From Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather to the Fairy Godmother of Cinderella, literature and cinema have given us a panoramic view of godparents. No matter our frame of reference, we have come to understand godparents as protectors, benefactors, and sympathizers who care for their charges as they would for their own children.
But are godparents just literary archetypes, or does being a godparent mean something more? Do Christians have godparents? And if so, what do godparents actually do within the context of the Christian faith?
The tradition of naming godparents has existed throughout most of church history. Though not practiced universally or uniformly, many branches of Christianity still maintain some form of the godparent tradition.
The tradition of naming godparents is rooted simultaneously in the concept of sponsorship and the practice of infant baptism (or dedication, among denominations that do not practice infant baptism). Let’s examine each separately.
Second-century theologian, Tertullian, writing in defense of adult (believers) baptism, refers to the inclusion of sponsors in the process, saying:
“For why is it necessary — if (baptism itself) is not so necessary — that the sponsors likewise should be thrust into danger? Who both themselves, by reason of mortality, may fail to fulfil their promises, and may be disappointed by the development of an evil disposition, in those for whom they stood?” 1
Though Tertullian neither mandates sponsors nor describes their role in detail, we can infer from his writing that sponsorship was a common practice, perhaps understood by his audience to be a mandate of the early church.
Further, Tertullian suggests that the sponsor takes on the weight of a promise by ensuring the spiritual development of the sponsored person.
We are unable to determine from Tertullian why the practice of sponsorship became necessary.
In a culture where patron/client relationships were common, sponsorship may have been a natural application of such relationships to the context of church membership. It is also likely that sponsorship provided a means, in an environment of hostility and persecution, of protecting the church against infiltration by those who would harm the church.
We see evidence of similar practices in scripture. After Saul’s conversion in Acts 9, he attempted to join the disciples in Jerusalem, but the disciples knew him to be a persecutor of the church. And so, out of fear and suspicion, they were reluctant to accept Saul.
The disciples had a change of heart and welcomed Saul into their fellowship only after Barnabas vouched for him and testified to the sincerity of his conversion (Acts 9:26-28)
In modern practice, godparents are most closely associated with infant baptism. Even as early as the second century, infant baptism became a common practice in the early church. Since baptism required a confession of faith, adult proxies spoke on behalf of baptized children.
Most commonly, sponsors in the early church were natural parents, who were able to attest to salvation over their household and promise to train children up in the Christian faith.
Saint Augustine of Hippo, in the fifth century, affirmed that parents ought to serve as sponsors whenever they were available to do so, but suggested that other relationships (such as slaves and masters, or orphans and caregivers), could justify a non-parental sponsor.
Again, not observing any Biblical mandate of sponsorship, we witness parental language describing non-parental spiritual mentorships. The best known such relationship in scripture is between Paul and Timothy. Paul refers to Timothy as his son both directly (1 Timothy 1:2) and in his writing to others (1 Corinthians 4:17).
Timothy had first learned of the Christian faith from his mother and grandmother (2 Timothy 1:5). Timothy was already a believer when Paul first met him, but Timothy’s father was not a believer (Acts 16:1). It was Paul who assumed the role of father when Timothy joined his missionary work.
As practices diverged and coalesced across different Christian traditions, the requirements and role of godparents have developed in slightly different ways. Most mainline protestant denominations do not mandate the appointment of godparents but will accept only godparents who are themselves baptized, professing Christians.
Certain branches of the Lutheran and Orthodox churches require that godparents (or at least one godparent if two are named) be members of the denomination or tradition in which they serve as godparents.
The Roman Catholic practice is perhaps the most stringently regulated and best defined. In addition to requiring godparents to be confirmed Catholics, Catholics mandate at least one godparent be designated for each infant baptized. If two godparents are appointed, they must not be of the same gender.
Since the 9th century, the Catholic Church has prohibited parents from serving as godparents to their own children. And the godparent relationship is held so closely in the Catholic tradition, that it presents barriers to sanctioned marriage within the Catholic Church (both between natural and spiritual parents, and between godparents and godchildren).
The Role of the Godparent
The purpose of naming godparents is to provide for the spiritual care and upbringing of a child either in the absence of their parents or alongside their parents. In Western cultures, Christian parents regularly invite siblings or close friends within the church to serve as godparents.
For this reason, traditions that do not celebrate infant baptism (such as Anabaptists and Evangelicals), will still appoint godparents as a means of honoring the vital relationships within the family of faith.
However, it is worth noting that in America and most other Western societies, godparents enjoy no legal standing because of their relationship. If a minor child’s parents die, for example, the godparents are not assumed to become the child’s legal guardians. A will or similar legal document is still necessary to establish custodial succession in most jurisdictions.
While godparents are not Biblically mandated, and their role is largely symbolic in most traditions, modern Christians do well to understand the value of spiritual mentors in their children’s lives. Similarly, when invited to serve as godparents, Christians ought not to consider the role as an honor devoid of responsibility.
An Example to Follow
In one easy-to-overlook story, we witness Paul serving as both sponsor and spiritual father, thereby setting a simple example for modern godparents to follow.
In his brief letter to Philemon, Paul pleads the case of Onesimus, a runaway slave, whom Paul met during his imprisonment. Paul describes Onesimus as his son and further explains that Onesimus became his son when they were imprisoned together (v 10).
Paul’s letter also signifies his willingness to sponsor Onesimus, as he invites Philemon to accept Onesimus not as a slave but as a dear brother (v 16). Paul further serves as a benefactor to Onesimus by guaranteeing his debt to Philemon (v 18-19).
In Paul’s adoption, instruction, and sponsorship of Onesimus, we see the full embodiment of all aspects of the godparent’s role and purpose.
1. On Baptism Chapter 18. Of the Persons to Whom, and the Time When, Baptism is to Be Administered. Posted on https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0321.htm accessed February 21, 2022