Vol. 12 No. 5 May 2010
Surrounding Some Baptisms
Louis Rushmore, Editor
We recently heard of a situation I would like your thought on. Two women who live in a very remote area began studying with another woman and she was converted. When I say “remote” I mean about 400 miles from another congregation. They had no male members to assist them with the baptism so they called the elders of a fairly large congregation. The elders talked them through the baptism of this female, allowing the two women to baptize their friend. A question was raised as to whether this was a scriptural baptism, as it was carried out by a woman. Could you please respond? Sincere thanks, Marvin Towell
About the same time, we received a similar question about baptism from another family. In addition, we make missionary trips abroad to countries in Asia, where it is not uncommon to come in contact with Christian women who live hours or great distances from other Christians; they, too, will encounter like questions about the baptism of a woman or a man to whom they have taught the Gospel of Christ.
First, there is no reason to and it is not expedient to alter unnecessarily the common practice of Christian men baptizing men and women who desire to obey the biblical command to be baptized (immersed, Romans 6:3-5; Colossians 2:12) for the remission of their sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16). Yet, the question really is, “May a woman baptize another woman or even a man if the circumstances seem to require it?” Or, framed another way, “Is the baptism of a woman (or a man) biblically invalidated were a woman to do the baptizing?” Along the same lines, one might muse, “Would it be biblically permissible to immerse one’s self?”
Second, the historical background of Christian baptism has behind it the baptism of John the Baptist (Immerser), and preceding John’s baptism were Jewish ceremonial immersions, especially as relating to the conversion of Gentile proselytes to Judaism. Though the purposes varied between each of these religious immersions (Acts 19:1-5), the manner or mode of these ceremonial washings are similar enough to be instructive.
Both the baptism of John and the baptism commanded by the risen Jesus were immersions and both for the remission of sins. The difference between them was what the disciple who came to the baptism believed. John’s baptism produced disciples penitent of their sins and eagerly awaiting “the coming one” or the promised Messiah. The baptism of the Great commission made disciples who were penitent believers with the conviction that Jesus of Nazareth had in fact already been appointed as Messiah by God, had raised from the grave, and would return to bring judgment on the wicked and salvation to the righteous. Whereas John’s baptism was based on a hope, the baptism preached by the apostles was predicated on a real person, the deliverer, Jesus of Nazareth, and upon the real events of his death and resurrection. (sourcelight.net)
The reason that John’s call for immersion was not explained respecting its manner any more fully than selecting a word that conveys immersion is because the Jews were already familiar with ceremonial or religious immersion. John attached to the immersion about which he was preaching another motive or purpose (namely, looking toward and anticipating the Savior of the world) instead of the motives and purposes of the previous Jewish immersions. Therefore, other than the newly stated reason for immersion that John announced, the first century Jews understood the physical aspect of the baptism to which the prophet called them. “Any thorough study of baptism must begin centuries before John the Baptizer came baptizing in the wilderness of Judea. Christianity sprang from the soil of Moses and the Prophets, and the religion of the Mosaic Covenant had long been acquainted with immersion” (sourcelight.net).
Baptism did not originate with John the Baptist in the wilderness. Immersion was practiced for centuries prior… the total immersion of a willing convert would never have been questioned as the proper and acceptable mode of baptism. Immersion for ritual cleansing is embedded in the Jewish root and heritage of the Christian faith. … Indeed, the early Church was a Jewish church, which had no good reason to question their centuries-old practice of immersion signifying conversion. … the evidence is ancient and strong that immersion comes from the Church’s rich Jewish root. (Adams)
Even before the time of John the Baptist, Jews had begun practicing immersion as an initiatory rite. The Talmud, written after the time of Jesus, reveals that all Jewish proselytes were required to immerse themselves before being considered Israelites. The Mishnah requires that the proselyte immerse himself before being allowed to eat the Passover meal (Peshaim 8:8). It is most likely that this practice was common in the time of Jesus. (sourcelight.net)
Regarding especially Jewish proselyte immersions, a proselyte walked down steps into a baptistery (mikva) and submerged himself or herself as one or two attendants advised the proselyte. In addition, these attendants served as witnesses of the conversion through immersion. Essentially, the proselyte practiced self-immersion. Given the segregation of the sexes in antiquity, a female proselyte could be assisted by female attendants. Allowing that Jewish ceremonial immersions preceded John’s baptism, and that John’s baptism differs from Christian baptism in purpose but not form, gives pause for reflection respecting the questions we endeavor to address, fairly, honestly and with respect to Scripture.
The practice of self-immersion had its beginning in the purification rites outlined in the Law of Moses. … The writings of the Jews outside of the Bible reflect the fact that self-immersion was common among the Jews. The Mishnah, which is the compilation of the traditions of the Jewish Rabbis from 200 B.C. to A.D. 200, devotes an entire section to the discussion of “Immersion Pools”. In order for a person to be considered clean to go and worship at the temple, he had to be totally immersed. (sourcelight.net)
Two learned men stand over him and teach him a few light commandments and a few grave commandments, and when he has bathed and has come up he is like an Israelite in every respect. In the case of a woman, women place her in the water up to the neck, and two learned men stand outside and teach her,” etc. (American Journal of Theology)
It is possible that the backdrop of Jewish immersion fast forwarded to the birthday of the church in Acts 2 sheds light on the mass baptism of about 3,000 souls in Jerusalem.
