The Pastoral Problem with Theological Statements

With the recent (ill-timed, it would seem) release of a theological declaration regarding human sexuality, signed by the likes of J.I. Packer and D.A. Carson and folks from their respective camps (British evangelicals and Gospel Coalition American Calvinists), the Christian news sources have been all a-flutter along the same lines that they tend to be with all these such statements and all these such discussions. The (broadly speaking) traditionalist Right* has made the typical claim that they feel adequately communicates their historic orthodoxy, while the (broadly speaking) progressive Left* has responded in typical outrage and frustration, even crafting a reflective statement of their own (courtesy of Nadia Bolz-Weber). *Left/Right, notably, are horrible terms to use when speaking of theology.

Prof. Wesley Hill, a celibate gay Christian, wrote this provocative tweet earlier today on the topic (“this” referring to Bolz-Weber’s statement, and “its counterpart” referring to the original statement):

Why are such Theological Statements so alienating? The “Right” thinks that by drafting a statement they can clear up typical traditional views on sexuality; the “Left” thinks that by counterdrafting a statement they, too, can clear up their views. Surely clarity is not a problem, right? Yet my sense is that both crowds are perpetuating a poor theology of the pastoral role and revealing, as a consequence, a disconnect between their theologies of ministry and the real practice of it.

I have recently accepted the role as pastor of a small church in downstate Illinois. Along the way, I have been learning a lot about the role and purpose of a pastor in leading a flock. One thing you learn as a pastor is that the topic of Sin is never “in theory.” Sin is, ultimately, always practical.

It is one thing to preach through the dangers of Sin (something I have actually just done), how it creates real dissonance in our relationship with God, with others, and with the world. But it is another thing altogether to counsel people whose Sin has begun unravelling the very basic frameworks of their lives. As a pastor you’ll meet people whose addictions to gambling have wasted away their life-savings, people whose lusts have destroyed their marriages, people whose rage has caused incalculable harm to their children. Sin, in the pastoral mindset, is a real thing that manifests in person-to-person relationships.

What gets complicated, of course, is that most Sin does not manifest in an obvious way. Pastoral ministry is involved in discipling those who have gambling addictions, true; but it is more often about leading people who are struggling to forgive, people who are struggling to be generous, people who are struggling, in short, to love. Most Sins that we, as Christians, wrestle with are not the “A-list” of “struggles”: Lust, Rage, and Pride. More typically, we wrestle with Greed, Gluttony, Laziness, and Envy, and, just as typically, we normalize those Sins. We laugh and say, “Man, I’m jealous of you,” not even realizing that such jealousy is literally against the Tenth Commandment!

As a result, the pastor’s work in discipling his or her flock regarding Sin is a work of little-by-little in-the-moment leadership. For me, it is sitting down with the congregant who is having trouble adjusting to our “new-and-updated music,” and lead her in a conversation about the mission of the church to reach our community. This kind of discipleship is not in the terms of “Your continued clinging to old ways is sinful; get with the program.” Instead, it is in the terms of “I believe Jesus is calling you to set aside these old ways you’re clinging to; here’s some vision why Jesus would be calling you to this.” Pastoral ministry is a lot like how Leo Tolstoy wrote novels: defamiliarizing Sin so we can see how it really works.

In short, the pastoral work of discipleship is almost never in theoretical Yes and No; it is always rooted in the practical, personal, reality of a relationship. It is grounded in the unique contours of an individual’s life.

 

And this is the pastoral problem with these Theological Statements: they prescribe absolutes upon a matter of pastoral ministry, almost as if it these statements don’t understand that marriage (and premarital counseling) is one of the most sacred pastoral duties and almost never subject to absolutes.

I had a woman come in today who wants to be married to a man held at our local correctional facility, and I told her that I would gladly do their premarital counseling, but that I could not guarantee that I would marry them. Why? Because premarital counseling will inevitably reveal certain indicators of whether or not they will have a healthy marriage, and it is the pastor’s sacred role to discern that. There is no Nashville (or Denver!) Statement for this kind of discernment. Some evangelical bigwigs could write “For those getting married in prison, we say Do Not Marry those who are in there in X, Y, Z situations” and some mainline bigwigs could counter-write “Do Marry those who are in there in X, Y, Z situations” and that will never run the gamut of complex discipleship situations in which the premarital counseling pastor finds his or herself.

