The Church Baptizes

Last month, a Catholic priest named Andres Arango resigned from his position in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix after it was discovered that he had been using the wrong formula of words during baptisms. Instead of saying, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” he had been saying, “We baptize you…”

As a result, Catholic officials ruled that all baptisms performed by Arango under this formula were invalid. They reasoned, “It is not the community that baptizes a person and incorporates them into the Church of Christ; rather, it is Christ, and Christ alone, who presides at all sacraments; therefore, it is Christ who baptizes.”

This internal Catholic controversy fascinates me because it reminds me of a debate I’ve had many times in Baptist churches. Who really baptizes? Who does Christ authorize to perform baptisms? In the free church tradition of which I’m a part, the debate usually takes a different form. Rather than debating the legitimacy of priest versus church, many Protestants opt for a free-for-all approach that says anyone is authorized to baptize. We imagine that our circumstances mirror those of Philip and the Ethiopian in Acts 8. We just need a confession and a swimming pool.

Forgive my Protestant meddling in a Catholic debate, but I believe Arango was right. Christ has given the church the authority to baptize. Christ calls the church his body, and Paul takes this imagery to unimaginable levels when he says that the church is “his body, the fullness of him fill all in all” (Ephesians 1:23). How literally are we supposed to take this? Christ says, referring to his gathered church, that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them” (Matthew 18:20).

Assuming that the Catholic church is right and that it is Christ and only Christ who baptizes, the presence of Christ on earth, according to Christ himself, is not represented by any individual—not even a priest—but by the church gathered in his name. In fact, a couple years ago I began using the same formula as Arango when I baptize. I want the congregation to know that I am baptizing as a representative of the church. As the body of Christ, we are all participating in the sign of baptism.

In Matthew 16, Peter makes the confession that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 16). After Jesus reveals that Peter received this revelation from God, he tells him that he is going to build his church on him—the confessing apostle representing all the apostles—and that the gates of hell will not prevail against his church. Then, he gives Peter (and the church) the keys to the kingdom and tells him that “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (v. 18-19).

It takes us a couple of chapters to find out more about what all this means. In Matthew 18, Jesus instructs us on what to do when a sinning church member refuses to repent, and we find out what it means to bind and loose. When the church decides to cast out a sinner who refuses to repent and return to Christ, the church is exercising its use of the keys of the kingdom by binding and loosing. The church, in other words, authoritatively oversees who is included in the kingdom. Baptism is the sign through which entrance is accomplished (Matthew 28:19-20). Therefore, the church oversees baptism.

But what about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8? Didn’t he baptize as an individual without the church? Someone asks me this question almost every time this topic comes up. First, descriptive passages in the Bible are not always normative. Philip’s context and our context are not identical. Second, exceptions in the Bible should never be used to overrule established teachings.

But let’s look closely at Philip’s ministry. First, we notice that Philip was one of the seven chosen by the apostles to serve widows in the church at Jerusalem (Acts 6:5). In other words, he was connected to the first local church. Second, we notice that Philip submitted his ministry to the apostles and the church at Jerusalem. In the passage preceding Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, Philip baptizes believers in Samaria and then sends a report to the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 8:12, 14). After receiving this report, they immediately come to check things out.

Philip, therefore, was not acting independently. He, like us, belonged to the church and placed his ministry under the authority of the church. He, too, knew that only the church baptizes.

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