Portrait of Richard Baxter. King’s College London,
Foyle Special Collections Library
J. William Black, “From Martin Bucer to Richard Baxter: ‘Discipline’ and Reformation in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth Century England”
Anyone with a basic familiarity of the history of Protestantism will no doubt be acquainted with its leading personalities. Each of them had particular gifts, standing head and shoulders as Saul of Kish above their peers. And each contributed uniquely to the Church of their own as well as of the present day. Richard Baxter was certainly one of those figures, in whose shadow pastors of the present day still stand.
In this essay, Black renders a helpful service to us in the Reformation stream of pastoral theology. He traces the historical background for, the development, and the impact of Richard Baxter’s parish-based discipline, calculated to achieve the two-fold goal of the reformation of discipline in the Church of England and, simultaneously, the propagation of the gospel in the land. The program of Baxter’s involved, to put it concisely, “pastor-led and parish based … system of church discipline that would preserve the integrity of the sacraments and thus rob separatists of one of their primary excuses for abandoning the parochial system” (644).
According to Black, this was not a new paradigm, but one inherited from Martin Bucer, who in the 16th century sought to help the young Church of England establish a program that would reform the Church and Christianize the land. By refining discipline on the local level, the Church would be purified of its parish dross; by maintaining the parochial system of territorially defined ‘evangelistic’ (to use an anachronism) responsibility, the unconverted lump of the nation could effectively be leavened with the gospel. In this model, there are two concentric circles – the smaller, the Church, within the larger, the nation. By keeping these quite distinct and unblurred, the Church retains her spiritual integrity. By keeping the smaller self-consciously within and in reference to the larger, she retains her missiological purpose and vision. She must push the circumference of her circle increasingly towards the limits of the other in faithful obedience to the mandate of Christ.
Baxter simply borrowed this program and diligently implemented it. On the one hand, he set right to work removing the blur between congregation and parish by a faithful imposition of pastoral discipline. On the other hand, he did not cherry-pick ‘the best sort’ out of parish churches to form ‘gathered churches’ as the separatists did, leaving the parish spiritually to fend for itself. This would be to feed the sheep in the fold, yet leave Christ’s sheep as yet outside the fold without regular pastoral (evangelistic) concern. The Baxterian – or the Bucerian paradigm – retained both emphases without sacrificing one for the sake of the other. So Baxter was a nonconformist, one might say, in terms of church discipline and an establishment churchman in terms of national evangelistic responsibility and zeal.
The course by which Baxter achieved these ideals simultaneously was one that in the first place simply fell back to defining publicly the proper procedure for full adult communicant membership and publicly enforcing it. Black summarizes this policy, by which
the rights of adult church membership were made contingent upon a credible profession of faith and of consent to submit to pastoral oversight and discipline. Those who found themselves unfit for such a step could undergo a period of preparation to acquaint themselves with the fundamentals of Christian faith without calling their baptismal rights into question. The pastor could apply himself directly to helping them come to Christian faith and profession. Discipline would be exercised only on those who had willingly consented to place themselves under it. Thus the Lord’s Supper would be reserved for those in the parish who understood and professed the faith and who had willingly agreed to place themselves under the pastor’s oversight. The ignorant or otherwise ungodly members of the parish were excluded from the Lord’s Supper, but given a clear procedure by which they might become full adult members (664-65).
In the second place, for those not members yet in the parish the minister was obliged to solicit their spiritual change by an aggressive parochial visitation ministry.
Key also to Baxter’s program was cooperation or associationalism. This, we might say, would be a precondition for the twin ideals of local church discipline and parish evangelistic initiative. The existence of spheres of responsibility presumes a self-conscious understanding of distinct boundaries separating the them and us in the broader Church. What ethnically defined spheres of service were to Paul and Peter (Gal. 2:7-9), geographically defined ones were to English clergymen. And yet fences were not so much to divide as to unite. For by the division of labor geographically, the Church of England ministers would combine the aggregate of their mutual efforts to bear on the unsaved population. Let each have a portion dedicated to himself (Neh. 3), and the wall will be raised; let each build on his own foundation (Rom. 15:20-21), and the City of God shall stand. It was this conviction that led Baxter to found the Worcestershire Association and write extensively on church unity.
