Suffer the Little Children: On Infant Baptism vs Dedication, Mark 10, and Jesus
On Sunday I accidentally found myself at an infant baptism. Yes, I know, that's a rather unusual place to accidentally find oneself, but that's what happened. I was preaching in another Apostolic Church at the far end of the country and they share a building with another congregation of another denomination. So the local Apostolic pastor and I went along to the other congregation's service before ours, discovering when we arrived that they were having an infant baptism.
Now, as an Apostolic pastor, I rarely find myself at infant baptisms. It's not something I'm used to, so I was paying quite close attention to what was going on. And it was very interesting. You see, I had spent the whole day on Friday in a committee meeting, where a large part of the time had been devoted to discussing infant dedication. We had talked about how the practice could be justified biblically, what it meant, and what it actually involved. And now on the Sunday, I was seeing exactly the same biblical justification being used, for a ceremony which (for the most part, apart from a few liturgical confusions which must have been designed to try and keep everyone happy, but really just ended up with a theological hodge-podge) seemed to mean exactly the same thing, and which (apart from a bit of water) involved pretty much the same practice. It was almost as if a shared liturgy could be drawn up with, at the requisite point, the following option:
Either (in the case of Infant Baptism) the minister shall pour water upon the child's head saying: 'I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit'; OR (in the case of Infant Dedication) the minister shall say: 'This is not a baptism.'
That seems to be the difference between the two. Both the infant baptism service and the infant dedication service pray for God's blessing on the child; both pray for the child to grow up to place his faith in Christ; in both the parents make promises to give the child a Christian upbringing. And so all this rather leaves the impression that infant dedication is really not much other than infant baptism without water.
Now, liturgical similarities aside, what particularly struck my attention on Sunday morning was the biblical justification that was used. Although I'm well acquainted with the Covenant baptism theology of Reformed paedo-baptists, this wasn't a Reformed church, so they didn't cite Scriptural passages on circumcision. Instead only one Biblical text was cited in support of infant baptism: Mark 10:13-16, where the little children are brought to Jesus. And this particularly interested me, as this is the only passage seriously cited in support of Infant Dedication. (Although other passages are sometimes listed, they tend to be taken out of context.)
But if Mark 10 can be used as the basis for an Infant Baptism and for an Infant Dedication, has it really got that much to do with either one?
Just notice a few things about Mark 10:13-16. The children are brought to Jesus, not to the disciples. And Jesus doesn't tell His disciples to bless them, He tells them not to prevent the little children coming to Him - to Jesus Himself. Furthermore, Jesus very clearly says 'for of such is the kingdom of God' in verse 14. Verse 14 comes before verse 15, so before Jesus has made any comparisons about the kingdom of God, He has said that these little children are part of it. (The Greek word translated 'such' means 'these and those like them', and so very definitely includes these little children in the kingdom.) And finally, the only role of the parents here is in bringing the children to Jesus - they don't make any promises.
These few observations should make it quite clear that Mark 10 is rather different to what we're talking about (in evangelical circles at least) by either infant baptism or infant dedication. These children are part of the kingdom of God, as opposed to the children for whom we pray that they would in due course come to faith in the services of both infant baptism and infant dedication. Those who use this passage to argue that ministers cannot refuse to either baptise or dedicate any child also find problems with its details, for it is Christ, not His servants, who does the blessing here. And a service largely centred on promises made by parents can hardly find its support in a passage which doesn't even explicitly mention the parents.
So then, what are we to make of Mark 10:13-16 and how it applies to our children today? Well, Mark 10:13-16 is all about Jesus, so it can only be applied in a way that's all about Jesus. The point is that no one should prevent children coming to Jesus Himself to be blessed by Him. And how does Jesus bless us? Not simply by laying hands on our head and reciting a prayer, but rather by united us to Himself so that we know all blessing in Him (Eph. 1:3). Letting the little children come to Jesus is something much greater that finding an appropriate liturgical act. Letting the little children come to Jesus isn't about introducing them to the congregation. Letting the little children come to Jesus isn't about family gatherings, photographs, cakes and white robes. Letting the little children come to Jesus means letting the little children come to Jesus Himself. It means letting them come to the One in whom is every blessing. It means letting them meet the Saviour.
And just like the disciples in Mark 10, Christ's servants today need to ensure that we don't prevent the little children from coming to Him. You see, we can be very good at organising infant dedications (or infant baptisms or blessings) and yet still be keeping them away from Jesus. Where has Christ promised to meet with us? In the means of grace - in His Word and at His Table. And yet so often we keep the children away from the preaching of the Word! But if Christ is present in His Word, and we send the children away to creche just as the Word is about to be preached, aren't we then being a bit like the disciples in Mark 10?