January 16, 2018

A Ministry of Necessary Controversy

Mark Minnick

This is Part One of four parts • Two Three • Four

Lying here open beside me is a precious volume published in 1694. A Golden Mine Opened contains 40 stirring messages on the mediatorial work of the Lord Jesus Christ. My volume has passed through many hands over the last 300 years, including several generations of Halls, an 18th-century English family who on one of the book’s blank pages trace their ancestry back to a forefather who knew John Bunyan. I delight to read the things they’ve entered in the margins in ink now brown with age. But most of all, I feel privileged to possess a first edition not only authored by but possibly even held in the hands of the early Baptist pastor Benjamin Keach.

In an era when nonconformist congregations generally averaged fewer than 50 souls, this dear brother sometimes ministered to upwards of a thousand people. Self-taught, devout, fearing no man, and living to preach, he eventually attained a stature among Baptists that paralleled in his generation that of the more famous successor to his church, C. H. Spurgeon, 200 years later.

There would be several good reasons for resurrecting Keach’s memory. None could be any better, however, than the one which I’ve chosen to emphasize—that of his example as a ministerial controversialist. It is an uncomfortable role in even the best of times, but in 17th-century England it was often disastrous. Nevertheless, here was a courageous pastor who bore its consequences unflinchingly. I want to recover his example because some of our own ministerial liberties are due, in part, to his sacrificial struggle for those freedoms centuries ago. But more importantly, his life teaches some things about why and when a ministry may be necessarily controversial.

Forging a Controversialist

Keach was born February 29, 1640, and baptized as an infant by pious but impoverished parents. While still a boy, his formal education was terminated and he was sent to work for a tailor. But the precocious teenage tailor still found ways to study, and careful reading of his Bible convinced him that his infant baptism into the Church of England was without any Scriptural foundation.

Contradicting popularly held but unscriptural traditions inevitably puts a man over a barrel with his times. In the first of these instances for Keach, the result was that at the age of 15 he had himself immersed by a Baptist pastor named John Russel upon the profession of his faith in Christ. The times being what they were, immersion of a believer was popularly construed to be a rebaptism! Being rebaptized branded a convert (falsely but unavoidably) as one of the widely despised Anabaptists. Thus, from almost the day of his conversion, the boy’s faithfulness to Scripture left him inescapably stigmatized. But it is in such heat that God forges His tools.

Even though England’s 1650s were a decade of comparative liberty under the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell, the largely Presbyterian-controlled state church kept up a running verbal attack on Baptists. Even Richard Baxter, generally a model casuist, stooped to accusing them of baptizing their converts naked.

When a man is persuaded that Scripture teaches a thing, nothing so motivates him to confirm it further than having his conviction ridiculed. And by this means God entrenches men in Scriptural positions. Accordingly, putting all to the test of infallible Scripture, Keach by the age of 18 acquired a knowledge and godly character so noteworthy that his older brethren called him to the ministry. From that time until his homegoing more than 40 years later (1704), he preached, taught, wrote, and debated the issues of his time with the patience and persuasiveness that characterizes a man whose conscience is captive to the Word of God alone.

To be continued…

Dr. Mark Minnick is the pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and serves as adjunct professor of preaching and exposition at Bob Jones Seminary.

(Originally published in FrontLine • May/June 2001. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

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