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The Church: 18e. Pastoral Care and the Mission of the Triune God (V)

The Pastoral Care of God the Holy Spirit

Introduction

This is the fifth and final post on the pastoral care of sinners in light of the Church of England’s present crisis over the proposal to accept the practice of same-sex relationships through a so-called ‘pastoral accommodation.’  Earlier posts have countered that what is needed is ‘pastoral care,’ and that this care must be understood as pastoral care for sinners.  They have, further, suggested that the Church is ably instructed in such care by the mission of the Triune God toward a sinful world. 

In this post, we begin with some words about the pastoral care of God the Holy Spirit.  Then we turn to examine the close parallels that the early Church (particularly in the General and Pastoral Epistles) faced to what the Church faces today: false teachers seeking an accommodation of Christian faith to the sexual culture of the Greek and Roman world of the first century.  Finally, we conclude with a comment on present proposals about pastoral accommodation that, instead of healing the Church, actually substantiate the need for a truly Christian, Anglican mission in England in light of the present-day heresy.

The Pastoral Roles of the Spirit

The Holy Spirit’s pastoral role, according to the Scriptures, is evident in a great variety of ways.  Indeed, the Spirit functions as God’s abiding presence in the life of the believer and Christian community.  The Spirit is the giver of life at the time of creation (Genesis 1.2 and 2.7) just as the Spirit gives spiritual life to God’s redeemed people (Ezekiel 37.10-14; John 6.63; 20.22).[1]  The Spirit is the source of divine revelation in prophecy and Scripture (1 Peter 1.11-12; 2 Peter 1.21; 2 Timothy 3.16).  The Spirit is the ‘Paraklētos’—translated as Advocate (NRSV), Counselor (NIV), and ‘Helper’ (ESV) (John 14.6; 15.26)—for the disciples.  The Spirit intercedes for the saints (Romans 8.27).  He is the ‘Spirit of truth’ (John 14.17; 15.26; 16.13).  He is the power by which Jesus lived His earthly ministry (Matthew 12.18; Luke 4.18) and the Church lives out its missionary purpose (Acts 1.8).  In such ways, and more, the Holy Spirit of God is said to be the divine presence that reveals God (cf. Ezekiel 39.29) and empowers God’s people to live for Him (cf. Ezekiel 36.27).

A counsellor may offer wisdom.  A pastor may give divine guidance.  But the Holy Spirit does both and empowers a person to live according to God’s commandments—to live the spiritual life.  As John says,

Whoever keeps his commandments abides in him, and he in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us (1 John 3.24).

Indeed, the Spirit restores the sinner and returns him from the brink of death to a renewed ‘Spiritual’ life (Psalm 51.11).  This is the imagery for Israel’s being restored from death in the transgression of the Law and captivity due to their sins in Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones being resurrected by God’s Spirit (ch. 37).  It is also what Paul says of the Christian life that is not lived in the power of the flesh and by means of the (powerless) Law—which can only lead to sin—but that is lived in the power of the Spirit (Romans 7.5-8.17).

The Christian life is a life turned over to the indwelling Spirit of God.  One is not so ‘possessed’ by the Spirit, as it were, that one loses control and can no longer sin.  Rather, believers discover the power of God at work within (Ephesians 3.20), experience the freedom of the Spirit of life (Romans 8.2), willingly yield to the Spirit (unlike Israel—Acts 7.51), and walk in step with the Spirit, setting their minds on the things of the Spirit (Romans 8.4-6).  Indeed, the Spirit is the life-giving power of God living within believers that overcomes the sinful flesh and makes it possible to live righteously before God (Romans 8.9-11).  The Christian life is a Spirit-filled life.  Paul can say of the work of Christ and the Spirit that ‘you were washed, you were set apart for holy use, you were made righteous in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God’ (1 Corinthians 6.11, my translation).  Thus, the believers ‘Spiritual’ worship is to present their bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (Romans 12.1).  Believers are to ‘sow to the Spirit,’ not the flesh, and so reap eternal life from the Spirit (Galatians 6.8).  Or, as Paul elsewhere says, the body of believers is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6.19).  The promises of the Spirit restoring sinful Israel from captivity in their sins (Isaiah 59.21; Ezekiel 36.26-27) are thus fulfilled in the lives of believers through the work of Jesus Christ, who gives us the Spirit (Matthew 3.11; Luke 3.16; Acts 1.5; 11.16; 19.4-6).  The Church is a holy people on whom God has poured out His Spirit (Joel 2.28-29; Acts 2.17-18, 33; Titus 3.6).

The General Epistles (especially Jude) and the Crisis of Accommodation to Culture

How blasphemous, then, those who claim to know the Spirit and yet live profligate lives indulgent of the sinful flesh!  In our day, the message of the General Epistles (Hebrews through Revelation) is increasingly becoming relevant precisely because these New Testament books focus on the two challenges facing the Church in the West today: persecution of a minority Church from outside and false teaching from inside.  Increasingly, the false teaching that the early Church faced came from teachers distorting the Christian faith by letting the non-Jewish and non-Christian culture and its practices seep—even pour—into the Church.  This expressed itself especially in the Graeco-Roman sexual ethic.

By way of example, consider the little letter of Jude.  It might just as well have been written to the Church of England today, which is also allowing the neo-pagan culture of a post-Christian world into the Church and celebrating it as some sort of experience of divine grace.  Hear, then, the words of Jude to his compromised Church.

