Authority for Baptism: Who May Baptize?

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Authority for Baptism: Who May Baptize?

What does not give authority: Any form of Ecclesiastical Authority

By “Ecclesiastical Authority” I refer to the concept of church authority as expressed through its designated officer(s) owning some greater level of right to perform certain functions. Typically, in an evangelical church, that officer is the ordained pastor. In this case, I am particularly challenging the assertion that only the pastor of a local church has the right to baptize new believers.

Argument #1:

M: If the authority to baptize is dependent upon ecclesiastical authority, then there must be an unbroken succession of ecclesiastical authority from the beginning of the church.
m: No such succession exists historically.
⛬: The authority to baptize is not dependent upon ecclesiastical authority.

Most evangelicals would not take issue with the minor premise of this argument. While Roman Catholicism does indeed claim an unbroken succession of ecclesiastical authority, but every evangelical tradition recognizes that, throughout history, the truth of Christianity has been held by distinct, often disconnected groups of believers. The succession is a spiritual succession, not based upon ecclesiastical organizations or authority, but upon the unchanging truth of God’s word.

The major premise, however, may be debated by some. Is ecclesiastical authority for a local church today dependent upon an unbroken succession of that authority from the beginning? Let us examine other possible arguments:

Argument #2:

1: Authority is directly delegated from an existing authority, without intermediaries.
2: The delegator is the one who bestows authority, the delegate is the recipient of authority.
3: The delegator is Christ, the delegate is every disciple.
⛬: Authority comes directly from Christ to every disciple, without the intermediary of an organization.

And the complementary argument:

Argument #3:

1: Authority is directly delegated from an existing authority, without intermediaries.
2: If authority is inherent in the church, then  to satisfy premise #1, the church would have a verifiable chain of past authorities from Christ to the present who transferred that authority.
3: There is no verifiable chain of past authorities from Christ to the present.
⛬: The church does not have its own inherent authority, and did not inherit any institutional authority from Christ.

We conclude, then, that the only way the church as an entity could have authority is through an unbroken succession of ecclesiastical organization, otherwise, there is no legitimate way in which an institution could have such authority. This succession, however, does not exist, as anticipated by Argument #2 above. To demonstrate that this argument stands scriptural testing, let us examine the wording of the Great Commission itself:

[Mat 28:18-20 KJV] 18 And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. 19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: 20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, [even] unto the end of the world. Amen.

Note first the bracketing phrases: “All power (Greek: exousia – authority) is given unto me… I have commanded… I am with you…” The main theme of this commission is Jesus Himself – not any particular group of people, be they church, disciples, or something else. He is the locus of authority in the universe, and the only true and final source of it for Christians here on earth.

The Greek text is additionally enlightening:

και προσελθων ο Ιησους ελαλησεν αυτοις λεγων εδοθη μοι πασα εξουσια εν ουρανω και επι γης;
πορευθεντες ουν μαθητευσατε παντα τα εθνη βαπτιζοντες αυτους εις το ονομα του πατρος και του υιου και του αγιου πνευματος,
διδασκοντες αυτους τηρειν παντα οσα ενετειλαμην υμιν και ιδου εγω μεθ υμων ειμι πασας τας ημερας εως της συντελειας του αιωνος αμην

The verbs Go, Baptizing, and Teaching are all complementary participles for the main verb, μαθητευσατε, which means ‘to make disciples.’ Jesus intentionally lays these three words out as three parts of one action: disciple-making. Interestingly, He makes no distinction between them, indicating that all who make disciples are to do all three.

Note what some of the early Christians (who had less tradition, and were more familiar with the culture and language) had to say about this:

To conclude my little work, it remaineth that I give an admonition also concerning the right rule of giving and receiving Baptism. The right of giving it indeed hath the chief Priest, which is the Bishop, also the Presbyters and Deacons, yet not without the authority of the Bishops, for the honour of the Church, which being preserved, peace is preserved. Moreover laymen have also the right, for that which is freely received may freely be given, unless the name disciples denote at once Bishops or Priests or Deacons. The word of the Lord ought not to be hidden from any: wherefore also Baptism, which is equally derived from God, may be administered by all.

Tertullian*

It is worth noting that Tertullian was very much in favor of ecclesiastical control, and gave great weight to the role of pastor, treating them with a dignity almost bordering upon worship. He actually believed that baptism was necessary to salvation. Nevertheless, his honest appraisal is that any believer can, and occasionally must, give baptism. His basic argument is in the following form:

Argument #4:

M: Anything which the Lord freely gives may be freely given (such as His word).
m: Baptism is freely given by the Lord (as is His word)
⛬: Baptism may freely be given by all (as also His word).

 

A related argument builds upon Tertullian’s reasoning, and the clear implications of the grammar and syntax of the Great Commission passages:

Argument #5:

M: If baptism were reserved only for church leadership, evangelism and teaching would be likewise reserved.
m: Evangelism and teaching are recognized as activities for all believers, not just leaders.
⛬: Baptism is not reserved for leaders, but is something all believers may do.

