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 that 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.
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 various forms of teaching. This exclusion comes in many ways and different contexts. Some exclude women from private teaching (even women teaching men one-on-one), leading small groups, instructing Bible classes where men are present, and sermons as well as other forms of teaching. Most, however, encourage women to disciple others, especially women but also men as well (much like a wife might disciple her unbelieving husband).
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.
All believers, including women and “the non-ordained” (or “laity”), then, are invited to baptize and teach as part of the discipling ministry of the followers of Jesus. In answer to the call of Jesus, everyone, both male and female, from the paid pastor to the teenager recently discipled, may baptize and teach others. Everyone is called to make disciples.