John Meunier

'An arrow through the air'

United Methodists baptize babies

Source: Wikimedia Commons

We do not dedicate babies.*

If you look at our Book of Discipline, our liturgy, and the rulings of the Judicial Council, they all agree. The United Methodist Church baptizes babies and young children.

Both the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith state this.

Article of Religion XVII:

Baptism is not only a sign of profession and mark of difference whereby Christians are distinguished from others that are not baptized; but it is also a sign of regeneration or the new birth. The Baptism of young children is to be retained in the Church.

Confession of Faith Article VI (in part):

We believe children are under the atonement of Christ and as heirs of the Kingdom of God are acceptable subjects for Christian Baptism. Children of believing parents through Baptism become the special responsibility of the Church. They should be nurtured and led to personal acceptance of Christ, and by profession of faith confirm their Baptism.

Building on these doctrinal standards, ¶226 of the Book of Discipline places a positive obligation on pastors to teach infant baptism.

Because the redeeming love of God revealed in Jesus Christ extends to all persons, and because Jesus explicitly included the children in his kingdom, the pastor of each charge shall earnestly exhort all Christian parents or guardians to present these children to the Lord in baptism at an early age.

Please note, this is not a “may” but a “shall” statement.

Back in 1957, The Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the predecessor churches that would form the UMC in 1968, considered a proposal by Latin American Central Conference to make infant dedication in order in its conference. The Latin American conference was acting under provisions of the Discipline that allowed the modification of the Book of Discipline to meet the contextual mission needs of the local church.

In Decision 142, the Judicial Council ruled that rewriting the language in our current ¶226 to allow infant dedication was a violation of Article XVII of the Articles of Religion.

The Judicial Council wrote that the Latin American provision was a violation of the First Restrictive Rule of the Constitution in “tending to alter the Article of Religion XVII and establishing a new standard or rule of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine.” This ruling is still binding on the successor UMC.**

What a Central Conference could not do by policy, individual congregations and pastors should not do in practice.

Elders in the United Methodist Church vow at their ordination to uphold the order, discipline, doctrine, and liturgy of the United Methodist Church. As I noted in a recent post, we have a whole different Article of Religion dealing with breaches in church liturgy.

Our liturgy on infant baptism is clear. First, we have liturgy for the baptism of infants in our official hymnal and Book of Worship. Second, in the introduction to those services, the books include explicit explanation of the UMC practice of infant baptism. Third, our Book of Worship has a service of thanksgiving for the birth of a child, but the 1996 General Conference adopted an interpretive document on baptism that explicitly says that service is neither a substitute for baptism nor a form of infant dedication.***

I understand that faithful and careful readers of Scripture have made arguments against infant baptism. Entire denominations prohibit it just as we retain it. But congregations and pastors in the United Methodist church do not have liberty to come to their own conclusions about this. There is no gray area in our law, doctrine, and liturgy.

You do not have to have your child baptized to be a United Methodist. But no United Methodist pastor should discourage or teach against the practice.

Of course, those who disagree with my argument here can point to our crazy-quilt of rules and requirements in the Book of Discipline and point out that no church follows them all. For instance, how many congregations have a person elected by charge conference to keep before the congregation the role of Native Americans in the local church?

I’m all for a culling of the Book of Discipline, so we do not, by default, have to acknowledge that no charge can follow all its provisions. I’m not advocating a witch hunt to root out pastors who neglect Human Relations Sunday.

But infant baptism is not a minor or secondary issue. It speaks directly to our theology and our understanding of the nature and meaning of church. The practice itself is in the only core doctrinal documents we all recognize and protected by the church constitution. Our understanding of infant baptism, and therefore baptism in general, gives shape to our disciple-making ministry — the very reason we exist.

I would dare say infant baptism is at least as fundamental to who we are as the issues of sexual ethics that so occupy our time and energy. What if we rallied the bishops and worked up some petitions about that?

Clergy covenants matter. How can we preach and teach faithfulness and obedience to covenants when we hold our own covenant in such slight regard?