What if I discover that there is some major relational dysfunction? Or what if I discover a spiritual problem that will eventually spiral out-of-control? Worse yet: our premarital counselors told us about a husband who games all day and all night and never spends time with his wife. Were I the pastor and knew about this commitment I would have officiated his marriage to the Xbox, not to a woman who needs love and affection. What if there is something very “typical” happening in their relationship (like the love of video games) that I can sense will become a destructive idol?

Pastoral discernment is a “grounds-up” matter, not a “top-down” matter. The making of blanket Theological Statements belies the truth of pastoral ministry. The work of a pastor does not operate from the level of ideology, but from the level of the people in which our ministry happens. Sure, we ought to be well-thought pastor-theologians whose practical ministry is the natural outworking of theological claims; but, even then, there are always situations that inevitably make our theological work more complicated. We are always contextualizing that theology in the normal, natural, practical space of relationship with our parishioners.

 

“But what about real theological problems?” After all, it isn’t for no reason that sexuality has become such a bombastic topic in the past few decades. The defenders of this evangelical statement on sexuality, again, think that clarity is of the utmost import. But, as a pastoral mentor of mine once told me, sometimes you can say the “right thing” the wrong way, and, in doing so, you are actually saying the “wrong thing.”

I personally theologically agree with Wes Hill and other “Side B” LGBTQ Christians — which means that I theologically agree with the “conservative” view on the matter (i.e. that marriage is between a man and a woman) — but I do not think that the LGBTQ person in my community or in my congregation is best served by some “Theological Statement.” Theological Statements are, at the end of the day, not very pastoral. One could, for instance, put out a Theological Statement on the sin of not tithing, or the sin of not giving to the poor, or the sin of (*gasp!*) not evangelizing, but I would doubt that most pastors would find those Theological Statements very effective. The precise same principle is true in discipling our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

The role of the pastor is not one of declaring Theological Statements. It is one of “pastoring,” a lost art of discipling people in their unique contexts to become better followers of Jesus Christ. This will mean telling some people that you cannot marry them, and you will not marry them for a wide variety of reasons. “I think you will be a bad fit for one another,” “You’re living lives that will destroy one another,” “You’re unequally yoked,” “You’re really not in this for the right reasons,”… these are all pastoral, unique, individual responses to folks unfit to marry one another. It is my sense that the conversation about LGBTQ marriage ought to be in the bounds of the trusting, intimate, and private space of pastoral ministry. At the end of the day, those of us who fit in the frame of a “conservative” view of marriage will say to LGBTQ folks “I don’t think you should marry each other” not out of a commitment to a theology, but, instead, out of practical discipleship concern for their walks with Jesus. We ought not to say “You should not marry each other because you’re gay,” but “I do not think that this is the way Jesus is calling you to follow Him.” (This is the reason why InterVarsity’s statement of this type (which caused a ruckus a little whiles ago) was not public.)

Admittedly, making a difficult call like this — “I do not think this is the way Jesus is calling you to follow Him” — is really hard. But, then again, if we take the pastoral ministry seriously, then we should be making these types of difficult calls all the time. When a member of our congregation who has strong ministerial gifts decides to pursue a career in engineering, then it is our call to discern pastorally alongside them and extend to them the difficult invitation to Jesus’ work in their lives. I know a student from my time with InterVarsity where this is the case, and I tell him blankly every time I meet him “You should go into ministry.” That is my pastoral responsibility.

 

I have a large concern about how the making of Theological Statements reveals a poor theology of ministry throughout American Christianity. My sense is that by being abrasive theologically, evangelical conservatives are backing down from the invitation of Christ to lead. And by making just-as-abrasive theological counterresponses, mainline liberals are also backing down from the invitation of Christ to lead. In short, this making of Theological Statements belies poor pastoral leadership in the American church.

Instead of waging wars with our words in the air, maybe American pastors are better suited to sit in their office with a congregant, look them in the eyes, and challenge them to follow Jesus, whether that includes marrying or not marrying person X, Y, or Z, for X, Y, and Z reasons, or any other place of discipleship. And whatever the pastor’s response is, we ought to do so from the foundation of leading our people into closer discipleship with Jesus, whatever those sacrifices demand of them. It will require the unique authority of pastoral intimacy, rather than the slapdash power that comes from unilateral statements.

And, at the end of the day, it will lead to better ministry toward LGBTQ folks. This is a worthy end-goal: when rather than relying on a Theological Statement to push LGBTQ Christians away (which is the end-result of such statements), the pastor can sit down, talk about Christian discipleship, and welcome our LGBTQ brothers and sisters into a place of following Jesus that is hard, and yet still a part of our community. Theological Statements only alienate; pastoral ministry welcomes and invites, even into difficult places of discipleship.

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