Baptism Is a Church’s Act
What would you do if you were wading in a swimming pool and a friend came up behind you and dunked you under the water? You could simply forgive your friend—a solidly Christian move. You could retaliate in kind. You could even escalate the aquatic conflict, waiting until your friend got out and dried off before shoving him or her back into the pool. So, which will it be?
Take two: what would you do if your friend sneaked up behind you, dunked you, and then said, “Now you’ve been baptized!” Even if you know little about baptism, my guess is you’d have a strong suspicion that, in addition to being slightly odd, your friend is wrong. You haven’t been baptized; all you’ve been is dunked.
But what would it take to turn this dunking into a baptism? It seems obvious that you’d have to lose the element of surprise and participate knowingly and willingly. But don’t some churches baptize infants? Babies don’t consent to be baptized. What about the one doing the dunking? Would your friend have to be a pastor? Would it have to take place in church rather than a swimming pool?
BAPTISM IS . . .
Very quickly, in this article I hope to begin to answer the question, “What is baptism?”
So, if you’ve been holding off on baptism because you’re not sure what it is, I hope this will sweep away that confusion and clear your way to obeying Jesus’ command to be baptized.
Here we go, then: baptism is a church’s act of affirming and portraying a believer’s union with Christ by immersing him or her in water, and a believer’s act of publicly committing him or herself to Christ and his people, thereby uniting a believer to the church and marking off him or her from the world.
I hope to spend the rest of my time walking through the first part of the definition, that baptism is, by definition, “a church’s act.”
A CHURCH’S ACT
Baptism is a church’s act. Consider first that baptism is something someone does to someone else. You don’t baptize yourself; there are always two parties involved. And both parties say something to each other and to the world.
People today tend to think that baptism is a symbol that people can simply choose to place upon themselves, like deciding to buy a shirt at the store and then wearing it in public. It doesn’t so much matter who is doing the baptizing, like it doesn’t matter much who the clerk at the checkout counter happens to be. Any Christian can baptize, anywhere, because the focus is not on the baptizer. It’s on the baptizee. You must decide to get baptized, because you want to make a public statement: “I’m with Jesus.” Think of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. The eunuch wants to get baptized. He asks Philip to baptize him, which he does. It’s all pretty simple, right?
In fact, the New Testament presents a fuller picture, and what we find in a passage like Acts 8 is actually the exception to the rule, not the rule. You have to start not in Acts, but back in Matthew 16 and 18, where Jesus gives the keys of the kingdom first to the apostles, and then to local churches. The keys of the kingdom are for binding on earth what’s bound in heaven, and loosing on earth what’s loosed in heaven. This means that the apostles and gathered churches both have the authority to make public a declaration or verdict on Jesus’ behalf. Think about what a judge does when he pounds his gavel. He doesn’t write the law. He doesn’t make the defendant innocent or guilty. Rather, he looks at the law. He looks at the evidence. And then he declares a public—and binding—verdict.
This judge-like authority to make official declarations on heaven’s behalf is something Jesus gives to gathered churches, not to individual Christians. Listen to Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them.” Jesus is not talking to small groups here, and his presence among them is not a mystical experience or atmospheric condition. Read the context carefully and you’ll see that Jesus is saying that his heavenly authority belongs to gathered churches (see especially verses 18–19). A church is a regular gathering of at least two or three people who together testify to Christ’s name. And Christ is present with such gatherings to authorize them to speak in his name.
We need all this to understand what’s happening in Matthew 28’s Great Commission. First, Jesus reminds us he’s the one with all authority in heaven and earth (v. 18). Next, he authorizes his disciples to baptize and to make disciples in the name of the Father, himself, and the Spirit (v. 19). Then he tells them to teach everything he has commanded, which is fulfilled in the ongoing teaching ministry of the local church (v. 20a). Finally, he reaffirms that his authoritative presence is there in that church: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (v. 20b). Matthew 28 very much has the stipulations and authorizations of Matthew 16 and 18 in the background. Jesus didn’t forget what he said back there, and neither should we.
So the question is: who has the authority to baptize? Any Christian? Well, if you’re on the missions frontier, where no other Christians exists, then you have no choice. Yes, you baptize. Since no local church yet exists, you are the church in that place. And Acts 8 provides a precedent for you if you are ever in this situation. At the same time, recall that Jesus explicitly ties his authoritative presence to churches—to two or three people (or two or three thousand) gathered in his name. Ordinarily, therefore, it is local churches who have the authority to baptize. Since baptism is performed by an individual, the church acts through a representative. But baptism is still a church’s act.
This doesn’t mean a church has the authority to deny baptism to someone who gives evidence of being converted (see Acts 11:17–18). But it does mean that, ordinarily, a church’s consent should be involved because it’s not just the baptizee who makes a public statement. The baptizer also makes a public statement or verdict. They “go on record” on earth for the kingdom of heaven.
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 This section draws heavily from Jonathan Leeman, Don’t Fire Your Church Members: The Case for Congregationalism (Nashville: B&H, 2016), chs. 3 and 4.
Editor’s note: This article is a slightly modified excerpt from Bobby Jamieson’s new book Understanding Baptism (B&H, 2016). You can purchase the book here.