Who is a Christian?

Since the preaching of Walter Scott, the “five-finger exercise” has been a popular method of evangelism in Churches in Christ. Although not the same as Scott’s original five points, Churches of Christ usually maintain that there are five “steps in the plan of salvation”. Scott taught that the five points of the Ancient Gospel were: Belief, Repentance, Baptism, Forgiveness of Sins, and Gift of the Holy Spirit. Modern day Churches of Christ typically teach that the five steps are: Hear, Believe, Repent, Confess, and Be Baptized. One of the questions that has existed from the beginning of the American Restoration Movement (ARM) is, “Who is a Christian?” With whom are we in fellowship? Many in Churches of Christ are asking questions like, “Can we regard someone as a Christian who does not observe the same five steps of salvation as we do?” Surely not everyone who claims to be a Christian really is. So, who is? What is the standard by which we determine who is a Christian?

In the last post, we reviewed a related question, “What must one understand at the time of baptism for it to be efficacious?”As we saw, that question has been around since the very early days of the ARM. The first major advocate of the re-immersion position was John Thomas, a doctor in Eastern Virginia. He edited the Apostolic Advocate where he could often 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, 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. (1836)

Campbell often made responses to Thomas’s teachings on re-immersion in his journal, the Millennial Harbinger. Campbell accused Thomas of baptizing those who were “already citizens of the kingdom” and said that those coming from Baptist Churches should be admitted without re-immersion. Thomas disagreed. It is during these heated discussions in the 1830s that Campbell made his most  explicit statement about who he regarded to be a Christian.

In 1837, Campbell wrote an article entitled “Letters to England”. In the article, he said these words:

We would, indeed, have no objections to co-operate in these matters with all Christians, and raise contributions for all such purposes as, in our judgment, are promotive of the Divine glory or of human happiness, whether or not they belong to our churches: for we find in all Protestant parties Christians as exemplary as ourselves according to their and our relative knowledge and opportunities…

He was referring to Christians co-operating in efforts to promote temperament. He urged Christians to share the Bible, tracts, pamphlets, newspapers, etc. to promote fair treatment of slaves, avoiding intoxicating drinks, stopping robbery and thievery, etc.

Some readers clearly took note of Campbell’s assertion that there were “in all Protestant parties Christians.” In the July 8th, 1837 issue of the Millennial Harbinger a sister wrote in from Lunenburg, Virginia asking the following:

Dear brother Campbell- I was much surprised to-day, while reading the Harbinger, to see that you recognize the Protestant parties as Christian. You say, you ‘find in all Protestant parties Christians.’ Dear brother, my surprize [sic] and ardent desire to do what is right, prompt me to write to you at this time. I feel well assured, from the estimate you place on the female character, that you will attend to my feeble questions in search of knowledge. Will you be so good as to let me know how any one becomes a Christian? What act of yours gave you the name of Christian? At what time had Paul the name of Christ called on him? At what time did Cornelius have Christ named on him? Is it not through this name we obtain eternal life? Does the name of Christ or Christian belong to any but those who believe the gospel, repent, and are buried by baptism into the death of Christ?

This letter elicited a very strong reaction from Campbell. We now know the letter was written by Louisa Anderson. Louisa and her husband were supporters of John Thomas in Virginia. Campbell did not think her questions were innocent, and thus he responded harshly. He would write three responses in all to this letter. In his third response, he made explicit why he felt the need to respond so strongly to this woman:

But we had still more urgent reasons: Some of our brethren were too much addicted to denouncing the sects and representing them en masse as wholly aliens from the possibility of salvation- as wholly antichristian and corrupt… I felt constrained to rebuke them over the shoulders of this inquisitive lady. (Millennial Harbinger Dec. 1837)

But to conclude, our brethren of Eastern Virginia have been the occasion at least of eliciting at this time so strong an expression of our opinion… Had not some of them greatly and unreasonably abused the sects, or countenanced, aided, and abetted them that did so, and had not a few in some other regions made Christianity to turn more upon immersion than upon universal holiness, in all probability I would have answered the sister” differently. (Millennial Harbinger Dec. 1837)

Campbell saw his response to this sister as part of his larger debate with John Thomas and the Eastern Virginia brethren. In his first response, Campbell began:

In reply to this conscientious sister, I observe, that if there be no Christians in the Protestant sects, there are certainly none among the Romanists, none among the Jews, Turks, Pagans; and therefore no Christians in the world except ourselves, or such of us as keep, or strive to keep the commands of Jesus. Therefore, for many centuries there has been no church of Christ, no Christians in the world; and the promises concerning the everlasting kingdom of Messiah have failed, and the gates of hell have prevailed against his church! This cannot be; and therefore there are Christians among the sects. (Millennial Harbinger Sept. 1837)

