Augustine, perhaps church history’s most towering figure, didn’t think his work would be remembered. In his widely read and celebrated autobiographical Confessions, he wondered: “But to whom am I telling this story? Not to you my God; rather in your presence I am relating these events to my own kin, the human race, however few of them may chance upon these writings of mine.”
Thankfully, his writings were remembered, and have influenced subsequent history in unimaginable ways. He was a man who experienced the world, in all its color and allure, and found the gospel of Jesus Christ yet more beautiful.
Augustine is often remembered for his theological and philosophical treatises, and rightfully so. His writings on the nature of salvation and the composition of the church have ongoing relevance to contemporary theological discussion. But there’s another angle that is often neglected. While Augustine possessed a unique theological mind, he was primarily engaged in ministry as a pastor. Though he ministered in a foreign city at an earlier time to different people, Augustine’s pastoral ministry provides the modern pastor encouragement, hope, and humor. After all, despite being a man recognized for his immense brilliance, he pastored a congregation that was, in his own words, “weak” and “smitten with tribulation.” Church leaders can draw much from this man who was engaged with the trials, routines, and joys of local church ministry.
We get a glimpse of this side of Augustine through a collection known as the Divjak letters (named after the researcher who recovered them). Dated between 418 and 428, these letters penned by Augustine draw us into his final years of writing and leadership. According to Peter Brown, they “are earthy letters, concerned almost exclusively with the day-to-day business of little men in small North African towns.” Little men, in small, forgotten towns—these were Augustine’s sheep, whom he devoted his heart, time, mind, and life to.
Augustine’s Pastoral Preaching
Augustine’s flock consisted of primarily farming families that had made significant money via corn production in the area surrounding Hippo. Near his church were mansions home to wealthy citizens. He constantly battled a sense of spiritual complacency due to the perceived security his people found in the things of the world. He preached to “congregations who . . . were not exceptionally sinful. Rather, they were firmly rooted in long-established attitudes, in ways of life and ideas, to which Christianity was peripheral.”
To reach them, Augustine knew he had to help them see the realities of eternity. He reminded them of the transience of this life, the pending judgement awaiting every person, and the forgiveness of sin offered by Jesus. But Christianity was not solely otherworldly; the Divjak letters reveal an Augustine who plead with the emperor about North Africa’s social ills. One senses the love Augustine possessed for the families of his town.
But he didn’t mince words. One of his key frustrations was the ancient (and modern!) tendency to believe that what one does in his own home is his own business, even if it contradicts God’s will and word. Augustine would have none of it: “’Surely I can do what I like in my own house?’ No: you cannot. People who do this go straight to Hell.” He cared enough about his flock to warn them that compartmentalized Christianity was no Christianity at all.
Though Augustine was an accomplished rhetorician, his job as a preacher was more important than impressing an audience with verbosity. He once reminded his congregation, “I do not care whether you expect some well-turned phrases today. It is my duty to give you due warning in citing the Scriptures.” The voice of the bishop of Hippo paled in comparison to that of the Great I AM.
Pastors and teachers, remind your people that their lives are a mist. Eternity charges at us every moment. And remind them that Jesus demands all of our life, not simply an hour here and there. God is patient and willing to save, but we must turn from sin and turn to Christ. The riches of this world are terrible investment in light of the glories of the gospel.
Augustine’s Pastoral Leadership
Augustine also spent countless hours shepherding individuals through daily struggles. Many of his days were spent adjudicating legal squabbles for citizens of Hippo. While this somewhat strange pastoral duty was due to Augustine’s particular context, he faced other challenges familiar to modern leaders: maintaining unity among the flock, fighting heresy and championing strong doctrine, challenging the unspiritual demands and expectations that various factions placed on him, and developing friendships that provided encouragement in the midst of trial. Further, he counseled and led during a time of immense political and social upheaval as the Roman empire disintegrated all around. Despite this, he placed his confidence squarely in God’s sovereignty over history and grace toward wayward sinners.
These challenges are as alive today as in the fifth century. But we can follow Augustine’s lead by keeping our eyes set on the city of God even as we navigate, serve, and bear witness in the city of man. Augustine (Augustine!) faced these challenges. Be not surprised when you do too.
We do well to remember Augustine the pastor. We can glean much as we watch him at his pastoral duties. For, as Augustine reminds us, “no man can be a good bishop [pastor] if he loves his title but not his task.”
Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding, Vintage Spiritual Classics (New York: New City Press, 1997), 27.
Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, Forty-Fifth Anniversary Edition (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000), 292.
Saint Augustine, The City of God, Book XIX, trans. Gerald Walsh and Daniel J. Honan, in The Fathers of the Church (Washington, D.C. The Catholic University of America Press, 1954), 231.