This article is about a few basic principles for the ministry: teaching, priorities, visitations, and a loving and gentle attitude.

Source: The Banner of Truth, 1996. 4 pages.

Approaching Pastoral Difficulties

It is not an uncommon scenario: the new pastor arrives in the parish, and he is eager to begin, armed with the Reformed faith, although perhaps a little apprehensive as to how his sermons will be received. The parish has long held to a rather tepid mixture of Arminianism and liberalism. There are a number of Freemasons who hold prominent positions in the church, and some of them can be found on the eldership. Not too many questions are asked when people come for baptism. The highlight of the year is the annual fete, and if the truth be known, without the income which it generates, it would be doubtful if the parish could survive. Each year there is a Christmas service as well as an Easter celebration where all the churches in the district — including the Roman Catholics, the local woman-pastor, and the tongue-speakers — join together for worship. It is compulsory to say the Lord's Prayer, sing the doxology 'as St Paul sang it', recite the 23rd Psalm at funerals and delight for no obvious reason in Amazing Grace.

Where does the new pastor begin? Does he take his cue from Elijah, and declare that if the Lord is God, he is to be worshipped, but if the God of liberalism and Freemasonry is God, he ought to be worshipped? Does he harangue the congregation: 'How long will you dance between two opinions?' Did not the apostle Paul ask for prayer that he would open his mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel (Ephesians 6:19)? Are we not to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude: 3)? Is it not obvious that there can be no communion between Christ and Belial, a believer and an unbeliever (2 Corinthians 6:15)? To maintain a clear conscience and to be innocent of the blood of sinners, one must not shun to declare the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:26-27). Surely, to take a backward step would be to betray the gospel and to dishonour Christ. The approach seems clear: be bold and confront evil in the name of the Lord. But is that all that God expects of our new Reformed pastor? Is there nothing else that might help him in his ministry? It needs to be said that the Scriptures do have more to say to help our young zealot.

We Must Teach Our People as They are Able to Hear🔗

The world does not set the Church's agenda, as the liberals claimed, for our agenda comes from God himself. But it is a common mistake to try to teach everything at once. The Gospel of Mark tells us of Christ's practice:

And with many such parables he spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it.Mark 4:33

Our Lord resisted the temptation to overload his disciples. Even on the night before his crucifixion, he stated, 'I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now' (John 16:12). The pastor may reply: 'But I only gave them God's Word'. That may be true, but it also needs to be appropriate.

I personally was brought up in liberal Presbyterianism. I was converted through reading Augustine of Hippo and the book of Romans. Having come to understand how grace must be electing grace to be truly grace, I was delighted when I (as a high school teacher) was asked to preach at my local church when the pastor (a liberal) was away. I seized the opportunity, and inflicted fifty minutes of exposition from Romans 9 on to a congregation that was used to ten-minute pep-talks. I was not being faithful to Scripture. I was being unwise. To paraphrase the martyr John Bradford, these people needed to go to the grammar school of repentance and justification, not the university of predestination and providence.1

We Must Work According to a Biblical Order of Priorities🔗

In terms of military strategy, Hitler's invasion of the USSR in 1941 was a disaster. It meant that, from then on, Germany was committed to a war on two fronts. The embattled pastor can easily make the same mistake. When the apostle Paul tackled the Corinthians over their misconduct at the Lord's Supper, he dealt with their divisions (1 Corinthians 11:18), their greed and drunkenness (1 Corinthians 11:20) and their generally unworthy reception of the communion elements (1 Corinthians 11:27-29). But he did not mention everything at once. At the end of the section on the Lord's Supper, Paul notes, 'And the rest I will set in order when I come' (1 Corinthians 11:34). The apostle clearly had an order of priorities in his mind, and he dealt with the most pressing issues first.

There is some debate about the right interpretation of the notorious reference to being 'baptised for the dead' in 1 Corinthians 15:29, but it may be that Paul is arguing that the practice at least implies the resurrection of the dead. If this is the case, Paul's priority is that the Corinthians believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the superstitious practice of baptising on behalf of the dead could be dealt with when Paul arrived in person at Corinth. The Reformed pastor has to tackle every issue in the light of Scripture, but it is a mistake to become obsessed about a stained-glass window, let us say, when a basic issue like justification by faith is not understood.

