There is No Such Thing as Lay Baptism


By the Rev’d Heath R. Curtis
Pastor of Trinity and Zion Lutheran Churches, Worden & Carpenter, IL

(All emphases in the following essay by Pastor Curtis are original. I have fixed what few typos were to be found in the PDF version and added a few links to some other relevant posts. Once again, thanks are due to Pr. Curtis for granting Pseudepigraphus permission to publish his work, and most of all for his lucid and instructive theologizing. For other posts featuring Pastor Curtis’s work, click here.— TDD)


By what authority does a layperson baptize? Or, for that matter, by what authority does a pastor baptize? What makes for a “valid” or “real” baptism at all? The practical importance of these questions will not be lost on any parish pastor of some experience. People who learn that their grandma baptized them secretly when they were infants, and who were then later baptized in the church, are curious about which baptism was “real.” Furthermore, recent years have witnessed a not insignificant number of Lutheran pastors leave our confession for the Eastern Orthodox Church, in which there is a strong stream of theological thought which would deny the reality of any baptism performed outside that communion.

This paper takes lay baptism as a convenient entry point into these questions and begins by examining the justifications for “lay baptism” given in Western Christianity. The title of this paper is not meant to indicate that I will be arguing against the validity or reality1 of what is commonly called “lay baptism.” It is not my claim that a person is not really baptized when a lay person applies water to him in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Rather, what I mean by saying that there is no such thing as a lay baptism is that a baptism administered by a lay person is not valid by virtue of the administrator’s status as a lay person. I will be arguing in favor of baptisms administered by lay people, but not on the basis of the administrator’s laity. Indeed, I will be arguing for the validity of baptisms performed by Jews, Muslims, atheists, and anyone at all.

1.0 Three Answers and Their Strengths and Shortcomings

In this first section, we will examine three answers to the question “By what authority can a lay person baptize?”, one each provided by the Roman Catechism, traditional Calvinism, and Missouri Synod resources. I will argue that all these answers are deficient, each in a different way. When they are examined for both their weaknesses and their strengths, a solution presents itself which clarifies not only the doctrine of baptism, but of the Sacraments in general, as well as having something to say concerning the Church and the Office of the Ministry.

1.1 The Missouri Synod’s Answer

It is a common saying that individual Lutherans live out their faith through three books: the Bible, the Catechism, and the Hymnal. Two2 of these books directly discuss lay baptism. First, from the Catechism:

247. Through whom does the Church administer Baptism? The Church administers Baptism through the called ministers of Christ; but in cases of emergency and in the absence of the pastor, any Christian should baptize. (1943 Explanation)
243. Who is to baptize? Normally the called ministers of Christ are to baptize, but in cases of emergency and when no pastor is available, any Christian should baptize. (1991 Explanation)

At first glance, the 1943 and 1991 editions of the synodical explanation differ greatly on the question of “who baptizes.” In the earlier work, it appears that the Church is the true administrator of all baptisms and that she normally performs these baptisms through the medial agency of the called ministers of Christ; but that in certain circumstances, any Christian should consider himself or herself to be called upon by the Church to serve as her agent. In the later edition, it is either the ministers of Christ or Christians who actually do the baptizing without any mention of the ultimate agency of the Church.

While this is indeed a significant difference which will be discussed below, there is a deeper unity between the two answers: in the absence of a pastor Christians should baptize. This is echoed in the hymnals of the Missouri Synod (TLH, LW, LSB) which all state that “any Christian may administer” baptism in a case of emergency in the absence of the pastor. Whether the modal particle is may or should, both agree in assuming can (potestas). For the synodical catechisms and the synodical hymnals, a person can baptize if he or she is a Christian.

That this is the correct interpretation of these instructions provided for the laity is confirmed by Francis Pieper’s comments in Christian Dogmatics,

Like all spiritual gifts the means of grace, including Baptism, are given by God directly to the believers, all Christians. The believers do not get them from the pastors, but vice versa. Pastors administer Baptism in their public office only as the called servants (ministri) of the believers. If the public servants are not available, every Christian has the right, yea, is in duty bound, to administer Baptism. Our St. Louis hymnal therefore contains several formularies (longer and shorter) for a so-called “lay baptism.”3

For Pieper, a lay person baptizes because he or she has been given all the means of grace— and evidently also the authority to administer them, which is not self-evidently the same thing— directly by God by virtue of being a believer. Thus, a Christian, a member of the Church, a person with faith may baptize. Pastors simply baptize on behalf of lay people who have faith. Thus it appears that Pieper primarily sees pastors baptizing as an expedient for the sake of good order.

