Faith. Family. Ducks.TM
Unless you live under the proverbial rock, you’ve heard about and/or seen the Robertsons. The Duck Dynasty program that focuses on the Robertson family and its Duck Commander duck call business has become a cultural phenomenon. In most episodes, these self-proclaimed rednecks goof around for twenty minutes or so before closing in prayer around the dinner table.
I watched the program for the first time back in January, and I’ve been hooked ever since—I’ve even read Phil’s book (Happy, Happy, Happy), and Willie and Korie’s book (The Duck Commander Family), and I still plan to pick up Uncle Si’s book. I don’t like so-called “reality television,” but I have to admit that I have truly enjoyed nearly every episode of Duck Dynasty. It’s very funny. I love the family values portrayed on the screen at a time when most shows tear down the family. And I love that they are so willing to talk about their faith and end nearly every show with a prayer “in Jesus’ name.”
The Robertsons have come under fire for being so open about their faith. Many folks are upset that the Robertsons are “forcing their religion on them.” As Uncle Si might say, “Hey Jack, if you don’t like it, change the channel.” Some liberals in the media have been shocked by the success of the program. How could a bunch of intelligent bearded rednecks who talk about God and guns all the time possibly be so popular? Um, maybe it’s because a large portion of Americans love God and their 2nd Amendment right to bear arms, and they are tired of most of the trash that comes on TV. So it’s refreshing to see a family that loves each other through thick and thin.
But the Robertsons’ faith has been called into question by some other people—Christians. Sadly, it’s not a surprise to see Christians attack other professing Christians since it is so common. I certainly believe that we need to lovingly and firmly point out errors. There are so many false teachers out there who are leading people astray and refuse to preach the gospel, such as many, if not most, of the “televangelists.” Do the Robertsons fall into this category? Many conservative Christians have accused them of believing and teaching a false gospel. Is this accurate? Are the Robertsons really wolves in sheep’s clothing?
The main point of contention is that the Robertson family has faithfully attended White’s Ferry Road Church of Christ, and the Church of Christ “denomination” allegedly teaches baptismal regeneration.1 As such, these concerned Christians believe that the Robertsons (and the Church of Christ) add baptism to the gospel and are therefore guilty of preaching another gospel, an action condemned in Galatians 1:8–9 in the strongest possible terms.
Is it fair to claim that these folks believe in baptismal regeneration? It depends on who you ask and how you define baptismal regeneration. In its purest (or better “impurest”) form, baptismal regeneration is the belief that baptism itself regenerates a person. That is, the act of baptism is what saves them from their sin and gives them new life. Others would define baptismal regeneration as the belief that baptism is somehow intimately connected with the gospel, but baptism itself does not regenerate the person—God does when a person places saving faith in Christ alone. As such, those who hold to the latter view would often admit when pressed that a person could be saved without having been baptized.
It’s rather imprecise and unfair to claim that those in the Church of Christ believe in baptismal regeneration. In my experience, most of its members do not believe that baptism regenerates anyone. They would be much closer to the second definition given above—that baptism is so closely tied to salvation. I have met some people in the Church of Christ whose beliefs would fit the first view, although they wouldn’t use the term regeneration. From what I’ve seen, these people are definitely in the minority (and usually part of an older generation in the Church of Christ). I believe that the vast majority of younger generations in the Church of Christ (70 years old on down) would say that a person can be saved without being baptized. This is likely not as prevalent in the non-instrumental group, which tends to be more adamant in their position on baptism and more legalistic in general. I’m not positive, but based on images from their church’s website, I believe the church attended by the Robertsons does use instruments.
Perhaps I should explain my experience with this group since I’ve mentioned it a few times. I grew up attending a “Christian Church” (part of the same “denomination”). I attended one of their church camps every summer for about ten years and later served as the dean for the camp. I earned two undergraduate degrees from a Church of Christ Bible college. I even pastored a Church of Christ congregation for about three years. They hired me even after I told them that I disagreed with them on a few major points of doctrine, including their view on baptism. I’m quite certain it would be accurate to say that I’ve had the baptism discussion/debate with Church of Christ members hundreds of time. I am very familiar with their beliefs. That being said, I do not believe, nor have I ever believed that a person must be baptized to be saved.
So let’s get back to the question at hand. Are the Robertsons false teachers? Have they believed, and do they promote, a false gospel that cannot save? Ultimately, only God knows where these individuals stand before Him. He is the only one who truly knows their hearts. For our part, we can look at the fruit of their lives and make educated guesses about whether they are saved or not. But this can be quite tricky when dealing with someone in the Church of Christ (or other groups for that matter). Let me give you an example based on numerous conversations I’ve had with members of this group.
Me: So you’re saying that baptism is necessary for salvation?
Them: Yes. Jesus commanded believers to be baptized, and so did Peter in Acts 2:38 (they might also go on to cite Mark 16:16; Acts 22:16; Romans 6:3–4; 1 Peter 3:21).
Me: So can a person be saved if they haven’t been baptized?2
Them: Yeah, but if they truly believe in Christ then they should obey His command to be baptized. If they don’t obey this command, are they really sincerely following Him?
