To the life of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, prolific preacher and influential pastor of the Metropolitan Tabernacle, the ministry of a lesser-known seventeenth century pastor was essential. In a passage recorded in his biography, Spurgeon recalls a conversation with his wife one Sunday evening: “I fear I have not been as faithful in my preaching today as I should have been; I have not been as much in earnest after poor souls as God would have me be…. Go, dear, to the study, and fetch down [Richard] Baxter’s Reformed Pastor, and read some of it to me; perhaps that will quicken my sluggish heart.”
Richard Baxter, a counter-cultural, Puritan-trained English pastor, served for fourteen years as shepherd to the people at Kidderminster in England in the mid–1600s. Influenced not by the norms of the day (to the point that he was imprisoned at the age of 70 for eighteen months by the Church for libel), Baxter remained unwaveringly true to his Puritanical, Christian convictions.
In addition to shepherding his own people, Baxter labored for unity among denominations. He was instrumental in forming the Worcestershire Association of Ministers for the encouragement, edification, and accountability of his fellow pastors. He ultimately penned a strategy for ministry in his seminal work, which Spurgeon would be seeking some two hundred years later to nurse a spiritual malaise, The Reformed Pastor. The work intended to champion a restorative manner of ministry by insisting on the renewal of one’s calling and motivation to administer the Word of God. Baxter’s influence was not focused solely on the flock he shepherded, but on the ones shepherding their own.
Baxter begins The Reformed Pastor by giving special attention to “taking heed” to one’s own spiritual condition before “taking heed” to the rest of his flock. The book can be divided into four sections: a pastoral explanation of the ministry, a pastoral examination of one’s own soul, a pastoral exhortation to preach, and a pastoral edification towards his people. However, he also fully recognized that it was not only pastors who had congregations to lead.
One of Baxter’s boldest beliefs is that the primary disciple-makers in the home should be the parents. He strongly urged fathers “of every family to cause his children and servants to repeat the Catechism to him, every Sabbath evening, and to give him some account of what they have heard at church during the day.” Worship in the homes consisted of reading Scripture and reciting and remembering the catechisms of the faith, a practice encouraged by the majority of Puritan pastors. He shared his conviction about family discipleship in The Reformed Pastor: “We must have a special eye upon families, to see that they are well ordered, and the duties of each relation performed. The life of religion, and the welfare and glory of both the Church and the State, depend much on family government and duty. If we suffer the neglect of this, we shall undo all. I beseech you, therefore, if you desire the reformation and welfare of your people, do all you can to promote family religion.”
At first glance, a modern reader may consider his approach to ministry in the home not quite so bold after all, but that neglects a significant detail about the time period: aside from the reading of the confessions and the Scriptures in the homes, a model of intentional disciple-making was scarce. The father’s role as spiritual mentor was relegated to the local pastor. Instead of actively assuming the role of priest of the home, the vast majority of fathers watched idly as the pastor facilitated an entire town’s shepherding/discipling duties.
Of course, Pastors are the key disciplers in the church, but they aren’t, nor should they be, the only ones. Whenever a church grows beyond a manageable number, a single staff member is unable keep up with the increasing demands of the people he shepherds. Paul described to Timothy what ministry looked like in the book of 2 Timothy: “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Timothy 2:2). Effectiveness in ministry was characterized not by how well Timothy executed the ministry himself, but how well he equipped others that same work. Moreover, Paul, speaking to the same church, described the importance of giving the ministry away. “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers,” Paul writes, “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 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” (Ephesians 4:11–13).
Baxter’s disciple-making framework was shaped by one overarching theme, no doubt derived from his Puritan background: belief drives behavior. Theology permeated every aspect of his life and ministry and he encouraged not just reading, but understanding and applying theology for Christian nourishment and spiritual growth.
His own pursuit of godliness is a result of his diligence in making disciples. Every pastor, he believed, should be a disciplemaker. Peter White, in his book The Effective Pastor, characterized Baxter’s ministry as one of “the most spectacular growth in numbers, and in the major features of true discipleship…. [He had] like Baxter, a systematic approach to the detailed discipling of individuals.”
Central to the reform in the church was, in Baxter’s opinion, family discipleship. Global reformation would not happen until “you procure family reformation. Some little religion there may be, here and there; but while it is confined to single persons, and is not promoted in families, it will not prosper, nor promise much future increase.” The lesson the modern church can learn from a pastor seeking reform is to never neglect one’s ministry at the First Church of their home. We must never sacrifice our families on the altar of ministry, no matter how fruitful or rewarding it may seem to be. Indeed, what good is it if your entire church goes to heaven, while your family heads to hell?