Unity and Baptism

June 27, 2006

From time to time I have conversations with people who used to be part of the churches of Christ, but have left due to the perceived legalistic approach to the scriptures. Often these folks have renounced the belief that baptism is necessary in order to receive the forgiveness of sins. Emotions on the subject run deep, and are often a significant obstacle to progress toward reconciliation and unity.

It is not my purpose in writing this to defend my beliefs about conversion. But to avoid confusion I want to be clear that I do believe the scriptures teach that God grants forgiveness at baptism. I base this upon the usual passages (there are many), especially Acts 2:38 and Acts 22:16. I grew up in an independent “free will” Baptist church where the teaching was not incompatible with this belief, but I became convinced of it in college through the campus ministry of a church of Christ. Since then, thirty years of Bible study have ony reinforced that belief. And thirty years of studying the Bible with my friends have shown me that many others are equally convinced of the opposing belief.

These opposing views appear to be an impregnable wall preventing unity. Each side presents a caricature of the other side’s views, portraying their opponents as ridiculously dishonest with the scriptures. Instead of showing respect for one another, and seeking areas of agreement, both sides exhibit a preference for disputing and quarrelling. We appear to love the fight more than we love peace.

Both sides cannot be right. The two positions are mutually exclusive. But it is quite possible that neither side is exactly right. There might be some truth to be learned from both points of view. That statement may raise the blood pressure of the “true believers” on both sides of the issue, those who do not want to give an inch to those they consider their adversaries. To many people, in order to feel resolved in their own minds, everything needs to be clear-cut, black and white. They must find a definitive answer to every question. That is not the kind of world God has created. If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that we do not understand everything in the scriptures. (If you truly understand every passage on baptism, please explain 1 Cor 15:29 to me!) It takes humility and faith to admit we don’t know something. Humility is required because not knowing everything means we are fallible. Faith is required because we must rely on God to accept us despite our failures. Some things are beyond our control. We don’t know it all.

If we could be humble and have that kind of faith, I think we could find significant common ground on the issue of baptism. Hopefully most people on both sides of the question could agree on what is stated verbatim in scripture. Could a Baptist quote Acts 2:38-39 as an invitation, without caveats, as Peter did? If not, why not? Could a church of Christ preacher quote Rom 10:9-10 in instructions to a church, as Paul did, without going into disputes about conversion? Can we just let the scriptures speak for themselves?

It is what we infer and deduce based on scripture that gets us into trouble. It is not surprising that people draw differing conclusions from what is written in scripture. God knows what we are made of. He could have presented things in a way that we could not mistake. I t was not an accident that he gave us the scriptures in the way he did. I believe he gave us the scriptures in a way that requires us to ponder, to digest, to work at understanding. I think God wants us to experience lifelong learning. To continue to learn throughout your life requires great humility. Pride is the enemy of learning. When we draw our conclusions from scripture, pride causes us to love our conclusions and inferences as much as the scriptures themselves. We confuse the two, because of our pride.

We (both sides) have drawn lines of fellowship based on what we infer from the scriptures, as if our inferences were infallible, the very Word of God. Let’s resolve not to do that any longer. Let’s unite on the scriptures, and the scriptures alone. If we’ll do that, I believe the Holy Spirit will bring us to the unity for which Jesus prayed.


  1. Very Good Post!Thank you,Milly

  2. Thanks for your important thoughts on unity.Unity with those within the RM will likely be more difficult to achieve than with church groups outside the RM. Our excessive bickering over the years about insignificant issues has left all sides with combative postures.”Let’s unite on the scriptures, and the scriptures alone.”While I agree with your statement, it’s the inferences we derive from scripture that forms our belief system. Both sides of a unity conflict generally think their inferences are the correct ones, and are derived by scripture alone. Baptism will be a major obstacle in any attempt towards unity with those in churches outside the RM; those within the RM will probably be cantankerous over everything except baptism.

