It is difficult to remember, when reading Charles Bridges’ The Christian Ministry, that this work was first published over one hundred and seventy years ago. Bridges’ book is something of a compendium on a variety of topics related to the ministry. It is marked by careful theological reflection as well as evidence that Bridges learned the lessons he teaches through much practical experience.
It would be an understatement to suggest that Bridges has a “high view” of pastoral ministry. He lists the Christian ministry as one of “three grand repositories” of God’s truth, the other two being the Bible, and “the hearts of Christians” (2). Furthermore, he argues that the office of pastor carries with it a dignity of essence that should be reflected in the lives of its members (6).
The importance of Bridges’ foundational comments concerning the pastoral ministry rests in the fact that there are more than a few subtle as well as explicit influences seeking to attack the office of the ministry both outside and inside today’s Church. Perhaps the most scandalous of these attacks comes from preachers themselves. In a modern Church context in which relevancy is seen as the apex of pastoral ministry, ministers face an almost constant temptation to remove any so-called distances between themselves and their parishioners in an effort not to be considered too haughty and to be “one of the people.” While it is incumbent upon ministers to avoid haughtiness at all costs and to constantly guard their hearts from indolence and arrogance (as Bridges himself notes on page 81), it must be recognized that a desire to be among the people can at times express itself in ways that are damaging to the office of pastor, such as in excessive transparency concerning personal struggles or a deliberate downplaying of one’s convictions and knowledge on a subject.
Within the modern free church tradition, the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer has also been distorted in such a way as to undermine the importance of the pastoral office. Many modern Protestants see this doctrine not as a tremendous blessing and, in a sense, burden which places a tremendous responsibility on all believers to be holy in their lives and knowledgeable in the Word, but rather as a foundation for undermining and, when they desire, simply ignoring the minister’s words on the basis of their own position as “priests.” This is especially true in a largely democratic church context in which the members of the church know they can simply “vote the preacher out” if they do not care for him. To this end, Bridges’ Anglican affiliation probably afforded him some degree of insulation from overt attacks upon the importance of the office, though certainly this was not entirely the case.
These realities, along with the tragic scandal heaped upon the ministry by public godlessness on the parts of ministers, have attacked the very foundation of the ministry. Its importance and dignity are no longer assumed. It can be argued that the restoration of the dignity of the pastorate is of essential importance to revival in the church. It would seem, too, that the first step in this process is not a bemoaning of societal or congregational attacks upon the office, but rather a tending to wounds which have been self-inflicted due to a lack of integrity and spiritual earnestness on the parts of many ministers. Regardless, Bridges’ words are just as pertinent today, if not more so, than when he penned them so many years ago.
Bridges’ discussion of suffering and the ministry must also be heeded by today’s minister. He outlines a variety of ways in which ministers can be certain they will suffer: from the church, the world, Satan, and ourselves (14-17). Interestingly, he immediately follows this with a discussion of the sources of encouragement that the minister can draw upon in difficult times. It is interesting to note more generally that much of Bridges’ entire book is devoted in some fashion to identifying, understanding, and overcoming difficulties. Not only is much of Part I of the book dedicated to this topic, but the whole of Part II and Part III are as well.
The relevancy and importance of his discussion of suffering and encouragement can be clearly seen in the large number of seminary graduates who do not remain in the ministry, the horrendous percentage of divorces among couples involved in the ministry, and the influx of a materialistic mentality within the Church that suggests to young ministers that their lives should be ones of ease. It would perhaps have been good for Bridges to not have waited so long to include his fascinating discussion of minister’s wives (169-173). Ministers must consider the dangers and trials of the ministry not only in the choosing of a wife, but ministers’ wives must consider this as well. In all, it is not an oversimplification to suggest that ministers and/or their wives are often entering the ministry largely unaware of the sometimes extreme emotional, psychological, spiritual, personal, and domestic tolls that are inflicted upon ministers and their families. To this, Bridges’ quite moving discussion of trials, as well as of encouragement, offers a word that must be heeded.
