Harding on Rebaptism: “Rank Sectarianism”

hardingja_02James A. Harding was nothing if not passionate. His rhetoric in print could rattle chains and in homilies evoke tears, especially in his own eyes. Below is a good example as Harding lowers a firm and severe judgment against the growing position of rebaptism among Churches of Christ. I have highlighted a few lines which stress how he understood that rebaptism as practiced by the Texas Tradition of the Firm Foundation was heretical, sectarian and presumptuous. As you can sense, this was no “minor” disagreement. Unfortunately, I do not know the identity of the “Brother Editor” who penned the letter to Harding.

Harding wrote:

A brother, who is also an editor, in a private letter, writes to us as follows:

“I like The Way and hope it will succeed, for the warfare that it is waging is a holy one. We cannot have too many papers, if they are edited by close students of the word of God, who will make them reflect the spirit of the Master with the teachings of him and his apostles. From the attention you give to rebaptists, I conclude that you must have plenty of them in your country. I cannot but regard some of their notions as dangerous heresies. For instance, to require a confession of faith in a person, is the foundation of all creeds. The Nicene creed was formulated so that no one holding Aryan views could confess it, and rebaptists wish a confession that no one holding that baptism is because of the remission can make. But what a catalogue of confessions we would have to require if we attempted to provide in this way against other errors that are, indeed, just as dangerous! Universalists, soul sleepers, mystics, etc., would all have to be provided against, and we would need to require a confession that no one holding these heresies can make. [In other words, we would need a creed! JMH]

“I am constrained to believe, though I have never yet expressed myself publicly on this phase of the subject, that the only question that we have a right to ask any baptized person who applies to us for membership in the church is the one that Paul asked in Acts 19:3: ‘Into what then were ye baptized?’ In other words: By whose authority were you baptized? Where you baptized into the baptism authorized by John, or the one authorized by Christ? So to-day I believe we may ask: Were you baptized because the Baptist Church, Methodist Church, or some other church commanded it, or were you baptized understanding that it was by the authority of Christ? And no man nor angel can show authority for asking more. The premises by which we would prove that we may ask more would prove too much, because they would require us to aim a blow in our confessions at every error in Christendom; and in order that we might be able to do the thing in good form, a creed would be indispensable. The rebaptism agitation is plainly a step back to sectarianism, though all unmeant, of course, by its advocates.”

Thus far speaks our brother editor, and he is undoubtedly correct. To demand that a man shall understand that baptism is in order to forgiveness of sins as a prerequisite to baptism, and to stop with that, is the perfection of inconsistency; and, worse still, it is the adoption of the principle that caused all the creeds in Christendom; it is rank sectarianism. As we have repeatedly shown in these columns, the very word (“eis”) that connects baptism with remission connects it also with another and a greater blessing—greater inasmuch as the whole is greater than any of its parts. For example, we are not only baptized eis remission, but (which is a much greater thing) we are baptized “eis the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”—“into Christ.” All the spiritual blessings (of which remission of sins is one only) are found in Christ, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Baptism is the marriage ceremony in which we are united to Christ, in which we receive the family name, the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the name “God,” so that we are henceforth called “the sons of God;” then, having been thus brought into the divine family, we begin to receive the promises of God, the remission of sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit; the daily protection, guidance, and blessing of God; the constant readiness of God to hear and answer our prayers, and so on. Paul exhorts the Colossians to give thanks unto the Father, “who made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; who delivered us out of the power of darkness, and translated us into the kingdom of the Son of his love; in whom we have our redemption, the forgiveness of our sins.” In baptism, he who believes with his whole heart that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, is made meet to be a partaker of the inheritance of the saints in light; he is delivered out of the power of darkness, and is translated into the kingdom of the Son of God’s love, in whom he receives the forgiveness of his sins: “For how many soever be the promises of God, in him is the yea: wherefore also through him is the Amen, unto the glory of God through us.” (2 Cor. 1:20.)

How any man can fail to see that it is inconsistent, unreasonable, and unscriptural to demand that the candidate for baptism must understand that baptism is for (eis) the remission of sins, and not also demand that he must understand that he is baptized into (eis) the name of the Father and of the son and of the Holy spirit, when the fact has been explained to him that the relationship in the two cases is expressed by the same word, “eis” (into), is one of the things hard for me to understand. I doubt if anything but the stupefying power of prejudice and party passion, of sectarian zeal, could also blind a man. I could as easily believe in infant membership, or sprinkling for baptism; and I believe that the prejudice which blinds the reimmerser, in this case, is as dense and as bitterly sectarian as that which beclouds the mind of the sprinkler or the baptizer of babies.

All that Christ demands of a man as a prerequisite to baptism is believe with the heart (intellect, affections, and will) that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. He who demands more than this demands too much. He is more particular than God; he presumes to require of him who would enter into the divine family more than God himself requires. He exalts himself above God by assuming that he can complete that which God, for some cause, left imperfect. He is too wise, too good. To such a one Solomon wisely says: “Be not righteous overmuch; neither make thyself overwise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself?”

Of the man who has not been immersed, but who desires to be, we have the right to ask: Do you believe with your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, and do you confess him as your Lord? (See Rom. 10:9, 10.) And of the man who has been immersed, and who desires to work and worship in fellowship with us, we have a right to ask: Did you believe with your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, and did you confess him as your Lord? Who cannot see that the same state of mind and heart that prepares a man for baptism at my hands prepares him to receive the institution at the hands of any other?

