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THE BURNING BUSH
 

Volume 12 Number 1, January 2006

 

IS THE PRACTICE OF CHILD DEDICATION BIBLICAL?

Timothy Okman Ki

Problem

It is a well known that Presbyterians baptise infants. This practice has caused many contentions among the believers of Christ. Let me quote a typical statement made by the opponents of infant baptism. The late Dr William Pettingill in his article, "Infant Baptism: Its History and Its Harm," said that "infant baptism is responsible for sending more people to Hell than any other cause. From my point of view it is a dreadful thing to baptise a baby and let him grow up believing that by that baptism he has been saved and is on his way to Heaven." Such statements have caused misunderstandings among the believers of Christ that the Presbyterian practice of infant baptism is wrong.

Anyone who uses such a baseless argument against the Presbyterian belief of infant baptism is simply revealing his ignorance. What people like Dr Pettingill do not know and understand is that Presbyterians do not believe in baptismal regeneration. The level of ignorance of non-Presbyterians concerning the Presbyterian practice of infant baptism is amazing. By baptising infants, no Presbyterian minister will say that the children have just secured their places in heaven.

The purpose of this article is not to talk about infant baptism, but to examine the alternative practice for newborn babies within non-Presbyterian circles called "Child Dedication." Non-Presbyterian churches have practised child dedication as a biblical practice for infants over against infant baptism. Let us examine its practice and grounds.

Child Dedication or Parent Dedication?

What is the meaning of child dedication? One church defines it thus, "Child Dedication is a public testimony by parents acknowledging that their child is a gift from God and that they are responsible to instruct the child in the Word of God, that they will guide the child in Christian living and they will lead the child to seek a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It is an opportunity for family and friends as well as the entire congregation to acknowledge publicly their support of the parents in fulfilling their vows." Here is another definition with a proof text, "The dedication of a child is a commitment of the parents to raise their child in the ways of the Lord—verses found in Deuteronomy chapter six. Child dedication has its roots in the Old Testament, where first-born males were to be brought to the temple and dedicated to the Lord. Dedication does not mean that the child is automatically going to Heaven—it is simply an expression of the parent’s commitment to raise their children in the ways of the Lord." Another church understands child dedication as child celebration, "Because a dedication of one’s life to Jesus is a personal decision, we want to celebrate the birth of a child and dedicate the parents to the task of raising their child in the Lord."

In all the above cases, child dedication is actually not child dedication but parent dedication. It is the parents’ public acknowledgement that God has given them a child and their promise to raise their child in the Lord. At the same time, their families, friends, and the entire congregation likewise make a promise that they would help the parents fulfill their vow.

In view of what child dedication means and how it is defined, we discover that what pro-child dedication people have practised is not a practice of child dedication but parental commitment to the Lord. It is quite clear that the meaning of child dedication is as follows: (1) to give parents of young children an opportunity to recognise God’s gift of a child to them (Ps 127:3), (2) to hear the parents’ declaration of their intent to raise their child in a Christian environment (Deut 6:5-7), (3) to challenge the parents to guide and educate their child religiously (Eph 6:4), (4) to call parents to lay a foundation of learning about God. Therefore, even though they use the term "child," the whole dedication ceremony involves the dedication of the parents, not the children.

Child Dedication in 1 Samuel 1:27-28?

It is argued that a number of Scripture passages support child dedication. Let us deal with the most frequently quoted Scriptural references. The first passage that pro-child dedication people use is 1 Samuel 1:27-28, "For this child I prayed; and the LORD hath given me my petition which I asked of him: Therefore also I have lent him to the LORD; as long as he liveth he shall be lent to the LORD. And he worshipped the LORD there." It is important to understand the above passage in the light of its context. First of all, Hannah made a vow to the Lord in verse 11, "And she vowed a vow, and said, O LORD of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thine handmaid, and remember me, and not forget thine handmaid, but wilt give unto thine handmaid a man child, then I will give him unto the LORD all the days of his life, and there shall no rasor come upon his head." Therefore, Hannah’s dedication in verses 27-28 was a fulfillment of her vow. Not all parents make vows to God before their babies are born. Therefore, they need to make sure they keep the vows they had made before their child was born through so-called child dedication services.

