“Many men assume that the pastoral office consists only in preaching and administering the sacraments. From what has been said, we may see that it is another kind of thing—and so much more than they think.” (59)
Hundreds of years ago, Richard Baxter confronted His fellow English pastors for their failure to care for the flock. The Reformed Pastor is his appeal for them to take up the charge of personally caring for each member of their flocks, despite the innumerable challenges that such work faced. “Reformed” in “The Reformed Pastor” doesn’t mean “Calvinist”; it means spiritually reformed. This challenge, to take up the onerous task of caring for Christ’s sheep and taking responsibility for their spiritual leadership, is fit for our time as it was for his. Tim Cooper has provided us with a new abridgment of Baxter’s classic, making it readily accessible for a new generation of pastor who need to hear this hard word. Cooper has modernised the language, cut out repeated content, and tried to streamline the argument without excising the challenge of Batter’s address. I believe he has succeeded at this; the book remains forceful and confronting. Cooper has also included questions for reflection after each chapter, specifically targeted for pastors.
The Reformed Pastor is Baxter’s call for a return to personal pastoral care. It is in many ways an extended mediation on Acts 20:28, where Paul calls the Ephesian elders to watch themselves closely and their flocks. Drawing on Paul’s own description of teaching them “house to house,” Baxter insists on the necessity of personal pastoral visitation and the use of a catechism in this private instruction. Chapter 1 calls pastors to watch themselves closely, to pay careful attention to their own life and godliness; how could we not when we are charged with such a serious task as shepherding Christ’s sheep? Chapters 2 & 3 then describe how we are to watch the flock closely (as per Acts 20:28). Chapters 4 & 5 lead the ministers in confessing sin and their failure to do these things. Chapters 6 through 8 then argue for personal visitation and care by displaying the need, the benefit, and the difficulties involved in such work. Chapter 9 considers several objections to pastoral visitation. The book then ends with personal direction and advice in doing this work. An appendix contains the catechism used by Baxter.
Baxter rightly confronts us with the seriousness of the work, with the weighty task of pastoral ministry. He does not allow us to settle for a model of pastor as CEO, leadership coach, or preacher. No, pastors are shepherds, tasked with leading the sheep and personally responsible for each one entrusted to their care. This personal responsibility towards the flock requires personal care and attention. “The object of our pastoral care is all the flock, that is, the church and every member of it. We should know every person who belongs to our charge. For how can we take heed unto them if we do not know them? A careful shepherd looks after every individual sheep.” Baxter thinks that it will often be wise to have an assistant minister to help with the work, but the point is, the work must be done. Personal visitation involves testing individuals and families (in appropriate groups where necessary) on their learning of the catechism, but pastoral care doesn’t stop there. We must recognise the different state of our sheep and the help they need, assisting them in identifying and overcoming be setting sin and continuing in the faith. He breaks this duty into 10 parts (55-59):
- Labour “to be acquainted with the state of all our people as fully as we can”
- In simple words, “instruct the ignorant in the matters of salvation”
- Give advice in cases of conscious: “A minister is not only to be about public preaching but also to be known as a counsellor for his people’s souls.”
- “We must also have a special eye on families to see that they are well ordered and that the duties of each member are performed.”
- “Another part of the work of our private oversight consists in a vigilant opposing of those who work to seduce weak Christians with false doctrine.”
- “Another part of this oversight lies in the due encouragement of those who are humble, upright, obedient Christians.”
- Also, “visiting the sick and helping them prepare either for a fruitful life or a happy death.”
- Also “comforting the consciences of the troubled and in settling our people in a well-grounded peace.”
- “Another part of this oversight is in reproving and admonishing those who live offensively or impenitently, and receiving the information of those who have admonished them more privately in vain.”
- “The Final part of our oversight lies I the use of church discipline. This consists in more public reproof, in persuading the offender to appropriate expressions of repentance, in praying for them, in restoring the penitent, and in excluding and avoiding the impenitent (Matt. 18:15-17).”
The Reformed Pastor is brimming with insights for contemporary ministry, but I am not convinced that pastoral visitation was the only way to achieve the ends Paul calls for in Acts 20:28. It is important to observe that Paul taught the elders from house to house, not necessarily the whole flock. However, Baxter makes many biblical observations about pastoral ministry, and certainly visitation is one way to fulfill these duties. His practical advice throughout is helpful, so the book succeeds in both challenging us to take of the sheep calling of pastoral care in all its dimensions, not just preaching. Cooper’s abridgment read well and didn’t feel lacking. I commend this work; pastors, ministers, take up and read.