The Verse I’d Never Seen Before

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baptizing woman

Sometime in my 20’s, I started to cry. The transformation was astonishing: from being the Kid Who Didn’t Cry, I became the One Guaranteed To Blub. I cried during commercials, during Oprah, during weddings, and every-time-without-fail : I cried at baptisms. The beauty of seeing a believer washed new; brave and bold and dripping with the passion of one reborn undid me every time.

And so it was, a few months back, that I sat crying as I witnessed a baptism one Sunday morning: wiping tears as I corralled the toddler with one arm and a bribing snack, shushed the preschooler who was pretending to be a fighter pilot, and snuggled my 6-year old close. My tears dripped off my chin and onto her hair, and I wondered how bad the crying would be on the day when it was my own children in the baptismal font. If a stranger’s baptism undid me so, I would for sure be bawling when my own children’s day came. I wallowed in dramatic thought a moment longer: “do you know what would make me really ugly cry?” I thought. “If their dad were to baptize them.” I had seen some pastor friends baptize their kids. The mental image was exquisitely poignant.

Later that night, I broached the topic with my husband. “When the time comes, “ I asked, “do you think you would like to baptize our kids?” He mulled it over for a moment and shrugged: “not really.” I nodded, a little disappointed. Maybe he would be more excited about the idea in the future.

A few weeks later, I found myself sitting huddled at my dining table in the early morning dark, scrambling to finish reading Matthew’s gospel before my BSF small group. Even though I was in a hurry, something pulled me to a stop. Jesus’s words in Matthew 28:18-20 leapt off the page:

“(18) All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  (19) 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,  and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (20) And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

I read it again, and again. And I cried.

How was it that I had never seen verse 19b? As a woman – how had I never seen that?

I knew that the promises belonged to me: the One who has all authority in heaven and on earth (v18) is the one who is always with me, even to the end of the age (v20b).

I knew too that the Great Commission applied to me: I, too, was called to go and make disciples of all nations (v19a), and to teach them to obey all that Jesus commanded (v20). Surely this was my overarching goal as a Mom: to disciple my children as disciples of Christ.

And yet, I had never seen the permission – no, the mandate – to be one who baptized too (v19). For years I had lived, loved and served in a church where men did the preaching and the officiating of communion and all the baptizing (for these were pastoral, and therefore male, functions). And since I had never, ever seen a woman baptize, I had never, ever seen verse 19 commissioning me, as a woman, to one who is enjoined in the calling, reaching, baptizing and discipling work of the Great Commission.

Later that night, I settled down next to my husband on the couch. “Honey, remember I asked you whether you wanted to baptize our kids? Well, this morning I was reading in Matthew, and it occurred to me that if Jesus has called me in the Great Commission to disciple our kids and to teach our kids… don’t you think I should be able to do the middle bit too – and baptize them? Because I’d love to. I mean, if they wanted it, and it was okay with you. But I’d love to – and I just never even thought it was a possibility.”

He looked up and paused. “I don’t see why not,” he said, “if you want to.”

I do want to.

I do. And as it turns out, Matthew 28 says it is allowed: not just as a concession, but in fact as a command. For I, as a woman, am one of the beloved disciples he has called and commissioned.

And so, when the time comes, I would love to be able to baptize our children in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Even if I cry the whole way through. They would be tears of joy.


Photo credit: Rishi Bandopadhay (The Water Pours Freely), licensed with Flickr Creative Commons (edits by Bronwyn Lea)

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27 thoughts on “The Verse I’d Never Seen Before”

  1. You are a revolutionary! I love the idea, it never occurred to me either. We are so conditioned by our (sub?)-cultural mores 🙂

  2. Go for it, Bron. Why not? There’s nothing that sys you can’t, and every reason to consider doing it. Then again, I also think the Bible doesn’t preclude you from preaching and pastoring and being an elder and leading men spiritually, so what do I know.

  3. Wow! Amazing how we color code roles blue and pink forgetting that we are all made imago Dei and all the Bible applies to all of us. Thank you, my friend, for showing this mom what I had never seen before, either.

  4. Why on earth didn’t I notice this before?! Of course the Great Commission applies to women (even complementarians will concede that, right?) and baptism is part of the Great Commission, so, logically, the baptizing part is for both genders. Hmm, I may have to bring this up at church. Don’t know how the PCA would view that, though, considering that they’re into infant baptism.

