10. Bishop Peggy A. Johnson Teaches About Infant Dedication and Infant Baptism
This article was published in the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference Communicator dated April 23, 2010.
Message from Bishop Peggy A. Johnson
Infant Baptism and Infant Dedication
Infant Dedication has never had an official place in the liturgy, doctrine, or polity of The United Methodist Church. The practice and teaching of the United Methodist Church has always been in harmony with the majority view of Christianity by encouraging parents to baptize their infants. The official teaching of The United Methodist Church on baptism was first adopted in 1996 and has been readopted for the 2009–2012 quadrennia. This is printed in The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church 2008, section 8013. (“By Water and the Spirit: A United Methodist Understanding of Baptism.”)
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, taught that through infant baptism a child is “cleansed of original sin, initiated into the covenant with God, admitted into the membership of the church, made an heir of the divine kingdom, and spiritually born anew.” Wesley admitted that while baptism was neither essential to nor sufficient for salvation, it was the “ordinary means” that God designated for applying the benefits of the work of Christ in our lives.
Both The Evangelical Church and The United Brethren theologians stressed the importance of baptism as integral to covenant community (paralleling circumcision), and as a sign of the new birth. According to their doctrine it is “that gracious divine act by which persons are redeemed from sin and reconciled by God.” The Evangelical Church consistently favored the baptism of infants. The United Brethren provided for the baptism of both infants and adults. Following the union of 1946, the Evangelical United Brethren Church adopted a ritual that included services for infant and adult baptism, and also a newly created service for the dedication of infants that had little precedent in official rituals of either of the former churches.
In 1964 the General Commission on Worship of the Methodist Church made note that many in the church were regarding baptism both of infants and adults, as a dedication rather than a sacrament. They pointed out that in dedication we make a gift of a life to God for God to accept, while in a sacrament God offers the gift of God’s unfailing grace for us to accept. They sought to restore the rite of baptism to its original and historic meaning as sacrament.
Infant baptism has been the historic practice of the overwhelming majority of the church throughout the Christian centuries. Although the New Testament does not contain any explicit mandate, there is ample evidence for the baptism of infants in Scripture (Acts 2:38–41; 16:15, 33) and in early Christian doctrine and practice.Infant baptism rests firmly on the understanding that God prepares the way of faith before we request or even know that we need help (prevenient grace). The sacrament is a powerful expression of the reality that all persons come before God as no more than helpless infants, unable to do anything to save themselves, dependant on the grace of a loving God.
We respect the sincerity of parents who choose not to have their infants baptized, but we acknowledge that these views do not coincide with the Wesleyan understanding of the nature of the sacrament. The United Methodist Church does not accept either the idea that only believer’s baptism is valid or the notion that the baptism of the infant magically imparts salvation apart from active personal faith. United Methodist pastors are instructed by The Book of Discipline to explain our teaching clearly on these matters, so parents or sponsors might be free of misunderstanding.
Since baptism is primarily an act of God in the church, the sacrament is to be received by an individual only once. This position is in accord with the historic teaching of the church universal. The claim that baptism is unrepeatable rests on the steadfast faithfulness of God. God’s initiative establishes the covenant of grace in which we are incorporated in baptism.
When persons who were baptized as infants are ready to profess their Christian faith, they participate in the service of confirmation. This occasion is not an entrance into church membership, for this was accomplished through baptism. It is however a public affirmation of the grace of God in one’s baptism and the acknowledgment of one’s acceptance of that grace by faith.
To dedicate an infant is to step out of the practice, the ritual, and the teaching of The United Methodist Church. This practice brings with it confusion of our church’s understanding of the sacraments and of grace.