Vol. 7, No. 2
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The Bible is so clear in its transmission of God's will to mankind that no honest heart needs to harbor any misgivings respecting the fundamentals of Christianity. How God wants to be worshipped, Christian living, Christian service and God's redemptive plan can be known with certainty. Admittedly, there are some biblical topics about which we would like to know more, but we must content ourselves with what God provided us (Deuteronomy 29:29). There are other subjects that doubtless were more clearly understood by the original recipients, especially if the divine message is borne by a substantial amount of figurative language (e.g., the Book of Revelation). Still other biblical discourses are too meaty for babes in Christ (Hebrews 5:11-6:2). Some scriptural matters are even hard to understand (2 Peter 3:15-16). However, the fundamentals of Christian worship, living, service and redemption are easy enough to comprehend that no accountable soul ought to experience difficulty ascertaining these truths. Someone has to have help to misunderstand the plain teachings of God on Bible basics.
This is particularly true respecting God's redemptive plan. A multiplicity of passages verifies the conditions upon which God bestows his spiritual blessings on mankind. Obviously, God's Word is the proper and exclusive source of an obedient faith (Romans 10:17; Romans 1:5; 16:26). This faith plays a role in redemption (John 8:24; Mark 16:16). Without repentance, one will not be saved (Luke 13:3; Acts 17:30; 2:38). Initially and persistently professing Jesus as Christ and Lord of our lives naturally and necessarily follows (Romans 10:9-10; Acts 8:37; Matthew 10:32-33). The divine plan for human redemption, respecting man's part (Philippians 2:12), culminates in immersion in water for the remission of sins (Romans 6:3-5; Colossians 2:12; 1 Peter 3:20-21; Acts 22:16). Of course, afterward each child of God must persevere in faithfulness, despite even grave adversities (Revelation 2:10). Happily, God also has provided a second law of pardon whereby erring Christians can be recovered (Acts 8:22; 1 John 1:9).
The New Testament places a special emphasis on baptism, apparently for a number of reasons. The Holy Spirit seems to have bolstered the biblical evidence concerning baptism in direct proportion to the degree that baptism is undercut by denominational doctrine. Therefore, even more than any other single facet of man's role in his own redemption, the place of baptism ought to be clearly and definitively discerned and embraced. For instance, the Book of Acts, which is a book of conversions, is riddled with references to baptism ("baptized" appears 21 times; "baptism" appears six times) and its relationship to salvation (Acts 2:38; 22:16). The rest of the New Testament likewise contributes greatly to the body of knowledge about the Great Commission baptism in water for the remission of sins (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:16; John 3:5; Romans 6:3-5; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:27; 1 Peter 3:20-21).
Considering the extensive biblical information at our disposal regarding baptism, usually it is not difficult for the objective student of the Bible to distinguish between Bible baptism and the faulty baptisms of denominationalism. Any baptism that is not immersion in water is not Bible baptism (Romans 6:3-5; Colossians 2:12). Any baptism that is not for the remission of sins is not Bible baptism (Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21). However, several religious groups do practice immersion in water for the remission of sins. These include the Mormons, the United Pentecostal Church, the Church of the Brethren (triune immersion), the Disciples of Christ and the Independent Christian Church (alias instrumental Church of Christ). It is tempting to relegate each of these to irrelevance by concluding, "Any baptism that admits one to denominational fellowship is not Bible baptism." One may attempt to further undergird his conviction with the sentiment, "One cannot be taught wrong and baptized right." However, treatment of this aspect of the question represents an over simplification of the facts and, additionally, may be somewhat unfair.
We have baptized persons in our baptisteries with our hands who, though they may have worshipped with us even for years, eventually joined denominational churches; the baptism was not defective, but their later allegiance to denominationalism is defective (sinful). Further, if we truly believe Luke 8:11, then we concede that a person may study himself out of religious error, and he (though unaware of the churches of Christ) may seek a non-Christian to baptize him for the remission of his sins (e.g., Alexander Campbell). We would also expect such a person to gradually learn from the Bible about true Christian worship and refine his understanding about the biblical characteristics of the church of the New Testament (e.g., Restoration Movement).
If we are not careful, we argue (deliberately or even without intention) that a baptism is not valid unless a faithful Christian administers it. For that to be true, (1) it would be necessary to establish an unbroken chain of faithful Christians from A.D. 33 to the present, and (2) we would need to borrow the omniscience of God to examine each link in that chain. Either of those propositions would be as absurd and impossible as attempting to prove apostolic succession from the first century to the present as the Catholics think they must do, or to find successive congregations in secular history as Baptists imagine they must do to justify their existence. The Great Commission baptism is keyed to the one submitting to baptism not the human doing the baptizing.
