What can Puritan icon Richard Baxter teach modern pastors about how to shepherd the flock?
Those who follow Reformed tradition are surely familiar with Richard Baxter. He was an influential English Puritan church leader and theologian in the 1600’s, whose writings are still considered foundational to this day. J.I. Packer remarked of Baxter that he was ”the most outstanding pastor, evangelist and writer on practical and devotional themes that Puritanism produced.” Most prominent among his writings are The Godly Home and the The Reformed Pastor. The Midway Guardian commends both of these fine works to its readers, and offers the following thoughts from the latter.
In 1656, Baxter published the first edition of The Reformed Pastor, which has proven to be a timeless work that could be summarized as a plea for pastors to fulfill their duties as shepherds by challenging them to examine their theology and motivations. The seriousness of the pastoral task is presented in the spirit of the exhortation to teachers given in Acts 20 ”Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which He obtained with his own blood.”
With this call in mind, consider the following quotes from The Reformed Pastor and prayerfully reflect whether or not your pastor is meeting this standard.
Baxter on Pastoral Motivation
“The ministerial work must be carried on purely for God and the salvation of souls, not for any private ends of our own. A wrong end makes all the work bad, how good soever it may be in its own nature. It is not serving God, but ourselves, if we do it not for God, but for ourselves. They who engage in this as a common work, to make a trade of it for their worldly livelihood, will find that they have chosen a bad trade, though a good employment. Self-denial is of absolute necessity in every Christian, but it is doubly necessary in a minister, as without it he cannot do God an hour’s faithful service. Hard study, much knowledge, and excellent preaching, if the ends be not right, is but more glorious hypocritical sinning.”
Baxter on Intentional Obscuration of the Truth
“Truth loves the light, and is most beautiful when most naked. It is the sign of an envious enemy to hide the truth; and it is the work of a hypocrite to do this under pretence of revealing it: and therefore, painted obscure sermons (like painted glass in windows, which keeps out the light) are too often the marks of painted hypocrites. If you would not teach men, what do you in the pulpit ? If you would, why do you not speak so as to be understood? I know the height of the matter may make a man not understood, when he hath studied to make it as plain as he can; but that a man should purposely cloud the matter in strange words, and hide his mind from the people, whom he pretendeth to instruct, is the way to make fools admire his profound learning, and wise men his folly, pride, and hypocrisy…But truth overcomes prejudice by the mere light of evidence; and there is no better way to make a good cause prevail, than to make it as plain, and as generally and thoroughly known, as we can: it is this light that will dispose an unprepared mind.”
Baxter on Pride
“The ministerial work must be carried on with great humility. We must carry ourselves meekly and condescendingly to all; and so teach others, as to be as ready to learn of any that can teach us, and so both teach and learn at once; not proudly venting our own conceits, and disdaining all that any way contradict them, as if we had attained to the height of knowledge, and were destined for the chair, and other men to sit at our feet. Pride is a vice that ill beseems them that must lead men in such an humble way to heaven: let us, therefore, take heed, lest, when we have brought others thither, the gate should prove too strait for ourselves…
God, that thrust out a proud angel, will not entertain there a proud preacher. Methinks, we should remember at least the title of a minister, which, though the Popish priests disdain, yet so do
not we. It is indeed pride that feedeth all the rest of our sins. Hence the envy, the contention, and unpeaceableness of ministers; hence the stops to all reformation; all would lead, and few will follow or concur. Hence, also, is the non-proficiency of too many ministers, because they are too proud to learn. Humility would teach them another lesson…These are things that all of us can say, but when we come to practise them with sinners that reproach and slander us for our love, and who are more ready to spit in our faces, than to thank us for our advice, what heart-risings will there be, and how will the remnants of old Adam, pride and passion, struggle against the meekness and patience of the new man? And how sadly do many ministers come off under such trials!”
The above select quotations are but a taste of the richness of Baxter’s wisdom regarding pastoral ministry. Readers are encouraged reflect on whether or not their pastor exhibits the traits highlighted here:
- On Pastoral Motivation: Is your pastor working to achieve God’s ends or his own ”private ends”? Has he used his authority and influence to achieve the outcomes most advantageous to himself? Has he sought to build a manmade kingdom of control or has he faithfully sought to expand Christ’s kingdom on earth? Is there a willing self-denial and submission to authority or do his pastoral priorities demand that the “worldly livelihood” and the maintenance of “good employment” be protected at all costs?
- On Intentional Obscuration of the Truth: Is your pastor one that complicates the simple? Does his communication about clear matters of right and wrong exhibit forthrightness or are there attempts to obscure the truth in self-justification and “purposeful clouding”? Does your pastor apparently love truth so much that he allows it to ”overcome prejudice”? As a moderator and judge in judicial matters, has your pastor allowed the ”light of truth” to manifest from the “evidence” such that a ”good cause” prevails or has he crafted the evidence to achieve his desired outcome? Has he regularly practiced Eisegesis?
- On Pride: Is your pastor carrying out the ministerial work with ”great humility”? Does you pastor exhibit a teachable attitude or is he above instruction? Is he ”too proud to learn”? Does your pastor ”disdain” those who “contradict” his way? Is there a ”contention and unpeaceablenes“ about your pastor that prevents continual reformation? Does your pastor model ”old Adam” or Jesus Christ because he has ”come off” poorly under the trial that is pride? Has all of this led to dysfunctional leadership?
If you are a member of Midway Presbyterian Church and find yourself disturbed by your honest assessment of these questions, know that it is your responsibility to hold your church leadership accountable. Some Midway Ruling Elders already have, and found Senior Pastor David Hall to be “more offended at the reproof than the sin”. To that end, consider Baxter’s words from The Reformed Pastor one final time:
“Many who have undertaken the work of the ministry, do so obstinately proceed in self-seeking, negligence, pride, and other sins, that it is become our necessary duty to admonish them. If we saw that such would reform without reproof, we would gladly forbear the publishing of their faults. But when reproofs themselves prove so ineffectual, that they are more offended at the reproof than at the sin, and had rather that we should cease reproving, than that themselves should cease sinning, I think it is time to sharpen the remedy. For what else should we do? To give up our brethren as incurable were cruelty, as long as there are further means to be used.”