Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), one of the greatest 19th century preachers, began his ministry in the rural parish of Kilmany in Fife, Scotland. He began that ministry, strangely enough, as an unconverted man. Under the sway of Moderatism, Chalmers approached the ministry as a country gentlemen. To him, it was a cushy job with ample liesure to pursue his real passion – mathematics.
When, however, the Lord converted him, his whole paradigm of ministry shifted. His charge in Kilmany was no longer a sinecure, but a full-time commission from the Most High. At that point, he threw himself into his labors with a weighty sense of pastoral obligation. “Woe unto me if I preach not the Gospel!”
The following quote, in a letter from Chalmers to a correspondent, reflects his high view of the ordained ministry. For context, it comes at a time when a larger field of usefulness was opening up to him at the Tron Church in Glasgow. In this letter, Chalmers explains that he would only consider the post if it was eventually shorn of all those administrative duties that were typically laid on city preachers in those days. He would not go if his spiritual office was thus to be ‘secularised.’
The secular employment laid upon your clergy to the degree mentioned by you, will not restrain me from accepting it. But I will not oblige myself to any portion of such employment, however small. I may find it prudent to take a share; but in its least degree, I count it a corrupt encroachment on the time and occupations of a minister: see Acts, vi., 4. And I shall only add, that I know of instances where a clergyman has been called from the country to town for his talent at preaching; and when he got there, they so belabored him with the drudgery of their institutions, that they smothered and extinguished the very talent for which they had adopted him. The purity and independence of the clerical office are not sufficiently respected in great towns. He comes among them a clergyman, and they make a mere churchwarden of him. I have much to say upon this subject; and I do not despair, if we shall have the felicity of living together, of obtaining your concurrence in this sentiment. It shall be my unceasing endeavor to get all this work shifted upon the laymen; and did I not hope to succeed in some measure, I would be induced to set my face against the whole arrangement at this moment. I shall only say of my own dear parishioners, that they have expressed their value for me on no other ground than pure ministerial services; and it is hard to leave such a people for another, who may not be satisfied unless I add to my own proper work a labor which does not belong to me (Memoirs 1:337).
Two obserations. First, Chalmers was not against ministerial administration. But that administration was largely a service of delegation, so that it could be free to do what it was designed to do – pray and preach! Moreover, most of the supervision had to be delegated as well, or the minister would fill up his time with managing human resources. Little better, really, than “waiting on tables” (Acts 6:2)!
On that score, it does seem that Chalmers’ talk of shifting administrative duties to ‘laymen’ needs a bit of context. If I am not mistaken, Chalmers had first in mind ruling elders, those presbyters devoted not to the regular ministry of the Word but to the government of the Church alongside teaching elders. He probably also meant deacons beneath the elders of the kirk session. So his terminology might mislead some of us. While he did seem to entertain a higher view of the ministry of the unordained believer – what others might more customarily call a ‘lay person’ – yet, ‘shifting’ all the work on the laymen in the first place meant utilizing those in the ruling and diaconal offices to their full capacity. That as an aside.
But the second observation is that in Chalmers’ day, you had a higher view of the ministry across the board within evangelicalism. Evangelical ministers in many cases – especially in the established Church – often resigned to the reality of civil responsbilities that took them away from their study and closet. Chalmers stood out as a minister who would not cave in. What we often have today in American evangelicalism is this same secularization, this distraction of the ministry of the Word and prayer to the administration of temporal matters. But the difference, as I see it, is that most do not even ‘cave in.’ They willingly sign up for the managerial ministry! This is not the seclarization of the office from without, but from within. We are our own worst enemy.
May the Lord raise up a new army of ministers who will not yield to secularization of the ministry, or sell its birthright for a bowl of lentils. May He purge it, purify it, and spread it far and wide for the good of souls, and to the honor of the Lord Christ.