Secondly, Hannah’s prayer was for Samuel to serve as a lifetime Nazarite. Hannah’s offer of Samuel to the Lord was not like one of these child dedications today, but consecration to a lifetime of service in the temple of God. It must be understood that not all parents had this privilege in the Old Testament. Consecrating a child to the Lord for full-time service was not for everyone, but for those who were called to do so. It was not Hannah’s vow to bring up her son in the Lord but to give him to the Lord for His full-time service. Therefore, if parents follow Hannah’s example for their children’s dedication, then they must give their children to lifetime ministry to the glory of God. They will be consecrating their children to the Lord for life. Child dedication, on the other hand, is the parents’ commitment to the Lord concerning their childrearing.

Hannah and Samuel’s story may not be used as an example of child dedication. If it is the meaning of child dedication, then it is my prayer that all my fellow believers will dedicate their children to the Lord for full-time service. Then, the Lord’s work will flourish. One of the problems in today’s churches is that there are too few who are consecrated to the Lord’s work, and not too many parents are willing to give their children to any lifetime ministry for the Lord. However, if there is a misuse of Hannah’s example, then do think again.

Child Dedication in Luke 2:22-24?

The second passage often quoted for child dedication is Luke 2:22-24. "And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord; (As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;) And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons."

Child dedication promoters have said that the parents of Jesus brought Him to the temple for His dedication. But this is untenable on two counts. One, there is no word for dedication in the passage. The dedication of the child Jesus to God cannot be found in the context. Two, the real crux of this passage is found in verse 22. This verse is about Mary’s purification according to the law of Moses. She and Joseph came to Jerusalem to fulfill her purification requirements. According to verses 23 and 24, they came to Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice according to the law. Thus, they offered a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons. This particular law is found in Leviticus 12:2-6, "Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a woman have conceived seed, and born a man child: then she shall be unclean seven days; according to the days of the separation for her infirmity shall she be unclean. And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. And she shall then continue in the blood of her purifying three and thirty days; she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying be fulfilled. But if she bear a maid child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her separation: and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying threescore and six days. And when the days of her purifying are fulfilled, for a son, or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon, or a turtledove, for a sin offering, unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, unto the priest." In ancient Israel, if a woman delivered a baby boy, she was unclean for 40 days. After 40 days of impurity, she would have to offer a sacrifice for her purification.

As far as the baby Jesus was concerned, in fulfilment of the Mosaic law, two things were performed on and by him: (1) He was circumcised, and (2) He paid the redemption money through His parents. Luke 2:23, "As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord," is a quotation from Exodus 13:2. This teaching is continued in Exodus 13:11-15, "And it shall be when the LORD shall bring thee into the land of the Canaanites, as he sware unto thee and to thy fathers, and shall give it thee, That thou shalt set apart unto the LORD all that openeth the matrix, and every firstling that cometh of a beast which thou hast; the males shall be the LORD’s. And every firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb; and if thou wilt not redeem it, then thou shalt break his neck: and all the firstborn of man among thy children shalt thou redeem. And it shall be when thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying, What is this? that thou shalt say unto him, By strength of hand the LORD brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage: And it came to pass, when Pharaoh would hardly let us go, that the LORD slew all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man, and the firstborn of beast: therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all that openeth the matrix, being males; but all the firstborn of my children I redeem." When a male child was presented to the Lord, there was a payment of a ransom fee. Since Jesus was the firstborn son (Luke 2:7) and did not belong to the tribe of Levi, five shekels of silver needed to be paid as "redemption money" in obedience to God’s law (Num 3:45-51).

