Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Incomplete Sacrament

The sacrament of infant baptism is fraught with problems.

For one thing, it is incomplete. Because the baptized child does not testify on his or her own, but relies on parental promises, the fullness of the sacrament is deferred until the infant matures to adulthood.

Because infant baptism is incomplete, we effectively have two baptisms, in spite of the affirmation of the Book of Order (W2-3008): “Baptism, whether administered to those who profess their faith or to those presented for Baptism as children, is one and the same Sacrament.” Saying so does not make it so. There are clearly two distinct approaches: infant baptism which awaits confirmation years down the road; and adult baptism which is completed by confirmation on the spot. (This raises further questions about “confirmation,” “commissioning,” or whatever part two is called.)

Sometimes the sacrament remains forever uncompleted. Parents and guardians make empty promises and the nurturing of the child in the faith is forgotten. The result of an uncompleted baptism is an incomplete Christian.

“Incomplete Christians,” by my definition, are those whose baptisms served as inoculations against the “disease” of faith. It was all they needed to be Christians—with baptism they were free and clear.

You know the old joke about the minister who advised the pastor of the neighboring church about how to get rid of the bats infesting the sanctuary ceiling: “Baptize them and you’ll never see them in church again.” It’s not as funny as it used to be—there’s too much truth in it.

Church leaders and pastors are as responsible for the problem as anyone. A more rigorous preparation is needed for parents presenting children for baptism. Responsibilities and expectations for the Christian nurture of their children should be made clearly and firmly. I shudder to think of the number of uncompleted Christians loose in the world, because I and the elders made it too easy for parents and sponsors.

Often, the sacrament of infant baptism is awash in sentimentality. I don’t advocate removing all sentiment, but it gets to be a bit much when the cuteness of the baby (and all babies are cute) overwhelms the congregation’s attention. The event becomes more a social occasion than a rite of faith.

What is more, infant baptism often trivializes the sacrament. There are those parents who simply want to “get Johnny done.” There is no great awe or wonder that a child (or any person for that matter) could die with Christ and be born again. The notion that in baptism the child is being committed to a life of giving and even sacrifice escapes most everyone. The lasting formidable consequences of baptism simply slip by unnoticed.

The Book of Order (W-2.3012) also says that the session is responsible to encourage parents to present their children for baptism “without undue haste, but without undue delay.” This asserts a prime emphasis on infant baptism. Yet in the Reformed tradition we have always acknowledged the alternative to baptizing infants, nurturing them toward believer baptism. It’s a reasonable option. Except, pity the poor child in that situation, restrained from a place at the Communion Table, forbidden the taste of bread and wine. It’s an alternative, it’s true, but one with an inherent penalty.

Baptism is the church’s witness to God’s claim on a life. It’s the basic Christian ordination, the commissioning to the specific responsibility of the Christian life. The awe of it is terrible. The promise of it is exhilarating. The sacrament deserves more than the neglect of incompleteness it has received in recent generations, more than the abuse it has suffered by sentimentality and trivial treatment.

If we are going to continue baptizing children, then we must be more clear about parental responsibilities, and more stern in our insistence they be fulfilled. And if there is any doubt or waffling, we must learn to say no.

Or, we should seriously consider a policy of nurturing all children toward baptism on their own affirmations of faith. As children they would be welcomed in a service of dedication as they are presented to the congregation.

One way or the other, we need to restore the integrity of the sacrament of baptism and not hop about with two uneven forms of baptism, one for children, and the other for grown-ups.

How do you counsel parents who want baptism for their children? How often do you baptize adults?

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