Guest voice: Lessing on infant dedication

Pelham LessingThe Church of the Nazarene allows for the practice of infant baptism, but does not believe it is a saving sacrament. Rather, we believe it is a covenant sign showing the child’s acceptance into the church, with promises made by parents and congregation to bring up the child in the fear of the Lord. This is the same promise made by parents during dedication, which is offered as an alternative to infant baptism.

The theology around infant dedication is thin. I appreciate how Pastor Lessing handles the topic, adding new insights.
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A Time for Clarity: Child Dedication

by Pelham Lessing

Having a new baby in a family is one of the most exciting times for most parents. Many believing Christian parents decide to publicly dedicate their child to God. Nonetheless, there has been a lot of confusion and theological debate as to the purpose of child dedication.

It must be understood, however, that child dedication and infant baptism are not exact equivalents. Infant baptism (sprinkling) is understood in various terms to grant or symbolise salvation, to cleanse away sin, or to confer saving grace upon a child. Infant baptism is believed to be a means of grace. Infant baptism revolves around two arguments: [1] the New Testament ordinance of baptism parallels the OT ordinance of circumcision (Col 2:11-12) and [(2] the early church baptised whole household (Acts 16:15). The scope of this article does not afford me the opportunity to discuss the argument that infant baptism equates to baptismal regeneration.

Child dedication on the other hand based on the view of prevenient grace is seen as the divine or unique mercifulness that precedes human decision. Child dedication therefore is the recognition and sign of God’s special covenant with humankind, which he initiated in eternity past and demonstrated through His Son Jesus Christ. Prevenient grace also refers to the first of the threefold relationship between God and the believer represented by the Greek preposition para (para). God through the third person in the Godhead, the Holy Spirit dwells with a person prior to conversion. Convicting the person of sin, righteousness and judgment and convincing the individual that Jesus is the only answer.

The author believes the Shema (the Jewish Confessional Creed based on Deut 6:4-9) forms a crucial part in understanding child dedication. Wiersbe divides the Shema into 3 sections:

  1. Confession – verse 4, this is a declaration of the supremacy and oneness of God.
  2. Commandment – verse 5, highlights the commandment for Israel and by extension the church to love God with everything.
  3. Communication – verses 6-9, the remaining verses then outline what we are to do with God’s Word, take it into our hearts and communicate it to our children, families and community (1999:46-48).

Further to the above, in the field of practical theology and pastoral ministry, child dedication is understood in five broad ways:

Firstly, when we dedicate a child recognition is given to God as the giver of life (Psa 36:9). Secondly, parents are offered the opportunity to make a parental promise to rear the child in accordance with God’s Word. Thirdly, dedicating a child presents the parents, the [immediate] family, and the local church the honour to bless the child, that is to pray for the manifest or tangible presence and power of God upon the life of the child (Matt 19:13-15). Fourthly, it depicts the prophetic imagination of the church to which the parents belong to express its anticipation and expectation that the child will experience a high quality spiritual, intellectual, social, and physical life (Luke 2:52). Lastly, the reason we dedicate children is to give expression to our aspiration to experience God’s fullness in life: his protection, preservation, and providence.

Evangelicals acknowledge that the practice of child dedication is not a major doctrine of the faith nor is it a sacrament as taught in some churches. Although not practised in the same light as in both the Old and early New Testament period (the Law of Inheritance), dedicating a child to God in the contemporary church presents us with a wonderful reason to challenge the church at large to create child friendly communities and local churches where JESUS IS LORD. It also brings great blessing to the parents and congregation and presents opportunities to minister to extended family and friends who otherwise would not come to church.
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Pelham Lessing completed his Bachelor of ARts in Bible and Theology at Global University. He completed postgraduate degrees in ethics, theology and education and holds professional qualifications as a teacher and counselor and is registered with the relevant professional and accredited bodies. He currently serves as a full time lecturer at the South African Theological Seminary (SATS) and as an adjunct faculty in the Development Studies Department at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) where he lectures at both the undergraduate an postgraduae levels. Pelham also serves as lead pastor of Crossover Community Church of the Nazarene in Turffontein, Johannesburg.

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Baptism: Confessions of a late bloomer

baptismI decided to follow Jesus at age 7 and was baptized at 22.

Yes, you read that right. There were 15 years between my coming to Christ and my sealing it publicly via water baptism.

How can that be when all those years my parents and family faithfully attended Nazarene congregations?

I love God and the Church of the Nazarene, in that order, but I have to admit: When it comes to my baptism story, it’s complicated.

My parents had me dedicated as a baby at the local Church of the Nazarene near Washington, D.C., where I was born. Dedication was the predominant practice in the Church of the Nazarene at the time and still is today, despite the fact that our Article of Faith # 12, “Baptism,” makes allowance for both believer and infant baptism. (Interestingly, baby dedication appears nowhere in our Articles of Faith, but does have a ritual at the back of the Nazarene Manual, along with an infant baptism ritual).

