(Seminary convocation was held in Southwest PRC on September 15. SW PRC is right next door to the seminary, which was opened for visitors after the convocation program. The students and professors showed the newly remodeled building to many interested guests and friends of the seminary—more than the parking lot could hold. We are thankful for the interest of those who live in the area. At the suggestion of the Theological School Committee, we print the speech given at that occasion by Prof. Gritters, revised only slightly for publication.)
A minister is very much like a physician; and the seminary like a medical school.
There are other metaphors—more than you might think—that properly describe the calling of a pastor. His work can be compared to the employment of a farmer or a shepherd, and then the seminary is like an “A&M,” an agricultural school. A minister’s work is like the intense and violent activity of a soldier, and the seminary then is a military academy. Sometimes it helps to compare his work to the strenuous demands of an athlete, and the seminary then is likened to a gymnasium, where an athlete learns technique, discipline, and endurance. A minister’s work can even be compared to the tender and nurturing labors of a nursing mother, and then the seminary is most like a godly home, where a young woman best learns to be a mother of children. The multiplicity of figures indicates something of the complexity of the gospel minister’s labors.
One of the richest metaphors, if it is not the most frequent, is that of a medical doctor.
That a minister is like a physician does not come from explicit, as much as from implicit, scriptural evidence. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of references in Scripture to illnesses, medicines, and physicians. It would be a fascinating study to find all the references, just in the Old Testament, to the various diseases and ailments that people suffered. The people of God suffered boils, palsy (epilepsy?), fevers, burning ague (perhaps malaria?), leprosy, consumption (very possibly TB), hemorrhoids (“emerods”), itches, strokes, and ulcers. There were intestinal worms and dysentery. It is clear why Psalm 103 speaks of “all thy diseases.”
The most familiar medicine was the balm from Gilead. Early in Scripture mention is made of a medicinal balm the origin of which was Gilead, east of the Jordan in the land of promise. The slave-traders who took Joseph to Egypt were travelling via Gilead, carrying spices, myrrh, and balm (Gen. 37:25). In the prophets, God warned Egypt (Jer. 46:11) and Babylon (Jer. 51:8) that no balm would heal them. And the prophet Jeremiah asks, “Is Israel’s continued affliction because there is no balm in Gilead?”
As to physicians, Scripture records that kings of Judah and Israel sought out physicians for their illnesses, after which, usually, the prophets rebuked them for not having asked God for healing. Job criticized his friends, “ye are all physicians of no value” (Job 13:4). In the New Testament a woman spent all her money on doctors who could not heal her bleeding. Jesus acknowledges the presence of doctors when He (apparently) quotes a proverb, “Physician, heal thyself,” and says to the people, “They that are whole need not a physician.”
None of these references yet explicitly makes an officebearer a physician. However, Scripture does make two things very clear. First, the believers’ physical troubles were illustrations of their spiritual maladies. Psalm 103 is clear. But the familiar questions put by the prophet, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” plainly imply that the sickness they had contracted was spiritual, and the physician they needed was a physician of their soul. The New Testament is replete with miracles of healing for the people of God. All the diseases that God’s people suffered were conquered by the miracles. But those miracles were not performed—contrary to many New Testament scholars today—for the sake of healing itself, but as illustrations of what God will do for the people of God spiritually! Second, Scripture teaches that the word of the gospel (in the coming Messiah) is the instrument of healing, and that that gospel is administered by the officebearers—primarily the pastors. Physical troubles are illustrations of the spiritual, and the word of the gospel as the instrument of healing makes the minister a physician.
There is no question, therefore, that the image of a physician is apropos to describe the work of the minister, and a medical school the work of the seminary.
But I want to take the liberty this evening at our seminary’s 2010 convocation to extend this biblical metaphor of the Minister as Physician, and the Seminary as Medical School, so that:
1. The membership of the PRC who love and support this work may understand it better;
2. The students, whose labors here are some of the most intense that any school could demand, may appreciate its rigors.
3. And the faculty and the TSC may remind themselves how crucial it is to recommend for graduation from this institution only those men who are fully qualified to take up this life-and-death occupation.
The Minister and His Work
As many shocking and disturbing things as a trauma doctor observes in his work, a minister of the gospel will see in his. If he were not bound to privacy, a minister would have as many stories to tell his family as a big-city emergency-room physician would his. He will see devastation and death. He will witness with a helpless feeling the slow but certain demise of some. He will inform families of dreadful spiritual injuries, of the diagnosis of sad and awful diseases.
The troubles will be as diverse as the diseases of the Old Testament. He will observe the lame and paralyzed, the blind and deaf. He will deal with minor fevers and infections and bruises, as well as terrifying symptoms of rampaging viruses. The sphere of the minister is the sphere of illness, injury, and death.
The origins of the problems are diverse, too.
