Category Archives: Pastoral Theology
[This is a guest post by Dr. Joe Gibbs, a Family Physician on the faculty of the University of Chicago (NorthShore) Family Medicine Residency. Dr. Gibbs recently attended the annual conference of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, at which Jerome Wernow presented some thoughts on theology and bioethics. Jerome is a friend, adjunct professor at Western Seminary, and regular commenter on this blog. So, I thought Dr. Gibbs’ comments would be of interest. He originally posted this on his blog, and has graciously permitted me to repost it here.]
At last week’s CBHD conference, a few of us were treated to a unique “Drinking-from-a-firehose” experience. Jerome Wernow gave a talk with the eyesplitting title, “Bioethics: Facing a Philosophical Theology of Tragedy and Mystery.” Intrigued at the title in the conference brochure, but having no idea at all what it might refer to, I slid into a seat in the classroom where Dr. Wernow was to speak, prepared to be befuddled. Instead, in the space of about about twenty minutes, those of us in the room were given an alluring glimpse into a poignantly beautiful picture for doing bioethics that alters what I see when I look at a patient.
I will attempt to present gleanings from the rich feast that was Dr. Wernow’s talk. The early 20th Century Russian philosopher Nicloas Berdyaev wrote, ”There can be no moral life without freedom in evil, and this renders moral life a tragedy and makes ethics a philosophy of tragedy.” As anybody who has witnessed the anguish of those who seek an ethics consult can attest, as anybody haunted by the dark questions our modern technology raises would agree, in bioethics all decisions are fraught with tragedy; ethics consultants are actors in one-act medical dramas that are tragedies. And tragedy is neither lessened nor assuaged when good and evil alone are used in bioethics’ calculus. Our knowledge of good and evil is damaged, the product of a lie (“your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil“); it was in the very act of grasping for the tree of that knowledge that we were banished from the tree of life. When we approach people whose stories have taken a catastrophic turn and we wield only the calculus of good and evil, our bioethics is left lifeless, empty, and tragic. According to Wernow, to address tragedy we must turn to mystery, to “Mystery-revealed:” Christ, in whom is Life. The question we ask as Christians doing bioethics is not just, “What is good?” but “How do I bring eternal life into this tragedy? How do I bring the mystery of Life into the abyss?”
There was an amazed silence in the little classroom when Dr. Wernow finished. Unfortunately, that is all I can leave the reader with. I am not even sure that in my pathetic summary I presented Dr. Wernow’s vision remotely accurately; his ideas poured out quickly and passionately, I could take only skeleton notes, and he has not as yet published an article or book that sets out the implications of the “Philosophical Theology of Tragedy and Mystery.” But I sure love his vision of bioethics-as-drama instead of as sterile philosophical specimen; and I can embrace the quest to bring the Mystery of Life into tragedy as a robustly and profoundly Christian way to engage and immerse myself in the tragedies of a fallen world.
What are the biggest challenges of pastoral ministry? That can’t be an easy question to answer. Too much depends on who you are, what kind of weaknesses (and strengths!) you possess, and where you’re ministering. Nonetheless, seasoned pastors can tell us a lot about what they’ve seen and where we need to be careful.
So, check out Art Azurdia‘s comments on the Trials and Temptations of gospel ministry. It’s a clear and concise presentation of 11 key temptations that many (every?) pastor faces at some point. I know that in my ministry, depression (especially after a particularly difficult night of ministry), frustration, and doubt have often been constant companions.
Audrey was an amazing 30-something woman with a great smile and an exuberant personality. She’d been attending our church for several years and she loved it. Being at church was one of the highlights of her week.
You see, Audrey was a special-needs person. I forget her precise condition, but she was wheelchair bound, could only communicate through a series of grunts, squeals, and hand gestures, and it was often difficult to know how much she really understood about what was happening around her. But, when she was happy, she wanted everyone to know…loudly.
And, Audrey was always happy at church.
