By C. Robert Wetzel
Crew cuts were popular among boys in the late 1940s. What distinguished them from today’s short haircuts was that the closely cropped hair of the crew cut had to stand straight up. This necessitated at least two occasions of special care. It took a bit of thick hair gel to achieve vertical status, and a weekly trip to the barber to ensure the perfect shape.
Hence all through high school, I made my Saturday visit to Charlie’s Barber Shop in Hugoton, Kansas, to nurture this dubious bit of fashion. I think I must have been about 14 when I received an instructive lesson in biblical discussion during one of these haircuts.
One of Charlie’s three barbers, Oscar (not his real name), was cutting my hair. He knew I was a member of First Christian Church and that I intended to prepare for ministry. Oscar was a lay preacher for a local Evangelical church. He said to me rather confidentially, “Someone told me you people down at the Christian church believe baptism is for the remission of sins. They don’t really believe that, do they?”
Of course, he knew that was exactly what was taught at the Christian church, but I did not realize I was being led into an effort to straighten me out doctrinally. He evidently wanted my doctrine to be as upright as my hair. Thus I responded naively, “I think that is what we believe.”
He feigned horror, “No, surely you don’t believe a person cannot be saved without baptism.” I left his chair with a good haircut, but greatly puzzled about what I was supposed to believe about baptism. Thus the next day I asked my preacher.
Making Socrates Proud
Jim Keffer had only recently come to First Christian Church. He was a straightforward preacher with that firm sense of conviction that reflected his Johnson Bible College education. When I told Jim what had happened, he suggested a response to Oscar that would have made Socrates proud.
I could not wait until my next haircut, and I made sure I ended up in Oscar’s chair. Following Jim’s strategy, I asked, “Oscar, when Saul of Tarsus saw the vision of Christ on the road to Damascus, was he saved?”
“He most certainly was,” Oscar responded.
“Then,” I continued, “when he arrived in Damascus blind, and he fasted and prayed for three days, was he a Christian and hence were his sins forgiven.”
Oscar said, “Of course his sins had been forgiven. He had been saved.”
“Then surely,” I said, “when Ananias came to Saul and healed him of his blindness, according to your belief, Saul would have had his sins forgiven.”
“Of course,” Oscar affirmed, wondering why I was so dense with these continuing questions.
It was at this moment that I applied the Keffer ax: “Then why,” I asked, “after Ananias healed him, did he say, ‘And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16). We used the King James Version in those days.
Oscar was stunned. He thought for a while and finally said, “I will have to check that passage in the Greek.” It was a credit to him that he knew some Greek. But the conversation ended, and I went on my way with the same satisfaction as when our football team had beaten our archrival, Liberal.
A few days later my dad came back from getting a haircut. He said, “What is it with you and Oscar? He told me he hated to cut your hair. He said you had the oddest-shaped head he had ever cut.”
In the future, both for Oscar’s sake and mine, I always waited for another barber. They did not seem to mind cutting the hair of a boy with an odd-shaped head.
Winning or Losing?
Over the years, I have reflected on this experience. As a boy it certainly gave me an appreciation for the teaching I received at First Christian Church. And having participated in high school debate, I envisioned taking this enthusiasm into my preaching and personal evangelism. When I was later introduced to the writings of Alexander Campbell, I read his debates with admiration and satisfaction.
It was only later, when reading some debates of lesser-known figures, that I was repulsed at the vitriolic character of these supposed Christian exchanges. I remember one in particular from which I came away thinking that the debaters, without using one word of profanity, had effectively demeaned, insulted, and vilified each other in ways that would have made the average political debate seem like a tea-time exchange.
Furthermore, it did not take long in ministry to discover one could win an argument (at least in one’s own mind), but alienate the person you are trying to bring to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. This is not to deny the need for open and frank discussion of doctrinal issues. We certainly have ample scriptural precedent for that. But it is a special grace to be able to have such a discussion while all the time showing the love of Christ to the persons with whom we are talking.
I shall always be grateful to Jim Keffer for showing me how one must consider the entire scriptural context, rather than simply choosing a few texts that support a preconceived notion. And I am grateful to a church that taught me the beauty of Christian baptism as the culmination of the rebirth that takes place in Christ.
Granted, we of the Restoration Movement have sometimes been characterized as a one-message group (i.e., baptism). But as earlier articles in Christian Standard have amply demonstrated, there are good reasons for affirming the biblical view of baptism in a church world where there is so much confusion as to both the mode and the purpose of baptism.
Accepting His Grace
We are called upon to give witness to the truth of the One who said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” When a person is convicted that God revealed himself in Jesus Christ, and hence Jesus calls us to obedience in him, baptism is one of many decisive steps toward accepting his grace and being a part of the body of Christ.
By and large, I see churches that are heirs of the Stone-Campbell Movement giving a broad witness to the truth of Christ in doctrine, evangelism, and benevolence. Characterizing ourselves as a movement, we have seen ourselves as churches within the whole body of Christ, both sharing in a common faith in Christ, but also giving witness to understandings of which other parts of the body of Christ might well profit.
Believers’ baptism by immersion for the forgiveness of sins is certainly one of those witnesses we have to offer to the larger Christian world. For the unbeliever coming to belief in Christ, this biblical view of baptism will simply be a natural and beautiful act of coming into Christ. But to a believer who was sprinkled as a baby and in adulthood has faithfully served their church, the biblical teaching on baptism may be difficult to accept.
Not long ago, I was contacted by a family from a church I had once served. An elderly member of their family had decided she wanted to be baptized and she wanted me to do it. She had been a faithful member of a church that had only required sprinkling for baptism. Now she wanted to be immersed.
She said, “I do not think my salvation is at stake, but I think I should do it.” When she said that, should I have said, “If you have not been baptized by immersion for the remission of your sins, then your salvation certainly is at stake”? I think not. She was ready to be obedient to what she had now come to understand in Scripture, and she was fulfilling “all obedience.”
And so with the help of three strong relatives, she and her wheelchair were lowered into the baptistery, and I took her confession of faith and baptized her. Following her baptism (and a bit of drying off), she was surrounded by about 25 relatives to pose for a family picture. It was a happy occasion.
Throughout the history of the Restoration Movement we have wrestled with how to apply our understanding of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins. There are those who said, “No matter how much you believed in Christ and served him, if you were not so baptized, you would be lost.” I do not hear many saying that today, and obviously I am not saying that.
On the other hand, there were those who took the opposite position by saying, “If a person is satisfied with their baptism (sprinkling as a child or an adult), then we should not bother them with our understanding of Scripture. Welcome them into fellowship.” I am not saying that either. (See my Christian Standard article in the April 19/26, 2009, issue.)
What I am saying is we need to be faithful in preaching and teaching what Scripture says, and leave it to God to sort out all of the doctrinal confusions that have arisen in the history of the church, trusting that he is the loving Father who is always ready to welcome us prodigals home.
I am grateful for all of my teachers, including Jim Keffer and his predecessor, Lloyd Robbins, who taught me that what we believe in Christian churches is not as odd as what Oscar wanted me to believe. And my odd-shaped head? Perhaps that, too, was more of an expression of Oscar’s frustration with a 14-year-old boy who had led him into a doctrinal trap. At least I haven’t worried about it over the years.
But then, just recently I visited a local church. A woman I had not seen for some time sat down behind me. She said to me, “I could tell who you were by just looking at the back of your head.” Perhaps Oscar was right on at least one account.
C. Robert Wetzel is chancellor at Emmanuel School of Religion in Johnson City, Tennessee.