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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Who is Authorized to Baptize

Going Beyond Outreach:
Who is Authorized to Baptize?
by Stephen M. Young II

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:18-20

I baptize you my brother…

A few weeks into my freshman year at ETBU (1994), a controversy broke out. Evidently, one student had led another to faith in Jesus and subsequently baptized her in the fountain at the quad. This ruffled feathers everywhere.

It was addressed in chapel.

“The fountain is off limits to students for swimming… and baptizing.”

It was addressed in the BCM.

“We are not a church, we are a student organization. Baptism is an ordinance of the church. It is not our place to baptize.”

It was addressed in the local churches.

“That baptism was not biblical, but we are proud of our students for winning the lost. The new believer will need to be baptized biblically in church.” (She eventually was, as I recall.)

We students talked it over during lunch and in our dorm rooms. The general thought among the freshmen was that it seemed pretty biblical, and pretty sincere, but you can’t buck authority.

Go, therefore, and make disciples … baptizing them.

The sticking point then, and the real question at hand is this: To whom does the command of Jesus to baptize1 disciples apply?

Was the Lord's command to his eleven earthly disciples a command to all disciples of Jesus in all times? If so, every true disciple of Jesus stands commissioned to baptize by the authority of Jesus himself.

Or, was this command of Jesus a command not to individual disciples, but to the disciples gathered, to the end of the age? If so, “baptizing them” is a command that must be obeyed together and in cooperation. In other words, it is an ordinance for the local church.

Based on the Matthew text alone it is hard to build a complete case for baptismal authority lying with individual disciples or with gathered disciples. The traditional view is that baptism is an ordinance for the church. There is not universal agreement on this subject, however, even among Baptists.2 I have not been convinced that one necessarily excludes the other, and so lean towards a “both/and” view.

You can’t obey the gospel by yourself.

As a part of the Great Commission, Jesus commanded his followers to baptize disciples. His command was not that disciples be baptized (in which case they could simply baptize themselves), but that they baptize others. Baptism, by its nature, is communal in that there are at least two people involved in the act. There is a relationship there, a mentor and a disciple. This is the first act of mentor-ship, teaching the disciple to obey all of the commands of Jesus. The witnesses, too, are a part of this.

Whether the Great Commission was given to the church or to individual disciples, baptism is intrinsically linked to fellowship and to mutual responsibility, to church. The line between individuals and churches is blurred a bit, as baptism was never intended to be an isolated event. The Great Commission of Jesus is to make disciples, a process that involves teaching obedience and baptizing.

Teaching obedience is a bit more comprehensive than passing on teachings of Jesus or simply laying out his precepts. “Teach them to observe” is a matter of training, coaching, practice and mutual accountability. As one believer walks other new believers through obedience, brotherhood is born.

Consider just a few of the basic one-another commands: Love one another. Wash one another’s feet. Be at peace with one another. Give preference to one another in honor. Pray for one another. Encourage one another. Accept one another. Admonish one another. Forgive one another. Break bread together. Do not judge one another any more. Wait for one another. Serve one another. Bear each other’s burdens. Sing spiritual songs to one another. Be subject to one another. Stimulate one another to love and good deeds.

All of these commands are practiced and obeyed over time, and they can not be done alone. As baptism publicly identifies the new believer with Christ, it also identifies him as brother to the one that baptized him. That is church.

So, yes, baptizing it is the duty and responsibility of the church. Likewise, it is the duty and responsibility of every believer called of Christ to disciple completely, including by baptizing. As this kind of discipling happens, church is happening.

Any believer can baptize.

Sidestepping the question of where baptismal authority lies for a moment, there is a good observation to be made. Whether or not the Great Commission was directed towards the local church exclusively, any believer can baptize.

There is no scriptural prohibition on which believers can baptize. Likewise, there is no case of any believer ever being admonished for baptizing a new disciple. If the authority of Jesus to administer baptism lies only in his church, each church can commission any member it sees fit to baptize as a representative of the church by the authority of Christ.

