Who Gave You Authority to Baptize?

By W. Milton Adams | 15 May 2019 |

Urban cultures are influenced by a developing global, web-based culture which rejects traditional institutions and demands decentralization of authority. Individuals are inclined to find a direct path to what they want and traditional structures are often perceived as obstacles. Therefore, the church, as a result of its conventionality, is not well positioned for growth in urban communities. Yet the church, as a fellowship of believers, is commissioned by Christ to take the gospel to people of all kinds, most of whom are now concentrated in urban populations.

In this contemporary context, the mission of Christ requires a different approach from that which has been practiced for centuries; lay believer empowerment scalable unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Lay believers must be re-empowered to do all the work of disciple-making.

This article explores the age-old, yet still relevant question, “And who gave you authority to baptize?” (Mark 11:27-33; John 1:25) Most denominations today, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church, see themselves as holding the authoritative right to baptize through the vesting of pastors, lay pastors, priests, or other clergy.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual states, “The pastor, with the assistance of the elders, is expected to plan for and lead out in all spiritual services, such as Sabbath morning worship and prayer meeting, and should officiate at the communion service and baptism.” (page 32) This serves as one policy parameter. Another parameter is articulated as a provisional plan: “In the absence of an ordained pastor, an elder shall request the conference president to arrange for the baptism of those desiring to unite with the church.” (page 45-49) “An elder should not officiate in the service without first obtaining permission from the conference president.” (Page 75)

The provisional policy makes it possible for a conference president to authorize an elder to conduct a baptism. But it clearly states that an elder “should not officiate” unless authorized, and this implies that non-elders should not officiate at baptisms. To clarify this position the Church Manual continues, “Occasionally no one possesses the experience and qualifications to serve as an elder. Under such circumstances the church should elect a person to be known as ‘leader.’ [But,] a leader, who is not an ordained elder may not administer baptism, conduct the Lord’s Supper, perform the marriage ceremony, or preside at business meetings when members are disciplined. A request should be made to the conference president for an ordained pastor to preside at such meetings.” (page 77)

Although the Church Manual says that the gospel commission is given to “us,” it defines that commissioning in such a way that it places disciple-making under the authority of the “chief committee” when it says, “The gospel commission of Jesus tells us that making disciples, which includes baptizing and teaching, is the primary function of the church (Matt. 28:18-20). It is, therefore, also the primary function of the board, which serves as the chief committee of the church. When the board devotes its first interests and highest energies to involving every member in proclaiming the good news and making disciples, most problems are alleviated or prevented, and a strong, positive influence is felt in the spiritual life and growth of members.” (page 129)

The Developing Crisis

Urban cultures around the world are highly influenced by a global, web-based culture that rejects institutionalism and demands decentralization of power and authority. This was recently recognized by the General Conference Office of Adventist Mission in an article entitled “Adventist Leaders Tout House-Churches as Way to Reach Non-Christians.” The primary reason was included in the subtitle, “The house-church model is called important at a time when many view the traditional church negatively.” (McChesney 2018)

Not only do many view the church negatively, but public opinion of the clergy has been on the decline for decades. “In 2013 the clergy received its lowest score ever,” a public opinion poll reveals. “The number of people who believe clergy have very high or high levels of honesty and ethical standards fell below 50 percent for the first time. But this was no blip on the radar screen. After peaking at a high of 67 percent in 1985, the decline has been a pretty steady march downward.” (Packard 2015, page 17) No matter how one explains the details, this is a developing crisis.

Cultural Mega-shift

Harvard leadership professor Barbara Kellerman, in The End of Leadership, observes, “There is less respect for authority across the board—in government and business, in the academy and in the professions, even in religion.” (Kellerman 2012, pages viii, xix, 15, 25) This suggests that the culture’s negative view of the church is not necessarily the fault of the church or its leadership. Secular leaders as well as church leaders recognize the attitude toward organized religion as just one aspect of a greater “mega-shift” in attitudes toward conventionality in general.

Policy-based systems are slowly being replaced by relational systems where people are more important than the survival of the institution. Power and control are being decentralized, top-down supremacy is losing influence, while informal, relational structures are gaining influence. There is “a shift away from traditional management systems in which the leader is at the center, to new sorts of systems, in which organizations are self-run and self-governed.” (Kellerman 2012, pages 42-43)

As new possibilities give people ways to bypass conventional systems, people are less inclined to “ask permission” of those who see themselves as holding the authority to give permission. This reality challenges a fundamental assumption of institutional system thinking, specifically the belief that people will continue to ask permission.

Other researchers acknowledge this reality and its impact on the church. In their landmark book, Church Refugees: Sociologists Reveal Why People Are DONE With Church but Not Their Faith, Joshua Packard and Ashleigh Hope report on research which showed the impact of this thinking on church-going. “The story that emerged from the data is that people with access to alternative ways of reaching their goals of community and social engagement are opting out of church.” (Packard 2015, page 10)

Packard emphasizes, “To be clear, I don’t think this is generational. Our respondents spanned an age range from 18 to 84. The phenomenon of people walking away from congregation-based church has much more to do with how our culture has evolved over the years for everyone not simply for emerging [young] adults.” (Packard 2015, page 76)

This cultural mega-shift is not necessarily the church’s fault. “Technology continues to undermine the authority of the church, just as it undermines authority everywhere else.” (Kellerman 2012, page 78) But, this reality does call for new kinds of organization in general and a reevaluation of current institutional assumptions for those organizations that desire to stay relevant. “The twenty-first century will force us all to evolve towards a fundamentally new form of organization,” writes John Kotter, one of the foremost authorities on leadership. (Kotter 2014, page 39)

This will also call for a new look at church organizational models and the assumptions they are based upon. Christian researcher George Barna in his 2016 Church Startups and Money report asks, “What would it look like to make a whole new model?” (Barna 2016, page 51) Culture has changed around us, and with it people’s view of church as we have known it. The church is also changing from within.

The Church (the People) Is Changing from Within

“Predicting the future is a perilous activity. But if you look at enough data, you can see there are some trends pointing in a pretty clear direction.” (Kotter 2014, page 173) The church is changing from within. Yet this change should not come as a surprise to Adventists. Ellen White pointed to this some time ago. In 1911, White wrote, “Before the final visitation of God’s judgments upon the earth, there will be, among the people of the Lord, such a revival of primitive godliness as has not been witnessed since apostolic times. The Spirit and power of God will be poured out upon His children. At that time many will separate themselves from those churches in which the love of this world has supplanted love for God and His Word. Many, both of ministers and people, will gladly accept those great truths which God has caused to be proclaimed at this time, to prepare a people for the Lord’s second coming. (Great Controversy 1911, page 464, italic supplied.)

Notice what White says, and what she does not say: (1) “among the people of the Lord” is not limited to a specific denomination. It includes people of any fold, in any denomination, and it includes people outside of any recognized denomination. (2) “many will separate themselves from those churches in which the love of this world has supplanted love for God and His Word.” No denomination is exempt. (3) “Many … will gladly accept those great truths” does not say people will join or switch denominations; White simply says they “will gladly accept those great truths.” Accepting biblical truths may not necessarily mean becoming “members.”

In 2005 Barna wrote, “Well over 20 million left the church to ‘go find God.’” (Barna 2005, page 13) In 2015 Packard and Hope reported that 104 million Americans have left the church. (Packard 2015, page 20; Barna 2014)

Packard and Hope stated, “Our interviews indicate that the dechurched are among the most dedicated people in any congregation. They often work themselves into positions of leadership in an attempt to fix the things about the church that dissatisfy them before ultimately deciding that energies could be better spent elsewhere. In other words, the dechurched were the ‘doers’ in their congregations.” (Packard 2015, page 23)

The conventional church of Western cultures is in a state of crisis as a result of recent cultural shifts. Technology is disseminating both the culture and its crisis to urban centers around the globe via the web. The culture around the church and the people within the church have changed. As the rules are changing, church leader paradigms and the assumptions they embrace are being bypassed.

To reestablish relevance at a time when “many view the traditional church negatively,” the church will have to change, and do so quickly without a self-preservation agenda or—paradoxically—it will continue to dwindle, specifically among Western cultures and among those in any culture who have embraced a developing global culture. Of all entities, the church is best poised to understand the counter-intuitive Kingdom principle, that of losing one’s life in order to gain life. (Matthew 10:39)

There is a way forward that will re-empower the believers to do all the work of disciple making, thus providing a vehicle for the wildfire-like spread of the Gospel Message in the New Testament era to happen in today’s urban context. But this way forward will require institutional assumptions of authority and permission-giving to change.

In her book Desire of the Ages, White emphasizes, “The very life of the church depends upon her faithfulness in fulfilling the Lord’s commission. To neglect this work is surely to invite spiritual feebleness and decay. Where there is no active labor for others, love wanes, and faith grows dim.” (White 1940, page 825)

The Bible Perspective

Adventism has a long-standing theology of upholding the Bible and the Bible alone as the infallible authority of the Word of God. While this posture reflects reformation DNA, to truly apply this legacy of the infallible authority of the Word of God as one’s only rule of faith and practice may challenge current practices.