1.1.2 The Great Problem with Missouri’s Answer

But what if the lay person who baptized me was not a Christian? What if there are serious doubts about the faith of the midwife or grandma who poured water on my head and said, “I baptize thee. . .”? Would I be truly baptized if the person who baptized me was not truly a Christian? This question is familiar to Lutherans when it comes to baptisms administered by unbelieving pastors. The fullest statement of the Lutheran Confessions on this question can be found in the Apology to the Augsburg Confession VII/VIII.47:

In [the eighth article of the AC] we confess that hypocrites and evil people are mixed together in the church and that the sacraments are efficacious even though they may be dispensed by evil ministers, because the ministers act in the place of Christ and so do not represent their own person. This accords with the passage [Luke 10:16], “Whoever listens to you listens to me.”

According to the Confessions, then, sacraments are valid because they are performed by ministers who represent not their own person, but Christ’s person. So it does not matter if a pastor personally has faith— the attributes of his person are not under discussion. He represents Christ by virtue of his being placed in the ministry.

Obviously, this answer will not suffice for explaining the validity of a baptism performed by a lay person who is not really a Christian. Luke 10:16 is a passage used by the Confessions and Lutheran theologians to refer to the Office of the Ministry. It is does not apply to all Christians. If a pastor is not really a Christian, no matter: there is an external reality— the fact that he has been placed in the Office of administering the sacraments— that causes him to be the representative of Christ in his sacramental acts. There is an objective fact that makes him a valid agent of baptism: he has been placed into the office of administering the sacraments.

On the other hand, to say that a person can baptize because he or she is a Christian, immediately raises a sort of Donatistic4 doubt: if a person can baptize because he or she is a Christian, what is the status of that baptism if he or she is not really a Christian? If the validity of my baptism is based on the subjective faith of another person, how could I ever be certain of my baptism?

With a pastor we have an external, objective reality (his placement in the Office of the Ministry) that assures us that he is a proper agent for baptism even if he himself is not a Christian based on his personal (subjective) faith. Can we find such an objective, external reality in the case of a lay person? One possibility would be to see the lay person’s own baptism as just such an external, objective reality that assures us that he or she is a proper agent for baptism. However, aside from the fact that this is not what the catechisms, hymnals, and Pieper actually say, it has another defect. Namely, where is this said in Scripture? Where is the command to baptize in the Scripture made necessarily and sufficiently conditional on the baptism of the one commanded to baptize? One searches in vain for a text.5

1.2 Traditional Calvinism’s Answer, Its Strengths and Flaws

In his section discussing lay baptism, Pieper is grappling with his usual theological opponents: the Reformed. Pieper quotes the following texts to show the disapproval of lay baptism within classical Calvinism.

Christ never commanded women, or men in general, to baptize; He gave this charge to those whom He had appointed to be Apostles. (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.15.20)
We teach that Baptism should not be administered in the Church by women or by midwives. For Paul separates women from the ecclesiastical offices. But Baptism belongs to the ecclesiastical offices. (Second Helvetic Confession)
There be only two Sacraments ordained by Christ. . . neither of which may be dispensed by any but a minister of the Word, lawfully ordained. (The Confession of Faith [Presbyterian, 1646] XXVII.4)

For Calvinism, the validity of baptism is strongly connected to the command to baptize given in Matthew 28:16-20, where only the Apostles are present. If one has not received the command to baptize, one may not presume to take it upon oneself. Surely, this must be seen as a strength of Calvinism’s position. Where Pieper and the Missouri Synod try to base the reality of lay baptism on the unknowable faith of the heart, Calvinism directs us to the command to baptize and refuses to see anything outside of that command as valid.

