  The church is free to institute practices and traditions that are God-honoring, edifying, and in accordance with the principles of scripture.  In other words, the lack of biblical precedence for baby dedication ceremonies does not forbid their presence in the modern church.

2. Moreover, there is precedent of people bring their children to others in order to receive a verbal blessing.  Sometimes these blessings had a prophetic element to them (see Genesis 48-49, for example), and we would not have that as our intention in the dedication of children.  Rather, we would have the same intention for our children that Jesus had in Mark 10.13-16: that of prayer and verbal blessing for children.  These verses describe parents who brought their children to Jesus so that he might pray for them and offer them a verbal blessing, and that is a noble and right process for the church (as representatives of Christ) to duplicate with children in our day.  There is power and significance in verbal blessings and the church is free to follow Jesus in his example in blessing children. (David Michael has argued well for the benefit and power of verbal blessing in this book.  Also, the power of a verbal blessing is important enough for the church to incorporate a benediction - blessing - at the conclusion of its service.)  It is in this sense that perhaps the term "baby dedication" is unhelpful if what we are doing is praying for and blessing children and parents.

3. Wilson also argues that, theologically speaking, "to dedicate something or someone is to set apart something as holy to the Lord.  To dedicate a baby, then, is to act as if the baby is already holy..." Here I think Wilson potentially misunderstands what it means to "set apart something as holy to the Lord" in the context of infant dedication, both in ancient Israel and in modern evangelicalism.  The dedication of firstborn children and animals was a common - and commanded - practice in ancient Israel, whose primary purpose was - I believe - to symbolically remind the people of their dependence upon God, and how everything they had came from him.  For this reason, they would set apart their firstborn children and animals as "holy to the Lord" (the word "holy" means "separate").  Certainly there were thousands of Israelite children who were dedicated to the Lord, but did not live up to the dedication made for them by their parents on their behalf.  Their dedication didn't make them holy or separate in a spiritual sense, and they proved that by not obeying God.  The same is true with modern baby dedications.  I think it is good and right for parents to make a declaration that they are making their child holy to the Lord (separating them for a specific purpose) in that they intend to raise that child in the fear and admonition of the Lord.  If, as that child grows and departs from the instruction of his parents, that has no bearing on what happened at the dedication in their infancy.

To be fair, Wilson's main point with this argument is to guard against making baby dedications akin to infant baptism, which is a valid concern, and one that I share.  Indeed, I am aware of one family at Riverview who declined to have their children dedicate out of a concern that their children would regard their dedication as a means of grace, or as having accomplished something for them spiritually.  This is certainly not the message we want to send through our baby dedication ceremonies, and it is right to guard against it, and if a father and mother decides against it for that reason, I would be supportive of them (although I wouldn't agree with them).  Rather, the dedication of a child to the Lord is simply, I think, a commitment to set oneself and one's child apart for the service of the Lord in all aspects in life.

4. It is in this sense that, for me, the primary focus of a baby dedication ceremony is not so much the infant, but the parents.  The parents are the ones who must dedicate themselves.  To what?  First, to an acknowledgement of God's sovereignty over the child.  Second, to profess their dependence upon God in the rearing of their children.  Third, to dedicate themselves to do their best, by God's help, to raise the child in the fear and discipline of the Lord (Ephesians 6.4).  Moreover, this dedication of parents to these things is done in front of the church.  In other words, parents have accountability for what they have dedicated themselves to, and the church is there to hold them accountable and love and support them in the process.  I see much value in this, especially in the sense that we are one body, and we love and support each other in all ares, including the rearing of children.  It is in this sense, that perhaps we should change the name of the ceremony to "Parent Dedication" rather than baby dedication!

The Bible is clear that children are a gift from God (Psalm 127.3-5), and there is much to be gained in acknowledging this fact through the dedication of our children to the Lord.  Let us praise God for the wonderful gift that children are, and let us commit ourselves to showing them his glory and worth as often as possible (Deuteronomy 6.7-9)

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