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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Making the Baby Suffer?

A long entry today, but I’ve been asked a complex question that will take a little while to address. It just so happens to be one of the toughest of all questions pastors and sessions must answer: What to do when non-members ask to have their child baptized?

It's an emotion-laden question that must be approached not only with understanding of polity and theology, but also with sensitivity to people.

The Directory for Worship (W-2.3014) has this to say about “parental responsibility”:

“When a child is being presented for Baptism, ordinarily the parent(s) or one(s) rightly exercising parental responsibility shall be an active member of the congregation. Those presenting children for Baptism shall promise to provide nurture and guidance within the community of faith until the child is ready to make a personal profession of faith and assume the responsibility of active church membership.”

The phone rings in the church office. At the other end of the line is an active member of the church, asking if her new granddaughter may be baptized in the church. Her son and daughter-in-law live halfway across the country. Although the son grew up in the church and was confirmed here, the session voted to remove his name from the membership roll a year or two after he graduated from college, when it became apparent he wasn’t going to be returning, and hadn’t made any move to join a church in his new community. Neither he nor his wife has since become a member of any church.

The parents are planning to bring the new baby back for a visit in several months’ time. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, Grandma asks with a proud smile, if her new grandchild could be baptized here - in this church, that has played such a large role in her family’s history?

What’s a session to do, in a situation like this? It’s their responsibility to authorize baptisms. Yet, in addressing parental responsibility, the Directory for Worship stipulates that at least one parent shall ordinarily be an active member of the church.

“Ordinarily” – that blessed Presbyterian word! It’s like sticking a push-pin into a paragraph of the Book of Order, with a little red flag flying from it that screams “LOOPHOLE!”

The book’s saying that, while at least one parent ought to be an active church member, every once in a while the session may waive this requirement if there's a good reason to do so.

Please note well the words I’ve used: “every once in a while.”

From time to time... for some very good reason... on a case-by-case basis, the session may make an exception. It does NOT say it may issue exceptions willy-nilly, to all comers.

“Ordinarily” means it’s your normal practice to do something. If you never do that thing, that means it’s not your normal practice - so, you’re not being faithful to the Constitution.

So, why is it so important that at least one parent of a child being baptized must be an active member?

Think back to the words we’ve just been discussing. The parent(s) “SHALL promise.” There’s no “ordinarily” in sight, here. And what do they promise? “ To provide nurture and guidance WITHIN THE COMMUNITY OF FAITH,” with the eventual goal that their child will “make a personal profession of faith and assume the responsibility of ACTIVE CHURCH MEMBERSHIP.”

It doesn’t mean telling your kid about Jesus in the car, on the way to the grocery store. It means joining a church, so your kid will see, over time, how important Jesus really is to you.

Baptism isn’t just about believing in Jesus (although, of course, that’s a big part of it). It’s about being and becoming a church member. Babies are baptized on the strength of their parents’ membership vows: their solemn promise to do their very best, over the coming years, to lead their children to confess Christ as Lord and Savior and become church members themselves.

Furthermore, there are promises made as part of the baptismal liturgy. Parents pledge to live the Christian faith and to teach the faith to their children. It's hard to take them seriously if they spurn the single, greatest source of help available to them in performing that task, which is the church.

There is also a promise the congregation makes, to partner with the parents in nurturing children in the faith. If the parents are strangers to the congregation and don't even live in the area, and if there's no church elsewhere on whose behalf our folks can make that promise, it's really just a lot of empty air.

A session that routinely grants requests for baptism to all comers, regardless of membership status, probably hasn't thought through the theological reasons behind this provision of the Constitution.

No doubt, it’s a tough decision to make – saying no (or, at least, “not now”) to such a request. Grandparents have a way of getting irritated at that sort of thing. They look on a grandchild’s baptism as a family milestone (which, on one level, it is). If the session says no, then “They’ve quit preachin’ and gone to meddlin’!"

And what is it the session’s meddling in? Family business.

Well, guess what? Baptism doesn’t belong to the family. It belongs to the church. The Book of Order is crystal-clear on that account.

Let’s say you carefully explain it that way, and you’re so successful, the grandparents concede the point. But then, they’re likely to come back with a plaintive cry that’s so common, it ought to be given a name: “The Grandparents’ Psalm of Lament.”

Are you ready for it? Here it comes: “Yes, I know my son hasn’t been diligent about pursuing church membership, but that’s no reason to make the baby suffer!”

Let’s unpack that. How, pray tell, is the baby going to suffer, if the baptism is postponed for a while?

The unspoken thought, of course, is that - God forbid - the child could get sick and die, without having been baptized.

We Presbyterians don’t believe baptism is instrumentally necessary for salvation – that it's a ticket that must be punched, in order to cross over into the promised land. We believe God loves all children, even (and maybe especially) those who tragically die before anybody brings them to the font.

What’s more, we Presbyterians have NEVER believed baptism is instrumentally necessary for salvation. Why, not even the Roman Catholics believe it anymore! (Back in the days before the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965, you’d find plenty of Catholics who believed it, but no longer.)

"Well, OK," say the grandparents, "we’ll concede that point, too. Yet, won’t our granddaughter suffer from knowing she’s unbaptized?"

Not likely. If church membership means so little to the girl’s parents, it’s not likely she’ll have an inkling she’s missing out on anything.

Here’s what the session could say to the grandmother: “Don’t you want your son and his wife to become active in a church? We’ve got an excellent opportunity, right here and now, to hold their feet to the fire, so they finally do something about joining a church. We can be in touch with their new congregation and arrange to celebrate the baptism here, on their behalf. Let’s work together to apply some gentle, loving pressure so they’ll do the right thing!"

The baby’s not going to suffer from not having been baptized. She’s more likely to suffer, in the long term, from never having learned from her parents' example that Christian faith demands commitment.

Just remember: baptism’s not primarily about the family. It’s about the church.

Want to read more on this subject? Check out this detailed paper, Indiscriminate Baptism and Baptismal Integrity, by Ronald P. Byars, on the PC(USA) website.

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