[This post is modified from a paper I wrote earlier this year for my doctorate at Duke Divinity School. By looking across every Christian century at the pastor’s chief responsibility, I found that his readiness with the Word of God was prioritized.]
The church fathers spoke extensively about the care and cure of souls. The physician metaphor, for all of its limitations, has merit. In the same way that we show even our most secret physical boo-boos to our physicians, people are unashamed to bear their most secret spiritual boo-boos to their pastors. Our job is to respond professionally and helpfully.
That’s why the pastor needs strong diagnostic abilities. Since our souls tend to be even more complex than our bodies, this requires time and experience to develop. According to Gregory the Great, “the afflictions of the mind are more hidden than the wounds of the body.” The cure of souls requires the pastor to have skills in customizing our approach according to the needs of the patient.
Our goal isn’t to make people just feel good. Medicine that heals doesn’t always taste good, and surgery hurts. Sometimes we have to inflict pain on the patient along the journey toward ultimate healing. According to Ambrose, “Harshness and severity or excessive forgiveness are equally inappropriate.”
If ministers are physicians, then their medicine that cures is the Word of God. According to Augustine, church leaders are above all “interpreters and teachers of the divine scriptures.” Is this true in our age? I have my doubts. The strong push to replace “Scripture training” with “ministry skills training” in seminaries is equivalent to replacing “medicine training” with “bedside manner training” in medical schools. Both are important and related, but only one is uncompromisingly necessary for the minister.
The study of Scripture takes a lifetime of hard work. Our labor in the text should include acquisition of the original languages whenever possible. Jerome is a good example of this. When he was impressed by a need to revise the Bible, he acquired Hebrew—the original language of the Old Testament. According to Jerome, “Read the divine scriptures constantly; indeed never let the sacred volume be out of your hand. Learn what you have to teach.”
The minister learns the Scriptures in order to teach them. According to Gregory of Nazianzus, “The first of all our concerns is the distribution of the word.” Many of today’s ministers have compromised their proficiency in the sacred text. “How often do people who are completely ignorant of spiritual precepts show no fear in proclaiming themselves physicians of the heart, when anyone who is ignorant of the power of medicine would be embarrassed to be considered a physician of the body?” asks Gregory the Great.
Perhaps more pastors today need to feel embarrassed.
Has a doctor ever been accused of endeavoring to know biology or medicine too well? Has anyone ever complained about a pilot attempting to understand flight and his equipment too well? We mustn’t seek to tame our message, but allow Scripture to do its dangerous work in our lives and through our ministries. Athanasius’ warning is as true today as it was then: “When our Lord Jesus Christ comes and we stand before him, what excuse will you give when he sees that his own sheep were starved for nourishment.”