Many churches that do not baptize infants rather dedicate or consecrate children. Often a church’s statement of faith and practice will include a section on child dedication. It is not an ordinance--yet it is viewed as having Scriptural basis.
One of the early Anabaptists, Balthasar Hubmaier, introduced child dedication as a replacement for infant baptism. In a letter dated January 16, 1525, he said, “Instead of baptism, I have the congregation assemble, introduce the child, and in German explain Matt. 19:13-15. Then the child is named; the entire church prays with bent knees for it and commends it to Christ, that He may be gracious to it and intercede for it.”1 The exact significance he gave to child dedication may be disputed, but it is clear that for him it filled a void left when he and others became convinced of believer’s baptism. They would no longer baptize infants, but they wanted to do at least something for them. It should not come as a surprise that some of the arguments given to justify both child dedication and infant baptism are the same.2
The significance of child dedication today differs from church to church. Obviously, the practice is seen as having some value, or it would not be done. Some see it as an offering up of the child for fulltime Christian service, should the Lord so will. Others understand it as a commitment by the parents (or even the entire church) to rear the child in a way honoring to the Lord. Still others think it confers grace upon that child until such a time as the child can respond personally to the Lord in faith. Very possibly other views also exist separately or in combination with the above.
Where child dedication exists there are attempts to support it biblically. The passages given as basis need to be examined as to whether they really do teach and/or provide a precedent for child dedication. In the experience of the writer, the appeal to a Scriptural foundation in this case seems strained. The more careful and detailed we are in biblical examination of any subject, the clearer will be God’s will, the greater will be the authority with which we may proclaim it, and the stronger will be the confidence in practicing it. We wish now to take a closer look at the passages usually cited and see where they will lead.
Two usual examples of biblical parents are cited as setting precedent for child dedication. The first is Hannah in 1 Samuel 1:11, 21-28 where she testifies, “So I have also dedicated him to the LORD; as long as he lives he is dedicated to the LORD”3 (v. 28). The other example is Mary in Luke 2:22-24 where it is recorded that “they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord” (v. 22). It is our task to examine the validity of these examples.
Hannah, being childless, made a vow to the Lord: if He would give her a son, she would give him to the Lord for his entire life. The Lord gave her a son, Samuel, and after the time of his weaning she brought him along with appropriate sacrifices to Eli, the priest, who resided with the tabernacle, and left him there to serve throughout the rest of his life. He served first as an assistant to Eli and eventually replaced Eli as the priest.
It should be noted that Hannah’s dedication of Samuel actually resulted in dictating his vocation. He had no choice in the matter. Her dedication of him was an actual offering of him to the Lord, done before he was born but effectually accomplished several years later. The accomplishment of it was the fulfillment of a promise or vow made to the Lord.
Of interest regarding Samuel is the fact that he could become priest at all because he was not a descendant of Aaron of the tribe of Levi. He was instead of the tribe of Ephraim (1 Sam. 1:1). The justification of Samuel’s acceptance as priest probably lies in the statute that every firstborn belonged to the Lord. In the case of male children, however, the Lord made an exception, for the sake of expediency. The whole tribe of Levi was set aside to serve at the tabernacle, and later the temple, in place of the firstborn sons of all the tribes. No doubt this was a more efficient arrangement. Still each firstborn son was viewed as being the Lord’s, and therefore the number of them that exceeded the number of Levites had to be redeemed by an actual monetary payment. In the special case of Samuel, the redemption was waived, and he served as technically any firstborn son might have (Ex. 13:2, 11-16; Num. 3:11-31, 40-51).
The account of Mary’s presentation of Jesus is very brief. Luke 2:24 speaks of offering sacrifices and includes an Old Testament quotation. The sacrifices were part of Mary’s purification rite after having given birth (Lev. 12). Verse twenty-three gives the reason why Jesus was brought. It takes us back to the principle of every firstborn male being the Lord’s. Jesus was presented for that reason. Whatever payment may have been exacted in His case is not specified. He too was a firstborn, this time of the tribe of Judah, but He did not serve as priest here on earth. His dedication had nothing to do with His vocation but was a recognition of the firstborn principle.
These two examples, upon examination, have very little similarity with modern-day child dedications except for the fact that there was a type of presentation. Both of them involved the provision for Israelites under Mosaic law regarding only firstborn males. There the similarity between the two examples even ceases. The one case determined the child’s vocation, the other did not. In neither case is anything recorded regarding the parents’ rearing of the child. That they were involved in the rearing is understood, but clearly that is unrelated to whatever kind of presentation took place. We cannot legitimately use these examples as precedent for child dedication in the age of the Church.