One of the most important aspects of Campbell’s first response is the idea of “knowledge.” Notice Campbell’s definition of a Christian:

But who is a Christian? I answer, Every one that believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of God; repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to his measure of knowledge of his will. (Millennial Harbinger Sept. 1837)

Notice what is missing in that definition?! You guessed it- baptism. According to Campbell, a Christian is someone who “obeys him in all things according to the measure of knowledge of his will.” Thus, if a person was living in obedience to the Lord and believed that Jesus of the Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of God, but did not have the knowledge that he should be immersed, he could be considered a Christian. Someone might ask, “But baptism is so clear in the Scriptures. How could someone miss that?!” For Campbell, the response would be, “I did.” Campbell knew he had lived in obedience to the Lord before his adult immersion at the age of 24 by Matthias Luce. We have no indication that Campbell regarded himself as lost before the day of his baptism. He had involuntarily missed baptism for remission of sins, but no one would argue he was not diligently serving the Lord and studying the Scriptures. In other words, he was obedient to the extent of the knowledge he possessed at the time.

He said:

I cannot, therefore, make any one duty the standard of Christian state or character, not even immersion into the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and in my heart regard all who have been sprinkled in infancy without their own knowledge and consent, as aliens from Christ and the well-grounded hope of heaven. “Salvation was of the Jews,” acknowledged the Messiah; and yet he said of a foreigner, an alien from the commonwealth of Israel, a Syro-Phoenician, “I have not found so great faith-no, not in Israel. Should I find a Pedobaptist [infant baptizer, GB] more intelligent in the Christian Scriptures, more spiritually-minded and more devoted to the Lord than a Baptist, or one immersed on a profession of the ancient faith, I could not hesitate a moment in giving the preference of my heart to him that loveth most. Did I act otherwise, I would be a pure sectarian, a Pharisee among Christians… And should I see a sectarian Baptist or a Pedobaptist more spiritually-minded and more generally conformed to the requisitions of the Messiah, than one who precisely acquiesces with me in the theory or practice of immersion as I teach, doubtless the former rather than the latter, would have my cordial approbation and love as a Christian. So I judge, and so I feel. It is the image of Christ the Christian looks for and loves and this does not consist in being exact in a few items, but in general devotion to the whole truth as far as known.” (Millennial Harbinger Sept. 1837)

Campbell believed that the primary thing one ought to look for in a Christian is the image of Christ. Someone might be bearing the image of Christ who had not submitted to baptism in the way that Campbell understood it.

Campbell made a distinction between “mistakes of the understanding” and “errors of the affections”. Another way to state the difference is “wilful errors” and “unavoidable mistakes”. Campbell believed that mistakes were only culpable when they arose from willful neglect of doing what is commanded by the Lord. If someone knew that baptism was an important command of God and willfully neglected it, then he should not be regarded as a Christian. However, if someone did not know that baptism was an important Christian command, then his ignorance was involuntary and thus, not criminal.

Campbell believed there were several sources of involuntary ignorance. He said that there were many people who were illiterate and unable to read the Scriptures. He noted that there were many people who could read, but were deficient of a proper education. Lastly, there were those who had been misled by religious leaders who taught with authority. If they were taught that sprinkling or pouring constituted true baptism, then they had submitted to baptism according to their knowledge of it.

Campbell anticipated that others would object to his opinion. He expected people would accuse him of devaluing the importance of baptism by admitting the possibility that an unimmersed person might be saved.

My correspondent may belong to a class who think that we detract from the authority and value of an institution the moment we admit the bare possibility of any one being saved without it. But we choose rather to associate with those who think that they do not undervalue either seeing or hearing, by affirming that neither of them, nor both of them together, are essential to life. I would not sell one of my eyes for all the gold on earth; yet I could live without it. (Millennial Harbinger Sept. 1837)

In one of his most provocative statements in the first article, Campbell wrote:

There is no occasion, then, for making immersion, on a profession of the 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 hence 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. (Millennial Harbinger Sept. 1837)

As you might imagine, his first response to the “conscientious sister” caught many of his readers by surprise. He received many letters at his office expressing concern. He wrote a second response in the November issue:

Certain sentences have been objected to by some two or three intelligent and much esteemed correspondents… We gave it as our opinion that there were Christians among the Protestant sects; an opinion, indeed, which we have always expressed when called upon. (Millennial Harbinger Nov. 1837)

Campbell emphasized multiple times in the second letter that he had only expressed his “opinion” that there were Christians in the Protestant sects.