    1. Laura, could you ask if you could mark the sign of the cross during the baptism? That’s how we do it – three splashes of water, and then with the water already on the child’s head, mark the sign of the cross. So beautiful 🙂

      1. What happens during the baptism seems to depend on who is performing the baptism; some drip the water on the child’s head, others tap it on. I don’t think I’ve seen the sign of the cross, though. It may seem too “catholic” or “high church” for some Presbyterians, though I think it would be beautiful.

  5. YES!!!!!! My husband and I baptized both our children…and amazing gift and one I’m so excited for you to take part in!!!

  6. Oh, my. So beautiful that now I have tears in my eyes. What a blessing and joy — and yes, we as women are called into The Great Commission. When that baptism day comes, you may be blubbering, but the angels will be singing! Thanks for this post!!

  7. At one church I attended in Chicago – when a couple was baptised the pastor would first baptise the husband and then the husband would assist in baptising the wife. I think that parents baptising children would flow from this. Never have seen baptism as any kind of gender monopoly.

  8. I hope that my dissent to the position of this post and the following comments will be understood in the spirit in which it is given, although I recognize that it probably won’t be popular. I think that there are some serious problems here and that it is important to highlight them:

    1. The Great Commission of Matthew 28 isn’t addressed to every individual Christian, although we have all likely sat through many, many messages that has claimed that it is. It is addressed to the Twelve (then eleven in number—Matthew 28:16). As the Church is apostolic, we share in their commission. However, we share in their commission as the Church, not as detached individuals. No individual as an individual, not even ordained individuals, has been given this commission.

    2. Baptism is about entry into a new family. It makes a difference that this rite is not performed by an existing family member. The widespread practice of pastors baptizing their children is a bad practice and should be avoided if possible. This article is worth reading on the subject. Receiving the washing of rebirth from the woman from whom you received your first birth risks dulling some rather important truths. Such practices may heighten the emotional experience of what is taking place, but they tend to obscure the meaning (similar things could be said about people choosing godparents/sponsors for their own children—godparents should represent the Church’s parenting role, so should be chosen by the Church).

    3. Baptisms performed by lay Christians, male or female, are valid, even those performed by family members. However, they are not ideal (much as eloping and being wedded by an Elvis impersonator in a Las Vegas chapel with no family members present can be valid but not ideal). The ideal is that baptism be performed in a manner that accentuates what it actually is. Among other things, baptism is the entry into the new family of the Church. For this reason, it should ideally be performed by an official representative of the Church in a public ceremony of the Church (some traditions stipulate this in their confessions, such as the Westminster Confession of Faith XVIII.2).

    This doesn’t mean that women shouldn’t baptize. However, if they do baptize, they should do so as official representatives of the Church. Women could do this for other women, as women can act in a pastoral capacity towards persons of their own sex. There is also early Church precedent for women deacons assisting at the baptisms of women. People will differ on whether this is the ideal, but it is certainly a lot closer to it than having lay persons baptizing.

    I appreciate that people will probably really dislike the ‘no’ that this represents to an action that could have a great emotional significance for the immediate parties involved. All I ask is that people reflect upon the reasons given for it.

    1. Alastair, your thoughtful comments are always welcome :-). My hermeneutic here was strongly influenced by estrogen, I’ll admit, and I always want to be faithful to both text and context as best I can be.

      A few brief thoughts:

      1. The role of the church vis a vis the role of the individuals who comprise the church is an interesting and important distinction to make. When I love my neighbor, am I representing “the church” loving my neighbor? When I tell someone the good news, am I not part of “the church”? And yet, when I go grocery shopping, or play with LEGO, I tend not to think of that as something I do as part of “the church”.

      Perhaps those examples are a bit scattered, but I would think that it raises similar questions: if my friend (an ordained minister) is also a lover of baking bread, and he bakes bread for a meal and they sit down to dinner with roasted vegetables and a glass of wine and he breaks open the fresh loaf – he is not “breaking bread” or celebrating the Lord’s Supper in any way (even though in a house church, with some ceremony and specific words of symbolism, this same act might be construed as the eucharist.)

      Somehow, I think it is the words-invested-in-the-action which help give an action its symbolism – and some baptisms, not by virtue of their venue or the amount of water used (or dare I say, who is doing the baptizing), would surely be better representations because the explanation of the events as an entry into God’s family is clearer.

      I think you are right: maybe me baptizing my own children would obscure this symbolism. Having said that, though, it was still an epiphany to me to consider that me, as a member of the church, could possibly baptize someone. I would be interested in hearing why a woman could only baptize women, though – that strikes me as something that would take a bit of a convoluted trip through scripture to explain. (But if anyone could do it, I know you could 🙂

      2. The notion that the church should appoint godparents is a completely new one to me! As it turns out, our children do not have godparents (I have always been a little confused as to what role they should have, and our somewhat transient-state-of-living made me reticent to try and appoint someone to that role when we had no idea which continent we would be living on in a few years’ time). My husband will be fascinated by this suggestion – I can’t wait to share it with him.

      Further thoughts? Forgive me if my reply is a little scattered.

      1. Thanks for the response, Bronwyn.

        We can all represent the Church in different ways and to different degrees, depending on context and office. To a friend who has never darkened the doors of the Church, I represent the Church to him in a very real sense, much as I would represent my country to someone who had never met another of my compatriots. On a dusty road in the isolation of the wilderness, Philip was the Church to the Ethiopian eunuch. However, most of the time I don’t represent the Church—or my nation—in a very pronounced sense, but act in a more private capacity, and as a member of these larger bodies.

        Similar things can be said about appointed leaders. When President Obama sits down to eat a private family meal, he isn’t acting in the capacity of the President of the USA, but in a personal, marital, and parental capacity. Likewise, not every action by an appointed leader in the Church is one in which he or she represents the Church (although it might reflect positively or negatively upon their suitability for office). Your example of the pastor ‘breaking bread’ in a private setting is a good one here. Communion isn’t a private action, but an action of the Church in which the pastor officiates as its representative. The pastor isn’t authorized to perform the rite of Communion in isolation from the body. It isn’t an action that he has the power to perform all by himself.

        Representative leaders act on behalf of others in actions that they have been authorized to perform. The ordained person acts as an ordained minister of Christ and representative of the authority given to the Church by Christ. The point of a minister performing a particular action is that it be seen to be an action performed by the whole Church. This is most clearly seen when the action in question is performed with explicit authorization and in the presence of those being represented. It is slightly less clearly seen when the pastor performs an action in private on the Church’s behalf, with only implicit authorization. Things become much more complicated when the minister isn’t clearly authorized to perform the action, is acting beyond the bounds of the discretion granted to them, or is performing it without the knowledge of those supposedly being represented.

        Part of the point in having pastors or other ordained representatives baptizing persons before the assembled Church is to make clearer that we are all involved in the baptism, not the ministers alone. We tend to forget this dimension of rites and of the meaning of authority in the Church. The pastor does not act in his own authority, but in the authority that has been given to us as a body by Christ.

        The ‘efficacy’ of a ceremony like marriage depends upon the rest of society treating the couple differently from that point onwards, just as the efficacy of the inauguration ceremony depends upon people relating to the newly appointed president as the president. Performing marriage in front of many witnesses from the couple’s immediate community heightens its effectiveness as a rite. Likewise, baptism marks us out as members of God’s family and part of its efficacy is the commitment of all witnessing it to treat us as a brother or sister, and to work to knit us into the life of the people of God.

        On the question of women baptizing, a woman can validly baptize a man (Zipporah’s performance of an emergency circumcision in Exodus 4 often comes up in discussions of this). However, my point is that a woman can only represent the Church’s pastoral authority to another woman (for reasons that would take us directly into the heart of the women pastors/priests debate). In that sense, although the baptism would be valid, it couldn’t be a strong representation of the Church’s action. An appointed woman baptizing another woman could be more of a representative action, as women can exercise a stronger representative/pastoral authority in relation to other women.