The other example is that of Jesus blessing the infants (Mt. 19:13-15; Mk. 10:13-16; Lk. 18:15-17). Matthew 19:13 indicates the infants were brought to Him “that He might lay His hands on them and pray,” and Mark 10:13 and Luke 18:15 “that He might touch them.” The exact significance and result of His actions is not clear.
Bringing them to Jesus had no relationship to the parents’ involvement in rearing the infants. Nothing is recorded regarding the infants’ subsequent salvation or vocation. Whether anyone else can confer blessing upon another as the Son of God could and did is questionable. And what is perhaps most illuminating is that though Jesus rebuked the disciples for turning the parents with infants away, He did not instruct them to receive the infants or to do as He had done. Nowhere later in the epistles is there reference to any ministerial activity relating to Jesus’ blessing of infants. This can hardly serve as precedent or command to dedicate children.
An area of biblical instruction pertaining to this subject concerns vows. Often in child dedication the parents and/or congregation vow or promise to rear the child in the knowledge of God and in a way pleasing to God. The biblical teaching concerning vows does not particularly address child dedication, but the principle of making promises before God can be applied legitimately to a variety of situations, including this one. Three Old Testament passages address the subject, all in the context of Israel with its sacrifices (Deut. 23:21-23; Ecc. 5:1-7; Prov. 20:25). We are here concerned only with the principle of the vow, which involves the unchanging character of God rather than a specific way that He might operate in a given age.
All three passages treat the vow very solemnly. If parents promise to train the child in the way that pleases God, God takes the promise seriously and expects exactly that. The implication is that there is a penalty for failing to keep one’s promise. The one who fails is called a fool. Someone might respond that failure is covered by the grace of God in the New Testament age, but the believer of this age will also be judged according to his works (1 Cor. 3:12-15).
Making a vow puts one into jeopardy--pay, or else! But no one need place himself or herself under threat of judgment. The vow does not need to be made. The great danger is that people assign some significance to the making of the vow itself and fail in following through. People seemingly love to make a public commitment of some kind, but often the daily grind of obedience to God’s Word suffers.
Biblical considerations, then, leave us without a command to dedicate children. There simply is no ordinance for such a practice: no word from our Lord, no significance stated, and no period of time given during which it should be observed. There is no valid example that serves as precedent for today. Rather, there is a warning lest we should by our own words bring upon ourselves an unnecessary burden of potential judgment. There is clearly Scriptural instruction for rearing children (Deut. 6; Proverbs 13:24 etc.; Eph. 6:1-4; Col. 3:20-21), but there is no warrant for a ceremony that at best may be confusing and at worst may lessen one’s rewards in heaven.
If a church thinks it necessary to do something publicly after the birth of a child, it is certainly in order to pray for the child and for the parents. The birth might be recognized before the church, and some of the leading men of the church might lead in such a prayer. Such a public observance is not divinely appointed, however, but prayer should be the practice of believers according to Ephesians 6:18 and Philippians 4:6 anyway, even if nothing is done before the church on a given occasion. Some other types of occasions, such as marriage, graduation, occupational change or promotion, might be treated similarly.
The danger always exists that a ceremony will take the place of godly training. Proper rearing can take place without a ritual, but the ritual dare not take place without the proper rearing. The parents are accountable before God to instruct, train, and discipline the child irrespective of ceremonies observed (Deut. 6; 8:5; Prov. 3:12; 13:24; 19:18; 22:15; 23:13-14; 29:15, 17; Eph. 6:4; Col. 3:21; Heb. 12:7-11). They cannot point back to child dedication as evidence that they have done their godly best for the child--that can only be proved throughout the long stretch of family living.
Christians often state that they believe all the Scripture teaches. That is commendable. But equally commendable is to limit our belief to all the Scripture teaches. Challenge a favorite observance, and you may find it to be a sacred cow, an idol. Nothing should be exempt from the scrutiny of God’s Word. We have nothing to lose except unnecessary baggage complicating our walk with and service to the Lord.
For further discussion, you may contact the author at email@example.com.
1 The Mennonite Encyclopedia, 1955, pp. 699-700.
2Even in infant baptism there is often a recognition of the need for proper training until faith is evident, so much so that godparents are appointed. Further, circumcision is discounted for the church and yet serves frequently as a basis for doing something ceremonial for or to a child. A weak justification for both dedication and baptism is that even if biblical command is lacking, surely either can do the child no harm. In some cases where family and friends are divided on the issue of infant baptism, child dedication is seen as a respectable and peaceable substitute.
3Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.