Wash First, Ask Questions Later: Where do Parental Vows Fit in Baptism

Some readers may wonder whether the practice of baptism as described in this article opens a can of worms. Given the movement of understanding and appreciation of my own faith community, though, it's a can well worth opening. For the first time, many in our congregation are starting to "get" baptism. What is going on? Who is most important?

The "typical" way of administering baptism—where parents make vows just prior to the baptism of their children—in my context, at least, fails to provide clear answers to these questions. The ritual we have adopted causes parents and congregation alike to think about what they are doing. Most important, from my point of view, changing our practice has eliminated confusion about the nature of baptism as distinct from dedication.

Reformed pastors enjoy baptizing infants. Our words, our theology, and our administration of the sacrament are one of those theological fingerprints that identify us as children of the Reformation. At baptism we recall memories of God's potent intrusions into human affairs. We resurrect, name, and announce these memories as the fundamental story of our relationship as the believing community with God. First and foremost, the community remembers and watches the symbolic washing away of our sins.

The Covenant Action of God in Baptism

The sacrament of baptism proclaims that our deliverance comes from God. God approaches us, covenants with us, and is enfleshed in us. This indwelling is the beginning of our realization that something is wrong with us that only God can make right. Only Christ's blood can wash away our sins, Baptism symbolically reenacts this deep cleansing.

But baptism is also pregnant with memories and images of God's other interventions. It evokes memories of the time God used the waters of the flood to cleanse a tarnished creation and deliver a chosen family. And it brings to mind God's covenant with Abraham and the promise of an immeasurable family. Baptism into Christ's death and resurrection is our own passage through the Red Sea. We go down into the risky and dangerous waters of death only to find ourselves rescued and safe on the other side, our enemy washed away.

Baptism reminds us that God has a long history of coming to our aid. This is God's way with God's people, and it is a way worth remembering. When we baptize, we join ourselves to these deliverance stories of God. Our theology is carried by the images of this hymn by composer Fred Kaan:

Water on the human forehead,
birthmark of the love of God,
is the sign of death and rising. Through the sea, there runs a road.

Gathered round the font reminds us
of the Hebrews' climb ashore.
Life is hallowed by the knowledge God has been this way before.

—Taken from "Out of Deep, Unordered Water," text written by Fred Kaan. © 1968,
Hope Publishing Company. For permission to reproduce this mussic contact Hope Publishing
Company, Carol Stream, II 60188. 800-323-10-19.

This theology of baptism is why 1 am a Reformed Christian. And it is why I love baptizing in the believing community. Unfortunately, I minister in a time, a context, and a culture that separates infant baptism from the great deliverance stories of God.

As a minister in a religiously diversified context, I often hear people say there is no difference between infant dedication and infant baptism; how one initiates an infant is merely a matter of personal choice.

Baptism or Dedication?

Reformed congregations have certainly heard the sound teaching in our baptismal formularies. They are familiar with the word covenant. They've listened as the pastor invokes Abraham, the Flood, the Red 5ea, and Jesus' baptism during infant baptism. But often their interpretation of what is happening couldn't be further from the Reformed tradition. It is not unusual to hear worshipers summarize a baptism by saying that they witnessed parents "pledging to raise their child in the Lord." They do not realize that when we speak of baptism in this way, the covenant becomes a contract in which God's saving acts and words are upstaged by the promises of the parents. Neither is it unusual for the musical selections that follow baptism to reinforce this teaching.

In my own context, it is not uncommon for neighboring churches to provide the option of baptism or dedication. Often, both rites will occur simultaneously, in such congregations, the point of focus is the vow the parents make to raise their children in the fear of the Lord. While this is a noble and worthwhile commitment, it is different than infant baptism. In such churches, the commitment and vows parents make are often identical whether the children are baptized or dedicated. After parents speak their words of promise, it is their decision as to whether their children are cleansed in baptism or "dry-cleaned."

No wonder so many worshipers see little difference between infant dedication and infant baptism, never realizing that our theology is at stake.

In Reformed congregations, worshipers see a format that appears to be just like that of dedication: parents make their commitment and then baptism follows. It is not uncommon for the distinctive Reformed themes of covenant, church, and kingdom to be seemingly washed away at the time of baptism. If there is any theological message that needs to remain at the center of baptism, it is this: the triune God initiates and preserves a relationship with us and then calls us to respond.

The Covenant Action of Parents in Baptism

For that reason, our congregation has changed how we "do" baptism. We wash our children with the sign of the covenant first, then ask parents to respond with their vows. Together in prayer, liturgy, and song we recall God's deliverance stories and witness the action of God in putting his Name on this child before the parents say a word. Ritually, we give God free rein to speak, to promise, to bathe, to wash, and to cleanse. When this happens, the child is joined to God and to the believing community. Together we relive the Flood, walk through the Red Sea, and watch for the Spirit to fall from heaven as the threefold Name is spoken. And when this happens, all God's people say amen.

After the baptism is complete, the parents move away from the font and answer the questions that call for their commitment. Because we have reviewed the procedure and the questions ahead of time, parents are all the more eager to respond to what God has said to them and their children. In some situations, I have sent parents back to their pew after baptism without their immediate response. At the end of the service, during the time in which we dedicate ourselves to holy living, I ask parents to return and, together with the congregation, make their commitment in response to what God has already said and done.

Designing liturgy in this way makes an important point: at baptism God speaks; God calls for our response. This helps worshipers see baptism in a new light. I find that this ordering of our ritual life says much about who we are. No longer do we experience confusion about who is to be celebrated and recognized in baptism. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are at the center of our liturgy, worship, and ritual life—where they belong.



What Do You Think?

Reformed Worship welcomes responses to this article. Please respond directly to Marc Nelesen at marcn@egl.net or to info@reformedworship.org.


Artwork by Brother Placid Stuckenschneider, from More Clip Art For the Liturgical Year (© 1990, The Liturgical Press). Used by permission.

Marc Nelesen is pastor of Third Christian Reformed Church, Zeeland, Michigan. You may reach him at marcn@egl.net.


Reformed Worship 67 © March 2003, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.