If Possible, Deal with People Face to Face🔗

At the end of his second and third epistles, the apostle John expressed the desire to speak face to face (literally, 'mouth to mouth') with his readers rather than write to them further with pen and ink (2 John 12-13 and 3 John 13-14). No doubt, there are times when this is inappropriate. In order to humble the heart of Naaman, Elisha did not come in person to see the Syrian commander when he knocked on the door of the prophet. Elisha simply sent him a message to go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and he would be cured of his leprosy (2 Kings 5:9-10).

Normally, however, it is better to see people in person. I once received a phone call from a woman who had left her first husband and wished to marry again. After she had discussed some of the details of the first marriage, I felt bound to refuse to perform any marriage ceremony. This led to some antagonism on the woman's part, and later, on the part of her family. My problem was that, as the pastor in a small country town, I had not even met the woman and had no idea what she looked like. It may have aroused a little less hostility on her part if I had actually met with her, and been able to explain my reasons for refusing to do the wedding in a more personal way.

One occasionally hears of a case where a paedo-baptist pastor refuses to baptise a dying child. That is right and good — the godly Robert Murray M'Cheyne once suffered many reproaches for refusing such a request.2 But one can only cringe when one hears that a distressed parent has been refused over the phone. At such a time of loss and grief, there is a special need for the pastor to be present to offer human sympathy as well as the gospel of Jesus Christ. Being a Christian ought to make us more, not less, endowed with human compassion (see Romans 12:15).

We Must Maintain a Loving and Gentle Disposition🔗

J. A. James exhorted preachers to be earnest in their ministry:

Compel them to come in, was the method prescribed to the servants of the Lord who made a great feast, and sent out his invitations to the poor and needy. It is this compulsion we want; this earnest entreaty, this laying hold of the sinner, and making him feel that his salvation is with us an object of intense desire, and that we shall be bitterly disappointed if it be not accom­plished. 3

This is a much needed cry, but earnestness must not be mistaken for impatience. The apostle Paul called on young Timothy to be 'ready in season and out of season'. He had to 'convince, rebuke and exhort'. But he had to do it 'with all longsuffering and teaching' (2 Timothy 4:2). It is by no means easy for sinful men to be both earnest and longsuffering.

Dr Samuel Johnson was renowned as a conversationalist. After one night of vigorous discussion at the Crown and Anchor tavern in 1768, Johnson awoke the next morning quite pleased with himself. He told Boswell, 'Well, we had good talk'. Boswell could only reply, 'Yes, Sir, you tossed and gored several persons'.4 Johnson was usually guilty of plain speaking rather than maliciousness — and the modern age is one which suffers badly from a lack of plain speaking. But the point remains that the servant of Christ must not delight in contention for its own sake.

Again, Paul felt compelled to remind young Timothy that 'a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth' (2 Timothy 2:24-25) . Charles Simeon used to recite to himself hundreds of times the text: 'The servant of the Lord must not strive'.5 Before the preacher opens his mouth to proclaim the gospel, he must 'pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart' (2 Timothy 2:22).

As Patrick Fairbairn re­minds us: A sound moral condition is above all things essential to fitness for effective ministerial service in the divine kingdom. Other things may more or less be helpful: this is indispensable.6

The evangelist is to be sober and watchful (2 Timothy 4:5). In the paraphrase of the NW, Timothy is told: 'keep your head in all situations'. It is all too common for the pastor to resent criticism and opposition, and so lose a godly perspective. Charles Simeon, perhaps rather too optimistically, used to say that 'If a man's heart be full of love, he will rarely offend'.7 In truth, Simeon managed to offend many of the ungodly in his own day, and felt deeply his isolation from the rest of the community at Cambridge. But he consistently sought to maintain a godly walk, and once declared, 'My enemy, whatever evil he says of me, does not reduce me so low as he would if he knew all concerning me that God knows'.8 Such a perspective will keep the zealous pastor from the sins of self-righteousness and in every controversy.

