Teaching Church Practice
The Reformation had a number of godly men who, for whatever reason, seem to have gotten lost in the proverbial shuffle. Among such great Reformers are Heinrich Bullinger—known to his good friends as “Hank” or “Hanklein”—and Martin Bucer (or Butzer), the Reformer of Straßbourg.
John Leith opens his chapter on “Teaching Church Practice” by citing the well-known John Calvin (1509-1564) and the lesser-known but highly competent Martin Bucer (1491-1551). One of Leith’s theses has been all but lost on modern Christians: “Church practice has always been critically important for Reformed Christians.”
Some might respond that the modern Church is ultimately concerned about church practice. After all, in evangelical circles just about all you hear is the desire to make Scripture practical; relevant. The irony of modern evangelicalism is that its position is far removed from what the Reformers had in mind when they spoke about Church practice. When “Church practice” is mentioned, the modern Christian is, as often as not, referring to the “accoutrements” of being entertained (ostensibly called “worship” in the 21st century); while the Reformers were referring to the biblical boundaries surrounding what was true worship of the Lord.
Now as much bad press as Calvin has received (in light of Michael Servetus, many think that Calvin’s theme song was “Burn, baby, burn!”) Leith’s next comments will come as a surprise to some: “His letters were pastoral. He understood his primary calling in Geneva…as a pastor.” Leith rightly points out that Calvin was deeply indebted to Martin Bucer who taught Calvin that “that the Reformed church had to devise new methods of nurturing people in the faith.” To that end, Bucer “devoted an entire book to pastoral care.”
What was the content of Bucer’s work? Clearly, it was multifaceted, but by and large, “He pioneered…the use of catechetical training and admission to the Lord’s Table as a means not only of teaching the faith, but of developing the life of the community.” Let’s take a few moments and analyze this.
First, Bucer was concerned about the place of catechetical training in the congregation. This has all but become a lost spiritual art. So-called “new methods” have supplanted catechism teaching/training to the detriment of the man, woman, and child in the pew. Modern Christians, on balance, are abysmally ignorant about the most fundamental truths of Scripture. They cannot tell you where to find the Ten Commandments, and, once found, what those commandments actually are. You get a “deer in the headlights” look if you ask what justification by faith, adoption, union with Christ, and other key biblical doctrines are. Even in my own ecclesiastical tradition—PCA—a number of my colleagues have chased after “George Barna-esque” methods of church growth rather than implement what Bucer found so helpful. Moreover, the number of PCA pastors required to have learned the Westminster Shorter Catechism prior to or during seminary is becoming increasingly smaller. Why is this? Only individual churches and the seminary professors can answer this for us. I’m waiting.
Second, the Reformers spent a great deal of time instructing about the place and importance of the Lord’s Supper. One thing is clear: the Reformers did not view the Lord’s Supper as an opportunity to evangelize in the sense that non-believers were allowed at the table. The Holy Meal could be used to instruct non-communicant members as they grew to the point of making their public profession of faith and to strengthen Christians in their earthly pilgrimage. As an added benefit, non-believers could be instructed in the meaning of the Meal without actually allowing them to participate in it.
Third, Bucer emphasized developing the life of the community. Here is an often overlooked point: for the Reformers, worshipping God was a community affair. With all of the emphasis on “community” today, the mega-church and the Emergent Church have both missed the mark of what true community is by quite a bit. Community is more of a “buzz” word today than a practiced reality. It is the reaction—not response—to the impersonal nature of the mega-church movement. People, we are told, are searching for authenticity and community. The rub comes when community is not sought in a biblical fashion but according to the dictates of Dr. Phil, Oprah, or any other pop-psychology.
It seems self-evident to me that any theologian or local congregation that understood the biblical nature of covenant would be, by default, a congregation where true community was practiced. There would not have to be a bevy of books written to instruct us how this community should be effectuated, but it should flow forth naturally from what the leaders and the congregants read and apply from Scripture. While the modern Christian is still trying to reinvent the wheel, Leith demonstrates that Bucer has already given us a very workable way of “doing” pastoral care: “To draw to Christ those who are alienated; to lead back those ho have been drawn away; to secure amendment of life in those who fall into sin; to strengthen weak and sickly Christians; to preserve Christians who are whole and strong, and urge them forward in good.”
This is an excellent working definition because it hits on all cylinders, which a number of modern churches do not do. For example, Bucer begins with an emphasis on reaching out to those who are alienated from the gospel. This is both right and prudent. A number of modern churches make this their sole function, however. They go out and beat the bush to find the lost and get him or her to come to church. This is a good thing. Because these folks are a “square one,” the service and sermons tend to get “dumbed down” to reach their level of understanding. This is also good. The problem arises when the sermons and worship remain at “square one” over a longer period of time. There’s nothing wrong with being at “square one” when you become a Christian. There is something definitely awry if after a year or two that same person is still at square one and the services are still catering to “entry level” Christians. Moreover, our congregations should not be primarily non-Christian over time. There should be spiritual growth and maturity.
