Concerning the Care of Souls

Article by   May 2009
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Concerning the True Care of Souls
By Martin Bucer
218 p.
Banner of Truth (November 2009)




"When you join our church, don't expect traditional shepherding care from the pastors.  You must understand that we've made a conscious decision to direct our primary attention upon the unchurched, not upon those who are already in the fold."  So said a church leader from a large evangelical church in California to members of my family several years ago.  Sadly, this story has become all too familiar.  Churches, in the name of evangelism and numerical growth, are neglecting the spiritual needs of the flock.  What is becoming increasingly rare is a biblical theology of ministry, where preaching, sacraments, catechesis, prayer and discipline are faithfully carried out Lord's Day after Lord's Day and throughout the week, "until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children." (Eph. 4:13-14a).  What has become dolefully absent, even among Reformed and confessional churches, is the doctrine that Christ Jesus Himself shepherds His flock in and through the ordained leadership of the local church. 

The Church's great need to be reminded of these profoundly important ecclesiastical principles makes Martin Bucer's (1491-1551) Concerning The True Care of Souls, translated into English for the first time by Peter Beale, an important and timely volume in our day.  It was first published in 1538, under the German title "Von der waren Seelsorge und dem rechten Hirten dienst, wie derselbige inn der Kirchen Christi bestellet, uund verrichtet werden solle."  This translates literally as Concerning the true soul-care and the correct shepherd-service, how the same should be established and executed in the church of Christ. (xiv)  The late Professor David F. Wright, to whom the translation of Bucer's work is dedicated, wrote an excellent historical introduction.  In it Wright includes a portion of a letter that Bucer penned in April of 1538 to a friend named Ambrosius Blaurer explaining why he wrote the book:

"Both appreciation and concern for the community of the saints [cura communionis sanctorum] are extinguished more every day, and even pastors themselves seem to be ever less aware of what pastoral care [cura pastoralis] is.  I reckoned that I must counter this calamitous situation, and I have published something on it [i.e. cura pastoralis], which I am sending you." (xv)

In other words, Bucer wanted to provide a Reformed pastoral theology for the Church, a biblical guide to help ministers shepherd God's people, not according to human wisdom or churchly superstition, but according to the voice of God in Scripture.  In fact, every one of the twelve chapters commences with and flows from several references to God's Word.  Incidentally, this concern for the spiritual maturity of the people of God was never divorced from a missionary zeal to reach those who were apart from the fellowship of the body of Christ.  Sprinkled throughout the work are Bucer's comments on the need to "go out into all the world and preach his gospel to every creature ... to bring them to eternal life " (p.77)

How is the crucified, risen and exalted Christ able to exercise his three offices of Prophet, Priest, and King (munus triplex) in the lives of His people when he dwells in heaven?  Bucer's answer  to this question is the main emphasis of this work:

"Our dear Lord Jesus is truly present in his church, ruling, leading, and feeding it himself.  But he effects and carries out his rule and the feeding of his lambs in such a way as to remain always in his heavenly nature, that is, in his divine and intangible state, because he has left this world.  Therefore it has pleased him to exercise his rule, protection and care of us who are still in this world with and through the ministry of his word, which he does outwardly and tangibly through his ministers and instruments." (p.17) 

A little later Bucer states that:

"... our Lord Jesus, now in his heavenly nature, is with us and rules and feeds us from heaven; this rule and feeding, that is, the work of our salvation, he exercises among us through his ministers, whom he calls, ordains and uses for that purpose.  Through them he calls all nations to reformation and declares to them forgiveness of sins, pardoning their sins and accepting them as his disciples, giving them new birth to godly life in holy baptism and then teaching them all their lives to keep everything that he has commanded them." (p.21)

Like Calvin and Luther, Bucer does not hyper-spiritualize the ministry of the Church, a mistake made by the Anabaptists of his day and, dare I say, a large portion of evangelicals in our own.  The Strasbourg Reformer teaches that Christ employs tangible, earthly means and instruments to demonstrate His power and carry out the shepherding care of His flock.  This mutual care of the baptized, to be sure, also takes place between the ordinary members of the congregation, each member caring for one another, and Bucer underscores that point.  Nevertheless, God has ordained that Christ's shepherding care be particularly manifest in the ministry of the ordained elders.  "All power and the whole work in this matter belong to Christ our dear Lord; but ministers are his instruments, through whom he effects and fulfills this work of his in his elect." (p.23)  At the beginning of chapter three, which is fittingly entitled "The Management of the Church: How Our Lord Jesus Carries Out His Pastoral Office And The Work Of Our Salvation In His Church Through His Ordained Ministers", Bucer sets forth the following passages in order to clearly testify to his readers that his teaching is not from man, but from God: Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 24:45-47; John 15:16; John 20:21-23; Matthew 16:19; 10:20; I Corinthians 3:5-7; 4:1; 2 Corinthians 3:2-6; I Thessalonians 1:4-5; 2:13. (p.17-20)  It is through God's Word and sacraments faithfully preached and administered through qualified, called, and ordained ministers that Christ personally feeds and leads His sheep. (p.25-68).

