Wednesday, October 11

Who has the authority to baptize?

One of the issues continuing to resurface again and again in Baptist circles is the variance in interpretation of the baptism portion given in the Great Commission. Does baptismal authority rest with individual believers or with a local church congregation?

What was Jesus intent when he gave the Great Commission?

Were his words intended for:

1) the gathered disciples and them alone,
2) the local church throughout the ages, or
3) all disciples of Christ down through the ages?

If your interpretation is #1, then sit back and relax, there is little for you to worry about. It's not your business what God chooses to do with the untold millions who are on their way to an eternity separated from Christ. As strange as it sounds, I have dialogued with many believers who don't like to admit it, but by their actions actually hold to this postion. They feel their responsibility is only to those the Lord brings directly into their life. They have been pacified in their conscience that God only "calls" certain ones of us for this kind of work. They, of course, are not part of this select group.

If the second interpretation is where you find peace, then you believe that every believer is charged by Christ to:

a) go,
b) make disciples,
c) ?
d) teach these new believers.

What happened to "c"? Why is it skipped? Those holding to this position feel that baptism as an ordinance is reserved only for those proper administrators, someone who has been given authority to baptize.

In other words, all of us can do three of the four commands of Christ. But only certain individuals can do all four. Was that Christ's intent when he charged his disciples with carrying out the Great Commission? Did He consider baptism something in a separate class to the other tasks of going, disicipling and teaching? Is it something so special that it can only be administered by a select group of authorized individuals? If so, who are those individuals? How do they get to be the lucky ones to get to obey ALL that Christ said?

Now that may well be the intent of the passage. It certainly seems that many Baptists truly hold this conviction. Fine. But my own reading of this, in combination with other NT baptismal passages, point me to the third option...

I simply feel that the plain reading of the GC lends itself to just what it says: ALL of us followers of Christ who consider ourselves to be His disciples. We are the ones charged with carrying out Jesus' commission.

We are all part of the Body of Christ. There are no individual followers of Christ who have "more authority" than others. Any differences amongst those making up the Body, are functional, not authoritative.

The Spirit has given gifts to each for the building up of the Body of Christ. To begin to elevate persons over others is to go down the road leading to the whole sacerdotal/priestly function like we find entrenched in the Roman Catholic Church. There a clear separation exists between the professional clergy (who have authority), and the laity (who do not.) Clergy are authorized to perform the ceremonies of the church; the laity are not. There we find classes of Christians, distinctions.

In a February 6, 2006 editorial in the Southern Baptist Texan the writer states his conviction for #2 above, "If the commission were given to every believer then any 9-year -old girl who was a Christian could baptize her convert in the backyard swimming pool...Jesus vested the authority to baptize in the church."

At first glance the example seems to prove the argument for church authority in baptism. But isn't there also plenty of room for the literal interpretation of the Matthew 28 passage? Could it be that the reason we have NOT finished the task after 2000 years is that we simply misinterpreted what Christ intended all along?

Imagine with me for a moment the following scenerio...

What would happen if every Dick, Jane, Bill and Harry were to get it into their heads that, yes, THEY are responsible for the Great Commission? Not just a select chosen few, but ALL of us! Like Peter, James, and John, we too have been vested with authority by Jesus Christ himself (Matt.28:18). It is for us to fulfill--not part--but ALL of the Great Commission! I dare say, we would be far closer to finishing the task than we are today.


Bart Barber said...


Might one not reasonably believe that God intended for all of these activities to take place within the context of the church? Unless we sign on with Barna, wouldn't most of us affirm that God's best plan and the clear pattern of the New Testament is one of going, discipling, and teaching not as "Lone Rangers" but in community with fellow believers in the context of churches? It seems to me that this fact removes the tension you portray in your a,b,c,d concept.

Of course, there is a difference in that going, discipling, and teaching within the church do not always take place within the church assembled. But then the nature of baptism is a little different than the other items listed. Baptism exists expressly as a public testimony of one's commitment to Christ. Unless we are sacramental in our understanding of baptism, private baptism is counterproductive. Private evangelism, discipleship, and teaching, on the other hand, are concepts that are in no way self-contradictory.