Our family later moved to central New Jersey where we attended two Nazarene congregations successively and finally to Rochester, New York. Like the D.C. area Nazarene congregation, none of these three church buildings had baptismal fonts or baptistries. In short, baptism was the nearly invisible sacrament during my early childhood – tucked away in neglected creedal statements in our church Manual – but never on the minds of architects who designed buildings for Nazarene worship.

There was one Sunday when I was living in Rochester that a visiting family showed up. Our pastor baptized their infant by sprinkling, but – strangely enough – we never saw that family again.

Fast-forward to age 13. I was a teen Bible quizzer studying the Gospel according to Matthew. I couldn’t get away from Matthew 3:13-17, where Jesus submitted himself to baptism by John. My logic was simple:

1) Jesus was baptized;

2) I’m supposed to be like Jesus.

3) Therefore, I should be baptized.

So I talked to the pastor and asked to be baptized. He looked at me, and with a kind but firm voice intoned: “Greg, we don’t believe that baptism saves you.” End of conversation.

Three years later, at age 16, God called me to preach, and in the Fall of 1981, I enrolled as a freshman religion major at Eastern Nazarene College. For four years, I successively attended two more Nazarene congregations in the Boston area and – during that time – witnessed several baby dedications but no baptisms of any kind, of any age candidate. Midway through my time at ENC, I received my first district license with my home District. I filled out the form that asked lots of good questions about my spiritual experience. “Have you been born again?” Check. “Had you been entirely sanctified?” Check. The form allowed for me to expand on my answers to those questions, describing my spiritual journey and my call to preach. But one question was conspicuously absent: “Have you been baptized?” I never noticed at the time that it was missing, not having thought about it since my very short conversation with my pastor at age 13.

Graduation, marriage, honeymoon, a move to Kansas City for Seminary in the summer of 1985 – Upon arrival, we visited several Nazarene congregations in the Kansas City area, and finally settled at the Grandview church, south of KC. The second Sunday there, the pastor announced that there would be a baptism class the next Sunday night and – one week later – a baptism service. This was my chance, my first Nazarene baptism service where adults would be immersed. I was happy to sign my name to the list of candidates. Nine years after my first request to be baptized, I was awakening from my sacramental slumber.

Since the Grandview church had been built without a baptistry, we joined forces with a nearby Nazarene congregation that had one. I remember the words of my pastor, Rev. Richard “Dick” Neiderhiser, as I walked up the steps to the baptistry. He playfully dubbed me the “late bloomer,” then plunged me under the water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Fifteen years after my decision to follow Jesus, I was now officially initiated into the Body of Christ.

There’s one other curious side-note. When I was 12, our church in Rochester held a class using a book that took a bunch of us 6th graders through a simple catechism. When we were done, I joined the Church of the Nazarene. So, from age 12 to age 22 – for ten years – I was a member of the Church of the Nazarene even though I had never been initiated by baptism into the Church universal.

Apparently I’m not the only one who considers this backward order strange. For at least the past two General Assemblies, there have been resolutions presented that would require anyone uniting with the membership of the Church of the Nazarene to have first been baptized in some Christian community of faith. Importantly, the resolutions did not mandate so-called “re-baptism” in order to join Nazarene ranks, just baptism in a recognized Christian church. Twice, the resolution has been defeated.

Some Nazarene congregations are not waiting around for the denomination to officially change its polity. In 2004, my two teenage sons joined the Church of the Nazarene while we attended the Nampa College congregation in Nampa, Idaho. Though the Manual has not changed, I was thrilled when their youth pastor asked them whether they had been baptized. They had been, some years before. He explained that baptism was a first step – initiation into the larger Body of Christ – that precedes joining that part of the family called “Nazarene.” God bless that youth pastor! I have hope that this practice will spread and that – as sometimes happens in our tribe – our official statement of practice in the Manual will eventually catch-up with our longstanding practice on-the-ground.

But back to my baptism odyssey.

All told, I held 8 district licenses on two districts. During all eight annual interviews prior to being ordained in 1991, I was asked many questions by ministerial credentials boards, yet not once did anyone ever ask me whether I had been baptized. So, I was ordained as a Nazarene elder – as my ordination certificate says, in “the Church of God” i.e. Church universal – without anyone inquiring about my status in the Church universal, the broader community of faith. No one was interested in knowing if I had ever been initiated by baptism into the Church that Jesus the Nazarene founded, against which the gates of Hell shall never prevail (Matthew 16:18).

Am I alone in this strange baptismal journey, or have things changed? Tell me about your Nazarene baptism experience.

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FOR FURTHER READING:

If you want to read excellent teaching on the meaning of baptism, I highly recommend two books:

– Rob Staples, Outward Sign and Inward Grace: The Place of Sacraments in Wesleyan Spirituality (Beacon Hill, 1991), available here at Amazon.

– Michael Green, Baptism: Its Purpose, Practice and Power (Hodder & Stoughton, 1987). An updated version of the book (2010) is available here at Amazon.

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Image credit: Crossbridge Community