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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
From The Baptist Magazine, 1858
It is unnecessary to prove that the Christian ministry is a Divine institution. While the duty of preaching the gospel devolves upon all believers, it is an apostolic plan that there should be in the Church, and sustained by its gifts, men entirely devoted to the ministry. Experience has confirmed the wisdom of the appointment. Where devout men have given their entire energies to the work, God has made them and their churches vehicles of good, while all attempts to substitute "mutual edification" for a regular pastorate have, except in special cases, proved failures.
All history shows that no man can adequately discharge the office of a public teacher unless it occupy his chief attention, that his intellectual and moral qualifications cannot be too high, and that ministers and people are mutually profited by the law which requires his maintenance from those to whose edification he consecrates his life.
There are two extremes to which the Christian Church is prone, that of unduly magnifying, and that of depreciating, the ministerial office. We see the former in the admission of claims to apostolical descent, an exclusive right to administer, ordinances, a sanctity of person derived from the sacredness of office, and ministers deemed a priesthood officiating at a Christian altar. We discern the latter in their inadequate stipends, the little interest felt in their efficient training, the inclination to ridicule weakness and resent fidelity, and the disposition of some to surrender the ministry as an institution unsuited to the gospel and to the times. The former treat their ministers as demigods, the latter as slaves. The former offer them incense, the latter prepare a scourge. For the ministers of the one class flattery "spreadeth a snare," the teachers of the other have their spirits broken by unkindness and neglect.
When the apostle describes religious teachers as "the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God," his language, correctly interpreted, defines their character and work as removed from these extremes. "Minister" means servant. The article is wanting in the original. "Minister" in this, as in many other passages, denotes not one who fills an office in the Church, but one who sustains a personal relation to the Lord. "Steward" must in this passage be nearly equivalent to "dispenser." "Mystery," in Pauline language, means a doctrine or fact, once hidden, but now revealed (In proof, the reader is referred to Eph. 1:9; 3:3; Col. 1:26, 27; Eph. 6:1; I Tim. 3:9; Col. 4:8; 2:2). Paul, then, simply describes preachers of the gospel as "Christ's servants, dispensers of divine truth."
The Christian ministry is never exhibited as a priesthood. All believers are "priests," and "offer up spiritual sacrifices." The name "priest" is never applied to a Christian teacher as such. There is no analogy between the duties of the ministry and the functions of a priest. Christ is the sole priest "of our profession." The priesthood of the ministry is out of harmony with the whole evangelical system.
There is in Christian worship no altar, no victim, no temple, and therefore no priest. Neither does the ministry possess "dominion over our faith." Ministers declare the "mysteries of God" as they have been revealed in the Scriptures. They do not supersede but demand, in connection with their teaching, the examination of the sacred oracles by their flocks. Ministers are religious assistants and advisers, "helpers" of the Church's faith, and to be "esteemed very highly in love for their work's sake." It is important that the true character of the ministry should be understood. An error here is fatal. The difference between an evangelical and an apostate church turns on their views of the ministry. If the priesthood of the ministry be demolished, the whole edifice of Papal and Anglican superstition falls.
The character of the ministry suggests its sole and appropriate theme, the truths of revelation, especially the mission of the Son of God. As "Christ's servants" they exhibit his work, character, and claims. The essential verities of Christianity, the doctrines "of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment," and the collateral truths adapted to promote the efficiency of the Church, and the conversion of the ungodly, must form the staple of their discourses, for these are the chief "secrets of God" revealed in his Word. If any complain of the too frequent recurrence of such themes in an evangelical ministry, let them remember that the error, if error there be, is not of man. "Woe is unto" the minister, if he "preach not the gospel." (I Cor. 9:16)
Ministers are not at liberty to substitute for God's truth, or to blend with it, metaphysical speculations. These are of human origin, and may be erroneous. As far as they are true, they impart no beauty to divine truth, and no additional power to the advocacy of its claims. Their nomenclature renders them unintelligible to the greater portion of every audience. To the most thoughtful minds they rather obscure than illustrate the teachings of the Bible. They oppress the devout and simpleminded hearer. They enfeeble the vigour and conceal the native majesty of truth. Christianity in a philosophical garb resembles David in Saul's armour. Her fate will be that of Hercules in the poisoned tunic.