Thus, although all of these items should ideally take place within the context of the church, baptism additionally should take place publicly within the context of the church.

I'm really not sure that the difference between #s 2 & 3 is a difference anticipated or approved of in the New Testament. That document seems to know nothing either of unbaptized believers or of believers unconnected with the church (except for those excluded through church discipline).

Or, at least, that's how one guy who sees things differently views it. Thanks for a thoughtful post on an important topic.

Tim Patterson said...


Thanks for another important post. The baptism issue is one of the greatest barriers to cpm, IMHO. When our disciples were empowered to baptize this past year, the work exploded! They not only baptized genuine followers of Christ, they discipled them to share their new faith with others, so that reproduction occurred to the 4th generation!

If we could stop nitpicking this, or twisting it to suit our culture... and just plain obey what Christ commanded... what a great harvest we would experience! We have structured the church in such a way that it ties our hands and keeps us from fulfilling the Great Commission. We are not only the church gathered, we are the church scattered! Baptism should be seen as part of making disciples, not departmentalized into a sacrament to be performed by the priestly elite.

Tim Sweatman said...

The most direct reading of the text would lead us to either option 1 or option 3. IMHO, option 2 requires us to read something into the text that is not there. So with option 1 and option 3 on the table, let's look at the ramifications of each one. If option 1 were the correct interpretation, then the Great Commission would have ceased upon the deaths of those gathered disciples. Plus, the NT is filled with examples of others who carried out all aspects of the Great Commission. So this leaves option 3 as the most likely interpretation.

David Rogers said...

Guy & Bart,

I agree with Bart that the NT knows nothing either of unbaptized believers or of believers unconnected with the church (at least if we assume that the Ethiopian eunuch went on to plant the church in Ethiopia). However, it seems to me that all believers, just as they were commissioned, as a part of the Church, and in fellowship with the believers in their locality, to go, disciple, and teach, were also tacitly commissioned to baptize.

What I am not so sure of is baptism in the context of the church assembled. Reading through Acts with this question in mind, I reach the exact opposite conclusion. Baptisms were done there on the spot, independently of who may or may not have been present to witness it (Philip & the eunuch; Ananias & Saul; Peter & Cornelius + family; Paul & Lydia + household; Paul + Silas & Philippian jailer + family; Paul & the disciples of John the Baptist). On not one of these occasions did they say: "Wait, we need to call an assembly of the church, so you can be baptized." The Philippian jailer and family were even baptized in the middle of the night!

J. Guy Muse said...


BART--Thanks for your thoughtful response on a subject that continues to stir us all. Question. Where do we find in the NT support for saying that baptism must take place within the context of the local church? Like David says below, we too have gone over Acts and Epistles many times examining the baptism passages. Our conclusions are the same as his. For me, the #2 position would seem to imply that only authorized administrators would be the ones to baptize, funerals, Lord's Supper, etc. But where in the NT is this concept taught or even implied? While I Tim. and Titus give us qualifications for elders/bishops/overseers/pastors, I do not find where it mention as part of their duties baptizing and the Lord's Supper. Those ordinances were given to the whole church, for all of us to obey.

The "tension" for me comes when we start assuming the Scripture means thus and so, or begin to add layers on top and around the given text. Our people (nearly 100% new converts) read the Scriptures literally. They don't try to read things into the meaning of the words. Just what it says. It is only after they begin attending conferences, seminars, read books, hear sermons etc. that they begin to come back and question what was once "clear" to them. My point, of course, is that WE are the ones who muddle the Scriptural waters, not the text itself. I think Tim below says it quite well!

MR.T--In my previous post "Street Church", who authorized the initial believers to go, make disciples, BAPTIZE, and teach the new believers? Wasn't it Christ himself? There was no ordained pastor, commissioning service, or missionary who won those rough street kids to Christ. It is Byron and his co-workers doing the work. None of them are ordained, seminary graduates, nor have very much training beyond the little we have done with them. They just simply read what the Scripture says to do, and are doing it. Shouldn't they be the ones to do the baptizing? Lord's Supper? etc.? As missionaries we help train, encourage, counsel, provided materials, teach, but THEY are the ones doing the work and are receiving the fruits of their labor. As you say, why complicate matters? Let's just get out there and do it like these guys are!

