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The Reformed Pastor

By Brian Haymes.

I was introduced to Richard Baxter's The Reformed Pastor while I was a student at Bristol Baptist College in the early 1960's. I can recall being deeply impressed with the vision of the ministry described in the book and, in consequence, have read it almost every year of my ministry since.

Richard Baxter was one of the English Puritans. He was born in 1615. He never went to university but did have the advantage of being tutored by John Owen. Like Spurgeon, one of his many later admirers, he was devoted to serious theological reading. He was ordained by the Bishop of Worcester in 1638 but from the first was not without non-conformist sympathies. In 1641 he began the notable ministry in Kidderminster. He was pastor there until 1660. In 1662 he was one of the two thousand who suffered in the Great Ejectment after which he was forbidden to serve as a pastor, leaving him only writing and preaching for his ministry.

In those stormy times the church in England was in need of good ministry. Baxter's work at Kidderminster was readily acknowledged to be of the highest standard. He was asked to lead fellow pastors in a day of prayer and humiliation in Worcester in 1655. Unfortunately, he was taken ill and unable to preach what he had prepared but, at the request of the ministers, the material was published. The text has an undoubted sermonic style. Frankly, it is at times repetitive, but the zest and zeal of Baxter is evident page after page. He writes out of strong conviction about the importance of the pastoral calling, with the authority of a faithful and good ministry underlying the script. What he has to say is demanding and deeply challenging. It is his conviction that `All Churches either rise or fall as the ministry doth rise or fall (not in riches or worldly grandeur) but in knowledge, zeal and ability for their work'.

Why do I keep on reading these addresses to ministers prepared over three hundred years ago? The context for ministry is so different. Many of his themes sound strange to our ears. Perhaps it is that strangeness that attracts me. In fact, it is the clear view of ministry he describes. Baxter writes with integrity and compelling self-awareness. He does not write to make a name, or make a fortune, but out of great passion for the glory of Christ in His church. He does not fit with our enterprise culture, our consumer led religion. There is about him the strangeness of a prophet, one who was given a word to speak. Listening to him years later it is the following affirmations that strike home.

The Pastor has an holy, solemn and urgent task. Not for Baxter a seemingly endless series of discussions about status and identity. He knows he is called of God, of God! He is a pastor to the people of God because, as Scripture teaches, the Church needs pastors and these God calls and gives. The ministry is holy because it belongs to God. Baxter does not claim more for the ministry than it deserves but he does recognise what it is before God. It cannot be reduced to functions. Nor should the calling be lost in the general call to all people in Christ. Baxter is not into priestcraft but he does recognise the particularity of calling that is expressed in ordination.

And the task is urgent because of what is at stake. That is nothing less than salvation. God has set forth His Son for the salvation of the world. Baxter lived with a deep desire that people should know of this divine saving love and should know it for themselves. His was a ministry that did not shirk the call to repentance, and looked to conversion. He saw in his day a moral and social disorder that was itself a matter of urgency. `The work of God must needs be done! Souls must not perish, while you mind your worldly business, or worldly pleasure, and take your ease, or quarrel with your brethren'.

Then there are Pastoral Responsibilities. The Pastor must know the people. He must be available to those in need, at their point of need. Part of his task is to build people up in their faith, giving spiritual counsel as appropriate.

He describes something of his method while in Kidderminster. Mondays and Tuesdays were set aside for `catechizing'. Up to sixteen families would be seen each week at Baxter's home, for pastoral counsel, guidance, and encouragement. This became an annual event for each family and, by all accounts, had tremendous effect. It is hard to imagine how such a practice might be undertaken in today's context but the principle behind such serious work is crucial for a pastor. Baxter admitted that he found the task of pastoral care unnerving and numbered himself among those who were put off by the thought of the difficulties involved. But these he found in experience to be almost nothing. He urged ministers to know their people and love them.

There was nothing sentimental about this. Behind the appeal was the great issue of salvation and the life in Christ. `Declining' Christians, those who had fallen under great temptation, those who were in need of comfort, as well as those who were strong in faith, all these must know the pastor's care. The relationship between pastor and people was crucial. Special care was to be given to the sick. At a time of widespread poor health, wretched hygiene and early death without the help of modern medicines, the care of the dying took on its own significance.

It is not surprising to find Baxter commending the importance of Church discipline. He argued that this was for the good of the Church as well as for the people concerned. Discipline involved private admonition and, where necessary, further meetings with chosen people. If there was no repentance and recognition of sin, then there would be a report to the Church with prayer for the offender. This sounds harsh to our accepting ears but Baxter saw dangers for a Church with blatantly ungodly members. Yet he himself was very wary of anyone being unjustly accused and only did this part of his pastoral work with the greatest compassion. There is a tenderness about his approach. He warns against that kind of judgementalism that is itself a lack

of love for people. The pastoral task is to help them grow in Christ. At a time when we believe we have reasons to find pastoral visitation difficult it is salutary to hear Baxter say of pastoral ministry, `We have begun a happy work, such as will do more to the welfare of the Church than many that the world doth make a great stir about'. It may not be public. It may be frustrating and difficult. But will people be built up in the faith without it?