Let the gospel stand forth as God created her, clad in her divine panoply, and she has sufficient majesty to challenge universal admiration, and sufficient power to subdue a world to her sway. Philosophical dogmas are out of place in the pulpit; they are beneath the dignity of its message and mission. Human speculations are admissible only so far as they aid, illustrate, and enforce the proper theme of the ministry. To substitute them for divine truth is an irreverent trifling with immortal interests; to blend them with it is to mingle uncongenial elements, to erect a statue of iron and clay. If these speculations happen to be false, the evil is irreparable. Instead of distributing the "bread of life" we dispense poison; and the pulpit, which should be a "fountain of living water," sends forth only a turbid and noxious stream.
The attention of Christ's people must not be diverted from biblical truths to questions of mere ritualism. If metaphysics are uncongenial to the pulpit, so also is superstition. A frequent discussion of mere points of order and ceremonial, or even of points of difference between various Christian communions, is a departure from the proper work of the pulpit, a descent from a higher to a lower class of themes. Whatever importance attaches to these subjects, they are inferior to the great verities of the gospel. Many of them are trivial. Some are of purely human origin. To make them the frequent topics of ministration is to preach the "traditions of men," rather than the "mysteries of God." So far as the ministry departs from divine themes it fails to answer its purpose.
If divine truth be the subject of the ministry, it must be presented as God has revealed it. The pulpit must not expound and enforce theological formularies, but the Bible. Ministers must be content to preach, and the Church of Christ to receive, divine truths as revealed facts, although the difficulties attending them be not solved, and their mutual harmony be not clear.
Dogmatic theology, which is chiefly occupied with the rationale and the symmetry of truth, is indeed a valuable study. The truths of Christianity, when exhibited in a system, rise, like mountains, in successive piles of grandeur. As step by step we ascend their elevations, the relations of truth appear infinitely numerous and extended, some truths dazzling us with their splendour, others oppressing us with their vastness, and appalling us by their frowning majesty, until we are compelled in despair to renounce the enterprise. We find ourselves in the midst of a divine empire, but destitute of instruments and faculties to measure its heights and bearings.
Giant spirits in theology, who have harmoniously believed the same great facts, have differed in their theological systems. They separated only when human reason, with its feeble and flickering light, judged of the ways of the Supreme beyond the limits of his revelation. The facts with which they started were the "mysteries of God," and here they were at one; the philosophy of the facts was supplied by human explanations, and here they differed.
Biblical theology is to be supreme in the pulpit; dogmatic theology finds its home in the study. Yet the exhibition of divine truth, if not according to rigid system, must be complete. No man has a right to withhold any portion of that truth, or to alter its relations and proportions. The gospel must be preached in its entireness. Every fact must have due prominence, every doctrine its announcement, every command and promise a distinct voice ; there must be the relation of divine truth to all who hear it, to the ever-varying circumstances of the individual and the household, to the vices and virtues of society, to the sinner and the saint, to time and eternity.
It is becoming in some quarters a favourite opinion that the pulpit must be modified to meet the demands of the age—that it is growing effete and useless, and is losing its hold on popular sympathy and attention. The complaint is far less to be dreaded than the method in which some are disposed to meet it. The range of the pulpit and the duties of the minister are specific. The chapel must not be converted site a lecture-room in order to gratify the taste of unbelievers, nor any other topics introduced into the pulpit than are found in the sacred oracles.
The mission of the Christian ministry is to preach the gospel. Let its efficiency be as much as possible increased; enlist on its side the genius and eloquence of the Church; but let there be no other theme than God's truth. Nothing else will ever be the means of converting sinners. Nothing else receives the blessing of the Holy One.
