Half-Asked Questions, Half Assessed Answers
Classical Congregationalism had barely been hatched when its demise began. Expectations for church membership had always been strict among Congregational churches, in keeping with Christ’s demands upon the faithful. The high-water mark had been set by the Cambridge Declaration (1649), which stated:
The doors of Christ’s churches on earth do not stand so wide open that all sorts of people, good or bad, may freely enter as they desire. Those who are admitted to church membership must first be examined and tested as to whether they are ready to be received into church fellowship or not. … These things are required of all church members: repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ. Therefore repentance and faith are the things about which individuals must be examined before they are granted membership in a church, and they must profess and demonstrate these in such a way as to satisfy rational charity that they are genuinely present. —from The Cambridge Platform, rev. ed. by Peter Murdy, 1998, 10:2.
The Cambridge Platform had been written to address issues of church polity and membership. At the time the Congregational churches in America had a near monopoly on religious expression. That monopoly was short-lived but real. The Synod actually took place in the Massachusetts legislature. The Cambridge Platform came out of the high point of Congregationalism in America. However, as we will see, the Congregational churches were sabotaged by their apparent success.
All church members had to testify to their own regeneration and manifest evidence of the same in their lives because the church was understood to be a regenerate community on earth. The concern was to maintain the purity of the church in this regard. Yet, with this strictness also came a generous mercy that was expressed in the following statement from the Cambridge Platform:
The weakest measure of faith is to be accepted in those who desire to be admitted into the church, because weak Christians, if sincere, have the essence of the faith, repentance, and holiness which are required in church members. Moreover, these weak Christians have most need of the church’s ordinances for the confirmation of their faith and their growth in grace. —Cambridge Platform, 10:3.
Christian faith is not a matter of mere boldness, but of genuine sincerity. Not all Christians are bold in the faith, but all must sincerely profess the faith.
However, within a generation of the writing of the Cambridge Platform came the publication of the Halfway Covenant (1662). The Halfway Covenant attempted to reduce the qualifications for baptism and membership in the church, and represents a significant downgrading of the purity of regenerate Congregationalism. The Halfway Covenant was adopted in order to allow certain people to retain a limited measure of membership privileges without meeting the full measure of personal qualifications. In short, the church became a respecter of persons (see James 2:9).
The problem arose when parents who had themselves been baptized into the church, but who had never been able to confirm their own baptism with a testimony of personal regeneration, brought their children for baptism. Prior to this time infant baptism had been extended only to the children of confessing and regenerate members because only the regenerate would (or could) raise their children in the true wisdom and admonition of the Lord. But now unregenerate parents wanted their children to be baptized.
No doubt there was some peer pressure that influenced the situation. Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England baptized the children of nominal Christians. Some nominal Christians then sought the same from the Congregational churches. They were unaware of the importance that regenerate purity played in the life of Congregational churches.
This very issue then became a major factor in the rejection of infant baptism by many Christians. It brought the issue of infant baptism to the fore among mainline churches. The problem of church purity and infant baptism is admittedly knotty and does not avail itself of any simple solutions. There are, however, two solutions that are obvious and easy, but must be rejected from the outset. One easy solution is to baptize all who request it as the Church of England does. The other is condemn infant baptism as erroneous. While both of these solutions provide immediate relief from the tension and complexity of the problem, neither is in accordance with Scripture. Both tend to eliminate the baby with the bath water.
The Halfway Covenant was an earnest attempt to solve this knotty problem with a compromise. Unfortunately the compromise was flawed as well. The Halfway Covenant follows:
I do heartily take and avouch this one God who is made known to us in the Scripture by the name of God the Father, and God the Son even Jesus Christ, and God the Holy Ghost to be my God, according to the tenor of the Covenant of Grace; Wherein he hath promised to be a God to the Faithful and their seed after them in their Generations, and taketh them to be his People, and therefore unfeighnedly repenting of all my sins, I do give up myself wholly unto this God to believe in, love, serve and Obey Him sincerely and faithfully according to this written word, against all the temptations of the Devil, the World, and my own flesh and this unto death. I do also consent to be a Member of this particular Church, promising to continue steadfastly in fellowship with it, in the public Worship of God, to submit to the Order, Discipline and Government of Christ in it, and to the Ministerial teaching, guidance and oversight of the Elders of it, and to the brotherly watch of Fellow Members: and all this according to God’s Word, and by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ enabling me thereunto. Amen. —Halfway Covenant, 1665
Upon first reading we modern Christians may have some difficulty even seeing the problem. In many respects the Halfway Covenant provides a stronger statement than a great many contemporary churches demand. We might be tempted to envy the faithfulness of those who, failing to meet the full measure, settled for a half measure.
