Baptism- No Need For Church Oversight
Baptist churches observe two ordinances – baptism and the Lord’s supper; ordered by Christ. We reject the term “sacrament” because we believe that no saving grace is imparted by these observances, but that they are important because they symbolize the death of Jesus Christ in one way or another. We believe that only those who have professed faith in Christ may be baptized, and that by immersion.
And we all agree that that the primary venue for the observance of these ordinances is the local church. The question at hand is whether the local church is the only appropriate place for a valid, biblically-correct baptism to take place. Is a baptism that is performed outside the authority of a local church to be considered valid or invalid? I will not argue that baptism should never be performed under the direction of a local church. I will argue that local church oversight, while normal, is not necessary to the performance of a valid baptism.
Baptists have use “confessions” to describe our doctrine through the years. I will admit that those confessions support church oversight, in general. But we Baptists honor history; we are not bound by it. We are guided by what the Bible says. And I will argue that the Bible does not support the idea that baptism is only valid under local church supervision.
The Narratives of Acts
Acts has eight instances of baptism. In Acts 2:41, 3000 converts are baptized after Peter’s sermon. There was no established church at that moment. In fact, this event was the establishment of the church, so there is little evidence here. In Acts 8:12-13, Philip preaches in Samaria after fleeing Jerusalem’s persecution. He baptizes those who believe. He sought approval of no local church to perform those baptisms. Again, in Acts 8:37-40, Philip meets the Ethiopian Eunuch and leads him to Christ. The eunuch asks, “What prevents me from being baptized?” If local church authority was essential, Philip should have responded, “I’ve got to get approval from the church.”
The evidence gets stronger in Acts 9:18, because there was an established church in Damascus. Ananias is directed to go and speak to Saul, who is converted. Saul is baptized immediately, without any approval of the disciples of Damascus. Acts 10 is even clearer. Peter is directed by God to visit Cornelius, a gentile. He is baptized immediately upon his conversion. There is no local church for him to be baptized into. In fact, Peter had to defend the decision in the Jerusalem church after the fact. He only sought approval after the fact. He baptized first, then got approval later.
In Acts 16:14-15, Paul baptizes Lydia soon after his arrival in Philippi. There is no local church into which to baptize her. Later, when Paul leads the Philippian jailer to faith, there is a local church, but Paul does not get their approval before baptizing him. The baptism of John’s disciples in Acts 19:3-5 gives little evidence in this argument.
It is tricky making points from narrative. However, the eight instances of baptism in Acts consistently demonstrate no local oversight. That is evidence that must be explained by those who demand church oversight as essential. Dismissing the evidence as “narrative” is not enough.
Evidence from the Epistles
Epistolary evidence explains narrative experiences. So, what do the epistles say? There are six references in the epistles about baptism (it can be tricky to differentiate water baptism from Spirit baptism). None of them give any support to local church oversight. In fact, they argue against it.
Romans 6:1-4 tells us that those who were “baptized into Christ” were buried with him into death and raised to walk a new life. In 1 Corinthians 1:10-17 uses baptism to discuss the divisions in the Corinthian church. 1 Corinthians 12:12-13 states that Christians were all baptized into one body. Paul and his associates were not baptized into the Corinthian church, so it can hardly be argued that he is speaking of their baptism into the local Corinthian church. Galatians 3:27 says that those who were “baptized into Christ” have put on Christ. Ephesians 4:7 says that there is “one baptism” as there is one Lord and one faith. 1 Peter 3:21 refers to the meaning of baptism as an expression of cleared conscience through the resurrection of Christ.
The key point is the phrase that is used in Romans 6 and Galatians 3, and in similar form in 1 Corinthians 12. We are “baptized into Christ.” Never does it say, “baptized into the church” or describe baptism as an initiation into a local church. It seems that baptism was an expression of a person’s salvation experience in Christ which immediately followed conversion. Local church oversight and involvement began immediately after baptism in the New Testament.
The Great Commission
Those who argue for local church oversight often base their argument in Matthew 28:18-20, the Great Commission. Jesus said that we were to “make disciples” by both baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything Christ spoke. They maintain that the Great Commission gives oversight of baptism and discipleship to the local church. However, that is a hermeneutical stretch. This passage is given to the apostles and all the disciples – the universal Body of Christ (another debate topic entirely). No local church existed yet when the passage was spoken.
In conclusion, the view that all valid baptisms must be performed under local church oversight may be argued from historic confessions, but not from scripture. There is no support for it in the narratives of Acts. The epistles describe baptism as “into Christ” and do not support it either. Only a forced reading of the Great Commission supports the idea. It is clear to me that baptism is an expression of faith in Christ that is properly experienced under the guidance of the body of Christ, but local church oversight is not essential to the performance of a valid baptism.
