Under the banner of sola Scriptura, the Protestant Reformation brought about much-needed reform in doctrine, worship, and preaching. These have been studied and developed extensively since that time. Less attention has been given to the equally important changes in pastoral ministry that developed from this recovery of biblical Christianity.
One Reformer whose contributions have often been overlooked was Martin Bucer (1491–1551). While Calvin resided in Strasbourg from 1538 to 1541, he sat under Bucer’s preaching and pastoral ministry and learned from him. This would become Calvin’s preparation for his return to Geneva, where he would labor until his death in 1564.
Under Bucer, Calvin’s view of pastoral ministry, both by ministers and by elders, developed and took organizational form in the “consistory” of ministers and elders who would gather weekly in Geneva for the oversight and administration of ministry.
Bucer published the Reformation’s first primer for pastoral care, entitled On the True Care of Souls, in 1538. In this work, Bucer presents a clearly Christ-centered view of the church and its ministry. He argues that the church exists in union with Christ—her Head, Savior, and Lord. Christ rules his church as her King, using various ordained ministers and—as Bucer then understood it—lay elders for exercising spiritual discipline and caring for the soul of each member of the flock of God. Bucer then gives a detailed explanation of how lost sheep are to be sought, stray sheep are to be restored, hurt and wounded sheep are to be healed, weak sheep are to be strengthened, and healthy and strong sheep are to be guarded and fed. In what might be seen as a Reformation form of biblical counseling, Bucer gives specific direction for “the cure of souls,” including how to assess the repentance of those who fall and how to graciously secure the hearty obedience of Christ’s sheep. One can see in this the clear outlines of what Calvin would later flesh out in Geneva.
In 1548, Bucer was exiled from Strasbourg after a series of conflicts with the city magistrate. He retreated to England and was there appointed Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge in 1550. This opportunity arose from his influence on the 1549 revision of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. While at Cambridge, Bucer lectured on Ephesians and from it developed the themes of his major work, De Regno Christi (On the Kingdom of Christ). This volume, published in 1550, became pivotal in the British outworking of the principles of the Protestant Reformation as they affected church life.
The term “the kingdom of God” can often be nebulous for Christians today. Not so for Bucer:
The Kingdom of our Savior Jesus Christ is that administration and care of the eternal life of God’s elect, by which this very Lord and King of Heaven by his doctrine and discipline, administered by suitable ministers chosen for this very purpose, gathers to himself his elect, those dispersed throughout the world who are his but whom he nonetheless wills to be subject to the powers of the world. He incorporates them into himself and his Church and so governs them in it that purged more fully day by day from sins, they live well and happily both here and in the time to come.… He also shapes and perfects them, using for this purpose the ministry of his word and sacraments through fitting ministers, in public, at home, and in private, and also by the vigilant administration of his discipline.… (Melanchthon and Bucer, ed. Wilhelm Pauck, p. 225; emphasis added)
Note that all church discipline was to be an expression of Christ the King’s own discipline, not a capricious exercise of human authority. Note, too, that the ministry of the church was not only to be public, but also “at home” and “in private.” This comes from what Bucer, Calvin, and the other Reformers understood as the apostolic charter for pastoral ministry, Acts 20:17–35. Here the apostle Paul emphasizes that his ministry of testifying of repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ was not only carried out publicly, but also exercised “from house to house” (v. 20). This was the model for “the elders of the church” (v. 17) who had been summoned to Miletus from their charge in Ephesus, where they had been called as “overseers, to care for [i.e., to shepherd] the church of God” (v. 28). By the time he wrote De Regno Christi, Bucer had come to see that elders, too, were to be ordained to that office (pp. 230–31). While Bucer did not think it was necessary for all these elders “to be trained in letters and languages, or even in the ability of public teaching” (p. 231), they were to assist the ministers in the pastoral ministry to the flock:
Such persons are evidently able with their fellow ministers of the doctrine and sacraments of Christ to exercise discipline, to admonish brethren of their duty both privately and in their own homes.… Saint Ambrose testifies that there was this kind of elder both in the synagogue and in the early Church, and that this office was abolished not without a vitiation of doctrine and disadvantage to the churches. (p. 231)
Indeed, being well aware of the magnitude and varied elements of pastoral ministry, the care of souls, and the discipline of the church, Bucer warned that it was impossible for ministers (especially given their primary work of prayer and the ministry of the word) to do this work alone:
But what single individual would be able to fulfill for many such offices of the good shepherd? It has therefore pleased the Holy Spirit from the beginning of the Church to join to the ministers of the word and the sacraments, namely, the presiding elders and bishops, other men also from the body of the Church, serious men endowed with a gift for governing, to assist them in exercising a concern for individuals and in keeping and strengthening the discipline of Christ (I Cor. 12:28). (p. 232)
In the century that followed the publication of De Regno Christi, Bucer’s views met with various forms of resistance. The civil magistrates’ support of Reformation measures was uneven. Moreover, there was no agreement regarding the form of church government that should be the alternative to episcopacy. And there was an inability to achieve a program of national discipline for the established church.
In response, the “Separatist” movement developed. The “Puritans,” who wanted a more thorough reformation of the established church, put an almost total emphasis on preaching and the production of written materials. By and large, pastoral ministry receded into the background until the mid-seventeenth century.
Far less known than the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms is the Directory for the Publick Worship of God, also drawn up by the Westminster Assembly of Divines. Curiously, the following mandate is found in the section “Concerning Visitation of the Sick”: “It is the duty of the minister not only to teach the people committed to his charge in publick, but privately; and particularly to admonish, reprove, and comfort them, upon all seasonable occasions, so far as his time, strength, and personal safety will permit.”
While this commission is not here given to the elders (although this may be inferred from the work assigned to elders in the chapter on “Other Church Governors” in the Assembly’s Form of Church Government), it is clearly required of elders in the Continental Reformed tradition. For example, in the Book of Church Order, Article 23, we read: “The office of the Elders … is to take heed that the Ministers, together with their fellow-Elders and the Deacons faithfully discharge their office … for the edification of the Churches, to visit the families of the Congregation, in order particularly to comfort and instruct the members, and also to exhort others in respect to the Christian Religion.” This charge is quite similar to what is found in our own Form of Government, 10.3.
It was this section of the Directory that spurred Richard Baxter (1615–1691) to promote systematic home visitation. That practice in turn became the basis for Baxter’s treatment of pastoral ministry in his work The Reformed Pastor (1656). Baxter was strongly influenced by Bucer’s works and pleaded with his fellow ministers to “read him diligently.” _Thus the link was forged between Bucer and Baxter, the two foremost exponents of the Protestant Reformation’s transformation of pastoral ministry according to the Word of God and for the effective care of souls.
The faithful practice of home visitation by both ministers and elders, coupled with the faithful preaching of the word, is perhaps the hallmark of the reformation of pastoral ministry. Where such ministry has become part of a church’s life (and where that ministry is treated not as a formality but as a vibrant expression of Christ’s own ministry to homes, families, and individuals), Reformed churches grow and thrive. Without it, our churches may become preaching posts, but they will be nothing like the faithfully governed, disciplined, and shepherded flocks of God envisioned by Bucer, Calvin, Baxter, and others. May God grant our pastors and elders a recovery of ministry that is not only “public,” but also “from house to house” (Acts 20:20).
The author is the regional home missionary for the Presbytery of Connecticut and Southern New England. New Horizons, March 2017.