Having studied the background of Luke 2:22-24, there are three things that pose as challenges to child-dedication promoters. First, if there was any dedication of the child Jesus, it was done through circumcision. However, child dedicators do not see any relation between child dedication and physical circumcision. If so, it may be asked, what then is the relevance of this law to their practice of child dedication? Second, when Jesus was presented to the Lord in the temple, the redemption money was paid through His parents under the covenantal relationship God has with His people. If there is such a covenantal relationship between God and His people, what then is the relevance of child dedication if child dedication has nothing to do whatsoever with the concept of covenant between God and the parents of the child as seen in Luke 2? Third, there is no indication that the payment of the redemption money was supposed to encourage parents to make a commitment to childrearing. This law was a part of the requirements of the sin offering. Therefore, it is difficult to see any connection between Luke 2:22-24 and child dedication.

Child Dedication in Mark 10:16?

Another popular verse among child dedication proponents is Mark 10:16 which says, "And he took them up in his arms, put his hands upon them, and blessed them." What a beautiful picture it is to see Jesus taking the little ones into His arms and blessing them. It is our desire to be blessed by Him. However, the issue here is whether this verse can be used to justify infant (or child) dedication service.

There are a few problems when we use this verse for child dedication. First of all, Mark 10:13 says, "And they brought young children to him, that he should touch them: and his disciples rebuked those that brought them." The purpose of bringing children to Jesus was that He might touch them. The manner of this touch is explained in verse 16. Jesus took them up in His arms and put His hands upon them and blessed them. This was done so that the children might receive a blessing from the Lord. Matthew 19:13-15 complements the Markan passage by stating, "Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence." The laying of hands for blessing was used since patriarchal times (Gen 48:14). However, child dedication as noted is for parents to publicise their commitment to bring up their children in the Lord. As such, it does not have any direct relationship with Mark 10:13. Second, the beneficiaries of Mark 10:13 were the children themselves. However, in child dedication, they are basically excluded as seen in the following church statements, "Child Dedication-Parent Commitment Services is viewed as a confirmation between the parents and the church to raise the child in a godly way until the child is old enough to make their decision and accept Christ as their personal Saviour." "The dedication of a child is a commitment of the parents to raise their child in the ways of the Lord … Dedication does not mean that the child is automatically going to Heaven—it is simply an expression of the parent’s commitment to raise their children in the ways of the Lord." Third, the parents did not make any commitment to the Lord in this context, which is an integral part of child dedication. Therefore, it may be safely concluded that Mark 10:13 has been misused to justify child dedication.

Dedication in the Old Testament

In the Old Testament, there are eleven occurrences of the word, "dedication" and they relate to the following items: (1) The altar was dedicated. Numbers 7:84 says, "This was the dedication of the altar, in the day when it was anointed, by the princes of Israel: twelve chargers of silver, twelve silver bowls, twelve spoons of gold" (cf. Num 7:88; 2 Chron 7:9). (2) The Temple of God was dedicated. Ezra 6:16 says, "And the children of Israel, the priests, and the Levites, and the rest of the children of the captivity, kept the dedication of this house of God with joy" (cf. Ezra 6:17; Ps 30:1; John 10:22). (3) The wall of Jerusalem was dedicated. Nehemiah 12:27 says, "And at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought the Levites out of all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem, to keep the dedication with gladness, both with thanksgivings, and with singing, with cymbals, psalteries, and with harps." (4) Idols were dedicated by the heathen. Daniel 3:2 says, "Then Nebuchadnezzar the king sent to gather together the princes, the governors, and the captains, the judges, the treasurers, the counsellors, the sheriffs, and all the rulers of the provinces, to come to the dedication of the image which Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up" (cf. Dan 3:3).

