The Nature Of This Oversight
Having encouraged us to take ourselves in hand before we are better able to minister to others, Baxter now goes on to explain what it means to ‘take heed to all the flock.’ Let’s remind ourselves of Acts 20:28 again. I will highlight the part related to today’s study.
‘Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God,which he bought with his own blood.’
1. ‘It is implied , that every flock should have its own pastor, and every pastor his own flock…When we are ordained ministers without a special charge, we licensed and commanded to our best for all, as we shall have opportunity for the exercise of our gifts: but when we have undertaken a particular charge, we have restrained the exercise of our gifts so specially to that congregation, that we must allow others no more than it can spare of our time and help, except where the public good requireth it..’ (p88)
Translation: The ideal is for every church to have a pastor and every pastor a church. However, when we are without a pastoral ministry, then itinerant speaking is acceptable for the benefit of the wider body and the development of our spiritual gifting. When we settle into one ministry then that is where our focus must be. We must fight the urge to go and make a name for ourselves by joining the ‘speaking bandwagon’ and running around everywhere preaching whilst neglecting our own people. Only accept outside invitations to preach if completely necessary.
2. ‘When we are commanded to take heed to all the flock, it is plainly implied, that flocks must be no greater than we are capable of overseeing or “taking heed” to…If the pastoral office consists i overseeing all the flock, then surely the number of souls under the care of each pastor must not be greater than he is able to take such heed to as is here required.’ (p88)
Translation: Don’t ‘over stretch’ yourself. The eldership must reflect the need and number of the flock so as not to crush one man under the weight of the ministry needs.
Having established these two rules as basic to the pastoral role, Baxter goes on to make several points about what it means in practice to take heed to the flock. Firstly, ‘we should know every person that belongs to our charge; for how can we take heed to them if we do not know them? For if we know not their temperament or disease, we are not likely to prove successful physicians…Doth not a careful shepherd look after every individual sheep? And a good schoolmaster after every individual scholar? And a good physician after every individual patient? And a good commander after every individual soldier? Why then, should not the shepherds, teachers, the physicians, the guides of the churches of Christ, take heed to every single individual of their charge?’ (p90-91) He goes on to talk about what this means for those pastors ( who would object to this) who have large churches beyond their scope to do this. Basically, nobody forced you to take the job and being big is no excuse. If it’s beyond you then put structures in place to ensure that all the flock have access to a pastor (elder), otherwise you are neglecting your sacred duty. I personally think that is wise advice for churches of any size!
He moves on to make some points about paying special attention to certain classes of people within our flocks.
1. ‘We must labour, in a special manner, for the conversion of the unconverted…he that seeth one man sick of a mortal disease, and another only pained with the toothache, will be moved more to compassionate the former, than the latter; and will surely make more haste to help him, though he were a stranger, and the other a brother or a son.’ (p94-95)
Translation: We need to really love the lost and not just see them as an uncomfortable sidebar of the job. Lots of pastors I know think that because they have been called to ‘labour in the word’ for the benefit of ‘the saints’ that this excuses them from evangelism and engaging with the lost. A truly, compassionate pastor (according to Baxter) will feel real empathy and pain over the plight of the lost than over the troubles and worries of a person already going to glory. And then, just when I felt I couldn’t admire him more, he comes up with this little beauty: ‘I confess, I am frequently forced to neglect that which should tend to the further increase of knowledge in the godly, because of the lamentable necessity of the unconverted.’ (p95) Some men like to lock themselves in the study and have no contact whatsoever with the unconverted from day-to-day and week to week. They don’t like to be disturbed from what they see as the real business. And they would probably regard that last quote with some suspicion before seeking our a self justifying response. (Discuss)
2. ‘We must be ready to give advice to inquirers, who come to us with cases of conscience…A minister is not to be merely a public preacher, but to be known as a counsellor for their souls, as the physician is for their bodies, and he lawyer for their estate.’ (p96)
Translation: We should be available to people outside of the pulpit for counsel and advice. Do our people have a mechanism for responding to the issues brought up, by the work of the Spirit, through the preaching of the Word week by week?
3. ‘We must build up those who are already truly converted.’ (p97)
Translation: None needed. he goes on to say that we must teach and admonish those who have stopped growing, who are fighting secret sins, who are backsliding into worldliness, and those who whilst strong need to be urged to persevere in what they are doing.
4. ‘We must have a special eye upon families, to see that they are well ordered.’ (p100)
Translation: We must ensure that the blokes are ‘manning up’ with regard to the running of their households. According to Baxter, pastors have no chance of reforming families in this area if the ‘master’ is not pulling his finger out. He offers some practical tips in this area: (a) ‘Get information on how each family is ordered, that you may know how to proceed in your endeavours for their further good.’ (p100) (b) ‘Go occasionally among them, when they are likely to be most at leisure, and ask the master of the family, whether he prays with them, and reads the scripture, or what he doth?’ (p100) (c) Tell the man to get a grip and sort out the areas where he is lacking. (d) ‘See that in very family there are some useful, moving books, beside the BIble.’ (p101) (e) ‘Direct them how to spend the Lord’s Day….how to spend the time with their families.’ (p101)
5. ‘We must be diligent in visiting the sick, and helping them prepare either for a fruitful life, or a happy death.’ (p102)
Translation: None needed. But, again, he goes on to specify what this means in practice. (a) ‘Stay not till their strength and understanding are gone, and the time so short you scarcely know what to do.’ (p103) In other words, where possible, get to people quickly before it is too late. (b) ‘When the time is so short, that there is no opportunity to instruct them in the principles of religion in order, be sure to ply them main points.’ (p103) In other words, don’t faff about when you are running out of time. Make sure they know what is required for salvation and hold out the great promises to come for those that believe. (c) ‘If they recover, be sure to remind them or their resolutions and promises in times of sickness’ (p104)
6. ‘We must reprove and admonish those who live offensively an impenitently.’ (p104)
Translation: We must not be scared to tackle unrepentant sinners, particularly those claiming the title ‘Christian’. This is one of the weakest areas of the modern church.
7. ‘The last part of our oversight, which I shall notice, consisteth in the exercise of church discipline.’ (p104)
Translation: Let’s talk about the thing done least in our churches today. Baxter breaks it down for us: (a) Those who remain unrepentant after being challenged by sin must be publicly rebuked (b) Those who have been publicly rebuked should make a public confession (c) The church must pray for those being disciplined (d) We must encourage and restore repentant sinner but not so soon as to make light of their offence, but not keep them hanging so long as to go into ‘over kill’. (e) If all else fails they must be excluded from the fellowship all together and no members should associate with them.
He goes on to finish this chapter by saying, even in his day, those who engage in such measures are thought of as extremists and disciplinarians. Most of what he says could be written off as ‘old school’ but I think there is much wisdom in the pages of this book which can be of great benefit to the church today.