A Pastoral Lesson from the Past
In 2024 I will have been in the pastoral ministry for thirty years. However, almost twenty years ago I started reading some books that have become a yearly literary staple. They are the great pastoral texts of the church. The first is a little sermon by Gregory of Nazianzus called oration 2: Flight to Pontus. The full title is like what you might find among the puritans, it reads, Oration II: In Defense of His Flight to Pontus, and His Return, After His Ordination to the Priesthood, with an Exposition of the Character of the Priestly Office. The second book is by the Golden Mouth preacher, John Chrysostom, titled, The Six Books of the Priesthood. There are others, but these have been exceptional. But why read these ancient texts?
C. S. Lewis might have encouraged us to read them because they are old, and that may well be a good idea. However, there are some very good pastoral reasons for reading them. Let me give one. These two men taught me the difference between the magisterial and the ministerial. Allow me to illustrate. Imagine a judge in his courtroom. He has the lawful use of force at his disposal in order to cause people to do or to refrain from doing this or that behavior. However, ministerial power has no such force at its disposal. Whereas the judge may force his court, the minister must persuade his congregation. A minister who wishes for such power ought to reconsider his calling!
Now, it’s well and good to find this sort of thing in these ancient texts but what about the Bible? Where do we find the ministerial in the Scriptures? Is there an example of this sort of persuasion? Consider the book of Hebrews, which by many is considered a sermon. This book unfolds the priesthood of Christ. It is a well-loved book. However, remember why it was written. Professing Christians were deserting the faith because the church was experiencing persecution (Heb. 10:32-36). So, some were leaving and returning to the apparent safety of Judaism.
Now, at the end of the book, in the last chapter, we read Hebrews 13:7-17. This passage tells congregants to remember past elders (v. 7) and to obey present elders (v. 17). The two verses form something of an inclusio, a literary technique which ropes off a section of text by the use of a word phrase or idea. What does the text rope off? The middle section reiterates much of what has already been said about Christ who is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (v. 8). And the message is clear, good elders, whether past or present, are good by virtue of having taught about the Christ who is eternally the same. But the question begging to be asked is why put this section at the end? Why not put it at the beginning? Why not say, “You need to trust your elders!”
Instead, the preacher to the Hebrews takes a different approach. He seeks to persuade. He begins chapter one by speaking of the glory of Christ. This Christ is the Son of God, having underived glory. The preacher moves on to say that Christ is superior to the prophets because He is the creator and inheritor of all things. The preacher then proclaims that Christ is superior to the angels. Christ is superior to Moses and Aaron. And then, Christ is the new and living way. And so, when we get to chapter thirteen it’s as if the preacher is saying, “And this is the Christ who your past and present elders have preached and preach to you! Listen to them!” That’s persuasion.
This persuasion is brought home in verse 17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them…” At this point, you may be thinking that this sounds magisterial. But in Greek, verbs have a voice, which tell us how the subject is affected by the action of the verb. In this case, obey is in the middle voice, which means that the subject is to be self-affected. In other words, it is not the minister who makes a person obey, it is the person who makes himself obey. To put it another way, you ought to be persuaded to obey your leaders who faithfully preach and teach Christ to you. And in verse 17, submit is in the active voice, which means that a person who persuades himself to obey his leaders, then actively submits to the leadership he has been persuaded to obey.
Now, how does that help a minister? Well, in at least one way. If preaching Christ persuades men, then the minister can put his efforts into bringing Christ to men and men to Christ. Yes, a minister may have to remove ordinances from those who willfully disobey Christ, but the brunt of his efforts will go toward expounding the beauty and majesty of Christ knowing that it is Christ who is the great persuader of men. That is a lesson I learned from the great pastoral texts of the church, a lesson which they learned from God’s book.