It is not hard to imagine the early Church baptizing their first 3,000 in Jerusalem on Shavuot (Pentecost). The mikvot (ritual baths) still sit with water in them at the entrance to the Temple Mount. Without ceremony, and without a baptizer in the small pool with them, the new Jewish follower of Yeshua probably dunked himself—as he always did for cleansing before entering the Temple. However, now, through Yeshua, he was entering the Kingdom, which had come to earth. (Adams)
In the third place, the biblical emphasis on baptism focuses on the one baptized, not on a baptizer. Further, logically, personal confidence in the efficiency of one’s baptism to remove his sins and add him to the church (Acts 2:47) rests on the belief of the one being baptized and on the obedient activity of immersion—not on the beliefs, etc. of a baptizer. Were it necessary for one’s baptism to be valid that there be a baptizer whose personal salvation were assured, no one could know if his baptism were valid, despite personally believing Jesus Christ to be the Son of God and submitting to immersion in water for the remission of sins. If salvation hinges on the baptizer, omniscient knowledge of the spiritual family history lying behind a baptizer comparable to the futile attempt to demonstrate apostolic succession from the first century to the present would be the insurmountable horse pill that would invalidate every contemporary baptism. Restoring the New Testament church by studying oneself out of denominationalism, some world religion or paganism would not be possible, and one could come to know the truth but be unable to obey it, if the validity of one’s baptism in any way depends on the baptizer.
One will search the scriptures in vain in seeking qualifications for those who baptize. … “although Jesus himself baptized not, but his disciples” (John 4:1,2)… Among those who baptized for Jesus was Judas Iscariot… Were all those, by him immersed, without valid baptism? Of course not. Here is indisputable proof of the fact that the validity of one’s baptism does not depend on the character, or lack of it as the case may be of the baptizer. …Were our acceptance before God dependent on the genuineness of heart characteristic of the one who baptized us, or his baptizer, or his, and so in unbroken sequence to the apostolic age, who of us has any assurance of ultimate redemption in heaven whatsoever? Who knows but that a hypocrite was somewhere in our past thus constituting a defective link in the chain, rendering all subsequent parties, including ourselves without acceptable baptism! (Woods, 99-100)
So, someone suggests that for a baptism to be valid a person needs to recite biblical words at the time of the baptism, therefore, proving that there must be a baptizer for a baptism to be valid. This is an agreeable tradition, but such a thing, though instructive to bystanders (if there are any), is not a biblical specification. The New Testament instructs what people are to do respecting Christian baptism, but it does not specify what to say at Christian baptisms (Matthew 28:19-20). Handling aright the Word of God includes being able to and willing to distinguish between harmless (maybe even helpful) human traditions or customs and biblical instruction (2 Timothy 2:15 ASV).
The earliest Christians were baptized “in the name of” Jesus (Acts 2:38). This was not a verbal formula prescribed by the apostles to be spoken at a baptism, but was the basis for the baptism. … if a person is baptized with the conviction that Jesus is the Messiah, our Savior and that he is coming again to deliver us, he is baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ” whether those words are pronounced over him or not. Baptism in the name of Jesus is a fact, not a liturgical formula. The same may be said of the phrase in Matt. 28:19 “in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This is not a formula that must be said, but a statement that this baptism is proclaimed and ordained by the very Godhead itself until the end of time. (sourcelight.net)
Further, one may affirm that a baptizer is required for Christian baptism based on the references of being baptized “of” someone. “Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?” (Matthew 3:13-14). “[T]hen said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3:7). “For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence” (Acts 1:5). However, these references primarily identify the type of baptism under consideration—in these verses—John’s baptism or Holy Spirit baptism. The Greek word signifying baptism does not differ from occasions were “of him” does not appear, and where the only reference is to the activity of baptism or immersion. For instance, the first recorded account of Christian baptism occurring involves about 3,000 persons where nothing appears regarding a baptizer (Acts 2:38, 41).
Admittedly, some passages reflect Christian men baptizing others, such as the case of the baptism of the Ethiopian treasurer by Philip (Acts 8:38). Therefore, the practice of a Christian man baptizing a candidate for baptism is biblically sanctioned, a good practice to continue, but is that scenario a biblical mandate any more than meeting in an upper room is a biblical mandate (Mark 14:15; Acts 1:13; 20:8)? Is it supposed as well that just not any Christian man could baptize another, but that a special class of baptizers only may baptize others? Must a recognized (or degreed) preacher do the baptizing? Must an elder do the baptizing? Just who may baptize another, and on what basis do we decide that? Is the baptizer an essential part of a valid baptism?
