Friday, February 15, 2013

Sorry Grandpa, That Don't Count

Last year I had the honor of participating in The Conference on the Church for God's Glory in Rockford, IL. There I presented a little study on baptism and the Lord's Supper. Recently, I received a good question from a brother who read the paper online. I expect that many people have the same kind of a question, so I'd like to attempt to give a bit of the answer here.

In the presentation, I argued that "baptism must be administered by the church, which is to say, by particular churches. Each local assembly which is a true church is an expression of the body of Christ at that time and place, and no other person or institution is authorized by Christ to administer baptism. Baptism should not be administered by grandpa in the backyard pool or by Joe counselor at the local Christian camp. To do so risks making baptism a merely human act that God has not authorized, on the one hand, and on the other hand it fails to unite the one baptized with any real expression of the body of Christ." 

That argument prompted this question, "Philip baptized the Ethiopian in the middle of the desert. The jailor and his family were baptized that same hour of the same night that they heard the gospel. Lydia likewise. All of these examples were not performed by the church as a body. Isn't any person who is a baptized believer part of Christ's church? If so, based on the examples from scripture this statement concerning who should baptize or where and when seems to be in error."

In response, I wrote what follows. I don't think it was the best response possible, but perhaps it is helpful. I submit it to you for your judgment. 

In each of the cases you mentioned, as well as most other instances in the book of Acts, there was no local church to represent Christ in that place at that time. There was, however, an apostle to baptize in Jesus’ name. The church began with the apostles’ ministry. When they baptized, they were acting as authorized representatives of Christ. The apostles eventually moved off the scene, but the church carried on Christ’s commission by baptizing and teaching all that he had commanded....
The question then becomes, “Who is authorized to represent Christ today by baptizing those who receive the Word?” For you see, when we baptize someone we are claiming to be enacting what Jesus does by his Spirit (1 Cor 12:13). That’s a big claim. Can just anyone who feels like it do it? Could my seven year old daughter, who is a believer, claim to be enacting the Spirit’s work and then proceed to baptize someone? Furthermore, how can others know that one is a believer and a representative of Christ? Just because I say I am?

Today we tend to reason simplistically like this:
  1. Each individual believer represents Christ.
  2. Each individual who represents Christ is authorized to act publicly on Christ’s behalf.
  3. Therefore, each individual believer is authorized to act publicly on Christ’s behalf (and we then quickly assume, to baptize people).
But this reasoning leaves important truth out of the equation. It is true that each believer represents Christ, but not each believer purely as an individual. Each believer represents Christ as a member of his body. To say that each believer represents Christ purely as an individual is like saying that I can be married purely [read: solely; in isolation] as an individual. But this is impossible, for marriage by definition includes a spouse of the opposite sex. I cannot be a husband without having a wife. I cannot be a Christian, representing Christ, without being placed into the body of Christ.

Another analogy to tease out a little of the importance of this corporate connection: As an American citizen, if I travel to another country, people will look at me as a representative of American people. That is legitimate, for that is what I am. Nevertheless, the fact that I represent America on that level does not authorize me to enter into a treaty with that country, to give federal money to that country, or to wage war on that country. I am not a representative of America in that sense.

So it is in the church, the body of Christ. We all represent Christ, but there is order to how this works out. Since baptism is a public admission to the body of Christ, the rite which enacts our initiation into the body of Christ, it is a function of the church, not of any individual within the church. The church is the people, but no individual is the church. Christ has established offices in the church and has given pastors and teachers to the church so that the church is equipped to carry out his work (Eph 4:11-16). There is structure and leadership to the way the church operates. No individual can claim to publicly represent the church and act on behalf of the church without being authorized by the church. No matter which way you slice it, if you have a biblical understanding of baptism as I attempted to put forward in my little study, you will end up with the necessity of the church.