If this fails—if the pulpit rendered as effective as earnest piety, learning, industry, and genius can make it—if God's truth declared in God's appointed way fail to accomplish its purpose, let it fail—man is not responsible for its failure. It never can succeed the better for unauthorised human devices, and being divine, it cannot fail, if "Christ's servants" are faithful to their work. Meanwhile, let the lovers of truth correct their expectations from the pulpit. Let them not look for human dogmas, for a display of learning, for aught that shall minister to a sickly appetite. The object of the ministry is not to yield pleasure, to gratify taste, to cater for the applause of the populace, but to preach the gospel in its fulness, freeness, and simplicity.
The spirit in which the ministry is discharged is as important and specific as its theme. If ministers are "Christ's servants," there is a conduct befitting their character and work. If they are "dispensers of divine truth," their functions must be discharged in accordance with the truths they preach, and in the spirit of their great Teacher.
It is "required of a steward that he be found faithful." Fidelity is the essential qualification for every office of trust, and its importance increases with the magnitude of the interests involved. When we remember the solemnity of the charge and the greatness of the issues, no position so imperatively demands this virtue as that of the Christian minister. In the exposition of human opinions, error or neglect may produce no serious evil; but these truths concern immortal souls, their relation to God, their deliverance from error and corruption, or the perpetual continuance of their thralldom, while the issue will be their regeneration to an endless life, or the sufferance of everlasting sorrow. He stands like the priest with the incense among the plague-stricken people, the living among the dead.
The voice of Deity by his lips will be to his audience a blessing or a curse. He may be the instrument of their salvation, or a swift witness against them in "the day of God." If he be not faithful he stands in the way of a more faithful servant; he does not the work himself, and prevents another from discharging it. He conspires the destruction of souls, and if sinners perish because he fails in duty, the "blood of souls will be required” at his hands.
If the preacher loves the gospel (and if he does not love it he profanes the pulpit by his presence), he knows it to be of inestimable importance to his hearers, and he dare not withhold or falsify it. If the preacher loves the souls of his hearers (and if he does not love them, the sooner he quits his sacred office the better), he will be too solicitous for their welfare to be otherwise than faithful. If the preacher loves Christ no consideration will induce him to swerve from obedience to his Lord.
The Christian minister must be concerned to enforce the whole truth of God in its unity and symmetry. The different characters who attend the sanctuary must be admonished. The diverse circumstances of his hearers will present ever new demands on his exhibition of truth. All the avenues to the conscience and the affections must be explored. The fortress of the sinner's heart must be invested and subdued. Then there is the instruction and discipline of Christ's people, the duties of the believer in all the relations and events of life, the vices of the world, and the world in the Church, perpetually requiring the preacher's attention. The science of the human heart and the science of the Christian life must be his constant study, and divine truth must be proclaimed according to the necessities of his hearers and the "proportion of faith."
He must warn as well as comfort. He must "lift up his voice like a trumpet "to show God's "people their transgressions and the house of Jacob their sins." He must arouse Israel from its lethargy, and prevent her from reposing in luxury and indolence. He must call to duty, to fortitude, and to danger, as the Hebrew prophet summoned his warriors to the field. He must pour the soothing consolations of divine love into the ear of weakness and sorrow. The proud man must be humbled and the profligate rebuked. The "lovers of pleasure" must not expect to be "charmed" by him "as with the voice of a charmer." He has no enchantments for the voluptuous, no opiate for the indolent, no silence for the covetous and selfish, no excuses for the mean.
The morality of the pulpit must be the unworldly morality of the New Testament, a conformity to Christ's example. The churches should seek from their teachers a faithful statement of divine truth. An unfaithful ministry is the heaviest curse upon a church, a judgment of God for its sins. If a man become a Christian teacher with any other intention than to be diligent and faithful, or if his people expect him to withhold any part of God's Word, both commit a fatal error; the people inflict on themselves an irreparable injury, and the minister is a dishonour to his office and a traitor to his Lord.
