By Henry Webb, Retired Professor of Christian History, Milligan College
Presented to the Stone-Campbell Dialogue, Cincinnati Bible College, November 27-28, 2000
Throughout the almost two-century history of the Stone/Campbell Movement, baptism has been a subject of numerous controversies, discussions, and debates. In the nineteenth century these controversies were almost exclusively engaged with persons outside of the fellowship. In the twentieth century these controversies have been mostly within the Movement, itself. The differences that have evolved have constituted one of the major issues that produced acrimony and division within the ranks. Our consideration of this subject requires that we devote a few moments to an all too brief survey of the history of Disciple understandings of baptism.
I. Baptism in the thought of Alexander Campbell
The theology of baptism for Disciples was largely shaped by the studies and experiences of Alexander Campbell, who was led to alter the practice of the Presbyterian Church of his youth when he was confronted, in 1812, with the matter of baptizing an infant daughter. His father, Thomas Campbell, had issued The Declaration and Address, the charter for a new religious effort aimed at dissolving the acrimonious denominational divisions in the New World by returning to Biblical faith and practice. The birth of the younger Campbell’s first child and the matter of baptizing her brought forth the suggestion of a neighbor that if Campbell were serious about following Biblical precedent he would not baptize the infant but instead he would be immersed himself. The youthful Alexander doubted that this would be the case, but he undertook a serious study of baptism in the New Testament. As a student for the ministry, he had become somewhat proficient in using the Greek text of the New Testament, so he gathered what resources he was able to obtain, did his research, and came to the conclusion that it was indeed he who was the proper subject for baptism ,if he were to follow the Biblical precedent. Accordingly, on June 12, 1812, Alexander, his wife, both parents, two sisters , and several others, were immersed in Buffalo Creek near Bethany, Virginia.*1
This decision had far-reaching consequences for the Campbells, and for the infant Brush Run Church, of which they were a part. For one thing, it commended them to the Baptists and led to a brief affiliation with that body. A few years later, Alexander Campbell became the primary candidate among Baptists to accept a challenge to engage in a debate with John Walker, a Presbyterian minister in Mt. Pleasant, OH, on the topic of the proper subjects and the proper form for baptism. Against the advice of his father, Alexander accepted this challenge and made an able defense of the immersionist position. Many who would later read the published account of the debate were persuaded by Campbell
of the nature of Biblical baptism. This thrust Alexander Campbell into the position of being a leading spokesman for baptism by immersion. There followed in 1823 a debate against W. L. Macalla in Augusta, KY., which centered on the design of baptism and which was equally important with the Walker debate in the formation of the Disciple theology of baptism (and to the subsequent rupture with the Baptists). These debates, together with essays and references in The Christian Baptist and later in the Millennial Harbinger, created Disciples’ baptismal theology, with some modification to be noted below.
Note must be taken of the fact that the context of Campbell’s understanding of baptism is that of Reformed, Covenant Theology in which Baptism is viewed as the act of entry into the New Covenant wherein God, by grace through Jesus Christ, offers forgiveness of sin and eternal salvation to lost humanity. Campbell’s modification of standard Covenant Theology came at two points: (a) his insistence that entry into the Covenant be a voluntary act of faith on the part of the person who comes to baptism (thus eliminating paedo baptism), and (b) the form of baptism should be that seen in the New Testament (thereby eliminating affusion). Subsequent troubles and ultimate separation from the Baptists amply illustrates that Campbell was not otherwise at variance with prevailing Reformed Theology.