Some were pretty vocal about wanting Audrey out of the service. They argued that she was so loud and distracting distracting that it interfered with worship. Who can concentrate with all that noise? And, they were concerned that she would keep visitors from coming back. Who wants to attend a church where you have to put up with that every Sunday?
Only a few voiced their concerns out loud, but my guess is that quite a few nourished the same thoughts quietly.
No one questioned whether she should be part of the church, they just thought that she needed to sit somewhere else. She could come, but she shouldn’t sit with us. Several even proposed that we put her in the nursery since that was the part of the church most suited for noisy attenders.
She could worship, but not with us.
Orderliness vs. Openness
As a parent, I’ve wrestled with a similar question before. Kids are disruptive and distracting. There really isn’t any easy way around it. They’re constantly doing something loud, cute, annoying, or interesting. Whatever it is, it’s distracting. And, when they’re my kids, I worry about how it’s affecting the people around us.
After all, didn’t Paul place a high value on doing things “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40)? If worship is to focus on God, shouldn’t we minimize or even eliminate those things that distract us from that task?
But, the church has always placed a high value as well on openness. Jesus rebuked the disciples when they tried to keep the children from him (Mt. 19:13-15) and Paul sharply criticized the Corinthians for their exclusionary communion practices (1 Cor 11). The Gospel is for everyone, and those who respond to the Gospel are united in Christ with one another through the Spirit.
Orderliness and openness. Both seem pretty important. What do you do when they collide?
The Open Gospel
Like many situations, some examples of orderliness vs. openness seem easier to address. If my 6-month-old has a terrible cold and covers everyone inside a three foot radius with a generous coat of both phlegm and snot, I’m thinking that it’s best to stay home. Likewise, if I find it impossibly distracting that the person singing next to me sounds like a cat caught in the dishwasher (don’t ask me why I know what that sounds like), I should probably get over myself.
But, other situations are much less clear. And, when there’s doubt, I think we should always err on the side of openness. Any other approach sends a message that ultimately undermines the Gospel. When we tell people that they can’t worship with us, we subtly suggest that they’re not good enough, that there’s a bar they have to clear to be worthy of worshiping with God’s people. And, it’s a short step from there to the conclusion that they’re not worthy of God, that there’s something more they need to do or be to merit a place at the table. And that’s not the Gospel.
I’m sure that’s not the message that we intend to send. We’re just trying to be “sensitive” to the others in the congregation. But, regardless of our intentions, that’s the message that often gets received. And it’s a devastating message.
My pastor consistently refused any suggestion that we should remove Audrey from the worship service. I never asked him why. It may have just been because he thought it would be rude. Or, it may have been because there was no other place for her other than the nursery – and putting a 30-year old woman in the nursery just seemed to be a step too far. I don’t know.
But, it taught me something about the Gospel. We all have a place at the table. We’re not pretty, well-behaved, orderly, or nice. We’d like to think that we are. And, we’ll do anything to look like we are. But we’re not. We’re a mess. And God invites us in anyway. I wonder if he finds us distracting?
I don’t know what Audrey’s doing now. She wasn’t even supposed to have lived to 30. So, maybe she’s passed on. But if she hasn’t, I hope she’s singing somewhere.
I love it when the Bible is clear. “Jesus is the Son of God.” Nice.
It’s a little more frustrating when the Bible is not clear: the nature of communion, precise forms of church government, whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. But, at least when it’s not clear, I can admit that there’s plenty of room for disagreement. If the Bible’s not clear, let’s talk.
But, what if I’m not clear about whether or not the Bible is clear?
This came up recently in a discussion on the question of gender roles in the church. According one perspective, the Bible is really clear on this issue: the role of elder/pastor is for men only. Since the Bible is clear, we simply need to affirm what it says regardless of our personal or cultural perspectives. And, given the Bible’s clarity, those who chose to have women serve as elders/pastors are being either intentionally or unintentionally disobedient to scripture.