Bucer’s second point is very well taken. Historically, the Reformers were dealing with people who had been raised in the Roman Catholic Church. It was only natural that they might have been drawn away by ignorance or superstition or both. There are myriad reasons why those people might have been fed up with the nonsense in the Roman Catholic Church. With the necessary changes being made—mutatis mutandis—the modern Church is also facing folks who have been drawn away from worshipping God for any number of reasons. Since our culture can be described as “neo-barbaric,” it is quite possible that a number of worshippers have become seduced by the fads and pleasures of culture.
Third, there is still the problem of sin in the Church. Preaching and teaching should be directed to the harsh reality of sin as well as the spiritual antidotes to it rather than spending so much time and energy making people feel good about themselves; bolstering their self-esteem. With the Bible open, we are to call sinners away from the “pig sty” of sin and back into the arms of love, grace, and forgiveness. This call also includes amendment of lifestyle, which, when you pause and think about it for a moment, is the natural, spiritual extension of repentance unto life.
Fourth, we are to strengthen weak and sickly Christians. This can be taken a couple of important ways. Strengthening Christians involves equipping them (cf. Eph. 4:11-16). Again, far, far too little time is spent in this area in modernity or postmodernity and far, far too much time spent in fluff and entertainment. “Sickly” Christians are probably those who are ill. It is our task to visit them in the hospitals, give them godly comfort, and to pray with and for them. They might also be spiritually sick, so we’ll need to be prepared to counsel them, and not farm them out to the local psychological Duck—Quack! Quack! Quack!
Fifth, we are to preserve whole and strong Christians. This is nothing more or less than feeding God’s sheep—primarily with the solid meat of the Word of God through preaching. Urging them forward in good (cf. 2 Thess. 3:13) means instructing, equipping, and enabling them by means of Scripture.
Rightly, Leith recommends a classic work such as Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor. My Session and I are reading this book together currently, and I can vouch for the fact that they have learned exponentially about pastoral care and oversight. I might add that it is sheer joy watching these godly men implement what they are learning. But we find ourselves back at the same familiar point: These men that I have mentioned are all “dead guys.” Their abiding value is not when they were born or when they died, but the clear manner in which their writings breathe the air of Scripture. When we talk about “relevance” few are more relevant than the Reformers due to the fact that what they wrote was almost always in concert with the Word of God. We would do very, very well to take note of this and put it into practice within our own congregations.
So what is the point of all this “dead guys” pastoral care stuff? Probably Baxter put it as well as anyone when he wrote, “The ultimate end of our pastoral oversight, is that which is the ultimate end of our whole lives; even the pleasing and glorifying of God, and the glorification of His Church.” It’s interesting what Baxter doesn’t say. The pastor is not there to build his own little empire, make his name known (Christian celebrity), or to “engage the culture” in the first place. His sole aim and purpose must be to glorify God and his Church. And I will be so bold to say to my colleagues if this is not our express goal, then we need to get out of the pastoral ministry—right now! If our motives and goals are anything other than the glory of God then we are no better than the hucksters and charlatans that we criticize on TBN.
What should the nature of our work be? Our aim should not be getting people to understand the latest movie, piece of art, or avant-garde piece of music. As mundane as it might sound, our aim is to preach the Word in season and out of season (2 Tim. 4:1-2) and to deal with spiritual matters in a spiritual manner. Baxter put it this way:
The subject matter of the ministerial work is, in general, spiritual things, or matters that concern the pleasing of God, and the salvation of our people. It is not about temporal and transitory things. Our business is not to dispose of commomwealths, nor to touch men’s purses or person by our penalties; but it consisteth only in these two things: 1. In revealing to men that happiness, or chief good, which must be their ultimate end. 2. In acquainting them with the right means for the attainment of this end, and helping them to use them, and hindering them from the contrary.
But, someone might object, these are different times altogether. “Our time” is tumultuous and requires drastic measures to reach the lost and to equip the saints. I disagree; not with the fact that these are tumultuous times, but with the panic. Few people have lived in times more tumultuous that were fraught with cataclysmic change than the Reformers. They lived when confessing biblical faith meant something and could actually cost you your life. Moreover, sin is no different now than it was when Adam and Eve first sinned. Justification by faith is no different now than it was for the early Church. Abraham was justified by faith in the coming Messiah (Rom. 4); we are justified by faith in the risen and ascended Christ.What the modern Church needs now more than ever is to teach the Church practice and to have pastors and Elders exercise godly, biblical leadership. Next week, Deo volente, we’ll examine home visitation and knowing all your people by name.
 John Leith, Crisis in the Church, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 62.
 Ibid. Italics mine.
 See the excellent monograph: W.F. Dankbaar, Communiegebruiken in de eeuw der Reformatie, (Groningen: Instituut voor Liturgiewetenschap, 19872).
 Leith, CC, 63, quoting from The Common Places of Martin Bucer, (David Wright [ed. & trans.]), (Appleford, England: Sutton Courtenay Press, 1972), p. 21.
 Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, (London: SCM Press, 1956), p. 48. There is also a Banner of Truth Trust publication of Baxter’s work as well.