I was fortunate enough during my teenage years to be part of an active, dynamic youth group. At any given point during my high school years, we had around fifty active students in our youth program. Those years were some of the greatest of my life and most important for my spiritual development. As I reflect back on that experience, I would venture to guess that somewhere around 30% or more of the teenagers in my youth group either considered re-immersion or were actually re-immersed. For one reason or another, they did not regard their first immersion as constituting a true immersion and thus wanted to do it again for eternal security. Some had been initially immersed in a denominational group for a reason other than “for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). Since their baptism was not for that reason, some considered it invalid and re-immersion was administered. Others simply stated, “I didn’t fully understand what I was doing when I was doing it so I want to do it again to be sure.” I even know of one who was re-immersed because they couldn’t remember if the preacher verbalized the words, “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” at the point of immersion. I think another way to state the root question at stake here is, “What does a person have to understand at the time of their baptism in order for it to be efficacious?”
This discussion also has serious implications for the relationship of Churches of Christ to other Protestant groups (particularly with those who practice adult believers immersion). In the early days, the Campbell’s found refuge in the Baptists after leaving the Presbyterians. Both groups agreed on adult believers immersion which set them apart from other groups. I couldn’t even venture a guess at how many times someone has asked me, “Oh Churches of Christ, don’t you believe you’re the only ones going to heaven?” While I don’t personally know of any person in Churches of Christ who would openly maintain that position (although I’m sure they exist), I do think that belief is prevalent whether overtly stated or not. The thought process goes something like this: We believe the Bible teaches that baptism is an essential part of salvation (Acts 2:38; 1 Pet. 3:20-21; Rom. 6:1-7; et. al.). The purpose of baptism is for the remission of sins. Therefore, if one is not baptized for remission of sins, they have not been baptized scripturally and their baptism is invalid. Since most denominations do not baptize for remission of sins, most baptisms practiced today are invalid. Subjects should be baptized again with the understanding of the true baptism “for remission of sins.” It is impossible to speak for all of those in Churches of Christ as if such a thing were even possible, but that was at least my understanding of how it worked.
Muscle and a Shovel is a recent book which has gained popularity among those in conservative Churches of Christ. Its widespread popularity shows that the views expressed by the author are to some degree reflective of many in Churches of Christ. The author, Michael Shank, narrates the story of his own conversion from the Baptist Church to Churches of Christ. One of his co-workers, Randall, who is a member of Churches of Christ, studied with Michael and questioned many of his previously held beliefs about the Bible and the Baptist Church. Acts 2:38 is undoubtedly the most discussed verse in the entire book. Shank reflected on his first baptism in the Baptist Church:
Jonetta, [Shank’s wife, GB] when I got into the water at the age of 13 I thought that I had no sin. The Baptist Pastor told me that I was already saved. He said that baptism had nothing to do with salvation. He said it was just an outward show of an inward change…. And if I got into the water thinking I had no sins, I was not baptized for the remission of sins. I wasn’t baptized like those in the Bible were baptized. It wasn’t biblical. Jonetta, I was baptized for the wrong reason and if that’s the case my baptism is no good. I’m still in my sins at this moment. I’m not a true Christian. (emphasis mine, Muscle and a Shovel, 2011 pg. 313-14)
Shank’s position on re-immersion is a very a common view, if not the majority view of conservative Churches of Christ. Thus, those coming to Churches of Christ from other religious backgrounds are usually encouraged to be re-immersed, unless it is discovered the person actually understood their baptism was “for remission of sins”.
This issue is not new. The most recent re-immersion controversy occurred in the 1970s-1990s when the International Churches of Christ (Boston Movement; Discipling Movement) required rebaptism for those coming to the ICOC from mainline Churches of Christ. Those of us in mainline churches understood the implications. If they are forcing us to be re-immersed before admittance, they do not regard us as Christians. This, probably more than anything else, led to open division between the two groups in 1993. When someone requires re-immersion for someone else from a different background and experience, it says something about whether you regard them as a Christian.
