It’s hard to deny the sacramental character of baptism as taught in the Churches of Christ. Although Zwingli taught “external things are nothing. They avail nothing for salvation,” the Churches of Christ have always taught that baptism is the event during which salvation occurs.
Interestingly, even though the Churches of Christ often cite the European Anabaptists as evidence that the Church of Christ pre-existed Stone and Campbell, Hicks points out that the Anabaptists followed Zwingli’s view. Even though they insisted on adult immersion, they saw a convert’s coming to faith as the moment of salvation.
American Baptists are thus heirs to Zwinglian theology, while the Churches of Christ follow the Catholics, Lutherans, and many others in insisting on a sacramental understanding, while refusing the use the word “sacrament.”
The reason we rejected the word is largely Alexander Campbell’s insistence that “we call Bible things by Bible names.” Campbell taught that by avoiding non-Biblical terms we could eliminate most divisions among Christians. If we refuse to say “sacrament” we never have to argue about whether baptism is a sacrament!
It’s not really true, though. We often have the same argument, just in other terms. We debate with Baptists whether the water saves (we say it doesn’t; they accuse us of saying it does). We deny that baptism works without faith (hence denying infant baptism). But we insist that salvation only comes with baptism, that is, faith must be joined with baptism. Neither works apart from the other. This is a debate about the sacramental character of baptism, made all-the-more difficult by are simultaneous insistence that baptism is not a sacrament.
Now, I’m not all that excited one way or the other whether we use the word. I just think we need to be more self-conscious about what we’re saying. As some use the term, we deny the sacramental nature of baptism. But as most Protestants use the term, we are sacramentalists. And it’s nothing to be embarrassed about.
In fact, once we realize what we’re really saying — once we admit that the physical act has a spiritual significance, we are freed to explore what else might be sacramental in character. And it’s an interesting study.