        The relationship between form and meaning in baptism is a neglected issue in many respects (and, incidentally, one of the several issues that is central to my PhD thesis). That is, the meaning of baptism shouldn’t just be a theological meaning that stands detached from the form of the rite, but should be understood as a meaning manifested by the form of the rite itself, both in terms of biblical meaning and in terms of ritual meaning. For instance, we naturally give a bodily meaning to certain actions and orientations. Things that are above us—‘higher’ or more ‘elevated’—are generally considered to be greater. God is ‘above’ us. We ‘look down’ on things ‘beneath’ us. Humbling involves ‘lowering’ ourselves. Kneeling, then, is an action with an inbuilt meaning. We think of ourselves differently on our knees. Water also carries natural meanings for us as embodied creatures, associated with the giving and sustaining of life and also with the threat of flood or drowning. Water also evokes cleansing and can represent the transferal of agency from one party to another. There is a natural meaning to movements of passage through an ‘in-between’ (or ‘liminal’) space between two other spaces. The form of baptism can work with all of these natural meanings if it is done properly. Likewise, the form of baptism relates it—and us—to the biblical narrative. For instance, we become part of the story of all of the great water crossings and deliverances in the Scripture.

        Baptism, performed properly, should ‘epiphanically’ represent its meanings in its very form, both to the body and to the scripturally educated consciousness. We are ‘cleansed’ from our sins. We have ‘passed’ from an old realm to a new one. We have ‘descended’ to death and have been ‘raised’ up with Christ. The Spirit has been ‘poured out’ upon us (I support pouring of water upon a person standing in the water of the font that they have stepped down into as the preferred mode of baptism). We have been given new life through the blessing of God’s baptismal rain and also have been saved from the watery depths of Sheol. We are the Israelites, crossing through the torn abyss that the greater Moses has opened before us, passing unharmed through death and hell themselves. We are the land taken up from the sea in an act of new creation. We are those emerging from the water of the womb as new-born children. We are the sacrifices, being washed before ascending to God in smoke. We are those who go down into and rise up from the waters of death. We are following Christ’s baptism in the Jordan. We are fish drawn forth from the waters of the Gentile sea by God’s fishers. We are Naaman, washed clean of the leprosy of sin. We are the Israelites, following our Joshua into the land flowing with milk and honey. We are the blind man, washing in the pool of Siloam. We are Elijah, crossing the Jordan and being caught up by the divine chariot to God’s presence. We are Jonah emerging from the belly of the deep and the maw of the big fish. We are Noah, saved from the flood of judgment. We are the priests, washed before entering into the heavenly temple (cf. Exodus 40). Etc., etc.

      2. Support

        Very helpful and illuminating. Thank you! As to the women pastor/priest role, we should talk/write more about that, eh?

  9. Alistair, I have a question regarding your original response. If it matters that the baptism NOT be performed by someone who is related to the child, what happens when the pastor of the church is the child (or teens) father or mother? In those cases is it inappropriate for the pastor (who also happens to be a parent) to perform the baptism?

    Also…as far as efficacy, I suppose it depends on what efficacy in baptism looks like for you. In the Reformed Church in America, we believe that baptism is a Sacrament – a visible sign of invisible grace – and we believe that the primary actor in what is happening is God.

    1. In that case, I would highly recommend that the pastor get someone else to perform the baptism instead of them, perhaps some elders or another pastor. The article linked in that comment deals with such a scenario.

      The efficacy question is a big one. I regard efficacy as primarily socio-symbolic in character. That is, it is really efficacious and changes people’s identities, but through a process of symbolic exchange, not in any magical sense. In this respect, it isn’t too dissimilar from the ‘efficacy’ of an adoption or a marriage. When two people are married, we believe that an incredible change occurs. Two people who entered the church as single persons leave it as a couple joined together by God. This isn’t magic, of course, but a social process, through which the couple are assigned to different symbolic places in the society—’husband’ and ‘wife’. Of course, the Church isn’t any old society, but is the family of God, the body of Christ, and the temple of the Holy Spirit. Becoming a recognized member of that community, through the ministration of divinely authorized persons, has great meaning as a result.

      1. Thanks for this 🙂 I agree with what you are saying above about the reality of the change that takes place. I wonder a bit about the divinely authorized persons…in your estimation is that limited to ordained persons?

      2. I wouldn’t regard it as limited to ordained persons in principle. The authorization is that of the Church, so is best exercised by the persons most fitted to represent the Church’s agency in a given scenario. The vast majority of the time that will be an ordained person, but not always or necessarily. If you were by yourself at a person’s bedside just before they were going to die and they professed faith and requested baptism, you would be that person, for instance.

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