Your church probably has a very strong preference that clergy conduct baptisms, so you should not go around the neighborhood baptizing people. However, most churches will recognize a baptism performed by a layperson in an emergency.
A couple of websites have linked to this page because they think it is uproariously funny that there could be such a thing as an emergency baptism. It never occurred to me that an act of compassion for a dying person would give anyone the giggles. However, I don’t mind. It is part of my job as pastor to give compassionate help when the giggles stop. Meanwhile, laugh all you can, it’s good for you!
Before we Begin…
Through His incarnation and resurrection, Jesus teaches us that a whole person consists of a body and a spirit. Any attempt to give the spirit priority over the body is Gnosticism, not Christianity.
If you are with a person who is suddenly afflicted with a medical emergency, whether they are dying or not, your first priority is to summon professional medical help and to administer first aid until it arrives. Only then should you attempt to administer spiritual help.
What Constitutes an Emergency
It is an emergency if all of the following statements are true:
- The candidate urgently requests baptism.
- Despite having received the best available medical attention, the candidate is reasonably worried that they might die.
- You have tried and failed to contact a member of the clergy, or a member of the clergy cannot arrive in time.
Is It Necessary?
We could all go round and round in theological debates about whether baptism is necessary. We are commanded to be baptized (Acts 2:38), and the church is commanded to baptize new converts (Matthew 28:19). However, the thief on the cross wasn’t baptized, and Jesus said he was okay. But isn’t that a special case, since it is physically impossible to baptize someone who is nailed to a cross?
All this theological debate is heartless in an emergency. If someone has good reason to think they are about to die, they urgently want to be baptized, and baptism is physically possible, then it is pastorally necessary to baptize them, no matter what our theology is.
- Do not baptize a person unless they request it.
- Do not baptize a person while they are unconscious.
- Do not baptize a person who has already been baptized in any church.
If you are a layperson, pay special attention to the following:
- Do not baptize a person if a member of the clergy is available.
- If a member of the clergy declines to baptize the person, do not take it upon yourself to do it.
- Do not baptize a person if a member of the clergy instructs you not to do it or tells you it is unnecessary.
- Do not ask the person to confess sins to you.
- Do not require the person to show you evidence of repentance.
- Do not attempt to determine whether the person is worthy of baptism.
The Essential Parts
If you want the baptism to meet the requirements for as many churches as possible, it must have the following three features:
- You must have the intention of performing a valid baptism.
- For example, if children are playing church or if you perform a baptism as part of a play, or you are horsing around in a swimming pool, it is not a valid baptism.
- Water must be involved.
- Immersion is valid in all churches, but since this is an emergency, that is probably not practical. Instead, pour water on the candidate’s head three times. (This instruction goes back to the first-century document called the Didache, or the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.) Sprinkling the water, daubing water on the candidate’s forehead, or pouring the water only once may be valid in some churches but it won’t be valid in many others.
- You must use the formula in Matthew 28:19.
- You must say to the candidate, “I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” You can add any additional wording that you like, but it’s probably best to stick to the bare essentials. If you substitute other formulas or if you baptize only in Jesus’ name, the baptism may be valid in some churches, but in most churches, it won’t be valid.
- In Matthew 28:19, Jesus gives us the words to say when we baptize in His name.
If the person is unable to verify whether or not they were baptized, or it cannot be determined if the person’s baptism was valid, then you should say: “If you are not already baptized, I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This avoid re-baptism, which most churches frown upon.
Other Features of a Baptism
We’re talking about bare-bones emergency baptism here, so this isn’t a full liturgy. Other things that normally accompany baptisms can include the following, but not necessarily in this order:
- Before the Water:
- The candidate formally agrees to be baptized.
- The candidate renounces Satan and evil.
- The baptizer blesses the water.
- The candidate professes faith.
- The Apostles Creed, in western churches.
- After the Water:
- The candidate is anointed with oil.
- The candidate receives the laying on of hands.
- There is a prayer for the candidate to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
These extra features are not necessary in an emergency, and if you are a layperson, you may not have the authority to perform them anyway. However, you should ask the candidate at the last moment if they desire to be baptized.
You don’t need special equipment for pouring. You can pour the water simply by cupping your hands and letting the water flow onto the candidate’s head. There doesn’t have to be a lot of water, but be sure to apply it three times.
- Ask the candidate if they want to be baptized. If they say no, stop at this point and go no further. If they say yes, proceed.
- As you pour the water three times, use the candidate’s name and say, “_____, I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” If there is any doubt about a previous baptism, pour the water three times, use the candidate’s name and say, “_____, if you are not already baptized, I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Roman Catholics should read paragraph 1284 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Paragraph 903 might also be helpful. (As you are reading the book, note that the paragraph numbers are in boldface; the italic numbers in the margin are cross references.)
For general information about the theology and practice of baptism in various Christian groups, see this other website: Baptism Integrity.➚