Baptism & the Church

This is a question that I have run into several times throughout the years. The question often revolves around whether or not a chaplain in the military or a pastor ministering to the elderly in a nursing home can baptize individuals (or perform communion) in those kinds of situations without being either under the direct sanction of or within the physical location of a church. This was brought into reality during seminary when I was able to minister at a retirement community holding Sunday evening services for any residents who wished to come. I do believe that many of these residents considered us like pastors, even though several were regular attenders at churches in the area. So where are the limitations in regard to church work? Would we have been correct on a theological and Scriptural grounds to baptize one who might have come to a saving faith in Christ during those services?

In Baptist circles this particular question is always intensely debated mainly for the reason that it is perceived as operating outside of God’s ordained plan which is channeled through a local church.

Baptism during the time of Christ generally was seen as a proselyte baptism, which would incorporate the baptized not only into the religious fellowship but also into God’s covenant people.[1] This mindset would have been the primary thought behind the very first instances of Jews being baptized by John in the Jordan Matthew 3:5-6. From the first baptism by John, this practice was carried forward as a normative rite of initiation within the Christian community. But how is this 2000 year old practice supposed to play out today? I think we can start by looking at four general principles…

Within Scripture the location seems to be of little consequence as long as there was one main element: water. John the Baptist was at the Jordan in a particular area called Aenon because water was abundant there John 3:23. In Acts 8:36 Philip and the Ethiopian happened across some water and took advantage of this rare resource in the wilderness to accomplish a proper baptism. Paul was in the major city of Corinth in Acts 18:8 and could have possibly utilized public water brought in from the countryside if no body of water was readily available. Therefore:
>> Baptism can take place wherever there is sufficient water available.

The reason for baptism is always directly connected to a conversion through repentance corresponding to the acknowledgment of the person and work of Christ Mark 1:5; Acts 2:38. Christ would challenge the disciples with being baptized into His death, and this statement would take on a fuller theological meaning as the church developed Mark 10:37-39; Romans 6:3. And in Ephesians 4:4-6, baptism is one of the unifying elements of Christianity. Therefore:
>> Baptism is an act symbolizing one’s conversion, devotion, connection, and unification with Christ in both manner of life and manner of suffering.

There are several passages noting that baptism occurred in close proximity to the time of conversion Acts 8:36-38, 10:47, 16:33. But several others Acts 18:8, 19:5, 22:16 do not clearly note if the baptism immediately followed conversion, or if some time had passed before the baptism took place. Regardless, Scripture seems to indicate that the more common practice was to baptize shortly after conversion. Therefore:
>> Baptism should generally be performed closely following one’s conversion.

It is the convert who wishes to identify himself with God’s people in this manner. It is evident from all of the above passages that in addition to the one being baptized, there is always a baptizer, a person who administers the baptismal act for the neophyte (recent convert).This person is always a direct representative of God Acts 2:4, 38, 41, 8:26, but not always the most prominent person available 1 Corinthians 1:14-15. Yet beyond this there is one other person who is intricately involved: the Holy Spirit Matthew 3:11. This is evident most directly in Christ’s baptism as the Spirit comes upon Him in the form of a dove Mark 1:10.
>> Baptism can take place wherever there is a neophyte, a chosen representative minister, and the Holy Spirit.

These general principles are guidelines, showing what I believe to be the bare minimums in which Scripture records the practice of baptism. Obviously there are other considerations that must be taken into account, such as church history and tradition. While some of the situations are specially directed by God, like Philip and the Ethiopian, they nevertheless are approved and sanctioned by God at His prompting. I still do think that baptism needs to be accomplished through the Church, as it is God’s plan and program for His purpose in this age. But I would hope that just because we have established traditions as to what is proper, we would never go so far as to automatically reject without consideration the Ethiopian call asking “what prevents me from being baptized?”


[1] Fahlbusch and Bromiley, The Encyclopedia of Christianity (2003), 1:183.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: