Miguel Luna is the Ministerial Secretary of the Northern Asia-Pacific Division (NSD). 

According to the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual and the Minister’s Handbook, ordained pastors—usually with ministerial credentials— can perform baptisms. According to the Church Manual, church elders may also perform the rite on certain occasions with the authorization of the conference/mission president. It is also possible that a retired minister may perform a baptism in coordination with the conference/mission and the local church pastor. 

According to the Bible, who is entitled to baptize new church members? The Gospels and the Pauline epistles give us insights as to who should perform the rite. The earliest reference to baptism is found in the Gospel of John when it is mentioned that John “was baptizing” (John 1:28).* By what authority was he baptizing? The Gospel of Luke mentions that John the Baptist was appointed and called by God to do this work (Luke 1:5-25). The angel presented John’s mission to his parents: “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous— to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17, NIV). This mission was clearly acknowledged by Jesus. “But what did you go to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, more than a prophet” (Luke 7:26). John the Baptist fulfilled his mission as a prophet and baptized people with the authority given to him by the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel of John also tells us that Jesus’ disciples baptized. “After this, Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized” (John 3:22). “The Pharisees heard that Jesus was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John, although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples” (John 4:1, 2). It is important to note that the disciples baptized because of the mission and authority entrusted to them by Jesus; they were called and appointed by Jesus for this ministry (Matt. 10:1-4). After Jesus’ resurrection, He again entrusted them to continue this ministry. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20). Jesus gave specific instructions regarding who may baptize. In this particular event, the disciples (also called the apostles) were supposed to perform the rite. They continued making disciples, and as the numbers of believers grew, they took steps toward church organization.

After Jesus’ ascension, the disciples continued in their ministry (Acts 1:12-17). Interestingly, it is Peter who mentioned that they were entrusted with this ministry of making disciples, baptizing, and teaching the gospel of Jesus. And when they were gathered together, they elected Matthias to continue in the “apostolic ministry” (Acts 1:25). Clearly, those appointed as leaders were also authorized to baptize new candidates by the authority of the early church and the apostles.

As the church grew, a more elaborate form of church service and ministry was needed. The disciples and the church gathered again to appoint seven additional leaders who could minister to the church in their need for the daily distribution (Acts 6:1-4). Once more the early church chose men who appeared to be full of wisdom, faith, and the Spirit (Acts 6:3-5). It is important to note that the whole group made the decision and “presented them [the chosen men] to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them” (Acts 6:6). Again these seven men were selected, appointed, and ordained by the authority of the church and the apostles for the continuation of the ministry. 

As the early church faced persecution, it is worth noting that Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch. He acted as a representative of the church under exceptional circumstances. Philip clearly felt that the Holy Spirit guided him to fulfill this ministry (Acts 8:29). And Philip was entrusted by the Holy Spirit to perform the baptism of the Ethiopian. “And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. When they came up out from the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing” (Acts 8:38, 39). This was an extraordinary case under the explicit instruction of the Holy Spirit.

Early baptismal experiences were performed and guided by the Lord Himself. A disciple named Ananias lived in Damascus. The Lord called to him in a vision (Acts 9:10). The Lord gave him clear instructions to look for Saul because he was the chosen instrument to carry the name of Jesus to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15, 16). The disciple Ananias did not act on his own initiative to baptize or lead in Saul’s baptism; he was instructed by the Lord to do it. But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (Acts 9:15, 16). Luke recorded that after Ananias’ prayer, “he got up and was baptized” (Acts 9:18). Again it was under the Lord’s direction that this particular disciple received the authority to baptize the apostle Paul. 

The apostle Peter worked for the Jewish community; however, he also had witnessed the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and conversion of Cornelius, a Roman centurion. Again in this case, it was under the Lord’s instructions that he went to visit Cornelius’ home, family, and friends. He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean” (Acts 10:28). After Peter’s speech and testimony about Jesus Christ, “the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message” (Acts 10:44). Therefore, the apostle Peter, with the authority entrusted him by Jesus, the apostles, and the church, “ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:48).

So far we have observed that when baptisms occurred in the early church, they were performed in fulfillment of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20). Those who performed the baptisms were guided by the Lord and the Holy Spirit as well as by the early church and the apostles after more than three years of ministerial training from Jesus Himself. As disciples of Jesus, the apostles had watched His ministry of healing, teaching, and preaching. As the church grew, they passed the Great Commission on to the next generation. 

In the epistle to the Galatians, we see that it was the decision of the Jerusalem apostles under the leadership of James, Peter, and John (Gal. 2:8) to appoint Paul for the mission to the Gentiles. “They agreed that we [Paul and Barnabas] go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews” (Gal. 2:9).

It was the Holy Spirit and the church of Antioch, as well as apostolic endorsement, which appointed both Paul and Barnabas for the ministry to the Gentiles (Acts 13:1- 3). They would continue making disciples and appointing elders among the Jewish synagogues and proselytes. Were they also responsible for performing baptisms? Certainly they followed the church appointment and authority to perform the rite. Paul also delegated authority to their associates and local church elders who were the shepherds of the local church.

In Philippi, for example, they baptized the jailer. Confronted by the question “Sir, what must I do to be saved?” Paul and Silas replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household” (Acts 16:30, 31). That same night, the jailer and his family were baptized (Acts 16:33). We may infer that Paul and Silas baptized them. They performed the baptism according to the Great Commission and church-appointed authority entrusted to them by the apostles and the church of Antioch.

During Paul’s missionary trips, he and his associates appointed elders in every city and committed them to the Lord to nurture, teach, and preach (Acts 14:23). As the apostle mentioned to the elders in Ephesus, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). I would like to suggest that their responsibilities may have included baptisms. It is the apostle Peter who also suggests the function of the elders as shepherds. “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because of, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples of the flock” (1 Peter 5:2, 3).

It is interesting to note that in his epistle to the Romans, Paul made a connection between baptism and the sacrifice of Christ: “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom. 6:3). Actually, baptism points to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, which is the means for the Church’s redemption, justification, and reconciliation. However, we must ask ourselves one important question: Who baptized the Roman saints? It was not Paul, since many times he planned to go to them. He writes of his willingness to visit them in the near future (Rom. 1:13). Looking to the list of greetings at the end of the epistle, it is possible to find an answer. Paul said to greet “Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Jesus Christ. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them” (Rom. 16:3, 4). Therefore, I would suggest that Priscilla and Aquila were the ones responsible for baptizing new converts. Thus, it is clear from these examples that whenever there was a baptism in the early church, the baptism was performed by leaders appointed by the apostles and the church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. As the church grew, it was necessary for the church to continue appointing leaders to serve as elders/shepherds and to continue with the Great Commission given by Jesus Christ to the 12 disciples.

According to our current Church Manual and by the authority of the General Conference, the Seventh-day Adventist Church authorized those ordained to the gospel ministry to perform baptisms, as in apostolic times. Also, the Church has made provision for local church elders, as authorized by the church organization, to perform the rite. In general, ordained church elders may perform baptisms by the appointment and authorization of the president of the conference/mission. The Church Manual and also the Minister’s Handbook have been written to guide the church in following the principles contained in the Gospels. It clearly states that “in the absence of an ordained minister, the elder shall request the president of the conference/mission/ field to arrange for the administration of the rite of baptism to those desiring to unite with the church. A local church elder should not officiate in the baptismal service without first obtaining permission from the conference/mission/field president” (Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, rev. ed., 2005, 17th edition, 52).

*All texts quoted in this article are from the New International Version of the Bible.

Miguel Luna is the Ministerial Secretary of the Northern Asia-Pacific Division (NSD).