Christians are used to debating the question “Who can be baptized?” But much less ink (digital or otherwise) has been spilled debating the question “Who can baptize?” Should baptism–and the Lord’s Supper for that matter–be administered only by ordained pastors (and possibly elders), or can any church member in good standing preside over the sacraments?

A number of thoughtful voices have argued that baptism need not be limited to ordained pastors and elders. Wayne Grudem, for example, affirms that “there seems to be no need in principle to restrict the right to perform baptism only to ordained clergy” and that it is appropriate for “mature believers to baptize new converts” (Systematic Theology, 983-84). Recently I read on the website of a church I greatly respect that any believer (male or female), baptized subsequent to salvation, who is a member in good standing of a local church can baptize another believer. The argument in both instances is that since Scripture does not make explicit any restrictions and since we believe in the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:4-10), we should not limit the administration of baptism to the ordained pastors or elders of the church.

This is a good discussion to have, not least of all because many people who grew up like I did, where ordained officers were the only ones allowed to baptize, may have never considered whether the practice has any justification behind it. I think that it does. I believe only ordained pastors–and depending on your understanding of the offices, this may include ordained elders (like it does in the RCA)–should administer the sacraments in general, and perform baptisms in particular.

Here are four reasons why.

1. Biblically, we see that those who perform Christian baptism in the New Testament have been set apart by Christ for an office in the church (e.g., Peter, Paul, Phillip). Strictly speaking, the Great Commission, with its command to baptize, was given to the apostles, not to every believer indiscriminately. There is no evidence to show that private members baptized.

2. Theologically, we must take into account how Christ rules his church. Christ is the only king and head of the church. All authority is his authority. All rule is his rule. All grace is his grace. And yet, “as king of his church Christ has also instituted a specific office, the office of presbyter (elder), by which he governs his church” (Bavinck). As his under-shepherds, our Chief Shepherd rules in the church through the elders of the church (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-4). The sacraments (or ordinances) involve the administration of grace and exercise of church power which belong to the office bearers of the church.

3. Exegetically, an appeal to the priesthood of all believers does not support the administration of baptism by every church member. The reference to the church as “a royal priesthood” affirms the holy nature of God’s people (1 Peter 2:9). It does not suggest that now in the New Testament there are no rites which may be performed only by ordained officers. For God’s people in the Old Testament were also called a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6) and they had a whole tribe of priests set aside for functions that only the priests could perform.

4. Practically, for baptism to be responsible there must be some church oversight. The examples I cited above are not advocating for baptisms willy-nilly whenever you and your buddy feel like getting wet. There must be a process of accountability and evaluation. Invariably, as Grudem points out, the pastor(s) of the church are likely involved in determining who can be baptized and who can baptize. If church officers superintend the process–and surely they must if baptism is to be anything other than a private ceremony of personal dedication–it stands to reason that they exercise their Christ-given authority in performed the baptism itself.

I wouldn’t give each of these four reasons equal weight. For me, point 2 is the most compelling, then 3, then 1, then 4. The net result is that I see very good reason for the traditional practice of restricting the administration of the sacraments to the pastor-elders of the church.

UPDATE

Lots of good questions and comments (and some not so good questions and comments too). Thanks to John Wiers for four good points (see comments); those are helpful. Let me just briefly touch on the Great Commission, because that is the most common objection being raised.

First, a paragraph from Turretin who has a small section in his Elenctic Theology on the issue: “Is baptism by laymen or women lawful in any case? We deny against the Romanists.”

The office of teaching is either public and from authority, or private from charity. The latter can be exercised by private persons, but not hte former. Now the sacraments as seals of the king are acts of authority which cannot be dispensed by private persons, not even out of charity. Thus instruction and doctrine have a wider scope than baptism. For although no one but a baptized person teaches, still everyone teaching does not baptize. Besides there is one necessity of doctrine, which is absolute and of the means to salvation; another of the sacraments, which is hypothetical and of command. (3.394).

In other words, those who teach is a wider category than those who baptize.

Which brings us to the Great Commission. We should note, at the outset, that the Great Commission was given to a specific set of people, to those who would wait in Jerusalem for power from on high, to those who would give eye witness testimony to the resurrection. This doesn’t mean the Great Commission doesn’t matter for anyone but office bearers today. What it does it mean is that we have to understand its significance for us by implication, not by immediate application. It sounds like a strong argument to say, “Well, if we don’t all baptize, then I guess we shouldn’t all do discipleship!?” But this argument proves too much. If every aspect of the Great Commission is directly for every individual believer, then 99% of us are disobeying the Great Commission by not going to the unreached nations of the world. Instead, on good instincts, we operate with the assumption that we can still obey the Great Commission if we participate as a church body in sending others to the nations.

