Jesus’ ministry was going great. His followers were growing. Demons were getting cast out. Sick people were getting healed. Other people started jumping into the movement. The disciples encountered one of them trying to cast out demons in Jesus’ name. “We need to put a stop to this,” they must have thought. “We’re not sure this guy has proven credentials.”
This became a powerful teaching moment for Jesus to correct his disciples’ fleshly tendency to stifle people by restricting their use of Jesus’ authority to set people free.
We’ll pick up the action in a few moments…
I’ve seldom written an article that speaks correction to other ministries. I am writing this because I have personally seen so many people hindered and stumble over an issue I believe seriously hurts the fruitfulness of the Body of Christ: “Only ordained ministers are allowed to baptize.”
The policy that ordained pastors are the only ones allowed to baptize people is a violation of Jesus’ commands to us. It hurts our chances of bringing transformation to every nation in our generation. If you are leading in an organization where this is a policy, I plead with you to repent and repeal it. The benefit for doing so is the potential of great fruitfulness and blessing ahead for you!
When I started Student CPx with my friend Dr. Pam to equip students to make disciples and plant simple churches on their campus, I quickly (and sadly) discovered how controversial baptism policies were. I received a call from a veteran campus minister working with a very well respected college ministry. The conversation went like this:
Campus Minister: “Are you teaching students they can baptize other students?”
Me: “Yes. Why do you ask?”
Campus Minister: “I’ve been working for the ministry for 12 years. The policy of our organization is that I’m not allowed to baptize people. All the leaders in our organization are required to send students to local churches where ordained pastors are supposed to baptize them.”
Me: “Well, what did Jesus tell us to do in the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20?”
Campus Minister: “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…”
Me: “What is the mission of your organization?”
Campus Minister: “To fulfill the Great Commission in our generation.”
Me: “Well … how can you fulfill the Great Commission if you forbid people from obeying it? … Let me ask you another question. Imagine a student I train on your campus starts reaching Buddhists for Jesus. A group of Buddhist friends start reading the scriptures together with her. At some point, they come to the words of Jesus where He commands people to repent and be baptized. They all decide they want to follow Jesus and obey Him, so they go out to the campus fountain and the student baptizes them. Then they start reaching other Buddhist friends with the gospel and teaching them to obey Jesus together. Would you tell me that what happened was wrong?
Campus Minister: “Wow. I guess not. Actually, that would be really good.”
To be clear, this man represented a ministry organization with a rich, honorable legacy of reaching students for Christ. He loved Jesus. He loved students. His heart for God was evident. But he was misguided by a policy similar to others that have plagued the church throughout history. “Only priests should be able to read and interpret the Scriptures.” “Our denomination is the only true church.” “Only certain Christians can serve communion, and only in specially sanctioned services.”
This man worked in a city where over 250,000 college students studied. I later asked someone close to him how many students were baptized last year in their city that they knew of.
The answer: “One.”
Ironically, here’s a video of what happened about six months later at a SCPX follow up gathering:
The policy of restricting baptism to only ordained people isn’t helping more people meet Jesus and get baptized. As I’ve consulted numerous churches and para church ministries the last four years, I’m saddened by how controversial this issue continues to be.
No matter the reason, placing restrictions on which followers of Jesus are empowered to obey Jesus and baptize is wrong. I’m not talking about the qualifications for eldering or other recognized positions of authority in the church. Even so, not even one time in the New Testament is it even suggested that only elders or other positions of authority should be the only ones baptizing people. The command to make disciples and baptize people is for every disciple of Jesus.
Now, back to the story I started with at the beginning…
Here are some Biblical reasons why the command of Jesus to make disciples and baptize people is for every disciple of Jesus.
Reason #1: Jesus demonstrated an empowering, “permission given” model for ministry.
When Jesus’ disciples came upon someone who wasn’t “endorsed” by them casting out demons using Jesus’ name (His authority), they told him to stop. Jesus was clear in his correction to them:
“Teacher, we saw someone using your name to cast out demons, but we told him to stop because he wasn’t in our group.” “Don’t stop him!” Jesus said. “No one who performs a miracle in my name will soon be able to speak evil of me. Anyone who is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:38-40)
When Jesus’ disciples began to try to limit people from following Jesus’ example, He emphatically corrected them. This temptation has hindered the church for 2,000 years whenever it rears it’s ugly head.
If Jesus told his disciples not to stop others outside their group from casting out demons, representing His name, why should we try to hinder people from baptizing others, using His name?
Some would counter this point by saying, “What about the sons of Sceva who tried to use the name of Jesus and got beat up by a demon possessed guy?” (Acts 19) They’re missing the point. The sons of Sceva weren’t followers of Jesus. All disciples of Jesus are commanded to use Jesus’ name to call people to repentance, baptism, and freedom. If you’re not a follower of Jesus, yes, it’s silly to try to represent His authority. But even then, Jesus never once forbids people from trying. He says, “These signs will accompany those who believe,” not those who are ordained.
