Monday, February 4, 2019

The Family Integrated Ministry of Richard Baxter

Richard Baxter (1615-1691) had an intense view of pastoral ministry. His book, The Reformed Pastor, written while he was in the midst of his pastoral labors in Kidderminster, is a stirring call for pastors to give personal attention to all the people of their parish. He exhorted pastors to not only preach publicly, but also to give personal instruction from house to house, discerning the state of the people and addressing their particular needs. But like many of the Puritans, he realized that the pastoral ministry of the church could not do it all, nor should it ignore the divinely ordained institution of the family in its approach to ministry. Here is how Baxter put it:
"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. What are we like to do ourselves to the reforming of a congregation, if all the work be cast on us alone; and masters of families neglect that necessary duty of their own, by which they are bound to help us? ... Neglect not, I beseech you, this important part of your ministry. Get masters of families to do their duty, and they will not only spare you a great deal of labor, but will much further the success of your labors. If a captain can get the officers under him to do their duty, he may rule the soldiers with much less trouble, than if all lay upon his own shoulders. You are not like to see any general reformation, till you procure family reformation. Some little religion there may be, here and there; but while it is confined to single persons [i.e. individuals], and is not promoted in families, it will not prosper, nor promise much future increase.” (The Reformed Pastor, 100-102)
Therefore, part of his ministry was to train the fathers to lead their families in the ways of the Lord. Fathers were to lead family worship, catechism instruction, and Sabbath keeping. They were to promote religion by word, example, and the way they managed the household.

There was good biblical basis for such an approach. In Ephesians 5:25-27 husbands are told to love their wives as Christ loved the church, and one of the things it tells husbands to imitate is the fact that Christ cleansed His church with the word. 1 Corinthians 14:35 tells wives to look to their husbands for instruction. In Ephesians 6:4, we read “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” While Abraham was unique in some respects, it appears from these New Testament passages that what God said of Abraham in Genesis 18:19 is still relevant for fathers today: "I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him."

Baxter practiced what he preached, and his ministry bore good fruit. Kidderminster was a changed place after Baxter's pastorate. Indeed, the emphasis on family religion was a strength of Puritan and Presbyterian churches in general. Yet, it is sorely lacking today. The family itself, and the father's position in the family, is weak in the modern age. The church has learned to rely on programs and activities that largely bypass any reliance on families and fathers. But what Scripture teaches, and what Baxter observed, is still true and relevant.

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