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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.
The imperative to “make disciples” is part of Jesus’s last words to his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew. The following two participles (baptizing and teaching) are instrumental in this process. In part, disciples are made by baptizing them into the community of the Father, Son, and Spirit, and they are also continuously formed (made) by teaching them to follow what Jesus taught.
Baptism is a dynamic movement into the life of God. Disciples are baptized into the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. It is a movement into (which is literally what the text says; e.g. ASV) the communion of God, which gives disciples a sense of belonging to the family of the one (“name,” not names) God of Israel. Baptism is our entrance into the community of God to live among the people of God in the church of Jesus Christ (Matthew 16:18; 18:17).
Teaching is also a dynamic activity. Discipling is a process that not only begins before baptism but continues after it. Disciples are formed by teaching that is based on the life and words of Jesus. This includes—if it is not, in fact, the focus—the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, which concludes with a call to the wise living, which is obedience to the words of Jesus. Disciples of Jesus teach the teachings of Jesus (Matthew 7:24-29).
Discipling is not limited to one class or group within the community of God.
The heirs of the Restoration Movement have long recognized that baptism is not a clerical act, limited to the clergy in the community. We have wonderfully modeled the priesthood of all believers by affirming everyone’s privilege to baptize another, particularly one whom they have led to Christ. As Alexander Campbell said, “When then any one desires baptism, any one to whom he applies may administer it” (Campbell-Rice Debate, p. 580). There are no clerical boundaries to baptizing another, though pragmatically this often fell to the “preacher” in many congregations.
But the priesthood of all believers disappears when gender is introduced into the discussion. And the exclusion of women from baptizing anyone has a long history in the Restoration Movement. For example, Campbell also said, “We never, by word or action, sanctioned either females or minors as baptists” (p. 584). There are, it is argued, no examples of women baptizing anyone. Therefore, women are excluded. (We might remember there are no examples of women eating the Lord’s supper either.)
In effect, this limits Matthew 28:19-20a to males. If women cannot baptize anyone, this means they cannot obey the command of Jesus to “make disciples” in the way Jesus told his disciples to make disciples. Are not women as well as men told to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing. . .”?
Further, to “make disciples” is not only to baptize them but to continue to teach them as well. Yet, the practice of many congregations is not only to exclude women from baptizing but also to exclude them from teaching. This exclusion comes in many forms, and not all exclusivists agree on the degree of the exclusion and its particulars. This excludes women from private teaching, leading small groups, instructing Bible classes where men are present, and sermons as well as other forms of teaching. Some, however, only exclude women from sermonizing in the assembly, or perhaps even more narrow—speaking authoritatively for the church. In other words, when it comes to identifying the teaching from which women are excluded, it is a continuum of judgments, inferences, and applications.
If women are to make disciples, it is difficult to exclude them from the very process Jesus identified for disciple-making. If Matthew 28:19-20a is a call for disciples to make disciples, it is a call for both men and women to make disciples by baptizing and teaching the discipled.
Women, then, are invited to baptize and teach as part of the discipling ministry of the followers of Jesus.
I realize that the previous sentence is relativized by some who maintain that 1 Timothy 2:12 not only prohibits women from teaching men (in whatever form such teaching is envisioned) but also from having authority over them. Consequently, it is suggested by some that baptism is an authoritative act (bordering on a clericalism) within the community and women cannot, therefore, baptism anyone and certainly not men. A single text, it appears, delimits the disciple-making Jesus commanded on the part of women in the community of God. For some, it excludes them from baptizing anyone, and for many it only excludes them from representing the church through authoritative speech (whatever form that may take).
While this is not the place, due to limitations of space, to seek a better understanding of 1 Timothy 2:12, a few comments are appropriate. The sort of teaching envisioned in 1 Timothy 2 is not disciple-making but abusive domination of another. Paul, it seems to me, forbids some women, who had been deceived by false teachers, from aggressively attempting to persuade men. They were belligerently overwhelming others and leading them into the clutches of Satan by spreading false myths rather than submitting to the truth of the gospel, the mystery of godliness. (For more on this way of reading 1 Timothy 2:12, see my video here:
To use 1 Timothy 2:12 to limit women in disciple-making, whether in baptizing others or teaching others, is not only to abuse 1 Timothy 2:12 but to subvert the commission of Jesus intended for his disciples, both men and women. I see no reason to delimit or restrict the meaning of the word “teach” in Matthew 28:20. Women are authorized to teach, and the only text that might say otherwise is filled with difficulties of language, grammar, context, and meaning. It seems to me, Matthew 28:19-20 provides the horizon for all disciple-making, baptizing and teaching.
In answer to the call of Jesus, everyone, both male and female, may baptize and teach others. Everyone is called to make disciples.