With the best of intentions our Puritan forefathers set foot on the shores of New England determined to become a Shining City On a Hill – an example to the world. Yet before the 17th Century had run its course the Holy Commonwealth was as good as dead.
Although the Puritans did many things right, they did enough fundamental things wrong to exclude the blessing of God on their enterprise. But what? What did they do or fail to do? It is incumbent on us to learn from their errors in order that we might “get it right” the next time God provides an opportunity to build from the ground up.
This is the first in a 3-part MythBusters series exploring the fatal errors of the Puritans: 1) covenant errors, 2) economic errors, 3) political errors. The Puritan’s most fundamental error is found in a place you might least expect it. It is found with the Puritan children.
Myth: Children of believers should be excluded from the Lord’s Table until they have matured to the point of being able to examine themselves.
MythBusters noted first that Abraham is the father of our faith. God’s covenant with Abraham included His children. “And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant to be God to you” (Gen. 17:7).
The Testimony of Scripture
This being the case, we surmised that God’s covenant with Abraham would demonstrate how He expects believers to treat the children that are providentially born into their families. Circumcision, the sign of covenant initiation was given to Abraham (Gen. 17:10) and Passover, the sign of covenant continuation was given to Moses. Children participated in both. MythBusters looked carefully at the Old Testament and arrived at the following summary points:
1) Infants were circumcised without any knowledge or faith. They were thus branded by the Father as included in the covenant He made with Abraham (Gen 12). This was the ordinance of covenant initiation, signifying God’s choice, rather than man’s.
2) The youngest children — boys and girls — shared in the Passover meal without any knowledge or conversion experience. Exodus 12:24 clearly states that, “you shall observe this event as an ordinance for you and your children forever.” God used the Passover as a teaching aid to nurture their knowledge and faith, when He instructed the youngest son to ask his father what this rite meant to him (Ex. 12:26). Growing up children were treated as believers and assumed to be believers until or unless they apostasized. Their faith was grounded in God’s promise to Abraham, whether or not they experienced a religious conversion.
3) Adult converts to the faith were circumcised as adults (e.g. Shechemites of Gen. 34). Thus, the Old Testament gives us both “infant circumcision” and “believer’s circumcision.” This carries over in the New Testament as “infant baptism” and “believer’s baptism.” Both are Biblical depending on the situation.
Why would God change in the New Testament, we asked? Did God suddenly realize that He had been doing it all wrong in the Old Testament? The answer seemed obvious, but we decided to dig deeper into history.
The Testimony of History
A survey of church history revealed that many churches practiced paedo-communion until the appearance of the Romish doctrine of transubstantiation prior to the Reformation. At that point laymen started to shy away from handling “the very body and blood of Christ.”
Tommy Lee in “The History of Paedocommunion: From the Early Church Until 1500″ quotes one scholar who summarized the evidence at hand by saying that “it is now well established that in the early days of Christianity it was not uncommon for infants to receive Communion immediately after they were baptized.” Even John Calvin, who was adamantly opposed to paedocommunion had to admit that “this permission was indeed commonly given in the ancient church.”
MythBusters concluded that the Puritans were obedient to step 1) above in that they baptized their infant children, baptism being equivalent to circumcision (Col. 2:11,12). However, they departed from the Biblical pattern, point 2), by refusing to let their children participate in the communion meal, formerly called Passover. This was the halfway covenant.
This communicated to the boys and girls that they were not part of the kingdom of God until they had an experience that would satisfy their parents. This practice directly contradicted Jesus’ command to “Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Mk. 10:14).
Cultural Implications of the Halfway Covenant
By this hindrance the Puritans drove many of their children out of the covenant and into an unbiblical “halfway covenant” in which they were baptized, but not permitted to participate in the Lord’s Supper. Instead of Salvation being God’s choice and baptism being His brand on His children, the emphasis in the halfway covenant shifted to man’s ability to describe how he chose God and what that experience felt like.
The Puritans paid a steep price for failing to do it God’s way, as Jesus warned. “And whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea” (Mk. 9:42).
Not allowed to simply rest by faith in the promise God gave to their fathers via Abraham, many of the children in the halfway covenant never experienced an emotional “conversion” that would pass muster with their parents or the congregation.
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Under the halfway covenant the entire congregation had to vote their approval of every conversion experience, the vote often preceded by a questioning period. This democratic procedure is the hallmark of the Congregational denomination. Rather than run this spiritual gauntlet, many young people gradually drifted out of the church and out of the Holy Commonwealth.
Thomas Lechford in his “Plain Dealing; or News from New England, stated that, “…some are so bashful, as that they choose rather to go without the communion, than undergo such public confessions and trials, but that is held their fault.” [Quoted by Terrill Elniff on page 63 of “The Guise of Every Graceless Heart.”]
The Halfway Covenant was formalized when the children of the second generation were born. The question arose: should these third generation children be baptized? It was formalized by a synod of 17 ministers in 1657 and then…..
“The general court of Massachusetts eventually intervened in 1662, summoning a synod of churches to decide the issue once and for all. After a long debate, the Halfway Covenant was established. A person could be a voting member of the church and community simply by being baptized. One no longer had to exhibit proof of Christian conversion. And as long as a person’s children were baptized and of legal age, they could vote, too.”
By refusing them the Lord’s Supper in the halfway covenant, the church alienated its own children and drove them away from its nurturing arms. It led to gradual separation of people from the authority of God in the church. As instructed implicitly by the church, they regarded themselves as autonomous individuals fully capable of choosing how they would approach God and everything else in life. As they were weaned away from the church by the halfway covenant, they looked to other institutions to fill the vacuum, civil government in particular and democratic participation in its process.
Conversionism is preoccupied with discerning the work of God in children. It places the hope of salvation in experience rather than the Word of God. This effects us in every way possible because the covenant is all encompassing. Conversionism grounds salvation on individual human experience. Consequently, an individualistic, sociological outlook on life takes hold by which the young person interprets reality and evaluates political claims. Rights rather than responsibilities move to the forefront; what God demands, rather than rights is central to the covenantal approach..
This explains why so many Christian young people today are falling away from the faith. Surveys indicate that as many as half leave the church after graduation from high school.
In the formative years they were “hindered” by their parents from inclusion in the kingdom of God, contrary to the promise of God and the command of Jesus. In many cases they are denied both baptism and the Lord’s Supper, even worse than the halfway covenant. Is it any wonder that so many fall away. God told the Philippian jailor to “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved and thy house” (Acts 16:31).
Case Closed: MythBusters concluded that the practice of excluding children of believers from the Lord’s Table until they are able to examine themselves is based on a dangerous myth. The implications of this myth extend far beyond the four walls of the church into every nook and cranny of the culture. Because of this practice many Christian children are driven out of the church never to return. God’s requirements for adult converts cannot be applied to the children of believers.