Clearly, this agrees with the previous arguments. Christ Himself (and His truth) is the sole source of authority. This authority He directly bestows upon every disciple. The premises stand. This being the case, the argument is both valid and true, and its conclusion stands. Baptism cannot be based upon ecclesiastical authority, and should not be limited to church leadership alone.

Additionally, Edwin Hatch, a scholar of the early church, has this to say:

In regard to baptism there is no positive evidence, but there is the argument a fortiori which arises from the fact that even in later times, when the tendency had become strong to restrict the performance of ecclesiastical functions to Church officers, baptism by an ordinary member of the Church was held to be valid, although if an officer might have been found it was held to be contrary to Church order.*

 

Argument #6:

M: If the authority to baptize is dependent upon ecclesiastical authority, then Christ would have directly connected baptism to the church or church authority figures.
m: No such connection exists.
⛬: The authority to baptize is not dependent upon ecclesiastical authority.

The major premise, to me, seems reasonable. If church authority were so vitally important to baptism, it seems reasonable that Christ would have given some explicit teaching to that effect. However, it is certain that Christ never directly connected baptism to the church or church authority figures. While some have tried to infer that the Great Commission passage is exclusively targeting church leaders (represented in the persons of the apostles), the inference is fallacious. First, as already shown, the other portions of the Great Commission cannot exclusively apply to church leaders. Second, we have no way to verify that only the apostles were present and addressed. Third, while Christ taught specifically on the church, the word ekklesia is absent from the entire discourse, and therefore absent thematically from the commission itself.

Scriptural and logical tests prove false the idea that only ordained pastors may baptize.

Instead, scripture clearly indicates that any disciple-maker may baptize.

So… How did this idea enter Christianity?

Confused church-men

The first indication of any limitation at all upon who could administer baptism came from Ignatius of Antioch (c.a. 115 A.D.):

It is not lawful apart from the bishop either to baptize or to hold a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve, this is well-pleasing also to God; that everything which ye do may be sure and valid.

Ignatius to the Smyrnaens 8:2

It is worth noting that Ignatius was a prototype for later Catholic thinking: He held to sacramentalism in its earliest form, placed great weight upon the person of the bishop – even to the extent of describing them as the human representatives of Christ. However, Ignatius still allows that a layman, given the bishop’s approval, would have the right to baptize. Ignatius’ concern is not only with authority, but also with propriety and order. It is interesting to note that this view remained the strongest pro-clergy position for about 700 years.

Forgeries

The first document to declare outright that ordained clergy alone have the right to baptize was not produced until after 833 A.D. The Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals , the largest Medieval forgery ever discovered (700 pages in Latin), is that document. It was apparently a conspiracy-ignited attempt to protect Roman Catholic clergy after Pope Gregory IV failed to permanently overthrow the sitting Carolingian monarch. It may also have been an attack upon the lay preachers of truly believing Christians, including groups such as the Waldenses, whose faithful witness continued through centuries of Roman Catholic domination. These forged document crafted fictitious church councils, papal decrees, and confessions of faith in order to achieve its purpose: greater power for the Roman Catholic Church.

Above all else, however, Pseudo-Isidore defends the rights and prerogatives of bishops. According to Pseudo-Isidore these bishops are the pillars of the Christian church, and they deserve every protection from the interference of the laity and the intrusion of metropolitans. False witnesses and biased judges pose grave threats to bishops, and so every accused cleric has the right to appeal his cases to the papal court. In the world conceived by Pseudo-Isidore, though, it is hard to imagine any case progressing that far. The forgeries surround the clergy with enough convoluted and contradictory protections to make any judicial process against them essentially impossible.*

The false decretals cite a fictitious Council of Paris in 829 A.D. to give credence to their exaltation of the Bishop, and their attack on the rights of laymen to be involved in baptism and other Christian duties. Interestingly, these documents also rail against “re-baptism,” which became a hallmark of the so-called radical reformation – the spiritual forerunners of today’s Baptists.

Sacramentalism

One of the primary reasons the Pseudo-Isodorian Decretals deny laymen the right to baptize has to do with the Roman Catholic view of sacraments. In Catholic dogma, sacraments are Christian duties whereby grace is imparted to an individual. With the coming of the false decretals, a slow movement towards Church control converted to its present form in Catholicism: More and more, salvation was seen as coming only through Rome, and therefore the sacraments, which led to salvation, must also come through Rome. Popes desiring power to control the administration of the sacraments in order to control nation-states, had no problem moving from a grace-freely-offered-to-all system to a grace-bestowed-upon-humble-subjects system. Sacramentalism formed one of the major factors in pushing for a clergy-only administration of baptism.

 

What does give authority: Having the Right to Speak in Jesus’ name.

