No creed but Christ;
no creedbook but the Bible.
In the 19th Century, many denominations had written creeds that were used to define who could be a member and who could take communion.
Thomas Campbell had originally been a Presbyterian preacher in Ireland, where he fathered Alexander. He moved to western Pennsylvania for his health (I have no idea why that made any sense), leaving Alexander behind with his mother to complete his schooling.
While at college, Campbell attended a Presbyterian Church that required that he be examined by the deacons before he could take communion. They asked him questions about the church’s creed. Campbell answered satisfactorily, and so received a token that he could present to receive communion.
However, the entire process so pained his conscience that he left his token in the tray and left without taking communion, upset at the thought that the church’s creed denied communion to so many honest believers in Jesus.
Thus, the idea developed that the Restoration Movement churches would have no creed, that is, no formal doctrinal statement that must be agreed with to be in fellowship or to take communion. Rather, the only question is whether a believer is “in Christ,” and those in Christ would be welcomed at the Lord’s table. Hence, “No creed but Christ,” because the only test of fellowship and communion was whether one is a member of Christ by faith in Jesus. No doctrinal positions required.
The Bible is thus our “creed book,” not because it contains hundreds of doctrines that define the boundaries of the church, but because it tells us about Jesus.
Believe, repent, be baptized, forgiveness of sins, receive the Holy Spirit
Alexander Campbell’s church was a member of the Mahoning Baptist Association, a voluntary association of churches that met quarterly to take communion, share preaching, and work together in fellowship. (The other congregations were all Baptist, and Campbell was happy to worship and take communion with them.) And the association hired Campbell’s friend Walter Scott to be a missionary to Ohio.
Scott soon reported many baptisms, which surprised the sending churches so much that they demanded an explanation (sounds just like us today). He responded by explaining how he preached straight out of Acts 2:38 — believe, repent, be baptized, receive forgiveness, receive the Spirit — which gave rise to Scott’s Five-Finger Exercise.
Over the years, as the Churches of Christ became uncomfortable with a personally indwelling Spirit, “hear” and “confess” were added from Romans 10 and forgiveness and the Spirit were dropped, to create the Five Steps of Salvation.
The beauty of Scott’s preaching can be seen when contrasted with the Calvinism of the day. Many in his audience had been praying for decades for a saving experience — and despite intense faith and earnest repentance, never received an “experience” that assured them of their salvation.
But Scott assured them that this is the point of baptism. If you have faith and repent, then baptism assures you that God has saved you — and you need not beg. God wants you to be saved.
And so what seems narrow to many today was in fact quite liberal in terms of the early 19th Century. Scott brought assurance of salvation to thousands by preaching Jesus but allowing baptism to be the moment of justification, rather than a subjective saving “experience.”
Scott also helped end the practice of the Mourner’s Bench, in which those wishing to be saved had to come forward and visibly mourn for their sins so that their hearts could be prepared for salvation. This was standard preaching in those days in most frontier denominations.
Scott and the Campbells considered this unnecessarily humiliating and undignified — and entirely without scriptural support. Rather, if someone confessed faith in Jesus, clearly they were a candidate for baptism — no drama or histrionics required.
Originally, Alexander Campbell considered faith in Jesus entirely sufficient to treat someone as saved. He and his father were typically cautious to mention the additional requirement of “obedience,” not thinking in terms of baptism in particular but more generally of repentance or submission to Jesus as Lord.
It’s this early thinking that carries through strongly in the slogans, most of which say nothing of baptism and assume that faith is sufficient not only to save but to be in full fellowship with other Christians.
However, Scott introduced Alexander to immersionist theology by means of a tract on baptism. Over time, Alexander became persuaded that baptism is indeed “in order to” the remission of sins (as he famously translated Acts 2:38 in his Golden Oracles translation). That is, forgiveness occurs at the moment of baptism, the proper mode for baptism is immersion, and the proper recipient is a believer (not an infant).
Initially, however, he considered immersion a matter of obedience, much as most Southern Baptists teach today, and he and Thomas Campbell were baptized by a Baptist pastor as an act of obedience — and not for remission of sins — in a creek. Later on, when Alexander concluded that baptism is in fact for remission of sins, he saw no need for a re-baptism and was never rebaptized.
Indeed, it’s clear from history that Stone, the Campbells, Tolbert Fanning (who planted the first Church of Christ in countless Southern towns), David Lipscomb (longtime editor of the Gospel Advocate), and many other Restoration leaders were baptized for obedience rather than remission of sins — without rebaptism after learning that baptism remits sins.
Alexander Campbell was asked by a woman from Lunenburg, Virginia whether the unimmersed are lost in their sins. Campbell had often spoken of calling Christians out of the denominations and otherwise used language that suggested that those outside his Movement were saved, and yet he also used language that seemed to insist on the necessity for immersion of a believer.
He responded in a series of letters in which he explained,
There is no occasion, then, for making immersion, on a profession of faith, absolutely essential to a Christian—though it may be greatly essential to his sanctification and comfort. My right hand and my right eye are greatly essential to my usefulness and happiness, but not to my life; and as I could not be a perfect man without them, so I cannot be a perfect Christian without a right understanding and a cordial reception of immersion in its true and scriptural meaning and design. But he that thence infers that none are Christians but the immersed, as greatly errs as he who affirms that none are alive but those of clear and full vision.
Hence, unity in “faith,” not unity in “faith + baptism”; no creed but “Christ,” not “Christ + baptism” became the slogans of the Movement.
Therefore, the heart of the Restoration is unity based on recognizing as saved those with a genuine, penitent faith in Jesus as Messiah, while teaching and practicing baptism for remission of sins for the believers, without allowing baptismal disagreements to be a barrier to fellowship.
And this is worth preserving. Indeed, it’s essential that we keep this teaching alive. It’s truer and holier than what is taught in countless denominations and congregations. We are not alone in standing for this — far from it — but it’s a message that remains urgent.
Besides, who better to push for greater unity than the Churches of Christ?