It is perhaps one of the first big decisions a young couple will make after their child is born. And yet, despite the importance of the decision, it is also one that many make considering all of the wrong factors. And when those informed of the decision are told, they are honored, but again for all of the wrong reasons.
Baptismal sponsors are rooted in the ancient Church. At one point they were even given
custody of the child which they sponsored, should the parents die prematurely. Yet today, they are mostly a symbolic gesture, chosen based not on their faith, but rather on their relationship to the parents.
Who are traditionally chosen as baptismal sponsors today? Close siblings or friends. Sometimes those chosen are of the same faith, other times they are not. Sometimes they
live close by, other times they live in another town or even another state. If you are lucky, the sponsors themselves will regularly attend church; if you are not so lucky, they will at least be members of a church which they attend on occasion.
What is the role of sponsors? Consider the exhortation to sponsors in the Baptismal liturgy as recorded in the Lutheran Service Book Agenda:
From ancient times the Church has observed the custom of appointing sponsors for
baptismal candidates and catechumens. In the Evangelical Lutheran Church sponsors are to confess the faith expressed in the Apostles’ Creed and taught in the Small Catechism. They are, whenever possible, to witness the Baptism of those they sponsor. They are to pray for them, support them in their ongoing instruction and nurture in the
Christian faith, and encourage them toward the faithful reception of the Lord’s Supper. They are at all times to be examples to them of the holy life of faith in Christ and love for the neighbor.
I find it interesting that in the first line, it indicates that it was not the parents of the child who selected the sponsors, it was instead the Church that did. And what follows is that the Church did not select those who were weak in the faith, but rather those who were strong in the faith. The absolute minimal standard is that they confess the Apostle’s Creed and know the Small Catechism. But later in the exhortation, the sponsors are to encourage those whom they sponsor to faithfully receive the Lord’s Supper, which can only happen if the sponsors themselves are receiving the Lord’s Supper.
About a year or so ago, I drafted a letter that would be given to sponsors imploring them to do their duty as sponsors; first and foremost of which was to pray for the child, as well as to remind the child of their baptismal birthday. To date, that letter remains in draft form.
But now I contemplate whether or not we should return to the practice of the Church appointing sponsors for the child instead. Parents are swayed by emotion and loyalties and family connections. The Church is swayed by none of these, only what is best for the child in being reared in the Christian faith.
An example of this situation would be my own upbringing. My baptismal sponsors were
family members, who at the time were Lutheran. They were chosen because of a family connection, not because of their faith. While I knew they were my sponsors, and they knew they were my sponsors; there was never any outward expression of this in terms of a card or gift, just the honorary title. My brother’s sponsors were family friends and were chosen because of their close connection to the family. They also were both Lutheran, and remain so to this day. They were good sponsors in that they reminded him of his baptismal birthday and also gave gifts in accord with their role as his sponsors.
Two sets of sponsors: one set family, one set close friends. Both chosen based on emotion
and connection, not so much faith. It could very well be argued that it was blind luck that my brother should have sponsors who took their responsibility seriously.
But why leave these things to chance? Why not have the Church resume its role of appointing sponsors who are strong in the faith and who will take their role as sponsors for a child seriously?