It’s better to understand that the Great Commission (1) gave marching orders to the apostles, (2) established the mission priorities for the church second, and (3) by implication encourages individual Christians in what their lives should be about. This observation does not settle the debate about whom may baptize. But it does clear away some of the underbrush that says Jesus was meaning to instruct every Christian about his need to go to Jerusalem, wait for Pentecost, fan out from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth, teach people everything Jesus commanded, disciples the nations, and baptize in the Triune name.

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69 thoughts on “Who Can Baptize?”

  1. Peter Krol says:

    Thanks for the careful thinking here, Kevin. It sounds, though, like the only alternative you see to minister-administered baptisms is “willy-nilly whenever you and your buddy feel like getting wet.” But couldn’t it be possible to maintain “a process of accountability and evaluation” and still allow non-ministers to administer baptism? Couldn’t the elders oversee the process and provide accountability, without doing it all themselves, much like they might do with a system of small group or Sunday school leadership?

  2. A. Amos Love says:

    Was wondering…

    *Which baptism* are we talking about, when you write…
    “Who Can Baptize?”

    I ask you; Which baptism? Because, in the Bible, I find folks…
    *Baptized* different ways – *Baptized* into/with different elements – *Baptized* for different reasons.

    1 – John the baptist “Baptized” – into/with *water* – for *the remission of sins.*
    ….. Mat 3:11, Luke 3:16, Acts 19:4,

    2 – And Jesus “Baptized” – with *the Holy Spirt and fire* – so His Disciples *shall receive power.*
    ….. John 1:33, Acts 1:5, Acts 1:8, Acts 11:16, – Water NOT mentioned.

    3 – And the Spirt “Baptized”believers; “into *The Body* – So we can ALL be – *One body.*
    ….. 1 Cor 12:12-13. Water NOT mentioned.

    4 – Jesus taught His Disiciples in Mat 28:19 KJV. Water NOT mentioned.
    Go ye therefore, and teach all nations,
    baptizing them in **the name** of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:
    (NO great commission in this version – Modern versions use Make disciples.)
    Is *water * the element here? Water is NOT mentioned. Or…
    Is the element “The Name of?” “Name” is Srongs 3686 – authority, character.

    And – I can NOT find one of His Disicples, apostles, who baptised anyone – into water…
    “in *the name* of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,”
    His Disicples mostly “Baptized” in *the name* of the Lord Jesus.”

    What a bunch of dis-obediant Disciples, apostles… Yikes… ;-)

    5 – Yup – Some are – “Baptized” in *the name* of the Lord Jesus.
    …. Acts 2:38, Acts 10:48, Water for these two – but in Acts 19:5, baptisim to receive thr Holy Spirit.

    6 – Many are – “Baptized” into *Christ* *Christ Jesus.*
    …. Rom 6:3, Gal 3:27.

    So – Which way do folks “need to be baptised?”
    In order to obey this commandment of Jesus?

    Any “one” of these? – All six? – How many? Which “ones?”

  3. SDuladmi says:

    I wish I had the exact quote, but R. Scott Clark of Westminster California has actually said that it is for Reformed ministers to *mediate* *grace* between ‘lay people’ and God.

  4. Simmul Iustus et Peccator says:

    3 observations followed by 3 scenarios:

    1. Ananais was authorized by the King to instruct and baptize Paul. Whether he an elder or not, he was duly authorized. In any case, it’s shaky to make a norm from narrative, though there is much to learn from Paul’s conversion, repentance and baptism.

    2. Baptism without elder oversight is an opportunity for individualism, chaos, cults and schism, because it misses the covenantal and corporate dimension of baptism, as well as the public declaration of an ordinance that pictures the gospel. Baptism has the added dimension of picturing the con-joining of a new member of the Body of Christ.

    3. Baptism without elder oversight “outside” the church gathered in worship is an opportunity for individualism and personal preference rather than humble submission to wise, caring, shepherds who discern and give catechetical instruction, etc. in solidarity with the church community.

    Scenarios and related issues:
    - If elders oversee baptisms, can a non-elder assist them? Can a non-elder youth pastor perform it with, or under, elder supervision? Can an apprentice or intern assist? Why not?

    - If elders oversee baptisms, can they occur outside the normal service for gathered worship, e.g., a youth or men’s retreat, a Sun. evening service? Why not?

    - If a person is home/hospital bound, can they be baptized, with elder authorization, by a deacon or chaplain or person authorized by the elders? Why not?

  5. Gregg Love says:

    What about third world where there may only be two or three Christians in a community. Who can baptize when there is no one who has been ordained or graduated from an American seminary? This is limiting the power of GOD unto salvation to professionals. I teach my people they are to make disciples (we have a process) and to baptize those who prove faithful to the process (done in our gathering). Am I wrong? Am I not free to oversee my people’s growth to maturity?