But cooperation was not only a precondition, but also a result of the church discipline/parish reclamation plan. By working in a non-competitive and cooperative way with other churchmen for the purging and the furtherance of the Church through the parish system, the case of Kidderminster was viewed as a replicable model for further similar ventures across the land. Kidderminster was a successful experiment of sorts, and Baxter was all too happy to see it inspiring others to work cooperatively for the greater good. He rejoiced to see that the Congregationalists and Baptists who
… had before conceited that Parish Churches were the great Obstruction of all true Church Order and Discipline … did quite change their Minds when they saw what was done at Kidderminster, and begin to think now, that it was much through the faultiness of the Parish Ministers, that Parishes are not in a better Case; and hat it is a better Work thus to reform the Parishes, than gather Churches out of them (670; quoted from Reliquiae Baxterianae 1:§136, 85-86).
Having recently studied Thomas Chalmers’ theory and practice of church extension, I can’t help but observe many lines of connection between these two great promoters of the parish ideal. Both were ardently concerned for ecclesiastical unity and cooperation, extensively collaborating with others beyond the bounds of their own denominational context. Both were staunch establishmentarians, eager to retain the preexisting parish system and to Christianize not only their parishes, but, by furnishing encouraging models for others to replicate, the entire nation and beyond (Black does not mention Baxter’s keen interest in overseas missions, such as that of John Eliot to the American Indians; but it is another striking parallel). Both were theorists as well as practitioners, arguing with the pen as much as with the hands and feet – Baxter gave us Kidderminster and Chalmers’ St. John’s and West Port. And both have left a lasting impact on modern day pastors and churches keen to see the reign of Christ manifested in individual souls, families, and their aggregates – societies, economies, and nations.
The paper does stimulate many further questions in my mind, but I will confine myself only to one, the problem of separation. This was a significant problem for Baxter (as well as Chalmers in the 19th century). Baxter sympathized with separatists because he saw first hand how corrupt many parish churches in the Church of England had become. The attraction of gathered churches was certainly strong among the truly godly. And yet Baxter excoriated them on the other hand for their detrimental policies. Black quotes Baxter:
Do not do as the lazy separatists, that gather a few of the best together, and take then [sic] only for their charge, leaving the rest to sink or swim. . . If any walk scandalously, and disorderly, deal with them for their recovery. . . . If they prove obstinate after all, then avoid them and cast them off; But do not so cruelly as to unchurch them by hundreds & by thousands, and separate from them as so many Pagans, and that before any such means hath been used for their recovery (The Saints Everlasting Rest, 509, emphasis mine).
So obviously Baxter was interested in a pure church: but not so pure that it cut off the world and buried its head ostrich-like in the sand before evangelistic duty.
But when does separation become necessary for Baxter? I have not studied him in great depth as of yet. But if I am correct, though a nonconformist liturgically, he was spared many of the hardships that others experienced who had sought first to reform the Church of England from within. And if the spirits of the godly in the Church of England were grieved at the profanation of the Lord’s Supper by the ungodly, did they have no other option than to move to Kidderminster or a similar parish? Is there not a point when, to use my earlier illustration, the integrity of the smaller circle is sacrificed for the well being of the larger? Black in this connection observes that, “While concerned to cope with the notoriously ungodly in their parishes, the more accommodating puritans were still hopeful that the existing parish system itself could be reformed. But even amongst these more patient puritans, there grew an increasing frustration with a structure and a hierarchy that seemed to fear more the implications of nonconformity and separatism than blatant hypocrisy and scandal at Communion” (652).
I speculate that perhaps Baxter was grieved more at the rush to separation without having first attempted the measures he successfully employed in his own context. Perhaps Baxter sniffed retreatism beneath surface claims of purism. And I also wonder whether the separatists would have satisfied him more (like Chalmers later) if they had after their break retained an ecclesiastically cooperative and territorially evangelistic approach. Whether they did or did not retain these ideals, or to what degree they did or did not, I cannot determine with my present knowledge. I would welcome any light on the matter.