Who Has the Authority to Baptize?
By Lance Mosher
If I were to ask you, “Do you know for sure that God has forgiven your sins?” what would you say? Perhaps you would think it presumptuous for anyone to say “yes” to that question. However, since “He who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 8:23), then we can have confidence in salvation. That assurance is not based on feelings, but on something much more solid: God and His unfailing promises.
The apostle John was good at writing thesis statements. Toward the end of his first epistle, he wrote:
These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.
If God’s word promises it, we can have “the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago” (Titus 1:2). God’s word promises, “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16) and “baptism now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21). The person who repents and is baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ” can expect from God “the forgiveness of [his or her] sins” (Acts 2:38). The question we will explore in this study is: Are the promises that God offers through baptism conditional on who does the baptizing? In other words, does God only give faithful Christians the authority to baptize?  And in the case where someone has been baptized by a non-Christian or a Christian living a secret life of sin, is that baptism invalid?
JESUS COMMANDED DISCIPLES TO BAPTIZE
One of the most important principles of interpretation that a Bible student can learn and apply is the principle of specifics. When God specifies something, we need to understand that He is including all of our options in that specificity. For instance, when Jesus specifically used unleavened bread and fruit of the vine in instituting the Lord’s Supper , He said, “do this in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24–25). For disciples to “do this,” we must use the elements Jesus used. To substitute unleavened bread or fruit of the vine with something else would violate what Jesus commanded, even though He did not provide us with volumes upon volumes listing what not to use.
Let’s consider this principle in the passage that is often called the Great Commission.
And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
When Jesus told the disciples to go, He did not specify how to go. Therefore, the disciples had the choice of how to go (e.g. by foot, by donkey, by boat, etc.). However, He told them specifically how to make disciples: by “baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” along with teaching all His commandments. We, therefore, understand this is the only way to make disciples. And since every new disciple is to be taught all things Jesus commanded, that would include this commandment; therefore, all disciples should make disciples. Making disciples in this way reaches from the first century to us today.
But one question remains. Since He commanded disciples to baptize, does that mean only disciples have the authority? Is this a case where the principle of specifics applies? I do not believe so, and there are three reasons why.
In some cases, it’s the end results that matter.
This idea can easily be taken too far. Many important Bible doctrines are dismissed today by questions like, “But doesn’t that miss the point?” It creates a false dichotomy, assuming that we can only choose one—either the details or the meaning behind the details. As much as it is important that we don’t miss the forest for the trees, let’s also remember that the forest wouldn’t exist without the trees.
All that being said, regarding the topic at hand (someone hearing and obeying the gospel of Jesus), Paul had something to say about the end result being the important part.
Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will; the latter do it out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice.
Proclaiming Christ also involves teaching people about baptism.
But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike.
When people were proclaiming Christ (which, I infer, would also involve baptizing) from false motives, Paul was not concerned about the state of the preachers’ hearts, at least when it came to a sinners’ hearing and obeying the gospel. He rejoiced in God that, even though some people undoubtedly preached Christ for their own gain, Christ was still being proclaimed.
Therefore, even if the preacher is not right with God—and is even a false Christian—but the message is true, then the result is the same: a sinner who trusts in Jesus is transformed into His child.
Paul didn’t care who did the baptizing.
Division plagued the church in Corinth in the first century. The Christians divided over a few different things, but the first issue Paul deals with when writing to them is their division over their teachers in Christ.
Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one would say you were baptized in my name.
If baptism only “counts” when a faithful Christian is doing the baptizing, then it should follow that baptism would “count” even more if an apostle baptized a person. But that was not the case. In fact, Paul seems to be saying here that it does not matter who does the teaching or baptizing, so long as the truth is heard and obeyed.
Pay close attention to how Paul dismantles the idea that whoever leads you to Christ actually has anything to do with your standing with God.
For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not mere men? What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.
In the context of people becoming believers, Paul literally says that the one who leads the lost to Christ is nothing.
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.
When you and I stand before the judgment seat of Jesus, He will not be concerned about what other people did (e.g. who baptized you), but what we did as individuals, which leads me to my next point.
“Baptize” and “be baptized” are two different commandments.
Peter was sent to Cornelius’ house to preach the gospel to all who had assembled. Without warning, the Holy Spirit fell upon the gathered Gentiles, proving to Peter that now was the time for the Gentiles to receive repentance that leads to life. Peter then said:
“Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.
When it was time for these people to be united with the death of Jesus, Peter “ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” Who baptized them? We do not know. Again, if the one doing the baptizing was important to the sinner’s salvation, I can only imagine the best-case scenario being that Peter did the baptizing. Yet, we are left wondering who did it. In fact, out of the thousands of baptisms referenced in the New Testament, we only have the names of the baptizers mentioned in just a few cases.
As noted, Jesus commands disciples to baptize (active). But He also commands sinners to be baptized (passive). Those are two different commandments. And on the day of judgment, it will not be other people’s faith that will condemn or justify you. It will be whether or not you personally entrusted your soul to Christ.
