Concise Lexicon of Christianity

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The Elements of a Valid Baptism

Which of the following are necessary for a valid baptism?

The correct answer really depends on your denomination’s discipline; however, here are the results and my usual crackpot observations.

57% of you require the baptizer to quote Matthew 28:19 by saying, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
This is required in most churches, and in fact is a requirement set forth in the Didache, a manual of church discipline used by Christians beginning in the first or second centuries.
52% of you require the baptizer to be either clergy or a validly baptized Christian lay person.
This is true for most historic churches. The preference is for clergy to baptize, since that assures that the baptism is validly done, but if clergy are not available, a lay person can perform a valid baptism if the other requirements are met.
31% of you require the candidate to be immersed, or allow the water to be poured or sprinkled on the candidate in that order of preference.
This is the order of preference of the ancient Church, as documented in the Didache.
31% of you require that the candidate be an adult who professes the Christian faith.
This is the preference of Protestant churches that affirm believer’s baptism, but there is evidence that infant baptism was practiced in the very ancient Church. For example, archaeologists have discovered baptisteries in ancient churches that are too small and too shallow to immerse anyone. Many churches that affirm believer’s baptism recognize infant baptisms when people transfer their membership from another church.
14% of you require the baptizer to be clergy.
All churches prefer for the baptizer to be clergy, but most of the historic churches, such as the Episcopal Church, recognize a so-called emergency baptism that is performed by a lay person, as long as that lay person is a Christian, is properly baptized, and quotes Matthew 28:19 when performing the baptism
7% of you require the baptizer to apply the water three times.
This is not required in most churches, but it is a good idea. According to my best information, the Orthodox churches won’t recognize the baptism unless the water is applied three times. So if the baptizer applies the water three times, and meets the other requirements, it is an ecumenical baptism.
7% of you require the candidate to be immersed in water.
This is required in many Protestant bodies who affirm believer’s baptism; that is to say, they only baptize people who are old enough to confess their faith. It is also the preferred mode in the Orthodox churches, which even immerse infants. The Didache records that the ancient Church permitted other modes if immersion wasn’t practical. That is a good thing, because if an elderly cardiac patient converts and desires baptism, taking them out and immersing them could kill them. The ancient modes were, in order of descending preference: immersion in running water (such as a river), if running water was not available, then immersion in still water (such as a lake), if immersion was not feasible, then pouring, and if pouring was not possible then sprinkling. They used cold water unless only warm water was available, but today most churches that baptize by immersion heat the water first. Many churches that insist on immersion permit other modes if circumstances prohibit immersion, and recognize baptisms by other modes when people transfer their membership from another church.

In general, baptizers must themselves be a validly baptized believing Christian and must quote Matthew 28:19 in the ceremony. Most churches prefer immersion, at least in theory; some require it. It is best for the baptizer to be clergy, but if it is an emergency and clergy are not available, a lay person can perform a valid baptism. If you transfer into a church that requires immersion or believer’s baptism, it may recognize your baptism, even if it was not by immersion, or even if you were an infant at the time. The Orthodox churches require the water to be applied three times. If you want to perform a baptism that is valid in as many other churches as possible, keep this in mind.

What is the absolute minimum in the most extreme case imaginable? Three things: water, if it is available, Matthew 28:19, and the intent to perform a valid baptism. What if you are trapped in the Sahara Desert and you are about to die, you are a Christian but you have never been baptized, and the only other person present is a Muslim? I have been given to understand that if the Muslim baptizes you with sand, saying, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and the Muslim does it earnestly, not mockingly, at least the Roman Catholic Church would recognize that as a valid Christian baptism.

However, if a Christian minister baptizes you in church, by immersion, and after a profession of faith, but says, in the name of the creator, the redeemer, and the sustainer, most historic churches will not recognize that as a valid baptism, because it does not quote Matthew 28:19. (In fact, there was an ancient pagan religion, a rival to the ancient Church, that had a creator god that was in conflict with a redeemer god. The historic churches expect the Christian minister to know such things.)