It is also striking how contemporary Bridges’ discussion of the qualification of the ministry is to today’s Church (24-31). More than a few men and women are entering the ministry because it is “in the family” or because they are fleeing some other responsibility. Hand in hand with this fact is the problem of an ordination system in many Protestant churches which is completely devoid of true spiritual discernment concerning questions of whether or not a candidate should be ordained. This was obviously a problem in Bridges’ age as well (93). In other words, it seems as if entering the ministry has become too easy. A return to Bridges’ emphasis on the marked qualifications of ministers would do young people contemplating the ministry, as well as churches and ordination councils contemplating their official endorsement of these young people, much good.
One of the more refreshing aspects of Bridges’ work is his high regard for formal education. He highly commends “University study” and moves on to a discussion of the importance of knowing different fields of knowledge (35). The very near future may prove that anti-intellectualism has migrated from excessively fundamentalist churches to the mainstream. This already appears to be happening in the American Protestant church context. The reason is probably none other than the influx of relativism, existentialistic spirituality, and subjectivist expressions of faith which have little use for such inconveniences as detailed study. In this regard, Bridges’ high recommendation of formal education, words concerning avenues of study which will be beneficial to ministers, and warning concerning the danger of much knowledge, offer a much needed corrective and stand in stark contrast to the often commented upon “scandal of the Evangelical mind.”
One hundred and seventy years ago, Bridges lamented the lack of a high view of scripture among ministers and churches (58). There is perhaps no word more sorely needed today than this. Interestingly, the modern Church may be contributing somewhat to this dilemma by its often unguarded use of packaged study curricula. These may, of course, be used to great benefit. But it is difficult to reside and move in Evangelical circles without noticing that twelve week workbooks are almost eclipsing the scriptures. In this sense, Bridges’ discussion of the right use of commentaries and study helps is also of great value (55-56). Are today’s Christians being challenged to know the scriptures first? The sometimes complete reliance of Sunday School and discipleship training programs upon secondary sources may be moving us to an answer of “No.” This is tragic. Bridges is more than correct in his arguments concerning the need for scripture to be the most important source of teaching in the Church.
The most moving section of Bridges’ book for a small church pastor is his discussion of success in ministry. In particular, Bridges’ comments upon the occasional lack of “visible success” stand in stark contrast to the often-repeated idea that if a particular church is not growing, and growing fast, it is not doing anything right. More than a few pastors of small and medium churches live under an almost incessant cloud of guilt and despair when confronted with this notion.
This is not to suggest that Bridges believed that the true work of the ministry will not result in “the work of success” (72). In fact, he argues that God always blesses where His word is sown. Rather, Bridges argues that visible success varies, that “symptoms of success are also frequently mistaken,” and that, occasionally, we must wait to see success (74-75). Again, such ideas are too often left out of the latest church growth books. In them, it is assumed that the right things done in the right ways will produce instant visible growth. Fortunately, Bridges did not belong to the sound-byte, fast-food, pragmatic society of twenty-first century America, so he was perhaps better able to see the truth concerning the concept of success.
Yet, Bridges does suggest that the minister may be to blame for the lack of success in his ministry. He does this in one of the more convicting sections of the book, “Causes of Ministerial Inefficiency Connected With Our Personal Character.” In this section, Bridges considers a lack of devotion, worldliness, fear, a lack of “Christian self-denial,” greed, overworking, pride, a lack of personal spiritual conviction, the neglect of family, and a lack of faith as being predators of the ministry. It was difficult to read this section without being drawn into a serious reflection on my own life.
One of the more powerful instances of Bridges’ understanding of that which renders ministries ineffective is his discussion of the occasional “want of entire devotedness of the heart to the Christian ministry” (106). Here, he makes perhaps the most powerful statement of the entire book: “We are to be labourers, not loiterers, in the Lord’s vineyard” (107). This is important not only in the sense that ministry without accountability can become little more than a leeching off the resources of the Church with no real effort being exerted on the part of the minister, but more so because today’s minister faces the very real possibility of doing lots of work in the church, but very little ministry. Ministers are daily besieged with administrative, staff, and office duties that carry with them the very real potential of distraction, and more than a few ministers labor every moment while neglecting their true call. Misguided busyness is as much an example of loitering as abject slothfulness. To this, Bridges’ impassioned appeal for ministers to be about the business of seeing souls come to Christ is most moving (111).