II. The “contract” paradigm of salvation
The distinction for providing Disciples with an understanding of Baptism with somewhat of a different emphasis belongs to Walter Scott, the great evangelist of the emerging Movement, and to the host of Frontier evangelists who carried the message of the Movement into the expanding West. Scott popularized the Disciples’ Plea by his well-known five-finger exercise. In this paradigm, God approaches humankind with a contract for salvation. The terms can be discovered by an inductive examination of the New Testament (especially Acts of the Apostles). The good news of the Gospel is God’s offer of a “plan of salvation” to lost humanity. As a consideration to all who will believe, repent, and be baptized (immersed), God will forgive sin, provide the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, and bestow the gift of eternal life. This paradigm had the merit of easy conceptual- ization. It made sense to the pragmatic frontiersman and produced a period of extraordinary growth for the Movement. Implied in this paradigm of contract is the understanding that if one party to the contract defaults or otherwise fails to meet its terms, the contract is void. It is vitally important, therefore, that the terms of the contract be carefully complied with. Because the terms are clearly set forth in the New Testament, human beings are without excuse for default or failure to conform. Man is not offered the option of altering the terms to suit either his convenience or his preferences. Both paedo-baptism and affusion obviate the terms of the contract. thereby rendering it void and leaving the un-immersed without promise. The best that could be hoped for was that God’s grace might find a place where they might slip through. Much of the evangelism of the frontier was of this harsh “contract” variety and, indeed, it lingered in many places throughout most o the twentieth century and may still be heard today.
III. Reaction: Open membership
Alexander Campbell should not be identified with the contract formula of
salvation or its understanding of Baptism as one of the terms of contract. This fact is clearly seen in his correspondence with the lady in Lunnenburg, VA *2 He was willing to face honestly the reality that the fruits of the Spirit are abundantly evident in the lives of many whose baptism does not comport with the norms that he discerned in the New Testament. In no way did this recognition suggest to Campbell any compromise with the Biblical practice and example. Campbell was in no sense a rigid legalist of the type frequently found on the Frontier. Rather he was an honest realist who recognized the obvious Christian commitment of many of the un-immersed and refused to deny this by making his understanding of Biblical baptism the limits of Christianity, a temptation not resisted by some of his followers. The resulting ambiguity is seen in the fact that Campbell can be quoted to reinforce opposing views in later the controversies over baptism.
The first advocate of admitting un-immersed persons into membership of a congregation of Disciples was Lewis L. Pinkerton, minister of the church in Midway, Ky. I know of no other congregation to adopt these views in his time. The first serious advocate of what would later be called : “Open Membership” was W. T. Moore, who is best known for his history of the Movement published at the time of the Centennial Convention in 1909 *3 . Moore was sent to England as the first missionary of the FCMS. Eventually he became acquainted with Charles Spurgeon, the famous Baptist preacher in London. Desiring to learn about British Churches of Christ, Spurgeon asked Moore to summarize their beliefs and practice. Moore obliged by relating to Spurgeon that membership in Churches of Christ was based on the “plan of salvation ” as understood by Disciples, including baptism by immersion. However, the Lord’s Supper, which was celebrated weekly, was open to all who believed in Christ. Spurgeon was very surprised at learning this inasmuch as the practice of the British Baptist Churches was exactly opposite. Membership did not require baptism, since their understanding of salvation was predicated on faith alone. But the fellowship of the Supper was limited to members of the congregation, which was the reverse of what Moore had suggested. After a moment’s reflection, Spurgeon commented: “It would appear that the un-immersed are good enough for God but not good enough for you”.*4
Moore was never able to overcome this seeming inconsistency in his practice and eventually came to the conclusion that the membership of the church ought to be co-extensive with access to the Lord’s Table, a position that he later called “communion-table membership”. Moore returned to the United States advocating “The London Plan”, essentially what would later be known as “Open Membership”. But the London Plan did not gain wide acceptance in this country at that time.
The major thrust for Open Membership among the Disciples developed in Chicago shortly prior to the turn of the twentieth century. It was part of the Modernist outlook which dominated the University at that time and found a cordial reception in the Disciples Divinity House there. Open Membership was introduced into the Hyde Park Church by Edward Scribner Ames in 1903. The unimmersed were first accepted as “associate members” of the congregation. Ames held that immersion was a major obstacle to the Disciple goal of Christian unity and contended that simply because immersion was a practice in Biblical times did not mandate that it be followed in our times, especially when “other forms of baptism have served the same purpose and accomplished the same results, apparently, in the experience of Christian people” *5 Ames edited The Scroll, the quarterly organ of the Campbell Institute and, beginning with the second issue of this publication, he became a persistent advocate of the practice. .