Reason #2: In the New Testament, baptism was an immediate action that accompanied repentance and faith in Jesus.
Examples of this are prevalent in the book of Acts. The Ethiopian Eunuch is just one.
“So beginning with this same Scripture, Philip told him the Good News about Jesus. As they rode along, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look! There’s some water! Why can’t I be baptized?” He ordered the carriage to stop, and they went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.” (Acts 8:35-38)
If a similar story happened today, many of us in the body of Christ might have responded to the Ethiopian’s question, “Why can’t I be baptized?” with, “Well, you can’t yet because you haven’t taken a baptism class and there’s not an ordained pastor present.” Thankfully, Phillip had never heard of such a policy. I’m confident Jesus is not a huge fan of the policy, either.
This kind of scenario is almost exactly what happened to my wife when she started following Jesus. She had an encounter with the Holy Spirit in her apartment in college. She went out and got a Bible, started witnessing to her friends, and even baptized one of them who started following Jesus. When she went to a local church to get baptized, the pastor seemed confused and said she couldn’t get baptized until she completed the necessary requirements. The traditions of men were already coming in to squelch the innate, spiritually reproductive power of the gospel my wife had caught.
I realize there are sometimes missiological reasons for waiting for baptism (e.g. honoring the heads of a household when a minor begins following Jesus). But the truth remains: If all people are commanded to preach the gospel, than all people are called to baptize others as well.
Reason #3 The Apostle Paul didn’t make a big deal about who was doing the baptizing – in fact, he warned against it.
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul says:
“I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church…. I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, for now no one can say they were baptized in my name. (Oh yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas, but I don’t remember baptizing anyone else.) For Christ didn’t send me to baptize, but to preach the Good News—and not with clever speech, for fear that the cross of Christ would lose its power.” (I Corinthians 1:10-17)
There were other unique contextual issues in the Corinthian church Paul addresses in this letter, but the point is the same: Paul demonstrates it doesn’t matter who does the baptizing. He warned them about bragging about having a certain leader or another as the one who baptized you. The important thing is whether the gospel of Jesus is being preached with power to transform people’s lives. It doesn’t really matter who baptizes you if you sincerely want to follow Jesus.
Reason #4: Even Jesus didn’t baptize – His disciples did.
“Jesus knew the Pharisees had heard that he was baptizing and making more disciples than John (though Jesus himself didn’t baptize them—his disciples did). So he left Judea and returned to Galilee.” (John 4:1-3)
Jesus didn’t say, “Only I have the authority to baptize, because you guys are young and inexperienced.” Jesus Himself modeled for us that He empowers others to baptize. We should do the same!
Reason #5: It’s a sinful temptation to substitute our traditions for God’s clear commands.
“For you ignore God’s commands and substitute your own tradition.” (Mark 7:8)
In the case of baptism, we have made the same error so many have done through history: we’ve substituted our own tradition for a command of God. This doesn’t invalidate our ministries. God is able to work powerfully through all sorts of churches and ministries who have shortcomings and even faulty theology. He is so gracious! However, just because our ministry has been fruitful is never a reason to hold back from repenting when He reveals something that needs to change. As followers of Jesus, we should never let our policies rise above the authority of Jesus’ clear commands, the Scriptures, and the Holy Spirit.
Reason #6: Jesus commanded us to baptize people!
“Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
The words of Jesus are crystal clear: Go make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to obey all He commanded. Any policy that restricts people from obeying Jesus is wrong, no matter how well intentioned.
Arguments for Restricting Baptism
Here are a few arguments for the policy of limiting baptism to only ordained ministers I’ve come across:
“Isn’t baptism something that people with recognized authority should do?”
The short answer to this question is, actually, “Yes“. It’s just that all true followers of Jesus have that authority!
Some have argued that Jesus only told His disciples to baptize – not other people. The argument goes that a recognized place of authority (ordination) is required to be able to baptize people. Think about this with me – the same logic used to make this argument for only ordained ministers having authority to baptize leads you to the conclusion that only ordained ministers are fully disciples of Jesus – everyone else is not. Furthermore, this argument is a slippery slope few would be comfortable extending to its conclusion. At what point do you draw the line? Are only certain Christians qualified to pray for healing? To lead people to Jesus? To forgive and love their enemies? There’s no logical basis for restricting the commands Jesus gave to His disciples from anyone who is His disciple today.
If you are a disciple of Jesus, you not only have authority, you have a responsibility to obey the words of Jesus to make other disciples and baptize them. This issue is so clear in scripture that it comes down to “it is better to obey God than man.” (Acts 5:29). If your ministry organization restricts baptism to only ordained ministers, you must appeal for change, or respectfully disobey it.
“What about cults?”
Some have argued that limiting baptism to only ordained ministers is a way to prevent cult groups from forming. I’d ask, “Well, how is that working for us so far?”
Cults will come and go. The greatest response we have to the spiritual forces that deceive people is not to restrict the true members of the body of Christ from obeying Jesus, making disciples and baptizing people — but to empower them!