Why I Don’t Dedicate Babies in the PCA

Infant baptism is not primarily a promise of parents to God, but first and foremost a promise of God to the parents.

Infant baptism is not primarily a promise of parents to God, but first and foremost a promise of God to the parents.  If there is any dedication, God is dedicating himself to his oath to be a God to both the parents and to the child.  It is true that parents are bound by oath to raise the child according to the principles of God’s word, but this is not a dedication.  It is a conditional covenant promise on the part of the parents.

 

I was pleased this year when I saw a proposed change to the Book of Church Order (BCO) of the PCA which would have removed the word “dedicate” from the third vow that parents take during the administration of the sacrament of infant (covenant) baptism.    However, I was soon disappointed as the General Assembly declined to make any changes.

I must make a confession.  For most of my forty-two year tenure as a pastor in the PCA I have refrained from using the word “dedicate” in the third vow required in the administration of infant baptism. I’ve dedicated a church building, but I have never asked parents to dedicate their child in a church worship service. The third vow reads: “Do you now unreservedly dedicate [emphasis mine] your child to God, and promise, in humble reliance upon divine grace, that you will endeavor to set before (him) a godly example, that you will pray with and for (him), that you will teach (him) the doctrines of our holy religion, and that you will strive, by all the means of God’s appointment, to bring (him) up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord?”  In my personal copy of the BCO I have a line drawn through the word “dedicate” and the word “present” written above it as a substitute.  I use the word “present” at every infant baptism I perform.

Why am I so passionate about this?  First, I believe that I have the right to make this change.  When I reaffirmed my ordination vows in Westminster Presbytery in 1973, I approved “of the form of government and discipline of the Presbyterian Church in America, in conformity with the general principles of Biblical polity.” I do believe in the jus divinum (divine right) principle of Presbyterian polity, but when I took my vows, I did not subscribe to every word in the BCO.

The Assembly said that covenant language was quite evident in the three vows, and therefore there was no need for a change.  Admittedly, the second vow speaks of “God’s covenant promises.” Even with the surrounding language, it seems to me that the word “dedicate” is a compromise with our non-covenantal brethren.  They dedicate.  We baptize.  I am afraid that in many PCA churches that covenant baptism has become little more than a wet dedication service.

The popular justification for the dedication of children is from 1 Samuel 1:28 where the NASV says that Hannah “dedicated” Samuel to the Lord.  The KJV uses the words “lent to the Lord.”  So much for the newer translations!  Samuel was not raised by his parents. When Samuel was “dedicated” he lived with Eli the Priest “as a boy” in order to minister to the Lord.  He was taken away from his parents.  This is quite different from a child being raised by Christian parents.

Infant baptism is not primarily a promise of parents to God, but first and foremost a promise of God to the parents.  If there is any dedication, God is dedicating himself to his oath to be a God to both the parents and to the child.  It is true that parents are bound by oath to raise the child according to the principles of God’s word, but this is not a dedication.  It is a conditional covenant promise on the part of the parents.

The influence of non-covenant churches is so great in our society that the word “dedicate” will generally be interpreted within the paradigm of their theology, regardless of how much we guard the meaning of the word “dedicate” with other words.  It is interesting to note that the infant baptismal vows used in the both Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP) do not use the word “dedicate.”

Maybe it’s minor, but for me it is a matter of conscience.  It’s also a matter of the importance of the covenant when the landscape of America is covered with non-covenant churches. The ramifications of the covenant go much further than infant baptism.  They go to the heart of how to raise children born into the church.  I have recently written a book on this very topic, and hopefully it will be published soon.

Larry E. Ball is a Honorably Retired Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is now a CPA. He lives in Kingsport, Tennessee.