Lessons from Geneva: Pastoring is Hard Work

Farmer 1

At the conclusion of Scott Manetsch’s excellent book Calvin’s Company of Pastors he lists four lessons we can learn from his study of the pastors in Geneva from 1536-1609.  Each of these four lessons is worthy of careful meditation by those seeking to enter the ministry or those already there. Here is the first lesson.

First, this study of the Company of Pastors has shown that the vocation of Christian ministry is a difficult one. As we have seen, Geneva’s pastors faced heavy workloads and encountered many hardships in their pastoral careers, including financial deprivation, incessant public criticism, congregational apathy, and sometimes even physical danger. Far more than “agents of the state” Calvin and his colleagues served as biblical interpreters, spiritual counselors, social prophets, and moral watchdogs that regularly challenged popular beliefs and social conventions, and sometimes thundered against Geneva’s political authorities. The ministers occupied a crucial, yet awkward, position in early modern society as they sought to translate gospel truths into a vernacular that provided hope, meaning, and forgiveness to men and women who sometimes struggled to believe- and frequently struggled to behave themselves. Too often the ministers’ moral indignation and spiritual blind spots only increased the difficulties they encountered in applying Scripture to the needs of their parishioners. Pastoral effectiveness in Geneva required courage, a clear sense of vocation, thick skin, a generous dose of humility, and solid Christian faith. Pastoral virtues like these are still required of Christian workers today even if their congregational contexts are centuries removed from Calvin’s.

When I entered ministry this was not my perspective. As a young man I saw many free hours perusing my books with coffee. I saw sermons that soared to heights unknown.  I do read a lot and of course preach, but the ministry is difficult work, filled with anxious moments, mistakes, weariness of body and soul, disappointment, and hardships. Of course, there are joys as well. But I knew that. I expected the mountain tops. But I did not know how deep, dark, and cold the valleys could be. I should have of course.  It was prophesied of Christ that he would be ” rejected by men, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). Can I follow Christ and preach Christ and expect ease and comfort? Paul told Timothy:

Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. 2 Timothy 2:3-6

Can I be a soldier and yet live in luxury? Can I be a hard working farmer without long nights and tired muscles? One of the most important lessons young pastors need to learn and seminary students need to be told is that the ministry when it is done right is bone-wearying work. It always has been and always will be.

Shepherds or Lords?

Word studies can be dangerous. D.A. Carson notes many of the problems with them in his book Exegetical Fallacies. However, rightly done they can open up Scripture for us. Take for example the phrase “lording it over” in I Peter 5:3. In I Peter 5:1-4 the Apostle Peter gives pastors and elders an exhortation on how to shepherd the flock. He begins by saying we are to shepherd the flock as overseers (I Peter 5:2). This is an overall description of the office. Then he give three sets of opposites to describe how we are to fulfill this calling. All translations are mine.

Not by compulsion/force, but willingly

Not greedy/eager for gain, but with readiness

Not as being lords/lording it over the lot, but by being an example

All of these deserve attention from ministers and elders. Peter’s description is different from Paul’s in I Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9, and Luke’s in Acts 20:28-30. All of these are adverbs or adverbial participles, which describe how the shepherd is supposed to his job. Unlike I Timothy 3:1-7, which focuses on the character qualities of the elder, Peter focuses on the how of the job. What is the attitude elders and pastors should carry as they exercises their office?

The verb translated “lording it over” is only used three times other times in the New Testament. Two of these will not surprise you.

Matthew 20:25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 

 Mark 10:42 And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 

But the third use outside of our passage is instructive. It happens to come in one of my favorite sections in Acts.

Acts 19:13-16 Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. 

The word “mastered” is the same word translated “lording it over” in I Peter 5:3. In I Peter 5:3 bad shepherds are those who wrestle their people to the ground and overpower them. Shepherds who control through manipulation, cruel words, wrongful shaming, and abuse of power. Shepherds who lord it over are like demon possessed men seeking to master their slaves. It reminds me of Ezekiel’s rebuke of Israel’s shepherds in Ezekiel 34:4.

The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. 

The second word “harshness” is used twice in Exodus 1:13-14 to describe the way the pharaohs enslaved and treated the Israelites.  The shepherds of Israel in Ezekiel’s time had become like the pharaohs of Egypt. Peter reminds us that we are tempted to the same thing. We are tempted to control, power, and enslave our people.

But aren’t shepherds supposed to protect the sheep and drive away wolves? How can we do this without controlling them? There are several answers to this given in Scripture, but the sum of it is our live and words must convince. Our job is not to overpower them. Our job is to exhort, persuade, convince, and plead with our lives and words.

Peter contrasts lording it over the sheep with being an example, a type to the flock. The primary method Peter encourages is a life of godliness, holiness, and devotion to the Lord.  Paul uses the exact same word in his exhortation to Timothy in I Timothy 4:12

Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. 

Pastors and elders must be examples to the flock of love, holiness, prayer, faithfulness to Christ, loving the lost, love for Jesus, forgiveness of sins, repentance, joy, peace, and patience. Cruel shepherds place burdens on the sheep by requiring of them what God does not and by refusing to go ahead of the sheep. They sit back and command, but they do not lead. (See Matthew 23:4) They crush the sheep, overpowering them instead of guiding them gently into green pastures and quiet waters. 
The second way that shepherds lead and protect the sheep is through preaching and teaching God’s Word with all patience and gentleness. Every word in that phrase is important. We teach and preach, not ourselves and our ideas, but the Word. And we must do this with all patience and gentleness. There are numerous verses from the Pastoral  Epistles which emphasize this aspect of the shepherd’s job (I Tim 4:6, 11-16, I Tim. 6:3, 11-14, II Tim. 1:13, 2:2, 14-16, 4:2-5, Titus 1:9, 13, 2:1, 6, 15, 3:1). II Timothy 2:22-26 is one of the clearer passages in this regard:

So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. 

Is there ever a time for strong words? Of course.  Do pastors and elders rebuke? Yes. Do pastors chase away wolves? I sure hope so. But if our normal pattern with our people is, “Listen to me or else.” “Do what I say or I will make you pay by embarrassing you or shaming you.”  If we rely upon our position and power to force the sheep to obey or if our regularly wrestle them to the ground, trying to control them, and make them do what we say then we are just like that demon possessed man in Acts 19. We have become lords instead of shepherds. 

Character Traits of False Teachers

1.      False teachers enjoy arguing and speculating.  ( I Timothy 1:4, 4:7, 6:20, II Timothy 2:14-18, Titus 1:14)
2.      False teachers do not build up the flock. ( Ezekiel 34:1-6, I Timothy 1:4, II Timothy 2:14)
3.      False teachers are concerned about their positions. (I Timothy 1:7, III John 1:9)
4.      False teachers can be very conservative. (I Timothy 4:1-5 and Colossians 2:20-23)
5.      False teachers can be very liberal.  (II Peter 2:18-22, II Timothy 3:6)
6.      False teachers will rarely challenge God’s people and call upon them to turn from their sin. (Jeremiah 8:11, 23:21-22, II Timothy 4:1-4)
a.       Focus on sins of other people.
b.      Preach forgiveness without repentance.  No doctrine of sanctification.
c.   Preach against sins that are not in the Bible.  
7.      False teachers take. They do not give. (Jeremiah 8:10, Ezekiel 34:1-6, Micah 3:1-3, 11, I Timothy 6:3-5, II Timothy 3:6)
8.      False teachers flee when there is danger. (John 10:11-14)
9.      False teachers abandon sound doctrine.  (I Timothy 1:3, 1:10, 4:1-7 6:3, II Timothy 3:10, Titus 1:9-16)