However, the weakness of Calvinism’s argument here is immediately apparent to the Lutheran: it undercuts centuries of usage in the Church which had recognized and never questioned the validity of baptism performed by laity in cases of emergency: indeed, the very first Western council for which we have canons, Elvira, includes such a stipulation.6 Of course, within Calvinism this is not felt as a significant problem since baptism is not thought to bear a directly causal or even instrumental relation to salvation. If baptism is devoid of spiritual meaning, then it is quite an easy thing to dismiss the reality of thousands of baptisms. Thus, Calvinism is content to stop thinking about the problem of lay baptism as soon as this syllogism is encountered:

Only the Apostolic Office is commanded to baptize.
A lay person is not a member of the Apostolic Office.
∴ A lay person does not have the command to baptize.

This is a powerful syllogism indeed, but it is not the end of the story.

1.3 Rome’s Answer, Its Strengths and Flaws

The Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses lay baptism in terms quite similar to those used in the Missouri Synod’s catechism.

V. WHO CAN BAPTIZE? ~ 1256: The ordinary ministers of Baptism are the bishop and priest and, in the Latin Church, also the deacon. In case of necessity, anyone, even a nonbaptized person, with the required intention, can baptize, by using the Trinitarian baptismal formula. The intention required is to will to do what the church does when she baptizes. The Church finds the reason for this possibility in the universal saving will of God and the necessity of Baptism for salvation.

The general framework of Rome’s answer is identical to the Missouri Synod’s: ordinarily (that is, by Orders, by the fact that they are called ministers of the Word) clergy baptize, but in the case of necessity someone else may baptize. Rome admirably avoids the problem of Missouri’s answer and does not base the validity of a non-clergy baptism on the Christian faith of the administrator. But having dodged that Scylla, Rome runs into the Charybdis of “intention,” which is just as subjective as faith. For how can I be certain that the person who baptized me has the proper intention?

Rome is to be admired for at least attempting to answer the syllogism of Calvinism. Yes, Rome replies, the command to baptize was given to the Apostles. Yet, the Church can see the possibility for another performing this task because God wishes all men to be saved and Baptism is necessary for salvation. This also calls to mind the 1943 Missouri Synod answer to our question which also mentioned “the Church” and not merely clergy and laity in regard to baptism.

2.0 Toward a Better Justification for Non-Clergy Baptism

These three answers and their various strengths and weaknesses indicate a path of study for the rest of this paper. Rome and Wittenberg have pointed out the extreme spiritual importance of Baptism and of considering the Church as a whole in relation to baptism. Geneva has directed our attention to the necessity of basing the validity of baptism not on any subjective faith or intention, but on the command of God.

2.1 The Institution of Preaching and Administering the Sacraments

Article V of the Augsburg Confession defines the Office of the Ministry as the office of “teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments” (KW 41). This is a consistent motif in the Confessions. Time and again, the institution of the Office of the Ministry is tied to the Institution of Preaching and the Sacraments, all of which are done in Christ’s stead. The seminal biblical texts are Matthew 28:16-20 (preaching and baptism), Luke 10:16 (preaching), and John 20:19-23 (absolution— listed as a sacrament explicitly in Ap. XIII). These texts are often used in the Confessions in the context of supporting the Office of the Ministry. They are never used in such a way that the command to baptize, preach, or absolve would refer to the laity qua laity.7 The texts from Luke and St. Paul regarding the Lord’s Supper, which include the command to conduct (“do this”) the Supper in the future, are not used explicitly in support of the Ministry in the Confessions. However, we should note that the officiant at the Lord’s Supper is only and always called a “minister” in the Confessions.

The use of these texts as referring to the Institution of the Office of the Ministry is continued in Lutheran history in our liturgical books. For example, in the LSB Agenda, Matthew 28:16-20 and John 20:19-22 are read with this introduction: “Hear what the Holy Scripture says concerning the Institution of the Office of the Holy Ministry.” (162)

That the Confessions and our liturgical books use these texts in this way has not prevented especially Matthew 28:16-20 from being applied to laity qua laity both in popular thought and theological writing— as we saw above with Pieper, who understands all the sacraments and the authority to administer them as being given immediately to each believer on the basis of his being a believer.

The interpretation of these passages hangs on the question: Whom do the apostles represent? For Pieper, the Apostles seem to represent all Christians qua Christians: what is given to them is given all Christians by virtue of their status as true Christians. The Calvinist contention, however, is that the Apostles represent the clergy. It is clear that the use of Matthew 28:16-20 in the Confessions and the LSB Agenda for ordination supports this latter approach.

