Where in the Bible does it explicitly state, “Only bishops and priests can baptize and confer the Holy Spirit?” Where explicitly? Nowhere.
So why do we Orthodox Christians believe this? I am addressing this here because someone recently challenged me with just that question, and I realize many Orthodox do not know how to confront this question. Here’s my take.
Baptism by water AND SPIRIT
For the sake of this post, what I’m really asking is not as much about baptism by water alone, which in the Bible was permitted for deacons to administer, and which since the time of the early Church “emergency baptisms” by water only at the hands of a lay person were sometimes also deemed acceptable (as is the case now among many Apostolic churches).1
Instead, I’m more so focusing on the follow-up, necessary mystery to complete baptism: invoking the Holy Spirit to dwell in the new believer (originally by laying of hands, but later by anointing [known as Chrismation]). A true, fully legitimate baptism, per Christ and Scripture, requires both.
While there is no explicit verse in Scripture that states that only bishops and priests are divinely authorized to baptize by water and Spirit, there are plenty of implicit references, which, if coupled with the historical evidence of the early Church witness, makes it easy to see the clear rule: Bishops (which is a Greek word meaning “overseers”) oversee the Church by being the only ones with authority to expand the task of, you guessed it, overseeing the Church! That (the authority to ordain others), along with initiating people into the faith (through baptism and Chrismation), participating in the repentance and confessions of believers (cf. John 20:22-23), and administering the life-giving body and blood of Christ (cf. John 6), required conferring the Holy Spirit, which bishops alone had authority to do (and priests can do all but ordain other bishops, for they cannot grant what they themselves do not possess). A representative early Church writing on the subject states the following:
Neither do we permit the laity to perform any of the offices belonging to the priesthood; as, for instance, neither the sacrifice [i.e., the Eucharist], nor baptism, nor the laying on of hands, nor the blessing, whether the smaller or the greater: “For no one takes this honor to himself, but he that is called of God” (Heb. 5:4). For such sacred offices are conferred by the laying on of the hands of the bishop. But a person to whom such an office is not committed, but he seizes upon it for himself, he shall undergo the punishment of Uzziah (2 Chr. 26). (Apostolic Consitutions 3.10)
But let’s stick with just the Bible.
First, let us lay down the rule of Baptism:
Christ said that baptism must be both by water and Spirit. Not just water, but also the Spirit:
“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5-6).
Christ also explicitly made it the task of the eleven to go and baptize people, saying that He has authority that He now gives to them. Notice, He did not say this to random people, nor to His mother, but specifically to the “eleven disciples.”
Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them. …
And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore[c] and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:16, 18-19).
The historical witness of the early Church as well as references in Scripture indicate that Christ consecrated them as bishops, and further appointment of other bishops required a “laying on of hands,” which is indicative of a conferral of the Holy Spirit upon them. That is how Scripture tells us Timothy became a bishop (1 Timothy 4:14), how Paul and Barnabas became bishops, (Acts 13:2-3) and how the appointment of other bishops should carefully be administered (cf. 1 Timothy 5:22).
Sticking to Scripture Alone, the Strongest Argument is in Acts 8
But again, sticking to Scripture alone, the strongest argument in my opinion related to this subject, which shows that not just any Christian can confer the Holy Spirit to complete baptism, is in Acts 8, which seems to be overlooked as standing for this point.
The question you have to ask yourself while reading this chapter is: why couldn’t the newly ordained deacon Philip or the newly baptized Samaritan convert to Christianity known as Simon lay hands on new Christians and and confer the Holy Spirit upon them?
If you read Acts 8 you’ll find Philip the deacon baptizing with water after the Samaritans believe in Christ.
End of story right? NOPE!
Two of those eleven disciples I mentioned previously—aka Bishops—Peter and John—had to take a 2-day grueling journey to Samaria from Jerusalem to do what otherwise may seem like a simple task: lay hands on the new Samaritan Christian converts who were baptized by Philip.
