Church history is a mighty resource for Christian ministry. This is true, in the first place, because of the way it teaches us to read. Reading history with integrity requires us to reckon with an objective reality that is outside of ourselves. People in the past — even our heroes — did not act as we do, and it does not help to pretend that they did. As novelist L.P. Hartley recognized, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” This means we can’t read events of fifty years ago — much less fifteen hundred — and expect to find dim images of ourselves.
But it is precisely by forcing us to acknowledge this otherness that church history equips us to face contemporary challenges. Reading an unfamiliar history requires us to read patiently, carefully, inquisitively, sympathetically, and above all humbly. As we do, we are being freed from our innate self-absorption and formed into sensitive listeners, skilled in hearing and helping others. Reading church history well is a spiritual discipline for reshaping the self-centered soul.
Second, once we acknowledge this difference of the past, we are ready to hear what it has to say. And what we discover is that the branches of the previous centuries are heavy with the fruit of good answers to ongoing questions. To take one example, providing Christlike help to another person has been an enduring challenge. The following four examples offer a taste of the way our forebears in the faith recognized the complexity of the biblical call to care for one another as well as sample some of the strategies they put in place to address it. All four are still in print or available online.
Gregory of Nazianzus, Reflections on the Priesthood (AD 362)
Gregory compared the vocation of a pastor (though it applies as well to a fellow disciple) with that of a doctor. “As the same medicine and the same food are not in every case administered to men’s bodies, but a difference is made according to their decree of heath or infirmity, so also are souls treated with varying instruction and guidance.” Not only is every person unique in the help they require, but the help each of us needs will change across seasons of our life.
This complexity is compounded by the fact that a pastor is called not only to treat “the hidden person of the heart” but to do so among people who hide from their own healing. “The very eagerness with which we should lay bare our sickness to our spiritual physicians we employ in avoiding this treatment.” The duty to press through the “armed resistance” offered by those who excuse their sin, and then to discern a suitable restorative for their spiritual disease qualifies pastoral care, in Gregory’s estimation, as “in very deed, the art of arts and the science of sciences.”
This high view of the pastoral calling results in an equally high emphasis on a pastor’s character. But to prevent us from the discouragement that comes when we try to discharge these responsibilities in our own strength, Gregory lifts our attention to the sufficiency of Christ and the power he works through the ministry of his word.
Gregory the Great, On Pastoral Care (AD 590)
This second Gregory builds on the observation of the first — pastoral care is the art of arts — by identifying eight concrete tensions we embrace as we care for God’s people. To take one example, Gregory notes that there are times we should stay silent and times when we must speak. This tension means that in ministering to others, we must be on our guard against “hasty” or premature speech. Even if what we say is true, our words will serve ourselves instead of profit our brother or sister unless they are coupled with careful listening. Dietrich Bonhoeffer echoed this instruction in his Life Together: “The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists of listening to them.”
But that is only one aspect of the tension. An equal and opposite temptation invites us to keep what Gregory calls “an indiscreet silence.” Careless quiet occurs when we “leave in error those who might have been instructed.” Often, this hesitation stems from the fear of man. So, at the ugly root of both unprofitable speech and indiscreet silence lies the love of self. “When the mind of the spiritual director is seized by self-love, sometimes it carries him off to inordinate laxity, other times to undue austerity.” Our speech and silence must rather depend on what is best for the other.
Martin Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls (AD 1538)
Reformer Martin Bucer also recognized the complexity of soul care, describing “this so varied ministry” that must be “carried out in such a way as to help any and every one of the elect.” The way he reminded himself of the different kinds of care his congregation needed was to create five categories of sheep who need different ministry from their shepherd. The lost sheep need to be sought out, the stray sheep need to be restored, the injured sheep need to be healed, the weak sheep need to be strengthened, and the healthy sheep need to be fed a diet on which they can continue to grow strong. Bucer and his elders conceived of and carried out their local ministry by giving attention to these distinctions.
Bucer chose the pastoral language of shepherd and sheep in order to highlight his conviction that “Christ our Lord . . . is truly present in his church, ruling, leading, and feeding it himself.” To be sure, this sounds a Reformation note: Christ does not need a “vicar” (substitute) on earth over his church because he is himself present and active among his people. The way Jesus has chosen to shepherd each congregation is “through the ministry of his word, which he does outwardly and tangibly through his ministers and instruments” — namely, elders who preach, deacons who serve, and believers who steward God’s “varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10). This distinctly Protestant understanding of Christ present and active in his church gives great hope to believers called, in Paul Tripp’s phrase, to be instruments in the Redeemer’s hands.
Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (AD 1656)
The Puritans are often referred to as “physicians of the soul.” Richard Baxter is one of the reasons why. His ministry, like the title of his book, lingered over the reform still required in England to bring personal and church life into alignment with Scripture. The avenue through which Baxter sought to realize this transformation was the ongoing catechetical instruction of each member of his congregation. A more thorough grasp of God’s revealed truth, Baxter believed, would edify each of those under his care.
Baxter had an uncommon appreciation for the flexible manner in which unchanging truth must be ministered to his people. He recognized that “God breaks not all hearts alike.” The sensitive pastor, therefore, will “speak to each individual’s particular necessity.” Much of Baxter’s book strives to show this “personal dealing” in action so that others may begin to practice it themselves.
The picture that emerges, contrary to caricature, is a Puritan pastoral practice that was drenched in mercy. To take one example, Baxter counseled his fellow ministers, “When you perceive that they do not understand the meaning of your question, you must draw out their answer by an equivalent or expository question; or, if that will not do, you must frame the answer into your question and require in reply but Yes or No.”