Who Can Baptize?
The subject of baptism is one of the most important in the New Testament. Jesus, Peter, and Paul all taught that baptism for the forgiveness of sins is essential to salvation (Mk. 16.16; Acts 2.38, 1 Peter 3.21, Rom. 6.1-6, etc.). Baptism is mentioned in every single conversion account in the book of Acts and is described as a re-enactment of the foundation of our faith: the death and resurrection of Christ (Col. 2.12). Such an important step in our response of faith towards God demands a thorough understanding of baptism. Through the scriptures we learn the correct method (immersion in water: Rom. 6.4; Acts 8.38), the proper authority (in the name of the Lord Jesus: Acts 19.5; Mt. 28.19), and the right reason for being baptized (the remission of sins, appealing to God for a clean conscience: Acts 2.38; 1 Pet. 3.21). However, there remain some practical questions about baptism that must be answered. One such question was posed recently: “Is it biblical for a woman to baptize another woman if there are no men around?” As one should do in all matters of faith and practice, we appeal to the scriptures for the answer.
It is worth noting at this point that this question is a specific instance of the larger question: “Who can baptize?” The scriptures are clear concerning the required characteristics of a person being baptized, but are there any stipulations placed upon the “baptizer”? This question is at the root of many related questions such as “Must the one baptizing be a man… Do we have to be baptized by a preacher or elder…Does my baptism count if it’s not done by the right person”, and others like these. By addressing the root question, we can resolve many of the branching issues concerning those who baptize. First, we will address the question of who can baptize according to the scriptures. Second, we will consider the question of who should baptize.
Who Can Baptize According to Scripture?
When determining how to carry out what God has commanded (to baptize), we must ask some important questions. First, “Has God told us directly who ought to baptize?”. In short, no. There are no specific commands regarding what sort of person ought to baptize, unlike (for example) the requirements for elders in 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1. This is a significant silence which points toward the minimal importance of the one who baptizes in the salvation of the one being baptized.
The lack of focus on who baptizes is demonstrated by Paul in 1 Corinthians 1.13-17, where he expresses thankfulness that he had not baptized more of the Corinthian brethren (not that their baptisms were unnecessary, but he was thankful he had not added more fuel to the division problem burning there). Paul’s purpose wasn’t to “baptize, but to preach the gospel” (v.17), and this shows where the true emphasis of Paul’s work lay. Consider also the example of Jesus in John 4.1-3, where Jesus is noted for not baptizing, instead choosing to leave this duty to His disciples. If the identity and character of the baptizer mattered, how could the disciples of Jesus (who were often faithless and hard-headed) be better suited for carrying out baptisms than our Lord Himself? Lastly, consider Paul’s meeting with the Ephesian disciples in Acts 19.1-7. When Paul questions them concerning their baptism, the issue of who baptized them is notably absent. What IS emphasized is WHAT they were baptized into: “On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (v.4).
Furthermore, in the book of Acts the identities of the baptizers are omitted far more often than they are mentioned. Consider the following examples:
- Acts 2.41: “So those who received his word were baptized” (no mention of who carried out these baptisms)
- Acts 2.47: “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (baptism is implied, and those who baptized are not mentioned)
- Acts 10.48: Peter commands Cornelius’ household to be baptized, but it doesn’t say who did the baptizing.
- Acts 16.15: Lydia is converted by Paul and company and is baptized, but no mention of who baptized her.
- Acts 18.8: Crispus and his household are baptized, no specific reference as to whether it was Paul, Silas, or Timothy
This brings us back to the original point: the scriptures do not indicate that the baptizer must have a particular quality or level of faith. This has at least three important implications. First, this implies that the effectiveness of one’s baptism is not dependent upon the character or faith of the baptizer. If an unbeliever responds to the gospel by belief and confession that Jesus is the Christ and is baptized for the remission of their sins according to the scriptures, they needn’t worry whether or not their baptism “counts” based on who baptizes them. Secondly, this allows for obedience to the gospel to be carried out even in extreme and rare circumstances. For instance, if one is convinced of the gospel truth simply by reading the scriptures and seeks to be baptized, must they wait until they encounter a faithful Christian who is willing to baptize them to be saved? Of course not. This is both impossible (how do we verify the faithfulness of another, and how faithful must one be to baptize?) and unreasonable. Simply put, the baptizer is simply one who facilitates the “appeal to God for a good conscience” (1 Pet. 3.21). Lastly, this also means that in certain circumstances women are permitted to baptize unbelievers if this is determined to be the wisest course of action (more on this in a moment).