White upheld the principle of sola scriptura. Drawing from church history, she warns of a tendency to lose sight of this foundation. These warnings serve to remind modern-day Adventist church leaders and believers that a clear understanding of one’s authority and a firm allegiance to Christ and His Word are paramount to avoiding the pitfalls of the past. With this background, we now turn our attention to the Commission behind baptism.

Matthew concludes his gospel with The Great Gospel Commission, Christ’s final charge to His disciples. “And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’” Amen (Matthew 28:18-20)

As familiar as this may be, the scope of this commission is radically inclusive. To realize it, one must notice its parameters. Are there any limitations to the scope of the Commission? In terms of territory? Time? Authority? The Bible alone must answer!

Regarding the scope of the Great Gospel Commission, Ellen White’s commentary is, “Not upon the ordained minister only rests the responsibility of going forth to fulfill this commission. Everyone who has received Christ is called to work for the salvation of his fellow men. … Those who stand as leaders in the church of God are to realize that the Savior’s commission is given to all who believe in His name.” (White, Acts of the Apostles 1911, page 110, italics supplied.)

In sweeping inclusiveness, Christ authorizes the unlikely and the undeserving. White commented, “Those whose course has been most offensive to Him He freely accepts; when they repent, He imparts to them His divine Spirit, places them in the highest positions of trust, and sends them forth into the camp of the disloyal to proclaim His boundless mercy. (White 1940, page 826)

She also wrote, “The Savior’s commission to the disciples included all the believers. It includes all believers in Christ to the end of time. It is a fatal mistake to suppose that the work of saving souls depends alone on the ordained minister. All to whom the heavenly inspiration has come are put in trust with the gospel. All who receive the life of Christ are ordained to work for the salvation of their fellow men. For this work the church was established, and all who take upon themselves its sacred vows are thereby pledged to be co-workers with Christ.” (White 1940, page 822, bold and italics supplied.)

A Pivotal Question

Over the past 10 years, I have worked with over five hundred church leaders around the world, primarily conference presidents in Western countries, helping them understand and respond to the developing global culture through the development of missionary-focused house church plants. (See www.simplechurchathome.com.) In the course of dialogue, church leaders often ask, So who is allowed to baptize? Their question is uniquely appropriate as they seek to reconcile church policy with the Gospel Commission and with Ellen White’s comments.

And the answer hinges upon another pivotal question: To whom was the Gospel Commission given? If the Gospel Commission was given only to church-approved pastors, then the whole work of making disciples belongs to the elite, which in turn could be seen as discrediting the work of the lay believers who give Bible studies, “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20).

If one accepts White’s perspective, then the Gospel Commission is given to all believers. Yet the fulfillment of one part of that commission, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), directly conflicts with church policy, which states, “The pastor, with the assistance of the elders, is expected to plan for and lead out in all spiritual services, such as Sabbath morning worship and prayer meeting, and should officiate at the communion service and baptism.” (Church Manual 2016, page 32)

I can report that of the over five hundred church leaders to whom the question has been posed, only one has suggested (though it was not his final conclusion) that the Gospel Commission was given solely to church-sanctioned pastors. While this represents church leaders who are seeking to be honest with the Biblical text, it does not relieve the tension between Scripture and church policy.

A Base Line “Ordination” Given to All Believers

According to White, there is a base level “ordaining” conferred by Christ upon all believers for the purpose of fulfilling the Gospel Commission. Under the chapter title “Go and Teach All Nations,” she writes, “All who receive the life of Christ are ordained to work for the salvation of their fellow men.” Uniting souls with Christ through baptism is the work of lay believers, under the authority of Jesus Christ; and “all who take upon themselves its [the church’s] sacred vows are thereby pledged to be co-workers with Christ.” (White 1940, page 822, italics supplied.)

“Christ’s name is [the believers] watchword,” states White, “their badge of distinction, their bond of union, the authority of their course and action, and the source of their success. Nothing that does not bear His superscription is to be recognized in His kingdom.” (White 1940, page 826)

There is another level of “ordaining” conferred by the church upon some individuals, typically pastors. This is the rightful domain and prerogative of a given denomination. Uniting people in membership with a denomination is the work of any person to whom a given denomination assigns this responsibility within the institution. This role, in a conventional denominational system includes the role of maintaining doctrinal purity at the point of one’s profession of faith as believers join the denomination.

To clarify, church “ordaining” is for the purpose of delegating to certain individuals the responsibility for preserving denominational identity. It is not above, better than, or more desirable than the “ordaining” conferred by Christ upon all believers for the purpose of fulfilling the Gospel Commission. In other words, church “ordaining” does not take precedence over or trump the “ordaining” conferred by Christ upon all believers; church “ordaining” is a different and separate role.

