Every so often we wake up to an aspect of our culture that prompts us to seek clarity. Such an issue is the notion of a “godparent.” What are they and what do they do?
The bald facts of the matter are that this position of godparent is solely the product of religious culture, and specifically Roman Catholic culture. The Bible says nothing about such sponsors or guardians who are appointed to speak for an infant at their christening or baptism.
By contrast (as a brief Google search will verify), the popular literature paints a picture of a friend, or relative of the parents of the infant in question, being appointed and designated to be the spiritual support and mentor for the infant. This will involve their participation in the child’s religious development, acting as an advisor and consultant to the parents as they raise their child. In more devout Roman Catholic circles there would be the additional expectation of prayers and masses being offered by the godparent on behalf of his or her charge.
At a deeper level, the following assumptions are being made by those who advocate the appointment of a godparent:
- The ceremony in which the child is put in physical contact with his or her sponsor (the godparent actually holds the child in the ceremony, having been vetted and approved as a spiritually qualified party) has spiritual and eternal significance for the child. When this notion is tested against Scripture, one is forced to concede that the Bible only speaks of sinners themselves taking responsibility for their own sins, repenting and believing the gospel message regarding the person and work of Jesus Christ. On this basis alone is a person born again and thereby made spiritually secure (see John 3; Acts 2:37-41 and Romans 5:21-26).
- The responsibility for the spiritual education and formation of the child is either unsafe in the hands of the parents, or that the child is not being consistently exposed to a faith-community. In social environments where they are appointed, godparents are entrusted with responsibilities which God clearly and explicitly gave to parents (and more specifically to fathers—see Ephesians 6:4 and Colossians 3:21). Because these parents are implicitly expected as worshippers to belong to a faith-community, there is by God’s design the additional support offered and available from the household of faith. Trusted fellow-believers are expected to speak into the lives of young parents and be credible examples to them, both by word and deed.
- Such appointed godparents will be able to play a lasting role in the life of the child, in the event of a trauma that removes both natural parents from the picture. This is both impractical and a legal fiction. It is impractical because the appointment of godparents is tacitly accepted (one suspects) as a mere sentimental formality done to complete a rite-of-passage ceremony in the first few months of an infant’s life. After a very short space of time, the real authority of such godparents become almost negligible, and in the event of a family trauma, grandparents or blood relatives will far sooner be expected to play a lasting foster-care role than will be godparents. From a legal perspective, guardianship is only granted on the basis on a formal legal document (such as a valid will) drawn up explicitly for that purpose by the parents. The appearance of a godparent’s name on a baptismal certificate will be of no legal consequence or authority.
So, in light of the above, it would seem to us that both the notion and the practical usefulness of this cultural practice of appointing godparents for infants is of little spiritual significance. With biblical authority, we would much rather exhort young parents to appreciate their responsibilities and privileges of being entrusted with children, and that they therefore be very deliberate and intentional to raise their children within the context of the faith community, having formally requested the help of such a loving and supportive band of witnesses and helpers!
This is what is expressed formally in the Parent Dedication Service.