Dr. Jack Cottrell presented an interesting summary of his Princeton doctoral dissertation in The Christian Standard a few weeks ago. Cottrell argued persuasively that a major shift in the purpose of baptism occurred during the time of the Reformation. For centuries, he says, the church identified baptism as the time God conferred salvation on those who put their faith in Jesus Christ. During the Reformation, Ulrich Zwingli argued that salvation came at the time one puts their faith in Christ thus making baptism an "optional extra" or an issue of obedience.
This weekend's issue of The Christian Standard carried a letter to the editor from a reader affirming the Zwinglian position. Cottrell's reply shed little new light but did serve to reveal his awareness of a change occurring within the Restoration Movement regarding the purpose of baptism. A check of many Christian Church and Church of Christ web sites reveals a softening of the traditional stand on baptism. Baptism is still presented as important and linked to salvation as part of a process. Some have abandoned Restoration terminology to accept the "language of Ashdod." Those who don't understand what I mean here need to do two things: (1) Look it up in the Old Testament. (2) Read some of Alexander Campbell's writings, especially his essay on "pure speech" in the series A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things that appeared in The Christian Baptist.
I'm not sure why this should be surprising. In 1981, David Filbeck wrote two articles published in The Christian Standard entitled, "The Coming Second Controversy Over Baptism." As early as 1974, John Greenlee, who was preaching at the West Side Christian Church in Wichita at the time, wielded his pungent, often sarcastic, pen to warn the movement that change was coming. In a "Reflecting on the News" column in the April 7, 1974, Christian Standard Greenlee warned that once the threat of compromise came from the left during the Open Membership controversy but the next threat would come from the right. He identified "the right" as contemporary evangelicalism. It has taken a bit over 30 years, but the reality has come upon us as more and more congregations opt for the Zwinglian approach to the place of baptism.
What's worse, this isn't just true in the instrumental churches. Non-instrumental churches are jumping ship for a swim in evangelical waters. Take a look a the web site for the Oak Hills Church. For all intents and purposes, Max Lucado has worded their material on baptism so it no one could take offense. Not only that, but it looks to me like the Oak Hills Church practices what we called Open Membership back in the 1930s through the 1950s. You don't have to be immersed to be a member of the Oak Hills Church, but you do if you want to become an elder or a teacher. Didn't the Disciples try that?
Well what is to be done about it? The truth is: nothing! A few antagonistic brethren could make a stink, create a fuss, and start a new division I suppose. So we could have a "faith only Christian Church and Church of Christ" and a "baptism is for salvation Christian Church and Church of Christ." That would make a lot of sense to the rest of the world now wouldn't it. As a fellowship of independent congregations, there is no structure or belief statement to which all must agree. The only thing I can do is teach the Word to the best of my ability, to love my brethren who are in error (and that's everyone, including me). I don't have to water down my teaching to fit in and my brothers in Christ don't answer to me. I'll argue with them, debate them, challenge them, correct them, but I'll also be open to correction and maybe -- just maybe, we'll all grow in our understanding of each other and God's Word.