Martin Bucer and the Plurality of Elders
Though he is, perhaps, too often overlooked and underestimated, Martin Bucer seems to have been right in the middle of everything during Reformation. He was won over to the cause after hearing Martin Luther at the Heidelberg disputation in 1518. In 1521 he left the Dominican convent in that city and obtained a papal dispensation from his monastic vows. That same year also found him in attendance at the Diet of Worms. In 1523 he began his ministry at Strasbourg, the main sphere of his life’s work. As a leader of the Reformation in that city he attended the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, taking the side of Zwingli. (It was there that Luther shook his hand, smiled, and pointed at him, saying, “You are a good-for-nothing knave.”)
From the years 1538-1541 he was a mentor and friend to the young John Calvin, then in exile from Geneva. It was Bucer who encouraged Calvin to serve as a pastor to the French refugees in Strasbourg, and Calvin lived in Bucer’s house for a time. When the circumstances in Strasbourg turned against Bucer in 1549, he accepted an invitation to England, where he lived for a time with Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and was subsequently appointed Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge. His critique of the first edition of the Book of Common Prayer (1549), contributed to the more strongly Protestant revision of 1552. Before its publication, however, Bucer died at Cambridge in February of 1551.
In 1538 he published a “little book” with the title Concerning the true soul-care and the correct shepherd-service, how the same should be established and executed in the church of Christ. The Banner of Truth published an English translation of this work in 2009 under the title Concerning the True Care of Souls. Among other things, Bucer discusses the benefits of having a plurality of elders and the different strengths that different men bring to the table so that the church might be built up.
The Lord shares among man the gifts necessary for the pastoral office.
To one he gives the skill of teaching clearly and understandably, while not endowing him with so much grace in exhorting; to another he gives the ability to exhort warmly and seriously, without also enabling him to be powerful in the teaching and exposition of the scriptures. To another he grants an especially effective enthusiasm in chastising and disciplining, though he may not be able to achieve much in either teaching or exhorting. One the Lord has endowed with a fine upright and honest spirit to care for the whole congregation and to provide timely provision and protection where Satan wants to break in, while he does not have great abilities otherwise, either in teaching or exhorting. There are those whom the Lord has appointed to exercise their ministry conscientiously and usefully to the bruised and wounded, warmly and powerfully comforting them and applying the right measure of gravity and discipline, but who are not particularly effective in other aspects of the pastoral office.
Again, he says,
The church’s ministry requires many sorts of gifts, therefore it is necessary to have many sorts of people in it.
But because the Lord does not give all these gifts and skills just to one, two, or three, churches have always had a good number of elders, and these not all the same in what they do and what they are. Because although all elders are to be well thought of and trusted and outstandingly adorned with all virtues, this does not mean that they have to be all the same in what they do and what they are, or that they are all skilled and equipped with the same gifts or one sort of gift. This is why the ancient churches did not only ordain to this ministry those who were learned or eloquent, but also other spiritual, sensible and zealous men. In each one was recognized what God had particularly bestowed on him for the building up of the church. Thus in one it was recognized that from his youth he had been brought up in the faith and and in the scripture, as Paul recognized in the case of Timothy; in another, that he was eloquent and powerful in the defence of the faith, like Apollos. In another it was recognized that he was of a kind and lovely spirit, someone from whom discipline and chastisement would be willingly accepted. Thus in each one something in particular was recognized which would be of service in the care of souls.
– Martin Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls, trans. by Peter Beale, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2009), 34, 55-56.