In our Word of the Week, Pastor Rob Sauers takes us through the word "sponsor." The most common usage of the word in our world today refers to a person or organization that pays for or plans and carries out a project or activity. You hear it on a radio or TV program that such and such program is sponsored by whatever advertiser is paying for part of the program in exchange for advertising time during the course of the program. The word sponsor is all used for one who assumes responsibility for some other person or thing. We have an example of this in Acts where Barnabas vouches for Saul before the Christians in Jerusalem just after Saul’s conversion. In Acts 9:27-28 we read, “And when Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. And he declared to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus.”
As Lutherans, when we hear the word “sponsor” in the context of church, probably the first thing we think about is Baptismal sponsors, or what is sometimes referred to as godparents. Now, we never find the word “sponsor” in the Scriptures, and we don’t have an example of this role in connection with Baptism in Scripture. God does not tell us that we need to have sponsors so having them or not having them does not make a baptism more or less valid.
The church tradition of having sponsors seems to have started back in the second century and did not originate with infant baptism, but with adult converts to the faith. In that time when Christianity was heavily persecuted, an adult convert who offered himself for baptism would be accompanied by a Christian who could vouch for the applicant and undertake his supervision. As this tradition continued with the Baptism of infants, early on, it was often simply the parents who served as sponsors. In the following centuries, it became more common to have someone who was not one of the child’s parents serve as a sponsor and by the 9th century, it was prohibited for the natural parents to act as sponsors.
In the early church, one sponsor seems to have been the norm, but in the early Middle Ages, it became common to have two sponsors, one from each sex, and this is most often how this is done today.
In the Sydow version of Luther’s Small Catechism, three roles of sponsors are laid out – 1) to watch the baptism take place, 2) to speak for the child at his or her baptism, 3) to be concerned about the child’s spiritual well-being with their prayers and encouragement, especially if the child should lose his or her parents. As described in our Baptism liturgy, the role of sponsors is to make sure that the child learns the Scriptures, attends services in church, and is provided with further instruction in the Christians faith. Since we ask sponsors to share our concern for a child’s spiritual well-being, it is important that a sponsor has the same Christian confession as the child’s parents. This is why we ask only members of our congregation or church body to be sponsors.
Now again, having baptismal sponsors or godparents is not something that is commanded by Scripture. Some parents choose not to have sponsors at all for their children. Some parents choose people of a different Christian confession to stand and serve simply as witnesses that the baptism has taken place. But I would encourage parents to consider the benefits of having sponsors for their children.
As every Christian parent knows, one of their most important responsibilities is to raise their children “in the training and admonition of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4). Proverbs 22:6 instructs us to “Train up a child in the way he should go, And when he is old he will not depart from it.” This is primarily the parents’ responsibility, but especially in our age when raising children in the faith has become increasingly more difficult, it really can be a great blessings to have sponsors who will help in the process, be especially praying for the child’s growth in the faith, and promise to be there for the children in case something should happen to the parents.
For these reasons, I would encourage having sponsors for children at baptism. If this is something you’re currently considering, I would encourage you to prayerfully consider who you would like to choose as sponsors, and talk to them about the important role they will serve in your child’s life. If you are a sponsor, I would encourage you to take this role seriously – to regularly pray for your godchild and to encourage his or her growth in the faith.
Though not commanded in Scripture, the tradition of having sponsors for children at their baptism can certainly be a great blessing.