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.


Patrick said...

Thank you for this post. A reminder and rebuke of my weakness as a husband and father. I've never read this book but I understand it's popular. After reading a post from another blog regarding Richard Baxter, I don't understand why he's still promoted as a reliable Reformed pastor/writer?

"He is most remembered for his pastoral work in Kidderminster, which he described in his book, The Reformed Pastor (1656). I read this work in seminary because it was commended to us warmly. Like most others, I suppose, I did not know what Baxter taught about the salvation, that he utterly and self-consciously rejected the Protestant doctrine of salvation sola gratia, sola fide."

Peter Bringe said...


Thanks for the comment. Richard Baxter is usually commended not for his theology (particularly his views of the atonement and justification), but for his practical works on evangelism, pastoral ministry, and Christian ethics. If you read books like "The Reformed Pastor," or "A Call to the Unconverted," or his massive "Christian Directory," you will probably have a better idea of why he is still respected despite his errors on other matters.

I do agree that Baxter erred significantly in his view of justification, but I do not agree with all of Dr. Clark's critique. For one thing, Baxter speaks of good works as a secondary condition of justification, while Dr. Clark conflates "condition" with "instrument," arguing that Baxter held works to be an instrument of justification, which does not strike me as fair to Baxter's view. And while I would disagree with Baxter's view and think it is highly important to confess that "Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification" (WCF 11.2), I also agree with the statements of the Westminster Confession...

...that there is a "practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord" (WCF 13.1),

...that "By this faith, a Christian ... acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come." (WCF 14.2)

...that "To escape the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin, God requireth of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption." (WSC 85)

...that "Although repentance be not to be rested in, as any satisfaction for sin, or any cause of the pardon thereof, which is the act of God's free grace in Christ; yet it is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it."

...that "the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God's sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections." (WCF 16.6)