Earnestness treads closely on the heels of fidelity. The solemnity of the theme and the magnitude of the interests involved can scarcely fail to elicit, as they assuredly demand, a devotion of the highest energies to the work. God, the soul, eternity, are the great ideas which fire the preacher's soul, and he must be earnest while yielding to their influence.
The work deserves all he can give of time, energy, talents, knowledge, genius, and, indeed, far more than he possesses, to do it well. Flippancy and the pulpit are "far as the poles asunder." The rounded period and the graceful intonation, the tricks of rhetoric and the froth of a gaudy declamation, a display of logical acumen or wide research, flashes of eloquence and flowers of oratory, the polished phrases, poetic beauties, elegant sentiments, and brilliant perorations which astonish an audience like an explosion of pyrotechnics—baubles of childhood of which many are so fond—are, when exhibited in the pulpit, out of harmony with the place and the theme, inconsistent with those immortal destinies which perchance are hanging on the preacher's lips, and a playing with that dread eternity in which minister and people will be alike speedily engulfed. "They watch for souls as one that must give account."
A Christian minister not in earnest is the greatest anomaly under heaven. An "ambassador for Christ," with the issues of eternity perhaps depending on his faithfulness, if he feels not the responsibility of his office, or can lose sight of his great work in the gratification of a weak and irritable vanity, is, whatever his excellences as a man, without a call to the ministry of the gospel.
Fidelity and earnestness will be ever blended with love. The essence of the gospel is love. The spirit that prompted the Redeemer's humiliation was boundless love. The spirit in which he taught was ineffable love. "God is love." The spirit of the Christian ministry must be one of forbearance, tenderness, and compassion. There is no place in it for the furor of human passion, for imperious censures, and angry reproof. Preachers of the gospel may not declare God's awful threatenings with the tones and gesticulations of human passion, wielding with wrathful vehemence the thunderbolts of Deity, as if the petulance of the ambassador could give importance to the message; the sterner portion of the truth must be declared under a remembrance that it applies as much to themselves as to their hearers, with the deepest solicitude, and the winning tenderness of affection.
Where these elements exist there will be found also purity of aim. "Christ's servants" will seek to "approve themselves to him." Their stewardship will be discharged under the constant impression of the Master's presence and inspection. They will commend themselves to every man's conscience, as in the sight of God."
They have not entered upon "the priest's office" to "eat a piece of bread." That is the last place where a prudent man would seek it; for it has not been the practice of Christ's people to lay many snares of that kind in their ministers' paths. Neither do they seek human applause. If it be grateful to enjoy the esteem and confidence of their flocks, they will not make the pulpit minister to a morbid vanity, a desire of display, a craving after notoriety, or an ambition for fame.
The pulpit is the sphere where such sentiments would have the least chance of gratification, for their exhibition there awakens indignation and disgust. The road to fame is open everywhere else, but the outside world that rewards genius with its wreaths is too opposed to evangelical religion to think highly of its teachers, unless extraordinary powers compel a reluctant homage; only genius of the highest order can in the pulpit acquire distinction, still less attain imperishable renown.
The minister of Christ aims not at the approval of his hearers, except so far as he is faithful to his message. They have committed to him the dispensing of divine truth, and he seeks to commend himself to them only "in the sight of God." If they approve not, yet he "abideth faithful." "Blessed is that servant, whom his Lord when he cometh shall find so doing." (Luke 12:43)
May all the preachers of the gospel be so endowed with the Holy Spirit, and so earnestly discharge their office, that every man must "so account of" them, not as miserable hirelings, religious adventurers, vain and flippant self-seekers, or empty professional declaimers, but as "the ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God."
Then will pastors and people rejoice together. Their union will be holy and blessed, and though suspended for a season by the last enemy, it will be renewed amid the sublimer fellowships of the heavenly world, and perfected amid the everlasting anthems of the skies.