Who Ought to Baptize?
The question of who ought to baptize centers more on wisdom than permission. We must be willing to submit ourselves not merely to lawfulness, but also helpfulness. “’All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful.” (1 Cor. 6.12a). When it comes to the subject of who ought to baptize, there is much that must be considered when deciding what is the wisest course of action.
Given no direct commands as to who should baptize, we must appeal to New Testament examples to see how this ought to be done. The question, in this case, is “How has God shown us who ought to baptize?” When we examine the scriptures and consider who is baptizing, we learn that it was done in every case by male believers:
- John the Baptist (Mt. 3.5-6)
- Jesus’ disciples (John 4.1-2
- Philip (Acts 8.38)
- Ananias (Acts 9.17-18, 22.12-16)
- In the case of Cornelius’ household, either Peter (Acts 10.47-48) or one of the six “brothers” he brought with him (Acts 11.12)
- In the cases of Lydia, Crispus, and their households: Paul, Silas, Timothy, or possibly Luke (Acts 16.15, 18.8)
- Paul (Acts 19.5; 1 Cor. 1.14-16)
While those who baptized after the day of Pentecost were Christian men, we should notice that they have no other meaningful commonalities. Specifically, these men were not all apostles, preachers, or elders of local congregations. This is relevant since one commonly expressed misconception of baptism is “You all believe you have to be baptized by a Church-of-Christ preacher”. This is demonstrably false. Ananias is described in Acts 22.12 only as “a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there”. The baptizer’s status as an apostle, elder, or preacher makes no difference as to the authenticity of the baptism. In terms of determining who ought to baptize someone into Christ, one must recognize the repeated examples of male believers and seek to imitate these approved examples whenever possible.
One would be remiss to ignore the possibility of scenarios arising that would hinder one’s ability to imitate the New Testament examples. One such scenario was presented in the original question: “Is it biblical for a woman to baptize another woman if there are no men around?” In this case (the lack of a male believer ), only two options remain. 1. The unbeliever is baptized by a female believer, or 2. Put off baptism until a male believer is available. Postponing one’s obedience to the gospel for any reason is not a concept we see in the N.T. (in fact, we seem to have a strong counterexample in Acts 16.32). In this case, one must conclude that a female believer would be permitted to baptize an unbeliever. Other scenarios like this one have been posed (with varying levels of plausibility), but by applying clear New Testament principles we can make good decisions regarding who should baptize.
One must also be aware that a woman baptizing in the presence of male believers could be construed as exercising authority over a man. “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” (1 Timothy 2.12). Whether or not a woman’s baptizing of an unbeliever in the presence of other Christian men usurps their authority is a great question, but in this case, the answer is secondary to the perception. If women are allowed to baptize but doing so would be perceived as exercising authority over male brethren, it would be sinful for her to baptize on the grounds of causing another to stumble (Romans 14.13-16). Furthermore, if one desires to be baptized during an assembly of the Lord’s people, the requirement for the women to remain silent in the churches (1 Cor. 14.34) would forbid them from being able to baptize.
In short, the scriptures do not clearly indicate who can baptize another into Christ. The emphasis of baptism is placed wholly upon the one being baptized, the necessity and effect of their baptism, and their reasons for doing so. However, this does not mean that we are excused from exercising wisdom based on the scriptures in determining who ought to baptize unbelievers. Certainly, we must recognize the approved examples we are given in the New Testament, as well as understand and account for the effect our choice of baptizer will have on those who are connected to the event. Above all, what we decide and do must be to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10.31). -Kyle Sanders