The choosing and appointment of ministers, according to Bucer, ought to be done with great care.  He mentions four things which are necessary in the appointment of elders.  Firstly, "churches should faithfully call upon the Lord and pray to him, at all times but with especial earnestness when ministers are to be chosen and appointed, that he would send skillful, faithful and powerful ministers into his harvest field." (p.60)  Secondly, "churches must be most careful to pay attention to the directing of the Holy Spirit, in order to see who those are who are gifted with the fitness and ability really to build up the church of Christ." (p.60-61)  Thirdly, there must be order to the process.  It is "necessary to have the consensus of the whole church." They must be "well trusted and loved by [the congregation]."  In addition, they must be approved by the "other elders and leaders" in order to "direct the election and carry out the installation." (p.63)  Finally, these officers of Christ's Church must be elected and installed with "great seriousness and reverence."    

After Bucer clearly delineates the order and manner in which shepherds of God's flock are chosen, appointed, and installed, he then expounds the "five main tasks of the care of souls."

1.    "To lead to Christ our Lord and into His communion those who are estranged from him, whether through carnal excess or false worship.
2.    To restore those who had once been brought to Christ and into his church but have been drawn away again through the affairs of the flesh or false doctrine.
3.    To assist in the true reformation of those who while remaining in the church of Christ have grievously fallen and sinned.
4.    To re-establish in true Christian strength and health those who, while persevering in the fellowship of Christ and not doing anything particularly gross or wrong, have become somewhat feeble and sick in the Christian life.
5.    To protect from all offense and falling away and continually encourage in all good things those who stay with the flock and in Christ's sheep-pen without grievously sinning or becoming weak or sick in their Christian walk." (p.70)      

The remainder of the book is a commentary on these five biblical principles concerning the true shepherding care of Christ's flock.  The overseers of those for whom Jesus shed His precious blood are to be more than mere church managers.  Rather, they are to be spiritual men who are qualified and gifted to be under-shepherds of Christ's flock, godly examples who steadfastly and undeviatingly carry out their biblical roles, thus bearing the three marks of the Church, namely, the heralding of the Gospel from the whole counsel of God, the right administration of the sacraments, and the humble exercising of church discipline.  It is to the third mark of a biblical Church that Bucer gives his undivided attention for 65 pages in chapter 9, entitled, "How The Hurt And Wounded Sheep Are To Be Bound Up And Healed." (p.97)  Although Bucer appears to have, in some ways, retained a more medieval concept of Church discipline (e.g. the role of civil rulers and the doctrine of penance), one cannot help but appreciate his attentiveness to the diligent oversight of the flock. [1]       

The Strasbourg Reformer ends his book by mentioning that a minister's (elder's) love for Christ is reflected in a "true love for Christ's flock." (p.190)  He takes this idea from John 21:13-17 where Peter is asked three times by his Savior, "do you love me?"  After each affirmative response by Peter, Jesus says, "then feed / tend my lambs."  Feeding and tending Christ's lambs is hard work.  Even so, according to Bucer, it is the work that those under-shepherds who love Jesus are eager to carry out.  

Concerning the True Care of Souls is a 470 year old gem, written by an often forgotten pastor/scholar whom David Steinmetz calls "next to Luther and Melanchthon, the most important leader of Protestantism in Germany." [2]  Moreover, this 16th century manual of Reformed pastoral theology is a powerful corrective to the wrongheaded approach to ministry which has plagued the American evangelical scene for the past three decades.  Indeed, here we are shown a rare portrait of true pastoral care.  It should be required reading for pastors and ordinands alike.                   

[1] Modern day readers will undoubtedly detect Bucer's strong views on the role of the civil rulers and his reconstructed doctrine of penance in reference to church discipline: (i.e. pgs. 99, 111, 117, 119, 130, 136-137, 151-162).  For an excellent summary of the doctrine of penance in the Reformation period see ed. Hans J. Hillerbrand, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), volume 3, 242-244.

[2] David C. Steinmetz, Reformers in the Wings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)


Jon Payne is the pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Douglasville, GA.  He is the author of "John Owen on the Lord's Supper" (Banner of Truth, 2004) and "The Splendor of Holiness" (Tolle Lege Press, 2008).


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