Who Can Baptize?
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.
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.