A gentle introduction to the art of time-wasting (part 1)
Before I begin, a particular welcome to Jonathan Hunt who, it seems, actually has his blog set to let him know when I've blogged. Good on yer, mate, and good morning.
Question: Should pastors visit their flocks?
Answer: Of course they should. But not in the way that most pastors do!
Much pastoral visitation expected by the church member and performed by many pastors is a time-wasting exercise that actually undermines the true work of a pastor. But it need not be so!
To explore this, I propose to examine what the Scriptures say about the role of pastor-teacher, and the way these roles are often divided – the elder, we are told, is to be a pastor and a teacher. I propose then to show that this is not how the Scripture sees it – instead, the elder is to pastor by teaching.
A look at the work of Richard Baxter in Kidderminster (1647-61) will then help us see how this can be done.
Finally, we may glance at one or two contemporary attempts to apply Baxter's work.
OK? Let's go.
1. Scripture and the pastor-teacher
We may rightly trace the beginning of the role of pastor, or shepherd, to the Lord Jesus Christ himself, the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11). Of course, there are unique, redemptive aspects to the work of the Lord Jesus, but the following things drawn from John 10 about the shepherd’s work seem to be clear and transferable.
a) The purpose of the shepherd’s work is salvation, in both its narrow and broad aspects. On the one hand, Jesus is the man who enters by the gate (verse 2) and he is the gate himself – ‘whoever enters through me will be saved,’ (verse 9).
b) Knowing the sheep is essential to the proper functioning of the shepherd: ‘they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognise a stranger’s voice,’ (verse 4); ‘I know my sheep and my sheep know me,’ (14). Of course, there is here a reference both to election and effectual calling, which are unique to Jesus; but we have no cause to bypass the surface meaning.
c) The shepherd’s work is done, at least in part, by the means of words – hence Jesus’ emphasis on the voice (3,4,5,16,27).
I would not maintain that we could derive a pastoral theology from this chapter alone, and to attempt to do so would leave my selection of the above elements open to a charge of arbitrariness. However, from what we learn in the rest of Scripture we can turn back to this passage and learn how the Lord Jesus functioned (and functions!) as pastor of his people.
Next in the developing theme of pastoral ministry we need to consider the call (or re-instatement) of Peter, also in John’s gospel (John 21:15-19). After the appalling fall of Peter by the fireside, and the glorious shock of the resurrection of the man he had disowned, we can only image Peter’s despondency, and the grace of the Lord Jesus in giving him this new commissioning is often commented on. For our purpose, we need to notice again three things.
a) the motive or even qualification for the work Peter does is not, primarily, love for the people he will serve but love for the Good Shepherd himself: ‘Do you love me?… Feed my lambs… take care of my sheep… feed my sheep.’ This is important for a number of reasons. First, the sheep often behave in unlovely ways, and the pastor may be tempted to ask ‘Why should I still serve them?’ The answer is not to be found in any liberalised or rose-tinted anthropology, nor even in a confidence in their improvement by grace, but in the faithfulness of the Lord Jesus Christ. Second, the weakness of those called, like Peter, to be under-shepherds; often, the plain fact is that we do not love our charges, and we never love them as we should.
b) The work to which Peter is called: he is to feed, and to take care of, the flock of God.
c) The Lord Jesus graciously gives Peter a warning of the cost of such under-shepherding. As the Great Shepherd lay down his life for his sheep, so Peter himself will be called to die in the service of that flock (18-19). In the Western world such radical pastoring is, happily, rarely demanded; but the existence of this word to Peter rebukes those of us who are tempted often to cavil at smaller sacrifices. The words of Wesley
‘To spend and to be spent for those
Who have not yet my Saviour known…’
reflect no more than the proper attitude of an under-shepherd in Christ’s flock.
It is to the rapidly-expanding church in Acts that we must next turn in pursuit of the Biblical model of the pastor. Once again, it is Peter who is centre-stage here. After the Spirit is poured out at Pentecost, Peter delivers the first sermon of the new era, and three thousand people respond to his powerful message and are added to the church that day (Acts 2:41). That is not the end of the growth; ‘the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved’ (2:47); by 4:4 there are five thousand (male? The Greek is ανηρ) believers. In both chapters 3 and 4, Peter’s preaching ministry is in evidence again. In 6:1 the number of disciples is still increasing, and in 6:7 the number of disciples in Jerusalem increases rapidly. This rapid increase led to a crisis in the church, and a restriction enforced by defining the ministry of the apostles.
