Pronouns are in the news for a lot of reasons these days, but rarely has the difference between “I” and “we” been so important to so many.
In early February 2022, a priest in Arizona resigned after the Roman Catholic Church determined that his use of “we” instead of “I” while performing baptisms invalidated the sacrament. Instead of saying “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” the priest mistakenly said, “We baptize you . . . .”
As Thomas J. Olmsted, the bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix, explained, the difference is important because “it is not the community that baptizes a person, rather, it is Christ, and Him alone, who presides at all of the sacraments, and so it is Christ Jesus who baptizes.”
While it is unclear how long the priest had been using the incorrect pronoun, the Catholic Church decided that the thousands of baptisms he’d performed from Arizona and California all the way to Brazil “are presumed invalid.”
After resigning, the priest in question said, “It saddens me to learn that I have performed invalid baptisms throughout my ministry as a priest by regularly using an incorrect formula. I deeply regret my error and how this has affected numerous people . . . With the help of the Holy Spirit and in communion with the Diocese of Phoenix I will dedicate my energy and full time ministry to help remedy this and heal those affected.”
The priest in Arizona is hardly the first to make such a mistake, however.
Rev. Matthew Hood had been working in full-time ministry for years when he learned that his baptism had been deemed invalid as a result of the same error. The mistake was quickly remedied and he was re-ordained as a priest shortly thereafter. But the controversy has left many confused as to the nature of baptism and why one little word would make such a difference.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at what the Bible says about baptism.
What is baptism?
The word baptize comes from a Greek word meaning to “dip” or “immerse.” The word was often used in the ancient world to describe the act of dipping a cup in a stream or washing clothing at a laundry. Literally, to baptize something is to immerse it in water.
John the Baptist was the first person in the New Testament to baptize people. He immersed those who repented publicly from their sins and wanted to follow God in faith. Their baptism took place in the Jordan River as a witness to their community. When Jesus began his public ministry, he did so with his baptism by John.
Of course, Jesus was not repenting of sin since he is the sinless Son of God. Rather, he was giving public witness to his faith in his Father and supporting John’s work of preaching and baptizing. Later, Jesus commanded his disciples to continue this work of baptism: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
Baptism thus began with John and is commanded by Jesus Christ for us today.
Why should Christians be baptized?
Christian denominations vary widely in their understanding of baptism and its significance. The Catholic tradition views baptism as the first sacrament children receive, a step by which they begin their journey in the Christian faith. Some Protestant traditions similarly view infant baptism as an act of faith on the part of believing parents, a kind of New Testament circumcision.
Churches that baptize believers by immersion, however, take a different approach. Such communities of faith do so for the following reasons.
First, they view baptism as an act of obedience.
Jesus commanded us to baptize every person who becomes his disciple. The early church followed this command very carefully, baptizing those who became Christians at Pentecost (Acts 2:41) and those who trusted Christ as a result of personal witnessing (Acts 8:38).
Baptism does not make us Christians, but it is a very important response to God’s call to obedience. And it is a call only believers can answer.
Second, baptism is an act of witness.
By baptism we tell others of our new life in Jesus Christ. Again, baptism does not create this life; the water does not wash away our sins, nor must we be baptized to be saved. Rather, baptism shows others that we have already received this salvation.
In the act of immersion, we are laid under water to symbolize the burial of the “old person” we were before trusting Christ as Lord. We are then raised out of the water to symbolize the resurrection of the “new person” we are now in Christ. This symbolism is best portrayed by the immersion of those who have trusted Jesus personally (see Romans 6:4–5).
Traditions that practice infant baptism do so to dedicate children to God upon the faith of their parents. However, the only baptisms described in the New Testament involved persons who had come to personal faith in Christ as Lord. And so churches that practice the immersion of Christians believe they are continuing the New Testament model.
Baptist churches often explain to those who were baptized as infants that their immersion as a believer in no way invalidates the faith their parents demonstrated in baptizing their child. Rather, an immersion baptism completes their dedication as the person makes public his or her own faith commitment.
What makes a baptism legitimate?
Baptism is an important act of obedience, but it is not the essential requirement for salvation.
The thief on the cross at Jesus’ side, the moment he made Christ his Lord, was promised: “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Though he could not be baptized, he could trust in Jesus. All who have followed his example, whatever their baptism tradition, are children of the same Father and members of the same family.
Saying the wrong words at a baptism (or during any other sacrament) won’t change that.
Ultimately, baptism is and always has been intended to be a public symbol of a personal commitment. Whether that is a symbol of the parents’ faith in baptizing their infant or an individual’s faith when it follows a personal decision to place their trust in Christ as savior, baptism is meant to tell the world that Jesus is our Lord and invite others to join our faith.
If those who witness our baptism trust Christ because we have, our baptism fulfills its most significant purpose, to the glory of God.