What Must Be Preserved of the Churches of Christ? (Unity, Part 2)

churchofchristWe are continuing to consider the great slogans of the Restoration Movement.

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.

The full text of the fascinating correspondence may be found here.

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?

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized, What Must be Preserved of the Churches of Christ?. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to What Must Be Preserved of the Churches of Christ? (Unity, Part 2)

  1. Price says:

    it would be interesting to know if Campbell and Lipscomb felt they had the indwelling HS as a result of their obedience of by their faith … I like Lipscomb’s response…however, what percentage of obedience makes us a “perfect Christian” and who has obtained that level ?

  2. John says:

    I do not know if they are still used widespread thoughout the CoC, but I recall when many congregations would by dozens of the book, “Why I Am a Member of the Church of Christ” to use in evangelism, while members carried around the little booklet, “the Nichols Pocket Bible Encyclopedia”” which had ready made scriptual arguments for most “errors”.

    Though these books are acceptable for a library shelf, being they are a part of the history of the Restoration Movement, and I would never say “Destroy a book”, to use them for evangelism is nothing short of using a creed.

    I will always be thankful Jim Woodruff, preacher for the college church in Searcy during the seventies. He was the first I ever heard say, “Preach Jesus Christ; and you use the gospels to do that”.

    While Jim used the Gospel of John, then moved into Acts, I always thought that John was a bit too rich for many who had never read the Bible. I prefer Luke. It has more of Jesus’ human touch. But either way, Jesus is first; not church.

  3. Dan Harris, Birmingham says:

    Jay: a footnote: According to the History channel (http://www.history.com/topics/water-and-air-pollution) air pollution was so bad in England in the 13TH CENTURY that King Edward I issued an edict that coal could no longer be used in homes. It was not obeyed. Imagine a million coal fires on the hearth and industrial smoke as well. By the late 1700s air pollution in the cities was awful. Thomas Campbell’s own Edinburgh, Scotland was nick named Reeker due to the air and water pollution. Add to this the idea that so many northern Europeans had “consumption” – tuberculosis, so that just breathing became a difficult thing to do. In Thomas’ time the wilderness of pre-steel mill western Pennsylvania must have seemed like breathing the air of Eden. (a little poetic license, please) So the oddity of moving to Pennsylvania for ones health may not be as strange as one might think. (Though, I’m with you, Penn. would normally be among the last places I’d move for my health.) ……… i do love history………… Dan

  4. Ray Downen says:

    Jay wrote

    the only test of fellowship and communion was whether one is a member of Christ by faith in Jesus. No doctrinal positions required.

    leading to a misunderstanding, I’d say. Those who read and believe the Bible cannot hold the opinion that baptism is optional or something Christians can do when it’s convenient.

    We’re free to hold differing opinions on how to partake of the Lord’s Supper, how to conduct our assemblies, and many other matters. But apostolic teaching makes clear that the new birth is of both water AND spirit, that seekers MUST “repent and be baptized for the remission of sins and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” This position was stated by Peter and all the apostles from the beginning of “the church age.” It has not changed. Al and Edward and Jay and any number of other good brothers cannot change what the apostles taught.

    Only those who have been baptized because of repentance and faith in JESUS as Lord have been saved by Jesus and are members of His body and headed for eternal bliss. The apostles did not teach salvation by faith alone. The brother of Jesus who later became a leader in the Lord’s church makes clear that faith without works is dead. We do not do well to disparage obedience to what Jesus commands.

    It’s JESUS who commands baptism. Who dares say baptism is not an essential part of the new birth of water and spirit? Jesus says entry to HIS kingdom is for those who experience a new birth of water and spirit. The apostles make clear that the entry requirement to the Lord’s church is a change of heart to make Jesus master (repentance) and a change of state by being baptized in water. I invite attention to deeper study on this matter at http://missionoutreach.org/CB-Q01.pdf at my web site. Title of the study is “Were You BURIED With Jesus?”

  5. The major topics for discussion about baptism in the early SCM focused on who should be baptized, by what means, and for what purpose. To a lesser degree, discussion also occurred about who should do the baptizing. Those were the topics of Campbell’s classic debate with the Presbyterian, Rice. All these concern the act of baptism and those coming to it.

    Only in more recent times has there been much discussion of how the writers of the epistles used baptism in exhorting those already baptized. The epistles do not so much as argue that people should be baptized as argue from the fact of baptism to how Christians are to live.

    It is true that the statements in the epistles about baptism show consistent assumptions about the act of baptism that can inform those coming to it of the answers to the issues mentioned in my first paragraph above. However, those issues were not the reason baptism is introduced by those writers. Instead, it was to argue from baptism to the ongoing life of the Christian and the church.

    That involved the unity of all people who are in Christ, their purity in character, and the surety of their salvation. I believe that every mention or allusion to baptism in the epistles will be looking toward one or more of these three things.

    These are things that carry the most force when baptism is seen to be for believers, to receive or to seal the benefits of Jesus’s death, burial and resurrection, and as our reception of the seal of the Holy Spirit.

  6. Ray Downen says:

    Good for Jerry! He points out

    Only in more recent times has there been much discussion of how the writers of the epistles used baptism in exhorting those already baptized. The epistles do not so much as argue that people should be baptized as argue from the fact of baptism to how Christians are to live.

