by Robert Welsh, president Council on Christian Unity, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Presented to the Stone-Campbell Dialogue, Cincinnati Bible College, November 27-28, 2000
First, I wish to express real appreciation for this statement that provides an excellent historical review of how the issue of baptism (its theology and practice) developed within the Stone-Campbell Movement, especially in its identifying several key points where differences and controversies emerged between the three “streams” of the movement that mark our identities today.
Second, I wish to set forth eight quick responses as a Disciples of Christ:
1. I found it helpful to identify to the difference between Campbell’s understanding of baptism as rooted in Reformed Covenant Theology and the “Contract” paradigm introduced by Walter Scott and later embraced by the Movement in its tremendous period of growth and evangelistic expansion on the Western Frontier (where 90% of the individuals were “un-churched” and non-Christian). This difference can be seen as part of the tension in the divide between the Churches of Christ, Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, and Disciples of Christ today.
2. It was helpful to see how the issue of “Open Membership” developed in
Disciples history — rooted in Campbell’s response to the “Lunenberg letter”, and surfacing more clearly in the early 20th century with Pinkerton, Moore, Ames and Morrison as Disciples grew in their theology of baptism through their participation in the emergence of the “modern ecumenical movement”. The point here, as I see it, is a parallel development of our understanding of baptism as Disciples became more engaged in the ecumenical movement that pressed the issue of “open membership” through both our participation in the global missionary advance (“to win the world for Christ in this generation”) and through the “budding” Faith and Order conversations in claiming “one baptism in Christ”. Here the rift between the Disciples of Christ and the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ found its most distinct focus.
3. I found the review of Karl Barth’s position on baptism fascinating, especially Barth’s affirmation of “believer’s baptism” and immersion — and his clear explication of a theological “case” against re-baptism as a denial of the adequacy of God’s grace. To add to this point, I believe it is important to note the context in which Barth was writing and developing this statement of his baptismal theology (1948): it did not take place in a theological vacuum or in the solitude of an ivory tower academic setting, but in and through Barth’s active participation in and wide encounter with ecumenical dialogue and with those who held different baptismal positions and practices (including Disciples!), related to immersion and believer’s baptism.
4. I do not accept Henry’s (implied) view that Disciples “surrendered” a policy that is seen to be “truly Apostolic, truly Catholic, and truly Reformed” on baptism; that Disciples made this decision on “pragmatic ” or “sociological grounds”; or, that Disciples somehow sacrificed one Biblical provision (immersion) to achieve another (unity). Disciples certainly didn’t move to an acceptance of “open membership” to “attract some nice people we otherwise wouldn’t get” — that caricature doesn’t hold up! Rather, I believe we grew in our understandings of baptism, and church membership, and the offer of salvation in Christ — beyond Campbell’s early teaching (even he seemed to adjust his position in response to the Lunenberg letter). Indeed, none of the three “streams” in the Stone-Campbell Movement today holds rigidly to all of Campbell’s early
positions on such matters as unpaid clergy, one-loaf/one cup communion, no Sunday school, etc.
5. I agree with, and affirm that, for Disciples of Christ, the fundamental issue that has led to a general acceptance of the position of “open membership” is rooted in the “logical inconsistency” of practicing Open Communion, but holding to a position of limiting membership only to the immersed. This is perhaps the primary basis for Disciples in moving to “open membership” — not simply in experiencing an inconsistency at the moment of invitation to the Table to “all who believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior”, but also in seeing what we do to be keeping with the New Testament witness itself on the issue of hospitality, receiving the stranger, and openness to the sufficiency of God’s grace.
6. I like Henry’s setting forth of the unanswered questions which are a challenge to all three “streams”. The key question for me is, “Does ‘un-immersed’ mean ‘un-baptized’? And if so, what then are the implications for that position in one’s total understanding of the church? worship? admittance to the Table? and salvation?”
7. I do not accept the easy caricaturing of the different churches in the final paragraph; i.e., I see it to be too simplistically stated to continue the identification of Churches of Christ as “those who worship without instrumental music”, or Disciples of Christ as “those who are part of an institution/organization”. For me, the basic identity for Disciples is grounded in the Table (this is spelled out more thoroughly in Dick Hamm’s paper which addresses the question of structure and institutions) — everything flows from that perspective, including our understanding and practice of baptism, church membership, mission, and covenant.
8. I believe Disciples may need to re-visit the issue of “re-baptism,” especially in its pastoral application as it presents itself to us in this new, post-modern era. I continue to believe that baptism by immersion must not be a requirement for an individual to be welcomed as a Christian or to be presented in any way that would question the sacramental integrity of another church (as Barth concluded, “re-baptism would be a denial of the adequacy of God’s grace”). However, it may be time to look again at this issue in its’ pastoral dimensions, especially for those who would say, “My baptism as an infant does not have any meaning for me, and I now present myself to be baptized (immersed) not only as ‘completing my obedience to Christ’, but also as ‘an expression of my personal identification with Christ in his death and resurrection.” How do we enable Disciples to remember and reclaim their baptism as a mark of their essential identity in Christ? What are viable and theologically-sound positions for a church to consider as it seeks truly to be welcoming, inclusive and open in its life?