January 19, 2018

Worth Reading — The Christian Ministry

Charles Bridges’ The Christian Ministry

Mark Minnick

In 1839, a saintly young Scottish pastor named Robert Murray M’Cheyne took up his pen to write to his dear friend, Andrew Bonar, about a trip to the Holy Land. The purpose of the six-month visit was to inquire into the state of the Jews in the hopes of stirring greater interest in Jewish evangelism. M’Cheyne writes of what they ought to take: “As to books, I am quite at a loss. My Hebrew Bible, Greek Testament, etc., and perhaps Bridge’s Christian Ministry for general purposes, — I mean, for keeping us in mind of our ministerial work.”

Charles Bridges is better known among lay people for his commentary on Proverbs. (He wrote one on Ecclesiastes as well.) But preachers are even more grateful for his work on ministerial life and labor. Bridges authored his classic volume The Christian Ministry in 1830, and the book has been steadily republished ever since. That would be a tribute to any volume, but especially to one occupied with a subject about which literally hundreds of volumes have been published since then.

Bridges’ work is not a “how-to manual” of fads for contemporary ministry. If it were, no one would have picked it up within 15 years of its first printing. This book is for earnest reflection and prayerful submission. It is one to which I have returned several times a year for more than 25 years now. My copy is marked in almost as many colors of ink and highlighters as there are in the rainbow. Again and again it has adjusted any tendency I’ve had to drift from Biblical patterns.

The book is in five parts, the first of which is a “General View of the Christian Ministry.” Bridges opens his work with the magisterial ideal which I have quoted to our church repeatedly: “The Church is the mirror that reflects the whole effulgence of the Divine character. It is the grand scene, in which the perfections of Jehovah are displayed to the universe.” I’d like to send just that one line to the contemporary minister whose church advertisement came this week, announcing a Saturday night service for those who prefer early Sunday morning tee times and hate to miss the NFL pre-game show. “The Church…is the grand scene in which the perfections are Jehovah are displayed to the universe”!

The importance of Bridges’ second and third sections (“General Causes of the Want of Success” and “Causes of Ministerial Inefficiency Connected with our Personal Character”) cannot be overstated. They deal with one of the most perplexing questions that plague a minister: Why do I not enjoy more success in my ministry? Just the titles of the answers convict: Want [Lack] of entire devotedness of heart to the Christian Ministry, Conformity to the world, The fear of man, The want of Christian selfdenial, The influence of spiritual pride, The defect of family religion, to name a few. These chapters contain statements that are burned into my memory. Here is strong meat for those able to chew it:

It ought 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. … Mr. Cecil used to say, that the devil did not care how ministers were employed, so that it was not their proper work. Whether it was hunting or sporting, cards and assemblies, writing notes upon the classics, or politics, it was all one to him. Each might please his own taste.

Or try this one:

Cowper’s line — “If parsons fiddle, why may’nt laymen dance?” — has at least as much truth as wit in it. If we go one step into the world, our flock will take the sanction to go two; the third will be still more easy.…The Minister, therefore, who would not have his people give in to worldly conformity such as he disapproves, must keep at a considerable distance himself. If he walks near the brink, others will fall down the precipice.

Bridges’ final two sections deal with the public and private work of the ministry. They include directions for ministering to various classes of hearers, such as the careless, the self-righteous, or the backslider. Again, the insight is striking and the quotations memorable. For instance, “When John preached generally, ‘Herod heard him gladly’; when he came to particulars of application — ‘It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife’ — the preacher lost his head.” Another one that I like, concerning preaching in love, reads, “We must wound their conscience as sinners, not their feelings as men.”

Read Bridges, and be sure to spend time with the footnotes. Some are in Latin, but most are in English. They come from divines who knew the ministry experientially. “Prayer without study is presumption; and study without prayer atheism,” warned one. Bridges, thankfully, prompts earnest ministers to both.

Dr. Mark Minnick is the pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and serves as adjunct professor of preaching and exposition at Bob Jones Seminary.

(Originally published in FrontLine • March/April 2000. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

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