WHY? So they may receive the Holy Spirit!
Now when the apostles who were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them, who, when they had come down, prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. For as yet He had fallen upon none of them. They had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. (Acts 8:14-17)
But why couldn’t Philip, the miracle-working deacon (Acts 8:6-8) do this?
Simon the Samaritan was a famed sorcerer in Samaria before Philip came along and did all these amazing miracles, and after Simon gave up sorcery he never asked Philip (as far as we are aware): “Why can’t I do miracles like you!”
No. Instead of that he goes to Peter and says, “I want that Holy Spirit power!!!!” All he saw was hands being laid on people. That’s it. No devils fleeing from the demon-possessed, no paralyzed people suddenly moving again. None of that. Here is what happened:
And when Simon saw that through the laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Spirit was given, he offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, that anyone on whom I lay hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 8:18)
And you know what Peter says back to him? NO! This is a GIFT OF GOD! In other words, even though you are a Christian, baptized by water and Spirit through the laying on of hands, YOU DO NOT HAVE THIS GIFT.
But Peter said to him, “Your money perish with you, because you thought that the gift of God could be purchased with money! You have neither part nor portion in this matter, for your heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity.” (Acts 8:20-23)
Don’t be confused by what Peter says about the money. The MONEY is one of TWO reasons this was not acceptable. The second reason was that this was a GIFT that Simon did not possess, for if it were already possessed by him, all Peter had to say was, “Oh, silly Simon, you don’t need to pay us for this! You are a Christian and you already possess this authority.”
But that’s not what he said. Instead he made it clear that this GIFT is something that not just any Christian has.
SO THE QUESTION IS WHY NOT!
The only historically acceptable answer which completely aligns with the biblical witness is simply this: only bishops and priests can baptize with water AND spirit.
THE JOHN THE BAPTIST CHALLENGE
Some challenge this by saying that John the Baptist baptized, and he wasn’t a bishop or a priest or anything. The baptism John the Baptist performed was not a Christian baptism, but based on Jewish practice at the time. Moreover, throughout Scripture we hear of how the baptism of John the Baptist was not an adequate Christian baptism. It was inadequate for several reasons. The baptism of John was BEFORE Christ died and resurrected. Therefore, anyone who uses him as an example of Christian baptism completely misses the point of this mystery as stated in Scripture, whereby we die with Christ and resurrect with Him (see Romans 6:3-5 and Colossians 2:12). Appealing to John the Baptist to criticize the Orthodox Christian understanding of the authority needed for baptism is also flawed because John the Baptist himself says that his baptism is without the Spirit and is inferior to the one that is to come (see Matthew 3:11, Luke 3:16, and Mark 1:8). It also ignores the fact that Christian baptism requires baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:16, 18-19), which John the Baptist was not doing.
Maybe the strongest argument comes from Paul himself who specifically addresses John the Baptist’s baptism as being inadequate, and thereafter baptizes and lays hands on individuals who were only baptized “into John’s baptism.” This event is worth reading as it shows the necessity of not only being baptized by water, but also of receiving the Holy Spirit for it all to be legitimate (Acts 19:2-6):
And it happened, while Apollos was at Corinth, that Paul, having passed through the upper regions, came to Ephesus. And finding some disciples 2 he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
So they said to him, “We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.”
And he said to them, “Into what then were you baptized?”
So they said, “Into John’s baptism.”
Then Paul said, “John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.”
When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 And when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.
ENDNOTES AND IMAGE CREDIT
1 See Tertullian on Baptism 17, Augustine on baptism 7.102, St. Jerome, and the council of Illiberias or Elvira c. AD 300. In all these cases, should the person survive, they are supposed to be brought to the bishop (or priest if acceptable to the bishop) for Chrismation.
Image Credit: The Baptism of Vladimir, a fresco by Viktor Vasnetsov