The other perspective in the discussion actually agreed with the complementation position, but disagreed with respect to the Bible’s clarity on this issue. According to this view, there is enough ambiguity in the biblical texts that faithful, biblical Christians can legitimately come to different conclusions. So, interestingly, the resulting discussion wasn’t about the question of gender roles itself – everyone agreed on that – but on the clarity of the Bible at this point and what that means for how we assess contrary perspectives.
And, lest you think that this is just a complementarian thing, I’ve had exactly the same discussion with egalitarians – some of whom argue that the Bible clearly supports their view and see complementarians as being disobedience to Scripture, and others who disagree with complementarianism but still see the issue through the lens of legitimate diversity.
So, the issue really comes down to a question of how you determine when you think the Bible speaks with sufficient clarity on an issue for you to take a clear stance in opposition to other perspectives, or when you think that the Bible is ambiguous enough to leave room for legitimately different perspectives.
I’d be very curious to hear what you all think about this. Whether you’re a complementation or an egalitarian, where does this fall on your scale of biblical clarity? Is it something that you think is clear and that Christians can and should take a stand on? Or is it something that you think is rather opaque – you may have personal convictions, but you’re not troubled when other evangelicals disagree?
Just to be clear, I’m not looking for a debate on complementarianism/egalitarianism itself. But, I would like to hear how you rate the debate itself. Is it central and clear, or somewhat peripheral and murky?
The Gospel Coalition blog has posted a new video on how Christians should disagree, featuring Michael Horton, Matt Chandler, and Tim Keller. I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet. So, if you do, let us know what you think.
One of the sad realities in church life is that pastoral transitions rarely go well. And, it seems like the longer a pastor has served a church, the more likely it is that the transition to the next pastor will be a complete disaster. Passing the baton is hard.
I’m particularly interested in this topic because my church’s senior pastor has been in that position for over 20 years. He has definitely put his “stamp” on the church. And, although he’s not that old yet, you know that a transition has to happen sooner or later. The only question is whether the church will transition well. And, the odds are not in our favor.
So, I was keenly interested in this video of three seasoned Christian leaders discussing the challenging of pastoral succession. Tim Keller, Don Carson, and John Piper all offer some thoughts on how they’re preparing for the future. And, probably the most interesting insight, is that none of them are entirely sure how to go about doing this. Piper and Keller in particular are upfront about the fact that they’re aware this is an issue, but they’re just not sure what the right answer is – or even if there is one. As Piper said, quoting from his own sermon,
When God-centered leaders don’t know what to do because it’s not in the bible, they know what to do about not knowing what to do because that is in the Bible. Namely, pray
Here’s the video. If you have some time to watch it. I’d be curious to hear what you think. And, if you’ve ever been part of a church that went through a pastoral transition, how did it go? Did you learn anything from the experience?
Is it ever okay to divorce someone? If so, when? If not, why not? Those are interesting questions. I remember discussing them in various ethics and ministry classes. We’d sit around and talk about the relative merits of the various views, exegete the “exception” clause(s) in the Bible, and wrestle with difficult situations like spousal abuse and long-term neglect. Those were some fun discussions.
Discussing the same questions in your living room with someone whose marriage is falling apart, that’s something else entirely.
I’ve recently run across some questions about divorce that were new to me, though I’m sure they’re not unique, and I’m having a difficult time deciding on the appropriate response. So, I thought I’d throw the situation out there and see what you all think about it. Take a look at the following scenario and let me know how you would respond. (Obviously, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to put the details of another person’s struggle on a public blog. So, I’ve changed the names and conflated some of the details with other scenarios I’ve encountered over the years.)
- Jack and Jill have been married for quite a while and they have three children under the age of thirteen. Early on, Jack developed a problem with pornography and has struggled with sexual addiction for many years. He’d gotten caught a few times over the years. And, each time he’d sincerely promise that he’d stop, but quickly lapse into the same destructive patterns.