Also moving was Bridges’ discussion of the offense of the cross and the necessity for ministers not to sacrifice the word of the cross in favor of social acceptance (116-118). This represents not only a personal indictment against individual accommodation to a dark age, but also a corporate rebuke of all Churches which have, in essence, removed the cross in an attempt to reach people where they are. Ministers and churches alike face the temptation of removing the scandal of the cross from their discourse and lives. It is no lapse into hyperbole to suggest that such is the work of Satan. Bridges’ further exhortation concerning the fact that congregations will imitate their pastors, for good and ill, also should be heard today (121).
Bridges’ final two sections involve preaching and pastoring, which he sees as the two main duties of the minister. His treatment of preaching is most helpful. He does not delve into too many speculative areas, but rather offers something of the practical “meat and potatoes” of preaching. A predominant theme throughout Bridges’ entire discussion of preaching is the necessity for preachers to speak with clarity and on a level that the people can understand. Furthermore, he takes great pains to argue for a style of preaching that is sincere and convicting. It can only be assumed that Bridges must have been reacting to the cold formalism in many pulpits of his day.
Bridges expressed concern over preachers who enter the pulpit unprepared, speak above their people, and do not stay on task (193, 199-201). These issues all relate in some measure to preparedness. The modern pastor who finds it difficult to make time for sermon preparation amidst the clamor of responsibilities calling for his attention would do well to consider Bridges’ words. In many ways, he roots the importance of preaching in the importance of ministry in general. We must speak in such a way and with such effectiveness that we can be heard. It also seems important for churches to understand this as well. Many churches are designed in such a way, and put such excessive expectations upon their pastors, that there would be absolutely no time for sermon preparation if they were to do half of what is expected. Pastors must strive to tactfully communicate to their parishioners that the preparation of sermons is essential to their task and calling.
Bridges’ comments concerning prayer are especially helpful today. There seems to be something of a revival in interest concerning prayer in Evangelical circles. It is important to realize that this has always been a need for Christians in general and Christian communicators in particular. Bridges saw prayer as the most important component of the sermon preparation. Without prayer, all will be ineffectual (213).
One of the more interesting aspects of Bridges’ discussion of sermon preparation is his consideration of the preaching of the law. This is important not only because it relates directly to the discussion of biblical theology, but also because Bridges’ discussion of it shows that the Church has been grappling with understanding the place of the law and, more generally, of the Old Testament, for some time. It is also of interest that Bridges felt the topic important enough to deal with at some length.
Bridges argues that the preaching of the law is important insofar as it stands as part of the word of God. He lists a number of benefits that the law offers to us today and rejects the notion that preaching on the law must necessarily be “legal preaching” (223-224). For Bridges, the law still makes man aware of his sinfulness and thereby drives him to Christ. In this sense, the presentation of law is essential to a proper presentation of the gospel. It also offers good rules for righteous living. Significantly, Bridges labels a wholesale neglect of the law as “antinomian” (225). He also attributes the lack of holiness in the lives of many believers with the Church’s neglect and misunderstanding of the use of the law (228).
One cannot help but feel that Bridges was reacting in many ways to what we might call “easy believism” or “cheap grace.” The modern Church, too, has removed the sting of the law from its presentation of the gospel. What it is left with is a form of grace that has been reduced to little more than a cure-all for the consciences of its members. Without understanding the law, we cannot understand the glory of the cross and the holiness of God. Bridges should be heard on this point, as he should be heard on most other points he raises in this book.
Bridges also laments for the Anglican church in the loss of many of its people to the dissenting groups because the gospel was not being preached sufficiently (245). He warns against the gospel getting lost in doctrinal preaching that does not point to Christ, doctrine for its own sake, we might say (254). Furthermore, in a most moving section of the book, Bridges argues that effective gospel preaching is always preaching that arises from a heart personally convicted concerning the truths of the gospel (262). Gospel preaching is also to be practical and applicable to the lives of men. Moralistic preaching that does not speak of Christ is to be rejected, as is purely abstract preaching that does not touch life (265-268).
