In the Lectionary of the Church of England Richard Baxter (17 November 1615 – 8 December 1691) is commemorated this Thursday. The choice of date is a little strange, for it marks neither his birth or his death, but rather the death of his wife, Margaret (14 June 1681).
Richard Baxter is a great hero of mine. Indeed, when in March 1994 I launched a group dedicated to encouraging ministers to excel in ministry, I called it ‘The Richard Baxter Institute for Ministry’.
Who was Richard Baxter? He was the great seventeenth-century pastor of Kidderminster. He wasn’t a Baptist – rather he was first an Anglican, and then later became a Presbyterian. However, ‘labels’ didn’t interest him. He was a strong advocate for church unity long before anybody had ever heard the term ‘ecumenism’. He was fond of saying: “In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things charity”. It wasn’t that he didn’t have convictions. Indeed some of the 200 books and pamphlets are long, controversial discourses on doctrinal issues. He could be opinionated – but this did not stop him from working together ministers who saw things differently. What a wise man he was!
Of all his writings the most well known is The Reformed Pastor – this is a classic guide to pastoral ministry. Yes, in some ways it is dated – and yet in many ways it is still highly relevant. I remember Brian Haymes, a distinguished former President of the Baptist Union, telling me that he read The Reformed Pastor every year to remind himself what the heart of ministry is all about. One of its pearls of wisdom we printed on the back cover of every issue of Ministry Today, the journal of the Richard Baxter Institute for Ministry: “All churches either rise or fall as the ministry doth rise or fall – not in riches or worldly grandeur, but in knowledge, zeal and ability for their work”. Or to re-phrase the sentiments in modern language: ‘The key to the health and growth of the churches is its leaders’.
Another pearl of wisdom related to the need for ministers to live up to their calling – for if they fail to do so, then the rest of their ministry is of little worth – indeed, it becomes counter-productive. Or in Baxter’s words:
Take heed to yourselves, lest your example contradict your doctrine, and lest you lay such stumbling-blocks before the blind, as may be the occasion of their ruin; lest you unsay with your lives, what you say with your tongues; and be the greatest hinderers of the success of your own labours.
Baxter knew that ministers are human like everybody else. Ordination gives them no special immunity from the tempter’s power. Indeed, the reverse is the case. To quote Baxter again:
The Enemy hath a special eye upon you. You shall have his most subtle insinuations and incessant solicitations and violent assaults. As wise and learned as you are, take heed to yourselves lest he overwit you. The Devil is a greater scholar than you are and a nimbler disputant. He can transform himself into an angel of light to deceive you. He will get within you and trip you up by the heels before you are aware. He will play the juggler with you undiscerned, and cheat you of your faith and innocence, and you shall not know that you have lost them. He will make you the very instruments of your own ruin.
Yet in spite of Richard Baxter’s wisdom, we eventually changed the name of the Richard Baxter Institute for Ministry to Ministry Today UK. Why? Because we discovered that some people thought we were a group promoting ‘Reformed theology’. Actually, The Reformed Pastor has nothing to do with a particular theological standpoint – the term ‘reformed’ then meant ‘renewed’. And again, Baxter was right. The key to effective ministry is for pastors to experience constant renewal in both their personal and their professional lives.
Today we can rightly thank God for the wisdom of Richard Baxter.