After referencing the Roman Christians’ baptisms, Paul says this:
But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.
They were freed from sin because they had obeyed from their hearts. Paul said nothing about the hearts of their baptizers. The question is not, “How is your teacher’s relationship with God?” It’s, “How is your relationship with Him?” Have you obeyed the gospel from your heart?
Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.
Have you been united with Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection? If not, “why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16).
In addition to the three points above, another reason that leads me to believe a sinner’s salvation does not depend on who baptizes him or her is the implications of if this doctrine were true. Again, much care needs to be taken here, as people have been trying to refute Bible doctrines for centuries with “What if?” questions. Hypothetical situations neither prove nor disprove the will of God. But they do help us see the logical conclusions of our beliefs.
This doctrine would have humans judging righteousness.
In my years of ministry, I have unfortunately met many people who are willing to leave their salvation up to chance. They snub the opportunity for a Bible study and say things like, “I’ve lived a pretty good life. We will just have to see what happens when I die.” How terrifying that prospect is for someone who truly knows the day of judgment is coming! As noted in the introduction, God did not want us to have any doubt that we have eternal life. In other words, we don’t leave it up to chance; we leave it up to the promises of God.
If it were vital for the baptizer to be a faithful Christian, then two things need to happen. First, we would need to have a detailed record of every single baptism in history, going back to the first century. Why? If baptisms only “count” when a faithful Christian is doing the baptizing, then when I am baptized, I want to be absolutely sure that the “genealogy” of my baptism is pure. Not only do I want to ensure the person baptizing me is a faithful Christian, but I want to see documented proof that the person who baptized him was also a faithful Christian, as well as the person who baptized him, and so on. If the chain were broken in any instance, then all subsequent baptisms would become invalid. But a record like this does not exist. And if it were important that we have a record, or even know the names and faith of baptizers, then the New Testament would have done a much better job telling us who did the baptizing in every case. But it doesn’t; therefore, the name and faith of the baptizer is irrelevant to the promises attached to the commandment to “be baptized.”
The second thing that would need to happen is I, as a fallible human, would need to judge the thoughts and intentions of the hearts of man. However, that must be left to the word of God.
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
If I must be baptized by a faithful Christian, then I need to judge my baptizer’s standing with God to the point that I am completely satisfied. No longer would God’s word be the standard; mine would be.
One of my friends spends his days studying the Bible with people over the internet. There have been several instances where the individual he was studying with desired to be baptized into Christ, yet no other believer in his region could be found. In those cases, my friend counselled the individual to ask a nearby friend or a family member to baptize him or her, even though the friend or family member was not a Christian. In some cases, those new believers have gone on to teach and baptize others. Imagine the Way growing by the thousands through their influence. Yet, since the first person was not baptized by a believer, if the doctrine at hand were true, then none of the baptisms would “count.”
This doctrine would base salvation on human righteousness.
Not only would the baptisms in the above example not count if this doctrine were true, but all of the people who wanted to follow Jesus would also be “stuck” outside of Christ until a believer could be sent to them.
In Acts 19, when Paul was talking to some men about the Holy Spirit, they responded, “We have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit” (Acts 19:3), which led Paul to ask, “Into what then were you baptized?” While checking their understanding and obedience, Paul wanted to know if they had been baptized into Jesus’ name (v. 5). Apparently the person who baptized them was not relevant to their understanding or obedience, otherwise, Paul would have asked, “Who baptized you?” This Scripture does teach us, however, that the sinner’s understanding and obedience to Jesus Christ is important.
If gospel salvation were dependent on the baptizer, then “Who baptized you?” would constantly be a question of fellowship. We would also need to take the question further, asking, “Where are his credentials, and do you have proof that he was a true disciple without living a secret lifestyle of sin during your baptism?” It doesn’t take long to realize how un-gospel-like it is to consider this implication of the doctrine. Even if you were baptized by the apostle Paul and had the credentials to prove it, he himself would remind us through these rhetorical questions: “Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:13).
How important is it that a person is baptized into Christ and into His death? Eternally important. How important is it that a person is baptized by a faithful disciple of Jesus? Not at all. One may say, “But I would still prefer a Christian to do the baptizing, if possible.” That is a legitimate preference, so long as it remains a preference. It must never become a binding doctrine.
If you have trusted in the blood of Jesus to forgive your sins, and the power of God to raise you from the dead, you have trusted in the right source. Continue reading God’s word, and continue depending on Him.
These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.
 See John 20:30–31 for another one of John’s famous “thesis statements.”
 By “faithful Christian,” we do not mean “faultless Christian,” but one who is walking in the light (1 John 1:5–10).
 See Matthew 26:17–29.
 See also Acts 8:35–36.
 See Acts 10:34–46 and 11:15–18.
 See Acts 8:38 and 1 Corinthians 1:12–17.
 See Romans 6:1–7 and Colossians 2:8–14.
Except where noted, Scripture quotations are taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation.
In the case where there is emphasis within the Scripture text, the emphasis is the author’s.