Thursday, October 22, 2009

To Baptize or Not To Baptize

In my post about the Liturgical Conference in Kewanee last week, I alluded to the fact that we had a very interesting discussion during our round-table on Tuesday afternoon.  The discussion centered around Holy Baptism, concentrating on when and to whom the Sacrament should be administered.  Obviously, we were all in agreement that the Sacrament should be administered to infants of faithful parents as soon as possible.  The sooner the little pagan is drowned and brought to new life in Christ, the better.  But, what about when the pastor is asked to baptize a child whose parents have no desire to bring that child up in the Christian faith?

This piqued my interest, because I have faced this situation several times in my ministry.  I have received many phone calls from people who ask me if I can baptize their child/children.  Before answering, I always ask some basic questions, like:  "Are you a Christian?"  The usual answer is, "Yes."  So, I ask, "Where do you go to church?"  The usual answer is, "Nowhere."  Warding off the temptation to respond, "Well, how can you be a Christian if you don't go to church?" I ask, "Why do you want your child baptized?"  There is usually a bit of silence on the line as the caller tries to formulate an answer.  When they finally do speak up, the answer is along the lines of wanting the child to go to heaven and thinking that Baptism is of some import in making that happen.  Whatever they say, I then follow up with a very brief explanation of what we believe about the Sacrament of Holy Baptism and how important it is for the baptized child to be raised in the Christian faith, which includes faithful attendance in church, etc.  Most of the time, the caller hangs up about this time.  For those who do remain on the line after my little catechetical speech, I offer the invitation to come in and chat with me about it.  Almost always, I get, "That's okay.  Thanks."  In fact, there have only been two occasions when the caller took me up on my offer and came in and met with me.  Both times, they were mothers of young children.  I have no idea why one of the mothers came in to chat with me.  The meeting lasted all but five minutes, as she opened the conversation by stating, pretty emphatically, "My husband and I are not going to attend church here or anywhere else.  We don't believe in church, we just want our daughter baptized."  This happened nearly four years ago, but I can still see the anger on the woman's face as she spoke to me.  Needless to say, I didn't baptize her daughter.  The other mother met with me, promised she was going to start coming to church, and even began adult confirmation classes with me.  I baptized her daughter, but was informed by the mother a few weeks later that she did not want to continue classes and would not be coming back to church anytime soon.  She had too much going on her in life, she said, and didn't have time for church.  That was nearly three years ago.  I haven't seen her, or her child, since.   

Then there have also been times when members of our congregation, people I love dearly, have asked me if I would baptize the children of their loved ones (grandchildren, nieces and nephews, etc.).  I so want to say, "Yes," to these saints.  But, can I?  Should I?  I mean, the reason they're coming to me is because the parents of the children they want to see baptized don't go to church and show no desire to go.  Thus, I would be baptizing these children and sending them back to their unfaithful parents.  Is this the right thing to do?

I was surprised to hear a couple brothers, during our round-table discussion, making the case that we should baptize such children.  I was beginning to think I may have erred in the past by not being as quick to baptize as they seemed to be.  Surely, my desire is to err on the side of the Gospel.  I want to baptize such children, but have always felt that I shouldn't, since there was virtually no chance in these situations for the child to be raised in the Christian faith.  But then, Pr. Richard Stuckwisch chimed in and set my mind at ease, for he advanced the position I had been taking in this matter, and did so in a far more articulate and comprehensive manner than I had ever done.

He put forth the example of David ordering Joab to place Uriah (Bathsheba's husband) on the front lines of the battle, where the hardest fighting was, so that he would be killed (cf. 2 Sam. 11, spec. vss. 14ff.).  This, he argued, was like baptizing a child of unfaithful parents, since we would be sending that child out to face the enemy alone.  Satan and his minions would certainly come after that child with all their might and the child would be defenseless to ward them off.  How could we justify putting the child in such a predicament?  To baptize a child who will not be strengthened and preserved by our Lord's means of grace, and who will not be taught to pray, is to place that child before the ravenous lion, who seeks to devour that child, and say, "Fend for yourself."

Of course, leaving the child unbaptized does not bring any more comfort.  But, at least we're not making the child an enemy of Satan and the target of his vicious attacks.  Better to allow the child to remain under Satan's radar, rather than to place the child front and center as a newly redeemed member of the Church Militant without the weapons to fight the good fight of the faith. 

This sounds wrong, doesn't it?  I mean, by not baptizing the child, we're leaving the child in the devil's kingdom.  How can that be right?  Shouldn't we baptize these children and let the Lord fight on their behalf?  That sounds better.  Except that the Lord has revealed to us how and where He fights on our behalf, namely from the font, pulpit, and altar, where He delivers to us the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation, which He won in full for us on the cross.  Holy Baptism works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe.  But, the faith given at Baptism must be nourished by the preached Word from the pulpit, the taught Word in catechesis, and the visible Word from the altar.  Our Lord does not end what has become known as the "Great Commission" (cf. Matt. 28:18-20) after His exhortation to baptize, but continues, "and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded."  His call to "make disciples" includes Baptism, catechesis, and the ongoing reception of His Word and His Body and Blood in His Holy Church, where He promises "to be with us always."    

Hence, the argument to just baptize the child and leave things to the Lord falls short.  Where ongoing catechesis and reception of Word and Sacrament are not going to happen, we are putting the child on the front lines, withdrawing the troops, and leaving the child to fight against Satan all alone.  Sometimes, the loving answer to the question, "Will you baptize this child?" is, sadly, "No."   

With all that said, faithful pastoral discretion must be employed in all these cases.  There may be times when baptizing the children of unfaithful parents is warranted.  If, for instance, the unfaithful parents of a child will agree to allow grandma and grandpa to bring the child to church on a regular basis, then bring the little sinner to the font, for sure.  But, if there is no chance of the child being brought to the Lord on a regular basis, let us not give the devil a reason to devour the child, but pray fervently that the Lord will bring the child into His kingdom in His way and in His time.  


IggyAntiochus said...

Good pastoral discernment goes a long way on this subject. Of course, not all pastors exercise this discipline.

Perhaps concluding adult confirmation classes prior to the child's baptism and celebrating both adult and child entering into the church at the same time might curtail some of those that bail.

Then again, some people will endure just about anything.

Just a few thoughts...

Rev. Thomas C. Messer, SSP said...


Good thoughts. The problem, of course, is that pastoral discernment only goes so far, since we pastors cannot see into the hearts of people. I have been deceived before, and will most assuredly be deceived again in the future. The real struggle in the realm of pastoral discernment/discretion, at least for me, is to learn from past deceptions, but not to allow them to totally dictate my discernment/discretion in the future. It ain't an easy task, to be sure.

Anyway, thanks for your thoughts.

IggyAntiochus said...

This pastoral thing, only the few are called to it! There are more sticky situations in your profession than in any other, I would guess.

Thanks for your insights.

Blessings to you as you continue your ministry.

Go Green! Go Spartans!