Why We Dedicate Before We Baptize

Derek Ouellette —  September 8, 2013

photo-31This Sunday my baby girl is being dedicated. Since we may have friends and family members coming to the dedication from other traditions – specifically, from traditions that baptize infants – I felt it might be helpful to explain why we are dedicating our little girl rather than baptizing her.

A word before I begin. This is not a theological post. I’m not intending to argue “for” or “against” infant baptism. I only want to share with you why we are dedicating Emmy and not baptizing her. So if you disagree with me, please don’t argue here. I won’t reply.

First I want to point out that baptism and dedication are not the same thing. In fact, they are not even close.

Baptism is a biblical mandate. Dedication is not. The scriptures command and exhort all believers to be baptized in many places in the New Testament. I can’t think of a single place in the scriptures were baby dedication is explicitly taught. Baptism is rich with meaning. It is intertwined with salvation in John 3 and Matthew 28. The word “Baptize” means to immerse. In the experience of baptism a person was immersed under water and then brought up again. In this act a person identifies with Jesus’ death and resurrection. By going under the water a person identifies with Jesus’ burial, and by coming out of the water a person identifies with a newness of life just like Jesus’ resurrection.

“Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:4-5)

Based on what is explicitly taught in the Bible, we do not believe in infant baptism. First, no place in the Bible is an infant baptized. Second, most traditions that “baptize” infants don’t actually baptize them. They sprinkle water on them rather than immerse them (for obvious reasons). But without immersion baptism loses a great deal of its theological thrust. A child sprinkled with water is not identifying with Jesus’ death and resurrection, because that involves going under the water and coming up. Third, baptism is connected closely with faith which, we believe, is not something that the parents can stand proxy in.

Finally, it is our conviction that many people believe that the act of baptism is like a key to the pearly gates of heaven. Most if not all Christian traditions know better, but do the people faithful to those traditions know better? I don’t think so. And this makes evangelism more difficult. Many people think that if they were baptized as a child then they have their train ticket to heaven when they die, and how they live in between doesn’t matter. But entering the Kingdom of God is about entering the community of God, and it’s about having a newness of life and “dying” to your old way of life. I’m not talking about “going to church.” I’m talking about having a transformed life, both individually and communally.

Having said that, I realize and respect traditions that do practice infant baptism. As far as historians can tell, infant baptism is one of the oldest traditions in the church going all the way back to the first century! With almost all Christian traditions historians can say “this began around the year 210 A.D.” or “that began around the year 145 A.D.” Not so with infant baptism. It seems to go right into the first century and may be one of the earliest traditions in the church. Furthermore, while it is not explicitly taught or shown to happen in the New Testament, it may be implied. For example, when the jailer in the city of Philippi said to Paul “what must I do to be saved” in Acts 16, Paul and Silas replied “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household… then immediately he and all his household were baptized.” Presumably “all” would include any babies in his household.

Finally, an argument can be made that baptism is simply the new covenant version of circumcision. In the Old Testament babies were circumcised on the eighth day as a sign of God’s covenant with them and as official recognition as a member of God’s community. Isn’t baptism also a sign of God’s covenant (Jesus’s death and resurrection) and an official recognition of someone as being a member of God’s community? The early Church thought so. In the early Church you could attend their community services as a believer and non-believer. But when it came time for communion (eucharist), if you were not baptized you had to leave before the service could continue. Without baptism you were not recognized as a member of God’s community, even if you were a professing Christian.

However, we believe the “cons” of infant baptism outweigh the “pros.” So we have a different custom. Baby dedication.

photo-32Let me be clear. Baby dedication is not explicitly taught in the Bible. Baptism is, which is why we still baptize when the child is old enough to be able to make that decision on her own. We call this “believers baptism.” While baby dedication is not explicitly taught, neither is it forbidden nor does it have the “cons” associated with “infant baptism.”  Like the habit of Lent, it doesn’t have to be explicitly taught in the Bible to be a positive custom.

Secondly, baby dedication is more about the parents than about the baby. When parents dedicate a child to the Lord, what they are doing is charging themselves – or being charged by the church and by God – to raise the child up in the way that she should go. So when my wife and I dedicate Emmy next week, what we’ll be doing is declaring publicly that we commit to raise her up in a godly home and to teach her the ways of the Lord so that when she is older, she will not depart from that upright path.

Finally, while baby dedications are not explicitly taught in the Bible, we do glean from a story in the Old Testament where a woman named Hannah who could not have a child prayed that if God would grant her a son, that she would dedicate the child to Him. She then became pregnant and when the child was born, after she weaned him, she brought him to the Temple of God where the child lived his whole life and grew up to be a prophet. We essentially take the principles of that story and spiritualize them. The New Testament teaches that “we” are the Temple of God, and recognizing that our child is a gift from God, we dedicate her to God to raise her up in that Temple.

So that’s why we are dedicating Emmy rather than baptizing her. Baptism will come later, but for now, baby dedication is a beautiful tradition in the child’s life which accentuates our responsibility as godly parents to raise her up in a God-honouring way.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • http://thetension.info/ Stephen Doxsee

    Thanks Derek. I was dedicated as an infant while my wife was baptized. With our daughter, we’ve decided to baptize her but the decision hasn’t been easy. We both see benefits and in either case and have recognized that they are quite different practices altogether. Thanks for sharing your well thought through decision making process.

    • http://covenantoflove.net/ Derek Ouellette

      Hi Stephen, my wife and I both come from a dedicating background so the decision was easier to come to. But personally I am more open to infant baptism than she is. I even put the idea on the table (in our denomination infant baptism is permissible). In our situation dedication just made sense. I commend you for going the route of baptism with your wife. I could imagine how difficult that decision might be to come to.

  • http://nailtothedoor.com/ Dan Martin

    Blessings on Emmy and her parents in any case, Derek!

    I come from a staunch Anabaptist tradition, so dedication was the only thing we considered with our kids. This led to an interesting discussion when we were members of a PCA church for a couple of years. When we asked to have our son dedicated in lieu of baptism, half of the session supported us as brethren in the fellowship, and the other half felt they were being asked to compromise a core tenet of the faith. The resulting conflict was quite unfortunate, and actually prevented me from being eligible to serve in the church (their call, not mine).

    I agree with your contention that this issue ought not divide believers as it frequently does.

    • http://covenantoflove.net/ Derek Ouellette

      That is quite the unfortunate ending to that story Dan. Thanks for sharing. Must have been difficult.