Indeed, the texts themselves argue strongly against Pieper’s position. First, one notes that Matthew 28:16 specifically mentions that only the eleven were present to receive the command to baptize and preach in Christ’s stead. The larger multitude of the disciples and the faithful women are not present— yet the testimony of the Gospels would certainly support the contention that especially this latter group prove themselves time and again to be better Christians than the eleven. Is it coincidence that when Jesus institutes absolution and the Lord’s Supper, again only the Apostles are present? Each time Jesus gives the commands to preach and administer the sacraments, it is only a small group of individuals— the Apostles or the seventy in Luke 10— that receive the command. Furthermore, it is quite disingenuous for Missouri Synod theologians to argue against women’s ordination based on Jesus’ choice of male only Apostles and then in the next breath claim that the commands given specifically to the Apostles as Apostles are given immediately to each individual believer. This is arbitrary and abusive exegesis.

2.2 But What of the Church?

The power of Calvinism’s argument against lay baptism must be given its due. The command to baptize was given to the Apostles as Apostles, and not immediately to the laity as laity as Pieper claims. Such is the testimony of the Confessions and the liturgical usage of the Lutheran Church as well. But if that is the case, how can we speak of an authority for laity to baptize?

Both Rome and the Missouri Synod’s 1943 Catechism correctly inject the notion of the Church into the discussion at this point. Despite their significant differences in ecclesiology, both Rome and Lutheranism acknowledge that the Church is more than the Apostles and their successors the clergy. The Church is the living body of Christ— made up of both clergy and laity. The Church is the larger whole of which clergy and laity are constituent parts. So the command to the Apostles to baptize is also the Church’s command to baptize. Indeed, the Church is commanded to put men into the Office of the Ministry precisely to see to it that the Word is preached and the Sacraments are administered.

And still we must avoid Pieper’s trap of basing the validity of baptism on the faith of an individual. At this point it would be tempting to say that since the command to the Apostles is a command to the Church, and since the laity are a part of the Church, then the command to baptize is also a command to the laity. That the laity by virtue of being part of the Church share in the Church’s mission to baptize does not necessarily entail that each individual member of the laity has the command to administer baptism. A secular example shows why. All citizens of a democracy possess the power of governing – but they are not all called to administer that governance in the same way. A citizen who takes upon himself the role of judge and executioner is not called a judge and executioner but a vigilante and outlaw. Second, contending that the laity may baptize because they share in the Church’s command to baptize leaves us in the same situation of doubt as above: one cannot share in being part of the Church unless one has faith, and how can I know if someone has faith? I know a pastor is in the Office of the Apostles by virtue of the command and Holy Orders given to him by the Church, but a lay person is a member of the Church only by virtue of faith, not of external office.

2.3 A Better Paradigm for Understanding the Validity of the Sacraments

This notion of external office and commissioning leads us in the proper direction. The Roman Catechism began to show the way by noting that any person can baptize, whether Christian or not. But then Rome fell into the same sort of error as Pieper by including the notion of subjective intention on the part of the administrator, which is just as unknowable a thing as individual faith. The validity, or reality, of baptism or any other sacramental act cannot be based on any human merit. Rather, as Calvinism’s answer recognized, it must be based on the command of Christ. Or as the Confessions put it, a sacramental act is valid because the person performing the act is merely representing Christ who actually performs the act through that person’s agency.

So what makes a sacrament valid? Or, to ask the question in a more straightforward way, what makes a sacrament? The quip from Augustine, “Let the Word be added to the element, and a sacrament results” is often quoted but is only half the story because it leaves the terms undefined and ignores two other important considerations: the sacramental action and the agent. All these things are necessary because they are all included in Jesus’ Institution of the Sacraments, which Institution is the one and only cause of a sacrament’s reality.

2.3.1 The Word

Without the Word of God, there is no sacrament. But what does one mean by “the Word”? Mormons baptize with the same words Christians do, but we deny the reality of a baptism performed in a Mormon temple. And rightly so— because although the Mormons have the words they do not have the Word. That is, they have used the correct syllables, but have freighted them with a meaning foreign to the meaning those syllables carry in Christ’s actual command to baptize. So one can have the right words, the right syllables, and not have the Word.