The occasion is the discontent of the Grecian Jews over the distribution of food (6:1). The twelve apparently recognise the validity of the complaint, but declare that I is not their work to wait on tables; seven men are therefore chosen who will liberate the Twelve to ‘give [their] attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.’
Following this, and perhaps following on, the Pauline letters reflect the existence of two ‘offices’ in the early church – that of elder and that of deacon. It is easy to show that the elder, the overseer and the pastor are three ways of referring to one office. There is disagreement though over whether there were two ‘kinds’ of elders – the teaching elder and the ruling elder, 1 Timothy 5:17. I will take the view here that while in any team of elders there may be some who are more gifted in one way than in another, yet there is one ‘kind’ of elder, not two, and that ‘μαλιςτα’ is better taken as ‘namely’ rather than ‘especially’.
The key text in Paul is Ephesians 4:11, ‘It was he (Christ) who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.’ It is widely recognised that Paul deliberately did not say ‘some to be pastors and some to be teachers’ precisely because the pastor is the teacher: so Christ gave some ‘to be pastor/teachers’ we might say.
Let us consider that for a moment. Lincoln will only go so far as to say that pastors and teachers
were overlapping functions, but that while almost all pastors were also teachers, not all teachers were also pastors. Whether the two functions were performed by a single individual with a particular local situation may well have depended on what gifted persons were present in that situation. The one definite article is therefore best taken as suggesting this close association of functions between two types of ministers who both operate within the local congregation.
O’Brien agrees but is a little stronger: ‘All pastors teach (since teaching is an essential part of pastoral ministry,) but not all teachers are also pastors.’ However, since both agree that all (or almost all) pastors were teachers, their reservations need not concern us here. Hodge takes issue with Calvin, who divided the two into distinct offices, thus:
The thing is well nigh impossible. The one function includes the other… It was however on the ground of this unnatural interpretation that the Westminster Directory made teachers a distinct and permanent class of jure divino officers in the church. The Puritans in New England endeavoured to reduce the theory to practice, and appointed doctors as distinct from preachers. But the attempt proved to be a failure. The two functions could not be kept separate. The whole theory rested on a false interpretation of Scripture. The absence of the article before [teachers] proves that the apostle intended to designate the same persons as at once pastors and teachers.’
And Hendriksen deals with the objection that
this non-repetition [is not] sufficient to prove that one group is meant
we have a parallel in 1 Timothy 5:17b, where mention is made of men who, in addition to exercising supervision over the flock together with the other elders, also labor in the word and in teaching. These shepherds and teachers are one group.
It is my contention that not only are they one group, only one function is being described: they pastor by teaching.
Before we turn to that, let us look a representative example of an evangelical where the opposite assumption is made: that one man is the pastor/teacher but sometimes he pastors and sometimes he teaches; and in fact a man may be ‘a good pastor but a poor teacher’, or ‘a good teacher but a poor pastor.’
For that example, the excellent Derek Prime seems to make this assumption when he writes
Shepherding and teaching should not be separated. Preaching and pastoral work help each other. Visiting enhances our preaching in that it helps us to appreciate how our fellow believers think, their problems, and their temptations.’
Indeed, while he is critical of it, his view of pastoral work seems to leave open the charge of Huckleberry Finn who, when asked what pastors do in their visiting, answer
‘Oh, nothing much. Loll around, pass the plate – and one thing or another. But mainly they don’t do nothing.’
However, we should exempt Prime from too much stricture, since he lists the goals of pastoral care as:
Feeding the flock, the proclaiming of the whole will of God, the presenting of every believer perfect in Christ, the preparing of God’s people for works of service, and equipping them to be fishers of men… What is important is not how many visits we have achieved, but how effective they have been in furthering these objectives.
In other words, for Prime at least a part of his pastoral visitation is taken up with teaching.
Visiting the sick
Perhaps the area which most spotlights the disjunction between the Biblical work of the Pastor and the expected work of the Pastor is that of visiting the sick. It is taken for granted by most congregations, and by most pastors, that those in the flock who are unwell need to be visited, and need to be visited by the Pastor. When pastors are asked for the Biblical basis of this work, it is customary for them to answer in terms of caring for the flock, or knowing the people.
