Legalism in religion condemned repeatedly by Jesus, still persists in some areas of Christianity today. The media reports a Catholic priest, Father Andres Arango, who served in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, Arizona, resigned because Phoenix Diocese Bishop Thomas Olmsted claimed he had performed “invalid baptisms” as a priest for the Diocese for over two decades of baptizing. Why were they invalid? Well, because the Diocese claimed they discovered he had been using “the wrong phrasing.” Father Arango would baptize by saying: “We baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” However, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had said the correct words should be “I baptize” rather than “we baptize. Therefore, the Bishop and the Diocese declared all of the priest’s baptisms were “invalid.” In support of this position, the good bishop wrote a letter to Catholics of the diocese informing them of the invalid baptisms. He said it is his responsibility to be “vigilant over the celebration of the sacraments,” adding that it is “my duty to ensure that the sacraments are conferred in a manner” consistent with the Gospel and the tradition’s requirements.” He went on to say:
“It may seem legalistic, but the words that are spoken, along with the actions that are performed and the materials used, are a crucial aspect of every sacrament. If you change the words, actions or materials required in any of the sacraments, they are not valid.”
Wow! That idea doesn’t just seem “legalistic” but is a classic example of the kind of legalistic nonsense Jesus repeatedly condemned. What does the Bible say about baptism? We have the baptism of John in Mark 1:5 “And all the country of Judea was going out to him, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.” We read that Jesus was also baptized. Matthew 3:13-17 “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And, we have Jesus own instructions about his disciples baptizing people Matt 28:18-20
“And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Nowhere in these passages is there any formula or specific words required for a “valid” baptism. It is the commitment and the act of baptism that is important. John’s baptism was a sign of repentance for sin. Jesus instruction for his followers to be baptized was a sign of belief in Jesus. Romans 6:3-4 says:
“Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
Nowhere does the Bible require a magic formula of words for a “valid” baptism. While it may be more accurate to say “I baptize” instead of “We baptize” there is no Biblical justification to declare one valid and the other invalid no matter what the Bishop says. The essential concept is that the baptism is done in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins and belief in Jesus. Baptism is such an essential and simple part of Christianity, making complicated in an extreme legalistic manner is sinful. Bishop Olmsted is known for his alliance with Donald Trump, attacks on Pope Francis and religious conservative positions, but his position on this issue does harm to the people involved.