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Pastoral Lessons from My Betters, Part 4

It was in the fall of the year 2000. My professor had strolled rather awkwardly into the classroom with a very large stack of papers cradled in his arm. He simply looked at us as he began tossing them around the u-shaped formation of the tables. Upon receiving my copy, I realized that it was a manuscript printed on both sides totaling fifty-five pages. Little did I know at the time that my professor had just given us a treasure of inestimable value. The small class of which I was a part had been given a roughly typed manuscript titled, Von der Waren Seelsorge. It was originally written in 1538 and would not be printed in the English language until 2009 by the Banner of Truth Trust. Who is the author and what is the book? The title in English is, Concerning the True Care of Souls, and it was written by Martin Bucer (1491–1551).

Many know that Martin Bucer has some connection to John Calvin, which is true, but they are uncertain about the nature of the relationship. Bucer was a first generation reformer and leader in the city of Strasbourg when Calvin sought refuge there during his Genevan exile (1538–1541). When Calvin arrived Bucer recognized his obvious potential and asked him to pastor the French refugee congregation in the city. Calvin hesitated but only for a moment. Though still a young man, he had wisdom enough to recognize, as he did with Farel earlier, that Bucer was a man to whom he must listen. Consequently, Calvin, not altogether happily, once again took up the yoke of the pastorate. It is enlivening to think that Bucer wrote his book on pastoral care the year that Calvin arrived in Strasbourg!

However, I was not thinking about the history of the reformers at Strasbourg when I started to read the manuscript.[1] I was the church planter of a small congregation meeting in an old YWCA and quite frankly discouragement was a constant companion. It was hard to put off dampened feelings and take captive disheartening thoughts. I was being encouraged to network and evangelize, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the small flock gathered behind me was too weak not to wander out of the pasture. It was at this point in my pastoral life that Martin Bucer, my pastoral better, began to mentor me.

There are a number of things in, Concerning the True Care of Souls, that are helpful to any pastor at any time in his ministry. But there were several interrelated points that ministered to me. First, after briefly explaining the nature of the church, Bucer claims that Christ alone rules in His church. He alone teaches, disciplines, and leads His flock and no one—not even the pope—can claim governing authority in the church.[2] And then Bucer wrote this, “Therefore, it has pleased him to exercise his rule . . . outwardly and tangibly through his ministers and instruments.”[3] What an encouragement. Every Lord’s Day as I stood in the old YWCA hall that was crowded with junk, I remembered that God was exercising his rule through me over this little flock.

After getting that lesson firmly fixed in my thinking, the second lesson was like a tonic. Bucer taught me balance and priorities. According to Bucer, the minister must engage in five main tasks which emerge from Ezekiel 34:16.[4] First, he must seek lost sheep. Second, he must restore those who have once been united to the church, but have wandered. Third, he must help to reform those who have remained in the church, but who have fallen into sin. Fourth, the minister must encourage growth in those who have remained in the flock, but who have not grown. And finally, he must protect the sheep from all harm.[5] The remainder of the book exfoliates each of the five tasks.

But the point was clear to me. As a church planting pastor I had found in these pages a responsible way forward. Bucer’s unremitting and unyielding search for the lost[6] combined with his equal enthusiasm for helping the hurt and wounded in the congregation was as simple as it was profound.[7] Bucer had given me permission to shake off a one sided view of church planting. Perhaps the impact of this lesson was best seen in how I planted the next church. I set the first year aside in order to explain to the core group what it meant to be united to Christ and hence united to one another. It was then, and only then, that we were ready and healthy enough to add to our family—because by then that is what we were—family.


[1] I will quote from the Banner of Truth edition rather than my unpublished manuscript for ease of reference.

[2] Martin Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls, translated by Peter Beale (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), 9, 13.

[3] Ibid., 17.

[4] It should be noted that Bucer’s translation of the last part of this text differs from modern translations. Bucer renders the last part of verse 16, “the sleek and the strong I will watch over.” However, the NASB renders it, “the fat and the strong I will destroy.” The exposition is based on Bucer’s positive rendering.

[5] Ibid., 70.

[6] Ibid., 78.

[7] Ibid., 101.


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