Brothers, Read ‘The Christian Ministry’ by Charles Bridges
The pastoral ministry is at one and the same time a happy and hard calling. It’s no wonder why Paul said he and his apostolic associates were “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor 6:10). This juxtaposition of seemingly incompatible emotions is keenly felt in pastoral work. There is great joy in shepherding God’s people. We have the privilege of seeing people come to Christ for the first time, new believers grow in their faith, struggling believers overcome entrenched patterns of sin, gifted saints bless the body, and older Christians take an active interest in teaching the younger generation.
But there is also plenty of sorrow in the ministry. When professing believers leave the faith, or when otherwise strong believers leave the church to locate in another state, a pastor endures a loss that feels similar to losing a personal family member to death or relocation. This sense of loss is due to the fact that the church is a family—the very household of God (1 Tim 3:15)—and when someone leaves home, the other members of the household feel it. A pastor also grieves when his sheep resist biblical counsel, make foolish, harmful decisions after being instructed otherwise, attack fellow saints, repeatedly commit flagrant sin, critique the pastor’s preaching, complain about the church’s various ministries, or object to how the elders oversee the church.
Compounding these challenges is the weight the pastor feels to constantly execute his duties with wisdom and faithfulness while maintaining vitality in his own walk with Christ. Who is sufficient for these things (2 Cor 2:16)? Apart from Christ, no man is adequate for such a work (John 15:5). Thankfully, our Chief Shepherd gives his servants fellow under-shepherds to come alongside and provide much-needed encouragement and instruction in the pastoral ministry. This spiritual nourishment may come through pastoral friendships, or by way of good books. I want to focus our attention on one particular good book that should be in every pastor’s library.
Charles Bridges (1794-1869) was a pastor in England during the nineteenth century. We was well-known in his own day for his pulpit ministry and writing. His book on Proverbs certainly deserves a place among a pastor’s commentaries, as does his small volume on Ecclesiastes. Charles Spurgeon said that Bridges’s book on Psalm 119 was “worth its weight in gold.”
His book on shepherding, entitled The Christian Ministry with an Inquiry into the Causes of its Inefficiency, has gone through nine editions and is considered by many to be one of the best books penned on the topic. I first read The Christian Ministry about seven years ago. My personal journal is full of reflections on Bridges writing, with lengthy meditations on quotes I found particularly helpful or convicting, or both. Judging from the entry dates, I read the book slowly over the course of about eight months, culminating in an entry where I recorded all my favorite quotes—eighty in total.
I recently went back to this collection of quotes to prepare for some teaching, and I was reminded of the wisdom I originally found in Bridges’ writing. I want to share a few of those quotes here to both encourage you and motivate you to get Bridges’s book and plunder the treasures for yourself. (I will be using the 1958 printing from Banner of Truth.)
The Character of the Pastor
First and most importantly, Bridges speaks to the character of the Christian minister. Without godliness, a man’s ministry will be hollow and lifeless, and a ruin to his own soul. If he does accomplish any good among his people, it will be despite his character, not because of it. The cultivation of a close walk with Christ and the pursuit of personal holiness must be the pastor’s first concern.
But let it be remembered, that God never honours a compromising spirit (116).
The pastor must watch carefully how he orders his life and manages any affluence he might encounter so that his spiritual life remains vibrant.
I am sorry to say, that worldly prudence, and the desire for making provision, not only for necessary things, but for gentility and affluence, is, in my opinion, eating up the life of spirituality, and simple trust in the Lord, even among those who preach scriptural doctrines. I believe that these are clogged in their Ministry—nay, sink in general estimation, and are excluded from usefulness more than they are aware of” (114).
…our Christian prudence has degenerated into worldly cowardice; and that our conversation with the world has been regulated by the fear of man, fleshly indulgence, and practical unbelief of the most solemn warnings of the gospel (115).
The Need for Devotional Study
There must also be a devotional flavor to the pastor’s studies, not just intellectual rigor. Mere intellectual labor without attention to his own heart will sap the pastor of life and, ultimately, usefulness in the ministry.
