6. Humble Shepherd

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for

Matthew 20:25-28

‘”Bishop” is a title which intimates more of labour than of honor,’ says Polydore Virgil. To be a bishop, or pastor, is not to be set up as an idol for the people to bow down to, or as idle ‘slow bellies,’ to live to our fleshly delight and ease; but to be the guide of sinners to heaven.

Richard Baxter1

Jesus said that if anyone would be a leader in God’s kingdom, he must become a servant.2 Jesus became a living, flesh and blood example of humble servanthood, when He took on human flesh, came into the world He created, and served the very creatures who rejected Him. He gently instructed the poor and ignorant, yet when confronted with the religious pride of the Pharisees, He exercised firm correction. His was a life of self-denial, seeking only to please the Father.

Baxter exhibited this same kind of servant leadership when he came to Kidderminster to pour out his life for a poor, carousing, and sometimes obstinate community. He proved to be a living example of the Word he so passionately spoke from the pulpit and taught from house to house.

Although an immensely gifted, influential, and successful writer and preacher, Baxter considered no work more important than faithfully pastoring God’s flock; all other endeavors were an outgrowth of that ideal. From a very early age Baxter was faced with the choice of enjoying the applause and riches of the world or following the crucified lifestyle of a lowly shepherd of God’s flock. He chose the cross.

Baxter’s humble character became evident from his first dealings with the church at Kidderminster and George Dance, the displaced vicar of the parish. Dance had enjoyed a generous salary of £200 a year, along with a comfortable parsonage. In 1641, Baxter accepted the town’s offer to become curate [ reader], under the condition that the elderly priest would not be put out of his home. Baxter would receive only £60 a year and occupy a few plain, upper story rooms in town. Dance continued to receive his pay, even though he was no longer the vicar, and only read the common prayer, conducted funerals, and administered communion and baptism. Baxter carried out all other pastoral labors.

Baxter’s indifference toward wages and his kind treatment of Mr. Dance is commendable, but it didn’t end there. His fame as a preacher grew and when he left the army in the spring of 1647, he received invitations to serve other congregations worth £300 to £500 a year. His friends at Kidderminster sent a tender letter with 265 signatures, imploring him to return. Baxter passed over the more lucrative, prestigious positions and returned to Kidderminster, where he received only eighty or ninety pounds a year. His motive reveals the heart of a true shepherd:

I had many score of my neighbours with me in the Wars – some going with me into Garrisons, and some went with me in a Troop into the field, and many and many a time ventured their lives, some taken prisoners, some dead, some slain, some wounded, many safe and returned home; and it was they that stuck to me and I to them, resolving then in the Wars that if our God restored us I would not forsake them, if now they forsook not Him and me.3

In October of 1647, unknown to Baxter, the trustees of the town went to his superiors and had him appointed vicar. They feared that, since the Baxter was merely the curate and the position of vicar was still vacant, another might be appointed and Baxter required to leave. When Baxter discovered their scheme three years later, he insisted that Mr. Dance continue to receive the support due himself and live in the Vicarage House, while he remained in rented rooms.

So far was Baxter from serving out of greed or exploiting Christ’s sheep, that he provided for some of the poor in the parish out of his own modest income. His generosity demonstrated his love and “reconciled them to the Doctrine”4  which he taught.

Baxter gave money to any who would ask. When the poor weavers of the town visited him for their counseling and personal instruction, he would repay them from his own pocket for the time spent away from their looms. Baxter was careful to do good to all that had need:

And in giving that little I had, I did not enquire whether they were good or bad, if they asked Relief: For the bad had souls and Bodies that needed Charity most. And I found that Three pence or a Groat to every poor Body that askt me, was no great matter in a year, but a few pounds in that way of giving would go far.5

Even his international success as a writer became a means of serving those under his care:

Another furtherance of my work was the Writings which I wrote, and gave among them. Some small Books I gave each Family one of, (which came to about 800); and of the bigger I gave fewer: And every Family that was poor, and had not a Bible, I gave a Bible to.6

When Baxter says that he gave 800 books to the people in the parish, he means 800 of each new book published! It was Baxter’s policy to receive part of his royalties in books (one of every fifteen published) and much of the money received from his writings went to the poor and the support of students. He “took the aptest of their Children from the School, and set divers of them to the Universities; where for 8 l. a year, or 10 l. at most, by the help of [his] Friends there [he] maintained them.”7

The thoroughly Puritan conviction that all of life is an act of service to God flowered in Baxter. He understood that teaching and preaching are only part of a pastor’s duties. The good shepherd will lay down his life for the sheep. Therefore, even Baxter’s varied and extended illnesses provided him with another instrument for service. In 1672 he wrote, “….it is by dear experience that I have learnt how little Physicians know, having passed through the tryal of above thirty of them on my own body long ago…; and most that I got was but the ruine of my own body.”8  So, early in life, Baxter set himself on the diagnosis and cure of his own ailments and it seems he gathered a fair amount of medical knowledge. For a time, he became the physician of the bodies, as well as the souls, of the flock at Kidderminster:

Besides all this, I was forced five or six years by the Peoples Necessity to practise Physick; A common Pleurisie happening one year, and no physician being near, I was forced to advise them, to save their Lives: and I could not afterwards avoid the Importunity of the Town and Country round about: And because I never once took a Penny of any one, I was crowded with Patients, so that almost Twenty would be at my Door at once: and though God by more Success than I expected, so long encouraged me, yet I could endure it no longer: partly because it hindred my other Studies, and partly because the very fear of miscarrying and doing any one harm, did make it an intollerable burden to me: So that after some Years Practice, I procured a godly diligent Physician to come and live in the town, and bound my self by Promise to practice no more (unless in Consultation with him in case of any seeming necessity)…9