Some of the troubles come from foolish sporting (I use the figure deliberately) with sin. Members will come to his study with injuries like those (to change the figure) from a bad car-wreck. Others come in with a kind of knife-wound, because they “covet[ed] after [money], and…pierce[d] themselves through with many sorrows” (I Tim. 6:10).
Some ailments and injuries come from wicked association with unbelievers who infected them with painful and (if not treated immediately and radically) fatal diseases.
God’s people sometimes fall under the influence of false teachers, whose words eat and rot like gangrene (in II Tim. 2:17, where the KJV uses “canker,” the original is “gangrene”).
Still others, assaulted by the Devil, are wounded with fiery darts, poisoned with serpent’s venom, that will rot the flesh or paralyze the muscles and eventually (also if not treated) lead to death.
Yet others are ill or wounded, not because of outside influences, but because of the home in which they were born and because of the particular parents who raised them.
But every one of them—wounded with a special wound or infected with some rare syndrome or not—every one of them will be infected with the same hereditary disease (I use the language of the Canons) that you and I have: the original sin that makes their natures and the natures of their infant children as repulsive and nauseating as the rotting flesh of a body long dead. Personally we all are as Israel was nationally in the time of Isaiah: “From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it [us]; but wounds, and bruises, and putrifying sores: they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollified with ointment” (Is. 1:6).
The calling that the minister has, therefore, is so much like that of a physician: To deal with, in behalf of the Great Physician, these spiritual maladies of God’s dear children.
First of all, the minister must diagnose. The minister-physician asks, “What ails you? Why the weakness, injury, inability to function?” He asks hard questions. He must be kind, but bold. Is your affliction from an injury? Or a disease? If injury, what happened? If disease, what did you contract? Where have you been? Were you infected by bad company? Or perhaps is the cause of this ailment heredity? Or did the devil inflict this wound? Or was it self-inflicted?” And then he determines, How bad is it? How far advanced? How long has the injury gone untreated?
This minister-physician must not make mistakes.
I will be very displeased with the doctor who carelessly attributes my chronic cough to allergy and prescribes Allegra when, had he looked more carefully, he would have found aggressive lung cancer; or my headaches and achiness to a common virus rather than a virulent bacterial meningitis. Diagnose, and do so accurately!
When he does, he must be brutally honest about the diagnosis. There must be no soft-pedaling of the diagnosis or of the prognosis. I will be more angry with the doctor who knows that my affliction is lung cancer, but out of some misguided sympathy or cowardly fear informs me that it is something else.
So the minister of the gospel must speak the truth in love—painful and distressing as it may be—to the ill and injured people of God. That’s the implication of Jeremiah’s judgment: “they healed the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying ‘peace, peace’ where there is no peace.” The healing was superficial because the diagnosis was insufficient. Only with a proper diagnosis can a proper medicine be applied and healing take place.
Then, he heals. Apply the medicines, administer the treatments, and pray God to use them to heal!
If Christ is the Great Physician, then every minister under Jesus Christ is called to seek the healing of the people under his care. After diagnosis, he applies the appropriate medicines, and performs the necessary surgeries, in order to restore to health and strength the ailing and wounded people of God.
The minister-physician’s services are most commonly public labors in which he applies the gospel balms generally (which also means that his diagnostic skills must be exercised not only individually, but congregationally, with the aid of the elders, because every congregation is different).
Sometimes he makes house calls and applies the medicine specifically.
Once in a while his study becomes a Trauma Center where, in the middle of the night, a patient is airlifted, as it were, and the pastor spends the wee hours of the morning hovering over the battered, bleeding, broken child of God.
But he heals the brokenhearted, binds up their wounds. He declares to them the gracious forgiveness in Jesus Christ; proclaims the power of His Spirit to cure the spiritual paralysis; testifies of the cleansing strength of Jesus’ blood, the amazing ability of the gospel to stop the spread of spiritual infections, the healing power of Christ to close up the wounds of the devil or the self-inflicted lacerations of their own folly; and broadcasts the mysterious virtue of the gospel to work hope. The minister-physician enables the children of God to live in spiritual health, in the joy of their salvation.
Included in his calling is to issue alerts. BEWARE!!! DANGER!! This physician sees special dangers on the horizon and issues public health warnings. Or he observes the enemy preparing an assault on a certain front with their false teachings or promotion of an ungodly lifestyle. He learns of diseases that are specially infectious! BEWARE!!! The professors have this calling according to the Church Order (Art. 18); but so does every pastor in the congregation he serves. And he will be remiss if he does not warn. Would not earthly physicians be remiss if they failed to do so?
The minister/physician even promotes general spiritual health: healthy eating, avoiding those things that are ruinous and damaging, and partaking of those that tend to spiritual well-being. He also counsels exercise. Exercise thyself unto godliness. Bodily exercise profits little (for such a short time), but godliness is profitable both for this life and for the life to come.
… to be continued.