“The Achilles’ Heel of the New Unity Cult” (III)

By James W. Adams

That New Testament baptism – the baptism of the “Great Commission – constitutes a veritable “heel of Achilles” of the new unity cult spearheaded by W. Carl Ketcherside is evident from the complicated efforts which the gentleman puts forth to cover his views on the subject and to palliate his inconsistencies. He literally pollutes the pure air of intellectually honest investigation by dragging one red herring after another across the path of his discussion at every crucial step. New Testament teaching on the subjects, action, and design of baptism is as clear as the proverbial bell. The difficulties, which hinder the progress of truth and create division among professed followers of Jesus rise not from ambiguities in Divine Revelation but from the Satan-engendered tendency of men to be wise above and beyond what is written. The reason baptism gives our errant brother and his colleagues in the new unity cult difficulty is to be found in the fallacious and unscriptural character of the premises upon which the cult’s search for unity and fellowship is predicated.

Mercy Transcends Revelation?

Ketcherside constantly and contemptuously charges that members of professed churches of Christ (in all “twenty-five” divisions of the so called “heirs of the Restoration Movement” except his own) are sectarian legalists who are ignorant of the true grace of God. As I have noted in a previous article, he spends the major part of a dissertation on “Baptism” in the May, 1977 issue of Mission Messenger attempting to establish that grace and mercy can transcend prescribed conditions of salvation, particularly with reference to immersion in water. I freely acknowledge he does this while averring he is not arguing, “that God will save any person who has not been immersed.” Herein lies my vindication for charging that the crusading editor of Mission Messenger is afflicted with spiritual schizophrenia.

It is impossible, in this review, to quote continuously, from Ketcherside’s voluminous ramblings, long sections of his verbose rhetoric. To do so would make my review endless and discouraging to the average reader. It will suffice for me to note that he spends a tremendous amount of space arguing that God has the right to extend saving grace and mercy in cases where He deems there exist vindicating circumstances without regard to prescribed conditions of their enjoyment set forth in His New Testament Revelation. Of God he says:

What he does in any given situation is the divine will for that situation, and is therefore consistent with every announced divine principle, and it is not subject to human review or criticism (pp. 72, 73).

Having said this, he cites Romans 9: 11-18 as evidence of the truth of his assertion.

While I could correctly take issue with Ketcherside’s analogy between God’s choice of Jacob over Esau in reference to the physical lineage of the promised Messiah and the speculative, hence wholly unwarranted, view that God will extend mercy beyond prescribed conditions of gospel obedience, I will not argue the point except to categorically deny its validity. I am not at all disposed to waste time and space arguing with our speculative brother about what God “has a right to do.” Being God, He has the right to do anything He in His infinite wisdom and goodness sees fit to do, and what He does in reference to the salvation of any person in the final judgment, I will not only acquiesce in completely but will be filled with joy because of it. I have read and I understand the lesson of the wages paid to the “eleventh hour laborer” in our Lord’s parable (Mt. 20:6-16).

Since I am a fallible, finite creature, I have no right to sit in judgment on what God may or may not see fit to do. The only limitations of Gods actions are either self-imposed or they are limitations of his own nature as God. There are some things God cannot do. Some of the things, which He cannot do, are those which he chooses not to do by reason of the fact that they are inconsistent with His will. Others He cannot do because to do them would antagonize His nature as God. for instance, “God cannot lie” (Heb. 6:18). Why is it that God cannot lie? He is a God of truth. Truth is always consistent. Hence, God cannot lie. It is safe to say that God cannot do anything contrary to His nature as God.

All of this discussion is simply a red herring, which Ketcherside has dragged across the path of his unity-fellowship theory to cover his tracks. He recognizes the problem his theory poses relative to the pious unimmersed by reason of his arbitrary insistence that immersion in water is the one act of obedience to Christ essential to fellowship. He recognizes that his arbitrary disregard of the essentiality of other acts enjoined by the sovereign will of Christ as king on the ground that such individuals are “honestly mistaken” poses the dilemma of the unimmersed person who is also “honestly mistaken” about the action of baptism, yet who is summarily rejected by him. He, therefore, deems it necessary to insinuate the possibility of hope for his unimmersed “brother in prospect” on the basis of pure speculation from the font of human wisdom regarding the possibility of eternal salvation by reason of Divine grace, mercy, and love transcending the prescribed limits of the revealed will of Christ.

I ask our readers candidly: Am I justly regarded as a sectarian legalist and ignorant of the true grace of God because I refuse to presume upon the wisdom of God by practically, if not theoretically, extending hope to the pious unimmersed beyond and above what is written in recognizing any kind or degree of Christian fellowship as existing between them and me? Ketcherside would have you think so!

