Jesus told the apostles: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations. Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Since God’s church over the centuries has splintered into many denominations with their own convictions and traditions, and the existence of cults with historic roots in Christianity, this command of Jesus has been interpreted in various ways. This means all Christian churches face the question which baptisms are valid.
Validity of baptisms
- First, baptism should take place in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). Baptism in any other name is not a Christian baptism.
- Second, baptism should take place with water. Baptism without water is not a valid baptism.
- Third, baptism is administered by the church. A ‘baptism’ in a play is not a real baptism. A ‘baptism’ in a cult (e.g. Mormonism) is not a real baptism.
- Fourth, connected to the last point, the baptizer should have the authority to baptize. In many churches this authority only rests with the priest or pastor. In other churches, elders or even every member may baptize others. So when your neighbor baptizes you in his bathtub, it is a valid baptism if his church recognized that as a valid way to receive someone into the fellowship of the church. If the church does not recognize that, the baptism is not valid.
Acceptable in the eyes of God
Two more points are often discussed. Some churches hold that only baptism by immersion is acceptable before God. It is true that baptism by immersion was the most common way to baptize (we see this in Acts 8:36, for example). However, the claim that baptize always means ‘immerse’ is not true. It is questionable in several Bible verses, and clearly not true in one passage. Hebrews 9:12 speaks about “various washings” (‘baptisms’ is the Greek word here). Verse 14 mentions as one of these ‘baptisms’: “the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer”.
What is probably the earliest Christian document outside the New Testament, the Didache, confirms the wider meaning of baptism by mentioning immersion as the preferred mode of baptism, but sprinkling as an allowed form. To conclude: the mode of baptism (immersion or pouring or sprinkling) does not make baptism acceptable or unacceptable in the eyes of God.
Who may be baptized?
The final and most controversial point is about who may be baptized. Some protestant churches believe that baptism is for believers. Other protestant churches, the Roman Catholic church, and the Eastern Orthodox churches believe that baptism is also for the children of believers. This article is not about the question who is right, but about which baptisms are acceptable before God.
The churches baptizing infants do not have a problem accepting the validity of baptism in baptist churches. On the other hand, many baptist churches do not accept the validity of infant baptism. This is, I believe, a mistake. Believer’s baptism and infant baptism are both defended from Scripture. The New Testament neither has an example of an infant baptized, nor of a believer born in a Christian family baptized at a later age. The record from the Early Church on this matter can be interpreted in various ways. Holding that infant baptism is not accepted by God, leads to the conclusion that for over a thousand years (roughly 400-1525) real baptism died out and that Christ’s command to His church was universally disobeyed.
In conclusion, the New Testament places a high value on the unity of the church (see Ephesians 4:4-6). Breaking the unity of the church by claiming only believer’s baptism is accepted by God and to re-baptize people baptized in other churches is not a wise course to take. Churches that believe believer’s baptism is the best reflection of what the Bible teaches, should nevertheless acknowledge infant baptism as an (in their view) less ideal form of baptism.