What If He Can’t Be Baptized?

Recently, I received an email from a pastor friend asking advice about a dicey baptism situation. It’s not the first time a pastor has asked me about this issue. It’s also a question I get from students nearly every semester. What should we do if someone comes to faith in Christ and desires to be baptized and join our church, but she cannot be baptized due to some sort of medical condition?

I’m aware of at least four views held among different Baptists. There are probably others, but these are the ones I’ve heard over the years.

First, some Baptists argue that the individual should not be baptized and should not become a member of the church or receive the Lord’s Supper. After all, Baptists do not believe the ordinances and church membership contribute to one’s salvation; we are saved by grace through faith. To allow an unbaptized person to join the church and participate in communion is to act contrary to biblical precedent. (Some Baptists offer a variation of this view where the person can be invited to the Lord’s Table, but not join the church.) I reject this view because I believe all believers should be covenantally united with a particular local church for the sake of their own spiritual maturity and the health of the body they join.

Second, some Baptists argue that you should immerse the person anyway, claiming that there are no “real life” medical conditions that would prevent someone from being baptized. Yes, I’ve actually heard this view — several times. I reject this position because I believe it is medically ill-informed and lacks pastoral sensibility.

Third, some Baptists argue that you should “baptize” the person by sprinkling or pouring. Proponents admit this is without New Testament precedent, but argue that it is an exceptional circumstance and the person is still receiving an initiatory rite using water. Once the person has received this non-immersion “baptism,” they are of course free to join the church and participate in communion. I reject this view because I do not believe a practice other than immersion is ever a biblical baptism, even in exceptional circumstances.

Fourth, some Baptists argue that you should not baptize the individual at all, but should allow her to become an unbaptized church member with the full rights of membership (including communion). Should the individual reach a point where she could be baptized, she should be. But so long as the medical condition prevents it, the desire to be baptized is enough. As with the previous option, proponents admit this practice is without New Testament precedent, but argue that it is an exceptional circumstance. Unlike the previous view, proponents of this view do not believe that sprinkling or pouring is a biblical baptism, so they don’t advocate those measures — even in an exceptional circumstance. (Remember, I’m assuming a traditionally Baptist context that rejects other “modes” of baptism in principle.)

I hold to the fourth view as the least theologically objectionable, most pastorally sensitive practice in an admittedly exceptional circumstance. Perhaps there is another option I haven’t considered. But of the options I’m aware of, the fourth is the one I suggest to others and would practice if I were faced with this sort of scenario.

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  18Comments

  1. Bob Hadley   •  

    Nathan,

    We had this situation happen and I sat the lady on a special seat with handles on the side and no back in front of the church and lowered her back gently and then raised her back up symbolizing the same thing she would have experienced in the baptistery. It was actually a very moving act of worship for the whole church. It was physically impossible for her to make it up the stairs to the baptistery and at her age she was not well enough to stand to be baptized and she did not need to get wet either.

    Thanks for the article.

  2. Sam Bullington   •  

    Not commending it by any stretch, but could some sort of baptism by proxy be used in a way that honors the meaning of baptism as a public picture of the gospel? Everybody knows the cryptic “precedent” in 1 Cor 15:29; perhaps this is a case where pastoral imagination in the right situation with the flock can work. I can imagine, for example, if the person who led to Christ the one who isn’t able to be baptized is the one who descends into the baptismal pool or something like that. What is there that would prevent us from doing this?

  3. John Klink   •  

    Thank you for this. A few years ago we updated our church bylaws, and this question came up. Thankfully we didn’t have a pressing situation that required an answer. It gave us time to pray over it and research. Our church came to the same conclusion.

  4. Matt   •  

    Dr. Finn,

    Thank you for sharing this, very interesting. I would assume the autonomous aspect of the Baptist tradition would also weigh in, at some point (i.e. the character, conviction, and witness of the individual). As someone who grew up Episcopal, almost ordained Methodist, married Presbyterian, baptized Pentecostal, educated in Baptist seminary (licensed & ordained), I sort of the see the bigger picture with baptism, but it’s core integrity to the faith–as you agree, baptism has no soteriological aspects; therefore, option four does sound the best. Thanks again for sharing.

  5. Shawn   •  

    Mark 1.8.

  6. Shawn   •  

    The key to Baptist history is not the act of Baptism or the mode of Baptism but the very fact that it came after one believed, hence, Believers (i.e., someone who is already saved and therefore already a member of the Body of Christ) Baptism.

  7. Shane Anderson   •  

    How is an unbaptized person taking the Lord’s Supper less objectionable than alterations to mode? …Especially since there is biblical and historical evidence for effusion and sprinkling.

    Most Baptists don’t use wine (as commanded in Scripture) due to their political/social/moral views, so how are these scruples about mode in Baptism consistent?

    Y’all should just come on over to Presbyterianism with me ;-)

  8. Shane Anderson   •  

    *affusion

  9. Adam G. in NC   •  

    Water balloons!