- Three years ago, his problems with pornography culminated in a brief affair. He hit bottom at this point, finally recognized his need for God’s grace to deliver him from this addiction, and began the healing process. The last three years have been transformative and he is now a completely different person. God’s grace is good.
- Realizing that healing requires honesty, Jack told Jill about the affair shortly after it happened and in the following months revealed to her the full depths of his sexual addiction. That was, of course, quite painful for both of them. But, although Jill was hurt and angry, she decided to stay. For the last three years, he has been in counseling regularly, and she’s seen a counselor occasionally. But they did not pursue counseling together, thinking that they needed to work on their individual issues first.
- A short time ago, Jill asked for a divorce. Jack has not had any relapses. Nonetheless, Jill has come to the conclusion that she’ll never really be able to get past all that has happened and truly love Jack as a husband again. Jack wants the marriage to work and has tried to get Jill to agree to talking with a pastor or counselor to work more actively on their marriage. But, since the affair, Jill has not shown any desire to seek help in restoring the marriage, and she is now firm in her decision to leave.
How would you handle this situation? Suppose that Jill is your friend and she’s come to you for advice. How would you have counseled her three years ago? If she’d asked for a divorce then, would you have supported that decision? If not, why not? And, How would you counsel her now? Is it any different from what you’d have said three years ago? Does it make any difference that he’s such a changed person now? If you think that the Bible allows divorce when infidelity is involved (i.e. the famous “exception clause” in Mt. 19:9), how long does the exception last? Is there a statue of limitations on the exception clause? Or, could a divorce five or even ten years later be justified on the basis of this exception?
We wanted to leave. We really did. Frustrated, disillusioned, and disappointed, we were ready to go. We were done.
But, it wasn’t that easy. We’d been a part of this community for years. We’d worshipped, served, love, and sacrificed alongside every one of these people for so long. We’d made commitments.
It felt like a divorce.
How do you just walk away from your church?
A while back, I asked “What would make you leave your church?” That’s exactly the question that my wife and I were wrestling with several years back. And, after much soul searching, we decided to stay. I’d like to explain why. But before I do, I need to say something of why we wanted to go. It was more complicated than this, but these were the most pressing issues.
- Stagnation. The church excelled at fellowship. It was one big family. We loved each other and enjoyed spending time together. But, we did little outside the family. We’d spend a lot of time talking about how to impact the community, spread the Gospel, reach the lost, etc. But it never really happened. We’d do it for a season, and then slip back onto the cozy shelter of our potlucks, small groups, and Sunday school classes. Sure, we supported lots of missionaries, and the children’s and youth ministries often reached new people with the Gospel, but the church itself seemed to be treading water. And even though nothing much happens when you’re treading water, it gets pretty exhausting after a while.
- The Pastor. Bringing on a new lead pastor is always an interesting experience. You have to adjust to a new personality, leadership style, preaching style, theological perspective, and philosophy of ministry. It’s not surprising that so many pastoral transition go badly. This was no different. The church had hired a new lead pastor, and my wife and I were having a difficult time with the transition. It just wasn’t good for us, in almost every conceivable way. Although I’d long argued that a church was more than its lead pastor and that you shouldn’t leave a church just because you didn’t like the pastor, we were now experiencing first-hand what it’s like when your pastor really isn’t a good fit for you. We were still involved in productive ministry, but neither of us could see how this could continue long term.
- Lack of Leadership. This one was and is the hardest to pin down. I can’t point at any one thing that caused us to be concerned about the overall leadership of the church. It was more a series of little things that together that suggested a lack of decisive leadership on the church’s elder board.
- Support for Women. I won’t go into this one too much because I know how sensitive this area is, and I don’t want this to become a post on the role of women in the church. But, I have a gifted wife and amazingly talented daughters (though my youngest had not yet arrived on the scene). So, I’ve long been sensitive to how a church speaks to/about women and the extent to which it involves and supports women in significant ministry roles. (This is true regardless of whether the church is egalitarian or complementarian). And, I had some real questions about whether this church was a good place for us to be long term.