We are to 'always be ready to give a defence to everyone who asks (us) a reason for the hope that is in (us)'. Significantly, however, Peter adds that we are to do this with 'meekness and fear' (1 Peter 3:15). And we all know, even if we fall short in the practice, of Paul's call to 'speak the truth in love' (Ephesians 4:15). Not only is what we do and say important, but also how we say it. Content is vital, of course, but so is manner. In dealing with our Lord's restoration of Peter recorded in John 21, J. C. Ryle cites some pertinent words from Rollock:

Rebukers should be lovers. If thou rebuke a man, love him; otherwise speak not to him, but close thy mouth. If thou season not thy rebukes with "love", then that which should have been as medicine will be turned into poison. They that would be instructers and admonishers should be lovers ... A bitter teacher is not worth a penny.9

Unless I love, my Reformed creeds are but soulless battering rams; unless my love is buttressed by truth, it is but sentimentality.

In the life of Elisha there is a remarkable episode where Naaman the Syrian commander was cured of his leprosy. Responding to that healing, Naaman professed a belief in the God of Israel as the only God in all the earth (2 Kings 5:15) and wanted to take two mule-loads of Israelite soil that he might offer sacrifices to the Lord alone and not to any other gods (2 Kings 5:17). So far so good, but then Naaman makes an unexpected request to Elisha:

Yet in this thing may the Lord pardon your servant: when my master goes into the temple of Rimmon to worship there, and he leans on my hand, and I bow down in the temple of Rimmon — when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord please pardon your servant in this thing.2 Kings 5:18

If the request is unexpected, Elisha's response is even more so: 'Go in peace' (2 Kings 5:19).

One hesitates to make too many pronouncements on what Elisha said. But his conduct seems dangerously close to trampling on the second commandment. Calvin, for example, was critical of what he called the 'Nicodemites' during the Reformation. They were those people who came to evangelical views of the gospel but who refused to break with the Roman Church. Calvin wanted coherent and organised churches set up which were Reformed and distinct from the Church of Rome. One must agree that it is a precarious argument to say that one's heart is Reformed while one's worship is Roman. God demands our total obedience, both inward and outward. Nevertheless, Elisha's mild response is a reminder that a certain flexibility, within God-given boundaries, may not be inappropriate at times.

Our newly-arrived Reformed pastor has, it seems, to walk the tightrope of seeking to please Christ rather than men (Galatians 1:10) but trying not to give offence in anything, that his ministry may not be blamed (2 Corinthians 6:3). He will need to confront sinners and be bold. He must never do anything that he may later need to undo. But he must also teach as his people are able to hear. He must have a biblical order of priorities and not try to reform every­thing at once. Remembering Christ's words to be 'wise as serpents and harmless as doves' he must deal with people face to face as much as possible. Above all else, he must reflect much of the lowliness and gentleness of the Saviour. Small wonder that the great apostle cried out, 'And who is sufficient for these things?' (2 Corinthians 2:16).


  1. ^ J. Bradford, Writings, Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, vol. 2, reprinted 1979, p. 134.
  2. ^ A. Bonar, Memoirs and Remains of Robert Murray M'Cheyne, Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, reprinted 1973, pp. 72-73. 
  3. ^ J.A. James, An Earnest Ministry: The Want of the Times, Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, reprinted 1993, p. 98.
  4. ^ J. Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, Everyman's Library, London, vol. 1, reprinted 1973, p. 354.
  5. ^ Cited in H. E. Hopkins, Charles Simeon of Cambridge, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1977, p. 46.
  6. ^ Cited in G. Wilson, The Pastoral Epistles, Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 1982, p. 147.
  7. ^ Charles Simeon, p. 65. 
  8. ^ Charles Simeon, p. 135. 
  9. ^ Cited in J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: John, James Clarke & Co., Cambridge, vol. 3, reprinted 1976, p. 505.

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