Fewer books have had a greater shaping force on my convictions about pastoral ministry than Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor (“Reformed” is not used in a theological sense: it means something like “changed for the better”).
At the close of an especially stirring section (“The manner of this oversight”) Baxter pleads that his fellow pastors seek to promote unity among themselves instead of splintering into factions based on petty differences. The consistency of our human nature to seek self-aggrandizement by enlarging the distinctions that make us differ from other churches makes Baxter’s words both timeless and timely. But since Baxter wrote over 350 years ago, his vocabulary and syntax may be challenging for the modern reader. Accordingly, I have taken the liberty to “translate” Baxter’s exhortation, using contemporary wording, while attempting to retain the force and vigor of his argument.
As fellow pastors, we are allies in a common cause. Therefore, we must be diligent to cultivate union and communion among ourselves and seek to promote the unity and peace of the churches we oversee. We must realize how critical this unity and peace is to the wellbeing of the church as a whole, the strengthening of our common cause, the good of the individual church members, and the advancement of Christ’s kingdom.
Instead of being instigators of conflicts among churches, pastors—of all people—should themselves feel the sting of these divisive wounds. They must accept as part of their calling the responsibility to prevent and heal divisions. They must be willing to work day and night to discover ways to close up breaches between churches. Instead of bending their ears to divisive rumors, they must listen to ideas for mending conflicts, and even come up with ideas of their own and be willing to carry them out.
To bring about such unity, pastors must have a clear grasp of the ancient simplicity of the Christian faith, and of the foundation and center of universal Christian unity. We have an inbred arrogance that turns zeal for suppressing error and maintaining the truth and into a pretense for wrecking and ripping apart the church of Christ. Pastors must learn to recognize and abhor this tendency in themselves. They must be willing to impose no other rule than the rule of Scripture, which takes precedence over church confessions and other writings. Pastors must know the difference between certainties and uncertainties, essentials and non-essentials, universal truths and personal opinions.
When dealing with controversies, pastors must be careful listeners. Some doctrinal errors are real; others are merely semantic. Let us not accuse a brother of heresy before we understand what he is actually saying. We must patiently get to the bottom of an issue so we may see the real point of difference, and not make it seem greater than it actually is. Instead of fighting with our brothers, let us combine our forces against our common enemy. Let us fellowship with each other, communicate with each other, and hold meetings together without letting smaller differences of judgment come between us. As much as we are able, let us do the work of God together. The purposes of our organizations should not be to make laws, but to avoid misunderstandings, to mutually encourage each other, to maintain love and fellowship, and to be unified in the work God has charged us to do.