Baptism- Church Oversight is a Necessity
In this essay, I am defending the position that the church is to practice oversight in the administration of the ordinance of Baptism.
In the Great Commission (Matt 28:16-20), Jesus commands to “go and make disciples.” Jesus also assures the disciples that He is with them (“you all” plural) “always, even to the end of the age.” The command is connected with the assurance of Jesus’ presence. Jesus directed this command and promise, not to each one individually, but to all of them collectively. The command and assurance was for the group that would eventually become the church. It is the church that experiences the presence of Jesus, as she is the temple of the living God (1 Cor. 3:13; 2 Cor. 6:15) where Jesus dwells (Rev. 1:12-20).
This is not to deny that God’s Spirit indwells each believer and that each believer has a personal relationship with Jesus. There is tremendous value in that, but for the indwelling to be rightly lived in the life of the believer, it must be done in a covenant relationship with other believers. Someone may argue that disciples, apart from the church, can do the commission (go, baptize, teach), but if this is the case, then all the disciples were in rebellion in Acts 1, as they did not begin pursuing this command until they were constituted as the church at Pentecost. The Great Commission was given to the Apostles and intended for the church to accomplish which she did when she was birthed.
Another scripture that points to the church’s oversight of baptism is 1 Tim. 3:15 where Paul calls the church “the pillar and support of the truth.” In this context Paul identifies the church as having the responsibility to uphold the truth in word and practice. The physical should represent the spiritual. Baptism, as rightly practiced, is a physical outward display of salvation in the life of the believer. The Spirit is the one that baptizes us into the body in the spiritual sense (1 Cor. 12:13) and yet, the temple of the Spirit is the church that performs baptism in the physical realm. When this is done apart from the oversight and blessings of a local church where Christ’s Spirit resides, it distorts the spiritual reality that has occurred.
Symbolically, when one is lowered and rises out of the water, the testimony is that the individual that once was, lives no more and he is not only a new creation, but part of a new body distinct from the world. The church, whether being physically present or present through a missionary commissioned by them, now testifies to the truth of the spiritual reality that has occurred not only in the believer, but also in the church herself. To baptize anyone without church oversight, whether locally or through an independent missionary, is to supplant the church’s responsibility of being the “pillar and support of the truth.”
Baptism, within the context of church oversight allows the church to renew and reapply truths from the gospel thereby fulfilling its responsibility of being the “pillar and support” of truth. Baptism should be a doctrinally motivated ordinance from the scriptures and a witness of the church concerning the “manifold wisdom of God” (Eph 3:10). When individuals, outside of the context of local church oversight, independently perform this ordinance, it loses its true doctrinal proclamation and the truth of the ordinance is ultimately weakened, leading to a misguided understanding of salvation and the gospel.
Finally, the question of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:25-40) remains. One thing that must be understood when interpreting narrative literature is that the person is telling God’s story to express a point, therefore, all doctrinal elements may not be included as they may be assumed. The focus of interpretation should be to let scripture drive the meaning of the story without demanding to answer questions that were never intended to be asked or answered. In Philip’s case, he was an evangelist (Acts 21:8). The focus of this section of Acts (8:25-40) was to show God’s expansion to people outside of Jerusalem. Philip was preaching in Samaria and was called to a desert road where he found the eunuch. He led the eunuch to Christ, baptized him, and the eunuch went on his way. Two questions we could ask is, “Where was the church’s oversight of this baptism?” and “Was Philip commissioned to baptize in order to start churches?”
Unfortunately, because of this being narrative in nature, neither side of the debate can definitively answer any of these questions from this scripture or else it would be an argument from silence. Other scriptures must be explored because the thrust of the story was not ecclesiological oversight of baptism, but the expansion of God’s Kingdom. To view this scripture, as a theological treatise rejecting the churches oversight of baptism is to add what is absent in the text and to negate the church’s responsibility of oversight in matters of doctrine and practice as attested to in other scriptures (e. g., 1 Tim 3:15).
Missionary activities and their baptisms should not be viewed as the norm once churches are established, but missionaries who are commissioned by the church should baptize if no church is physically present to witness. It would be ridiculous for a missionary to drag a baptismal candidate hundreds of miles to his home church for baptism. While the story of Philip is truly inspiring, it was never meant to press ecclesiological matters that are not addressed.
Finally, while each of us individually has the Spirit, the mission of Christ and the life of a believer were never meant to be expressed in independent isolation apart from the accountability and encouragement of His body. It is up to each believer to live their Christian existence in a covenant fellowship with and recognizing the authority and responsibility of what Paul has called the “pillar and support of the truth.”