Baptism is heavily emphasized in the Church of Christ, not necessarily because so many of them believe that the act of being baptized regenerates or saves a person, but because they look at Scripture and see that time and time again, baptism immediately follows a profession of faith. As such, for many members of this group, baptism is intimately linked with salvation because it was the first thing a person did upon believing the gospel. So if you were to hear someone from the Church of Christ give a report where they said that 12 people were baptized during a week of camp (or something like that), what many of them would mean is that 12 people heard and believed the gospel, and then obediently followed Christ’s command to be baptized.
To outsiders, this sounds like they are adding baptism to the gospel—and undoubtedly some of them are guilty of doing this, and I believe it is very wrong. But for most of those in the group, what they mean is that a person trusts in Christ alone to save them from their sins, and they immediately demonstrated that faith by being baptized. This emphasis on baptism has led to confusion. Some within the group hear about baptism so often that they end up thinking that a person is not saved until they are baptized (and it’s true that some of the group’s early members did teach this).
Ultimately, what it comes down to is this: What or whom are the Robertsons trusting for salvation? If they are depending on their baptism to save them, then they believe a false gospel and need to hear the true gospel. If they are trusting in Christ alone to save them from their sins and believe that baptism is an early expression of that faith, then they are brothers and sisters in Christ who hold to a view that overemphasizes baptism to the point that it confuses people both inside and outside of the movement.
It isn’t fair to lump all the Robertsons together because there are a lot of them, and they likely have some different views on the subject. I don’t know their hearts, but based on what I’ve seen from the Robertsons, I think they do trust in Christ alone for salvation, even though the way they might explain their faith may sound as if they have added baptism to the gospel message. For example, in his book, Happy, Happy, Happy, Phil Robertson has a chapter near the end of the book where he shares several stories about the people that he’s baptized in the river near their house. At first glance, this sounds like he is only concerned about getting people baptized, but when you look closer, you can see that this only takes place after he has opened the Bible with them and shared the good news of Christ’s death for our sins, His burial, and His Resurrection. Does Phil Robertson know what the gospel is? Check out this popular video:
From the six-minute mark until about the seven-minute mark, he says that the gospel is that Jesus died for our sins, was buried, and rose again. Guess what? That’s exactly how Paul defines the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3–4. So yes, I do believe he understands the gospel, even if his emphasis on baptism tends to confuse the issue (although he doesn’t mention baptism here).
With that being said, I think it’s important to point out that many of the Christians who are critical of the Robertsons or have condemned them are guilty of underemphasizing baptism or even performing it in a way that is not practiced in the New Testament. This may be due to an overreaction against those who emphasize baptism, but that’s not an acceptable excuse for ignoring, minimizing, or “mispracticing” one of Christ’s commands.
I appreciate the zeal for the purity of the gospel that some of these folks have, and I would encourage all Christians to examine their beliefs (and those of others) to make sure they are not adding to or subtracting from the gospel. However, we also need to remember to be gracious toward fellow believers. God has been exceedingly gracious toward us. How can we fail to demonstrate some of that grace toward others? It is arrogant to think that one has a perfect understanding of all things theological, and that anyone who interprets the Bible differently is necessarily lost. Thankfully, God does not require us to be perfect in our theology to be saved (that would certainly be a works-based salvation). Yes, there is one right interpretation of Scripture, and yes, there is only one true gospel that can save someone from sin: salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. But not everyone articulates their understanding of the gospel in these exact words. In such cases, ask for clarification before condemning, and if you see the fruit of the Spirit exhibited strongly in their lives, then be prepared to give the benefit of the doubt to them.
Finally, I have scores of friends who faithfully attend Churches of Christ and have several colleagues at work who faithfully attend one of these churches in the area. By seeing the fruit of the Spirit in their lives over many years, I am confident that they are fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Based on what I’ve seen from the Robertsons, I think they would be in that camp too.
The Church of Christ, Church of Christ non-instrumental, Christian Church, and Disciples of Christ “denominations” are part of the Restoration Movement (or Stone-Campbell Movement). Historically, they have not viewed themselves as a denomination since their goal was to restore the New Testament church. Nevertheless, they have essentially become multiple denominations and there are several differences between the groups. ↩
In response to this question, I have heard a handful of hardline people say, “No. A person cannot be saved until they are baptized.” I have responded with a hypothetical situation. What if a person hears the gospel preached on Sunday morning, comes forward at the end of the service, repents, and professes faith in Christ in front of the congregation, and then when they are on their way to the baptistry, they suffer a heart attack and die? Would that person be saved? Most of the time, their response is, “Yes, they would be saved because God knows their hearts.” Although I have heard a couple people respond with, “I’m just glad I’m not the judge.” I think it is safe to say that the person who says this does not really understand the gospel, and they have added baptism as a requirement for salvation. What is interesting in their response is that it seems to indicate that they would condemn the person to hell while they believe that God would not. The fact that you think you would judge differently than God should be enough to let you know that your theology is askew. ↩