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One Chief Quality about the Church that Pastors Should Never Forget

I usually like short blog titles.  But I wanted this one to stand out a bit.

You see, I was surprised (though I should not have been) about something I saw.  It occurred while doing a survey of historical pastoral theology works for a class I am teaching at the seminary.  I found that in reading each of these men they all stressed, in one way or another, one aspect regarding the nature of the church above many others that is vital for pastors and elders to grasp.  The simple truth they stress is that the church is a varied body.

Here is a short sampling of three men from different times stressing this, with an application from each one that pastors can and should make in the church.

Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329-389/390), Oration 2 – Defense of Flight to Pontus.  Gregory points out the dissimilarity between people in a congregation with the experienced eye – and even humorous tongue – of a knowing shepherd.  He uses various metaphors stressing the difficutly of shepherding the church, such as it being like playing a difficult stringed instrument;  feeding children at different stages of maturity with forms of food matching their ability; racing different temperaments of horses; administering various medicines to different patients; or even of an animal trainer taming a “compound” beast (think Dr. Seuss)!  He describes the difficulty this brings to shepherding the people of God:

If you examine more closely, how great is the distinction between the married and the unmarried, and among the latter between hermits and those who live together in community, between those who are proficient and advanced in contemplation and those who barely hold on the straight course, between townsfolk again and rustics, between the simple and the designing, between men of business and men of leisure, between those who have met with reverses and those who are prosperous and ignorant of misfortune. For these classes differ sometimes more widely from each other in their desires and passion than in their physical characteristics; or, if you will, in the mixtures and blendings of the elements of which we are composed, and, therefore, to regulate them is no easy task.

No easy task indeed.  Often ministers, especially young ones, try to approach people too uniformly and invariably run into or even create conflict as a result.  Asking God regularly to help you recognize these differences, and to be able to give thanks for them, is to take a huge step forward in pastoral formation.

Gregory the Great (c. 540-604), Book of Pastoral Rule.  Though we would not support the view traced to him on the importance of the prelacy of Rome, this Gregory had some great insights into human nature.  His book was used to train ministers into the time of the Reformation.  Gregory emphasized the need to shepherd different people in differing ways. In his book Pastoral Theology in the Classical Tradition, Andrew Purves says Gregory taught ministers they would have to learn to “be discretely silent, yet speak appropriately; be a neighbor in compassion, yet exalted in contemplation; be humble before the righteous, yet bold before the ungodly.”

Gregory saw his flock as people of differing natures and temperaments.  In one of the longer sections of Pastoral Rule, Gregory uses a Scriptural-based analysis of people’s varying psyches and positions to show the diversity of people in a congregation and how to minister to them.  As he stresses over 30 distinctions, from rich versus poor; joyful versus sad; subjects versus prelates; forward versus faint-hearted people; simple versus the insincere and crafty; the obstinate versus the fickle, etc., not only does he demonstrate a brilliant application of Scripture and insight into human nature, but he almost makes Myers-Briggs categories look simplistic!

As Gregory shows. in administering the word to God’s people (even from the pulpit when preaching corporately), though all of God’s people should be unified by the truth, the varying dispositions found in the flock call for wise applications that recognize this.  The Bible is a two-edged sword or, if you will, a hammer (Jeremiah 23:29) that can be used both to knock down pride and build up the humble.  Learning to wield it in this balance is an art that the minister must continually learn and practice.

Martin Bucer (1491-1551), Concerning the True Care of Souls (Banner of Truth Trust, 2009).  During John Calvin’s three-year exile from Geneva to Strasbourg, he cared pastorally for other French exiles there. This book, written by Bucer as he ministered in this city for 24 years, was used by Calvin to guide his own pastoral work.  Knowing this, here one might add a line to the old song. “And if it was good enough for Calvin, it is good enough for me.”

What makes this book fascinating is that Bucer, the author also of the famous work De Regno Christi, certainly addresses how Christ rules over the church.  But he does not start there.  Rather, he begins in the very first chapter with the nature of the church by citing  Biblical text after text of how the church is a body of various members.  In developing this, Bucer stresses 1) that Christians have total and perfect unity as one body with one Spirit; 2) their fellowship should not only be “closest and most united, but also the truest and keenest…with everyone regarding the need of others as in the fullest and most real sense his own and taking it to heart;” and 3) that they then need to look after one another not only in spiritual matters but also in temporal ones.

Bucer then goes on to explain his cardinal doctrine of how Christ has been placed as head over the church and how the Lord works out that rule by placing over it his appointed officers.  One of Bucer’s great contributions to the church is his development of the need for the offices of deacons and elders.  In explaining the need for congregations to have a plurality of elders, his motivation is both Biblical and practical as he ties this need to the varied sorts of people in a church:

Because so much is involved in the pastoral office, with teaching, exhortation, warning and discipline, comfort and pardon; and for this a reputation, a sense of awe, and an example of life are required; and since the whole of this so varied ministry has to be carried out in such a way as to help any and every one of the elect; every Christian can easily see how various kinds of exalted gifts and skills are needed, as well as all the earnest zeal, for the proper execution of the pastoral office.  This is because the people who are to be won for the Lord, preserved and built up in him, are not all of one sort and have many and various weaknesses, and also the number of people in the church is large…And since the Lord has also bestowed and distributed the gifts necessary for this office not to one or two, but in different ways to many, it was his will that his churches, if they were able to have many meetings and essential order, should have elders, whether few or many, according to the requirements of each congregation.  (Bucer, 33-35)

Thus, a minister would be wise to see how he does not possess all the gifts necessary to shepherd the flock.  Indeed, he should work closely with ruling elders (the seeds of this later distinction can be found here in Bucer), pastoral associates, and even elders from other churches in order to care appropriately for God’s people under his charge. Also, the pastor should be able to recognize readily in certain situations that there are other elders who could minister more thoroughly and completely than he is gifted to do.

