By Greg Gwin
On November 8th and 9th, 1990, David Padfield met Don Phillips in debate on the subject of Bible baptism. Brother Padfield preaches the gospel in Evansville, Indiana, and labors with the Eastside congregation in that city. Mr. Phillips is the “senior pastor” of the First Baptist Church in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Anticipation for a profitable debate ran very high for several reasons. First, the debate propositions were very plainly worded and struck to the very heart of the important issue of baptism’s role in God’s plan of salvation (see below). It looked as though there would be no attempt by either debater to quibble or side-step the points of controversy. Second, the debate was to be held in the building of the First Baptist Church in Terre Haute where Mr. Phillips is the “pastor.” This congregation boasts a membership in excess of 1,000 persons. It appeared that an incredible opportunity to teach a large number of denominationalists had developed. In fact, some expressed a certain amazement that the Baptists would so freely offer an audience for such a discussion. Finally, Mr. Phillips seemed to be a worthy opponent. He has a doctorate degree, has taught in Baptist seminaries, and has engaged in other debates. The outlook for a good debate could hardly have been better.
While everything appeared to be good in advance, disappointment set in as the debate began. Attendance was good for both nights, ranging from 150 to 200. Brethren from 10 states were in the audience, coming from as far away as Texas and Florida. Some from institutional churches of Christ in Terre Haute, Evansville, and Illinois were also present. But, the Baptists did not come. Only a handful from Mr. Phillips’ large congregation came out to hear this important discussion.
On the first night of the discussion, brother Padfield affirmed the proposition: “The Scriptures teach that water baptism is for (in order to obtain) the remission of sins.” He affirmed that men are saved by faith, but not faith alone. In an interesting opening speech, Padfield used John 1:12, which is sometimes a Baptist “proof text,” and showed that believers have the “power (right) to become the sons of God,” The question for the rest of the debate was, “How do believers exercise their right to become the children of God?” In his other affirmative speeches, Padfield used the examples of the Ethiopian Eunuch and Saul of Tarsus to answer the question. He made reference to passages like Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38, John 3:5, and others.
In his rebuttal of Padfield’s affirmative arguments, Mr. Phillips demonstrated his lack of respect for the inspired Scriptures. He claimed that our own personal “experience” is a fundamental part of interpreting God’s word. Phillips insisted that salvation was totally unconditional. He maintained that faith was not a condition, rather a response. He argued that most of the references to baptism in the New Testament had to do with Spirit baptism, and some that seem to discuss water baptism had actually been incorrectly interpreted. Finally, he stated that some of the passages that Padfield had used did not really belong in the inspired text, they had been added later by copyists and commentators. Padfield produced a large pair of scissors and urged Phillips to specify which passages should be cut out of the Bible. Mr. Phillips refused to make such a specification.
On the second night of the debate, Mr. Phillips affirmed the proposition: “The Scriptures teach that salvation comes at the point of faith, before and without water baptism.” It was very difficult to determine any definite line of argumentation that he used to try to prove this proposition. At one point he spent several minutes talking about the difference between the left and right side of the brain. He maintained that “legalists” like Padfield are using only the left side of their brain, while God had actually designed the Bible to speak to the right side – the artistic side – of the brain. He argued that the apostle Peter was himself a “legalist.”
Brother Padfield was obviously hampered in rebuttal because Phillips had not given any concise argument in his affirmative. Padfield continued to press some of the points that had been made on the first night. He rebuked Phillips for placing more reliance on psychology than the Bible. Padfield used his final speech to discuss in detail the conversion of Cornelius. He demonstrated that salvation was not attained by Cornelius’ morality, his “experience” of being visited by an angel, or by simple faith. Rather, Cornelius was saved by hearing and obeying the words of the gospel – including baptism.
While Mr. Phillips, credentials were impressive, he was a disappointment in the debate. There was good reason to wonder if he had spent any time in preparation for this discussion. Brother Padfield, on the other hand, did a masterful job of presenting the truth on this vital subject. His many hours of preparation were obvious to all. He had done a very professional job of preparing over 130 charts for the debate. It is unfortunate that he was able to use only about 40 of these because of the poor job that Phillips did.
We are confident that good resulted from this discussion. The truth was defended, brethren were strengthened, and several non-Christians heard the gospel for the first time. The discussion was conducted in a very orderly fashion. No points of order were called by either moderator. (John Welch from Indianapolis moderated for brother Padfield.) We learned later that a man who had traveled nearly 200 miles to hear the debate was baptized for the remission of sins a few days later. He credited the truth he had learned at the debate as a prime factor in his decision.
A debt of thanks is owed to Troy Bell and the brethren in Casey, Illinois, who were instrumental in arranging for this discussion. Troy is a member of the church in Casey and drives a UPS delivery truck in Terre Haute. He had engaged Mr. Phillips in private study and had then convinced him to enter into a public discussion. Troy’s zeal and enthusiasm for the truth is obvious to all. Special thanks is given to several other Christians in Casey who opened their homes to those who had traveled to attend the debate.
We commend David Padfield for his stand for the truth, and for the long hours of work which preceded this debate. For those who may be in a position to help, we note that brother Padfield has recently lost a sizable amount of his financial support. If you can help, please contact him at 2612 S. Villa Drive, Evansville, IN 47414 (phone: 812-477-9433).
Guardian of Truth XXXV: 2, pp. 38-39
January 17, 1991