  6. Simmul Iustus et Peccator,

    Can’t agree with (1) there that you’ve presented – Ananias was instructed by the King, sure, but that can’t be a way of saying, “It was a select case.” If you do that you are reading your own presuppositions of baptism into the text – not exactly how we should be approaching biblical topics.

    That interpretation can actually create more problems as anyone could say that they were “instructed by the King directly” and, quite possibly, use that interpretation method for this text for a whole wide range of other things too.

    Eldership oversight for baptism in a church is perfectly fine – the elders oversee that church – but saying that only elders can baptise (as Kevin has tried to put forward and hasn’t seemed to change his mind) is a different thing altogether. But of course, there are select cases where there is no local church and whoever has led someone to the Lord should be able to baptise those people in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, regardles of whether they are an elder or not. There’s no biblical reason to think otherwise.

  7. Reading posts such as this really frustrate and somewhat anger me. Yes, i get it – the Church does have some structure and functionality that is systematic, monotonous, and legalistic. Sure . . . we should research and honor these laws. IMO, this post is going too far. Who should usher? Who can break bread? Who can host Church meetings at houses? Who can sing? Who can pray? Who can give announcements – Are they allowed to give them in front of the pulpit?

    Outside of Baptism’s symbolic reference, it’s a fairly useless sacrament. In the mean time, we are desperately trying to extract some discreet, hidden rules of Baptism. It’s as if we read all the Old Testament laws and were disappointed because we thought it wasn’t enough. God bless theologians with initials behind their names, but i think sometimes, it’s fair to accuse them of trying to resurrect a modern day Talmud for the Church. We can’t baptize unless an ordained minister is around? The tune of this post sounds so familiar with some passages in the New Testament.

    “And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

    “One Sabbath, when he went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully. And behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy. And Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?”

    The pharisees were great at conjuring up rules that seemed to exist with an obscure explanation attached to it.

  8. Simmul Iustus et Peccator says:

    To Ryan Peter: good thinking about this stuff with you…

    Several on the stream pointed to Ananias as an example of a “disciple” [i.e., a believer, not an apostle or member of the apostolic circle; not called an elder] who performed a baptism. In this they saw warrant for any disciple to do a baptism anytime, anywhere.

    Ananias was told in a vision by the risen Jesus to minister healing to Paul (and likely told Paul Jesus’ prophetic word verbatim–or we wouldn’t have it recorded by Luke). The narrative implies Ananias also performed the baptism after the physical/spiritual healing. Jesus expressly delegated His authority to Ananias to do all he did. Ananias was under orders.

    Most continuationists (and all cessationists) will recognize that this is a unique event in redemptive history. The call of Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles, is epochal in the unfolding of the book of Acts, and so requires a very clear revelation and monergistic conversion.

    Even if/as God still gives visions and heals through the laying on of hands, etc., the norm for (adult/older child) new believer baptism is for elders to discern a genuine conversion and oversee it.

    There is much to learn from the narrative but it is not the controlling text for authorizing disciples to baptize without elder oversight/approval.

    So those would focus on Ananias’ example exclusively are on shaky ground for these reasons and because it subjugates the pastoral epistles teaching on delegated authority and oversight.

  9. Thanks Simmul Iustus,

    I’d agree that the Paul / Ananias event was / is distinct (I may not use the word unique) but I still can’t see that its “distinctness” calls for us to interpret in the way you are presenting. It still makes sense to say that we have two examples, one being Ananias and the other Philip, where ‘non-elders’ baptised new believers. Two cases starts to make things suspicious, especially given that there are no instructions anywhere that are explicit about only elders being able to baptise. Kevin’s explanation of the Great Commission is seriously wanting here so that cannot be used either.

    For believers to baptise with eldership oversight makes sense – after all, elders do govern the local church and have oversight of all its activities – but this doesn’t translate into elders being the only ones who can baptise, which is what Kevin seems to be putting forward. This means that if I, as a deacon, go on a business trip and convert someone to the faith and they want to be baptised, it’s perfectly fine for me to do it. It would be good to help them find a local church, but if I was in China it would be hard to maybe find a local church – and one I know I can trust! (I don’t say this without my elders agreeing with it, for the record :P )

    The plain meaning – as plain as we can get – of the texts regarding baptism seem to point towards it being perfectly fine for non-believers to baptise. You have to claim all sorts of other things about elders – and create a soft distinction between “clergy” and “laity” – to start interpreting these texts in any other way.

    I do think that if we had to believe that only elders could baptise and then interpreted the Ananias event as unique because he was under direct instruction from the King, we open up the possibility that many others can do many other things and claim to be “under direct instruction” – including trying to take over governance of a church from elders and many other such things. The excesses of charismatic churches do that kind of stuff as it is, but I wouldn’t want to give them yet another hermeneutical method to do so.