At a Mormon baptism, it is as if the official baptizing had first stood up and said, “In the following statement, the words ‘father, son, and holy ghost’ will refer to three separate beings; the first two former men who have become gods and the latter a force of god’s power.” The context of a Mormon community (indicated by the setting: a Mormon temple, official, participants, and liturgical books) alters the meaning of the words used just as surely as if that prefacing statement were spoken out loud. In the same way, the Confessions deny the reality of Zwinglian celebrations of the Lord’s Supper because they have “first changed the Word” even though they use the words from the Bible.8

2.3.2 The Element

The Institution of the sacraments includes not only the Word but also elements. The command to baptize includes both the Word and water. One can have the Word and still have no Baptism, for without the water, it is the Word only and no Baptism. One cannot baptize with pure grain alcohol or dirt. Likewise, one cannot refuse to use the elements Jesus instituted for his Holy Supper and yet claim to have that Supper.

2.3.3 The Sacramental Action

Augustine’s quip noted above is insufficient as a paradigm for understanding the reality of a sacrament because it is possible for no sacrament to take place even if the Word and the element are both present. This is so because Jesus did not just institute the word and the element, but also an action for each sacrament. For example, if an ordained minister of the Word were to say, “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” over a child while pouring water not on the child but on the ground, there would be no baptism. The action of baptism— that is, actually washing a person with water— is not present, so there is no baptism.

2.3.4 The Recipient of the Sacrament

Baptism was instituted to be received by people: you cannot baptize a cat. This is also the Lutheran objection to the “baptism” of bells: baptism’s action is the washing of a person. Furthermore, we reject Mormon baptisms of the dead because the recipient of Baptism must be a living person; thus the ancient conditional formula for baptism of a still-born child: “If thou livest, I baptize thee….” Finally, we might note that the proper recipient of Baptism is further limited in that he must be a live, human, unbaptized person: a baptism performed on a baptized person is no baptism at all.

2.3.5 The Agent of the Sacrament

The Word, the element, the action, and the recipient can all be present and still no sacrament will be present without an agent sent by Christ who will add Word to element and perform the action. That is, the Institution of an action presumes an actor. So, for example, no Lutheran* would recognize the reality of the Lord’s Body and Blood in a host and chalice consecrated by the leader of a group of Satanists, even if they followed the rubrics of TLH p. 15 to a T, used wheat bread, grape wine, and ate the elements after the consecration. Though Word, elements, and action are present, Christ has simply not sent this person to perform this action. Thus the action, whatever else it may be called, is not the Lord’s Supper. (*Ed. Note: I share Pr. Curtis’s presumptive incredulity on this point, but there are theologians in the LCMS who would contend that, yes, in fact Christ’s Body and Blood would be present at a Satanist gathering— presumably also at a Zwinglian gathering?— by dint of the presence of Word and element alone.)

3.0 A Justification for Non-Clergy Baptism

The question before us has thus always been about this last point: who is a valid agent of baptism? The most direct answer is the one provided by Calvinism as the only answer and by Rome and Lutheranism as the “normal” or “ordinary” answer: the successors of the Apostles, the called and ordained ministers of the Word.

The strand of Lutheranism represented by Pieper also contends that any Christian is a valid agent of baptism. And Rome contends further than any human being whatever may be a valid agent for baptism. I contend that the Roman answer— which Pieper does not directly refute, for surely Christians are a subset of humanity— is the correct answer, and that the practice Pieper is advocating is the correct practice. However, I also contend that the justifications they provide for this answer and practice are incorrect. Pieper is incorrect in his justification of the correct practice because he claims an immediate delivery of the command to perform baptisms to each and every Christian by virtue of his status as a Christian, which command is not found in the Scriptures. Pieper and Rome are both incorrect in their justification of the correct practice because they base that justification in an unknowable, subjective quality inside the agent: faith or intention.

For the correct justification for non-clergy baptism we must look to Christ’s institution. Christ commands the apostles (and by extension those who receive their office) to baptize. Therefore, without question incumbents in the Office of the Ministry are valid agents of baptism. To say that someone is a “valid agent of baptism” is to say that the command of Christ stands behind him, that this person is acting within the Institution and command of Jesus— in his stead.