Why put a ball and chain on beautiful feet?

Most of our churches, however, carry out the Great Commission in a way that divides Christ’s command into parts: that which is permitted (make disciples), and that which is restricted (baptize them).

For example, church members are encouraged to lead others to the Lord, but they are then required to hand the new believers off to the church for baptism (usually in the baptistery and by the pastor). These new believers are then expected to be assimilated into the church, meaning their discipleship is expected to occur through the church’s existing ministries and structure.

At the very least, it seems awkward that we deliver sermon after sermon on the Great Commission and implore our people to obey it, then shackle them by denying the right to carry it out completely. We do this by discouraging them (and even forbidding) from baptizing their disciples immediately and on location. This sends a mixed message that leaves the believer wondering just how true the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer really is.

It makes sense to baptize, in the assembly, those who came to faith in the meeting of the assembly. (John and Jane visited the Sunday morning service and were convicted during the message . They were baptized in the baptistery before the church the next Sunday.) It also makes sense to baptize, in the assembly, the children of church members as those children come to trust Christ of their own accord. This is the most natural and appropriate setting for these baptisms.

It does not make sense, however, to require those who came to faith outside of the church setting to be baptized in the assembly. (Especially when this requires them to be baptized by a person they do not know in front of people they do not know). This can hijack the natural discipleship process and severely hinder the development ongoing discipling chain. It would make a lot more sense for the person who discipled new believers to Christ baptize them in a setting appropriate to where that discipleship occurred.

I thank God that I didn't baptize any of you…

If the commission is for every believer, then local churches should free every member to be fully obedient and expect them to do it. If the commission is for the church, then churches must find a way to empower their people to use situational judgment, emphasizing on-location baptisms by lay members as more desirable than baptisms in the assembly by the pastor.

There is biblical precedent for asking church leaders to step back from out of the baptismal waters and give space for others to do the baptizing. A number of scriptures insinuate a model where the leader is not the lead baptizer. Jesus did not baptize, but rather his disciples did (John 4:1-2). Paul did not baptize many, he left it for others (1 Corinthians 1:14-16). Peter did not baptize Cornelius’s household. Instead, he simply ordered that they should be baptized (Acts 10:47-48). The Twelve almost certainly called upon the 120 for the baptism of at Pentecost (Acts 1:15, 2:41).3

Elsewhere, scripture actually de-emphasizes who did the baptizing, employing a passive voice. Who baptized Paul? Ananias? Are you sure? The scripture simply says “he was baptized.” In fact, this is true for most of the baptism narratives of the Bible; someone proclaimed the gospel and “those who believed were baptized.”

Paul warned the Corinthian Christians against over-exalting certain leaders and positions. He recognized that baptizing too many could lead to this, and wrote that he was glad that he had not baptized any of them, except Gaius and Crispus. These were almost certainly on-location baptisms, as Paul had lodged in Gaius's house (Romans 16:23), and had started his gospel proclamation that planted the Corinthian church in the synagogue, where Crispus was the leader (Acts 18:8). Paul also baptized the household of Stephanas, another possible allusion to on-location baptism.

Why then did you not believe him?

This kind of immediate baptism on location is New Testament hallmark. The fact that they were done wherever the new Christians professed Christ is probably due to the pioneer missions nature of the events, but the immediacy is almost startling. Paul was baptized in Damascus before the local church even knew he was converted. The jailor and his family in Phillipi did not wait for daybreak. The Ethiopian, who didn't interrupt his travel to hear the gospel, called his ride to a stop in order to be baptized before continuing. In each of these cases, everything happened so fast, the local church did not have a chance to be involved.