Still my opinion is no rule of action to my brethren, nor would I offer it unsolicited to any man. But while we inculcate faith, repentance, and baptism upon all, as essential to their constitutional citizenship in the Messiah’s kingdom, and to their sanctification and comfort as Christians, no person has a right to demand our opinions on all the differences of this generation except for his private gratification. (Millennial Harbinger Nov. 1837)

Now the nice point of opinion on which some brethren differ, is this: Can a person who simply, not perversely, mistakes the outward baptism, have the inward? We all agree that he who wilfully or negligently perverts the outward, cannot have the inward. But can he who, through a simple mistake, involving no perversity of mind, has misapprehended the outward baptism, yet submitting to it according to his view of it, have the inward baptism which changes his state and his praise of God, though not of all men? is the precise question. To which I answer, that, in my opinion, it is possible. Farther than this I do not affirm. (Millennial Harbinger Nov. 1837)

Campbell had always taught that it was possible for someone to be dipped in the water without experiencing the true inward baptism. Someone could submit to the outward form of being immersed in water without experiencing the inward cleansing of baptism. Based on this line of thinking, Campbell wondered why the converse was not also true. If one believed that a person could have the outward baptism without having the inward, why couldn’t one have the inward baptism without having the outward?

Campbell provided two reasons for his opinion. First, if it were not the case that there were Christians in the Protestant sects, then the church has not been everlasting and the promises of God have failed. Second, the implication would be that the brightest names on earth over the last 300 years should have to be regarded as subjects of the kingdom of Satan. Although Campbell believed a person might be considered a Christian who did not submit to baptism for remission of sins, Campbell made sure to emphasize that one is “certainly safer” if he believe, repent, and is baptized. “Constitutional citizenship” in the kingdom is only offered to those who have faith, repent, and are baptized. Outside of that, one only has the comfort of Campbell’s opinion, not the comfort of the Scriptures.

His second response didn’t seem to satisfy some of his disgruntled readers. In December, a third response appeared in the Millennial Harbinger. 

Judging from numerous letters at this office, my reply to the sister from Lunenburg has given some pain to our brethren, and some pleasure to our sectarian friends. The builders up of the parties tauntingly say to our brethren… “You are coming over to us, having now conceded the greatest of all points- viz. that immersion is not essential to a Christian.” Some of our brethren seem to think that we have neutralized much that has been said on the importance of baptism for remission, and disarmed them of much of their artillery against the ignorance, error, and indifference of the times upon the whole subject of Christian duty and Christian privilege. (Millennial Harbinger Dec. 1837)

Campbell expressed three reasons for publishing the third response. First, he would defend himself of the charge of inconsistency. Opponents were charging the great champion of baptism for remission of sins with changing his views from his earlier Christian Baptist days. Second, he would defend his opinion from the sectarian application of it. Some in various Christian sects were elated at Campbell’s admission, “There is no occasion, then, for making immersion, on a profession of the faith, absolutely essential to a Christian.” Third, he wanted to offer some reasons for delivering his opinion at that particular time.

First, Campbell defended himself against any inconsistency with his previous views. He said:

Let me ask, in the first place, what could mean all that we have written upon the union of Christians on apostolic grounds, had we taught that all Christians in the world were already united in our own community? (Millennial Harbinger Dec. 1837)

The goal of the Restoration Movement from the beginning was uniting all Christians by means of returning to the Bible. What would have been the point of uniting all Christians if one didn’t think there were any Christians out there? If the only “Christians” were in the Stone-Campbell group, they were already united. One of the most quoted verses in Campbell’s writings was Jeremiah 51:45 which was written to the children of Israel in Babylon, “Come out of her, my people, that you partake not of her sins, and that you receive not her plagues.” Campbell believed his frequent use of this verse was further proof that he regarded the people in Babylon (in the denominations) to be God’s people. He then pointed out multiple references in his previous journal (the Christian Baptist) which showed that he had always believed there were Christians in the Protestant sects.

Second, Campbell defended his opinion against the sectarian application of it. He said that the unimmersed should be arranged in two groups: those who knew of Campbell’s opinion and rejoiced in it and those unimmersed who were unaware of his opinion. Campbell said that only those unimmersed who were involuntarily ignorant of their folly were covered under the opinion. Those who rejoiced that Campbell had admitted immersion was not absolutely essential to a Christian were excluded from his opinion. Their rejoicing showed they lacked the kind of desire to be obedient to the Lord that he recognized in many in Protestant groups. Those rejoicing in his opinion were willfully negligent of the command of the Lord and thus did not have the comfort of his opinion.

