Historical Portraits of Pastoral Care: Shepherding Like a Reformer

by Caleb Lenard January 2, 2023

Shepherding the body of Christ means equipping his people to live skilled and holy lives within their individual contexts. Teaching of the word is of first importance; theology takes precedence. Theology helps bring clarity by which one can then engage in ministry more effectively, accurately, and faithfully. However, pastoral care and community life are not to be neglected.

Martin Luther, a key player in the Reformation, better known for his battles with the institution of the Catholic Church, was above all a shepherd of God’s people. Luther once said of pastors, “Unless your heart toward the sheep is like that of a mother toward her children—a mother, who walks through fire to save her children—you will not be fit to be a preacher. Labor, work, unthankfulness, hatred, envy, and all kinds of sufferings will meet you in this office. If, then, the mother heart, the great love, is not there to drive the preachers, the sheep will be poorly served.”[1] Luther did not merely write theological treatises, he was also concerned with helping people relate to God in all of life’s circumstances. He counseled many in person and through letters. For example, Luther wrote a treatise on prayer for his barber after revealing to Luther that he struggled with prayer.[2] In 2011, the late reformed theologian, R.C. Sproul, wrote an illustrated children’s book about it, attesting to its staying power.

In the same era John Calvin, though most famously known for his contributions in forming much of reformed theology, was also a physician of the soul. A sermon of Calvin’s on 1 Timothy 5:1-3 expressed his heart for pastoral ministry:

And therefore, if we want to do our duty toward God, and to those who are committed to our charge, it is not enough for us to offer them the doctrine generally but when we see any of them go astray we must labor to bring him to the right way. When we see another in grief and sorrow, we must go about to comfort him. When we see anyone who is dull of the Spirit, we must prick him and spur him, as his nature will bear.[3]

Theodore Beza, a disciple of Calvin and reformation theologian in his own right, embraced his mentor’s teaching on pastoral ministry and preached similarly on pastoral care:

It is not only necessary that [a pastor] have general knowledge of his flock, but he must also know and call each of his sheep by name, both in public and in their homes, both night and day. Pastors must run after lost sheep, bandaging up the one with a broken leg, strengthening the one that is sick …In sum, the pastor must consider his sheep more dear to him than his own life, following the example of the Good Shepherd.[4]

Jesus Christ took on humanity in part to identify with us in our struggles, so we too are to identify with the people to whom we minister. Jesus taught his disciples to go out into the world. Jesus came into our neighborhood, so we should go into those of others as well (John 1:14). Jesus went to weddings and funerals, and ate meals in homes with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:10). Jesus’s ministry was inclusive in the sense that he never favored one class over another (Romans 2:11). Whether one was on the fringes of society, or a teacher of the law, Jesus ministered to them passionately. Likewise, the Apostle Paul’s personal commitment in ministry in this area of shepherding is powerfully stated by way of metaphor in 2 Corinthians 11. Here Paul likens his ministry to a father, preparing a bride for her husband. It is the goal, duty, and honor as ministers of God to take on this task. To prepare for Jesus a lovely, pure bride.

It is our duty to participate in Christ’s edifying work continuing the building up of his people and maturing them. This was what drove Paul’s ministry (1 Thessalonians 2:15; Romans 11-15; Colossians 1:28) and it is what should drive ours as well. This involves giving attention to the details of people’s lives, envisioning what the Spirit has designed for individuals to do and become, and the gifts with which the person has been endowed (Ephesians 4:8). We do this because it is Jesus’ essential ministry with each of us individually to build us up more into his image and equip us for ministry.

For some of us, pastoral care may be a strength, but for many of us it is not. Whether we fall into one camp or the other, we all need reminded, as these voices from church history show us, that our ministry does not make Christ present. We can only do ministry because Christ is alive and has called us to enter his ministry as a conduit from which his grace is poured out (John 15:5-6). It is his ministry that will heal, speak, bless, save, comfort, and guide. So may we as pastors step out in faithful obedience to care for the flocks entrusted to us.

[1] Martin Luther, “Ministers,” in What Luther Says: A Practical In-Home Anthology for the Active Christian, ed. Ewald M. Plass, 1959 repr. (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1991), 932.

[2] Martin Luther, “To Peter Beskendorf,” in Luther: Letters of Spiritual Council, ed. and trans. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1955), 124-30.

[3] John Calvin, “Measured Rebuke”, in Sermons on 1 Timothy, trans. Robert White (London: Banner of Truth, 2018), see 551-566.

[4] Scott M. Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609, Oxford Studies in Historical Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 281.