Even still, the local church played a key role both immediately and after the fact. After Paul was baptized, he spend several days with the church in Damascus. Later, in Jerusalem, the church would not accept him, until they heard the testimony of Barnabas. After Paul and Silas baptized the jailor and his family, they went back to the church in Phillipi and encouraged the brothers, relating what had happened. The very fact that Scripture records the Ethiopian's baptism reveals that Phillip had returned and shared this with the church and it was received without contention (otherwise, how would Luke have known about it to write about it.)

In the case of baptisms outside of the assembling of the church, it appears that the local churches applied the test that Jesus had given the chief priests with respect to John's baptism. The churches, according to their understanding evaluated the testimonies of their own members in the case of these baptisms and discerned whether it was from God or from man. Peter, for example, had a lot of explaining to do with respect to the baptisms in Caesarea before the church “held their peace and glorified God” (Acts 11:18).

Where two or three are gathered in my name…

Besides this after-the-fact involvement, we also see the local church immediately present in some of these on-location baptisms, though not in an obvious way. Peter took six Christian brothers with him to Cornelius's home (Acts 11:12). The church commissioned Paul and Barnabas, who also took John Mark, a team of three (Acts 12:25). Luke, himself, traveled for a while with Paul and Silas (Acts 16:10).  In cases like these “there were enough in the missionary party for them to have been constituted into a church in transit with inherent authority to baptize.”4

It would take another article to explore this idea further, but the very small church is not a foreign idea to Scripture. Jesus guaranteed his presence to the assembling of two or three in his name. The New Testament is full of examples of churches small enough to meet in homes. There is Cornelius and his household, which was probably the biggest group of the list (Acts 10), Lydia and her household (Acts 16), Priscilla and Aquila (1 Corinthians 16:19), Onesiphorus (2 Timothy 4:19), Nympha in Laodicea (Colossians 4:15), Archippus (Philemon 1:2),  and the thee-story house that Eutychus fell from in Troas (Acts 20: 9). There are some references open to debate.

Following the examples in Acts (and possibly Luke 10), missionary teams of even just two or three can either be commissioned or form themselves into temporary churches in order to exercise all of the duties and rites thereof, including immediate church oversight in baptism and the Lord's Supper. Once again, an idea probably best developed in another article.


My basic position is that baptism is a function of the church to be carried out by any of its members individually and all of its members collectively as God so leads. Existing churches are the natural setting for baptisms, but not the exclusive setting. Churches, according to their understanding of the scriptures should evaluate the testimonies of their own members in the case of on-location baptisms and discern whether it was from God or from man.

The oversight that the church gives to the ordinance of baptism is threefold:

  • The church administers baptism as a body.
  • The church recognizes and accepts as one of their own those who are baptized on location upon the testimony of the church’s own member.
  • The church commissions missionary teams who then function as a church with all the authority thereof as they minister in a pioneer field.

1. I presuppose a Baptist understanding of baptism. My understanding of the teaching of scripture is this: Baptism is the immersion of professing disciples of Jesus in water as the first step of obedience for a new believer. This is the scriptural method for claiming to be a Christian and an absolute prerequisite to inclusion in the church. Baptism is a symbolic proclamation of the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord.

2. SBC Voices hosted a small debate on this topic. Dave Miller and Robin Foster wrote short arguments for two positions on the question: Is Church Oversight Essential for Baptism? Robin Foster took the position that church oversight is indeed essential, and Dave Miller wrote from the perspective that church oversight, while normal, is not absolutely necessary for scriptural baptism. See also: Robin Foster’s rebuttal and Dave Miller’s rebuttal.

3. At Pentecost, if only the 12 baptized, dividing the 3000 equally, each apostle would have had to baptize a person a minute for nearly five hours straight. This use of time wouldn’t fit the text of Peter and the others continuing preaching and imploring people to repent and believe.

4. From Davis Huckabee's Studies on Church Truth, Chapter 5: The Ordinances of the Church

“Who is Authorized to Baptize” was originally published on February 22, 2012 on SBC Voices

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