On Presbyterians and Infant Dedication

David Roberston, a minister of the Free Church in Dundee, has been in the midst of a debate surrounding Presbyterians administering infant dedications. Paul Levy of Ealing and Donald Macleod have been his most prominent interlocutors. A lot of clutter has confused the discussion, and I believe it could benefit from some clarity.  I have a lot of respect for all of the men involved in the debate, and owe a great deal of debt to the Free Church, but I believe my distance geographically and historically from British evangelicalism can provide some needed perspective.

First, the crux of the matter is the relationship of infant dedication to the ordinary parts of worship established by God. All of us subscribe to the same confessional standard, which we affirm as containing the system of doctrine found in scripture. WCF 21.1 and 21.5, as well as WLC 108-109, state that we may only worship God as he has prescribed in his word. Robertson’s assertion that “[Infant dedication] is not a new ‘liturgical rite’ and no more an element in the corporate worship of God than communion seasons, question meetings, fast days, precentors, and children’s talks” is begging the question and is an assertion rather than an argument. Whether infant dedication is an appropriate element of worship is precisely the question.

Our confessional standards do not recognize infant dedication as something prescribed by God. WCF 21.5 and WLC 108 list out what we believe are the biblically prescribed elements of worship (compare with the Westminster Directory for Public Worship), and infant dedications are absent. It is also clear that the ceremony of infant dedication in a worship service is not an “accident of nature” as the Reformers put it, as is the time of day that a church meets or the items Robertson lists. And it should be clear that congregants who are requesting infant dedication are doing so rather than have their children baptized; that is precisely what Robertson was showing in his initial post on the topic. In my own congregation there are a number of Baptists who attend. When they have children and I ask if they intend to have them baptized the answer is always, “No, we’re going to have them dedicated instead.” It is possible that the dynamics at St. Peter’s are different than in my own congregation, but my guess is that families there are wanting their children dedicated as an alternate to baptism, which is what is actually happening in practice. They are not having their infants baptized, they are having them dedicated. I commend Robertson for making it clear to his parishioners that infant dedication is not baptism, but of course Baptists already believe that. To be precise then: infant dedication, which the Standards do not recognize as prescribed by God, is being done instead of an element of worship that is commanded.

Second is the matter of conscience and freedom. Robertson has cited Romans 14:23 on multiple occasions, “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin,” as a justification for not requiring Baptist parents to have their children baptized. The context of Romans 14 and 15, where Paul is encouraging those with doubts about unimportant issues like food and drink to refrain if their conscience is harmed, is not applicable to an element of worship that God commands. Or to put that another way, “it is a great sin to condemn or neglect this ordinance [of baptism]” (WCF 28.5). Christian parents sin when they refuse to have their children baptized. To clarify, there are not the two sacraments of infant baptism and baptism, but the single sacrament of baptism to be administered to converts and the children of believers. Contrary to Robertson’s point in his first post, “The Confession of Faith does not say that neglecting infant baptism is a serious sin; it does say that neglecting the ordinance of baptism is a serious sin,” the Confession has not only converts, but Christian parents in mind, when it says that it is sinful to neglect the sacrament of baptism.

That does not mean that a church should excommunicate those parents or bar them from membership. But insisting that if these Baptist parents yielded their children out of pressure rather than belief is wrong, but also that not actually baptizing their children is not sin, is putting these parents into a catch-22 scenario. Whatever they do, somehow they are sinning, either by violating their faith, or by neglecting the sacrament. The act of obedience to God is not sinful just because someone does not have faith on the topic, though WCF 16 has some thoughts on the issue. I don’t know how Robertson navigates that pastorally, and I don’t envy him. I will note that Levy’s concern that practicing both infant dedication and baptism would correspond to an à la carte consumeristic approach to church is something that I have observed in my own denomination. But an observation about correlation does not necessarily imply a slippery slope of causation, though I do find it a reason for concern.

Now, Robertson has characterized Levy and others as inconsistent if they do not enact church discipline upon parents who decline to have their children baptized. That is a powerful point. And the answer lies in the issue of freedom of conscience that Robertson raises. Our confessional standards leave a significant amount of room for discretion on how to navigate the maintenance of church government and discipline (WCF 30, WLC 108). Discipline does not need to be punitive at every step, but can be the process by which Christian character is formed. Robertson’s point about the faith of the Baptists is also very strong, and not inconsequential. It can be simultaneously true that parents are sinning by neglecting to have their children baptized, and out of respect for their faith and for goodwill differences in interpretation, discipline can be admonition and encouragement rather than censure and excommunication. Our shared confession leaves substantial room for differences in application on discipline.