*Although the tone here is declarative, I am aware I do not have the authority to make such pronouncements. I stand ready to be corrected in any factual error and to revise my argument if readers or others point out my mistakes.

**A discussion of  EUB practice and liturgy before the 1968 merger can be found here.

***Daniel Benedict in the piece about the “legality” of infant dedication appears hesitant to get into legalities. From the plain language of the Book of Discipline, our liturgy, and the ruling of the Judicial Council, though, this seems fairly settled.

Written by John Meunier

October 23, 2011 at 6:04 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Thank you for a very clear statement about infant baptism in the United Methodist Church. I think it is also important to note that paragraph 341.7 of the Book of Discipline prohibits any pastor from “rebaptizing”. If a pastor is asked to rebaptize someone he or she is instructed to counsel the person making such a request and invite them to reaffirm their baptism. Another alternative that I have seen endorsed and used is a “conditional” baptism. In a circumstance when an adult does not know whether they were baptized as a child, the pastor may go ahead and baptize the person with the phrase, “If you have not already been baptized, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Years ago, in a gathering of pastors in the Florida Conference where we were instructed in our new baptismal liturgy, we actually had the opportunity to see this. One of our ordained pastors was unsure whether he had been baptized as an infant. So in the clergy gathering, he requested the sacrament. It was a very moving service.

    Holly Boardman (@halehawk)

    October 23, 2011 at 7:19 pm

  2. “I would dare say infant baptism is at least as fundamental to who we are as the issues of sexual ethics that so occupy our time and energy. What if we rallied the bishops and worked up some petitions about that?”

    I have to strongly disagree with this parallel, I’m afraid. Nowhere in Scripture is not baptizing infants taught to be sinful–either implicitly or explicitly. Whether an infant is baptized or dedicated does not render one in danger of “not inheriting the Kingdom”…if it were, it would certainly be included in the vice lists in Scripture or even hinted at in some way.

    I’m a lifelong UM, son of a UM Pastor and teach frequently in UM churches…and yet I remain unsettled on the issue of infant baptism vs. dedication. It is an issue that goes all the way back to the 2nd generation of Christians and one that faithful members of Christ’s Body have always differed on.

    The same simply cannot be said for the issue of same-sex sexual relationships. To compare the two is to elevate a discussion of doctrinal practice to the place of sin–which conflates an important issue that is clear in the history of the Church (and Scripture itself), with one that Christians have differed on for centuries. This borders on the irresponsible, in my opinion.

    JM Smith,
    Founder – Disciple Dojo

    James-Michael Smith

    October 24, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    • JM, I respect your right to your own opinion on this, but at the moment the conversation is being framed as one of covenant faithfulness. The issue being raised is an objection that people are breaking covenant and refusing to keep their vows and the good order of the UMC by pledging to perform weddings.

      This is an exact parallel.

      The people on the other side of the debate from you would say, in fact, that their key concern is that the specific practices they are advocating are not condemned or even discussed in Scripture. They would carry on a debate that sounds very much like our debates over whether infant baptism is or is not in Scripture.

      You may find their position unpersuasive, but that does not remove the parallel on the main issue being raised in objection to the recent move by pastors to perform gay weddings. Read the petition at FaithfulUMC.com. It is explicitly about covenant and breaking of discipline within the church.

      Our discipline is quite clear on infant baptism. The fact that people disagree with the historic Methodist teaching on this issue does not change the clear church discipline issues. In form and substance, both arguments are about the same issues, at least as they have most recently been framed by the FaithfulUMC petition.

      John Meunier

      October 24, 2011 at 2:02 pm

  3. John,
    I applaud the effort that you put into this. I think that it goes to the explanation of who we are as United Methodists (thanks for the link to the EUB thoughts – I will spend some exploring my own heritage).

    I first posted thoughts on infant baptism back in 2006, specifically my own baptism, in “That First Baptism” – http://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2006/01/08/that-first-baptism/. I followed it up with “Baptism by Fire” – http://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2010/01/09/baptism-by-fire/. There is a comment at the end of each post that speaks to the point of infant baptism and its place in the church and denomination.

    DrTony

    October 24, 2011 at 12:49 pm

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