In addition to the statement itself, the Halfway Covenant was subscribed to without a formal declaration of personal regeneration. It is a statement of faith that did not issue from membership candidates, but which was imposed upon them (contrary to Congregational practice!). A personal declaration was to be made during the membership examination process, but when it was not forthcoming, the Halfway Covenant was imposed. The statement is not faulty for what it contains, but for what it replaces—a confession of personal regeneration.
The Halfway measures were as much about the membership process as about the statement of faith. Manfred Kohl said that
the formal recognition as church members of those who were not consciously regenerated and not under full covenant obligation tended to relax the strict Puritan standard and to weaken the appeal of the churches to the popular imagination. Slowly but surely a process of secularization began to take place, and before the end of the first century of American Congregationalism a democratization of its churches was evident in the obliteration of the distinction between the ‘saints of the visible congregation’ and members of the parish at large, both groups now having a voice in church government. —Congregationalism In America, Manfred Kohl, Congregational Press, 1977, p. 21.
Williston Walker said of the Halfway Covenant:
So too “owning the covenant” was, in the view of the originators of the Halfway Covenant practice, a solemn personal acceptance, as far as it lay in a man’s power unaided by divine grace, of his place in the visible Kingdom of God, and a formal declaration of his intention to do his best to lead a Christian life by association in worship and discipline with the recognized people of God. —The Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism, Williston Walker, 1977, p. 278.
In other words, the Halfway Covenant introduced a salvation that could be accomplished by human effort or commitment! It represented a major departure from the Reformed doctrine of the church as developed in Congregationalism. Remember, it had been the Congregationalists who endeavored to apply nothing but pure biblical standards to every area of church polity and life. Indeed, Congregationalism is a high calling! But it is the biblical calling established for all Christians.
The process of the secularization of American Christianity is further illustrated in Roger Finke and Rodney Stark’s book, The Churching of America, 1776-1990 (Rutgers University Press, 1977). Their research shows that in 1776, nearly a century after the Cambridge Declaration, Congregationalists represented 20.4 percent of the total number of national religious adherents. While that number was down considerably from the previous century, the decline in Congregationalism gained momentum during the following century. By 1850 Congregationalists represented only 4.0 percent of the total.
While classical Congregationalism was never intended to make church government into a democracy, that’s exactly what happened. The confusion between what I have called classic Congregationalism and democratic Congregationalism continues today. It is an issue that requires a discernment that may only be available to the regenerate. The distinguishing factor is that pure Congregationalism requires the decisions and votes of regenerate members yielded to Christ, where democratic or popular Congregationalism simply requires the decision and votes of members, regenerate or not, spiritually discerning or not. It becomes an issue because the qualifications for membership have deteriorated. Democratic Congregationalism has resulted in a decision making process that is fraught with political struggle, and worldly maneuvering.
Similar trends existed in all of the older mainline denominations. Episcopalians slid from 15.7 percent to 3.5 percent during the same period. Presbyterians went from 19.0 percent to 11.6 percent. These three denominations alone represented 55.1 percent of religious adherents in 1776, but only 19.1 percent in 1850. Yet interestingly, during the same period the Methodists grew from 2.5 percent to 34.2 percent!
These figures clearly represent a trend. But what accounts for it? If we look at the situation from a theological perspective the earmarks of the popular, secular democratization of the churches stands out clearly. The theology of the Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians (and many Baptists as well) was Reformed Calvinism. These denominations differed from one another in some details and practices, but agreed in the basic contours of the Reformed faith.
The Methodists, however, were Arminian. John Wesley edited a periodical titled The Arminian Magazine for many years. Clearly, the theological trend was from Calvinism to Arminianism, from a church membership (and by implication a theology of salvation) that was wrought by God alone, toward a membership (and by implication a salvation) that resulted from works, where human commitment became the ground of both salvation and church membership. Arminianism contributed to secularization because it shifted the burden of salvation from God to man.
Williston Walker sums it up well:
Indeed, there is a reason to believe that in many places admission to the covenant came to be looked upon much as signing a temperance pledge has been frequently regarded in our day,—as a means by which large bodies of young people might be induced to start out in the right path in life. — Walker, p. 279.