John Mark Hicks states that he read through the main journals of the Disciples of Christ, the The Gospel Advocate, Firm Foundation, Christian Leader, Octographic Review, The Way, and Christian Leader and Way, during the years 1897-1907. He reports that he discovered over 200 articles during this 10 year period on the issue of rebaptism. One of the major editorial debates during this period was between David Lipscomb of the Gospel Advocate and Austin McGary of the Firm Foundation. McGary was outspoken in his belief that if someone was not baptized “for the remission of sins” their immersion is invalid and re-immersion is required.
In response, David Lipscomb wrote:
We both agree that remission of sins is a motive to lead to obedience. He seems to think it the only motive, or at least the leading and essential motive to lead to baptism, and without this as the leading and controlling motive the baptism is not acceptable to God. I do not believe this. I believe there is one motive that must be the ruling, controlling, ever-present motive in all service to God, without which no service is acceptable to him. That is, we must do the service in the name of Jesus, the Lord. (Gospel Advocate 1907)
Lipscomb was even more to the point in his 1910 book Queries and Answers:
This is the point of issue in this question, and it is continually ignored. “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.” (Mark 16:16.) The thing to be believed is that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. A person that believes this, and, on this faith, is baptized, is scripturally baptized; but if he believe he has been forgiven before he is baptized his faith is unscriptural–that is, he mistakes the point in the path of obedience at which pardon is promised and can be claimed. Does a mistake as to the point at which God bestows the blessing cause God to withhold the blessing from one who, through faith, does what God tells him? If so, where is the precept or example that shows it? If it is so, it must be because God requires a person to understand at what point in the path of obedience a blessing is promised before he can receive it… To deny the blessing would be given in this instance because the person mistook the point at which the blessing was bestowed is to set at defiance the teachings of God through the Old Testament and the New Testament, which were written for our example and admonition. God is pleased with the faith that does what he tells to be done without waiting to know when and how God will bless. (pg. 53)
James A. Harding held the same view. Harding questioned why “for remission of sins” was made the leading motive at baptism. According to Harding, there were at least six occurrences of the Greek preposition “eis” (“for”/”into”) occurring in connection with baptism: the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, remission of sins, the name of the Lord Jesus, Christ, the death of Christ, and the body of Christ. Harding questioned why “remission of sins” was elevated above the others. He said:
Now I have a question for those brethren who maintain that a baptism is not valid unless the one baptized understands, at the time, that he is baptized into, or for the purpose of securing the remission of sins. It is this: Why, then, is not the baptism invalid if he does not also understand the relationship expressed by the “eis” in each of the other passages? Is it more important that one should understand that he is baptized into the remission of sins than that he his baptized into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost? Is it more important than that he should understand that he is baptized into the name of Christ, or into Christ, or into the death of Christ, or into the body of Christ, which is the church? (Gospel Advocate 1898)
J.W. McGarvey also held the same view. In response to Austin McGary and Elijah Hansbrough of the Firm Foundation, McGarvey said:
In regard to the validity of baptism when it is not understood to be for remission of sins, I think you are wrong. My reason for thinking so is brief. It is because God has not made the blessing attached to baptism dependent on our understanding the design of the ordinance. The blessings of eating or taking proper medicine follows whether we understand it or not. So, if God promised pardon to the penitent believer, who is baptized, the blessing comes whether the sinner expects it or not. (Firm Foundation 1885)
The debate about re-immersion dates back even later than the days of Lipscomb and McGary to the earliest days of the American Restoration Movement. When Alexander Campbell was twenty-four years old, he had his first child. Although a time of joy, it was also a time of frustration. Should he baptize his infant child? After study, Campbell concluded that baptism was for adult believers and he had a Baptist preacher, Matthias Luce, baptize him and his family. In his biography, written by Robert Richardson, he would state that even at the time of his immersion, “the full import and meaning of the institution of baptism was, however, still reserved for future discovery.” (I: 104). Campbell’s understanding of the design of baptism progressed during the course of his life as evidenced in the Walker and MacCalla debates. After Campbell’s death, his widow Selina confessed, “Some of the brethren say that because ‘remission of sins’ was not named at his baptism, he was not scripturally introduced into Christ’s kingdom…” Possibly no one argued more ardently for the import of baptism for the remission of sins than Alexander Campbell, but there were even people in his day who questioned the validity of his baptism.