What is necessary is that a truly penitent believer who acknowledges Jesus as ruler of his life is baptized into Jesus Christ trusting that he is then saved by the grace of God. The New Testament does not specify who is to be the baptizer. … The command is to the one being baptized, not to the baptizer. … The idea that one must be baptized by a minister, or for that matter by one who is already a Christian, is not true to the inferences of the New Testament. The emphasis in the New Testament is always on the one responding and never on the liturgical authority of the administrator of baptism. (sourcelight.net)
“The vital aspect of the matter is the conformity of the candidate to the expressed will of the Lord and not the character of the baptizer that determines the acceptability of the act” (Woods, 100).
Fourth, there exists in the New Testament a framework that facilitates a special role for female Christians toward especially other females, which could very well include women baptizing women. Two passages in particular single out female Christian servants (Romans 16:1-2; Acts 21:9). Anciently and in some contemporary countries today, the sexes were and are largely segregated from each other. Whereas a male Christian could teach, preach to and baptize either gender, sometimes Christian women had freer access to other women, whom they could teach (Titus 2:3-5), preach to (Acts 21:9) and baptize. For instance, Vincent’s Word Studies, Robertson’s Word Studies, Adam Clarke’s Commentary and Wuest’s Word Studies each observe that the duties of Phoebe likely included participating in the baptism of women. Coupled with the former Jewish practice of Jewish women assisting women being baptized, it is reasonable to conclude that, at least in some instances anciently, Christian women participated in the Christian baptism of other women.
Were I without scriptural baptism and knowing such to be my duty, I would prefer that a Christian brother, known and loved by me, should immerse me; were one not available, my next choice would be a faithful godly man though unknown; were neither of the foregoing available, I would want to be baptized by any man who would agree to do so in harmony with the New Testament teaching. As an alternative I would ask a woman to immerse me. Such a course I have not the least doubt the Lord would approve. (Woods, 101)
“These miqva’ot undoubtedly provide the background for Christian baptism” and were “…of major significance in any attempt to understand John’s baptism. …John’s baptism was not something new. It was something that grew out of Jewish ritual immersion in miqva’ot. …The early Church was composed in the beginning exclusively of Jews, and assuredly followed Jewish law and tradition. We can learn much about the early Church by a better understanding of its Jewish background. The Jewish miqva’ot and laws of ritual immersion are but an example.” (Shanks).
Understanding the functional origin of John’s baptism, which itself preceded Christian baptism, confirms immersion indicated in the Greek words for baptism and baptize. Christian baptism is immersion! Yet, the Jewish immersions after which John’s baptism and Christian baptism were modeled also provide useful information respecting who, if anyone, administered any of these three religious immersions. Remember that the Jewish religion no less honored the male/female roles in religion and in the home than does Christianity, and (1) Jewish women participated in the immersion of women. (2) In addition, Jewish immersion which was the forerunner of both John’s baptism and Christian baptism also incorporated self-immersion, typically with witnesses. Witnesses to Christian baptism, if not administrators of the immersion, would provide opportunity for duplication of the Ethiopian treasurer’s profession of Jesus Christ to be the Son of God (Acts 8:37), although this verse is an example, but other salvation passages do not specify the verbal announcement of one’s confidence in Jesus Christ (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38).
There is no reason to begin a fad in which people begin to practice self-immersion, breaching the contemporary custom and the biblically sanctioned practice of Christian men baptizing candidates for baptism. Likewise, there is no reason to begin a fad in which women unnecessarily baptize either women or men—that is, when Christian men are present, who could do the baptizing. Further, whereas a woman baptizing someone under circumstances where Christian men were not present would not biblically invalidate the baptism, it would not be expedient for a woman to baptize someone in conjunction with a public assembly where men are present, because it would at least give the appearance of violating biblical male/female roles regarding leadership in the Lord’s church (1 Timothy 2:8-12). Still further, though we have biblical examples of Christian men baptizing candidates for baptism, the emphasis remains on the baptism rather than on the baptizer; conceivably there could be circumstances where in remote areas of the world one may need to exercise self-baptism, although at least witnesses to the baptism would be preferable.
…the philological evidence is technical and inconclusive. It is possible, perhaps probable, that John did not “administer the sacrament” (to use a church term), but rather witnessed the rite. Jewish law required ritual immersion in the miqveh to be witnessed, although it is clear that the person immersed him or herself. … Incidentally, to be a witness at a ritual immersion, it was not necessary to be a rabbi. Accordingly it would not have been necessary for the disciples to be rabbis if they either witnessed or “administered” a ritual immersion (baptism). (Shanks)
Adam Clarke’s Commentary. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 1996.
Adams, William. “Hebraic Roots: The Origin of Baptism.” Bridges for Peace. 4 May 2010. [https://www.bridgesforpeace.com/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=2431]
American Journal of Theology. Vol. 24. Chicago: University of Chicago Divinity School. January 1920.
“Background of Christian Baptism, The.” 4 May 2010. [https://www.sourcelight.net/baptism1.htm]
Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1985. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 1997.
Shanks, Hershel. Biblical Archaeology Review. 13:01 (Jan/Feb 1987) CD-ROM. Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 2004.
Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 1997.
Woods, Guy N. Questions and Answers. Vol. II. Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1986.
Wuest, K. S. Wuest’s Word Studies from the Greek New Testament. CD-ROM. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.