Can Only The Clergy Baptize?
As a clergy person in the Reformed tradition, it may strike you as odd that I have an argument that — if you agree is sound and valid — will undercut the ecclesial authority vested in me, but hear me out. These are the sorts of conversations in Christian theology that emerge when open minds engage an open Bible. Bottom line: what I aim to argue here is an interpretation of the Great Commission that expands the authority to baptize others to ALL disciples of Christ, not just limiting it to the clergy.
Administering the Sacraments
In the Church, the administration of sacraments is a task that is typically reserved only for ordained ministers. Biblical motivation for setting ordained ministers apart in this task often comes from reading 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4, and 1 Timothy 3. In these chapters, Paul refers to miracle-workers, tongues-speakers, bishops, deacons, apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers —these are all distinct (yet mutually connected) offices in the body of Christ that have been equipped to edify the Church. While these offices by no means imply some sort of hierarchy within the Church, they do imply a kind of specialization of duties within the Church that are separate from the duties someone else might have. Each person is like one piece in a large mosaic that when wholly combined reveals the beauty of the Church.
The practical motivation for setting ordained ministers apart is that the sacraments themselves are considered special because they convey the real presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in this world; they are signs and seals of the covenant that God has instituted with humanity. Given this understanding of what the sacraments are, one ought to approach their administration with all due respect, intent, and understanding. And, given that clergy are people who have been called and equipped by God to their office, have had this calling affirmed and certified by those currently in that office, and have demonstrated all due respect, intention, and understanding of and for the sacraments, it is proper for the Church to defer to their leadership in administering the sacraments.
After all, there is a sense that if the sacraments are administered improperly or carelessly, then the presence of God will not be extended in that particular moment (of administering and receiving it). One may then have grounds to question the validity of the sacrament in that case. While the Bible is mostly silent on the technical aspects of administering the sacraments, theologians have historically argued from the model and example that Jesus set as being normative for orthopraxis (right action) in the Church. The only conditions the New Testament offers that are necessary for sacraments to be received are a repentant heart and a public profession of faith in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior (Romans 10:9-10, Acts 2:38, et. al.).
So what about all the key words and tricky phrases that ministers and priests say when administering the sacraments? Well, when it comes to baptism in particular, the Second Helvetic Confession puts it this way (5.190): “THE FORM OF BAPTISM. We believe that the most perfect form of baptism is that by which Christ was baptized, and by which the apostles baptized. Those things, therefore, which by man’s device were added afterwards and used in the Church we do not consider necessary to the perfection of baptism…”
The sufficiency and efficacy of the sacraments is in the work that God does when moving in and through the intentions and actions that both the minister and recipient engage in. We believe the presence of God is invoked when we perform these actions in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which is why ministers and priests verbally say that. One might then appreciate why it was a big deal when an American priest discovered the baptism he received was invalid, which in turn may have invalidated all the baptisms he administered to others. Canonically, priests have to be properly baptized themselves in order to properly baptize others, and so the situation caused both controversy and consternation in the Catholic Church.
But if we are using the baptism of Jesus as the golden standard to which all other baptisms measure up to, then where is the invocation “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Spirit, and Son” to be found in the Gospels? Nowhere! They all simply report that John performed the actions, they are silent on what John said. We might speculate about what John said, but the Gospels don’t report it. The reason why the invocation of God’s name is considered a necessary condition of baptism (and of all sacraments for that matter) comes from the Great Commission… which leads me to the point of this article.
Is the Great Commission really that great?
Matthew 28:16 But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated to them. 17 And when they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful. 18 And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. 19 Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to follow all that I commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (NASB)
Suppose Jesus meant this commissioning was for only the Apostles. This would mean that the first generation of Christians could receive a baptism, but only by one of the Apostles. And after the Apostles were gone, no more baptisms could be administered. Such an interpretation is odd and kind of absurd, but when you’re reading the Bible for exegetical purposes you have to consider everything before moving onto interpretations that make more sense in context and in how they were traditionally interpreted.
Traditionally, the Great Commission may have certainly begun with the Apostles, but it did not end with them either. If the Apostles went out to the nations to make new disciples, then those new disciples would’ve also received the Great Commission from them. Verses 19 and 20 create a positive feedback loop of disciples making new disciples, and those new disciples making newer disciples, and so on and on into each generation. That’s what makes the Great Commission really that great! But if we are to take the Great Commission very seriously on that interpretation, then technically ANY baptized disciple of Christ possesses the authority to baptize others if they so choose out of faithful obedience to execute what Jesus commanded. All that is required is that the baptism is administered in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. That’s it!
One might object here by saying whoa whoa whoa! Surely Jesus meant for the Great Commission to narrowly apply to individuals whom the Apostles specifically ordained as their successor, and their successor’s successor, and so on. But this implies that the authority to baptize would rest solely in the hands of a handful of individuals from one generation to the next. Not to mention, what if those successors got martyred or otherwise unexpectedly died before they could ordain someone to fill their office? It is possible in that situation that all of the successors could be eliminated in a single generation and no more baptisms could be administered ever again. —Intuitively that model just seems wrong. As it turns out, any restrictions we place on the Great Commission make it the Not So Great Commission.
If the Great Commission really is that great, which I think we all agree is, then we must see how it expands the authority to administer the sacrament of baptism to anyone who is a faithful and obedient disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. In Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (a perennially studied text in many seminaries) by Wayne Grudem, he makes a similar contention, though arguing from the priesthood of all believers as derived from 1 Peter 2:4–10.
“Who can perform the ceremony of baptism? Can only ordained clergy perform this ceremony? We should recognize here that Scripture simply does not specify any restrictions on who can perform the ceremony of baptism. Those churches that have a special priesthood through which certain actions (and blessings) come (such as Roman Catholics, and to some extent Anglicans) will wish to insist that only properly ordained clergy should baptize in ordinary circumstances (though exceptions could be made in unusual circumstances). But if we truly believe in the priesthood of all believers (see 1 Peter 2:4–10), then there seems to be no need in principle to restrict the right to perform baptism only to ordained clergy.” (p.983)
As I said before, the restrictions only seem to become relevant when considering the practical dimensions of baptism. For better and for worse, the Church has organized itself into a well-oiled machine in the 2000 years since Christ walked the Earth. The hierarchies and distinctions which we impose upon ourselves in terms of various offices having authority to baptize might have significant value in terms of orthopraxis, but I find little biblical support to consider it an essential matter of Christian orthodoxy.
One outcome of adopting the belief that all baptized disciples of Jesus may baptize new believers (upon invoking the authority in God’s name), is that this may help settle an internal denominational debate you may be having with yourself if you’re interested in joining a particular one. Do you see the denomination you’re considering as being more exclusive or inclusive when it comes to baptism? Are there many or few barriers one must cross to receive baptism? Do you think being discipled by somebody is an important component of getting baptized or not? How you think about these questions may influence your decision to join one denomination over another, because each have their own distinct views about baptism… which go beyond merely the question of who has the authority to administer them.