Wednesday, July 23, 2014
A clear pastoral dilemma. . .
On top of this is the more ordinary conundrum of how to deal with children of cohabiting parents or children born to a woman without a father named (or, perhaps, known). We have had this phenomenon presented to pastors for many, many years. Although the issue is not new, its regularity is more recent -- the increasing normalcy of such births and the acceptance of such circumstances as ordinary within society is newer.
This is not a question of how to deal with the adults in such circumstances but the children. Bluntly, do we baptize these children or not?
Whereas the pastor was able to deal with such things more discreetly in the past, the very public nature of the lifestyles and the tolerance and acceptance of such lifestyles make it increasingly impossible for the pastor to deal with these requests discreetly. While no one in the church suggests that by baptizing the children irregularly conceived constitutes approving of the circumstances of their conception or the status of the parents, it is difficult to separate the practice toward the child from the situation of those presenting the child for baptism.
Yet discretion is exactly the urgent need when situations such as these present themselves to the pastor. The child is not to be punished for the intentional or unintentional sins of the parent. Where the parents present the child and make promise to raise the child in the faith (for Lutherans this means promising to raise the child to know and confess the Apostles Creed, to know and confess the Small Catechism, and to be prepared to receive the Sacrament of Christ's body and blood), the church must be careful about refusing baptism to the child.
Unlike some who would insist that baptism is the capstone of a progressive piety of faith, witness, decision, and promise, we acknowledge that God is the only actor in baptism and that it is purely grace at work in the water. Baptism is not an accomplishment or personal achievement. We come naked with nothing to commend us but our sin and living in the shadow of death. We are met by the gracious Lord who bore our sin, entered our death, bestowed upon us forgiveness, life, and salvation -- all apart from our worth or merit.
Nevertheless, the church and the pastor must take care not to celebrate the event in such way that it confuses our witness to the world or causes scandal and offense to the faithful. Discretion and discreet practice will be the rule of the day when such children (for lack of a better way to put it, irregularly conceived) are presented for baptism. It will also mean that each case must be treated individually. It will be impossible to establish a rule to cover every eventuality.
This will mean that pastors will not practice this discretion uniformly and we will find ourselves tempted to second guess one another and to subject the judgments of others to our own scrutiny. This will certainly test the boundaries of the faith as much as the pastoral discretion of close(d) communion does. The rampant pace of legalization of gay marriage and the prevailing approval of much of our society mean that these issues are on the fast track even for a rather stodgy, rural, and Midwestern denomination like the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. I would only suggest that while pastors in previous eras may have had difficult circumstances presented to us the challenges before us today represent an even greater burden upon those entrusted with the stewardship of the mysteries. Pray for the church, for pastors who must make such decisions, and for our faithful witness to the families involved and to the world watching what we do.