- Personal Discontent. I don’t know how else to say it. I’m sure this was a combination of all the above, along with myriad of other, smaller issues. Regardless, we were both struggling with a pervasive discontent that left us really wanting to move on. Indeed, we weren’t looking for reasons to leave; we were trying to see if we had any reason to stay.
Looking back on that difficult time, I wish I could say that we had good, principled, theological reasons for staying. I’d like to brag (humbly) about how well we handled the situation, and share our wisdom and insight with you. But, I can’t.
Here are some of the reasons that I’d like to say caused us to stay at the church.
- We understood that the Church is built on grace. If we are going to be Gospel-shaped communities, we need to exemplify grace throughout the Church. So, I wish I could say that we could stay because we wanted to model grace by continuing to work as broken people alongside other broken people to exemplify the Gospel in a broken world.
- We understood that the church is not about us. Recognizing that the church exists primarily to glorify God and make his glory known in the world, I wish I could say that we stayed because we placed God’s glory and his mission above our own dissatisfaction.
- We were committed to relationships. Seeing the Church more as a family than a social club, I wish I could say that we decided to stay because we valued those relationships so highly.
- We knew that the church was more than the pastor. As I mentioned earlier, I have long maintained that people make a sad mistake when the equate the church with its lead pastor. It’s so much more than that. And, I wish I could say this is one of the reasons that we stayed.
- We knew that the grass is not always greener. In my experience, leaving a church because you’re dissatisfied rarely works for long. Every church is broken. How could they not be when they’re filled with broken people? Every church fails in some way. This may sound overly pessimistic, but my guess is that if you’re totally satisfied with your church, it probably means (a) you don’t know enough about it yet or (b) its weaknesses and blind spots match yours well enough that you just don’t see them anymore. So, I wish I could say that we stayed because we realized that leaving out of discontent was not a good solution.
In other words, I wish I could say that we stayed because we caught a vision for the Church’s true purpose and how this particular church could still live out that purpose despite its frustrating weaknesses.
I wish I could say that. But I can’t.
We stayed because we were leaving eventually anyway.
We’d already made plans that would require us to move within a couple of years. With the end so clearly in sight, we stayed. We figured that we could gut it out for two years, and then walk away without causing the kind of pain and disruption that would have resulted from just walking away.
Was that the right decision to make? We spared the community some pain, and we were probably more involved in significant ministry for those two years than we would have been as new people at a different church. But, it was a very frustrating two years, especially for my wife. And, in hindsight I fear that we enabled the church to continue some bad patterns because we didn’t force the issue. Maybe staying was the right decision, though our reasons for wanting to move on still seem pretty compelling to me. But, staying because we were leaving anyway was a cop out. In the end, we took the path of least resistance. And, that’s never a good enough reason for staying.
The church deserved better.
Monday through Saturday, we live in a pretty diverse world. Sunday, though, that’s a different story. Here’s a good video for illustrating that reality. It would make a great discussion starter on issues of race and diversity in church.
Is it time to go? If you need to make a dinner appointment, that’s not a difficult question to answer. But, if you’re thinking about leaving a church, that’s something else entirely. How do you know when it’s time to leave a church?
Some time back, my wife and I struggled with this very question. We’d been members of our church for a while, but several factors had us thinking about leaving. Before then, we’d never wrestled with the criteria one would/should use when thinking about leaving a church? We didn’t want to just walk away for superficial reasons, but what exactly qualifies as a “good” reason for leaving a church?
Before I come back to this story and talk about the reasons that we considered and what we finally decided to do, I’d like to hear from you. What would make you leave your church? Or, if you’ve left a church before, why did you do it and do you still think those were good reasons? Of, if you prefer to think in abstract terms, what do you think are sufficient reasons for leaving a church? Answering any one of those three questions will help us wrestle with: When is it time to go?