TIM--I couldn't have said it any better! You have such a gift with words. We need you to "write the book" on this subject. It would make a tremendous impact upon world missions if we could ever get it clearly through our heads Christ's true intent. I myself would buy the first 50 copies :-)

DAVID--Lesson #4 for new believers is a study of all of the Acts baptism passages. We add nothing to or even seek to interpret the passages, just pure Scripture. At the end of the quoted passages are a series of questions like, Who was baptized in the passage? When were they baptized? Who did the baptizing? What is most important in the passage, who does the baptizing, or in whose name they are baptized? How much time elapsed between believing and being baptized? Are there any cases in the above passages where a person was denied baptism because of a particular sin in their life? Do we have the right to impose a different practice than the one shown to us in the above passages?

This lesson usually goes without a hitch with new believers. The answers are pretty straight forward from the text and the usual response at the end of the study is "when do we get baptized?"

It is only when someone from the outside steps in and begins to question the authority of the one to be doing the baptizing, asking about inidividual sins in the lives of the new converts, etc, to confuse the clarity of Scripture, that the problems start. We have had this happen many times, and it always takes several extra weeks to confront the doubts these well-meaning folks put into the minds of the new believers. If we are truly "people of the Book" why can't we just do what the Book says?

Strider said...

You go Guy! I am with you on this. I put togteher a national CP team a few years ago and after a lot of hard work two families were Baptised this last Spring. 'Sam' had been with another org for 7 years and had a lot of experience in EV. When we did the baptism he baptised the man and then the man baptised his wife (as we had taught him) because it would be shameful for her to be in the water with another man. On the way home another of our workers said, 'Hey, Sam, how many baptisms does that make for you?' He said that was the first time he had ever baptised anyone. Tears shot to my eyes. For too many who baptises is not a theological question but a question of power and prestige. I hope to never bapitise anyone here but always encourage my national partners to take the honor. If we look carefully Jesus and Paul did the same.

J. Guy Muse said...

STRIDER--Thanks for stopping by with this good report. I too have never baptized anyone here. We always encourage the locals to do so, and especially those who have worked to win them to the Lord. Even though there is a lot of preassure for me to baptize, I resist in order to avoid the appearance of the missionary baptizing somehow having greater benefit than Juanito doing so. It is not who baptizes, but in whose Name they are baptized.

Bryan Riley said...


Darrell said...

Guy in my opinion this one is so important. You bring up so many really big things.

As far as the issue with the women...obviously it is not an issue of gifting. Like you wrote we know from the scripture that God gave women spiritual gifts. The sticky point is how women are to use these gifts in relation to men. Some of the scriptures on this lend themselves to cultural issues at the time the scripture was written; others seem to have their roots in creation. The point we emphasize when it comes up is that there is an order of authority (this is the kind of loving authority Jesus modeled) in the scripture. So in whatever we do we need to honor this reality that God has instituted. Also I believe it is important to realize that men should make disciples of men and women to women. Beyond that I have not been able to reconcile the various scriptures on this point. I can't wait to sit down with Paul and Jesus and get it straight.

As to the 5 gifts to the church I had a good friend explain it this way. A Christian should be like a Marine. What makes the Marine unique among the armed forces is that every marine is trained in everything. They can operate in the air, water, land, and all the various tasks associated with each. In order for this to happen they are trained by people who are experts (gifted) in each area. This is how the church should look at itself. EVERY disciple should be "trained" by each gift. So while every disciple is not gifted in every area, they are equipped in every area. The folks who have these five gifts do a disservice to the body when they enable the majority of the body to sit on their rears and watch them show off. Each gifted person should evaluate how well they are using the talent God has given by how well they pass on what they have to others who will do the same. When this goes right you have a body that is ready for all phases of kingdom work!

I agree having one person as the pastor of a church is not the Biblical example, it is not wise, and it weakens the body. Clergy/laity is just not in the scripture, and it is not something that blesses or strengthens the Kingdom.

It is so fun to see others who see things this way. For many years I felt this way and would bring these things up and people would look at me like I was from Mars. I am so thankful that the Holy Spirit is still at work teaching the Church!!