Should Presbyterians Have Dedication Services?
For many years now there have been signs of growing unrest among Presbyterians over the question of Infant Baptism. This unrest has generally been low-key, confined to more or less polite debate. More recently, however, there has been a new development: a growing demand for Baptist-style Services of Dedication for Infants. More and more ministers and kirk sessions now seem willing, and even eager, to yield to this demand, and there are two reasons for this.
One is that a growing number of people of Baptist persuasion are now worshipping in Presbyterian, and particularly Free Church congregations, attracted, we hope, by the quality of the preaching. This has certainly given a boost to our numbers, and it is tempting to do whatever we can to hold on to them.
The other reason is linked to this. The very fact that we are willing to provide Dedication Services will help us, we think, to appeal not only to members of specifically Baptist denominations, but also to others from the many Evangelicals churches which deplore the practice of Infant Baptism.
It is particularly students we have in our sights here. Uprooted from their own churches, they find a temporary home in the Free Church, but while they enjoy the preaching they’re offended by what they see as the meaningless rite of sprinkling infants. Few of them envisage the Free Church as their permanent spiritual home, and fewer still adhere to it out of conviction. But sometimes events overtake them, they find employment in their university city, marry and have children; and then they expect the kind of Dedication Service they were used to in ‘their own’ churches. This becomes a significant pressure on ministers and elders, who appreciate the contribution such new members make to their churches, and very much want to keep them.
It’s easy to wrong-foot Presbyterians on this question and to construct the discussion in a way that puts them at a serious disadvantage. What, it is asked, is wrong with Dedication Services? Who can possibly object to dedicating children to the Lord?
But unless we want to reject the whole Reformed doctrine of worship, this is entirely the wrong question. Indeed, it marks a return to the sort of approach that bred the innovations that made the Reformation necessary in the first place. Who, after all, could object to such things as images of saints, angels and the Virgin Mary? Were they not ‘aids to devotion’?
What we really have to ask is not, ‘What’s wrong with Dedication Services?’ but, ‘What’s right about Dedication Services?’ We’re not talking, of course, about parents prayerfully dedicating their children to the Lord. We’re speaking of a definite liturgical rite, an element in the corporate worship of the church; and if there is one message that sounds out clearly from the Reformation it is that we have no right to introduce such rites without the positive sanction of the word of God.
There is already a prescribed rite to mark the special position of the infants of believers: Infant Baptism. Regardless of any human dedication, all such infants are already members of the church by birth, all are already ‘holy’ (1 Cor. 7.14), and all already belong to God. They are his heritage (Ps. 127.3), covered by his great covenant promise, ‘I will be God to you and to your seed after you’ (Gen. 17.7); and God has explicitly laid down that the sign of that spiritual covenant be put on believers’ physical seed as a solemn and joyful reminder to parents that their children belong to God and that God belongs to them.
At least, this is the Presbyterian understanding of Baptism. It is not something optional for Christian parents. It is a divine ordinance. We have no right to omit it, no right to neglect it, no right to alter it and certainly no right to put something else in its place. And anyway, is it not curious that Baptists, whose whole case depends on the silence of the New Testament with regard to Infant Baptism, are yet so keen to demand Dedication Services, of which the apostolic writings contain not even the faintest hint?
We need to be clear as to what is implied in this demand. Every Dedication Service is an explicit protest against Infant Baptism; and every kirk session that sanctions such a service is associating itself with this protest. This is a serious business. The doctrine of Infant Baptism is a fundamental element of the Confession to which all Presbyterian elders have sworn allegiance. We are not, like Baptists, a loose collection of independent congregations, each free to choose a creed which suits itself and a form of worship that tickles our fancy. We are Presbyterians, united by a common Confession which ensures that the same gospel is preached from every pulpit, that the sacraments are administered in the same way in every congregation, and that the work of local kirk sessions is reviewed regularly by the wider church through presbyteries and general assemblies.
This doesn’t mean that there has to be absolute uniformity. We have, for example, no set prayers, no prescribed version of the Bible, no mandatory clerical vestments, no indispensable worship-leaders, and no statutory praise-bands; and the habit of calling our hymns ‘songs’ has not yet become a directive from on high.
But baptism is not among the things on which we enjoy freedom of opinion or liberty of practice; and while we are happy to welcome Baptists into our communion we are not happy to see them agitate against our own Confession, either by divisive debate or by public demonstration.
What drives the growing fascination with Dedication Services is not a well-focused desire to extend the Kingdom of God by drawing sinners to Christ, but the hope of expanding the numbers sitting on Free Church pews by attracting Baptists. This is proselytising, not evangelising: a strategy which ensures that churches grow not by making inroads into the Kingdom of Darkness but by transferring Christians from one denomination to another. A congregation grows, but the church of Christ doesn’t.
This is not to say that those who advocate Dedication Services are not active in evangelism. Nor is it to say that they have no interest in drawing sinners to Christ. Nor, again, is it to deny that they may experience real church-growth as well as growth by transference. But this does not take away from the fact that when Presbyterian churches introduce Dedication Services the object of the exercise is to attract (or hold on to) Christians of other traditions.
Of course, Baptists, too, engage in proselytising, but it is hard to imagine them going so far as to offer to baptise infants in order to make Presbyterians feel at home. On the contrary, they stick rigidly to their own principles, insisting that no one can be a member of their congregations unless baptised as an adult, and by immersion. Some even risk glaring inconsistency. I once knew a distinguished Anglican minister (a Canon, no less!) who was asked to supply the pulpit of a well-known Baptist church. He did so with great acceptance, but when it came to the Communion Service afterwards he was told he couldn’t take part because he wasn’t baptised.