  10. Oops – I said “non-believers to baptise”, I meant “non-elders to baptise.”

    And it’s “distinctiveness” :)

  11. Dwight Gingrich says:

    This is an interesting post and conversation. I agree with those who have not found Kevin DeYoung’s arguments convincing. Rather than respond directly to those arguments here (as some have already helpfully done), I’ll paste what I compiled when researching the subject myself several years ago.

    I asked “Who Baptizes in the New Testament?” I compiled all my findings under four headings:

    1) Events where it is explicitly stated who did the baptizing.
    2) Events where it is not explicitly stated who did the baptizing.
    3) Teaching/command passages where it is explicitly stated who should baptize.
    4) Teaching/command passages where it does not explicitly state who should baptize.

    Caveats: 1) I did not address the theological or ecclesiological aspects of the question. 2) I worked from English translations, not the Greek text. If I did it again I’d work from the Greek. However, I suspect my findings would remain unchanged. 3) I examined only texts that include some form of the word “baptize.” I did not examine other NT allusions to baptism (e.g. “washing” or “water”) or deductions which could be drawn from narratives in Acts or the epistles about who might have been present in a church at a given time to baptize.

    Here were my conclusions:

    ——————-
    A review of all the verses in the NT (KJV, NASB, and ESV) that include the words baptize, baptized, baptizing, baptizest, baptizeth, baptism, baptisms, and Baptist shows that:

    * John the Baptist is the only person who was known for administering baptisms.

    * The only NT command which specifically states who should baptize is the Great Commission—given first to the 11 apostles, but generally understood as a mandate for all disciples of Jesus.

    * Besides John the Baptist and Jesus’ disciples before Pentecost, the only people who are explicitly described as administering baptisms are Philip and Paul. Philip’s baptisms prove that the Great Commission command to baptize was not limited to the apostles. The only time Paul is *explicitly* described as having baptized anyone is 1 Corinthians 1:13-17, where he goes to great pains to emphasize how rarely he baptized, usually leaving that task for non-apostolic helpers.

    * In Acts, baptism is usually spoken of in the passive voice—baptism is described as something that someone *receives*, not as something which someone *does* to someone else.

    * Rather than emphasizing who does the baptizing, Acts often emphasizes the name in which the baptisms occurred—“the name of Jesus Christ/the Lord Jesus/the Lord” (2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5; 22:16). This matches Paul’s concern that if he as a prominent apostle baptized too frequently, people might conclude “that I had baptized in mine own name” (1 Cor. 1:15). If he was known for his clever speech or his baptizing, it would distract from the cross of Christ (1:13, 17). Thus, “Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel” (1:17).

    * Paul’s letters likewise describe baptism as occurring “into Jesus Christ” (Rom. 6:3), “into Christ” (Gal. 3:27), and “with him [Christ]” (Col. 2:12). They occur “by one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13), so there is only “one baptism” (Eph. 4:5). Peter similarly emphasizes that the power of baptism comes “by the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21), not by the action of the water (or by anything else, surely, such by as the person administering the baptism).

    * In summary, one gets the impression that it is not important who does the baptizing—even baptisms administered by people who have false motives (see Phil. 1:15-18) would surely be recognized, if the candidates were truly calling upon the name of Jesus. The believing, repentant condition of *the convert* and the authority of *the name of Jesus* are what make a baptism valid. Ananias’s admonition to Paul is a good example of this dual emphasis which downplays the role of the baptizer: “Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16).
    ————–

    Blessings to all!

  12. meredith nienhuis says:

    Kevin – a question as to the scope of infant baptism.

    Proposed RCA liturgy for infant baptism reads,

  13. meredith nienhuis says:

    to continue,

    Proposed RCA liturgy for infant baptism reads,
    “in baptism, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit.
    marked as God’s own forever,
    and called to follow Christ in mission. Amen.”

    To me this reads as infant baptism unto corporate salvation.

    Kevin, in the last months I attended funerals for someone in their 40s and another in their 20s. Their dates of infant baptism were given as assurance that they were now in heaven. Is this “simply” reformed theology now and in ages past?

    Blessings >

  14. Sarah says:

    If only the ordained can baptize, I guess new believers in most countries will never get baptized.

  15. Green Acres says:

    We are, right now, facing a situation where a new family desires to join our church. The father baptized a son (credo), in the presence of elders, in his former church and during a worship service. Valid? Or not? I tend to think, (or, ‘want’ to think), that, since the elders gave permission and were there, it is ‘as if’ an officer of the church administered the baptism.

    I find this a pesky question. But it needs to be answered. We live in a culture-even ecclesiastical culture- that so emphasizes individuality…. Or, individualism.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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