Today’s churches, especially today’s Protestant churches, need to return to the high view of the gospel which Bridges obviously held. Preaching in too many cases has been reduced to platitudes and mere lessons on morality. The clamor for practical teaching has led to the false dichotomy of “practical” versus “doctrinal,” as if the two could be separated. Bridges has done a masterful job of showing that the two are, in fact, wedded to one another when done correctly. This means that his words confront the preacher who revels in abstract doctrines alone just as it confronts the preacher who has become little more than a therapist behind a pulpit. The temptation to be “practical” must not be pursued to the exclusion of the true doctrines which lead to holiness.
In terms of how best to approach preaching, Bridges states that both topical and expository preaching are valid expressions of the proclaimed word, though he does seem to favor expository preaching a little more (284-286). This tacit approval of topical preaching is actually somewhat surprising as it might be assumed that he would hold slavishly to expository preaching. However, it must be noted that he does not define topical preaching in such a way as to justify preaching which is not closely wedded to the text. In actuality, he felt that the two schemes should be joined in a “judicious mixture” (284). In truth, it is clear that he felt true preaching to be, in all cases, biblical preaching. Nonetheless, his acknowledgment of the potential uses of topical preaching shows some degree of variety and would perhaps offer something for those who hold slavishly and narrowly to expository preaching alone to consider.
As an aside, there is a wonderful example of doctrinal humility in Bridges’ writing as well. In his discussion of preaching wisely, Bridges notes that Calvinists and Arminians might perhaps have something to learn from one another. Calvinists might learn some sense of “holy fear” from Arminians and Arminians might learn some sense of God’s sovereignty from Calvinists (304). Bridges is clearly a Calvinist and seems to hold deep convictions in this area. It is therefore all the more interesting that he would even suggest that Calvinists and Arminians might learn something from each other. In a debate as fierce as that which exists between these two camps, it is quite telling to see a very earnest believer in one side look at the matter with humble objectivity. One can only wish that modern Calvinists and Arminians, while not sacrificing their convictions for a superficial harmony, might be willing on occasion to understand what drives the convictions of the other camp.
Bridges is also admirably able to see the responsibility that the Anglican church held for seeing so many people move to the dissenting groups, Methodists and “Anabaptists” (317f). He lays some measure of the blame on the abstract and ineffective preaching occurring in Anglican pulpits. This, again, shows a great measure of humility and introspection on his part. Perhaps Baptists could learn a lesson here in how it responds to the movement of Baptists into, for instance, Mormonism. Traditionally, we responded by speaking of the heresy of Mormonism, as well we should. But perhaps we should first of all look to our own pulpits, as Bridges did, and see our own responsibility in the loss of our people. Bridges seemed to understand, as we should, that if our people are being fed, they will not so quickly look elsewhere for nourishment.
Finally, Bridges’ instruction for ministers to know their people and love their people is a sorely needed word as well. He notes that ministers should know the young people of their church and that they should feel a particular burden for all of their parishioners (346-347). In fact, the effectiveness of our preaching depends upon our care for the people throughout the week (350). This means that favoritism should be avoided at all costs and that the minister should look upon his flock as a parent looking at his children (358, 360).
Personally, this word was very convicting. How easy is it to become closed up in our offices begrudging the “interruptions” by our people, when they are precisely what our real business is about? Bridges challenged all ministers to increase in their love for their flock. In so many words, he was reinforcing the old adage that the people “will not care what we know until they know that we care.” Furthermore, by equating ministers and their flock with parents and their children, Bridges was challenging ministers to increase in the fervency of their love as well as in their patience, for parents must be, above all, patient.
In all, Charles Bridges’ The Christian Ministry stands as a surprisingly relevant and powerful book. Every modern pastor should read it preferably before, and possibly to the exclusion of, more contemporary works on the ministry. Bridges work has endured because it has bypassed the faddishness of a particular moment and has instead delved deep into the heart of the core issues of ministry. Most importantly, it is written from a heart of experience and sincerity. There is deep Christian conviction throughout and one senses that the lessons learned were forged on the anvil of a life devoted to Christ.