By Phillip Morrison, Wineskins Magazine, Franklin, Tennesee
Presented to the Stone-Campbell Dialogue, Cincinnati Bible College, November 27-28, 2000
There is little in Henry Webb’s paper to take issue with, either biblically or historically. I would like to identify areas of agreement, amplify or expand some of them, then relate how we deal with this issue at the Woodmont Hills church.
First, the section on Alexander Campbell’s view of baptism is fascinating. In our haste to applaud his arrival at a biblical view of baptism, restorationists have sometimes overlooked an even more intriguing fact – Campbell’s ability to look honestly at Scripture and modify his own conduct when convicted of his error. I’ve often wondered if I would have the courage to go against my heritage, training, family, and friends. Those of us who have known only restoration churches and families would do well to engage frequently in such examination of our decisions and motives. What biblical truth do I have yet to discover and obey?
It is interesting that the immersion of Campbell and his family “commended them to the Baptists and led to a brief affiliation with that body.” In later years, after the lines of difference between Baptist and restoration churches had been more definitively drawn, many Baptist churches would likely have required rebaptism before accepting the Campbells into fellowship, though the fact they were immersed by a Baptist preacher might have made them acceptable.
Second, I find it interesting that Henry Webb describes Campbell as embracing the “covenant” view of baptism while Walter Scott held to the “contract” nature of baptism. Though this difference may not appear too significant at first glance, it may in fact lie at the heart of some of our current views of the place of baptism. I believe the “contract” view of baptism promotes, even if unwittingly, a kind of legalism that insists on flawless performance of human beings who strive in vain to uphold their end of the contract. The “covenant” view, I believe, encourages the more biblical understanding of God’s love, mercy, and grace. From Abraham until the present, God’s covenants with his people have always been unilateral, though conditional.
People should certainly be taught that they have duties to perform and commandments to obey. The Christian experience of too many people ends with the frustrating realization that they will never be able to “get everything right.” I believe we should tell people that the inability to get things right is not bad news but part of the good news about Jesus. It is precisely because he knew we couldn’t get everything right that God sent Jesus to do for us what we could never do for ourselves. The apostle Paul, in both Romans and Galatians, is adamant about this.
When Henry notes that “much of the evangelism of the frontier was of this harsh ‘contract’ variety…,” he opens the door to one way of looking at our entire history. The American Restoration or Stone-Campbell movement began on the frontier. In those simpler times, the preaching of “contract” religion, in which God has done his part and people must do theirs, had much appeal. As significant cultural centers and cities such as Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Columbus, Cleveland, and others developed and people became more sophisticated, the “contract” gospel seemed oversimplified, or even wrong. Beginning a hundred years or more ago, the Disciples tended to have the better-educated, more sophisticated memberships as compared to the Christian Churches and acappella Churches of Christ. Of course that situation is changing rapidly and, like it or not, our times and circumstances tend to influence our theology.
I’ll not bore you with autobiographical details, but, in just four generations, my own family has changed from my grandfather, a tobacco farm share-cropper; to my father, a factory worker with a fifth-grade education; to me, the first of my family to attend and graduate from college; to our four children, all of whom are college graduates, three of whom have post-graduate studies, and one of whom has a terminal degree. I assure you that the changes in our religious outlook have been equally dramatic!
Third, Henry’s reference to “open membership” may be helpful as a coded way of describing the question before us, but I find the label pejorative and unfair. My experience has been that, although churches have different attitudes about who should and who should not be included in the fellowship, no restoration church I have known has practiced truly open membership.
The recitation of the conversation between W. T. Moore and Charles Spurgeon about the place of baptism is most interesting. Spurgeon’s remark that Moore’s practice would make “the unimmersed good enough for God but not good enough for you” is suggestive of the charge restoration preachers would later make in debates with Baptist preachers. Pointing out that Baptist doctrine rejected the necessity of baptism for salvation, but required baptism for acceptance into the Baptist church, the debaters would say, “Your doctrine makes it easier to go to heaven than to get into the Baptist church!”