The church is a varied body.  Recognizing this will reduce greatly the number of self-inflicted offenses and headaches, bring out for use the gracious gifts the Lord has bestowed on the church, add a full-bodied flavor to congregational life, and multiply greatly the impact of a church’s ministry.

Remember that the church is a varied body.  Did I tell you that is one chief quality about the church that pastors should never forget?

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Rose #

    I’ve always been curious as to where the idea arose that Christ rules his church by appointed officers. I had come to understand that he rules his church by his Word and Spirit. Putting officers in there between Christ and his people seems to set up a mediation that is more Roman than Reformed and contrary to the truth that, having the Spirit, we have no need that any should teach us. I’m not saying that teachers aren’t helpful, but there is great danger in thinking they are more important than they really are, whether it is they who think it or I.

    September 27, 2013
    • Rose,

      The church is ruled by His Word and Spirit, which is administered by Christ’s appointed leaders. The idea arises from the Scriptures, does it not? We see Christ appointing apostles and giving them the keys of the kingdom, elders being established in the churches planted in the book of Acts, and instructions being given in the epistles to officers and laymen alike about how this relationship is to be carried out.

      Certainly men can abuse their position or people in the congregation can wrongly put their trust in spiritual leaders. Yet errors in the application of Biblical practice do not warrant the abolition of the practice.

      I wonder if perhaps you have been hurt by the church and so find it hard to trust its leaders? Let me assure you there are good under-shepherds out there who are seeking to follow and honor the True Shepherd by truly caring and loving His people. I’ll pray that you experience such.


      October 4, 2013
  2. Dr. York,

    Your column is very interesting and helpful in some ways. But one of my responses was that I wonder if we expect magic from pastors.

    I know we believe that the preaching of the Word in Sabbath worship is one of God’s special or particular means of grace. With that, we should expect Him to work supernaturally. I wonder though if there’s a fine line between that view and a belief in magic.

    I am a big fan of nouthetic counseling. I believe that, as a model, it provides us with a very valuable and much needed corrective to the idea that the pastor’s role should be almost exclusively preaching (e.g., Spurgeon imitators). As those who know it would know, the model argues for an active, intentional, systematic role for one-on-one counseling as a vital part of the pastor’s role (cf. Acts 20). Perhaps this would also require magic in view of the number of hours we all have each day.

    I find that some who embrace this historic Presbyterian position see nouthetic counseling as a threat to this traditional view.

    I am very pleased to see your reference to Martin Bucer in your piece because I recently read his fantastic book at the recommendation of Southside elder Dr. Bob Birchfield. I couldn’t help but think that he would embrace a nouthetic model because he talks, not only about the importance of all the elders participating actively in the shepherding role, not just the pastor – and being trained to do so, if necessary, by the pastor, or presbytery or other delegated leaders (another badly needed reform in our circles, I think) – but he also has a section where he speaks very enthusiastically for personal ministry to the individuals in the congregation rather than only trusting in the preaching that is typically more general and sweeping in scope in view of the diversity in any given congregation.

    Nouthetic counseling is not the only model that encourages more one-one-one ministry, which is also more consistent with discipleship and mentoring models. Roy Blackwood and Ken Smith, Sr. have a great legacy in our denomination from their work along these lines and they weren’t taking their inspiration from the nouthetic vision.

    Another reality necessary for this vision to work (with sufficient elders to share a robust shepherding load) is to have an adequate elder to parishioner ratio. If our criteria for elder is so high that only one or two people are deemed qualified, then leadership is shooting itself in the foot and their standards are questionable. Or perhaps there really aren’t enough qualified people in the congregation. That then again takes one back to the importance of intentional, systematic leadership development with discipleship and mentoring. If you’re not seeing that kind of maturity and leadership develop out of a ministry focused in, or limited to, the weekly preaching ministry, then perhaps that indicates that preaching alone is not adequate/sufficient ministry for the Church or that it’s not Biblical to depend on that alone, and to minimize the importance of counseling, discipleship and/or mentoring or whatever one-on-one ministry might look like in any given relationship or congregation.

    I hope Bucer’s book is required reading in your classes, Dr. York.

    Best regards,

    Tim Bloedow

    September 27, 2013
    • Tim,

      Thank you for your thoughts. Though I cannot respond to all of them, a few quick thoughts:

      Though pulpit preaching is the primary preaching platform, it is not the only one. Pastors should be preaching in homes, counseling sessions, etc.
      Pastors do need help, which is why elders and deacons are so vital to a healthy church.
      I also agree, as you reference two of my own personal mentors, that congregational discipleship must play a large part in caring for the needs of others.
      My students can choose to read texts, of which Bucer’s is an option.
      By the way, I’m not a doctor. Just call me Barry.


      October 4, 2013
  3. This is also a good reminder to the members of the congregation as we care for one another and encourage and exhort each other and serve in the church.

    September 27, 2013

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