This question has already been addressed in some detail by the information above. A final argument will be made from the Great Commission:

[Mat 28:18-20 KJV] 18 And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. 19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: 20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, [even] unto the end of the world. Amen.

Arguments:

M: To properly teach obedience to the Great Commission, one must be obedient to the Great Commission.
m: Disciple-making is obedience to the Great Commission.
⛬: Disciple-makers may teach obedience to the Great Commission.

M: If an individual may perform any one action of the Great Commission, that individual may perform all the actions of the Great Commission.
m: Disciple-makers perform at least one action of the Great Commission (teaching and/or evangelizing).
⛬: Disciple-makers may perform any action of the Great Commission (including baptize).

Combining these arguments from the text itself, it is clear that anyone who obeys the Great Commission in other ways may also baptize. This person would be called both a disciple, and a disciple-maker. The authority comes direct from Jesus, because He has authorized His disciples to speak in His name.

 

Right to Baptism: Who May be Baptized?

Biblically, there is no question: those who believe in Jesus Christ. While this is clearly stated in numerous verses, we might display the summary in this argument:

M: Baptism is a sign of identification with a person or a cause.
m: Only a believer in Jesus truly identifies with Jesus.
⛬: Only a believer in Jesus may be baptized.

This rules out infant baptism. I have not dealt with immersion – perhaps that will make it into another article. Suffice to say, sprinkling and effusion are relatively recent traditions, even within Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox teaching. Even as recent as the Pseudo-Isodorian Decretals, Catholic writers assumed bishops would be baptizing by triple-immersion. The biblical way is simple: Immersion in water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as a visible sign of identification with the Christ in whom I believe.

Application to Church Planting and Missions: Why is this important?

In North America, where established churches are relatively abundant, it is not difficult to find an ordained minister to baptize a new believer. By contrast, however, many places across the world have little to no access to this Christian organization. In these contexts, baptism is often delayed until an ordained person can come to baptize converts. Sometimes years pass. This, unfortunately is quite contrary to the teaching of scripture, and it puts the brakes on many indigenous believers who otherwise would quickly become obedient to Christ in every aspect of the Great Commission. If new believers were taught what the Bible says instead of traditions formed from confused church-men, forgeries, and false teaching, perhaps new believers would be set free to quickly witness to and disciple others – potentially leading to true church planting movements around the world. It is time that evangelical believers went back to the Bible, and let it truly be the sole rule of faith and practice.

2 Comments

  1. Matt

    March 24, 2017

    Interesting. As someone who has baptized outside of a connection to a church, I have come to question biblically whether that should be the case. You are right that the general nature of Matthew 28:19 could lend to the view that non-ordained Christians could baptize and possibly that it could be done outside of the context of the church.

    I did not see any interaction with the first Christian baptisms though – in Acts. I have waffled between “added to their number” meaning just added to the universal church or added to their number because they identified with Jesus in baptism (if that is the case, baptism clearly was in the church context and was a means of identifying with Jesus and coming under that local assembly). I used to be for view one, now I lean toward view two.

    There are a few baptisms recorded in Acts that aren’t associated within the context of the local church. The Ethiopian eunuch, the Philippians jailer, and the disciples of John. But in each of these contexts, there was no local church yet – they were the start of one.

    I don’t think necessarily that an ordained person needs to baptize, but do think Acts fleshes out Christ’s command more. There are many places where He speaks more generally about the nature of the church that Acts and the epistles give more light to.

    I would recommend the series on the church that Scott Ashmore preached at the Wilds. I believe Josh Seymour has copies. He gives a clear explanation on what “the keys of the kingdom” means and it is highly relevant to this discussion.

    WMD

    • David author

      March 24, 2017

      Matt,

      I agree with the gist of your comment. I did not interact with the first Christian baptisms in this article because it was dealing primarily with one part of the issue – who can baptize? As a result, it is definitely a narrow treatment of the subject. As you mentioned, Acts gives us several examples of baptisms that were clearly outside of an existing local church. I would suggest that baptizing people is what creates a New Testament local church – that is, the local church is a result of baptism, and therefore its own hierarchy is not the authority – instead, the authority is Jesus.

      Regarding the epistles, it is notable that they never address the issue of who could baptize. The early church fathers (I quoted Tertullian, but he is representative of the general consensus in the first two centuries), all interpreted the gospels, Acts, and the epistles as giving permission to all disciples to baptize. They assumed (as I do) that baptism implies identity with Jesus, which implies corporate identity with Jesus’ people (the local church). If a Bible-believing local church already exists, then a baptized believer ought to be part. If no such church exists, then a baptized believer ought to form one part of a new local church.

      I ought to mention that this was a much simpler issue in the first century. They had not developed the massive collection of disparate denominations that we have in Christianized areas, and typically there was only one local church within a city, so it was not hard to know which to associate with.

      Thank you for the comment. Perhaps I will be able to do a write-up on what we see in Acts and the Epistles on this subject in the future.

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