However, it was C. C. Morrison who became the popular advocate for Open Membership through The Christian Century, of which he was Editor. In a series of essays and editorials, later published in book form as The Meaning of Baptism *6 Morrison provided the rationale for Open Membership in terms that reflected the Chicago theology. He began by questioning on critical grounds whether Jesus ever issued a Great Commission and then, on linguistic grounds, he insisted that there was no intrinsic connection between baptism and immersion. Immersion was simply an initiatory symbol to identify one as a disciple of Jesus, nothing more.*7 Failure to recognize that fact led the early church to accept the “immersionist dogma”, with its unfortunate consequences. This dogma would be reinforced by the fertile imagination of the Apostle Paul who linked the initiatory practice of immersion by analogy to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Morrison considered the practice of re-baptism of persons coming from affusionist religious bodies to be an affront to the basic Christian status of non-immersionist bodies and a serious impediment to the Disciple goal of Christian unity.
The Christian Century/Campbell Institute/Disciples Divinity House promotion of the practice of admission of un-immersed persons into full membership of Christian Churches grew steadily with the new century. In 1904 Ames could list only six congregations that practiced some form of Open Membership, but this number would increase. There were protests, but there was nothing that one congregation could do in a congregationally governed fellowship should another congregation adopt the practice. It was quite otherwise, however, when the practice gained acceptance in the missionary agencies. This possibility loomed in 1912 when Guy Sarvis, assistant minister at the Hyde Park Church in Chicago, was accepted for service in China under the FCMS. A storm of protest arose which was only laid to rest when Sarvis pledged not to introduce the practice on the mission field. Lingering uneasiness with the FCMS burst into open conflict a decade later when the Secretary of the China Mission wrote the Executive Committee of the UCMS (successor to the FCMS) requesting approval for the introduction of Open Membership in China. Disclosure of this request and the reluctance of the Executive Committee to oppose it plunged the Disciples into a conflict which, along with other issues, produced struggles in the Conventions leading up to Oklahoma City in 1925 and Memphis in 1926. The result was the schism with which we live to this day. In the decades since this unfortunate rupture, Open Membership continues to be an item of major difference between the two bodies. It has gained almost universal acceptance among Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) and is universally opposed by Christian Churches/ churches of Christ.
Non-instrument Churches of Christ were not affected by this controversy for several reasons. They had no missionary organization, they were hardly affected by Modernist Theology, and they are united in their understanding of the contract concept of the “plan of salvation”. Meanwhile, they had their own conflicts which sufficed to occupy their attention and claim their energies.
The subject of baptism remains a serious barrier to fellowship within the Stone/Campbell Movement. As we consider this subject, it is important that we understand that Christian Churches/churches of Christ regard the matter to be basically theological in nature and should not be approached on either sociological or pragmatic grounds. Reasoning that settles the baptismal issues by claiming that it is necessary to surrender one Biblical provision (baptism by immersion) to achieve another Biblical objective (unity) is less than convincing. Nor are we moved by the reluctance of some people to “get all wet in public”, or the pragmatic claims that assure us that Open Membership enables us to attract “some nice people we otherwise wouldn’t get” into our churches – kind of an early form of “church growth”. Such rationale for Open membership has only pragmatic sanction and that seem to us to be wholly inadequate to justify what we understand to be the Biblical provision for baptism.
