[Editor’s note: this question is an “insider” question from someone in the churches of Christ. For those who are not part of this fellowship, please understand and perhaps excuse that I am publishing a question that you may not be able to relate to.]
I am a college student and a part of the Church of Christ. While at college, I have had the chance to study with many different people from differing Christian backgrounds and I see a zeal and love for God and true discipleship to Christ and yet as always we differ on the place and purpose of baptism. This has caused me a lot of heartache and confusion. I have read F. Legard Smith’s work on this dilemma and still I struggle. Jesus says we will know them by their fruit and he prayed for unity. I am struggling to know how to stand for truth and still be accepting and loving without compromising this. Unfortunately, my traditional background has not helped much in this front. I struggle because I see other groups diligently working to produce fruit of the Spirit, albeit despite doctrinal differences, and bringing glory to God through it. I understand sincerity is not an excuse to disregard truth but I am bothered by the divisive spirit I sometimes perceived growing up in the Church of Christ. It makes me feel like no one ever finds both spirit and truth. That’s a lot for one question but to sum it up I suppose I want to know how you have found any peace with this dilemma and trust in God in it.
I can completely relate with the thoughts and feelings that are rolling around in your head. Here is the way I see it. The fact is that the Bible clearly and unambiguously teaches that a person is forgiven of their sins and receive the indwelling gift of the Holy Spirit when they are baptized into Christ (Acts 2:38 and other passages). This does not happen outside of baptism. It actually happens AT baptism. This is what the Bible teaches. I am not going to share all the relevant passages, as I assume you know them. (but here is an article which explains this: baptism notes )
You are also right that a large majority of those who say they are Christians have either not undergone immersion at all, or if they have, there was not a clear sign repentance of discipleship before baptism, in which case I tend to assume that they just got wet when they were immersed.
These are the biblical facts. I have no intention of ever compromising with the truth. I will not teach differently, and I will not pretend that the Bible teaches differently.
Then there is the problem that you are having, which is that the Christian group you are part of has a very bad history of being divisive, judgmental and exclusivistic in its treatment of other believers. This is not good. We have pre-judged people unfairly. We have been arrogant and even obnoxious. This is a sin and it is something we ought to be embarrassed about and to repent over. There are two options for you in this regard:
1. You can renounce both your past behavior and that of the group you are part of, then move on and begin being more charitable to people, listen to them, teach them patiently and then leave them to make their own decisions and then respect their decision, even if you do not agree.
2. You can allow your grief and guilt over having been so judgmental to cause you to abandon the truth of the Bible and cease teaching the truth on biblical conversion, not because it is wrong, but because you taught it in an unchristian spirit and want to make up for it by overreacting (in my opinion) and no longer teaching the truth about the place of baptism in Christianity.
Speaking for myself, I decided many years ago to stop judging people with regard to where they are at with God. I am perfectly happy to let God decide who will go to heaven and who will go to hell. I believe that it is my job to teach what the Bible teaches and let people decide what they will do about it. There are a LOT of people about whom I am very concerned about their salvation. But, I am prepared to leave that in God’s hands. You mention that there are a lot of very sincere and devoted believers who have not been biblically baptized and therefore, if you and I are correct, are not saved. This bothers you. It makes you wonder if you might be wrong about their salvation. It bothers me as well, but what can I do? What we can do is teach the truth to these people. If they are truly sincere, they will accept what the Bible says. That is what happened in Acts 18 in Ephesus. But what if they stick to their false doctrine? Does that mean they are going to hell? Again, I choose to let God handle that question. He is in the judging business. I try to continue to treat people like this with respect, to honor their Christian activities and to leave their conversion to God.
It is true that Jesus said we will know them by their fruit, and it is also true that this can be confusing at times because what Jesus said is not a prescription, but a description. Some of these sincere, committed believers who have false doctrine certainly seem to have much of the fruit one would look for in their lives. Doesn’t this mean that they are saved? My answer is that Jesus is stating a general principle in Matthew 7. He is not making some sort of doctrinal statement. So-called “fruit” is not an absolute, 100% proof one way or another, but it is a general rule we can use when judging if someone is with God or not. Bottom line, God is the judge and we need to remain content with that. It is certainly not our place to dishonor the works that people do out of sincere love for God, just because they do not hold to the doctrine you or I hold to. Our problem as a people of God has not been false doctrine, but being overly divisive, schismatic and judgmental. Let us get rid of the latter rather than change our doctrine.
I hope this helps.