Baptism is an important rite in the Christian faith that symbolizes the cleansing of sins and the initiation into the body of Christ. A key question that arises is – who has the authority to baptize new believers? The Bible does not explicitly spell out strict qualifications for who can perform baptisms, but there are some guiding principles that can be derived from Scripture.
Pastors and Church Leaders
In the early church, the apostles frequently baptized new converts, setting the precedent for church leaders to perform baptisms (Acts 2:41, Acts 8:12, Acts 8:38). As the church expanded, authority to baptize new believers was passed onto elders/overseers and deacons who were appointed to lead local congregations (1 Timothy 3:1-13). In the Bible, baptism is closely tied to discipleship, teaching, and leadership within the church body. Therefore, those in positions of spiritual authority – pastors, ministers, priests, elders, deacons – have traditionally been tasked with performing baptisms.
The Ethiopian eunuch asked Philip, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36). Philip was recognized as having the authority to baptize as an appointed leader and evangelist in the early church. Similarly, baptisms today are primarily conducted by ordained clergy or authorized lay leaders in a church context. Most Christian traditions expect that baptisms will be performed by the spiritual leadership of the church.
Any Baptized Believer
While church leaders often perform baptisms in an official capacity, technically any baptized Christian can baptize a new believer. Baptism requires minimal physical elements – water and a few spoken words invoking the Trinity. It is not treated in the Bible as a ceremony that only certain people can perform, but rather as an expression of faith and obedience to Christ’s teachings. The validity of baptism comes from the heart of the person being baptized, not necessarily the person performing the baptism.
In Catholic theology, baptisms can be performed by any person with the right intentions – even someone not baptized themselves. As long as water is applied while saying the Trinitarian formula (“I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”), the baptism is valid in the Catholic church. So theoretically, any practicing Christian could baptize a new convert in an emergency or unusual circumstance.
For infant baptism or the dedication of young children, parents are often authorized to bring their children for baptism in certain denominations. This allows Christian parents to make vows on behalf of their children to raise them in the faith. Parents cannot perform self-baptism, but they can present their children for baptism in obedience to Christ’s command to baptize new disciples (Matthew 28:19). There is debate as to the appropriate age for baptism, but many churches offer infant baptism or child dedications for parents who desire it.
Self-baptism is generally not considered a biblical model for baptism. In the New Testament, baptisms were administered by others, either by church leaders or individuals like Philip or Ananias (Acts 9:18). The sacrament of baptism involves Christian community and fellowship, as the one being baptized testifies to their faith and joins with the body of believers.
Some churches permit self-baptism only if a life-threatening emergency makes officiant-led baptism impossible. But in general, self-baptism is discouraged since it contradicts the pattern in Scripture. The Ethiopian eunuch traveled to find someone who could baptize him rather than baptizing himself, showing the importance of submitting to believer’s baptism through the authority of another.
Prerequisites for Baptizing
The Bible does not outline specific prerequisites for who can perform baptisms, but most churches establish some basic criteria:
- Must be water baptized themselves
- Must be a baptized believer in good standing with a local church/denomination
- For clergy, must meet denominational requirements for ordination/licensing
- Must perform baptism according to church’s policy and in the Trinitarian formula
- With infant baptism, parents or sponsors make baptismal vows on child’s behalf
Churches reserve the right to set policies on who can perform baptisms under their auspices. Some may require baptisms only be done by ordained clergy or elders. But the Bible leaves room for some flexibility regarding who baptizes new believers.
In Emergency or Unusual Situations
Christians acknowledge God’s grace is not limited by church policy. In emergency situations where someone accepts Christ on their deathbed, any nearby Christian could potentially baptize that person if an officiant is unavailable. However, this should still adhere as close as possible to biblical models where one believer submits to the authority of another believer to be baptized.
For remote locations without a church presence, any believer may be called upon to perform baptisms. Philip spontaneously baptized the Ethiopian eunuch on the Gaza road rather than waiting until they reached Jerusalem. God may lead unordained Christians to baptize fellow believers in unusual circumstances where no ordained clergy are accessible.
Baptism by Non-Trinitarians
Most mainstream Christian denominations do not accept baptisms performed by churches that reject the Trinity doctrine or the divinity of Christ. This includes groups like Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Oneness Pentecostals, and Christadelphians. Because of differences in theology around the nature of God and Jesus, Trinitarian churches require converts from these groups to be baptized again under the Trinitarian formula.
For example, Mormon baptismal vows are made in the name of Jesus only, not the entire Trinity. So the Catholic church requires Mormons who convert to Catholicism to receive a Catholic baptism, even if they were already water baptized in the Mormon church.
While the Bible does not outline strict baptizer qualifications, some key principles emerge:
- Church leaders are most often tasked with performing baptisms
- Any baptized believer can baptize in emergencies or unusual situations
- Self-baptism is generally not accepted
- Parents can present infants/children for baptism in some denominations
- Churches determine their own baptism policies and who is authorized
- Baptisms by non-Trinitarians may not be recognized
The focus is less on the person performing the baptism, and more on the heart attitude and faith commitment of the person being baptized. God’s grace is not limited by church authority. But scripture and tradition provide guidance for maintaining order and unity in how baptisms are practiced.