The Re-baptism Question Revived

Another of Ketcherside’s red herrings is the revival of the old re-baptism question. This was a question much agitated among professed churches of Christ a generation or so ago. The Gospel Advocate and David Lipscomb championed the view that one’s “baptism” was valid so long as its action was right (immersion) and its design to obey God. The reader will observe that I place the terms “baptism” and “re-baptism” in this connection in quotation marks. The reason for this is: I do not believe that what some people call “baptism” and practice as such is in fact New Testament baptism. From this standpoint, I do not believe there is any such thing as “re-baptism.” One has either been baptized or he has not. If he has not been baptized, he must be. If he has been baptized, he cannot in fact be baptized “again” in the New Testament sense of the term baptism. The Firm Foundation and Austin McGary in particular contended that the believing penitent must understand that he is being baptized in order to be saved-“for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38), and that those who have submitted to an immersion in water as an act of obedience to God (what they suppose to be such I to declare to the world salvation which they already enjoy have not in fact submitted to New Testament baptism, hence must be baptized.

Those who concurred with the Gospel Advocate stance in this matter accepted as “Christians” those who had complied with “baptism” as taught and practiced by orthodox Baptists, hence “extended to them the right hand of fellowship” (Gal. 2:9) upon their coming out of their Baptist affiliation and renouncing the unscriptural doctrines and practices of that fraternity. Conversely, those who agreed with the Firm Foundation posture insisted that “Baptism” as taught and practiced by orthodox Baptists was not New Testament baptism, hence that members of orthodox Baptists communions had not in fact obeyed the gospel and had to be baptized in the New Testament sense of that expression before they could be “given the right hand of fellowship.”

In the passing years, little by little, those who constitute the churches of Christ have almost universally come to question, if not overtly challenge, the validity of “baptism” as taught and practiced by orthodox Baptists, hence refuse to extend to them “the right hand of fellowship” until they have complied with New Testament baptism. We believe this to be the only consistent course, which we can follow if we actually believe baptism to be essential to the enjoyment of present salvation and the hope of everlasting life. Brethren generally, however, will not refuse to extend “the right hand of fellowship” to an individual from a Baptist body who insists that he was in fact, at least in his heart, baptized in order to be saved, though they may entertain some doubts regarding the reliability of the memory of the person who so contends. I believe this to be right also, and I practice it. The fact remains, however, that no orthodox Baptist considers his “baptism” to have been in any sense essential to his salvation from sin, unless, when lie was “baptized,” he was either too young to understand, too emotionally disturbed to act rationally, or deaf, dumb, and blind, hence unable to comprehend the fact that his “baptism” (administered by an ordained Baptist preacher, authorized by the vote of an Orthodox Baptist church upon acceptable evidence of an experience of grace (salvation), and, expressly declared to be performed so that the candidate might “afterwards (by the giving of the right hand of fellowship) be inducted into full fellowship with the church”) was “because he was saved” and not “in order to be saved.”

Ketcherside’s fellowship theory and unity movement demand the revival of this old controversy, however he goes a step further than Lipscomb or any who agreed with Lipscomb were willing to go. Ketcherside believes we are in fellowship with Baptists as they are despite their denominational affiliations, false doctrines, and unscriptural practices in work, worship, and organization. He believes that plain churches of Christ constitute a denomination as much so as the Baptists, and he does not even recommend a change in party status. He avers that he sees “no value in exchanging one party for another.” As I have said before, there is no essential difference in Ketcherside’s proposals than the old, denominational concept of “essential Christian unity in the invisible church.”

Form vs. Design in Divine Service

Previously, I have charged that Ketcherside’s views on “fellowship” and the “one fact to believe and one act to obey” creed of his unity cult make form more important than design in gospel obedience or Divine service. This is true. Ketcherside insists upon immersion and will accept no other act as “New Testament baptism.” Yet, he insists that an individual does not have to be baptized in order to be saved for the act to constitute “New Testament baptism.” Oh, he hedges by saying, “There are at least nine ‘designs’ for baptism set forth in the new covenant scriptures” (Mission Messenger, June, 1973. p. 8.3). His view is that all an individual must do is to be baptized to obey God, but in this current issue of his propaganda sheet he does a great deal of verbal camouflaging in an attempt to give a semblance of doctrinal respectability to his permissiveness.

