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The Church: 18b. Pastoral Care and the Mission of the Triune God (Part II)

Toward a Theology of Pastoral Care Based on God’s Mission

In light of the Church of England’s present ‘conversations’ about homosexual practice and ‘marriage’ and the interest in focusing on pastoral care, the suggestion is here made that pastoral care can be discussed in relation to the Triune God’s own mission, a mission that is itself pastoral care for sinners.  Pastoral care for sinners can only begin once a sinner acknowledges his or her sin.  In this second of five posts on the subject of pastoral care for persons who have homosexual inclinations, orientations, or are in homosexual relationships, the beginning point for this discussion is to recognize that it has to do with pastoral care of sinners.  The mission of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit involves divine ‘pastoral’ care for a sinful humanity.

Pastoral Care for Sinners

The beginning of care, as in medicine, is accurate diagnosis. There are other sorts of pastoral care, such as care for persons who are suffering, in bereavement or human need, needing guidance, or the like.  The conversation about pastoral care for homosexuals, however, is a conversation about the care a pastor gives to sinners.  Scripture and the Church throughout its history have consistently held that homosexuality is a sin.  Several things might be said here about such care, although this is certainly a limited consideration of the matter meant to help get further discussion going.

a.     A Pastoral, Not (Simply) Psychological Concern

Pastoral care is decidedly different from what many understand as pastoral counseling, although the two notions overlap and provide any number of confusions for either the pastor or the counselor.  Key to the differences—and confusions—is a theology of ‘sin’ and spiritual life that guides the pastor.  To the extent that pastoral counseling begins with psychology as its field, notions of sin, spiritual warfare, divine judgement, forgiveness, and transformation are awkward in the counseling situation.  The history of pastoral care, however, includes such things as repentance, acts of contrition, spiritual disciplines or helps, communal practices, and the likes that offer a very different sort of care from psychology and social work.  Pastoral care also involves teaching the ways of the Lord from Scripture and with an understanding of the Church’s teaching.  Sadly, so much misinformation has been presented in the past few decades on the matter of homosexuality that pastoral care requires a significant amount of re-education in the church on this (and other sexual matters).

b.     Sinful Acts

The Old Testament tends to focus ethics on actions.  Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount develops this action ethic to include the heart—inclinations, passions, and orientations.  Yet his pastoral counsel is to avoid the vicious cycle of sin by taking other transformative actions.[1]  This is significant: pastoral care can begin with behavioural change.  As painful as it may be to stop certain habits or break certain relationships, this can be done.  Repeated actions develop habits; stopping certain actions can reshape habits of the heart.  Rather than affirming sinful inclinations, Jesus called for concrete actions as first steps toward a heart set free.

c.     A Sin of Eternal Consequences

Any dialogue about issues facing the Church today that does not understand the Biblical world view about sin, punishment, and redemption is doomed to fail—and that is, frankly, where the present problem lies in the Anglican Communion.  One cannot reduce the Church to social care and political activism with liturgy.  How can one talk about pastoral care for persons with homosexual inclinations and practices if one party denies that this is sinful and the other party believes, as Paul puts it, that persons doing such things will not ‘inherit the kingdom of God’ (1 Corinthians 6.10)?  Jesus warned that lust of the flesh puts one in danger of hell (Matthew 5.30).  This is not a matter of moral indifference.  If one group wants to celebrate the liberality of inclusion and diversity for people engaged in sins of eternal consequence, applauding the sinful practices of others (cf. Rom. 1.32), and the other group believes that such practices are sinful and are leading people to eternal separation from God, nobody should waste their time in any further dialogue: an agreement regarding appropriate pastoral care will never emerge.  It would be like some imaginary tribe devoted to sun worship that found skin cancer beautiful trying to discuss appropriate medical care with a group of oncologists.

Pastoral care is care for sinners (and, of course, other matters not at issue here).  It is so because this is, indeed, God’s pastoral care for us.  As Paul puts it, ‘The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost’ (1 Timothy 1.15).  Therein lies a succinct statement of God’s mission in the world and the theological basis for all pastoral care. 