What tangled webs we weave! Anglicans exclude Baptists because they haven’t been episcopally ordained; Baptists exclude Anglicans because they have not been baptised. Yet it is always Presbyterians who are branded as intolerant bigots, just as it is the Free Church which is branded as an ethnic Highland religion tottering on the brink of extinction. Too many of us are prepared to plead guilty as charged, desperate to distance ourselves from historic Scottish Presbyterianism, and too willing to believe, in our own strangely Postmodern way, that our Confession is but one option among many. It’s time we realised that far from being the creed of some dying sect, it is the distilled wisdom of the greatest intellects and the most spiritual minds that have ever graced the Christian church. Our calling is not to kick it away from under us, but to build upon it, refining and developing it, and gratefully incorporating into it any new insights which the theologians of our own age (assuming there are any) might have to offer us.
A fuss about nothing?
But then, isn’t all this a fuss about nothing? Quite possibly, and at the moment I would much prefer to be reflecting on the mediatorial work of Christ, but sometimes circumstances forced even the apostle Paul to descend from the mountain-top and reflect on things like the eating of food offered to idols.
But who, precisely, is making the fuss? It’s easy to transfer the stigma from those who are agitating for ill thought-out innovations to those who are warning against them. But if it really doesn’t matter, why propose an alternative to Infant Baptism in the first place?
The worry is that repeated concessions on ‘things that don’t matter’ will one day completely change our identity. By the time we have praise-bands, responses, leadership-teams, dedication services, god-parents, junior churches and ministers trained by apprenticeships rather than educated by a rigorous theological curriculum, we’ll disappear in a shallow Evangelical mainstream clever enough to avoid heresy, but only at the price of diplomatic silence on the greatest mysteries of the Christian faith.
Baptism is a solemn visible pledge to Christian parents that God’s promises are not only for them but also for their children. He has given them his name, made them his heirs and placed within their reach the title-deeds to his estate. They are the natural branches of the New Israel, from them will come the vast majority of the next generation of believers, by their loyalty the church will grow, and by their witness the world will be evangelised.
And conversely, precisely because they are the natural branches it would be ‘unnatural’ for them to reject the God whose name they bear. This was the very point made by Jeremiah against the natural branches of his own day: ‘my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.’ (Jer. 2.13) We urgently need to remind our young people how serious it is for a natural branch of the church to become ‘wild’.
But the very fact that many do is itself a reminder that baptism does not operate mechanically, and that there is no unconditional guarantee that ‘covenant children’ will inherit the promises. God will keep his covenant, but he has made plain that his covenant is two-sided. ‘As for you,’ he declared to Abraham, ‘you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout your generations.’ (Gen. 17.9) He has also made absolutely clear what this covenant-keeping means: Abraham was to command his children to keep the way of the LORD (Gen. 18.19).
That same command still binds Christian parents today. Baptism presupposes that the supreme concern of Christian parents is not that our children should enjoy social and professional success, but that they should become loyal followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and to that end we solemnly undertake to educate them in the Christian faith.
This, too, is a serious business, and just how serious is made plain in Psalm seventy-eight: ‘I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.’
Educating our children
But are we serious? The religious education of our children cannot be left to state schools. It is the responsibility of the church, and if we are serious about it we should set about it with at least three clear guide-lines.
First, it must be rigorous, and unfortunately this goes against all our current thinking. Our Sunday Schools have had to be renamed ‘Junior Church’ or even ‘Kids Church’ because the idea of a school would put the kids off. Everything has to be fun, reminding me of a line in one of Ibsen’s plays, ‘I’ve never been happy. I’ve just had fun.’ Surely the important thing is that the children should learn, and learning can never be primarily fun. It implies rigour, and the church should apply the same rigour to the religious education of her children as day-schools to apply to secular education.
Secondly, we need a clear idea of what we expect our Sunday Schools to deliver. In other words, what do we think a Free Church child should know by the time she’s sixteen? Even the briefest list would have to include the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the story of the birth, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and the gospel accounts of his parables and miracles. For good measure, she should also know where in her Bible to find its various books. You have only to announce a reading from Ezra or Nehemiah in a modern Free Church service to see the congregation set off on an embarrassing search, relieved only by telling them the page-number in the pew-Bible (itself a confession of failure).
Thirdly, we need to find a way of familiarising our young people (and our old people) with the history of Scottish Protestantism. Why are we Protestants? What does it mean? And who were Patrick Hamilton, John Knox, Thomas Chalmers and Alexander Duff? Their story was once told in Scottish schools. That is no longer the case, Scotland now being ashamed of its Protestant past. Is the church, too, to consign to oblivion what our fathers told us (Ps. 78.3)?
Teaching such history is a tall order (or, in what nowadays passes for English, ‘a big ask’). But it is well within our capacity if only we could set our minds to it; and if only we could rid our minds of the chronological snobbery which assumes that wisdom began in 2010.
‘The church is the Mother of us all’
From the days of the early church fathers, believers have referred to the church as ‘the Mother of us all’. That means, of course, the church universal, across the centuries and across the world. But for every Christian it also means a particular church, and in my case that means the Free Church of Scotland. She, as the living embodiment of historic Scottish Christianity, is my spiritual mother, and I must love her without bigotry, fanaticism or intolerance. I have not the least desire to denigrate the Baptist tradition. The very word ‘Baptist’ reminds me of William Carey and Charles Spurgeon, saints on a different level from mine. But while I respect them to the point of adulation, I know, with sadness, that the two traditions could never mix. Spurgeon could never have been a Presbyterian. And I could never be a Baptist. But I am more assured of his place in heaven than of my own.