Ketcherside argues “forgiveness of sins is not man’s design for baptism but God’s design for those who are baptized” (op. cit.). This sentence does not make sense. Fairly construed, it would mean that, when a person is baptized, he is not yet forgiven of his sins, but rather, he is simply a person for whom God purposes to do this. But hear our friend further. He says, “Forgiveness of sins is a judicial act. It is an executive act of pardon” (op. cit.). These statements are true as is the next; namely, “It takes place in the mind of God.” What our brother knows, but does not mention is the fact that Divine pardon is conditionally offered to sinners on the basis of the propitiatory offering of Jesus (Rom. 3:25,26), and that the conditions are faith, repentance, and baptism upon a confession of Jesus with the mouth (Mt. 28-18-20; Mk. 16:16,16; Lk. 24:46,47; Acts 2:38; 10:43,48; 22:16). Pardon, forgiveness, God’s way of justifying the sinner, is the primary design of baptism both as to God’s plan and man’s response. Incidentally, Ketcherside who makes so much of the kerygma should know that the central feature of the apostolic kerygma was the forgiveness of sin both from the standpoint of Divine, redemptive acts and human, ethical response. “However, the strongest incentive for repentance was the gracious offer of the forgiveness of sins. This was the central feature in the apostolic message – Acts 2:38; 3:19; 4:12; 5:31; 10:43” (The Essential Nature of New Testament Preaching, Robert L. Mounce. p. 84).

Despite these facts, Ketcherside says, concerning forgiveness of sins, “One does not obtain it by trading off or swapping any act or deed. It is not, therefore, the exclusive design of baptism and may not be the most important motivation … There are at least nine ‘designs’ for baptism set forth in the new covenant scriptures and the selection of one of these as the specific or superlative design which must be understood and recognized to establish the validity of obedience, to the exclusion or ignoring of the others, does not speak well for those who profess to revere all that the Spirit has spoken” (Mission Messenger, June. 1973, p. 83). This is another of Ketcherside’s red herrings. In teaching that the believing penitent must understand that he is being baptized in order to be saved by God from his sins through Christ by an act of Divine pardon, forgiveness is not to exclude or ignore anything the Spirit has said concerning baptism.

I am not sure what Ketcherside has in mind when he uses the figure “nine.” Some blessings acrue and relationships result from baptism, which are not necessarily to be regarded as motivating factors or the immediate designs of baptism. Acts 2:38 is a classic example of this fact. Peter does not say, “Repent ye, and be baptized everyone of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.” He says, “. . . for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The question to which Peter’s statement was a response was wrung from hearts convicted of the sin of crucifying the Lord of glory. “What shall we do?” unquestionably is to be understood as: What shall we do to be forgiven of our sin? Whatever the “gift of the Holy Spirit” was, and about this there is much controversy, it was some sort of Divine blessing conferred upon those whom God pardoned. There are multitudes of blessings belonging to the pardoned (saved) state of which the individual is not conscious at the time of his baptism and concerning which he must later be instructed. We neither exclude nor ignore these blessings or any of the obligations of the pardoned individual, which may relate to them. We insist only that at the time of baptism the individual must understand that he is being baptized in order to be saved. Many of what Ketcherside regards as separate designs of baptism actually inhere in the forgiveness of sins and are not different designs at all.

We do not, as Ketcherside grossly puts it, regard baptism as an “act or deed” in which we “trade” anything “off” or “swap” anything with God. We accept it along with faith, repentance, and confession simply as an appropriating condition of Divine forgiveness through the merit of the shed blood of Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God. In all of this, Ketcherside proves himself to be what he so decries, a gross legalist. He regards form above design.

A purely legal system, while its laws are predicated on benevolent design, cares little about the motivation of those it governs relative to their compliance. The system simply enjoins a certain course of conduct and demands compliance under threat of penalty. The scheme of human redemption, originating with God and executed by Christ, involves law and demands compliance, but it recognizes the deficiencies of its human subjects and provides for gracious deliverance from its penalties through Divine pardon on the basis of the sacrifice of Jesus. It proposes the development of God-likeness in man (the regeneration and sanctification of the whole man), hence concerns itself with motivation as well as overt compliance with form. Only immersion in water is New Testament baptism, but New Testament baptism is not immersion in water only. There must be a proper subject, the believing penitent who has confessed his faith with his mouth, and proper design-to be saved, i,e., receive the forgiveness of sins.

The Lord ordained that his followers, in the kingdom, “eat bread” and “drink the cup” in his memory, in commemoration of his death and sufferings on the cross, and in anticipation of his coming again. The church of God in Corinth came together into one place to eat the Lord’s Supper. They broke bread and drank the cup, among other things, but they did not do it for the right purpose. Yes, they supposed they acted in obedience to God because they came together to eat the Lord’s Supper. However, they ate and drank for the wrong purpose; they did not “discern the Lord’s body.” Under such circumstances, Paul said, “It is not possible to eat the Lord’s Supper” (ASV) or “it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat” (RSV) – They ate in obedience to God; they performed the right act; they used the right elements; but, they ate for the wrong reason. Hence, what they did was not in fact “to eat the Lord’s supper.”


Only eating bread and drinking the cup is the Lord’s Supper, but the Lord’s Supper is not eating bread and drinking the cup only. By the same token, only immersion is New Testament baptism, but New Testament baptism is not immersion only. Under the gospel system, form does not take precedence over design, W. Carl Ketcherside to the contrary notwithstanding!

August 2, 1973