Lessons on Pastoring from Martin Bucer
As an elder, one thing I find helpful is reading books from pastors who understood the biblical gospel yet lived in different centuries, continents, and cultures than myself. While the major points these men made are rarely entirely new, I nonetheless find fresh insight and specific encouragement from these men’s unique perspectives.
Written in Europe in the early 16th century, Concerning the True Care of Souls presents a picture of the weighty and joyous responsibility of pastoring. Martin Bucer wrote the book so that Christians “may thoroughly understand what the church of Christ is, what rule and order it must have, who its true ministers are and how they are to exercise their ministry in the care of souls” (xxxiii). Though there are many pastoral gems in the book, this review will focus on a few points pastors can apply to ministry today.
Martin Bucer (1491–1551) isn’t as well known as John Calvin or Martin Luther, but during the 16th century Bucer’s writings and reform of the church in Strasbourg influenced many. For example, Calvin looked to Bucer’s ecclesiology when he worked to reform Geneva. Bucer also earned a reputation as an irenic mediator who sought theological unity even when it seemed unlikely.
Although there is much to learn from Bucer and Concerning the True Care of Souls, he’s not without his blind spots. For example, his understanding of the relationship between the church and the state, while improved from Medieval Christendom, remains confused. In addition, his regular use of the term “penance” is unhelpful due to the fact that one could misunderstand him to be teaching theology similar to Roman Catholics.
ON GENUINE REPENTANCE
In a recent elders’ meeting at the church I help to pastor, we discussed what to do about a member who’s repeatedly fornicating and then ostensibly expressing repentance. This situation, common in the days of Bucer and Calvin, is perhaps even more prevalent in our day. How should pastors today respond to members who commit grievous public sin such as repeated fornication or illegitimate divorce? Bucer argues the church should go about handling those grievous sins “with great seriousness and truth, and cannot lose or forgive the sins of anyone except the one whom they can recognize, as far as they are able, to be one who is truly sorry for his sins and committed with all his heart to mending his ways. But this true sorrow and commitment to reformation following more serious and grosser sins is not proved by someone just turning away from the sin he has committed and saying, ‘I am sorry, I won’t do it again’” (118; c.f. 160-161). Speaking of the same situation, Bucer later says the church should look for “many earnest indications of his repentance” (161).
Echoing the seriousness with which Scripture takes these sins (c.f., 1 Cor 6:9–11; Eph 5:3–7; Gal 5:19–21), Bucer provides a helpful corrective for our day when we can become inured by what both our culture and sinful hearts celebrate. So, fellow elder, how are you doing in looking for genuine repentance, especially in cases of grievous public sins? Does the member in question take steps to avoid sin such as breaking off a relationship, finding a new job, or changing his living situation? If not, consider that it may well be appropriate to heed the counsel of Bucer: “It is not right for [the church] to forgive someone as soon as he says, ‘I repent of my sins,’ when there is nothing to indicate that repentance” (136). Bucer notes that “every truly repentant Christian will commit himself all the more heartily and gladly to all the church’s correction and humiliation, the more he becomes aware of the mercy of God and the true love of all the saints” (134). While it is impossible to discern someone’s repentance and motivation perfectly, pastors can and should look for signs that a professed repentance is genuine, refusing to accept one who merely says “I am sorry, I won’t do it anymore” (161).
ON CHURCH DISCIPLINE
For individuals like myself who came of age in the 21st century, the topic of church discipline sounds abrasive and abusive. While improperly exercised it certainly and sadly can be, Bucer provides a different vision. Known as an irenic 16th century man, Bucer contended that “if the church carries out this discipline with proper earnestness, the Lord, the chief Physician of poor souls, will bless it with success and great and remarkable fruit” (143). How many Christians suffer from the abuse of spiritual malnourishment at the hands of pastors who refuse to heed the advice of Bucer, and more importantly of Christ himself (c.f. Mt. 18:15–20)?
Speaking of church discipline broadly defined, Bucer writes that “if only this medicine of souls were prescribed and applied with the moderation and diligence we have spoken of above, this would and could only result, since this is a work and command of Christ, in the bringing of great piety and reformation, rather than merely being harmful or impossible” (151). As Bucer notes, there’s need of much wisdom, care, and moderation in this matter, but that it’s needed is certain. To avoid dealing with sin—either your own or another Christian’s—may take less work, but it also shows less love.
What is the most effective thing a pastor can do to build a prospering church? How should a pastor respond to a weak sheep who’s struggling hard with sin? What’s the cure for the root of sin? In response to these questions pastors face, Bucer offers the same answer: Scripture. Even Concerning the True Care of Souls models this by arguing at length from the Bible. Bucer begins each chapter with passages that provide a foundation for his subsequent reasoning.
Speaking of weak and struggling sheep, Bucer contends that “the most important thing that must be done is to point out to them and warn them that they should attend the assemblies of the church with all diligence, listen eagerly to God’s Word, receive the holy sacraments, and be zealous and reverent in all the practices of the church” (168). In other words, Bucer argues the Bible’s spiritual recovery and growth plan is attending the preaching of the Word and receiving the administration of the Lord’s Supper. In our world of entertainment filled with self-help gurus, the biblical plan of quietly listening to the Word and humbly receiving the Supper can frankly seem weak. Yet we must never forget, as Bucer reminds us, that these seemingly inconsequential disciples comprise God’s plan for spiritual health. Therefore, pastors who seek the well-being of their flock will emphasize it.
Bucer elevated the Word because it alone provides the cure for the root of our sinful actions: unbelief. “Since all sicknesses and weaknesses in the Christian life stem from the weakness and stupidity of faith, and faith comes from the Word of God and is strengthened and encouraged by it, all strengthening of the weak and ailing sheep depends on the Word of God being faithfully set forth to them, and them being led to listen to it gladly and have all their joy in it” (167). Put simply, pastoral care starts with Scripture and as pastors we must ensure those under our ministries receive it in abundance. More than anything else, that is the pathway to spiritual health.
Finally, I’m struck that even before the so-called “Modern Missions Movement” and against the backdrop of so-called “Christian” Europe, Bucer repeatedly urges pastors to seek the lost. He sounds “the apostolic call and command to go to foreign people” (88). He argues that “ministers of Christ are to do everything they can to urge people into the fellowship of Christ, so that it will seem as if they are compelling people to come in” (75).
Pastor, fellow brother or sister in the Lord: how is your heart for evangelism? When you see someone totally apart from Christ, is there a sadness that moves you to pray and speak as occasion arises? Bucer and the Bible know of no category of a pastor who’s too busy studying to search out lost sheep. As Bucer so forcefully noted, a true shepherd goes out and pursues the perishing. He winds down his chapter “How the Lost Sheep Are to Be Sought” with these harrowing words for pastors who do not seek the lost: “The Lord will accuse these unreliable and unfaithful shepherds with great dismay: You have not searched for the lost [Ezek. 34:4]” (89).