Yet, as was stated above, what is given to the Apostles must be considered as being given to the Church as a whole. Furthermore, it is the whole Church— clergy and laity (see Tr. 69-71)— that has the command to put men into that Office. And so, when it comes to baptism, the whole Church is involved. Following the Lord’s Institution and order, the agent to perform this command to baptize should be one of those incumbents in the Office of the Ministry who receive this Office of the Apostles through the call of the Church. But what should the Church, as a whole, say to an emergency situation where no incumbent in the Office of the Ministry is available?

In such situations, it best to understand and justify baptisms performed by non-clergymen as being done through a medial agency. That is, the non-clergymen performing a baptism does so at the behest of the Church, which calls such a non-clergyman in an emergency situation to act in the stead of a clergyman – or, if you will, the Church calls a non-clergyman to stand in the stead of those who in their turn are called to stand in the stead of Christ by virtue of their being put into the Office of the Ministry by the very same Church. I contend that this notion of being “an agent of an agent” helps us understand an otherwise confusing passage from the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope (67-68):

For wherever the church exists, there also is the right to administer the gospel. Therefore, it is necessary for the church to retain the right to call, choose, and ordain ministers. This right is a gift bestowed exclusively on the church, and no human authority can take it away from the church. . . . Therefore, where the true church is, there must also be the right of choosing and ordaining ministers, just as in an emergency even a layperson grants absolution and becomes the minister or pastor of another [sicut in casu necessitatis absolvit etiam laicus et fit minister ac pastor alterius].

What does Melanchthon mean by saying that a layman “becomes a minister or pastor” in this case of necessity? Certainly not that this person undergoes a sort of ordination by necessity and really is now an incumbent of the Office of the Ministry. Indeed, given the fact that in the sixteenth century it was women— midwives— who performed most lay baptisms, it is difficult to imagine that Melanchthon is claiming that such women are inducted into the Office of the Ministry by the act of absolving or baptizing. Rather, we should understand Melanchthon’s statement as meaning that a layperson in a case of necessity does what a minister would do were he there, and thus, in that sense, “becomes the minister” to another. Thus, the layperson does not “become a pastor” in the sense of being ordained to the Office, but in the sense of being the agent for the deeds of that Office.

For Melanchthon, in other words, the baptizing and absolving can never be seen without reference and relationship to the Office of the Ministry. The Wittenberg faculty continued this line of thinking in the century following the Reformation. In a collection of faculty decisions published in 1674 the faculty even makes a distinction between three sorts of absolution: first autocratorikos, which only God can do based on his being God; semanticos or significative, which any Christian may administer in an emergency; and the third sort called semanticos et semel diakonos— or realiter et vere absolution which can only be administered by a legitimate, ordained minister in the succession of the apostles.9

We always want to place ourselves squarely in the middle of Christ’s Institution so as to encourage faith and remove doubt by ensuring that we follow the promise that Jesus gives us. It should be frankly admitted that in arguing for baptisms not performed by clergy, we are arguing for something not immediately deduced from Jesus’ Institution of Baptism. Indeed, we are arguing for a practice that we do not see in the Scriptures at all.

And yet, great theologians of the Western Church have long argued for the validity of such baptisms.10 Furthermore, while the notion of the Church calling on other people to stand in the stead of her ministers for the action of baptism is not deduced directly from the Institution itself, it is inferred by good argumentation from other scriptural teachings. Specifically, we should consider these points.

  1. It is the command of Christ to baptize that authorizes all baptisms.
  2. His command to baptize was given to the Apostles as bearers of an office.
  3. The whole Church— clergy and laity (Tr. 69-71)— puts men into the Office of the Ministry.
  4. It is thus clear that all baptisms are performed via agency: Christ performs them through his ministers.
  5. All baptisms performed via the agency of the clergy are also performed through the agency and by the authority of the Church, since it is the agency of the Church that put the minister into office. Thus no minister can officiate without the previous authority and blessing of the Church putting him into office.
  6. The personal faith of the agent of baptism is not necessary for that agency to be valid. It is the command of Christ mediated through the call of the Church that stands behind the agency, not the personal faith of the agent.

Based on these facts, the Church is justified in appointing other people to stand in the stead of her ministers to baptize in those situations where death is imminent. For, as the Roman Catechism noted in its justification of non-clergy baptism, God wants all people to be saved, and baptism delivers salvation. The Church is commanded to put ministers into Office to deliver this baptism. Based on that authority, the Church calls upon others to do what one of her ministers would do in those life and death situations where one of her ministers is not available.