IV. Karl Barth on baptism
That there is a serious theological consideration for what comes out as Open Membership I discovered some fifty years ago, not from anybody in our Movement, but from my encounter with Karl Barth. Some here may think that it is going beyond the limits of this assignment to discuss Barth’s view of baptism. However, Barth confronts us, in my judgment, with the most serious theological undergirding for the practice of Open Membership that I have ever encountered. Barth’s understanding of baptism is set forth in a small book published in 1948 under the title: The Teaching of the Christian Church Regarding Baptism *8. The Reformed tradition, from which the subject is discussed, is evident in at least two of Barth’s pre-suppositions: first, he sees baptism within the context of Covenant Theology. Baptism is the means whereby a believer enters into the Covenant that God graciously extends to sinful mankind. Humans respond in faith to God’s offer to forgive sin. Baptism is the outward symbol of entry into this New Covenant. Barth is unequivocal in affirming that Biblical baptism is by the immersion of believers for forgiveness of sin, all of which is possible only by God’s inscrutable grace.
The second evidence of the Reformed tradition is seen in Barth’s unequivocal hostility to Anabaptism. He readily admits that infants are not suitable subjects for baptism and that affusion is not an appropriate substitute for immersion, but he refuses to consider that the grace of God is bound by or limited by the nature or fidelity of the human response to God’s offer. Despite the faults he finds in infant baptism and affusion, Barth holds that to re-baptize is to affirm that God is either unable or unwilling to extend grace except on the precise compliance of human subjects to a prescribed form. Such a denial of the adequacy of God’s grace is, in reality, an insult to God and a form of blasphemy. God does not predicate grace on the precise nature of the sinner’s response to a particular form nor would He deny grace to sinners because their intention to respond to God’s gracious offer is done in an inappropriate manner. To Barth, re-baptism is not an option; it is an insult to God. Ordinarily, in congregations that practice Open Membership, immersion of persons previously sprinkled is an option. In Barthian categories, it would be forbidden.
It is not easy to find fault with Barth’s theology of grace. It places the burden on all who would immerse believers who have been sprinkled (to Barth: Anabaptism) to provide a rationale that avoids the judgment that these believers are no different than pagans who come to Christ from a state of unbelief . Too often (in my judgment) the rationale for immersion of believers who have been sprinkled has been found in the sheer legalism of the contract concept of the plan of salvation wherein the believer is required to “meet the terms” of the contract if he is to have any reasonable hope of the fulfillment of the contract in salvation. There is an expression that has common currency in Christian Churches which calls for the immersion of paedo-Baptists on the basis of “completing one’s obedience to Christ”. The presupposition of this idiom is rooted in the legalism of the contract theory of salvation. On the other hand, why should it be considered the least bit inappropriate for a believer who had no part in or awareness of any baptismal experience to engage consciously and volitionally in the act of self-identification with the Savior in a replication of Jesus’ ultimate expression of love and sacrifice for sin? Does not Barth’s position actually deprive believers of the spiritual richness of the baptismal experience as it is expressed in Scripture and is found in the early Church? Is Barth’s view influenced more by the Synod of Carthage and its prohibition of Donatist re-baptism, a decision dear to the hearts of the sixteenth century Reformers who struggled with Anabaptists, than it is by Scripture?
Having conceded the shortcomings of the contract approach to baptism, the question remains: Should we continue to countenance a defective manner of baptism “in order that grace may abound”? Some of us are inclined to answer: “God forbid!”. How shall we who are enlightened as to the rich meaning and spiritual significance of baptism as practiced by the early church continue any longer in its desecration? There is more to be said in behalf of the immersion of believers who were sprinkled in infancy than merely the need to “complete one’s obedience”. Actually baptism by immersion is the act of the believer’s bodily self-identification with Christ in the Calvary act of atonement, which is the focus of salvation itself. Nothing can approximate the spiritual significance of baptism when it is properly experienced. To claim that those who have not so identified themselves with Christ are not really Christians does not follow from our insistence on the practice of immersion. This fact is clearly seen in our practice of Open Communion, which is found everywhere among Christian Churches. To surrender a policy that is understood to be truly Apostolic, truly Catholic, and truly Reformed is a step backwards which Christian Churches/Churches of Christ understand would undermine the very ground of their existence as a people, which is to appeal for the unity of Christians on the basis of. that which is truly Apostolic, Catholic, and Reformed. *9
I am aware that most of the churches that have adopted a policy of Open Membership do not practice any other form of baptism, This seems to involve a logical inconsistency, but perhaps no more so than does the practice of Open Communion while membership is limited to the immersed. Admittedly, the most consistent position is that of the contract, which may account for its persistence in some quarters. The problem here is that consistency is achieved at the expense of an adequate concept of .grace, which is not otherwise acceptable. Perhaps all of this illustrates the difficulty inherent in efforts to seek consistency for every theological insight, a problem which brings to my mind Jonathan Swift’s observation that consistency is the last refuge of scoundrels.
