- Revd Ben Cooper
Pastoral ministry founded on the Word of God
A review of Keith Condie's (ed.) ‘Tend my Sheep’: The Word of God and Pastoral Ministry (MST2; London: Latimer, 2016)
Those whose firm conviction that the Bible is ‘God’s Word written’, a personal word from God to his people, believe that through its words God gives everything we need to persevere in faith; that in the Bible, God speaks to the deepest needs of our hearts. Church families where a central place is given to the ministry of the Word should then, one might expect, be places of warm pastoral support and care. But experience suggests this not always the case. Why this ugly ditch between the study of God’s Word and authentic, godly pastoral practice?
‘Tend my Sheep’ is a collection of papers delivered at the 2015 School of Theology at Moore Theological College, Sydney. This is a conference that consistently produces very high-quality content, and this was no exception. The aim was to restate a conviction that, as Keith Condie puts it in the preface, ‘authentic pastoral ministry is grounded in the ministry of the word of God’.
One chapter (by the Principal of Moore College, Mark Thompson) is a careful and nuanced defence of the sufficiency of the Scriptures for pastoral practice. Two of the papers are exegetical studies. Lionel Windsor investigates the meaning of the phrase ‘the work of ministry’ in Ephesians 4:12. (It is not humble service, broadly conceived, but concerns people, especially those from a Jewish background, bringing the saving gospel to others.) Peter Orr investigates the word usually translated ‘comfort’ in 2 Corinthians 1:3–7. (It is not so much something that addresses the present suffering of the Corinthian Christians, but a deep encouragement to be distinct from the world, sharing in the afflictions of Christ, strengthened by God to persevere to the end.) David Peterson tackles the key issue of how to be authentically and faithfully pastoral in expository preaching. ‘We should have no doubts about the relevance of the Bible for contemporary Christians,’ he says. The challenge is then to expose this relevance as we deliver its message. (It is worth getting hold of the volume for this chapter alone.) Finally, Keith Condie gives a historical portrait of the Puritan pastor Richard Baxter that is both heart-warming and sobering. Baxter set a high standard of pastoral concern for individuals and their suffering that we would do well to emulate. On the other hand, there were flaws in his theology that caused one reader of the pastoral system outlined in The Reformed Pastor (the rector Thomas Gouldstone) cry out, ‘I buckle under the burden!’
The authors in ‘Tend my Sheep’ are all too aware they are not offering an extensive response to the problem of word ministry that is insufficiently pastoral. There are helpful moves in the right direction — especially in David Peterson’s chapter — just not enough to bridge the gap between formal exegesis and pastoral practice, which remains frustratingly large. But this is nonetheless a stimulating read. The answer to the problem does not lie in abandoning word ministry for something else. This is the temptation, of course, and many have drifted this way, perhaps even without realising it. ‘Tend my Sheep’ is a persuasive case that if we are to develop an authentic theology and practice of pastoral ministry, it must be founded on the word of God. The challenge, then, is to reform the ministry of the word of God in more relational and pastoral directions.