The time Henry devotes to describing the place of Edward Scribner Ames, C. C. Morrison (no relation, so far as I know), and others who advanced the cause of “open membership” deserves attention that I can’t give here. As a part of the non-instrumental Churches of Christ, I hope Henry is wrong in suggesting that we reject open membership partly because we “are united in [our] understanding of the contract concept of the ‘plan of salvation.’” Those of us who more easily accept the covenant concept also reject open membership.
Fourth, Henry’s examination of Karl Barth’s teaching about baptism is very helpful. Whereas Barth held that to rebaptize believers is to place limits on God’s grace, I think it is more accurate to affirm that Scripture knows nothing of rebaptism. One has either experienced the one baptism or he has not. Paul clearly teaches that the believers in Ephesus (Acts 19), having known only the baptism of John, needed to be baptized with Jesus’ baptism, but this was not rebaptism.
Fifth, Henry’s conclusion that “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” is beautifully stated. Henry correctly observes that “we are still left with some serious, unanswered questions.” Rather than presuming to answer directly the questions he poses, I would like to describe the approach taken by the elders (I am one of twenty-one) of the Woodmont Hills Church of Christ in Nashville.
We have grown from approximately 1200 attending on Sunday morning three years ago to 2700 at the present time – a 120% growth rate. Early in 1998, we became aware of the large numbers of people who were coming to us from a wide variety of backgrounds and churches, bringing their own preconceptions and prejudices. We felt, and still feel, the need to receive them in a way that is biblical, God-honoring, and affirming of their desire to know Jesus more fully. No one within the body of shepherds ever suggested that “open membership” was an acceptable option, but there were some who felt that immersion for the remission of sins should be the litmus-test requirement for membership.
We realized that, in our restoration heritage, we have sometimes equated congregational membership with membership in the larger Body of Christ. But we have all known people who were members of local congregations while remaining essentially pagan in their lifestyle. And we have known people, not members of “our” congregations, who exemplified the life and spirit of Jesus. None of us find the former acceptable, and most of us find the latter incomplete.
In studying this subject, we learned that in the community of Israel many Gentiles cast their lots with the Jews due to their shared belief in one God, admiration for the ethical lifestyle of the Jews, or for numerous other reasons. They were welcomed in the community if they agreed to abide by the Jewish community’s laws and respect Jewish food laws and customs. They were welcome sojourners, though not Covenant people.
The New Testament clearly shows faith to be a process or journey, and attaining salvation to be more a process than an event. The disciples were followers and learners before they were fully committed to Jesus. Somehow Cornelius, a Gentile, was discipled by God in preparation for hearing the apostolic message. Whether by recognizing heinous sin, as on Pentecost, or by a life of fasting and prayer, or by the influence of a faithful spouse, we cannot judge how or when God is relentlessly pursuing people.
The New Testament is equally clear that the path to God is through Jesus (Acts 4:12), that grace through faith is the means (Ephesians 2:1-10), and that the saving blood of Jesus is found in the waters of baptism (Romans 6:1ff). We believe it is important to provide seekers a safe place to continue their search without either compromising the truth or alienating the seekers.
We do not believe that baptism is the only, or even the most important, activity identifying one as a child of God. In fact, we believe that baptism is futile apart from the acceptance of Jesus’ call to “count the cost,” “die to self,” or “follow me.” He calls us to a life of total commitment, not just a moment of surrender.
We practice open communion but not open membership. Every person who chooses to be a part of our faith journey is taught that immersion for the remission of sins, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a clear command of God, and is steadfastly urged to obey that command. Meanwhile, we continue to welcome them, share communion with them, accept money they may wish to contribute, even publish their name in our membership directory if they wish. We recognize that such a degree of acceptance may leave a wrong impression, or even give a false sense of security. That’s why we repeatedly emphasize that our local membership directory is hardly the “Lamb’s Book of Life,” and that only our sovereign God makes entries in that sacred Book.