Note the important final statement: the ‘pastor’—Paul—acknowledges his own sinfulness.  He is not counseling others from the standpoint of a sinless person talking at sinners but as a fellow-sinner, deeply aware of his own sin before God.  Counselors would use the word ‘empathy’ for this, although they are taught not to think of this in terms of ‘sin’ but in terms of ‘compassion.’  Therein lies an error of the first degree.  Pastoral care is offered by a fellow sinner who knows the path of grace holding the light for other sinners who would find it too: one slave showing other slaves the way to freedom.

d.     A Besetting Sin, A Passion of the Flesh

Thus, as we turn to the holy and authoritative Scriptures for pastoral guidance, we also begin with the clear teaching in Scripture that we are discussing pastoral care of persons who are beset with a passion not easily shaken.  As Proverbs says, ‘passion makes the bones rot’ (Proverbs 14.30).  Indeed, sexual sin is always more than a simple ‘act’ or even a ‘practice’—it is a besetting sin of passions, inclinations, and orientations.  Someone with a sexual interest in children is dealing with more than an occasional fancy.  A person struggling with lust and pornography is truly struggling: one cannot only say, ‘Do not do that anymore,’ and leave it there.  One might give up coveting a neighbour’s goods, but giving up coveting his wife seems to increase a passionate desire to a fixation—a besetting sin.  Jesus’ hyperbolic language for taking extreme measures to deal with lust acknowledges this. He says,

But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell (Matthew 5.30).

e.     A Sin of Internal Disorder

God has made us in such a way that a man can say of his wife, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken" (Genesis 2.23).  God’s design in creation was that man and woman would marry (Genesis 2.24) and be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1.27-28).  Yet this natural desire can be turned in sinful directions, such as sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman, adultery, certain divorces and remarriages, and pornography.  Probably the sin of bestiality is not about desiring the animal but just desiring sexual stimulation, but it is an example of internal disorder.  Homosexuality, transsexuality, and bisexuality are also examples of internal disorder, where the object of desire is not the object God intended in his creation.  Christians often speak of sexual morality with reference to procreation: it is not that every act of sex must be intended for procreation but that the place for sex with another is where the mandate for being fruitful and multiplying can be fulfilled: that is, between a man and a woman in marital commitment.

The disorder of idolatry is worship directed not towards the Creator but toward the creature (Romans 1.18-23).  Paul then compares the internal disorder of homosexuality to idolatry in that it, too, is an orientation toward the wrong object (Romans 1.24-28).  There is a difference, however.  Idolatry involves devotion directed away from the Creator, whereas homosexuality involves desire directed away from the one God created for that desire—a person of the opposite sex.  Paul highlights the role of disordered desire: ‘lusts of the heart’ (v. 24), ‘degrading passions’ (v. 26), and men ‘consumed with passions for one another’ (v. 27).  Both the misdirection of desire and the role of passion stand at the heart of the internal disorder of homosexuality.

Pastoral care for someone internally disordered has posed a significant challenge in many cases.  One may be despondent over the disorder, and one may find it difficult to reorient one’s desires.  Often underlying issues—early sexual abuse, a distant or abusive parent, bullying, culture—compound the matter itself.  This is where various therapeutic approaches may prove helpful—a subject for pastoral counseling.  A good community and healthy relationships are also important.  Pastoral care, however, holds out the hope of change because God’s grace is not only forgiving grace but also transforming grace.  Paul can say to persons who had been caught in various sins, including ‘soft men’ and persons involved in homosexual acts, ‘and this is what some of you used to be’ (1 Corinthians 6.11).  The washing, sanctifying, and making righteous work of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Spirit of God are the reason for the past tense, ‘used to be.’  Far too little focus is given to the transforming power of God in Western Christianity, where the secular force of the culture reduces theology to ideas and beliefs without appreciating spiritual forces, divine power, and therefore also the life transforming work of God.

f.      A Sin That Does Not Define the Whole Person

We tend to think of evil as monstrous, as though an evil person must be evil in every respect.  We are disturbed to find that Josef Mengele, the doctor at Auschwitz who performed horrific experiments on inmates, particularly twin children, also enjoyed classical music and befriended children.  No sin defines the whole person, not even Mengele.  This is good news for us all, and counselling may need to dwell on the good in order to put things in some perspective.  A besetting sin is not a complete identity.  People need to know that their sin does not define them, and nor should we define a person wholly by their one sin.

Christianity goes further, though.  Scripture insists that our personal identity is not only not in our sin, it is also not in ourselves: it is, rather, in Christ Jesus.  For our sake, God ‘made him [Jesus Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Corinthians 5.21).  Paul says, ‘it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2.20).  Also, ‘May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world’ (Galatians 6.14). God’s grace alters our identity.  This is why Paul can say, ‘if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come’ (2 Corinthians 5.17).