Robertson has also rhetorically asked, “But why should my conscience, or the church’s practice be bound by another mans’ personal likes and dislikes…But why should my conscience dictate yours? Or yours mine? Is there no room for differences of opinion and practice on secondary matters within the Free Church?” Perhaps the Free Church has decided that the issue of baptism and infant dedication is a secondary matter, a matter of Christian difference and opinion. I don’t know the answer to that. But WCF 30 makes it clear that our consciences are free to do we as please only insofar as we do not break God’s law or add to it. If infant dedication is adding an element to worship that God did not prescribe, then no, Robertson is not free to practice it as his conscience allows. And parents are not free to withhold their children from God’s prescribed gifts. But of course, these are the questions at hand.

Third, is infant dedication biblical? Infant dedication is a Baptist innovation in lieu of baptizing the children of believers. This should be an historically noncontroversial statement. The question is whether there is a biblical basis for the practice consistent with our confessional theology.

1 Samuel 1:21-28 with the alleged dedication of Samuel is often cited by Baptists, and was mentioned by Robertson. However, 1) Hannah giving Samuel to Eli was not part of the liturgical worship of Shiloh, but came after [v.25], 2) Samuel was not dedicated in the sense that his parents and worshiping community pledged to raise him as a child of God as Baptists do, but given to the priestly service of Eli, 3) Samuel still received the covenant sign and seal of circumcision, to which baptism corresponds, 4) None of Hannah’s and Elkanah’s other children were dedicated in this way, 5) The New Testament never cites this pattern or text when discussing the dynamics and types and shadows of the church, covenant community, kingdom of God, or sacraments, 6) Samuel was given by God to Hannah, and then Eli, for a particular and unique prophetic ministry, and 7) the idea of dedication is absent, even semantically, from this passage.

Matthew 19:13-14 and Mark 10:13-16 have also been suggested by Robertson as grounds for infant dedication. These passages, along with Luke 18:15-17, are statements about to whom the kingdom of God belongs. There is nothing in them that suggests that the commitments of the covenant community made during baptism, or among Baptists during infant dedication, were done. Rather, they are instructive to us about how we should treat the smallest members of the covenant community. We should not prohibit their access to Jesus in worship, or treat them as second class citizens, because to all members of God’s covenant community belongs his kingdom. It is also notable that these verses are among the proof texts used by the Standards for children of believers being legitimate recipients of baptism: You can only state “to such belongs the kingdom of God” if they can be members of the visible expression of that kingdom (WCF 25.2), which is signified by baptism. Growing up as a Baptist, I heard many sermons where the preacher labored to show that Jesus was only speaking metaphorically of spiritual child-likeness being necessary to enter the kingdom, or that the children were old enough to possess their own faith. Anecdotal, but these passages were never used to justify infant dedication, but to reject the baptism of infants.

The devil is always in the details though. What “infant dedication” is can mean different things to different people. My congregation has many Baptists in it who decline to have their children baptized. As a church we do not administer the taking of vows during worship by parents or the congregation for an infant dedication, as we do not see scriptural grounds for that. This gets back to the issue of conscience: how can we in our worship service bind the conscience of ourselves as ministers, or the congregation, by practicing something that is not prescribed by God in his word? We cannot without being derelict in our duty to God and our neighbor. However, we have no problem praying for the children and their families by name, asking that God be faithful to his covenant promises whether or not the covenant sign and seal is given, and praying that our congregation would be faithful in assisting the parents in raising their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. If that’s infant dedication, I’m all for it. At that point it’s not infant dedication in the Baptist understanding of it, but the content of a prayer: a biblically prescribed element of worship. The parents should still have their children baptized, though.

I don’t know the specifics of how St. Peter’s handles infant dedication, but I know the men who lead the congregation are godly and thoughtful and I am grateful for their ministry. I am also glad that everyone in this discussion joyfully affirms that the Bible teaches that the children of believers should be baptized, regardless of other circumstances and landscapes in their congregations.

To summarize, our confessional standards do not acknowledge infant dedication as a legitimate element of worship, and rightly state that the neglect of baptism is sinful. I do not believe the Bible and our confessional theology leaves room for infant dedication as commonly practiced by Baptists. Infant dedication could be practiced through prayer, though doing this instead of baptism is a biblically deficient approach on the part of parents. However, that does not make the Free Church or David Robertson an unfaithful or illegitimate church, but a faithful witness with whom we can have robust and charitable disagreements in the context of our shared confession of faith.