Sunday, June 05, 2016

Lurking Sentimentalists Beware

At the risk of getting clobbered by the chronically sentimental, I’d like to ask a few hard questions about a relatively recent trend within evangelicalism. Baby dedications are now being offered as a service in churches that claim to base their faith and practice solely on the principles and instruction of the New Testament.

You know what I mean: special events at which new parents “present” their baby and some designated individual asks them on behalf of their church (in front of friends, family and brothers and sisters in Christ) if they are willing to raise their child “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord”, or something like it.

I find the logic baffling.

Bells and Whistles

The bells and whistles differ from group to group, but the essential format remains.

Sometimes the church audience is asked to take responsibility for sharing in the raising of the child and the spiritual support of its parents. Usually a congregational prayer is offered. Sometimes there’s special music. In the end, the new family heads for the basement of the church building where much oohing and aahing ensues and everybody can grab coffee or a light lunch.

Other than a few drips of water and an ordained priest in traditional vestments, I’m not sure how this differs from centuries of high church practice that evangelicals have historically disdained for the very obvious reason that such a thing is never spoken of in the pages of holy writ.

And yet here we are.

The Rationale(s)

To be fair, there are a few biblical passages that people quote in support of such things. “Suffer the little children”, some say, ignoring the fact that personal belief is fundamental to salvation.

Others take their cue from the conduct of Old Testament saints like Mary and Joseph, ignoring the formal system of Jewish Law to which they were responding, and that it was exclusively to the Temple in Jerusalem that the parents of the Lord went up. Out of this, perhaps, is drawn a precedent for doing the same in a “church” building (huge doctrinal non sequitur here).

Still others argue that Hannah dedicated Samuel to the Lord, ignoring the other more inconvenient aspects of his dedication: she handed him over to Temple service full time as soon as he was weaned and she never cut his hair. We’re probably not going there, folks.

All cases of selective theology, I fear.

Questions, Questions …

So what exactly are we doing here?
  1. Does it really make sense to attempt to tap into a growing demographic (disaffected ex-high churchers looking around their neighbourhoods for better Bible teaching or more faithful practice) using one of the very practices that makes many of them so disaffected in the first place? I’ve heard the argument that people who grew up in such traditions need these little “comfort ceremonies”, and I’m not convinced at all. I’ve known a number of ex-Catholics, ex-Anglicans, etc. over the years, and I can’t recall a single one that didn’t have a strong, ongoing negative reaction to ceremonialism. We are more likely to alienate than attract with such offerings, I suspect. If they wanted that sort of thing, they’d still be carrying on down the street rather than lurking in our lobbies.
  2. Why ceremonialize baby dedication if we believe it imparts nothing whatsoever that is not already in place? After all, what principle of scripture allows us to dedicate our children before they are able to personally buy in? We have no power, no ability and no sanction from the Lord to consecrate babies to religious service. We are doing nothing, and pretending we’re doing something: and what are new believers or unbelievers (such are often present, for family reasons) to make of our salvation theology? Why are we, contrary to the gospel itself, setting out to arrange the ceremonial salvation of those clearly incapable of making a profession for themselves?
  3. If baby dedications are not mere show but rather some sort of rehearsing in dramatic, verbal form of particular biblical requirements for parents and congregations — a “reminder”, if you like — then why not concentrate on explicitly teaching and implementing those commitments instead of merely ceremonializing them? We “consecrate” babies because they’re tiny and manageable and can’t protest, but what are we doing to consecrate our teenagers and young adults? Who has what it takes to see their children through those years?
Sentimentally appealing, sure. But before we jump on this bandwagon, evangelicals ought to give serious thought to where it’s heading — not to mention who’s on board with us, and why.

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