Thursday, October 29

Is church oversight essential for baptism?

David Miller, writing for SBC Voices asks a very pertinent question: Is church oversight essential for baptism?

See if you agree with his biblical analysis and interpretation...
The question at hand is whether the local church is the only appropriate place for a valid, biblically-correct baptism to take place. Is a baptism that is performed outside the authority of a local church to be considered valid or invalid? I will not argue that baptism should never be performed under the direction of a local church. I will argue that local church oversight, while normal, is not necessary to the performance of a valid baptism.

Baptists have use “confessions” to describe our doctrine through the years. I will admit that those confessions support church oversight, in general. But we Baptists honor history; we are not bound by it. We are guided by what the Bible says. And I will argue that the Bible does not support the idea that baptism is only valid under local church supervision.

The Narratives of Acts

Acts has eight instances of baptism. In Acts 2:41, 3000 converts are baptized after Peter’s sermon. There was no established church at that moment. In fact, this event was the establishment of the church, so there is little evidence here. In Acts 8:12-13, Philip preaches in Samaria after fleeing Jerusalem’s persecution. He baptizes those who believe. He sought approval of no local church to perform those baptisms. Again, in Acts 8:37-40, Philip meets the Ethiopian Eunuch and leads him to Christ. The eunuch asks, “What prevents me from being baptized?” If local church authority was essential, Philip should have responded, “I’ve got to get approval from the church.”

The evidence gets stronger in Acts 9:18, because there was an established church in Damascus. Ananias is directed to go and speak to Saul, who is converted. Saul is baptized immediately, without any approval of the disciples of Damascus. Acts 10 is even clearer. Peter is directed by God to visit Cornelius, a gentile. He is baptized immediately upon his conversion. There is no local church for him to be baptized into. In fact, Peter had to defend the decision in the Jerusalem church after the fact. He only sought approval after the fact. He baptized first, then got approval later.

In Acts 16:14-15, Paul baptizes Lydia soon after his arrival in Philippi. There is no local church into which to baptize her. Later, when Paul leads the Philippian jailer to faith, there is a local church, but Paul does not get their approval before baptizing him. The baptism of John’s disciples in Acts 19:3-5 gives little evidence in this argument.

It is tricky making points from narrative. However, the eight instances of baptism in Acts consistently demonstrate no local oversight. That is evidence that must be explained by those who demand church oversight as essential. Dismissing the evidence as “narrative” is not enough.

Evidence from the Epistles

Epistolary evidence explains narrative experiences. So, what do the epistles say? There are six references in the epistles about baptism (it can be tricky to differentiate water baptism from Spirit baptism). None of them give any support to local church oversight. In fact, they argue against it.

Romans 6:1-4 tells us that those who were “baptized into Christ” were buried with him into death and raised to walk a new life. In 1 Corinthians 1:10-17 uses baptism to discuss the divisions in the Corinthian church. 1 Corinthians 12:12-13 states that Christians were all baptized into one body. Paul and his associates were not baptized into the Corinthian church, so it can hardly be argued that he is speaking of their baptism into the local Corinthian church. Galatians 3:27 says that those who were “baptized into Christ” have put on Christ. Ephesians 4:7 says that there is “one baptism” as there is one Lord and one faith. 1 Peter 3:21 refers to the meaning of baptism as an expression of cleared conscience through the resurrection of Christ.

The key point is the phrase that is used in Romans 6 and Galatians 3, and in similar form in 1 Corinthians 12. We are “baptized into Christ.” Never does it say, “baptized into the church” or describe baptism as an initiation into a local church. It seems that baptism was an expression of a person’s salvation experience in Christ which immediately followed conversion. Local church oversight and involvement began immediately after baptism in the New Testament.

The Great Commission

Those who argue for local church oversight often base their argument in Matthew 28:18-20, the Great Commission. Jesus said that we were to “make disciples” by both baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything Christ spoke. They maintain that the Great Commission gives oversight of baptism and discipleship to the local church. However, that is a hermeneutical stretch. This passage is given to the apostles and all the disciples – the universal Body of Christ (another debate topic entirely). No local church existed yet when the passage was spoken.

In conclusion, the view that all valid baptisms must be performed under local church oversight may be argued from historic confessions, but not from scripture. There is no support for it in the narratives of Acts. The epistles describe baptism as “into Christ” and do not support it either. Only a forced reading of the Great Commission supports the idea. It is clear to me that baptism is an expression of faith in Christ that is properly experienced under the guidance of the body of Christ, but local church oversight is not essential to the performance of a valid baptism.
So what do you think? Is church oversight essential for baptism? Do you agree or disagree with David?


Strider said...

Biblically there is no question that the apostles baptized apart from a local body of believers. Philip, Paul, they all did it. We do this here on the field a well. Many of us are in places where there is no local Church. But in the US this discussion is taking place with a lot of personal baggage. Everyone has an uncle Joe who stays home every Sunday and insist he and Jesus are just fine. They is not. I think this is an issue like Paul had in 1 Cor 7 where he would say this is of the Lord and this is my idea but I am pretty sure it is a darn good one. Obviously, local Church baptism is best. Jesus asked how can we claim to love God whom we have not seen when we don't love our neighbor whom we have seen. But, to make some kind of law out of baptismal methodology is foreign to apostolic thinking entirely. Paul was so concerned that laws and regulations not rise up that he himself baptized very few apparently. Jesus never baptized anyone we know about. This to me is a good reason not to draw too many lines in the sand. As in everything else, we are free to do whatever but not all things are beneficial. Least of all making rules and expecting others to have to live by them!

Tim Patterson said...

It is not either-or, it is both-and. We are talking methodology here, and that can change depending on the circumstances (if a church does not exist or if there is an established church). Does not matter how it happens, as long as it happens... We identify ourselves as Christ-followers through baptism and it illustrates to others what has happened in our life. Baptism is initiation, not graduation... so we initiate a life of obedience to Christ... part of that obedience is becoming part of the body of Christ and functioning as part of His body.

Dan said...

I have run into this twice now. Both times it has surrounded young believers from my ship who have accepted Christ. One of them flat out didn't want to go another day without baptism (think Phillip). So I baptized him. Was it wrong because the local church didn't oversee it?

My question is: Does it matter? If the church he joins someday doesn't approve, he can be baptized again. I've told him that and I expect that he agrees. The second case is a young man who is looking toward baptism after being recently saved. Again, the answer is pretty obvious to me. Baptism is a proper Christian response. Why are we making it such a big deal? It is what it is, and doesn't need to be ruled over by the local church.

Strider said...

But Dan! If anyone can baptize anywhere how are local church leaders going to leverage their power and control? Clearly you are not thinking this through.

Sorry guys, I am in a mood today- it is Saturday after all.

GuyMuse said...

Strider, Tim, and Dan,

Thanks to all of your for your insightful comments. I have been out of town the past week and just getting back in the "blog saddle". Of course I come down strongly on the side of the writer of this article. I know few M's who wouldn't. It seems to me one has to be adding to Scripture to come up with anything different. Anyway, thanks for the insights.