Thursday, December 22, 2016

Baptismal Regeneration and the Church of Christ in the Ohio Valley

The Church of Christ (CoC) is big in the Ohio Valley of West Virginia. At the top of the state is the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) flagship institution, Bethany College, founded in the movement's originating territory.  Any local varieties of the Church of Christ share roots with this denomination, although they have likely remained conservative while the Christian Church has swung wildly left. Conservative CoC congregations pepper the entire Valley all the way down into the southern Tri-State. One would expect this concentration to follow the flow of the river in this way as settlers traveled north to south in the early 1800's.

CoC churches vary in their degree of conservatism. The most conservative reflect common stereotypes, including the occasional bonnet, long skirts, plain dress and little or no make-up, as well as no drinking, gambling, or prohibited entertainment. Some congregations prohibit instrumental accompaniment in worship. Others are more progressive. Sometimes communities have more than one congregation, one of which collects the more progressive adherents. Issues like music have been known to split communities. Although the CoC has some very unusual and long-standing characteristics, its loudest distinctive is its vociferous affirmation of Baptismal Regeneration.

Many wonderful people attend Church of Christ congregations. I know and respect many of them. They saturate the Valley.  At work, I once tried to befriend an aspiring CoC preacher on the presumption of a shared faith. However, he made it quite clear that our relationship was merely professional; he intimated that I did not follow Scripture and was not a Christian. We were not brothers in Christ and could not share that unique fellowship. He represented the beliefs of many CoC adherents: if you are not baptized within the Church of Christ while believing that baptism is necessary for salvation, then you are not saved. To them, "Are you a Christian?" does not mean, "Do you believe in and follow Jesus Christ?"  It is "Have you been baptized in the Church of Christ?" It is not enough that one has been baptized; one must be baptized with the conviction that baptism is necessary for salvation.

This belief is not an rare, though its more extreme adherents tend to populate isolated communities. I have met a more urban CoC preacher whose church had disavowed baptismal regeneration entirely. However, within the Ohio Valley this is an exception. This belief reveals the true extent of the CoC's error--not simply that they exclude everyone else, but that they reveal in the very tenets of their exclusivity that their salvific confidence is indeed in the work of baptism, regardless of whatever else they say they affirm about faith in Christ.

Can we say then that they are Christians? In the cultural sense of the word, yes.  But the world is filled with people who call themselves Christians.  However, in the spiritual sense of the word I am far less than certain.  I do know that it is God who saves, and not we ourselves, and that he can save whom he wills in spite of serious errors. On this ground, I hope that Christ has his own among Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Arminians, and other heterodox stripes and denominations. All Christian traditions must have some awareness of the need for God's mercy on the grounds of our finiteness and error-proneness. On the other hand, we know that some Evangelicals who supposedly affirm every proper jot and tittle will be sorted with the goats in the end. So I cannot speak for God concerning his choices in salvation. However, I can say that we are responsible to get the Gospel right, and the fact that he saves at his discretion through Christ alone does not deliver us from that obligation.  The secret things belong to the Lord, and we have an accountable stewardship for what he has revealed.

As far as the CoC is concerned, I do know that their beliefs are non-normative, peculiar, relatively recent (originating in 19th century Campbellite tradition), and confessionally untethered. Their beliefs are dangerous--at best heterodox and at worst heretical. They appear to lead adherents into a sincere conviction that they themselves must perform a necessary work in order to receive salvation, which is the very definition of works-righteousness. According to New Testament witness, works-righteousness is damning.

On the other hand, I also extend a similar ambivalence to certain swaths of Evangelicalism, which have their own necessary work that can be every bit as much a work of righteousness, i.e., any ritual formula that is necessary to initiate salvation or any affirmation that we are by any means the initiators of our own salvation. The Sinner's Prayer is a chief exempli gratia. Strangely though, I do not tend to be as stingy with brotherly appellatives toward these. If I believe that God can save Evangelicals who think they have placed themselves into the kingdom by praying a formulaic prayer, then I might also accept that God can save Church of Christ adherents who believe nearly the same thing about Baptism.  But more than making me optimistic about the salvation of Church of Christ adherents, this comparison makes me fear for those in Evangelicalism who have embraced their own version of the same problem, even while claiming that those who believe in baptismal regeneration are not truly Christian.

Regardless, the CoC's errors are so pronounced that they defy our revelatory stewardship. God is sovereign, but we have still been commanded to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints. The Gospel that is the power of God for salvation is adulterated if it includes works-righteousness. Therefore, I intend to post occasionally about Baptismal Regeneration out of love for those who are being led astray in the Ohio Valley. Addressing Baptismal Regeneration is necessary to reform West Virginia. Perhaps some Evangelicals will reform as well.

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