This difficulty [of preaching more from the understanding than from the heart] springs out of the peculiar self-deception, by which we are apt to merge our personal in our professional character, and in the Minister to forget the Christian. But time must be found for the spiritual feeding upon Scriptural truths, as well as for a critical investigation of their meaning, or for a Ministerial application of their message (162-163).
Faith, then, must be actively maintained in the shepherd’s heart:
It is faith that enlivens our work with perpetual cheerfulness. It commits every part of it to God, in the hope, that even mistakes shall be overruled for his glory, and thus relieves us from an oppressive anxiety, often attendant upon a deep sense of our responsibility. The shortest way to peace will be found in casting ourselves upon God for daily pardon of deficiencies and supplies of grace, without looking too eagerly for present fruit (178).
The Centrality of Prayer in the Pastor’s Study
For this reason, prayer must saturate the pastor’s labors in the Word.
Without prayer, a Minister is of no use to the church, nor of any advantage to mankind (147).
The better we pray, the better we study (212).
Nothing will give such power to our sermons, as when they are sermons of many prayers (215)
The highest style of a preacher therefore is—that he gives himself to prayer. On this account some inferior preachers are more honored than others of their more talented brethren (216).
‘Be much in prayer to God’ (was the direction of an excellent Minister); ‘thereby you shall find more succor and success in your ministry, than by all your study’ (Cotton Mather, 219).
Maintaining A Single-Minded Focus on the Work of the Ministry
While he will have temporal matters to manage—home, finances, and other such obligations—the pastor must, like the apostle Paul instructed Timothy, not become entangled in civilian affairs. Rather, he is to have a single-minded devotion to the ministry (2 Tim 2:4). While allowing for lawful recreation and the need to wisely care for one’s needs and the needs of his family, Bridges presses the pastor to trim his life so that his pastoral labors are not encumbered by other interests.
A pastor ought to have nothing at heart but the work of God and the salvation of souls (107)
We have, therefore, no right ‘to entangle ourselves with the affairs of this life,’ so as to hinder our entire consecration to God (107).
“It ought therefore to be our solemn and cheerful determination, to refrain from studies, pursuits, and even recreations, that may not be made evidently subservient to the grand purpose of our Ministry” (107).
Mr. Cecil used to say, that the devil did not care how ministers were employed, so that it was not in their proper work (108).
The minister’s life must, to the end, be a life of holy meditation and study (208).
The Ministeral work must be managed purely for God and the salvation of the people, and not for any private ends of our own (327)
Assessing Your Own Gifts
Bridges also offers wisdom to pastors in how they assess they own gifts.
Many young ministers have crippled their effectiveness, by a vain attempt to exercise the higher qualifications of their more favoured brethren; instead of improving the more humble, but perhaps equally useful capabilities, which had been distributed to them (195).
Diligence in Preparation
Overall, a pastor’s work must be characterized by diligent study of God’s Word, thoughtful preparation, and careful attention to his people’s needs.
Far, very far, would we be from asserting the pre-eminence of theological study to spiritual-mindedness. Yet we cannot expect to see a tone of healthful spirituality, without an industrious spirit (45).
Not less illustrative of the Scriptural wisdom of the pulpit ministry is the adaptation of instruction of the different stages of Christian progress (305)
Dr. Owen well observed—‘It is the duty of Ministers of the Gospel to take care, not only that the doctrine which they preach be true, but also that it be seasonable with respect to the state and condition of their hearers (306).
The Aim of Preaching
A man’s preaching should aim to edify, not impress or confound.
It is not how much can be said; but what can best be said (200).
The vanity of learned preaching is proved by its unproductiveness. The plainest preachers in a Christian spirit, are commonly the most successful (314).
There is a great deal of difference between people admiring the preacher, and being edified by his sermons (316).
There is much more I could offer from Bridges’ book. This is just an appetizer to entice you to sit down to the main course. Bridges offers seasoned, time-tested wisdom that is not found in many contemporary works on pastoral ministry. I trust your heart will be encouraged and labors will helped by attention to Bridges’s counsel. Take up and read.