Pastoral care was but one of the Public Acts of ministry. Baxter obviously saw the pastor as exercising some public representative function. He was not the chaplain to a small group of the like minded but a servant of the living God who has graciously called into being his people. Thus there is the task of the public preaching of the Word. This was `no easy matter'. It focused many of those awesome responsibilities that went with being a pastor. The pastor had responsibility for administration of the sacraments, the Holy Mysteries of the faith. There could be no carelessness here, no slovenly casualness. Again, leading the public prayer of the people of God was a significant charge, `being their mouth in public prayer and praise'. Baxter clearly saw this as the Pastor's task. When he goes on to speak further of the Public Acts of ministry he includes visitation, giving advice on cases of conscience, opposing seducers of the flock, encouraging the humble, preparing people for death, reproving and admonishing, all of this to build up the Church in its life. Not everyone could do this work. Not everyone was called and authorised to fulfil this ministry.

This public ministry should be carried out in a manner fitting to the calling. The work was done for the glory of God and the salvation of the people. It was not for private `ends'. So there is no escaping the self-sacrifice necessary in ministry. Let the work be done with humility and modesty, as befits the people we are. Let the work be done reverently, as it indeed is done before the face of God. This sense of awe was obviously Baxter's own experience. On preaching he says, `Of all the preaching in the world I hate that preaching which tendeth to make the hearers laugh, or move their minds with tickling levity instead of affecting them with a holy reverence of the name of God'.

Baxter urged the pastors to `keep up earnest desire and expectations of success'. He clearly believed that God would work his work in the peoples lives. However, the pastor must bear many abuses and do the work in patience, with a tender love towards the people. Take the necessary things first in ministry, and do them with all your might.

Who is sufficient for these things? What are the marks in life of those `separated to the gospel'? Baxter is realistic about ministers and their sins. Before blaming the people Baxter urges the pastors to examine themselves. He notes that it is serious when we preach our hearers asleep but it is worse when we have studied and preached ourselves asleep. The Day of humiliation had been called first for ministers to return to God.

Baxter notes that there are sins that beset the ministry. First among them is pride in ourselves, in our ministry. Pride leads to envy of others, the maligning of others. And in our pride, we cannot easily face challenge and contradiction, as if we were always right.

Pastors can also be guilty of undervaluing the unity and peace of the whole church of God. Because we overestimate our own opinions, it is rare to meet someone who `smarts with the wounds of the Church'.

Moreover, charges Baxter, `we do not unreservedly and industriously lay out ourselves in the work of the Lord as beseemeth men of our profession and engagements'. He identifies in particular our negligence in studies, and the cold manner and content of our preaching. There is a prevalence of worldly interest which mitigates against the interests and work of Christ.

All this leads Baxter to issue a call to a greater godliness, a seriousness about the ministry as `co-workers with God and His Spirit'. He calls for greater discipline in ministry. This is not a matter of unrelieved work. Baxter urges pastors to take more exercise. But it is the seriousness of the calling that is foremost in his mind. Should a physician rest in a time of plague?

And to those who think it is all up to them, Baxter reminds them of the gifts of the people. He urges them to realise that the work is likely to go poorly if the only hands that are employed in it are the ministers.

A striking recurring feature of The Reformed Pastor is the call for unity and association. A church divided has lost its authority with the people. Baxter urges regular meeting with other pastors. If there are differences then debate them but do not withdraw from fellowship for the sake of the church. Again and again there is this appeal to unity. Baxter says he would 'seek peace with Arminians, Antinomians, Anabaptists ... I would not refuse to consult on accommodation with moderate Papist themselves ...' Baxter is moderate in his theology. He was prepared to seek the truth in what others took as totally erroneous teaching. He was a peacemaker, a reconciler and therefore he was unpopular with some. The Calvinists were offended by his preaching of universal redemption. Arminians could not accept his affirmation of personal election. He knew that if you are going to appeal to Scripture you cannot do so responsibly without taking thought, the exercise of right reason. Through all his ministry he sought co-operation with other Christians. His great zeal for the Church of Christ left him no choice. His assumption was that all faithful ministers of Christ should associate for the furtherance of each other in the work of the Lord and the maintenance of unity and concord in His Church. It has to be recorded however that in matters of ecclesiastical policy his forthright and provocative manner sometimes frustrated his own declared purposes and hope. He made his enemies.

The Reformed Pastor keeps coming back to the Character of the Pastor. Baxter's call is for a greater godliness. `Above all, see that the work of saving grace be thoroughly wrought in your own soul'. Pastors should take heed lest the sins they preach against become their own. Baxter calls on all ministers to study, pray, confer and practise their calling. Do not let your own life contradict your work. The pastor must be above all a Christian. We must take heed to ourselves because our temptations are many. There will be unholy delight at our fall. Yet it is not our reputation so much as the glory of God and the well-being of the people for whom we are called to care that is at issue. If a minister is a disciple of Christ, then let him learn from Him. Against any easy glib self-confidence, Baxter asks whether our calling does not make us shrink and tremble. After all, `holy calling cannot save a holy man'.

Richard Baxter lived in days very different from our own and he thought in ways that are not immediately ours. The Reformed Pastor is dated but not, I think, out of date. Here is set forth a noble expression of Christian ministry. Its nobility centres on the great vision of God in Christ who inspires, calls and saves. In a generation shaped more by secular cultural desires, uncertain in moral and religious values, Richard Baxter's challenge will come to many ministers as a rush of cold living water. It may take the breath away, but it will leave you cleaner, more alert and eager for the tasks which God appoints.

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You are reading The Reformed Pastor by Brian Haymes, part of Issue 1 of Ministry Today, published in January 1994.

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