There is, as far as I can see, no suggestion anywhere in the New Testament that the Pastor/elder will visit those who are unwell, with one exception. There are surely two reasons for this. One is, as I have attempted to demonstrate, the Pastor’s work is that of teaching; he is the pastor-teacher and it is just as accurate to call him ‘Teacher’ as it is to name him ‘Pastor.’ To put it as plainly as possible, when he is not teaching, he is not pastoring. But those who are unwell are not generally in a position or mood to be taught. The second reason is that it undermines the work of the ‘ordinary’ Christian, the non-elder. Again, it is James who says ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress,’ (1:27). This verse does not mention the visiting of the sick, but it does make it clear that there are needs within the church, needs of support and encouragement, which the body of Christ is to meet. But it is not the Teacher who is to attempt to meet those needs.
One of the more positive things within the church of Christ over the last few decades has been the re-emphasis on body ministry. However, even within so-called ‘charismatic’ churches, not everyone feels they have a ‘supernatural’ gift, and a proper understanding of 1 Corinthians 12:30 (where the form of question in the Greek requires a negative answer) makes it clear that this is so. What, then, are believers to do? They are to care for one another in their affliction. Let us imagine a lady recovering at home after some serious operation. What is it she needs? She may need company, and someone to pray with her. She may need help in managing the children during her illness; she may need help with housework, with cooking or even with finance. All of these things can be done by any Christian believer; they do not require one to be ‘set aside’ for that work. Yet if the concept is accepted that what they need is a visit from the Pastor, those other things are more likely, not less likely, to be neglected. Hence, sick-visiting may actually undermine the work of other Christians, and give the unbelieving world fewer opportunities to say ‘See how these Christians love one another.’ Hence, Philip Jensen’s words ‘There is a real place for this ministry, but it is not the pastoral ministry.’
Are there exceptions to this rule? As mentioned earlier, there is certainly one Biblical exception, and there may be other practical exceptions.
The biblical exception is found in James 5:14,15: ‘Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up.’ Here, the person who is unwell takes the initiative and sends for the elders; but the purpose is not comfort and company, nor friendship or pastoral counselling: it is the Lord’s healing. This is a quite specific exception, and need not detain us.
There may of course also be practical exceptions. Though I have said ‘those who are unwell are not generally in a position or mood to be taught’, the ‘generally’ is important. Someone suffering from a life-threatening illness may be asking deep questions, and need a visit from a Teacher competent to answer them and encourage him. A Christian struggling with long-term illness may find her mind turning more than ever before to the age-old question of suffering and the problem of evil: that is natural and may require pastoral (that is, teaching) help. Or a young and otherwise healthy young man ‘laid up’ with a broken leg may be a perfect candidate for evangelistic visiting. However, the point stands: the Pastor is visiting, under these circumstances, in order to teach. He has not done any pastoral work unless he does teach – or, at the very least, make future teaching possible.
To be continued...
 Peter also appears here as a miracle worker – 3:7, for example. It is beyond the scope of this project, but I do not deal with miracles because of the conviction that these are ‘signs of the apostles’ (2 Corinthians 12:12, c/w Acts 5:12) and so have no part in on-going pastoral ministry. But Peter was not only an apostle, he was an elder (1 Peter 5:1) and that aspect of his work continues in the contemporary church.
 Some query whether ‘deacon’ was an office at all, but this need not concern us here
 See T.C. Skeat, ‘Especially the parchments’ in Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. 30, pt. 1, pp. 173-177
 Andrew T Lincoln, ‘Ephesians’ (Word Books, 1990), page 250
 Peter T O’Brien, ‘The Letter to the Ephesians’ (Eerdmans 1999) page 300
 Charles Hodge, ‘Ephesians’, Banner of Truth 1964 page 226
 ibid., page 226
 William Hendriksen, ‘Ephesians’ Banner of Truth 1972 page 197
 Derek Prime, ‘Pastors and Teachers’ Highland Books 1989, page 122
 Quoted in Derek Prime and Alistair Begg, ‘On being a Pastor’ Moody 2004, page 149
 Prime, op. cit., page 123
 though ‘distress’ (thlipsis) could conceivably include distress caused by sickness
 Philip Jensen, ‘A Ministry that Changes the Church’ Evangelical Ministry Assembly 1986, tape 3
 Jensen, op. cit., after saying ‘I never visit the sick’ goes on to list these particular exceptions.