Keach on Inconsistent Congregationalists

In the 17th century, three main reformed camps were the Presbyterians, the Congregationalists, and the Baptists. The Presbyterians believed in a national church. Congregationalists believed the church consists of people who had been saved out of the world (the nation) who then gather together in congregations. No one was considered a member of the church until they had made a credible profession of saving faith and was thus admitted to the Lord’s Table. Baptists were Congregationalists who rejected infant baptism.

Keach recognized a great inconsistency in the Congregationalists. In fact, it was specifically this inconsistency that led to a controvery in New England, resulting in the Synod of 1662. The Congregationalists were faced very practically with Keach’s dilemma. They could not answer it, so they abandoned a key Congregationalist tenet and turned back towards a Presbyterian view, which did not restrict membership to those who had been called out of the world. This is known as the Half-Way Covenant.

As for our Brethren, called Congregational, I cannot tell what they mean by contending for the Practice of Pædo-Baptism, nor do I well know what their Sentiments are about it: they agree (as I do understand) with us (and other Christians,) that Baptism is an initiating Rite or Ordinance; now if their Infants are in Covenant with themselves, and are made visible Church-Members by Baptism in Infancy, and until by actual Sins they violate their Right and Privilege, abide Members thereof.

(1.) Then I would know whether they have their Names in their Church-Book, or Register, as Members? And

(2dly,) Whether they ever Excommunicate (or bring under any Church Censure) such of their Children who fall into scandalous Sins, or actual Transgressions, or not?

(3dly,) If not, what kind of polluted Churches must thir’s be, who have not purged out such corrupt Members?

The truth is, I see not how Infant Baptism is consistent with any Church State, unless it be National; and no doubt, the first Contrivers or Founders of it, devised that way for the Progress of that they call the Christian Religion, and so opened a Door, that Christ shut, when he put an end to the National Church of the Jews.—Therefore I wonder at our strict Independants, considering their Notions, (knowing how their Principles differ from; and their Understanding or Knowledge of Gospel-Church Constitution exceeds others) for Baptism does not initiate into their Churches, it seems by their Practice; unless their Children, when baptized, were thereby made Members with them.

Keach, B. (1693). Sermon III. In The Ax Laid to the Root, Parts I & II (Vol. 2, p. 34). London: John Harris.

(Note that modern Presbyterians, in abandoning the national church model, have followed largely in the path of Congregationalism)

8 thoughts on “Keach on Inconsistent Congregationalists

  1. Armen Nazarian

    Hi Brandom.
    Thanks for this post.

    Quick question, what do you mean by “Note that modern Presbyterians, in abandoning the national church model, have followed largely in the path of Congregationalism”

    In what way have they followed congregationalism?

    Thanks in advance, Armen.


    1. It’s a complicated issue. They have followed Congregationalism in at least two significant and related ways, both of which stem from their rejection of the national church concept, which was foundational to historic Presbyterianism. “It is especially impossible to understand the doctrine of the Church in the Reformed tradition without taking that complex medieval background into account.” (MacGregor) The corpus Christianum is the body of Christ, the commonwealth, the nation, which lies beneath various offices such as the ministerial offices of the church and the magisterial offices of the government. Just as the assembly of Israel lay beneath the distinct offices of priestly and kingly functions.

      1) The parochial understanding of the church meant that there was only one church in any given geographic region (neighborhood, city, province, nation). In this mindset, there is no such thing as two different churches in the same neighborhood. There is only one church of Christ, and it is organized regionally. Presbyterianism is rooted in the idea that all elders are part of this same universal church. And this universal church is a single, united visible catholic institution (compare WCF 25.2 with SDF 26.2). Thus they all possess equal authority, though divided regionally. In a city, all the elders in that city possess equal authority and their collective decisions are binding on all in that city. The same is true nationally. Thus there is no such thing as denominationalism. That is separatism (from the one church of Christ), which is sin. Congregationalism rejected this idea and said the visible church consists of numerous local congregations consisting of individuals who have been called out of the world and voluntarily choose to gather together with others. Modern Presbyterians, in this regard, follow Congregationalism. They simply tack on Presbyterian hierarchy. But each Presbyterian denomination is just a large Congregational model of people who have voluntarily chosen to gather together and associate with one another. Thus you can have an infinite number of Presbyterian churches in any given geographic region.

      2) They have followed Congregationalism in their understanding of church membership. To put it simply, historic Presbyterianism held that adults could be non-communicant members of the church. Partaking of, or being qualified for communion was not a requirement for church membership. Everyone who was born in a given region where the universal church was established was part of the church (and thus entitled to baptism). They were not kicked out of the church for failing to make a credible profession of saving faith when they came of age (and thus partake of communion). Modern Presbyterians require this and kick them out. This was the heart of the Half-Way Covenant debate amongst Congregationalists in New England. Their Congregational understanding of the church as made up of those who had been gathered out of the world and made a credible profession of saving faith (as opposed to the mere historical faith required by Presbyterianism) implied that anyone who does not qualify for communion (is unsure of their salvation, etc) is not a member of the church. But then they had their kids (who were members of the church by birth) become adults without making profession of faith. Were they still members?

      The basis of this non-communicant membership in Presbyterianism was the national/federal holiness rooted in Abraham. They saw very clearly that the holiness of Israel was a national holiness and they saw that was rooted in Abraham, to which Gentiles have now been grafted in. They saw this grafting as a national grafting (see Calvin here ). American Presbyterianism wound up rejecting that national holiness (and thus adopting the subservient covenant view, thus they fell into a Congregational understanding. If you compare the 17th century Directory for Public Worship with the PCA BCO, you can see where the PCA added this section:

      By virtue of being children of believing parents they are, because of God’s covenant ordinance, made members of the Church, but this is not sufficient to make them continue members of the Church. When they have reached the age of discretion, they become subject to obligations of the covenant: faith, repentance and obedience. They then make public confession of their faith in Christ, or become covenant breakers, and subject to the discipline of the Church.

      Rutherford argued at length against Congregationalism.

      We are against Separatists who will have the number of aged persons that are members of the church and the number of those who are to be admitted to the sacrament [of the Lord’s Table] equal. We think multitudes are members of the visible church, and must be hearers as known unbelievers, who are not to be admitted to the sacrament [of the Lord’s Table].

      (He believed the visible church consisted of everyone to whom the general call went out, and that is how he interprets Acts 2:39. I highly recommend reading the above link).

      Edmund S. Morgan’s “Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea” is a must read

      See also

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Presbyterian vs Congregationalist vs Baptist Sacramentology | Contrast

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