The Pastoral Care of Sinners

A theology of pastoral care is not the same as pastoral care for sinners.  Theology dictates a certain, linear and systematic logic.  One might begin with a clear diagnosis of the problem.  This may be true of pastoral theology, but care may require a different starting point.  One might, for example, begin care with empathy, careful listening, clarifying thoughts, repeating or rephrasing statements, and affirming a person’s struggles: quickly moving the discussion to a person’s sin may be off-putting, even detrimental, if a person is already depressed and defeated from struggles with sin.  It may fail to uncover other issues that contribute to the problem.  There is a place for wisdom in counseling in pastoral care that moves beyond pastoral theology per se.  The exercise of pastoral care, then, needs to be flexible when dealing with one person versus another.  That said, here are topics to consider.

Empathy: hearing and affirming the struggle one has with sin.  
Romans 3:23 ‘… all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’


a.     Awareness: being aware that this is a sin
Psalm 51:3 ‘For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.’

b.     Contrition: a godly remorse for sin in the presence of His holiness
Psalm 51:4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.’

c.     Confession: confessing sin clearly and accurately to God and, if appropriate, to others.
1 Chronicles 21:8 ‘David said to God, "I have sinned greatly in that I have done this thing. But now, I pray you, take away the guilt of your servant; for I have done very foolishly."’

d.     Prayer for Mercy: a sincere prayer to God for forgiveness and help.
Psalm 51:1-2 ‘Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.  2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin….
Psalm 51:7-12 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.  8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.  9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.  10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.  11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.  12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.’

e.     Penitence: extending repentance to some action to show and experience repentance, such as spending time in prayerful reflection, Scripture reading, asking someone else for forgiveness. 
1 Chronicles 21:16 ‘Then David and the elders, clothed in sackcloth, fell on their faces.’

f.   Change: taking action necessary to turn away from the sin, such as changing one’s behaviours and relationships and making restitution.  
Matthew 5:29-30 ‘If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. ‘  
Luke 19:8 ‘Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much."’ 
Galatians 6:7-8 ‘Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.  8 If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.’

Receiving Forgiveness and Giving Thanks: leaving the confessed sin in God’s grace and not continuing to dwell on it in light of His forgiveness, but turning to praise God for his loving kindness, faithfulness, and tender mercies. 
Psalm 51:15 ‘O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.’’

Seeking Help from God

Romans 8:5-17 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.  6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.  7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law-- indeed it cannot,  8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.  9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.  10 But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.  11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.  12 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh--  13 for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.  14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, "Abba! Father!"  16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,  17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ-- if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.’
1 Thessalonians 4:7-8 ‘For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness.  8 Therefore whoever rejects this rejects not human authority but God, who also gives his Holy Spirit to you.’

Seeking Help from Others

The spiritual life involves separation from sin in the world, not a separation from the world (John 17.15).  Discipleship involves companionship along the way, and we each need the presence of others to help us to walk in paths of righteousness.  The opposite is true, too.  The psalmist says,

Psalm 1:1-2 ‘Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers….’

On the contrary, disciples of Christ should seek spiritual help from others who do not struggle with their besetting sin:

Galatians 6:1-2 My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted.  2 Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.’

Seeking Help from Spiritual Disciplines

Sin is incubated in the hearts of human beings (Genesis 6.5 seems to apply to all humanity, not just the wicked generation in Noah's day).  James says, But one is tempted by one's own desire, being lured and enticed by it;  15 then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death’ (James 1.14-15).  We might expand this.  Before desire comes curiosity: ‘I wonder what this is?  I’ll just have a look.’  Enticement leads to rationalization: ‘This is alright in my situation.’  There is also a shutting out of the voice of God and turning from His Spirit, giving in to one’s own passions.

All this can be met with spiritual disciplines, such as a life of prayer, fasting, regular reading of Scripture, meditation on God’s Word, fellowship with the saints, godly conversations, separation from all situations of temptation (online, movies, beaches, solitary travel—whatever one’s weaknesses), and engagement in good works.  The pastoral counselor should ask, ‘What spiritual disciplines do you pursue to help you with temptation?’

Paul offers several spiritual disciplines in his letter to the Ephesians, where he also emphasizes that there is a spiritual battle, not just human sinfulness, that believers must engage:

Ephesians 6:10-18 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.  11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.  14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.  15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.  16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.  18 Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.’

[to be continued….]

[1] Glenn Stassen and David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2003), pp. 125-148.