  10. Kirby   •  

    I hear you. Let me ask a similar question if I may. What do you do in a situation where an older member of your Baptist church marries an older Presbyterian? They probably will not have children because of their age so the question of whether they will baptize their infant child will likely never come up. I would not consider them unequally yoked because they are both believers. Certainly it is not wise for them to participate in different church fellowships. The Presbyterian is willing to move to the Baptist church. The Presbyterian was “baptized” as a believer but it was not done by immersion. There seem to be several options:

    1. Require that the Presbyterian be baptized by immersion in order to become a church member.
    2. Recognize this as an extraordinary situation and accept a member who has not been baptized by immersion.
    3. Allow this person to be an attender and full participant in the life of the church without membership status.

    Obviously number 1 is preferable if the Presbyterian becomes convinced that baptism by immersion is the only biblical baptism. Otherwise, I am not sure that we want to “baptize someone again” to satisfy our own conscience when it conflicts with the conscience of the person being baptized.

    Number 2 feels like compromise.

    Number 3 seems to go against everything we believe about the importance of church membership.

    Any suggestions?

  11. Billy Usery   •  

    Years ago as a young pastor of my first post seminary pastorate, I received a call one day from a much older homebound man who had been listening to our worship services via radio. After a casual greeting he said, “I want to be a member of your church.” To this day I do not remember the
    reason that it was not possible but do remember its having to do with “baptism”. I did tell the man that I would be glad to be his pastor. but I regret not having done more.

    Some years later prior to my retirement I sat beside a man
    who was dying of cancer. He was “a Methodist” but had never been baptized. He asked me about baptism and I explained that it would not be possible due to the seriousness of his illness. There was a glass of water beside him. To this day I regret not having picked it up and “baptized” him on the spot. His wife a strong SBC’er
    shared in my regret. Isn’t that what Jesus would have done?

  12. Andy   •  

    Nathan,

    I know that this is opinion piece, but I object that the “least theologically objectionable.” Relegating a person in your church second-class status is highly objectionable, in my humble opinion. What you are telling them is that their legitimate medical concerns disqualify them from being an active, full member of your church. How that is the least objectionable option blows my mind!

    Given the Baptist view of the sacraments, which look at them as purely symbolic of true spiritual realities, how does celebrating baptism by another mode in this situation seem more objectionable than giving someone with authentic faith less status as a believer in your church? Rather than celebrating one’s faith – a faith which in its spiritual reality has already participated in Christ’s baptism, looking forward to the resurrection of the body, free from disease and decay – you create divisions in your church for medical reasons. It just rings unjustifiable.

    I would personally advise such a person who couldn’t become a member in your church to seek a community of faith elsewhere.

  13. Ben Stratton   •  

    Nathan,

    I have seen several individuals baptized by immersion when some churches would have said they were not physically able to be immersed. These include:

    1. The Vietnam veteran who was paralyzed, in a wheelchair, and in bad physical shape. After he got saved, he was taken to a concrete boat ramp on the river and baptized by immersion.

    2. A senior adult lady who was crippled and not physically well. After she got saved, four strong men helped her into the baptistery and aided the pastor in baptizing her.

    I have heard of many other examples. In most cases where there’s a will, there’s a way!

    Yet in those truly life-threatening situations (I think it would be very rare for a person to be physically able to attend church and take the Lord’s Supper, but not able to be immersed in any way) I would come down on the side of #1 and say two wrongs don’t make a right. I am also confident this is the historic Baptist position from the 18th and 19th century.

  14. RNM   •  

    Acts 1:4-5 (ESV)

    4 And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

    What is the point of Christ’s comparison here?

    To me, the attention drawn to baptism by an exception to allow sprinkling or pouring is likely to be more meaningful to all participants than the assembly line baptisms many of us have witnessed.

  15. HAS   •  

    I met a man in hospice who desired to be baptised, but he couldn’t get out of bed. After some consideration and prayer over several days, I took a glass of water and sprinkled him in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. As a Baptist, I realize that this is not the Biblical method of baptism, but historically it was practiced by the early Church when water was not available, according to the Didache.

    It seemed to me, in this particular situation, that the method was not as important at that moment as was the man’s desire to identify with Christ shortly before he died. I have not baptised anyone else this way, but given similar circumstances, I probably would.

  16. Robert Vaughn   •  

    Andy, I’m not sure why you thought that by advocating No. 4 Nathan was relegating a person to “second-class status.” He said he or she would be a church member “with the full rights of membership (including communion).” Not sure how that is second class??

    Ben, I feel confident that you are right — that No. 1 is likely the historic Baptist position, and also that such exceptions to the rule are quite rare. I have a link on my blog to a newspaper article of a Baptist Church in Russellville, KY baptizing a man who is a quadriplegic. I have, though, in my readings of old writers run across some who advocated (in exceptional cases) what Nathan identifies as No. 4 – that the intent is accepted for the act. I wish I could remember where I read that.

    Nathan, I began to write out a comment to this thread. It became so long that I decided to post it on my blog instead of taking up so much space here. I hope you won’t mind my linking to it: If a medical condition hinders baptism.

  17. Allen Mickle   •  

    I watched a man paralyzed from the neck down be baptized by being carried by two other men into the baptismal tank, immersed, and carried out again. This was in Russia. They didn’t seem to think there was an excuse for not being baptized.

  18. Pingback: What If He Can’t Be Baptized? Nathan Finn Answers | The Confessing Baptist

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