The verb, "dedicate," occurs four times, in Deuteronomy 20:5, 2 Samuel 8:11, 1 Chronicles 26:27, and 2 Chronicles 2:4. In these verses, a house, the temple, or material things were dedicated. "Dedicated" occurs 24 times in 20 verses (1 Kgs 8:63, 15:15; 2 Kgs 12:4, 18; 1 Chron 18:11, 26:20, 26, 28; 28:12; 2 Chron 5:1, 7:5, 15:18, 24:7, 31:12; Ezek 44:29; Heb 9:18) and "dedicating" only twice in Numbers 7:10-11. It is interesting to note that in the Old Testament, there is not a single instance where a human being was dedicated to the Lord. There were no ceremonies for child dedication or adult dedication whatsoever. Nevertheless, child dedication proponents argue that their practice is well grounded in the Bible, and has its root in the Old Testament. But where in the Old Testament is the practice of child dedication found?

Child Dedication Reexamined

In light of the above study, let us examine the following explanation of child dedication and see whether it is biblical: "Child dedication is the act of giving back to God the gift he has given you as parents. It is an act of worship, thanksgiving, dependence, trust, and commitment. The practice of child dedication has been modeled throughout the Bible. The Israelites brought their eight-day-old children to the priest for blessing. Hannah (1 Sam 1:24-28) brought her long-awaited son Samuel to the priest Eli, to dedicate him to the Lord. Mary and Joseph brought baby Jesus to the temple for his dedication."

By now, it may be readily seen that the above explanation is untenable in the light of the Biblical passages we have just studied for the following reasons: (1) Israel’s babies were not presented to the priests on the eighth day for blessing, but for circumcision. (2) Hannah did not bring Samuel to the tabernacle for dedication but consecration. (3) Mary and Joseph did not bring Jesus to the Temple for dedication but to fulfil the Mosaic Law. As such, there is no biblical justification for the practice of child dedication.

What about Infant Salvation?

How do child dedication proponents explain the destiny of infants when they die at infancy? The general consensus is this: "Salvation is granted to children who die in infancy or before the age of accountability (understanding). This belief is based not on specific scripture, but on an understanding of the nature of God as revealed in Christ. Since an infant does not have the power of self-determination, he does not have personal guilt. He has not yet come to the age when he can, of his own free will accept or reject Christ. Therefore, Christ’s atonement covers all who die young before reaching the age of accountability." But such a view begs the question: How about original sin and its effect? The question of the destiny of infants who die early can be answered only by the Presbyterian way of understanding the Bible and the Biblical covenants (see the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapters VII-X).

Concluding Testimony

A few years ago, I attended a local Baptist church for a few months. I do not have a problem fellowshipping with fundamental Baptists. I have many Baptist friends and graciously they have offered their right hand of fellowship to me and asked me to preach for them. One day I had an opportunity to spend some time with the pastor of the church. He told me that he was pleased with my conviction on Biblical separation. In fact, when I was about to leave that place, he offered me an opportunity to preach at his pulpit, which to me was an honour. However, he said that there was one thing that he could not understand about me and that was why as a fundamental Bible believer, I had to be a Presbyterian. He has a problem with Presbyterians over infant baptism. He told me that infant baptism was unbiblical but child dedication was thoroughly biblical. This led me to examine the practice of child dedication, to see if the Bible really supports it or not. Having looked into the supposed biblical basis for child dedication, it is my conclusion that child dedication is a practice that is void of strong biblical support. As such, the judgmental and condemnatory attitude of fundamental Baptists against Presbyterians who practise infant baptism needs to be checked.

The purpose of this article is not to deny the rights of child dedication believers to practise what they believe to be true, but to examine whether child dedication is a more biblical practice than infant baptism as claimed. In the light of the fact that child dedication does not have strong biblical support whatsoever, non-Presbyterians who practice child dedication may want to reexamine their position, and also reevaluate their emotional and premature judgments against Presbyterians over infant baptism.

Rev Dr Timothy Okman Ki is a missionary of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, USA, and pastors Hope Bible-Presbyterian Church in Adelaide, Australia.
 

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