Undoubtedly, church leaders and believers are to work together. “Let ministers and lay members go forth into the ripening fields. They will find their harvest wherever they proclaim the forgotten truths of the Bible.” (White, Signs of the Times, 1903). Yet, in working together, the believer’s “ordaining” from Jesus Christ Himself is not to be negated by a church “ordaining.” Ordained pastors are, first and foremost, ordained lay believers, who are additionally hired and recognized by a given denomination to uphold the policies of the institution and advance its mission.

Just one sentence before White states, “Christ’s name is their watchword …,” she specifically clarifies, in the context of the Commission, “There is no place for tradition, for man’s theories and conclusions, or for church legislation. No laws ordained by ecclesiastical authority are included in the commission. None of these are Christ’s servants to teach.” (White 1940, page 826)

White understood the scope of Christ’s revolutionary inclusiveness in His commissioning of the believers to do all the work of disciple making—both teaching and baptizing, and she specifically warned church leaders from adding church legislation and the traditions of man with regard to the Commission. When church leaders add additional restrictions, which may actually cause believers to disobey their Gospel Commission, then the believer is faced with trying to reconcile the tension between church policy and Scripture.

Summary of Authority

Based on the authority of Jesus Christ Himself, believers can confidently move forward as they carry out the Gospel Commission, doing all the work of disciple-making, both teaching and baptizing. Using the principle of Sola Scriptura, based on the authority of Jesus Christ Himself alone, believers can confidently carry out the Gospel Commission, doing all the work of disciple-making. “The very life of the church depends upon her faithfulness in fulfilling the Lord’s commission. To neglect this work is surely to invite spiritual feebleness and decay.” (White 1940, page 825)

Whatever hinders believers from disciple-making, hinders the fulfillment of Christ’s Gospel Commission, and to that extent invites “spiritual feebleness and decay.” In light of the urban population explosion, the developing church crisis, and the cultural shift toward decentralization of power and authority, Christ’s authorization of all believers to “co-mission” with Him, is a divinely-inspired paradigm uniquely suited to the challenge. Believer mobilization and believer empowerment (or more accurately, re-empowerment) must become scalable, unlike anything we have ever seen, to levels of urban saturation.

But what about the pastors? What becomes of them, since all believers are authorized by Christ to baptize?

What Is the Biblical Job Description of a Pastor?

Revolutions are typically not initiated by an institution. As noted earlier, “They boiled up from the people, with the help of new, often young leaders who had not previously been heard from.” (Kellerman 2012, pages 46-47)

It should not come as a surprise or an affront to pastors or church leaders that they are not necessarily the ones leading this revolution. Nor does it mean that the Biblical role of pastor is obsolete (although it may undergo some “de-celebritizing”). In fact, pastors have an important and unique contribution as they come alongside the other spiritual gifts.

Scripture does not leave one to guess at or invent a job description for pastors. “Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:11-12, italics supplied.)

This passage confirms, first and foremost, that the spiritual gifting of a pastor is both relevant and necessary; and second, that these five gifts share a common and crystal-clear job description, namely equipping God’s people to do the work of ministry for the building up of the body of Christ—in contrast to doing the work of ministry while the believers watch and/or participate at a token level.

“Christ intends that his ministers shall be educators of the church in gospel work. They are to teach the people how to seek and save the lost. But is this the work they are doing? Alas, how many are toiling to fan the spark of life in a church that is ready to die. How many churches are tended like sick lambs by those who ought to be seeking for the lost sheep! And all the time millions upon millions without Christ are perishing.” (White 1940, page 825)

In short, the Biblical job description for a pastor or lay pastor becomes one of coaching, mentoring, praying, and inspiring/requiring the lay believers to be the doers of all the work of ministry. In other words, pastors are no longer the providers of the ministry. Instead, they re-empower the believers to become the providers of all the ministry, including baptizing.


In Jesus’ day, church leaders raised the question, “And who gave you authority to baptize?” The question is resurfacing today in a context of cultural change and missional need.

Current church practice regarding baptism follows denominationally-based job descriptions which state that only church-approved pastors are allowed to baptize. If needed, a conference president is allowed to authorize a local elder to baptize.

According to Adventist Mission’s news release, “Many view the traditional church negatively” (McChesney 2018). The church is experiencing a tidal wave of cultural change both from outside and from within, all of which is brewing a crisis in which a new revolution—and opportunity—is being born.

