Is it Biblical for a lifeguard to perform a baptism?

What kind of question is that?

But in these last few weeks, a strange movement has been gaining ground in my daughter’s school, a school for mostly missionary kids: baptizing students in the school’s swimming pool. And not so recently, I’ve had occasion to be in our former mission organization’s retreats where the Lord’s Supper was almost always administered.

Baptism of Augustine of Hippo in a sculpture at Troyes Cathedral (1549)
Baptism of Augustine of Hippo, sculpture at Troyes Cathedral (1549)

In an age dominated by anti-establishment, anti-doctrinal, pluralistic, and relativistic evangelicalism, any Billy Bob or Daisy Mae may perform baptism or communion anywhere in any setting.

Is there anything wrong with someone making a testimony that he loves Christ by being baptized before the world? Not really. But what’s wrong with that is the notion that the sacraments are a testimony of one’s faith.

What are the sacraments? The Westminster Confession of Faith 27:1 defines them as:

holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace (Rom 4:11; Gen 17:7, 10-11). They were directly instituted by God (Matt 28:19; 1 Cor 11:23), to represent Christ and his benefits and to confirm our relationship to him (Rom 6:3,4; Col 2:12; 1 Cor 10:16; Gal 3:27). They are also intended to make a visible distinction between those who belong to the church and the rest of the world (Exod 12:48; 1 Cor 10:21), and solemnly to bind Christians to the service of God in Christ, according to his Word (Rom 6:4; 1 Pet 3:21; 1 Cor 5:7-8).

The purposes of the institution of the sacraments are covenant-related: not what a person has done for God, but what God has done for him, “I will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Jer 7:23). First, a sacrament is a sign and seal of God’s covenant with his people. Like human treaties, all of God’s covenants with man have signs and seals: with Adam, the tree of life; with Abraham, circumcision; with new covenant people, water baptism. Second, it marks God’s people as separate (holy) from the rest of the unholy world. Third, it binds his people to a godly life in Christ.

Not only is it unscriptural to think of water baptism as merely a testimony by a person of his faith. Christian baptism also has three important basic elements required by Scripture. Westminster Confession 28:2 lists three requirements: (1) by the use of water; (2) in the name of the Trinity; and (3) performed by an ordained minister. It says,

The outward element to be used in this sacrament is water, with which the person is to be baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Baptism is to be performed by a minister of the gospel, lawfully called to that office.

To anti-establishment and anti-intellectual postmoderns, the last requirement does not make any sense, and this is why sacraments are performed left and right by any Jim Bob without any regard for Scriptural demands. In the Old Testament, only Levites can lawfully be ordained as priests. In the New Testament, Christ gave gifts to the church. What are these gifts and for what purpose are they given? Paul lists them,

“And [Christ] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds [pastors] to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph 4:11-12).

In the secular world, accountants, auto mechanics, doctors, engineers, electricians, lawyers, plumbers, train operators, etc., can only practice their profession if they have a license. I don’t know if those people who perform baptisms at my daughter’s school are ordained ministers. But if evangelicals would not trust a doctor to build their houses or an auto mechanic to do a root canal, why do they put a biblically-illiterate Tommy Lee in charge of their souls?

When mission organizations act as pseudochurches—even if they have ordained pastors—to perform sacraments such as baptizing kids in a school’s swimming pool, do they realize that baptism is a sign and seal of “the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church” (WCF 28:1)? Is the mission organization then a visible church where the true gospel is preached, the sacraments are properly administered, and church discipline is lawfully exercised (Matt 28:19)?

For many evangelicals, church attendance is optional[1] and membership is almost anathema. Are the families of these “baptized” children members of a local church, or the Church of So-and-So Academy? What if there is no such thing as the latter—don’t they violate what Hebrews 13:17 commands, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” because they are not under the oversight of any church eldership? Indeed, to be under the spiritual care of church elders is the aspect of formal church membership that most evangelicals avoid, or even find outside of their comfort zone.

[1] In “Survey: Most Young People are ‘Lost’ Despite ‘Christian’ Label,” 67 percent of youth who call themselves “Christian” rarely attend church.


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2 thoughts on “Is it Biblical for a lifeguard to perform a baptism?”

  1. Albert Medina

    Well said, Pastor. Indeed, para-church organizations are just that: parang (Tagalog for “like a”) church but no church at all. LOL.

    A recent thread in the Puritan Board also discusses this topic. In answer to the question as to why only ordained ministers may adminster the sacraments, the Rev. Matthew Winzer of the Australian Free Church (a Presbyterian denomination with roots from the Scottish Free Church) explains:

    There are exegetical, theological, and practical reasons for the restriction [of the administration of the sacraments to ordained ministers].

    Exegetically, there is approved example of ordained men, and no example of a non ordained man, administering the sacraments in the New Testament. Further, there is the positive principle of tying official administration of the new testament to the ordained ministry, as taught by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 4:1 and 2 Corinthians 3:6. Acknowledging the Bible to be the only rule of faith and life, and the regulative principle of worship, we are bound to the conclusion that only ordained ministers may administer the sacraments, which are signs and seals of the new testament.

    Theologically, the commitment to the reformed view of sacraments entails the restriction. The reformed view is that the sacrament is an outward sign of inward grace. As such it does not work automatically to produce blessed results. It requires the working of God’s Spirit and faith in the recipient. Faith only comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. It follows that the benefit of the sacrament is tied to the ministry of the Word. The administration of the sacrament is therefore tied to the administration of the Word, and the ordained pastor and teacher is the minister of the Word.

    Practically, the restriction is required by the consideration that wholesome discipline and a pastoral tie is to be maintained in the church. (1.) The Lord adds to the church those who are to be saved. If baptism and the Lord’s supper were administered by anybody then there would be no way of discerning who are and who are not members of Christ’s church. No kind of order or discipline could be maintained. (2.) We are to know them who labour among us, and are over us in the Lord, and who admonish us. A pastoral tie is instrumental to Christian nurture. Just as communion strengthens the bond with Christ and with His people, it likewise strengthens the bond between pastor and people so that commitment to the Word is increased. See Acts 20:7-12. Allowing others to administer the sacraments strengthens a bond and commitment to something which does not include the pastor and the Word, which will be detrimental to Christian nurture. ”


    1. Indeed, the sacraments are tied to church discipline, which no pseudochurch can exercise. Moreover, if the sacraments are done outside of formal membership in the covenant community, church discipline is not one of its purposes; it’s actually impossible. This is why in the Heidelberg Catechism, the Reformers identify the withholding of the sacraments as a part of church discipline (emphasis mine):

      82. Q. Are those also to be admitted to the Lord’s supper who by their confession and life show that they are unbelieving and ungodly?

      A. No, for then the covenant of God would be profaned and His wrath kindled against the whole congregation. Therefore, according to the command of Christ and His apostles, the Christian church is duty-bound to exclude such persons by the keys of the kingdom of heaven, until they amend their lives.

      85. Q. How is the kingdom of heaven closed and opened by church discipline?

      A. According to the command of Christ, people who call themselves Christians but show themselves to be unchristian in doctrine or life are first repeatedly admonished in a brotherly manner.  If they do not give up their errors or wickedness, they are reported to the church, that is, to the elders.  If they do not heed also their admonitions, they are forbidden the use of the sacraments, and they are excluded by the elders from the Christian congregation, and by God Himself from the kingdom of Christ. They are again received as members of Christ and of the church when they promise and show real amendment.

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