Of course, these same arguments could be used in favor of celebrations of the Lord’s Supper administered by anyone at all at the command of the Church. It is interesting to note that no such arguments have ever been made in the history of Lutheranism or, for that matter, in all of Western Christian history. The Church has been pushed to non-clergy baptisms (and absolutions) by a feeling of necessity. Only such a feeling of necessity would be sufficient to drive the Church away from the expressly stated order of Christ. In other words, that the Church does not argue for emergency Eucharists conducted by non-clergy shows that she is driven to the acknowledgment of non-clergy baptism reluctantly.

Furthermore, the catechisms and hymnals all tell the person who has performed this baptism to report it to the parish pastor. At that point, one of the orders from the agenda for “ratifying” or “recognizing” the baptism will be performed. This again shows the Church’s desire to keep baptism connected to the Office of the Ministry.11

4.0 Conclusion

There is no such thing as a lay baptism because no baptism is performed on the basis of a person’s status as a lay person. But there is such a thing as real baptism administered by non-clergy. I admit that the justification for non-clergy baptisms which I provide does not have the satisfying finality, that feeling that all the loose ends are tied up, that is provided by the answers of Pieper, Calvin, or the Pope. Pieper, relying on what I believe to be a faulty exegesis, can provide a straightforward justification for lay baptism (and for Pieper it is truly lay baptism: baptism that is valid by virtue of someone’s laity) unassailable in its logic, if only its premises were in fact true. Likewise, Calvin gives us an answer that is characteristically rigid and logical, but which will likewise only be true if its underlying suppositions are true. The Pope’s answer displays something of the necessary humility by noting that the Church has inferred the ability of others besides clergy to baptize based on theological premises other than the Institution of Baptism itself— yet the Pope can always be comforted by his own infallibility in matters of faith and morals.

For us Lutherans it is necessary to base our conclusions on the Word of God alone as revealed to us in the Sacred Scriptures. When the problem of non-clergy baptisms are approached from this angle, we find good arguments supporting the Church’s practice. But we also find ourselves, as it were, on the edge of Christ’s Institution and desirous to run back to the center as quickly as we can. Which is as it should be: the very nature of an emergency means that we are desirous to get back to normal.



