While the public ministry of preaching is vital, most salvation and spiritual growth happens in the context of private ministry. Baxter noted that it is this private ministry that lends credence and trustworthiness to preaching. This private ministry is so important that Baxter spends more than a third of the book discussing it. It is no less important today. In numerous parables, Jesus described the Kingdom of Heaven as starting small then growing slowly and gradually. If that is the way Christ will built His Church, then that is what all Christians—especially pastors—must focus on.
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
-1 Peter 5:1-4, ESV
Recently, we have addressed the subject of church conflict. First, we saw that stirring up division in the church demonstrates a lack of love for the church and therefore a lack of love for Jesus Christ. Then, we looked at ways to approach conflict in the church, including circumstances in which church leaders are either straying from sound doctrine or committing sins that make them no longer qualified biblically to hold their office. Therein, I repeatedly referred to our obligation to honor our pastors, even when we must rebuke them for serious sins or doctrinal errors. I believe a major reason that we struggle with this is that we do not understand what the job of a pastor actually entails. If we truly understood this, we would have no trouble honoring our pastors as Scripture commands. A better understanding of their calling would also help us to discern when they are straying from that calling to the point where rebuke becomes necessary. My aim here is to help us all understand both the duty and high calling of the pastoral ministry so that we know how to strengthen and encourage them in this work as well as how to spot significant deviations from it.
The Job of the Pastor
What is the job of the pastor? Many people see the pastor’s role as little more than preaching on Sunday morning. This is very important, but it is only one small part of the pastor’s job. In simplest terms, the pastor’s job is to lead and care for the church. As I noted in my leadership paper, Scripture often uses the metaphor of the shepherd to describe what leadership should look like. Jesus then uses this metaphor by calling Himself the Good Shepherd in John 10 and then charging Peter to feed His sheep in John 21. Peter then extends this charge to all pastors: “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Peter 5:2a). He goes on to describe the manner in which pastors must do this. They must be willing and eager to serve in this capacity rather than being compelled to it. They must not do it out of greed for personal gain or in a domineering way, setting an example for everyone around them. We will discuss these more later, but it is important to note that all of this is prefaced by “exercising oversight”. In other words, the pastor must exercise oversight in the church. That oversight must be willing, eager, and neither greedy nor domineering, but it must be present.
What does it mean for pastors to be shepherds exercising oversight? In rebuking the Jewish leaders for their failure in this area, God lays out what a good shepherd looks like in Ezekiel 34. Based on this passage, second-generation reformer Martin Bucer divided the responsibilities of the pastor into five categories: lead lost souls to Christ, restore those who are straying, assist saints who are in sin, strengthen the spiritually weak, and protect all saints from sin and error—all of which generally fall into the category of soul care. In other words, to properly shepherd the flock is to care for each individual soul in the church in a way that ministers to each person in his or her particular context. This means that in addition to preaching and public evangelism, the responsibilities of the pastor include counseling and private evangelism, meeting with people in their homes, visiting the sick, and church discipline. This requires really knowing people and meeting them where they are in their lives, which cannot happen without pastors descending from the pulpit and entering into the messy lives of those in the congregation…all of them. Puritan Richard Baxter says this:
“To this end it is necessary, that we should know every person that belongeth to our charge; for how can we take heed of them, if we do not know them? We must labour to be acquainted, not only with the persons, but with the state of all our people, with their inclinations and conversations; what are the sins of which they are most in danger, and what duties they are most apt to neglect, and what temptations they are most liable to; for if we know not their temperament or disease, we are not likely to prove successful physicians.”
-Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth Trust: 2020 (orig. 1656): 65.
Is Baxter really saying that pastors need to know every person in the church? Yes. In our day, this may seem impossible, but perhaps that is because our view of the pastorate has deviated substantially from Scripture. We often think of a church having as single lead pastor, but if that pastor should know everyone in the congregation, that will severely limit the size of the church. Certainly it is impossible for megachurch pastors to know every person in the church, but it is just as difficult for a pastor to do this in medium sized churches. This drives home the point that with the exception of very small churches, a single pastor cannot adequately shepherd the flock God has entrusted to him. The biblical model instead calls for a plurality of pastors who can share this load between them. Whether this takes the form of a lead pastor with associate pastors or a combination of full-time and bi-vocational elders, it is absolutely essential. Just as Moses was unable to lead the nation of Israel alone (Exodus 18), so pastors should not expect (nor be expected) to lead their churches alone. When discussing tithing, I suggested that an adequately tithing church should be able to support a full-time staff member for every fifteen households or so. Coincidentally—or rather providentially—this is similar to most conventional secular wisdom on the appropriate scope of oversight that any one leader is capable of. Such a high pastor-to-household ratio may seem like a pipe dream, but the closer we get to it, the healthier our churches will be.
Even in churches that understand this, there can be a split between preaching and other responsibilities such that there is one main pastor who preaches while all of the other pastors or elders are charged with everything else. This is not the biblical model. It is true that Peter, Paul, and the other apostles focused on preaching the Gospel, but they also visited the sick and ministered to families in their homes. Furthermore, the personal references in of Paul’s letters indicates that he had a close relationship with various people in those churches. So while some pastors may focus on preaching while others focus on the other aspects of ministry, all pastors are charged to labor in all aspects of ministry.