  3. Larry wrote:it’s the inferences we derive from scripture that forms our belief system.I’m suggesting that it doesn’t have to be that way. We should put our faith in scripture, not in our personal reading comprehension skills, accuracy of reasoning, etc. Each person should live by what they understand (inferences) but should acknowledge that all human reasoning is fallible. And therefore we should not make our different inferences issues of fellowship. (Rom 14, Phil 3:14-16, 2 Tim 2:24-26)I agree it will not be easy on any front. All I can do is to live this way myself and encourage others to do so, and pray. The rest is up to God.I don’t doubt that many will not agree to go this route. But over time I think momentum can build.Alan

  4. I really appreciate this article, too.I think what most of us do is, in our arrogance, we confuse our inference (shoot, we even call it “necessary inference”) with implication…

  5. I have “mostly” grown up in the Christian Church. I have little doubt, based on scripture, that Baptism is somehow connected with Salvation. I have my own theories (based on Scripture) about how that is, but I am hesitant to share them due to the very issue you bring up.My “doubts” do not come from scripture, but from experience both within the Christian Church and without. We’ll leave the experience without the Christian Church alone, since much of it is subjective and could easily be dismissed by a solid legalists arguments. BUT…Within the Christian Church, I have often seen elders and ministers who “fellowship” with “Christians” of other denominations. My struggle with this, over the years has been a two-fold question. If salvation occurs at Baptism (and “baptism for the RIGHT reasons, not just getting wet” if you want to be really legalistic), then why do we refer to these people as our Brothers and Sisters in Christ and not as lost souls that need evangelsim? The flip side being, If they are Brothers and Sisters in Christ, then, seemingly, they have been saved dispite their lack of baptism (or perhaps their baptism as infants or for the “wrong” resons)?This comes back to larry’s comment that unity within the RM is/will be harder than unity without. I seem to have had more luck working with denominational ministers than with our brotherhood.I look forward to the unity that will come in heaven, where we will be united in understanding as well as purpose. Until then, I will continue to believe as scripture leads, and not as man leads, and I will continue to strive toward unity and wonder at the inconsistancies of Man (myself included)

  6. Hi Chris,I’m dilenquent in my reply to your thoughful post. I’m not sure I have the complete answer to the question of relating to believers who have not been “scripturally baptized.” I do believe that is the point in time when sins are forgiven, when the Holy Spirit is given, and when a person is adopted as God’s son. But I also recognize and respect “disciples” and “believers” who have not yet done that. (For example, those in Acts 19). I think we have a responsibility to teach them. And then if they do not respond, I think we should follow the teaching of 2 Tim 2:24-26. And I believe God will do the “right thing” about such folks in the end–whatever He decides the “right thing” is. Alan

  7. Alan:This is a good post and it got me thinking. I was thinking about this issue a while back while looking at different places I could go to Grad. school that are in the area (since there arent’ any RM colleges with graduate theology or church history programs here.)I believe as you do, that Baptism is the point of conversion where God grants us our salvation. I’m a very strong believer in this point. I want to work for unity, but I have a hard time when considering the churches that teach that Baptism isn’t really necessary. It is a strong bar for me and its a question I’ve been struggling.The thought that keeps coming to my mind is that I can probably work with a church that teaches Baptism by immersion as a requirement for membership or as an “ordinance of the church.” With these churches, the entire “membership” should be baptised. They might not know that they were baptised for forgiveness, but they certainly know that they are baptized to be obedient. Even presented like this, I have a hard time with it… But I think its probably the starting point that is needed if we are to work for unity. -Clarke

  8. Can someone tell me, why in Restoration churches is water baptism preached and printed and taught more than the gospel of Christ?The Bible puts much more emphasis on repentence, it puts much more emphasis on faith, why not put the emphasis where the Bible puts it?Preaching a response to the gospel is not the same as preaching the gospel. You can be baptised and still go to hell. Yes, baptism is essential, but lets not have people trusting baptism rather than Jesus.If we look at everyone else through the prism of baptism, the only logical conclusion must be that we are right and everyone else is going to hell.There is more to walking in the Spirit than being right.

  9. Hi Royce,I’m sure the topics that are emphasized vary from congregation to congregation. I’m not personally familiar with any congregations that spend more time talking about baptism than about topics like (for example) sin, righteousness, and the judgment to come, or about loving one another, etc.

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