Restoring the Ancient Ministerial Work

BaxterJ. I. Packer called Richard Baxter the most outstanding pastor, evangelist and writer that Puritanism produced. He was the vicar of the church in Kidderminster from 1647 to 1661. When he arrived in Kidderminster, Baxter said the towns people were “an ignorant, rude and reveling people.” Yet in 1743, when George Whitfield visited Kidderminster over eighty years later, he said to a friend: “I was greatly refreshed to find what a sweet savour of good Mr. Baxter’s doctrine, works and discipline remained to this day.”

According to Baxter, pastoral ministry should be a combination of public preaching and private conference (counseling). He thought the two activities complemented each other. First, members of the congregation would better understand the sermons. Second, getting to know your people would help the pastor know what he should preach on.

Baxter saw personal catechizing and instruction of every willing person within the congregation as the duty of the pastor. He said: “It is but the more diligent and effectual management of the ministerial work. It is not a new invention, but simply the restoration of the ancient ministerial work.” He suggested that a pastor should set aside two days out of six for the personal instruction of individuals within his parish. If the pastoral work grew to the point that he could not keep up with the need, then another minister should be hired.

He hoped that no one would be silly enough to say that individual conferences weren’t preaching. “What? Do the number we speak to make it preaching? Or doth interlocution [dialogue] make it none? Surely a man may as truly preach to one, as to a thousand.” If you examined the New Testament, “you will find that most of the preaching [there] was by conference.”

Anticipating the objections to his advocacy of private conferences, Baxter commented how some ministers may point to their labors in the public teaching. Why then should they obligated to teach congregants individually besides this? Baxter’s answer went to the heart of the matter. Some who come for private meetings would be “grossly ignorant” in matters of their faith. Yet in one hour of private, instruction, “they seem to understand more, and better entertain it than they did in all their lives before.”

Among the seventeen benefits of private conference, Baxter said:

  • It would help to convert individuals.
  • It would promote the orderly building up of those who are converted and help establish them in the faith.
  • It will make the public preaching better understood and regarded.
  • By it you will become familiar with your people and possibly win their hearts.
  • In becoming better acquainted with each person’s spiritual state, you can better know how to watch over him or her.
  • It will help with the better ordering of families.

In a previous post on preaching and counseling, “Preaching and Counseling Are Complementary” I referred to Carl Truemen’s article for Reformation 21, “Why is So Much Preaching So Poor?” Perhaps the answer to Trueman’s question should be that modern preaching is so poor because modern pastors have largely lost the connection with their church members that Richard Baxter had because of his private conferences.

Do you think that Biblical counseling can be a restoration of an ancient ministerial work of the church?

Also read, “Preaching and Counseling Are Complementary.”


Preaching and Counseling Are Complementary

John Wesley

image credit: iStock

Carl Trueman wrote a helpful article for Reformation 21 that discussed why much of modern Protestant preaching was so poor. But in his third point, he said something that I found troubling since I am a counselor by profession and calling. Dr. Trueman said in our culture, there was a “relativizing of the preached word and the growth of emphasis on one-to-one counseling.” He quickly acknowledged the usefulness of one-to-one counseling. But then commented how he thought most of the problems people experienced could be adequately dealt with from the pulpit.

What Dr. Trueman said next seems to be why he sees counseling and preaching at odds with one another in our culture. The world tells us we are unique, with unique problems. “Talk of our uniqueness is greatly exaggerated. We need to create a church culture where uniqueness is relativized and where people come to church expecting that the preached word will meet their particular problem.” True, but oftentimes this may not be enough.

In The Reformed Pastor, Richard Baxter noted how he met with people who had sat under his preaching for eight or ten years and yet did not know whether Christ was God or man. Even when an individual knew the gospel, they often had an ungrounded trust in Christ. They hoped He would pardon, justify and save them; but the world had their hearts.

Dr. Trueman is correct. There is individualism and self-centeredness in American culture and in counseling. In Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship, Paul Vitz called it selfism. He described Americans as having a Burger King mentality: Have it your way!

Counseling that panders to selfism is theologically wrong and spiritually damaging. Preaching that panders to selfism is also theologically wrong and spiritually damaging. But counseling and preaching can and should be co-laborers in the ministry of the gospel. They don’t have to be opposed to one another. Again, Richard Baxter spoke to this concern.

Baxter said preaching the gospel publicly is the preferred means, because we can speak to many people at once. “But it is usually far more effectual to preach it privately to a particular sinner.” Public sermons are long and can over-run a person’s understanding and memory. People may become confused and therefore are not able to follow the preacher. So then they do not understand what was said, regardless of how effectual the preaching was to others.

“But in private we can take our work gradatim, [step by step] and take our hearers along with us.” By the questions we ask and their answers, we can see how far they understand us. Publicly, we lose their attention through the length of what is said and the lack of an opportunity to respond to what was said. Privately, we can easily cause them to pay attention. And we can more effectively engage them and answer their questions. Baxter urged that his fellow ministers would see preaching and personal instruction (counseling) as complementary:

I conclude, therefore, that public preaching will not be sufficient: for though it may be an effectual means to convert many, yet not so many, as experience, and God’s appointment of further means, may assure us. Long may you study and preach to little purpose if you neglect this duty.

Counseling that is biblically-based complements preaching. In the Introduction to Competent to Counsel, Jay Adams said: “It is amazing to discover how much the Bible has to say about counseling, and how fresh the biblical approach is.”

Do you think that public preaching is adequate for people to address most of their problems? 

Also read, Restoring the Ancient Ministerial Work.