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May a woman baptize?

A reader asked if a woman may baptize someone into Jesus Christ. I know of no textual consideration that would forbid it. But this needs qualified.  See what you think of what follows.

The question wasn’t asked in any contentious way or even as a hypothetical question—it arose out of an actual case where the circumstances and location seemed to call for it. [In some communions not only may women baptize people (for various purposes) they are expected to do it as part of their responsibility within that communion.]

I’ve no reason to believe that the one doing the baptizing is an ultimate consideration. I have every reason to believe that repentant faith in Jesus Christ in the one being baptized is the major consideration since—as the NT sees it—they are taking upon them the name of Jesus Christ, making him their Lord.

That I believe to be true but it isn’t all that needs to be considered. In scripture, questions are never answered as if they were isolated issues—they’re always worked with within the network of Christian faith as a connected whole and as that unified faith meets the society around it (compare 1 Corinthians 9:19-22).  

Even in those communions where the “Christening” of infants is practiced and carried out by women as well as men there is the question of “authorisation”. That is, if you want your baby Christened it’s done by someone appointed as a representative leader in that communion. It doesn’t work if a parent takes the child into the bathroom at home, reads the correct wording over the child and applies tap water. It’s recognised to be a “church” ordinance and sacrament so the baby is brought to someone who at that point is duly representative of “the church” in which that person is an officer. So that even in this case, “baptism” is more than the mere application of water by someone or other—it is viewed as an induction into the church and it is carried out in a “church” context rather than as an individual matter. An essential part of the proceeding is a “corporate” understanding and while the ordinance may be carried out under special circumstances in places away from a designated location, the authorised personnel will have to be involved.

“Authorisation” is a very complex issue (in and out of Scripture) but when God designates certain people to function in a given role it always relates to the protection and nurture of the Community as a whole. It is never merely about the individuals appointed (gifted)—see 1 Corinthians 12:7 and Ephesians 4:11-12 for the point I’m making. And see here for some suggestions about the indispensable nature of representatives. Whatever we conclude about the “right or wrong” of women baptizing it has to be related to our view of authorised representation of the Church as a community rather than a crowd of individuals. The church is not a crowd of individuals! It is the “body of Christ” and must recognise itself as the body of Christ; and in carrying out its business of being the body of Christ it must take that truth into account.

Individualism has a voracious appetite and when it is full-grown it is nothing but anarchy, which only uses community when it needs it and despises it when it doesn’t. People must be taught and must practice the nurture of unity as a community, unity as a single body of Christ. The picture, then of people going off somewhere to baptize one or the other “in private” as if it were their right and as if they were taking NT baptism seriously is undoubtedly wide of the mark. In addition, it may well be another marker of the individualism that is rampant across the whole religious landscape.

Baptism into Jesus Christ must be seen as baptism into the New Covenant community and it must be carried out in such a way as to make that clear. Under exceptional circumstances we should do what seems best in light of the NT witness but the exceptional circumstances should not be allowed to appear as normative. Baptism is not simply a personal issue (though it certainly is that as surely as faith is a personal matter) but it relates to and has corporate truth embedded in it (in the NT it is into the corporate Christ of which each Christian is a part--see 1 Corinthians 6:15 and 12:12). What should be normal, then, is that baptism should be carried out by representative leadership and not by whoever is convenient and where possible it should be given a corporate context rather than two individuals out on their own somewhere.

So, do I think a woman may baptize someone of repentant faith into Jesus Christ? I do, but only under well-defined circumstances.

This raises many other questions (of course it does!) but then I’m not writing a book about the matter—even presuming I were competent to do that.

Spending Time with Jim McGuiggan