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.