One further thought. Claiming the authority to baptize, and thus to admit people to the church, correlates with the authority to discipline, and thus to remove people from the church. Can any individual believer, purely as an individual, pronounce another person outside the body of Christ? No. This is the prerogative of the church, not of any individual (Matt 16:13-20; 18:15-20). We certainly don’t want a crowd of “protestant popes” running around, each claiming to be the real vicar of Christ, excommunicating people whenever they want to. Likewise, we don’t want a bunch of individualists running around, each claiming to be the real representative of Christ, baptizing people whenever they want to. 

We have to deal with the same question that Jesus put to the Jewish elders regarding John's baptism, albeit in a different context. Is our baptism from heaven or from men?


Sandi said...

Interesting post! I have not really considered this line of thinking. How does Ananias' baptism of Saul support (or not support) your argument? The passage that describes this event immediately follows the Ethiopian baptism in scripture, but not sure of the temporal distance. Thinking "out loud" on this and also wondering about the authority to preach the gospel. I suppose this could be considered an important function which is generally believed to be something that all members do by the grace of God. Similar? Thanks for posting and definitely a thought-provoking piece. -chad

Jason Parker said...

Hi Chad!
It's great to hear from you. Believe it or not, I was just thinking of you guys earlier today and wondering how you were doing.

Thanks for your laser-like questions. The example of Ananias in particular raises some important issues that I would like to consider at greater length in another post. Unfortunately, for time's sake, I will need to come back to that next week, Lord willing.

Looking forward to continuing our conversation then!

Jason Parker said...

Well, it is already Thursday of "next" week, and I can tell that I am not going to be able to consider this at greater length. Too many other priorities. But let me at least respond to the question about Ananias.

Interestingly, the text does not say who baptized Saul. Acts 22 records Paul saying that Ananias commanded him to be baptized, but Paul does not describe the baptism itself. In Acts 9, the text says that Saul "rose and was baptized." Perhaps Ananias personally baptized Paul, or perhaps others who were with him did so. We just don't know. So, I don't think the case of Ananias helps or hinders my argument.

In Acts, we always find that people were baptized (i.e. passive; they did not baptize themselves), but rarely does the text state specifically the person who baptized. This seems consistent with the rest of the NT information, that the emphasis is never on the person who baptizes per se (1 Cor 1:14-16). This fits with the important teaching that the validity of baptism is not dependent upon the personal qualities of the one who baptizes.

What I am arguing also supports this. The focus is taken off of the person who baptizes, because baptism is not a personal act. It is a representative act. The crucial thing is not who the person is, but who the person represents. Is he authorized by God? Is he in reality simply applying what God makes spiritually true? [For an interesting case study, see Acts 10:44-48.]


Your question about preaching the gospel is also a great question. I'll try (!) to get back to that.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for taking the time to respond! I've been thinking about you guys too. In fact, I've been going through your sermons on the Gospel of John and that has certainly brought you to mind. It's been edifying and useful; so, thank you for sharing.

Yes, I was thinking along the same lines when reading your original article. The Bible does not seem to emphasize the baptizer as much as it does the one being baptized. In fact, Paul seems to intentionally deemphasize the former in 1 Cor 1 and for good reason. :)

You wrote in your above response that "the validity of baptism is not dependent upon the personal qualities of the one who baptizes." Even though I haven't thought about this topic much, this statement really captures how I've understood this aspect of baptism. I would probably extend this statement a little bit further than you did in the original article but that could just be because of my ignorance and lack of study. In other words, I wouldn't think a baptism given by a Christian is invalid (e.g., a grandfather) though I agree it must be done within the context of a local church (e.g., a pastor supporting a grandfather baptizing his grandson).

Your post is making me think about this a bit more, though. The distinction between the personal characteristics of the baptizer versus his role (i.e., representativeness) is a good point. Our role as priests of God (1 Peter 2) immediately came to mind as a counterpoint, but I'm not sure this verse is relevant here.

I've got to keep short too, but thanks again and no worries if you don't have time to respond. It will be good to discuss in person, Lord willing, next time we see each other. I hope that is soon!