Godparent vs. Sponsor: What’s the Difference?

Godmother holding godchild

Maybe you’ve heard the term godparent, godmother or godfather, but now you hear about having a sponsor for a baptism. Is there a difference between a godparent and sponsor? Or are they the same role but just a different title?

In general a baptism sponsor or godparent are two different names for the same thing. A godparent is a sponsor. They are usually the same role, just different names. Occasionally there can be a slight difference in role but generally sponsor and godparent are interchangeable terms.

Let’s take a look at the origin of the term godparent and sponsor to see how it all started and why there are two different names for the same role. We’ll also look at when you might use the term sponsor instead of godparent.

History of Godparents vs. Sponsor

Let’s look at the history of baptism and when sponsors and godparents were first introduced.

In the early church new adults to the faith were sometimes required to have a committed christian that was known to the church stand with the new christian and vouch for them that their faith/ request was genuine in coming to the church and wanting to be part of it and requesting baptism.

It seems there are 2 reasons for this:

  1. There were a lot of people who didn’t like the new Christian beliefs and were trying to hurt and kill people who followed this christian faith. Having someone known to the church stand with the new christian was a way to vet them to make sure they weren’t lying and actually trying to hurt the church.
  2. The role was also to provide guidance and instruction to the new christian so they can learn the teachings of Jesus and follow his way of life.

As early as the second century, there is evidence that child/infant baptism began to take place in the church. It was necessary for an adult to stand with the child and confess their faith for the child and promise to bring them up in the christian faith. In 408 St Augustine (a Catholic bishop and theologian) suggested that natural parents be the sponsors.

The term sponsor comes from the Latin word spondere which means “to promise“.

At this time the parents were usually the sponsors for their children. They made promises to raise their children in faith.

However, by the fifth century adults other the child’s parents were starting to act as the sponsor at the baptism of a child. This would protect the child in the event of the death of their parents. Losing your parents as a child was a lot more common in the past than it is today due in a large part to disease and war. If a child lost their parents then it was customary for the child’s sponsor to then look after the child and bring them up in the christian faith.

It was around this time that the term “spiritual father” was used for a male sponsor. The term eventually evolved into “godfather“. A female sponsor was called “godmother“. Together they were the child’s godparents.

So it seems that sponsor was the original term used.

Over time it evolved into godfather and godmother as the sponsor now had more of a parenting role in the child’s life in the event of a parent death.

However, these days if a child’s parents die the child isn’t automatically placed in the care of the godparent. Most people have a legal will where they write who they would like to look after their child if both of them die.

Therefore the role of the godparent isn’t as much of a parenting role as it was in the past but the name has stuck.

Why Do Some People Say Godparent and Some Say Sponsor?

Godparent seems to be a more commonly used term these days than sponsor. I think there may be a couple reasons for this:

  • Godparent or godfather or godmother can only really have one meaning. It is the person chosen to stand with a child at a baptism and promise to help raise them in faith. However, sponsor has a few different meanings. When I think of sponsor I think of a paid advertisement by a business. Or a sponsor for a child in a third world country, where you send them money every month, write to them and pray for them. It’s just a little more confusing.
  • The term godmother and godfather seems like a closer bond or connection. It just seems a little more special.

However it seems to me that churches are using the term sponsor more these days rather than godparent. When our children were baptised our pastor asked about sponsors for our children. The baptism forms all said ‘sponsor’ on them.

When I think about it I think maybe it has something to do with the fact that the bible refers to God as our Father. By calling another human being godfather may be seen as a bit presumptuous, like we are putting godparents on a pedestal, higher than what they ought to be. In reality both the godparent and child have the same heavenly Father and are both able to learn direct from God. But the godparent/sponsor still has an important role in guiding the child to look to God.

And don’t address anyone here on earth as ‘Father,’ for only God in heaven is your spiritual Father.

Matthew 23:9 (NLT)

If you are an adult when you are baptised then you are more likely to use the term sponsor rather than godparent, as the person standing with you that will help you grow in faith could very well be the same age as you and therefore calling them godparent may seem a little wierd.

Is There Sometimes A Difference Between Godparent and Sponsor?

Normally the term sponsor and godparent are used interchangeably, but there are two situations where I’ve seen churches use both terms for slightly different roles:

  1. Churches may sometimes appoint a sponsor from the church in addition to the godparents chosen by the parents. The reason for this appears to be that sometimes the godparent role is seen to be more of a social role. However the church wants to ensure the baptised child has faith support and in this case the church sponsor takes on a purely spiritual role in the child’s life.
  2. As mentioned above grown adults that are baptised will normally use the term sponsor instead of godparent. It just makes more sense.

Role of Godparent/Sponsor is Like a Mentor

The role of godparent is to guide the child and help them to know God as their Father in heaven that they can call on at any time.

Godparents don’t really do any actual parenting of their godchild these days. They don’t discipline and usually don’t take an active role in raising the child. This is the parents responsibility. But godparents are there to help guide their godchild in faith.

In my opinion the role of godparent is a more like a faith mentor.

Mentor is defined as:

  • an experienced and trusted adviser. (noun)
  • to teach or give advice or guidance to (someone, such as a less experienced person or a child) . (verb)

So to be a faith mentor the mentor needs to be experienced in the christian faith. They need to be a trusted advisor in matters relating to God and the teachings of Jesus. To be a faith mentor implies that you have been through ups and downs in your faith, you have experienced life living close to God. You are someone a child can look to for guidance in their ups and downs of life and point them back to God. A mentor is someone further along in their faith journey.

A mentor is often someone you aspire to be like. I aspire to have faith like Daniel and David. Their trust in God seems so firm and solid in the face of humanly impossible challenges. To learn from them I can study how they lived and what they did to try to mimic that in my own life. When I look at their life I can see that they both put God centre in their life. They talked honestly with him every day and they believed he loved them and would care for them.

Your godchild can do the same: they can look to you to see how you live your life of faith. Be someone they can aspire to be like. The best way to do this is to put God centre in your life. Talk honestly with him every day and believe he loves you and will care for you.