There is debate about who can baptize someone, or who has the authority to perform a baptism. Some people believe that only ordained priests are authorized to perform a baptism, while others believe that anyone can baptize another person. So which view is correct? Let’s take a look at what the Bible says about this topic.
In this article, we specifically cover water baptism, not any of the other baptisms in the Bible. Water baptism is an important command in the Christian faith and is very closely tied to salvation. It is a declaration of our faith in Jesus Christ and our commitment to follow Him. Peter describes it as an “appeal to God for a clean conscience” (1 Peter 3:21). For more information about why people get baptized, see my article: 12 Reasons for Baptism.
Why this article?
Before I write an article, especially on a loosely defined topic in scripture, I often ask myself, “is this beneficial?” In other words, will this article help build up my brethren or those interested in following Christ? Or will it cause distraction, and more divisiveness?
Usually, I would judge a topic like this to fall more on the “distraction” side. However, I have come to realize the spirit behind teachings that limit baptizing to a class of authorized people are potentially damaging. Here are a few reasons why.
Looking for Laws Where None Exist
The reason I judge the restriction here as potentially damaging is simply that it tends to promote rule-following rather than a change of heart. If there’s one class of people I want to avoid becoming, it’s those who seek after establishing rules and traditions where none exist. Jesus treated the Pharisees pretty harshly for exactly this problem.
As a person begins their walk with Christ, sometimes providing “guidelines” can help them keep from straying. This may prove helpful in teaching the newborn Christian wisdom. However, guidelines are not the same things as rule books.
How Adding Additional Regulations Can Be Detrimental
A rulebook or extra regulation can have the opposite effect of keeping a new Christian from straying. These regulations come in the form of church tradition taught as law, restrictions, or other rules that don’t appear in scripture.
When a person converts to Christ, they should understand that they were not saved due to their worthiness or power (Ephesians 2:8-9, Romans 3:20-30, Romans 4:1-7). The Christian is not at all “worthy” of being saved, so far as it relies upon them. Rather, it is the radical grace of Christ that saves them. This is a core belief that’s fundamental to conversion. I discuss this concept more in my article: Do you have to be baptized to go to heaven?
If this belief doesn’t take place, the Christian may not fully commit or convert to Christ. That’s because they still rely upon their righteousness rather than faith in God.
This is what rulebooks or religious checklists tend to create in their recipients. That is, emphasizing a person’s worthiness because of the good works in their life. Unfortunately, the result of such a mindset is all too often a Christian that compares themselves with those around them.
Where the comparative attitude ends up is an ego-centric mind that cares about its status over accepting a Christ-like position of humble servitude. Hence, why the Corinthians were so concerned with who baptized them. It was their way of “one-upping” their neighbor.
Placing Emphasis in the Wrong Place
Such is my fear for the person who emphasizes the one performing their baptism. It may become a sort of merit-based mindset which can lead to competitiveness as it did for the church in Corinth. Paul had this to say to the congregation that did such things:
What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name.1 Corinthians 1:12-15
Are there any restrictions on who can baptize?
A good place to start is by examining the restrictions in the Bible on who may perform baptisms. But that’s the trick, there are none. As far as I am aware, no commands exist in the Bible to limit the authority of performing baptisms. There is no “authorized” class of ordained priests, preachers, or elders who can perform baptisms.
This reason alone (in my opinion) should be enough to convince us that authority to baptize another person doesn’t reside only with apostles, priests, or elders. However, there are still some arguments against this liberty that we will examine next.
Arguments Against Authority to Baptize
Was performing baptism only commanded to apostles?
One argument from orthodox Christians comes from the great commission in Matthew 28. The argument is that the command to “baptize” is given only to the disciples following Jesus at that time. These were 11 of the 12 apostles which would later include the apostle Paul. Here is what Jesus says in the account:
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
Jesus’ command was, “make disciples”. In this case, he wanted disciple-making to take place in all nations. Baptism and teaching, therefore, are instructions for how to accomplish the command (to make disciples).
