The Church 10: Pastoral Duties, as Richard Baxter Saw It
In the previous post on the Church (number 9), I made public my musings during seminary graduation. Whatever the point of the graduation addresses to the students year after year, the single message that rings in my head on such occasions is, ‘Be ministers of the Word of God.’ In that post, I mentioned the puritan minister, Richard Baxter. In this post, I would like to mention a few more of Baxter’s points to those who take up pastoral ministry.
In 1656, Baxter produced reflections on pastoral ministry in a work entitled The Reformed Pastor. His discussion of pastoral duties comes in three parts that overlap. They are:
(1) Teaching every person, disciplining persons in the church, and uniting with others for the work of the Lord;
(2) personal pastoral care;
(3) specific duties of pastoral ministry.
What follows is a brief description of this advice on pastoral ministry in Baxter’s own words (apologies to readers who are not acquainted with English in the 17th century, but some help will be given). Readers may wish to ask two questions while reading this: (1) What sort of Biblical basis is there for Baxter’s admonitions? and (2) How might his admonitions helpfully challenge our understanding of ‘church’ and pastoral ministry today? As the following words are mostly from Baxter himself, my prose will be placed in square brackets.
1. The Duties to Teach, Discipline, and Unite for the Work of the Lord
[In his dedication, Baxter lays three requests or duties before fellow ministers.]
- [Teaching: First, he states that the foremost duty laid upon ministers is to do the work of catechizing (instructing new believers in the faith). This was the focus of the previous blog.]
- [Disciplining:] My second request to the ministers in these kingdoms [of Britain], is, that they would at last, without any more delay, unanimously set themselves to the practice of those parts of Church discipline which are unquestionably necessary, and part of their work. It is a sad case, that good men should settle themselves so long in the constant neglect of so great a duty.
- [Association with Other Individuals, Churches, and Ministries:] My last request is, that all the faithful ministers of Christ would, without any more delay, unite and associate for the furtherance of each other in the work of the Lord, and the maintaining of unity and concord in his churches.
2. Personal Pastoral Care
[In his Introductory Note, Baxter emphasises the importance of pastoral care. He does so with teaching that focuses on Acts 20.28:]
Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.
[The Relationship between the Size of a Parish or Congregation and Pastoral Ministry:] When we are commanded to take heed to all the flock, it is plainly implied, that flocks must ordinarily be no greater than we are capable of overseeing, or ‘taking heed to.’ God will not lay upon us natural impossibilities: he will not bind men to leap up to the moon, to touch the stars, or to number the sands of the sea. If the pastoral office consists in overseeing all the flock, then surely the number of souls under the care of each pastor must not be greater than he is able to take such heed to as is here required…. And that they had rather prayed the Lord of the harvest to send forth more laborers, even so many as were proportioned to the work, and not to have undertaken all themselves. I should scarcely commend the prudence or humility of that laborer, let his parts be ever so great, that would not only undertake to gather in all the harvest in this county himself, and that upon pain of death, yea, of damnation, but would also earnestly contend for this prerogative…. To this end it is necessary, that we should know every person that belongeth to our charge; for how can we take heed to them, if we do not know them? We must labor to be acquainted, not only with the persons, but with the state of all our people, with their inclinations and conversations; what are the sins of which they are most in danger, and what duties they are most apt to neglect, and what temptations they are most liable to; for if we know not their temperament or disease, we are not likely to prove successful physicians. (Chapter 2, Section I, The Nature of This Oversight, 2).
3. The Specific Duties of the Pastor
[Still with Acts 20.28 in mind, Baxter lists pastoral duties associated with ‘taking heed’ of each member of the ‘flock,’ the church:]
- We must labor, in a special manner, for the conversion of the unconverted.
- We must be ready to give advice to inquirers, who come to us with cases of conscience; especially the great case which the Jews put to Peter, and the gaoler [jailer] to Paul and Silas, ‘What must we do to be saved?’
- We must study [in older English, this word meant ‘work hard,’ not ‘do research’] to build up those who are already truly converted. In this respect our work is various, according to the various states of Christians.
(1) There are many of our flock that are young and weak, who, though they are of long standing, are yet of small proficiency or strength….
(2) Another class of converts that need our special help, are those who labor under some particular corruption, which keeps under their graces, and makes them a trouble to others, and a burden to themselves. Alas! there are too many such persons. Some are specially addicted to pride, and others to worldly-mindedness; some to sensual desires, and others to frowardness or other evil passions….
(3) Another class who demand special help are declining Christians, that are either fallen into some scandalous sin, or else abate their zeal and diligence, and show that they have lost their former love….
(4) The last class whom I shall here notice, as requiring our attention, are the strong; for they, also, have need of our assistance: partly to preserve the grace they have; partly to help them in making further progress; and partly to direct them in improving their strength for the service of Christ, and the assistance of their brethren; and, also, to encourage them to persevere, that they may receive the crown….
4. We must have a special eye upon families, to see that they are well ordered, and the duties of each relation performed….
(1) Get information how each family is ordered, that you may know how to proceed in your endeavors for their further good.
(2) Go occasionally among them, when they are likely to be most at leisure, and ask the master of the family whether he prays with them, and reads the Scripture, or what he doth?...
(4) See that in every family there are some useful moving books, beside the Bible.
(5) Direct them how to spend the Lord’s day; how to despatch [go about] their worldly business, so as to prevent encumbrances and distractions; and when they have been at church, how to spend the time in their families.
5. We must be diligent in visiting the sick, and helping them to prepare either for a fruitful life, or a happy death….
6. We must reprove and admonish those who live offensively or impenitently….
7. The last part of our oversight, which I shall notice, consisteth in the exercise of Church discipline…. This consisteth, after the aforesaid private reproofs, in more public reproof, combined with exhortation to repentance, in prayer for the offender, in restoring the penitent, and in excluding and avoiding the impenitent.
Baxter’s description of pastoral duties, given in his own words, may still challenge our understanding of pastoral ministry. At least, he challenges the image of pastoral ministry that I grew up with for pastoral ministry. Many of us see the pastor as primarily the preacher in the pulpit. We know that he (or she) visits hospitals and has office hours for those who wish to come to him for counseling or for some other reason. Some of us know that he needs some business skill to run board meetings and possibly deal with budgets and buildings.
Yet Baxter’s discussion of the duties of the pastor places the emphasis elsewhere. In his discussion of pastoral duty, he does not focus on sermon preparation and delivery (although he has much to say about this later on). The efforts of the pastor are focused on preparing people, not sermons. He sees the pastor as actively engaging his congregation during the week; he is out and about among them. He goes to their houses and places of work. He learns the conditions of each and every one of their souls and understands the family’s dynamics, and so he is able to teach them individually and speak to their spiritual needs. He teaches, exhorts, and disciplines them. His personal involvement in their lives requires him to have a congregation of manageable size, and success in ministry is measured in being able to practice the ministry of soul care, not in how large a Sunday morning group comes together for a one hour service each week. He is also engaged in connecting with others in ministry so that the work of his church can connect to the larger work of the Church. He is not building his own little kingdom but preparing his congregants to engage the mission of God in the world today.
Baxter’s description of the pastor brings to mind the village parson in rural England, and yet, for me, his description is far from irrelevant to the situation in our own day. It is, just possibly, even more challenging today than it was in the 17th century. He offers a vision of the pastor knocking on the doors of his parishioners, sitting at their kitchen tables, stopping by at work or the playground. He offers a vision of the pastor who knows his congregants intimately and who can provide the teaching, soul care, and engagement in mission that each one needs as a follower of Jesus Christ.