It cannot be too emphatically stated that he that rejoices for his own sake, that he may be accepted by the Lord on his infant or adult pouring or sprinkling, because of his dislike to, or prejudice against believer’s immersion, gives unequivocal evidence of the want of that state mind which is contemplated in the opinion expressed… (Millennial Harbinger Dec. 1837)

Now, in our judgment, there is not on earth a person who can have as full an assurance of justification or of remission of sins, as the person who has believed, confessed his faith, and been intelligently buried and raised with the Lord; and therefore the present salvation never can be so fully enjoyed, all things else being equal, by the unimmersed as by the immersed. (Millennial Harbinger Dec. 1837)

Third, Campbell explained his reasons for delivering his opinion so strongly in 1837. The first reason was that he was bothered by the brethren (mostly in Virginia) who took pleasure in denouncing the sects and condemning all Protestants en masse as antichristian. Campbell would conclude with this:

The case is this: When I see a person who would die for Christ; whose brotherly kindness, sympathy, and active benevolence know no bounds but his circumstances; whose seat in the Christian assembly is never empty; whose inward piety and devotion are attested by punctual obedience to every known duty; whose family is educated in the fear of the Lord; whose constant companion is the Bible: I say, when I see such a one ranked amongst heathen men and publicans, because he never happened to inquire, but always took it for granted that he had been scripturally baptized; and that, too, by one greatly destitute of all these public and private virtues, whose chief or exclusive recommendation is that he has been immersed, and that he holds a scriptural theory of the gospel: I feel no disposition to flatter such a one; but rather to disabuse him of error. (Millennial Harbinger Dec. 1837)

In conclusion, Campbell’s definition of a Christian included “Every one that believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of God; repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to his measure of knowledge.” His opinion was that those who were immersed because of faith in Christ (even if not “for remission of sins”) should be regarded as Christians. His opinion was also that the pious unimmersed who did not have the knowledge they ought to be baptized, could be regarded as Christians. Involuntary ignorance on a subject was not criminal. In all this, he believed that his opinion did not devalue the importance of baptism or nullify any of his teachings on the subject. He stilled preached the importance of faith, repentance, and baptism as the only way to have full assurance of salvation.

I think Campbell’s response causes me to ask some important questions. First of all, what do I think about Campbell’s opinion? Is perfect understanding essential for salvation? Are mistakes of the understanding criminal? If so, when? Should we differentiate “involuntary mistakes” from “willful neglect”? I also ask the same question Campbell asked, “Can a person who simply, not perversely, mistakes the outward baptism, have the inward?”

I think his position shows a high degree of humility. From his own experience, he knew that it was possible to be devoted wholeheartedly to the Lord, but miss the importance of a matter of doctrine. I think that made him more sympathetic towards those in other groups who simply had never had the privilege to learn the same things that he had. Campbell believed that perfect understanding was not required for salvation. Over my life, I have changed my views on a number of different doctrines. I understand some passages very differently than I did before. Was I a Christian while I held mistaken views on the Bible? Of course! This realization ought to cause us to be more understanding, patient, and gentle with those who do not see all the same things that we do. Maybe like the eunuch in Acts 8, they just haven’t had anyone show them yet.






  1. We are just about to study this very subject this Sunday morning, so thank you for this article, hope you don’t mind our consulting it.

    This doesn’t necessarily belong here, but the idea that Campbell thought “Involuntary ignorance” of certain parts of the scripture wasn’t a crime makes me wonder his views on involuntary ignorance of the scripture in its entirety. And if he considered involuntary ignorance of the whole scripture a crime, how would he decide what level of ignorance was admissible?

  2. Good article, Garrett. I appreciate your continued interaction with Campbell. As you touched on, the degree of humility in his thoughts (especially coming from such a learned man) is very admirable.

    In the December 1837 article, Campbell also says,

    “We shall now attempt to defend this opinion from the sectarian application of it . . . . It affords them too much joy for the consolation it brings, because it imparts no certainty of pardon or salvation to any particular unbaptized person whatsoever. . . . In no case, indeed, can there be the same certainty (all things else being equal) that he who was sprinkled, poured, or immersed on some other person’s faith, or that he who was sprinkled or poured on his own faith, shall be saved, as there is that he that first believes and is then, on his own confession, immersed, shall be saved. In the former case, at best, we have only the fallible inference or opinion of man; while in the latter we have the sure and unerring promise of our Saviour and Judge. . . .”

    With regard to the question of whether or not one can be a Christian without being baptized, based on the fuller context, I think Campbell’s answer would be something like, “I hope so, and it’s possible, but it’s not taught in Scripture, so there’s no guarantee.”

    My answer would be something similar, and on such shaky ground, there’s no way I would teach that one can be confident of salvation without baptism.

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