In the 1830s, Campbell became involved in am editorial debate with John Thomas, a doctor in the Eastern Virginia area. John Thomas was also the editor of the Apostolic Advocate where he set forth his views on re-immersion. He could be found saying things like:
We must then, purge out the old leaven from among us by a strict and righteous discipline, and be careful how we admit persons into our communities from the Baptist denomination. A revival-made-baptist is not a christian Baptist, in other words, a christian; and therefore, if such characters exist among us, and they be really desirous of being on the right foundation, they ought first to become convinced of the truth, and then re-immersed. Their own eternal weal ought to stimulate them to do so; and instead of murmuring at us for agitating the question, they ought to thank us heartily for rousing them to self-examination. (Apostolic Advocate 1836)
To be fair, Thomas at least admitted the possibility of a “Christian” Baptist when he said, “999 out of 1,000 of the Baptists ought to be re-immersed.” ( Apostolic Advocate 1836)
Alexander Campbell often wrote about his position regarding the admittance of Baptists into the churches and the issue of re-immersion. He said:
We have hitherto thought, and yet think, that when an immersed person presents himself an applicant for admission into any particular congregation, having either oral or written testimony of his having been an orderly member of a Baptist community, he ought forthwith to be received- his application being evidence of his desire to submit to the institution of the Messiah as laid down in our Statute Book- The New Testament. If himself satisfied with his immersion, the church has no liberty, or is under no precept or obligation to demand re-immersion for its satisfaction. (Millennial Harbinger 1835)
Let me once more say, that the only thing which can justify immersion into the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is a confession on the part of the candidate that he did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God- that he died for our sins, was buried, and rose again the third day, at the time of his first immersion- that he now believes the testimony of the Apostles concerning him, and desires to be buried and rise with Christ in faith of a resurrection to eternal life. The instant that re-baptism is preached and practiced on any other ground than that now stated- such as deficient knowledge, weak faith, a change of views- then have we contradicted in some way and made void the word of the Lord- “He who will believe and be immersed shall be saved”-then we abandon the principles of the present reformation, instituted experience meetings, committees for examining candidates, changed the bond of union, and made something else than the belief of the gospel facts the faith of the gospel. (Millennial Harbinger 1835)
Almost no major thought leader in the first and second generation of the American Restoration Movement including Alexander Campbell, David Lipscomb, J.W. McGarvey, and James A. Harding believed that re-immersion should be practiced for those who had been immersed in obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ with a confession of belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Even if the person did not understand that baptism was “for the remission of sins” it did not mean the person did not enjoy remission of sins simply because he failed to understand it. The positions of John Thomas and Austin McGary were the minority. Nevertheless, their view has survived and is still very alive and well in Churches of Christ.
I think the quotes given above should cause us to reflect on some serious questions. Are our views about re-immersion biblical? What must a person understand at the time of their baptism? Is “for remission of sins” the only or controlling motive for Christian baptism? What is our relation to those who are baptized, but do not understand its design “for the remission of sins”? In what cases should re-immersion be administered?
If you want to read a more recent assessment of the issue, Jimmy Allen produced a book in 1991 entitled Rebaptism: What One Must Know to be Born Again. His thesis:
It is my belief that the New Testament teaches when a penitent believer in the crucified and risen Savior is immersed in water to fulfill righteousness or obey God, the Lord forgives his past or alien sins (although he may not know that sins are remitted or that the Holy Spirit is given at the time). If the thesis is correct, the key word is obedience. Can a person actually obey God’s baptismal command while failing to grasp the true meaning of “remission of sins” as set forth in Acts 2:38? David Lipscomb, who edited the Gospel Advocate for more than fifty years, thought so. (pg. 39)