    Of course the apostolic writers are pointing out to Christians the significance of their turning to Jesus for salvation. It’s because the act is ordered by JESUS that we are baptized. And how surprising it is for some of us nowadays to suppose baptism is unimportant and optional even though it is ordered by the Lord! To obey the Lord’s commission is not to ignore the repeated statements regarding necessity of FAITH for salvation. But to suppose that because faith is essential that faith alone saves is to misunderstand apostolic teaching. Repentance also is omitted from the faith alone salvation scenario. But Acts 2:38 still stands as the apostolic (Spirit-led) instruction to seekers after salvation.

  7. Roger C. says:

    What trips me up on the “Faith in Jesus Christ” argument for unity is “Faith in which Jesus Christ?” The “Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end?” The Mormon Jesus Christ, brother of Lucifer? The Gnostic Christ without a body?

    Even when you put down the line of “Faith in Jesus Christ,” there are still exclusions when someone says that name.

  8. Hank says:

    “The epistles do not so much as argue that people should be baptized as argue from the fact of baptism to how Christians are to live.” I believe the main reason for that is because all of the epistles were written TO Christians. It would be unnecessary to write to Christians in order to explain how they are to “become” Christians. There would be no need to “argue that people should be baptized” when writing to people that all had already been baptized. Too, the fact that the writers assume that the readers had all been baptized is evidenced by the fact that there never was a need to argue for any of them “to be” baptized.

  9. Larry Cheek says:

    Amen! I have really had a problem believing that men who study the NT can over look that point. Context takes on a totally different meaning when properly applied. It appears to me that when the scriptures identify the audience being addressed, then we create confusion if we apply that directed message to those not identified as recipients.

  10. I think some of us are LOOKING for ways to exclude each other here. Jesus is standing at the door and knocking and we are installing deadbolts as fast as we can. Ray says we can’t accept anyone who thinks he can wait to be baptized until it is convenient. AND that professor of faith must be “baptized because of repentance”. I suppose he will need a receipt indicating this, validated by his baptizor.

    Roger seems to suggest that there is an entire exam in Christology which must be passed (with us doing the grading, no doubt) before we can accept a simple statement of faith. A statement such as the Ethiopian made will NOT serve. It does not clarify one’s exact view on Jesus’ diety nor acknowledges the virgin birth nor explains the incarnation nor identifies who Pilate and Lucifer are….

    I am so glad my brothers are not in the Coast Guard. A drowning man treads water next to his capsized boat and shouts, “I’ll drown if you don’t save me!” To which our conscientious Guardsman replies, “Do you really even know who I am? You act like you do…. so what’s my middle name? And what exactly do you mean by “save me”? Your idea about that is probably wrong, if you haven’t had Coast Guard training. Do you understand all the things you have to do as soon as I pull you into the boat? Are you committed to doing them? Have you completed our on-boarding checklist? I have a copy right here. Shall we read it together? There are just a few items before I haul you aboard. Look, mister, if you are going to keep going under while I am trying to explain this to you, I am not sure you really believe I can save you. I’m not convinced just yet. Hey, you can’t read the manual with your head under water like that. Tell you what; we have swimming lessons every Wednesday at the Coast Guard station. Come by and we will explain it all to you then.”

    Oy. We have made the path to salvation into a flipping obstacle course. And I am no longer sure this is really accidental.

  11. Larry Cheek says:

    Charles McLean,
    Where in the scriptures have you found an instruction parallel to this story?
    I don’t believe that you will find Jesus or any of his disciples portraying that they will (as understood in your narrative, the guardsman on the ship will have complete control over the salvation of the drowning man). Jesus and the Apostles gave WORDS to the individual, that if the individual acted upon would save him. In your illustration the context would be that this lost soul had no hope unless the guardsman performed the complete action of removing the drowning man from his doom.
    Jesus,The Apostles and the Disciples never acted in this manner, if they had then anyone who did not receive salvation would have been their responsibility, the loss of that individuals soul would not be linked to his own control.
    I cannot and I don’t believe that you can find an example in the NT that will portray that Jesus, The Apostles or any of the Disciples made an effort to rush to a dying man or woman to within the last minutes of their life offer them the opportunity to accept Christ and be saved just before death. I will expound on that even further that I cannot even find one of the individuals who are used as examples of becoming followers of Christ that were under the stresses of the world either through sickness, except the woman who touched Jesus garment (that was her effort coming to Jesus, not Jesus searching her out to heal and save her), financial, family, or governmental hardships.
    I am not even sure that most of the individuals who became followers of Christ even felt the burden of their own sins. They came because they believed the messages delivered portraying their father God and His Son, The true God in place of the false gods. Man was designed to look up to and worship, many men substituted many objects to fulfill that need in their lives and still do.
    So what am I projecting, man is portrayed in NT commiting to Christ from an attitude of desire, not from an attitude of relief from stresses.

  12. Jay Guin says:


    As I recall, Thomas Campbell had lived in Northern Ireland in County Down.
    His health was poor and it may well have been consumption.

  13. Clark Raulerson says:

    Faith in Jesus Christ is what matters in conversion. That is why repent unless one has faith, can we come to godly sorrow without faith. And who will be baptized unless they have faith in Christ. Both Baptists and Churches of Christ believe you need to have faith in order to be baptized. And so we seem to argue over semantics of conversion and at what point are we saved. So much some even get rebaptized because they’re not sure if they understood properly…I’m talking about within COC. What would an over emphasis on baptism lead to? Well in the early 90’s fear made an entire movement get rebaptized….and it became known as the International Churches of Christ. And so from that fruit would it be better to major on Jesus Christ. the gospel, and the result, fruit, of one’s faith. Baptism in Acts, including chapters 2, 8:37, and chapt. 10/11 need to be understood more in light of Romans 4 and 5. Just a more balanced approach.

Comments are closed.