Martin Bucer on the Importance of Ruling Elders
As one who teaches pastoral (also known as practical) theology, one of my tasks is to help developing ministers, or teaching elders, learn the importance and duties of ruling elders. One of the classic treatises that we reference on this subject was written by Martin Bucer. What follows is an introduction to Bucer, an overview of his book on this subject, how the contrast between the Catholic versus Protestant view of the nature of the church affects its government, and the impact that his ministry had.
In 1491, Martin Bucer was born in Schlettstadt, a village in the northeast of France. He entered Blackfriars, a Domincan monastery, in 1512 in Heidelberg. Bucer studied the teachings of Erasmus and Luther there, and after actually meeting Luther in 1518 he was converted. Three years later he left the monastery to become a priest. Thus, Bucer had a unique knowledge of Rome’s doctrines and practices.
He married a former nun, Elizabeth, in 1522 and went to the smaller town of Landstuhl then on to Wissembourg to minister. His teachings on the new Reformation doctrines were widely spread, and he was eventually excommunicated by Rome and his life threatened. He fled to his parents’ home in Strasbourg, and ended up being the pastor there in 1524 for twenty-five years.
In his ministry in Strasbourg, Bucer worked tirelessly with others to reform the city. During these years, Bucer’s view of the church proper developed significantly through studies and experience. He was often sought after to help bring truth and conciliation in the midst of the doctrinal turmoil of the Reformation. He presided over the Regensberg Coloquy in 1541 that brought Protestants and peaceful Catholics together, with Bucer hopeful that they would reach an agreement on several key doctrines. However, the parties did not sign. Nonetheless, in matters such as these, Bucer’s pastoral heart and wisdom were seen and sought.
In 1538, during his time in Strasbourg, Bucer wrote what he called his “little handbook” on pastoral ministry, which influenced John Calvin and many other Reformers. Bucer took as his theme Ezekiel 34:16, which says, “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and strong I will destroy.” In Concerning the True Care of Souls, Bucer revealed remarkable discernment regarding the nature and essence of the church.
Bucer begins his treatise with the nature of the church, citing scripture after scripture regarding the description of the church as a body consisting of various members who should have total and perfect unity as one body with one Spirit. Their fellowship should not only be “the closest and most united, but also the truest and keenest . . . with everyone regarding the need of others as in the fullest and most real sense his own and taking it to heart,” and they should look after one another in not only spiritual but temporal matters. “Bucer’s priesthood of all believers is not only constitutive of the church, but, because it is focused on the community, it also builds up the church.” This view, seeing all the members of the church being vitally connected to one another by Christ through the Holy Spirit, was in stark contrast to the Catholic emphasis on the papacy and priests.
In the next chapter, Bucer establishes that Christ is the head shepherd and king of the church. After citing eleven texts establishing Christ’s headship over the church, Bucer states in sharp contrast to Rome, “And so we have seen from the aforementioned texts that Christ our Lord alone has and exercises all power and rule in his church and congregation. It is he himself who rules the church. . . He acts as a King in his kingdom, a Master with his disciples, a faithful Shepherd with his flock, a Bridegroom with his bride, a Doctor with those who are ill, One who bestows discipline on those who need it.” Here the differentiation between the Catholic and Protestant view of the church and its rule is clearly presented. Bucer shows that Christ, though seated in heaven, is present with and ruling over his people. Thus, an earthly representative who claims this authority is invalid.
Bucer then develops how the Lord Jesus carries out his own pastoral office and the work of the church through ordained ministers. They are to see that in their pastoral work they do “not accomplish this by their own powers, but through the power and work of the Lord.” He demonstrates that since pastoral work is so great and varied (a reference back to the first chapter), a need exists for elders to assist the pastor in this work. Bucer develops in the early Reformation period the foundation for what would eventually become known as the office of ruling elders. He says that they are “entrusted with the whole of pastoral office,” shows this office is the same as that of a bishop in the biblical authors’ writings, and explains how each congregation needs several elders yet always with a need for a pastor (or “president”, akin to the modern concept of a moderator of a session) to guide the whole.
In contrast to the concept of the singular priesthood, Bucer goes on to give rationale for the need of a plurality in the eldership:
Because so much is involved in the pastoral office, with teaching, exhortation, warning and discipline, comfort and pardon..and since the Lord has also bestowed and distributed the gifts necessary for this office not to one or two, but in different ways to many, it was his will that his churches, if they were able to have many meetings and essential order, should have elders, whether few or many, according to the requirements of each congregation.
Following a section on how pastors and elders are to be chosen by congregational approval, tested in their character, and then ordained and installed, Bucer spends the last half of his book developing pastoral work on Ezekiel 34:16 as 1) searching for the lost; 2) bringing back the straying; 3) binding the wounded; 4) strengthening the weak; and 5) guarding and feeding the healthy. His treatise at this point is biblically saturated, leading Purves in speaking of Bucer to comment in contrast, “So little exegesis or biblical theology appears within the pages of many current texts that one must wonder if biblical studies has any relevance for many teachers of pastoral care.” In these pages Bucer is evangelistically oriented and, recognizing that sin is so deep and pervasive thus needing due attention, heavily emphasizes pastoral discipline through preaching, administering the sacraments, and visiting and catechizing the congregation.
When Emperor Charles V forced, rather than sought, unity between Catholics and Protestants in the Augsburg Interim of 1548, Bucer opposed it and had to leave Strasbourg. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer invited Bucer to England, and he spent his last years there productively. Bucer himself wrote De Regno Christi to Edward VI while a religious professor at Cambridge, saying about its purpose, “It would seem fitting to write for Your Majesty a little about the fuller acceptance and reestablishment of the Kingdom of Christ in your realm.”
After his death in 1551 and then King Edward’s in 1553, so opposed was Queen Mary to the Protestant influence Bucer had brought to her country that she denounced him, having his body exhumed in 1555 and burned. However, Queen Elizabeth I restored him to honor a few years later. Bucer’s impact on the church and its proper ordering impacted nations and generations.
A form of this article originally appeared in the Reformed Presbyterian Witness. Used by permission.
The full title of the book was Concerning the true care of souls and the correct shepherd-service, how this is to be established and carried out in the Church of Christ. ↩︎
Martin Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2009), 5. ↩︎
Willem van ‘t Spijker, The Ecclesiastical Offices in the Thought of Martin Bucer, Trans. John Vriend and Lyle D. Bierma (Leiden; New York: Brill Academic Pub, 1996), 80. ↩︎
Bucer, Concerning the True Care, 13-14. ↩︎
Ibid., 21. ↩︎
Bucer, Concerning the True Care, 35. ↩︎
Ibid, 33-35. ↩︎
This fifth category, though appropriate to the pastoral office, is somewhat a departure from the original meaning of the Biblical text of Ezekiel 34:16. ↩︎
Andrew Purves, Pastoral Theology in the Classical Tradition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 85. ↩︎
Meaning The Kingdom of Christ, this book is better known by its Latin name. ↩︎
Wilhelm Pauck, ed. Melanchthon and Bucer (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1969), 175. (Note: This work contains De Regno Christi in full English translation.) ↩︎