“Why should I study the early Christian church?” As a lover of historical theology, I hear this question quite often. I could point you to countless books that provide fine answers to this question. In this brief post, however, I want to give you my number one argument—which I borrowed from a mentor—for interacting with ancient Christian studies: It should help us become the best evangelicals we can be. More specifically, reading the works of the earliest Christians can guide us to lead the church today to the best of our abilities.
The writers of the first five centuries of Christendom were far more than a bunch of old men in robes sitting around discussing the finer points of theology. They were pastors, elders, deacons, and members of the churches in their cities. They cared deeply for the hearts of their fellow church members and sought to build others up with their words. Often, this included working out the earliest Christian beliefs and practices before our eyes.
In the works of authors past, we see the importance and role of the pastor-theologian for the church. From the earliest writings of the Apostolic Fathers to John Chrysostom (aka “Golden Mouth”) to Augustine of Hippo, ministers will find endless instruction and encouragement for the caring of souls—what the Cappadocian Father, Gregory of Nazianzus, called the “art of arts and science of sciences” (In Defense of His Flight to Pontus 2.16).
These authors point us to the severity of the pastoral call and the important task of shepherding the flock of Christ. How can physicians of the soul—as Gregory calls them—have any part in the healing of the spiritually sick if they are not set on the path of healing themselves? Aware that pastors will one day stand before God and give account for the souls given to their care, these early shepherds took great care to ensure their readers were qualified for the task.
Any attempt to combine our authors’ thoughts into one definition of pastoral care is likely a foolish endeavor. However—never being one to avoid foolishness—I will give it shot. Pastoral care, in the eyes of our ancient brethren, involves a theology formed in the midst of an abiding relationship with Jesus Christ. This theology ought to be lived out by one following the call to a disciplined spiritual life before God, who will faithfully conduct the ministry of Word and sacrament to those in the family of faith and take the gospel of Jesus Christ to those outside the community of believers.
This view of pastoral work may seem foreign in our modern evangelical culture. To the pastors of the ancient tradition, however, this was the basic and essential foundation of their work. When we operate in this framework, our work is reduced—in the best sense of the word—to presenting souls acceptable to God. A person’s life before God is always at the forefront of the pastor’s mind in this case.
The church fathers viewed pastoral work as a reflection of God’s care for his people—though this framework worked itself out in various ways among them. Of first importance to them was a person’s deliverance from spiritual death and bondage of sin through a saving faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, by virtue of his death on the cross, resurrection from the grave, and ascension into heaven. With God drawing a person to himself, he made them a part of his flock. The pastor, as physician and shepherd of these souls, is then tasked with the long arduous ministry of caring, keeping, and leading God’s people. I am personally grateful for the writings of early Christianity and their impact on my thought and practice towards fellow brothers and sisters all to the glory of God.
About the Author:Garrick Bailey
Garrick Bailey (Th.M., Dallas Theological Seminary) is a Ph.D. student in Systematic Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. His research focuses mainly on Roman Catholic theology and the history of doctrine.