The trouble with those people whom Paul immersed again at Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7) was, they did not believe that God had raised Jesus from the dead, nor had they confessed him as their Lord. They had only been baptized into John’s baptism for (into) the remission of sins. They had been baptized into John instead of into Jesus. But the baptism of John had ceased on the earth, and that of Jesus had been commanded. So Paul said unto them: “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him who should come after him, that is, on Jesus.” And when they heard this, “they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.” This is the only case of rebaptism in the New Testament. These people were baptized, in the first place, “for [eis] the remission of sins;” but they did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus, nor were they baptized into him. When we find people who have been immersed; but who did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus, and who did not take him as their Lord, we ought to instruct them in the way of the Lord more perfectly; and when they do so believe and confess, we ought to reimmerse them. But no man has a right to reimmerse another who was baptized believing in Jesus as the resurrected Son of God and confessing him as his Lord. He who does it is “righteous overmuch;” he has made himself “overwise;” and he is in danger of destruction. Solomon says to him, “Why shouldest thou destroy thyself?” and Paul exhorts us to learn “not to go beyond the things which are written.” It is as dangerous to add to as it is to take from the word of God; and every division that has arisen among the people of God, so far as I remember, began in adding to, rather than in taking from, the requirements of Christ.

James A. Harding, “What a Brother Editor Thinks, With Some Comments Thereon,” The Way 2 (July 1900) 98 (emphases are mine, JMH).

JMH Comments:

  1. Harding is a stickler for Alexander Campbell’s fundamental insight that all that is required for immersion is a trust in Christ, that is, to believe that he is the Christ, the Son of God (this confession–involving the affections and will as well intellect–includes repentance). 
  2. Harding recognizes that a biblical baptismal theology is fundamentally about entering into a relationship with the Father, Son and Spirit rather than exclusively focused on the remission of sins as the design of baptism. That relationship is a “greater blessing” than the remission of sins itself because it is more inclusive of all the benefits God gives to his people through baptism. And clearly understanding the meaning of being baptized “into” the communion of the Father, Son and Spirit is not something any one fully understands at their baptism. Instead of understanding, believers trustingly obey and the Father gives what he promised even when we do not understand what we are receiving.
  3. Harding recognizes that “rebaptists” are fundamentally sectarian in several ways.  (a) They add to the requirements of the Lord for salvation and thus bind something that God did not bind which places them in the position of exalting themselves above God.  (b) They divide the body of Christ by presuming that some are not part of the body when they are.  (c) They substitute a creed for the confession. (d) Their zeal to identify themselves as distinct from the Baptists has blinded them to their own factionalism.
  4. The disciples in Acts 19 were actually baptized for the remission of sins under John’s baptismal commission. They were rebaptized because they did not understand the confession of Jesus as Lord and giver of the Holy Spirit. If rebaptists are consistent, according to Harding, then anyone who did not understand that God gives his Spirit through baptism (as a promise attached to baptism) should also be rebaptized.  Baptism is as much for the giving of the Spirit as it is the remission of sins. Indeed, Harding would stress that the giving of the Spirit–entering into personal relationship with God through the Holy Spirit–is more fundamental and a greater blessing than the remission of sins itself.


8 Responses to “Harding on Rebaptism: “Rank Sectarianism””

  1.   Brian Says:

    Wow…”the near future” became the next day. Thank you for posting this so quickly after my inquiry. Your diligence in educating and responding to your readers is greatly appreciated.

  2.   Terrell Lee Says:

    Harding’s logic and passion are compelling. While I generally agree with him, I fear I have not been as passionate as I should have been in my discussions with others. These words make me want to call everyone with whom I’ve ever discussed the subject of rebaptism and tell them that to my words I’d like to add an exclamation point!!!

  3. Profile photo of Bobby Valentine  Bobby Valentine Says:

    He was passionate … I like that.

  4.   rich Says:

    i am thinking about giving this to the church that told lorrie that she needed to be rebaptised…
    it was a wed. night class and an elder was setting next to me a good friend and could see the look on my face .. kind of like the finger on the trigger of a 45 twichin a whole bunch…. he kept tellin me to be still…i was for once ….
    and regret it and have not gone back ….
    it’s ok i don’t hold grudges, only rairly,
    but i kinda knew where that study was headed…
    so lorrie has some more un resolved issues with the “triditions of the church of christ”

    HAVE MERCY LORD

    blessing’s john mark and all

  5.   rich Says:

    foy e.wallase’s daughter or grand daughter… she i think was about my age. AThe time i was about 38.

    the point is …

    i would presume”LORRIE WAS AS WELL TAUGHT AS ANY ”
    WHICH I WOULD CONSIDER UNDERSTATEMENT UNDER THE CIRCUMSTANCES KNOWING THE ONE TAUGHT
    AND UNDERSTANDING WHO TAUGHT HER.

    BLESSINGS

  6.   rich Says:

    p.s. lorrie is my wife

  7.   Kim Says:

    Jesus told them to not only baptize in his name,,but he also told them to teach the ones being baptized,, so yes, a person being baptized should be taught the knowledge that they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, and that his spirit would help them to understand the Bible, and also would guide them in all areas of their life. If a person is not taught this, then thats very sad! as well as remission of sins,,it all goes together and should be taught to anyone being baptized.

    • Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

      Yes, it is sad. But it does not invalidate their trust in Jesus and their obedience to his command. It should be taught together, but faith is sufficient without knowing all that God does through baptism.

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