Ryan Harding, MDiv student and Henry Center intern

One of the most profitable disciplines for me in seminary has been the study of church history. Hearing of the pastoral hearts of the early church fathers, the careful thought of the apologists, and the unflinching courage of the martyrs has been edifying, inspiring, and humbling. There is much that our generation can and should glean from these heroes of the faith, both from their successes and their short-comings.

One such lesson comes from the life of Polycarp of Smyrna (c. 70 – 165 AD), personal friend and protégé of the Apostle John. In his service as bishop to the city of Smyrna for over six decades, Polycarp became known for his faithful adherence to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. He labored to protect sound doctrine by combating the heretical teachings of Gnosticism and Marcionism, rejecting their false interpretations of Scripture. Yet Polycarp was also concerned that pastors love their churches. In his letter to the church at Philippi, he charges those serving as ministers of local congregations to carefully fulfill their pastoral duties:

“And the presbyters also must be compassionate, merciful towards all
men, turning back the sheep that are gone astray, visiting all the
infirm, not neglecting a widow or an orphan or a poor man: but
providing always for that which is honorable in the sight of God
and of men
, abstaining from all anger, respect of persons,
unrighteous judgment, being far from all love of money, not quick to
believe anything against any man, not hasty in judgment, knowing that
we all are debtors of sin.” (To the Philippians 6:1)

This early church father wanted pastors to exercise both careful theology and caring practice. Yet for us today, these two concepts are perceived as necessarily dichotomized. The practitioner understands theology as abstract and removed because it doesn’t seem to affect our practice. The theologian views mere practice as unreflective when it isn’t motivating by a right knowledge of God. How are these connotations to be dismantled in the local church? By pastors who seek, in the breadth of all their duties, to be motivated by love.

The motivation for pastoral work, regardless of the form or function, must be love. This image of “turning back the sheep that are gone astray” cannot help but bring to mind our Good Shepherd, who “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3). He calls out to them, takes them to pasture, and protects them from invaders. He tends the flock with great care, even to the point of laying down his own life (10:15). He does this because he loves his sheep. Likewise, those who desire to lead God’s sheep must do so from a heart of love. As my professor of church history, Dr. Scott Manetsch, said, “Shepherds love their sheep. If you don’t love the church, please don’t become a pastor.”

What motivates a pastor to teach, counsel, lead, visit, give to, and care for his flock must always be love. This includes doing and teaching theology. As seminarians translate what they learned in the academy to their church, their desire must be a heartfelt love for their congregants to know God more deeply and cherish Him more fully. Any other motivation – whether it be a thirst for head knowledge, intellectual respect, or accolades – must be recognized for what it is – prideful, idolatrous sin. We must constantly take our hearts to task on this, entreating God to produce in us the cardinal Christian virtues – faith, hope, and love.

As we continue striving to narrow the gap, let us remember the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 – “if I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” Let us also remember Polycarp’s example of careful theology and instruction for caring practice as we seek to fulfill our Lord’s command – “feed my sheep” (John 21:17).