“What am I supposed to be doing?”
It’s a question I frequently ponder as a minister of the Gospel. If you’re not a pastor, maybe you have asked yourself, “What is a minister called to be and do?”
The answers one could give are manifold. What priorities should shape how a pastor spends his time? A pastor could be doing lots of things, but what must he do?
These questions seem increasingly difficult to answer. The cultural climate, both in and outside the church, seems to demand a complex answer. Sometimes it feels as though pastors are expected to know about and publicly address every issue in the wider society and in the church. That certainly could be the calling of some in the church. But is that the calling of every minister of the Gospel?
Archibald Alexander (1772-1851) provides helpful, biblical wisdom on this question.
In 1834, during the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Archibald Alexander delivered a sermon (“The Pastoral Office”) to alumni of Princeton Seminary. 1 As the founding professor of the seminary in 1812, Alexander influenced the seminary and the wider Presbyterian church until his death in 1851. In “The Pastoral Office”, Alexander unfolded the nature and task of pastoral ministry.
But the 1830s were not a quiet, idyllic time. That decade was one of the most contentious in American Presbyterian history. 2 Therefore, Alexander’s sermon on “The Pastoral Office” can provide helpful wisdom for today’s pastors. In the midst of controversy and debate, pastors can feel overwhelmed by the various aspects of life and ministry that beckon for their attention. Of all the things a pastor could be doing, what must he be doing? Alexander highlighted three.
1. Love for Christ
What does Alexander see as “the most important qualification of a pastor of Christ’s flock” (8)? In short, a minister should have a supreme love to the Lord Jesus. Preaching on John 21:15-17, Alexander makes the point that Peter’s love for the Lord Jesus is the main concern in the three questions Jesus asked. Jesus is certainly driving at something that must remain at the very heart of ministry, namely, the pastor’s own love for his Savior.
And for Alexander, this is not an optional, additional qualification. Comprehensive in scope, this love to Christ should shape “all his plans, guide all his operations, give energy to all his efforts, and afford him comfort under all his trials” (9). He who is to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ should himself have an unsurpassed love for the Savior whom he proclaims. And those who love Christ should nourish the Lord’s flock. But who are these sheep?
Alexander mentions that the Lord’s sheep (John 21:16) can exist in one of three “states” (8).
One part are not yet in the fold, and know nothing of the good Shepherd,
that bought them with his blood. Another part are in the church, or at least
in a state of grace, and hear the voice of the Shepherd, and follow him; but
are still liable to many diseases and disasters, and exposed to many fierce
and powerful enemies. The third class are safely gathered in the general
fold above, and feast in the celestial pastures, where no ravening beast
enters, and where they are exempt from all disease, and from all danger
Alexander suggests pastors are only called to minister to those in the first two categories. That is, the elect who have not yet come to faith and repentance, and the elect that have trusted in the finished, redemptive work of Christ but have not yet departed to be with the Lord comprise the twin priorities for the Gospel minister. Depending on one’s circumstances and ministry, one of these two priorities may receive more of an emphasis. But pastors always need to bear in mind both responsibilities.
2. Gathering the Lord’s People
The Gospel of grace in the Lord Jesus has lost none of its saving power and a pastor’s confidence should reflect this truth. Alexander mentions the urgent need for missionaries in both foreign missions and home missions (14). His confidence in the power of the Gospel to save sinners is what drove his own missionary zeal in his early days as a pastor, a zeal also evident in the emphases at Princeton Seminary during his time as a professor. Under this heading, one might include apologetics, evangelism, and following up with new visitors to one’s church. In every aspect of seeking to gather the Lord’s people, the death and resurrection are always of first importance (1 Cor 15:1-4).
3. Maturing the Lord’s People
In the visible church, every age group and those in every spiritual condition must be cared for by the minister. For such a high calling, the pastor must “understand the Scriptures” and must experientially know the “efficacy of the truth” (14). The pastor, comparable to “a physician of a hospital” (19), must know well the people whom the Lord has entrusted to his care (16-17). This knowledge should come from personal conversations and pastoral visitations. And the faithful pastor must regularly lift these individuals in prayer before the throne of grace (19).
Most importantly, “the truth of the Gospel [is to] be preached” (15). This is how the Lord feeds and nourishes his church.
Alexander’s sermon is well-worth the time to read. 3 The tasks in pastoral ministry are daunting. Between preparing sermons, teaching Bible studies, visitation, pastoral care and counseling, and seeking the lost, it can feel overwhelming for ministers in times of relative stability, let alone during times of controversy. But in the Lord’s providence and mercy, the content is the same as we seek to gather and mature the Lord’s people. We preach the Gospel of the Lord Jesus, the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Rom 1:16). We preach the unsearchable riches of Christ (Eph 3:8). Through it all, ministers are those who, whether seeking to gather or mature, labor to proclaim Christ Jesus in all his glory (Col 1:28-29).
1 The Pastoral Office: A Sermon, Preached at Philadelphia, before the Association of the Alumni of the Theological Seminary at Princeton on Wednesday Morning, May 21, 1834 (Philadelphia: Henry Perkins, 1834). For an excellent treatment of Alexander’s thoughts on preaching and pastoral ministry, see “Princeton and Preaching: Archibald Alexander on the Christian Ministry”, James M. Garretson, 2005, Edinburgh, Banner of Truth Trust.
2 For more on this history, see David B. Calhoun, “Princeton Seminary: Faith and Learning, 1812-1868”, 1994, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust: 213-255; George M. Marsden, “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience: A Case Study of Thought and Theology in Nineteeth-Century America”, 1970, Yale University Press: 31-87; D.G. Hart and John R. Muether, “Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism”, 2018, P&R Publishing: 91-146.
3 Alexander’s sermon can be found in “Princeton and the Work of the Christian Ministry: A Collection of Addresses and Articles by Faculty and Friends of Princeton Theological Seminary, Volume 1”, Selected and Introduced by James M. Garretson, 2012, Edinburgh, Banner of Truth Trust: 253-274; in “The Pastor: His Call, Character, and Work”, forthcoming from the Banner of Truth Trust; the sermon can also be found on the website of Log College Press, listed with some of the other works from Archibald Alexander
Scott Muilenburg is the pastor at First Christian Reformed Church in Edgerton, MN. He is a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and is happily married to his wife, Becca. They have three young children.