As new grassroots possibilities give ordinary people ways to bypass conventional systems, people are less inclined to “ask permission” of those who see themselves as holding the authority to give permission. This challenges a fundamental assumption of institutional system thinking, specifically the belief that people will continue to ask permission.

The question of authority is at the heart of the new revolution, both in secular culture and in church culture. The long-held belief that church-appointed pastors are the only ones authorized to baptize is being challenged. Both Scripture and the writings of Ellen White can be used to substantiate Christ’s authority given to lay believers to both teach and baptize in fulfillment of the Gospel Commission.

Based on the authority of Jesus Christ Himself, believers can confidently move forward as they do all the work of disciple-making, both teaching and baptizing.

Church leaders (“the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers,” Ephesians 4:11) can confidently embrace their Biblical role of equipping God’s people to do His work, as outlined in the Gospel Commission.

Recommendations for Denominational Executives

Benefiting from what could be gained is much easier said than done. How could a world church, a highly complicated and sophisticated global institutionalized system, make such a significant transition?

John P. Kotter is widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost authorities on leadership and change. Not only does he insist that “the twenty-first century will force us all to evolve towards a fundamentally new form of organization” (Kotter 2014, page 39), but he is also successfully helping companies develop what he calls a “dual operating system” (DOS) to navigate this change. While his secular perspective does not inform the message or mission of the church, his contribution presents a helpful management paradigm for leaders to avail themselves of in view of the cultural mega-shift facing the denomination.

“For mature organizations,” Kotter writes, “the needed path today is not to shut them down or crush them. The way forward is almost ‘back to the future’—but not all the way back to the time when firms were new and very small. The needed path leads to a new version of a stage that all successful organizations pass through. It is a stage in which they employ a dual operating system.” (Kotter 2014, page 73)

In short “this is not a question of ‘either/or.’ It’s ‘both/and’ … two systems that operate in concert. … Let me be clear,” states Kotter. “I am not talking about ever more grand interdepartmental task forces, new strategy teams following new models, innovation councils, self-directed work teams, policies that give people time to work on their own creative projects, or all of the above together. These may help movement in the right direction, but they are still just enhancements to a single system. I am talking about a bigger idea, yet one with roots in familiar structures, practices, and thinking.” (Kotter 2014, pages 12-13)

Recommendations for Pastors

A few “next steps” are worth noting: First, create a local dual operating system.

Second, encourage a local church culture where healthy organisms continually give birth to new organisms. In a local dual operating system, some of these new organisms will follow conventional church planting methods, and some may follow new methods. Either way, the message stays consistent.

Third, become a cheerleading equipper of the saints. In other words, stop doing ministry for the believers to watch and applaud. Teach the saints to preach, visit, give Bible studies, and baptize. (Ephesians 4:12) Then let them do it!

Encouragement for All Believers

Based on the authority of Jesus Christ Himself, you can confidently move forward doing all the work of disciple-making, both teaching and baptizing. White tells us that, “Upon all who believe, God has placed a burden of raising up churches.” (White 1892, page 315) One hundred nineteen years later, Hirsch echoed this conviction, “Every believer a church planter, every church a church-planting church.” (Hirsch 2011)

White inspires Adventist believers onward: “The great lesson here taught is for all time. Often the Christian life is beset by dangers, and duty seems hard to perform. The imagination pictures impending ruin before and bondage or death behind. Yet the voice of God speaks clearly ‘Go forward.’ We should obey this command, even though our eyes cannot penetrate the darkness, and we feel the cold waves about our feet. The obstacles that hinder our progress will never disappear before a halting, doubting spirit. Those who defer obedience till every shadow of uncertainty disappears and there remains no risk of failure or defeat, will never obey at all. Unbelief whispers, ‘Let us wait till the obstructions are removed, and we can see our way clearly;’ but faith courageously urges an advance, hoping all things, believing all things. The cloud that was a wall of darkness to the Egyptians was to the Hebrews a great flood of light, illuminating the whole camp, and shedding brightness upon the path before them. So the dealings of Providence bring to the unbelieving, darkness and despair, while to the trusting soul they are full of light and peace. The path where God leads the way may lie through the desert or the sea, but it is a safe path.” (White 1958, page 290)


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Milton Adams spent 15 years pastoring Adventist churches in the secular Northwest of the United States before starting the Simple Church Global Network. His doctoral dissertation at Andrews University focused on the development of this network which now serves house churches around the world. Milton enjoys working with church leaders around the world and re-empowering missionary-minded believers who love Jesus and want to share the everlasting gospel with the secular people who make up the majority of the population in Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and some other nations and who most likely will never walk into a conventional church. A much longer version of this article was originally published in the Journal of Adventist Mission Studies (JAMS).

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