Regarding the latter statement above, it is not necessarily the case of trying to be 'taught wrong and baptized right,' if one is taught to be baptized by immersion in water for the remission of sins, respecting Jesus (as opposed to John the Baptist), to be added to the church over which Jesus is head. It is conceivable that a person could be taught right about baptism and obey that, while being taught incorrectly about the characteristics of the church, worship, etc. Further, it is conceivable that one could be baptized correctly and join a denomination (and sin while forsaking the church of our Lord and maintaining membership in a denomination).
The Mormon Church, United Pentecostal Church and Disciples of Christ greatly differ from the church of the Bible and consider themselves to be denominations. They possess denominational hierarchies. What, then, can we conclude regarding baptisms (immersion in water for the remission of sins) by accountable souls who are associated with these groups? At least, anyone who is a member of such religious groups should have a measure of doubt respecting the acceptability of his baptism to God. (Independently, whether someone's baptism is acceptable to us is immaterial.) That doubt can be erased through submitting to Bible baptism to make sure (2 Peter 1:10). In the absence of doubt by these people, personally, I would do everything possible to instill doubt (see below).
Occasionally, a Mormon will argue that he obeyed the Gospel as we teach it, affirming he was baptized according to the Gospel, but admitting he was misinformed regarding the physical, earthly manifestation of the Lord's church. He has no doubt respecting his baptism. What are we to do?
What about the Independent Christian Church? Before 1906 (yes, I know no single date suffices), we were one body. Those brethren erred. Presently, the Independent Christian Church (also known as the Church of Christ) maintains the error of instrumental music in worship and may practice other departures, too. Each congregation is autonomous, they worship much as we do, teach the same plan of salvation (with many of the exact same literature, videos, etc.) and largely interpret Scripture accurately. The question is not can we fellowship them in error, for we cannot, but can we accept a member of the so-called instrumental church of Christ who practiced the same redemptive plan we did, and who repents of sins such as instrumental music in worship? Historically, until recently we have always acknowledged these heirs of the American Restoration Movement as erring brethren, who if they repented could be fellowshipped. Understandably (irrespective of whether one concurs with them), those coming to (or returning) to us are reluctant to be baptized again. They, generally, have no doubts about their baptisms.
Personally, I endeavor to instill doubt in their minds respecting the validity to God of their baptisms. The baptism of John the Baptist required repentance (Matthew 3:8), was immersion (Matthew 3:13-16; John 3:23) and was for the remission of sins (Mark 1:4). It was forward looking toward and was effective before the cross of Christ (Acts 19:1-6), but contingent for any real saving power on the vicarious sacrifice of Jesus Christ. John's baptism and the Great Commission baptism (to which we are now amenable) are very nearly alike excepting the latter pertains to the sacrifice of Christ and looks back to the cross. The former has been replaced with the latter. From the human vantage point and especially respecting the mechanics or steps preceding either baptism, they are almost identical. However, there was enough difference (namely, professing Jesus is the Christ crowned with glory following his resurrection) to disqualify the late baptism in John's baptism in Acts 19. Likewise, despite similarity between the baptism of the instrumental church of Christ and the same steps in the plan of salvation we obeyed, there may be enough dissimilarity (as far as God is concerned) to warrant some doubt. Baptism again, like in Acts 19, can erase all doubt and make one's calling and election sure.
What if someone coming to us from the Christian Church has no doubt concerning his baptism, believing it to be precisely what the New Testament teaches, having been immersed in water for the remission of sins? Lacking the capacity and right to put myself in the place of God and pass final judgment (Romans 14:1-13; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; James 4:11), I will accept that one as my brother with the same hope (but lacking the ability to certainly know) I have toward anyone I assume is a faithful brother in Christ. Lacking omniscience with which I could inspect any man's heart, I must accept such a one at face value and his word as a brother in Christ. What else can we do without either postulating absurd, denominational like theories (e.g., apostolic succession, requiring baptism at our hands in our baptistries in our church buildings) or presuming to adopt the divine nature of Deity (e.g., omniscience, omnipotence, etc.)? After all, we lack the ability to surely know that any person who though outwardly appears to be a faithful child of God is actually in a saved condition. Only God knows the "hearts of all men" (Acts 1:24; 15:8).