Challenges for a limited view of great commission authority
This presents some challenges to the view that only apostles are authorized to baptize. For the sake of consistency, the entire command to make disciples (not just baptism) must be limited to apostles only. The problem with this is that many first-century church members participated in evangelism. Here are some examples:
- Acts 8:1-4 – The church in Jerusalem was scattered due to persecution. In this section, it says that everyone except the apostles was scattered and went about proclaiming Christ.
- Acts 8:5-14 – Philip, a deacon, preached Christ in Samaria. It is also shown here that believers who accepted Philip’s teaching were baptized. The most logical assumption is Philip was the one who did the baptizing. Notice that apostles did not arrive until later (verse 15).
- Acts 11:19-26 – A similar account of the scattering in Jerusalem. This one mentions in more detail the conversion work done in Antioch by the scattered Christians. There was no apostle present during this time (except for Paul who comes later).
After reading the above references, it seems there are only two possible conclusions. Either the early church understood the great commission to apply broadly, or they were violating Jesus’ command. However, the apostles clearly approved of the great work done to spread the gospel. Therefore, the most reasonable conclusion is that Jesus’ command to make disciples by teaching and baptizing applies broadly to all Christians.
Additional Challenges to Limited Authority View of Great Commission
There are some additional challenges to the restrictive view of baptism in the great commission. I will not get into these for the purposes of this article, but perhaps a future one. For now, this should suffice to serve as a counterpoint to the limited authority view of the great commission.
Does Bible silence prohibit who can perform baptisms?
Another argument in favor of restricting the authority to baptize is that the Bible need not specifically limit authority to a class or individual by a command. That is, it can restrict the performance of baptism by not saying anything at all. Therefore, the silence of the scriptures prohibits anyone outside of Biblical examples from baptizing another person.
The problem with this view is that it is impossible to live out consistently. For example, every occurrence of the Lord’s supper in the Bible takes place in an upper room. The Bible is silent about when and where to partake of it. All we have are these examples.
But almost no church (that I know of) builds a second floor on their building so they can follow the examples of partaking the Lord’s supper in an upper room. However, if we are to be consistent in our restrictive view of silence, we should. Instead, we rightfully understand the command is simply to partake of the Lord’s supper, and the where or when is permissive. The location and time are not restricted by the commands or examples (or lack thereof).
Therefore, silence cannot be restrictive. Rather, it must be permissive. In the case of who may go about baptizing, the same rule must apply. In other words, not only apostles are authorized to perform baptisms.
Specifically for authority to baptize, the entire premise for this argument fails anyway. This is because we do have several examples of non-apostolic baptisms (listed in the previous section). Additionally, we find that other individuals such as Apollos (not an apostle) baptized new converts in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1).
Who can baptize?
Anyone can baptize. However, that does not mean that anyone should baptize. While the Bible doesn’t say non-Christians cannot baptize, I would judge that (at the minimum) whomever you choose to baptize should be a Christian and a member of the church.
Is it possible that you find yourself in a situation where the only person available to baptize you is a non-believer? Sure, anything is possible. But that’s an extremely rare case that I’m certain doesn’t apply to you. I don’t even know why a non-Christian would ever perform a water baptism anyway.
Does it matter who baptizes you?
It matters who baptizes you only if you believe it matters. That may be an unsatisfactory answer to some of you, but let me explain. This principle comes from Romans 14 where Paul instructs the Christians in Rome about how to behave when a brother or sister has “weak faith”.
The weak faith that Paul describes is one whose conscience is not free regarding rules and regulations. For example, some of the young Christians in the church (or churches) in Rome had trouble believing it was acceptable to eat meat. One reason for this may be attributable to the idolatrous worship practices and the anecdotal use of meat in and around the worship of pagan gods. Some Christians may have associated the eating of meat with accepting or approving idolatrous worship.
For these Christians, Paul admonishes that they do nothing to violate their conscience:
But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.Romans 14:20
I believe we can apply this same situation to the debate on who can perform baptisms. Therefore, for the person whose conscience decides they should be baptized by a priest or pastor, they should do so.
Beyond that, it doesn’t matter whether the person who performed the baptism is an ordained priest, elder, or the guy who sits next to you in the church pew. What matters is the kind of heart that you bring before the Lord. God wants a heart of repentance, commitment, and faith.