More than a Messenger

The Pastor as Farm-Steward and Soldier

by Todd Chipman June 15, 2017

Many young men sense a call to ministry through the preaching of well known figures like John Piper, Tim Keller or Mark Dever. God has tilled the soil of the young man’s life in such a way that the words of said preachers spring to life and become a model for the young man for years to come. That was the case with me. I can vividly recall listening to a cassette recording of a reputable preacher on my Sony Walkman (yellow, waterproof, let the reader understand) and being so impacted that the only course of life that made sense began by enrolling in seminary. I wanted to be a good steward of the gospel message, for the rest of my days focused on preaching the word.

But upon graduation from seminary and taking a pastoral position, many young men will soon face what at first seems like a harsh reality: a strong pulpit ministry is only part of the skill set necessary to pastor a church. I had to learn this lesson, and wish here to help young pastors understand that churches look to their pastor not only for messages, but also for structures by which they might carry out the implications of the gospel.

Understanding the roles to which Paul compared the tasks of Timothy and Titus (and future pastors, generally speaking) may provide young pastors with a grid for understanding the ministry of preaching within the wider pastoral task of stewarding God’s household. Paul’s purpose for writing 1 Timothy expresses his logic for the Pastorals in general. In 1 Tim 3:14-15, Paul wrote: “I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (HCSB).

By connecting (a) messages for directing Christian behavior with (b) the imagery of a household in 1 Tim 3:15, Paul provided an interpretive grid for understanding several phrases in the Pastorals where he described the work of Timothy and Titus as those entrusted with the task of proclaiming the gospel message (1 Tim 1:18-19; 4:11-13; 6:20; 2 Tim 1:13; 3:14-15; 4:1-8; Titus 1:5; 2:15). I suggest that the pastoral ministry of stewarding the message of the gospel in proclamation and teaching is to be understood in light of the broader pastoral work of managing God’s household. Understanding the administrative work of household stewards in the ancient world, not only on the farm but also in the service of Rome’s army, may help us to appreciate the way Paul described stewardship of a message as part of the wider stewardship of seeing that the message was administered in the activity of its adherents.

The Pastor as Slave Steward on the Farm

During both the Republican and Imperial periods of the Roman Empire, rural farms were often owned by city-dwelling aristocrats. In order to ensure the prosperity of the farm, the owner would purchase skilled slaves who could act as stewards, managers of the farm household. The owner entrusted these slave stewards with his instructions for how a farm should be run, often informed by agricultural manuals, texts that read like how-to guides for the uninformed. Two influential writers of such texts were Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 BC) and Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella (first c.). Varro’s On Agriculture, covering roughly 250 pages in the Loeb Classical Library, was meant as a tutorial for his wife who just purchased a farm. At the time of writing, Varro was an older man and wanted things organized for her as he was aging. Columella’s On Agriculture is more extensive, requiring three volumes in the Loeb Classical Library, 625 pages. Though Varro and Columella’s volumes illustrate Paul’s metaphor of pastors as stewards of God’s household, these ancient writers must be understood in their own right. Proportionally, Varro and Columella each wrote much more about maintaining crops, protecting from insects and growing olives than they did about household slaves stewarding the owner’s messages on the farm.

Required of these slave stewards were skills with people and processes. In carrying out the farm owners wishes, these men had to manage less skilled slaves, who were notoriously rebellious. The slave steward over the household thus had to be an example of character and personal discipline so he could demonstrate how tasks were to be done. The behavior of the slave steward over the household set the pace for the slave laborers. In book one, Varro noted that the slave overseer must be a man whose knowledge and skill would make him an example for the slave laborers writing, “It is especially important that the foremen be men who are experienced in farm operations; for the foreman must not only give orders but also take part in the work, so that his subordinates may follow his example, and also understand that there is good reason for his being over them—the fact that his is superior to them in knowledge” (1.17.4).  

Like Varro, Columella bemoaned the city and slaves that come from the city because they were want of pleasure and lazy. No overseeing slave should be from the city, he wrote, noting that as stewards, the overseer slaves were to be experienced in the work so they might set an example for the slave-laborers: “For it is not in keeping with this business of ours for one man to give orders and another to give instructions, nor can a man properly exact work when he is being tutored by an underling as to what is to be done and in what way” (1.8.3-4).

Besides overseeing slave laborers, the slave steward entrusted with the household had to manage the broader work of the farm including planting, irrigating, fertilizing and harvesting crops—as well as seeing that livestock, birds and fish were maintained both for consumption on the farm and sale at markets. In short being a successful slave steward of a household demanded sharp organizational leadership skills by which the steward could direct slave laborers to carry out the directions the owner of the farm had entrusted to him.

The Pastor as Soldier in the Roman Army

And this skill set made the slave steward a valuable commodity for the Roman army. In the Republican period especially, before Rome had a standing professional army, agricultural slave stewards were conscripted into military service. Because of the repeated calls upon slave stewards to serve in military campaigns, many property owners suffered loss. Wherever these men served, success tended to follow; their absence left either the farm vulnerable to neglect or Rome vulnerable to her enemies. Why? Slave stewards were acute administrators, able to organize others around the instructions given to them.

In Jewish War 3.4 Josephus, a former Jewish military commander in Galilee and later Jewish historian, recounted his defeat at the hands of Rome. The following chapter, Jewish War 3.5, reads like a self-help journal entry: Josephus consoled himself by writing that he was routed in battle because Rome was such a mighty military force. Indeed, Josephus wrote, let readers beware that they too will be defeated if they attempt to fight (3.5.8). What was the cause of Rome’s success? “Now here one cannot but admire the precaution of the Romans, in providing for themselves of such household servants, as might not only serve at other times for the common offices of life, but might also be of advantage to them in their wars” (3.5.1)

These slave stewards knew how to organize slave laborers on the farm, coordinating efforts and making sure both man and beast were prepared for their tasks. Josephus wrote that these men, during campaigns, applied their skills to military drills (3.5.1), the arrangement of the camp (3.5.2) and the foray into battle (3.5.3-4). While serving as soldiers these men were stewards of a battle plan and watchword that would be passed through the guard as a signal to advance against a foe (3.5.3). Josephus described this entrusted watchword as a critical element of Rome’s campaign success: the goal of the camp was not just to be organized and disciplined but to advance and fight according to the strategy of the day.

The Pastor as Messenger-Administrator

I recognize that Paul described pastors as stewards of the gospel message, preachers who are to labor in study and proclamation. But I suggest that the ministry of preaching should be understood within the broader administrative task of helping believers to practice the gospel in and outside of the church. Pastors are to preach and initiate structures that help the church to heed the gospel and organize itself around it for the advance of Christ’s kingdom. A visit to Redeemer Pres., Capital Hill Baptist or a Desiring God conference will demonstrate that Keller, Dever and Piper are not just great preachers but administrative geniuses.

At the practical level, if the preaching pastor of a church divests himself of administrative leadership and establishing programs through which the church can carry out the gospel messages he preaches, who will take up that leadership role? Likely someone who has less intimacy with the message of the gospel. In short, believers need structures through which they might participate together in God’s redemptive plan worked out through the local church. Who better than the preacher, God’s messenger in a local body, to initiate endeavors that provide believers avenues for practicing the preacher’s messages?

[Author's Note: My research on the stewardship theme in the Pastorals was prompted by the research of Dr. F. Alan Tomlinson, whose retirement as Professor of NT and Greek at MBTS was announced earlier this month. This blog is just another tribute to Dr. T’s stewardship for the gospel at MBTS for the past twenty-two years.]