Updated: Feb 21, 2020
Concerning the True Care of Souls
by Martin Bucer
Banner of Truth (2009)
Martin Bucer was the de facto leader of the Protestant Reformation in the city of Strasbourg from 1523 to 1548. When John Calvin was kicked out of Geneva in 1538, he found respite in Strasbourg. Bucer had significant influence in shaping Calvin’s understanding of the church and its ministry. The form Calvin’s ministry would take when he returned to Geneva was markedly indebted to Bucer.
Bucer wrote Concerning the True Care of Souls in 1538. He wanted to impart to the people of God a thorough understanding of the nature of the church of Christ, what rule and order it must have, and the responsibilities of true ministers in the church. From the outset of this book, he insists on the central importance of the church in Christian nurture. While the Reformers sought to disentangle the church from the abuses of the Roman Catholic hierarchy of the time, they did not throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.
Bucer’s understanding of the central importance of the church is instructive for us as American Christians living in the 21st century. He teaches that the church is not merely an ancillary good to be taken or left according the personal preferences of individual Christians. Bucer is quite clear that the church is necessary for the Christian life:
From this we must go on to learn how harmful and pernicious those people are who teach that the church is of no importance, a merely outward activity which does not contribute in any particular way to our salvation, and without which it is quite possible to become a Christian and receive God’s gifts.
Bucer is acutely aware of the dangers of mere outward participation in the church. He strongly warns against it himself, and expects true believers to demonstrate a congruence between outward participation in the church and inward conviction and zeal. Nevertheless he refuses to allow the potential of abuse in regard to the ministry of the church to nullify its proper use.
In Bucer’s estimation the church is much more than a social institution in which to enjoy relationships with other believers. Referring to several texts such as John 20:21-23, Matthew 10:20, 1 Corinthians 4:1, 2 Corinthians 3:2-6, and 1 Thessalonians 2:13, he argues against the assertion that the church is superfluous. He writes:
This is why all pious Christians should use the texts we have set out to guard themselves against the wholly pernicious error which despises the church’s ministry of word and sacrament as a superficial and unnecessary thing, and would have everything given and received from Christ in heaven without using the means which the Lord himself desires to employ.
Bucer inveighs against precisely the view that many American Christians (perhaps most?) hold in our time concerning the church. It is easy to view the church’s ministry as superficial and unnecessary. It appears all the more so today when we can hear our favorite preacher with a turn of the radio dial, or a click of the mouse. Bucer would undoubtedly be in favor of believers listening to good preaching in this manner. But he would also warn that it is no replacement for participating the ministry of word and sacrament in the local church.
Once Bucer is satisfied that he has adequately set forth the importance of the church and the work of its ministers, he outlines of the role of civil authorities in maintaining Christian discipline. Modern readers will find this treatment strange and for the most part inapplicable. While not completely irrelevant, historical circumstances with regard to civil government have changed substantially from his time to our own.
However, Bucer mainly focuses his efforts upon explaining the responsibilities of pastoral ministry in the church. His exploration of specific pastoral duties is another needful corrective for us. Whereas it is easy to underestimate the importance of the church, it is equally easy to confuse what constitutes the proper ministry of the church. Bucer draws our attention to the biblical responsibilities of pastors. They are not called to be political activists or culture-transformers. They are carers-of-souls.
The pastor’s ministry is carried out publicly through preaching the word of God, administering the sacraments, and attending to discipline. But it is also carried out privately through ministering the word individually and house to house. Bucer presents a helpful taxonomy of what he calls, “the five main tasks required in the pastoral office and true care of souls.” This taxonomy provides a basis for deliberate ministry to people with various needs in the community and the congregation.
The tasks Bucer identifies for pastoral care are: first, to lead to Christ and his communion those who are as yet estranged from him; second, to restore those who have once been brought to Christ, but have been drawn away by the flesh or false teaching; third, to assist in true reformation those who have remained in the church, but who have grievously fallen and sinned; fourth, to re-establish in true Christian strength those who have become somewhat feeble or sick in their Christian life (though not due to sin); fifth, to protect and encourage in all good things those who stay with the flock.
Each task is identified with distinctive conditions of the sheep. Each type of sheep has certain needs and the ministry must be carried out in a manner suited to the needs. I will not take space here to rehearse each category of sheep, and the treatment each requires. Some readers will probably have quibbles with the categories identified by Bucer. Others will have quibbles with the treatments he prescribes.
Regardless of any quibbles, however, shepherds will find much help in Bucer’s work. It is certainly helpful to note the kinds of sheep identified in Scripture, and think through how best to treat them based on their particular needs. An awareness of different groups within the church that require different kinds of care highlights pathways for shepherding ministry. These pathways cry out for deliberate shepherding. Such a deliberate undertaking of shepherding is needful because we shepherds can easily fall into an essentially reactive approach to our ministry. On the whole, I would recommend this book as a helpful resource for anyone who is interested in better understanding the church and the work of the sheperding in it.