So we are still left with some serious, unanswered questions. These can hardly be solved by the often used method of “sweeping them under the rug” Does the admission into membership by some congregations in recognition of the Christian commitment of some un-immersed persons constitute a breach of the faith upon which unity is based, especially when “membership”, as we understand and practice it, is hardly more Biblical than infant baptism, itself? Does our slogan “In faith, unity” include a number of unwritten creedal specifications that inevitably produce schism?
Are we to regard our historic concept of believer’s baptism as a matter of “faith” or “opinion”? If it is “faith”, can we any longer trumpet “No creed but Christ”? If it is “opinion”, have we denied to some of our brethren the “liberty” that we advocate and otherwise claim for ourselves? Do some congregations that cannot endorse the policy of Open Membership have the liberty to support extra-congregational activity that comports more closely with their beliefs on this matter without destroying the fellowship within the Movement? Or does “in opinion, liberty” not extend that far? Is an honest re-appraisal of our time-honored slogans in order, even though such an honest re-appraisal might involve implications that we are unwilling to face? Would such a re-appraisal of our slogans mandate a massive program of re-education that would, itself, be divisive because it might assail some precious unwritten dogmas dear to the rhetoric of partisans within all three groups.? There is no escape from questions such as these if there is to be any future for the discussions we are holding.
To be very forthright, “brotherhood” in our Unity Movement is very limited.
Among Churches of Christ it is limited to those who worship without instruments. Among Christian Churches it is limited to the immersed. Among Disciples of Christ it is limited to those who are part of an institution/organization. If we are to consider the matter of our fidelity to our heritage, I fear that we would be forced to conclude that all of us “live in glass houses”.
*1 For an account, see Richardson, Robert, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell , (Phil. PA, J. Lippincott, (1868), Vol. 1. 391-401
*2 Campbell, Alexander, Millennial Harbinger, Sept., 1837, 411-414
*3 Moore, William T., A Comprehensive History of the Disciples of Christ, (New York, Revell, 1909)
*4 I recall reading of this encounter fifty years ago while studying at Southern Baptist Seminary. I regret that I am no longer in possession of the source of this account.
*5 Ames, Edward S., The Scroll, Vol. IV , No. 2, p 15
*6 Morrison, Charles C., The Meaning of Baptism, (Chicago, Century Pub. Co. 1914)). Morrison’s complaint is aimed more at “the immersionist dogma” than the practice. He acknowledges that “There is something to be said for custom and historical precedent They are not authoritative in any statutory sense. But they are often the carriers of hostoric human experience which enriches our own experience. P. 304
*7 ibid, “The Meaning of the Word”, p. 22-38
*8 Barth, Karl, The Teaching of the Church Regarding Baptism, (London, S C M Press, 1948)
*9 This position of Disciples in 1923 was effectively expressed by Dean Frederick Kerschner, (The Christian Union Overture, (St. Louis, MO, Bethany Press, 1923) “Doubtless someone is ready to remark, at this point, that the Disciple practice of requiring immersion of all who become members of their churches is not in harmony with their theoretical attitude toward other Christians. Such a position is due to their failure to understand their position. That position involves their presentation to the world of an ideal platform for Christian union. If this platform is to be worth anything at all, it must be faithfully followed.