His generous use of time, talents, and money proved to be a powerful evangelistic ministry:

And God made use of my practice of Physick among them, as a very great advantage to my Ministry; for they that cared not for their souls did love their Lives, and care for their Bodies: And by this they were made almost as observant, as a Tenant is of his Landlord: Sometimes I could see before me in the Church a very considerable part of the Congregation, whose Lives God had made me a means to save, or to recover their health: And doing it for nothing so obliged them, that they would readily hear me.10

Often times, adversity will ultimately test the depth of a man’s convictions. The greatest test of Baxter’s lowly servant character came to Kidderminster with the restoration to power of King Charles in 1660, an event which Baxter played a major role in accomplishing. Along with the King came the return of many of the corrupt leaders in the national church and Mr. Dance to the position of Vicar at Kidderminster. Those favoring ceremonialism and a hierarchical, centralized form of church government regained power, so much of the progress made under the Puritan government was reversed and the systematic persecution of non-conformists like Baxter began.

Baxter, the faithful and truly loving pastor, was removed and Mr. Dance returned Baxter’s former kindness by refusing to keep him on as lecturer. In one day, the people of Kidderminster produced a petition supporting Baxter with 1600 signatures and could have gotten twice as many, but to no avail. Baxter sought any solution possible to stay at Kidderminster, finally offering to serve as c urate without pay. “Better none than you,”11  was Bishop Morley’s spiteful reply. Baxter’s earnestness in making disciples and his message of genuine Christian unity, including Baptists, Presbyterians, and others, threatened the powerful Anglican bishops. He was forbidden to preach anywhere in Worcester County and Mr. Dance would not even allow a farewell sermon or final communion with his brothers and sisters.

Baxter did, however, preach a farewell sermon in the secluded home of James Boucher. Gathering in the kitchen, he instructed his flock to be subject to those over them and not to forsake public worship. He left his assistant, Richard Serjeant, as well as Mr. Baldwin, the former schoolmaster, to visit each family regularly, house to house.

Since Mr. Dance was such a poor preacher, Bishop Morley filled the pulpit over the years with men who regularly slandered Baxter. But, Baxter’s powerful example of humility bore fruit in God’s people there. Their love and admiration for him never ceased and it appears that Kidderminster remained true to Baxter’s final Biblical instruction, for in his last letter to them in 1681, he wrote, “I am glad to hear that you lovingly join together in the public congregation.”12

The congregation there continued to bear fruit into the next century, in spite of efforts to undermine Baxter’s influence. George Whitefield’s report of finding the “sweet savour of good Mr. Baxter’s doctrine, works and discipline”13  parallels that of a local history written in 1777. The historian credits the success of the local carpet trade to “the industry, frugality and simplicity of the manners of the inhabitants,” resulting from “the labours and example” of Baxter.

Baxter, though great in stature and abilities, had willingly taken the lower place. Rather than setting himself up as a ruler over the people of Kidderminster, he had been a leader among them, even caring for them as a physician in their homes. He knew his flock well and they knew him from close personal dealings. Because of his generosity and kindness, his doctrine found its way into the very heart of God’s people there, manifesting itself in love, forgiveness, and good deeds.

What is the condition of those sheep which the Chief Shepherd has committed to your charge? What effect has your leadership had upon them, if any? Do they bear the stamp of lowliness and humility or pride and independence? If you were removed from among them, would they continue, in unity, to bear the fruit of the Spirit? The honest answers to these questions are the real measure of your effectiveness as a pastor and servant leader.

Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel…Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock?…Those who are sickly you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them.Ezekiel 34:2-4

We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. 1 John 3:16

Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you. Hebrews 13:17

shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor as yet lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples of the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. 1 Peter 5:2-4

Every time we look upon our congregations, let us believingly remember that they are the purchase of Christ’s blood, and therefore should be regarded by us with the deepest interest and the most tender affection. Richard Baxter14

True Pastors and Bishops of the Church do thirst after the conversion and happiness of sinners and spend their lives in diligent labor to these ends, not thinking it too much to stoop to the poorest for their good, nor regarding worldly wealth and glory in comparison with the winning of one soul, nor counting their lives dear if they might finish their course and ministry with joy. Richard Baxter15

I seldom see ministers strive so furiously, who shall go first to a poor man’s cottage to teach him and his family the way to heaven; or who shall first endeavor the conversion of a sinner, or first become the servant of all. Richard Baxter16

Stretch your purse to the utmost, and do all the good you can. Richard Baxter17

You can now purchase the updated and improved second edition right here: Good Mr. Baxter: Sketches of effective, Gospel-centered leadership from the life of Richard Baxter

7. Peacemaker >

  1. Baxter The Reformed Pastor 125 []
  2. Matthew 20:25-28 []
  3. Baxter (Baxter MSS., vol. iv, ff. 124-5b) cited in Frederick J. Powicke A Life of the Reverend Richard Baxter 1615-1691 (London, 1924) 85 & 86 []
  4. Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae 89 []
  5. Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae 89 []
  6. Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae 89 []
  7. Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae 89 []
  8. Geoffrey Nuttall Richard Baxter 42 []
  9. Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae 84 []
  10. Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae 89 []
  11. Martin Puritanism and Richard Baxter 56 []
  12. Powicke A Life of Baxter 213 []
  13. Packer, The Reformed Pastor 12 []
  14. Baxter The Reformed Pastor 132 []
  15. Baxter Chapter X in The Reasons of the Christian Religion cited in Powicke A Life of Baxter 49 []
  16. Baxter The Reformed Pastor 127 []
  17. Baxter The Reformed Pastor 66 []

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