  1. I will be using the terms real and valid interchangeably in reference to Baptism. With either term, I mean to indicate that a given application of water to a person in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is in fact the sacrament that Jesus instituted.
  2. To my knowledge, neither the Book of Concord, nor any significant Lutheran theologian claims that Philip, who baptized the Ethiopian in Acts 8, was a lay person. Rather, Lutherans have agreed with the history of interpretation in understanding Philip’s act of Baptism as proof that he was indeed in the Office of the Ministry. (need quotes)
  3. F. Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, vol III. (St. Louis: CPH, 1953) 279.
  4. I am indebted to Rev. B. T. G. Mayes for first alerting me to the nascent Donatism in this justification of lay baptism in a private conversation some years ago.
  5. This is the justification for lay baptism given by Tertullian in what appears to be the first mention of lay baptism in history (c. 198). He writes, “But even a layman can do this for what is received equally can be given equally; unless the disciples of the Lord will already be considered bishops or presbyters or deacons.” (alioquin etiam laicis ius est: ‘quod enim ex aequo accipitur ex aequo dari potest; nisi episcopi iam aut presbyteri aut diaconi vocabuntur discentes domini). So for Tertullian, a baptized person can baptize by virtue of the fact that they have received baptism; what one has received, he may give. We might call this an organic theory of baptism: that one who is born again can give new birth. However, the argument he considers to be absurd— that the disciples were holders of the Office of the Ministry— is exactly the claim of the Lutheran Confessions. In the rest of this chapter (17 of De Baptismo) Tertullian goes on to say that the right of laity to baptize should nevertheless only be used in emergencies for the sake of peace in the Church. He also denies that a heretic woman, Quintilla, can take upon herself the power to baptize and he argues against the authenticity of The Acts of Paul because it shows Thecla baptizing. Thus it is unclear to me how consistent Tertullian is being. Is he saying that no woman can baptize, yet any man can? Or is he simply saying that all the baptized, male and female, may baptize, but not heretics – or at least not heretic women? At any rate, Tertullian’s organic theory of lay baptism lacks a Biblical mandate.
  6. Canon 38 states that a layman in good standing may baptize a catechumen who is near death if they are on a journey and no priest can be found.
  7. Here follows a complete listing of the use of these passages arranged by the topic under which the Confessions utilize them. Every use of these passages listed in KW’s index of Scripture is included. Matthew 28:16-20: Person of Jesus Christ, that he is Almighty: FC Ep. VIII.16, 34, 39; FC SD VII.43; FC SD VIII.55, 68, 70, 74, 76, 85. The Powers of the Ministry are Spiritual: Tr. 31; Showing a pastor as the agent in baptism: SC IV.1 (pictorially, see note at KW 359, n. 77); Baptism to be given to children: Ap. IX.2; Proof text of the Institution of Baptism: SC IV.4; LC IV.3. What every person should be able to recite concerning baptism: LC Preface 21. Luke 10:16: Parishioners owe obedience to bishops: AC XXVIII.22; Sacraments are efficacious because ministers represent Christ, Ap. VII/VIII.47 (other passages use parallel wording while omiting to speak directly of “ministers” – rather just uses pronouns or other stand-in in the masculine plural or singular are used. However based on Ap. VII.47 it is clear that ministers are meant: Ap. VII/VIII.28); The Power of the Keys (which is also called the Power of Bishops) is from Christ: Ap. XII.39-40; The apostles and their successors are only owed obedience in so far as they speak Christ’s Word: Ap. XXVIII.17-19. John 20:19-23: The power of today’s bishops is derived from the authority given by Jesus to the Apostles and is spiritual: AC XXVIII.6; As proof that there is no God-given division in today’s Office of the Ministry is proved by the fact that Jesus gave the Apostles equal authority: Tr. 9; The Keys were given to all the Apostles: Tr. 23; The Powers of the Ministry are Spiritual: Tr. 31 I here omit KW’s inclusion of John 20:19-23 in footnotes to SA III.7.1 and SC V.28 because it is not included in Luther’s text. Below I will speak about the language of the keys being given “to the Church,” used here in the SA and also in the Treatise (23ff)
  8. “[The validity of the Sacrament] does not rest on man’s faith or unbelief but on the Word and ordinance of God— unless they first change God’s Word and ordinance and misinterpret them, as the enemies of the sacrament do at the present time. They, indeed have only bread and wine, for they do not also have the Word and instituted ordinance of God but have perverted and changed it according to their own imagination.” FC SD VII.32 (Tappert), quoting Luther’s Great Confession of 1528.
  9. Thesauri Conciliorum et Decisionum, Appendix Nova. Jena, 1674. p. 432-433. In the same question the faculty makes clear that laity do not possess the potestas to preside at the Lord’s Supper: Praesuppono, quaeri tantum de absolutione, an ea in casu necessitatis, a Laicis fieri debeat et possit: non vero questionem eam de subsequente Sacramenti Sanctae Eucharistiae exhibitione, hanc enim per Laicos nullo modo fieri posse (licet baptismus ab illis in casu necessitatis possit administrari, nec administatus debeat iterari) intelligi debere, nostri Theologi, uti notum est, passim demonstrant.
  10. Wonderful summaries of the arguments over lay baptism throughout Western Church history were compiled in 18th century England during the dissenters controversy. One of the best is Lay Baptism Invalid or Pretended Baptism by Usurping Administrators Who Never Were Ordain’d or Commision’d Prov’d To Be No Christian Baptism, by R. Laurance, MA, (London: Richard King, 1723).
  11. From the TLH Agenda, pp 12-13: The Order of Holy Baptism: The Ratification of Lay Baptism. “Beloved in the Lord: This child, on account of extreme illness, hath received emergency Baptism. . . . we have come here to be assured by public ratification, in due Christian order, that this child hath been baptized properly in accordance with the Word of God and that his Baptism was a valid Baptism. I, therefore, ask you, the baptizer, in the presence of God and this assembly [questions regarding the Baptism now follow].” The story is also told that Luther was so leery of lay-baptism that he famously advised midwives to keep their baptisms secret if the child should live and let the child receive baptism from the minister in the Church. I have not located a source for this story, however.