First, Jude is distracted from writing about Christian salvation because of the error he must address, an error that has entered into the Church.  He finds that he has to contend for the Christian faith even within the Church, a faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints before a Church intent on revising that faith.  This Church has allowed intruders to steal in among them, who preach a perversion of the Christian faith.  They teach that God’s graciousness gives them the freedom they desire to live according to their own sexual perversions instead of according to their Sovereign Lord, Jesus Christ.  Jude then warns these false Christians directly, saying that God is ready and willing to destroy the likes of them, for he did so in the past to the Israelites who did not believe, to angels who did not keep their proper positions, and to Sodom and Gomorrah, cities that chose to depart from natural desires and instead pursue ‘other flesh’ from what God intended in creation—unnatural, homosexual unions.[2]  Such people are grumbling and malcontent persons who divide the Church and indulge their own lusts.  They are loud-mouthed boasters who do favours for others in order to gain an advantage for themselves.  They are, in fact, the people that the apostles themselves had earlier warned the Church about: scoffers who would arise in the last times and indulge their own ungodly lusts.  Note that Jude says that they are devoid of the Spirit and cause divisions in the Church.

Jude also gives a word to the faithful believers caught in this terrible situation in the Church.  They are to do several things, including:

  • Find strength in the orthodox faith: ‘Build yourselves up on your most holy faith’;
  •  Seek help from God’s empowering Spirit: ‘Pray in the Holy Spirit’;
  • Persevere in God’s love, knowing that they will receive mercy from the Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life;
  • Show mercy to those wavering in the faith as though snatching them from the fire but hating even the undergarment soiled by the flesh.

In this most pertinent letter for our own day, we specifically hear Jude distinguish the two parties in this divided Church: one is devoid of the Spirit and lives a filthy life of sexual debauchery, while the other prays in the Holy Spirit.  Jude has more to say about the false Christians: they are blemishes at their love feasts, fearless, fruitless, creating chaos, and destined to deepest darkness.  He minces no words.

A Pastoral Accommodation?

This brings us, then, to the proposal for the Church of England that a ‘pastoral accommodation’ be sought in the current crisis.  The current crisis dividing the Church, as in Jude’s time, is a revisionist interpretation of the orthodox faith that ‘perverts the grace of our God into licentiousness,’ a culturally determined sexual ethic that rejects Biblical sexuality.  Permitting homosexual relationships within the Church, blessing these false unions, and even going so far as to propose that same-sex couples marry with the Church’s blessing have been ways to twist the faith once for all delivered to the saints about God’s grace and mercy into a sanctioning of sins of the flesh advocated by our culture.

What is the so-called pastoral accommodation for the current crisis?  According to the proposal in ‘Grace and Disagreement: Shared Conversations on Scripture, Mission and Human Sexuality,’ a

pastoral accommodation is a way of recognising that not every situation resolves itself into a clear delineation between virtue and vice – people often find themselves caught up in circumstances which fall short of God’s intentions and have to make choices which minimise harm or which rescue as much as possible that is good. In such circumstances, the church’s pastoral obligations come into play, offering support, prayer and love. A pastoral accommodation is a way of making that pastoral offering without endorsing the circumstances through which the situation arose or giving moral approval to every element in a messy state of affairs.[3]

Applied to matters of moral indifference and religious devotion, such as food laws, celebration of special days, particular practices such as circumcision, a pastoral accommodation makes sense.  We see this in Paul’s letter to the Romans:

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.  2 Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.  3 Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.  4 Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.  5 Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.  6 Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.  7 We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.  8 If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's (Romans 14.1-8).

In no instance, however, do New Testament writers apply such a pastoral accommodation to matters of sexual ethics.  On the contrary, laxity towards sexual ethics is always opposed.  Indeed, God’s transforming grace can be seen precisely in an area such as this.  To continue in sexual sin is to be in danger of eternal damnation (cf. 1 Corinthians 6.9-11; Ephesians 5.5; Matthew 5.29).  Specifically, same-sex relations are condemned as sinful and leading to eternal separation from God in the Old and New Testaments and throughout Church history everywhere, always, and by all.[4]

The document continues:

Yet the concept of pastoral accommodation was intended by the Pilling group[5] to reflect the enduring nature of the church’s teaching whilst recognising that some Christians, in conscience, do not believe that this teaching reflects adequately the love of God in the context of same sex relationships. In other words, pastoral accommodation was intended to maintain the tension between the authority of the church and the demands of conscience.[6]

Rather than seeking a pastoral accommodation with those unwilling to listen to the authoritative teaching of Scripture and the clear affirmation of the Church through the centuries, the Church needs to recognise that there are persons about whom it must be said:

overwhelmed by their sins and swayed by all kinds of desires,  7 [they] are always being instructed and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth.  8 As Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these people, of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith, also oppose the truth (2 Timothy 3.6-8).

Citing such passages from the Pastoral or General Epistles is really not an application of Biblical texts to a new situation in our day: the present situation is of essential similarity to that faced then, with pagan culture in both contexts pressing in on the orthodox faith.  The whole purpose of a pastoral accommodation is to side-step moral judgements where there is ambiguity.  The problem the Church faces, however, is not one of ambiguity but of obedience to Scripture.  Consciences may, and often are, rejected and distorted and not a reliable basis for moral judgement (1 Timothy 1.19; 4.2; Titus 1.15; Hebrews 10.22).  Nor is the solution remotely pastoral if the consequence of continuing in such sin is eternal damnation.  Would it be pastoral to support someone’s decision to get onto a plane with a terrorist because one did not want to appear judgemental and wanted to support a person whatever his or her decision?  Would it not rather be pastoral to warn the person of impending doom should the wrong decision be made?

Any Church refusing to affirm its faith in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church cannot go about representing itself as the Church.  It is, rather, divisive, unholy, factional, and dismissive of apostolic teaching.  It is a false Church.  The so-called ‘pastoral accommodation’ is an attempt to try to hold these two, diametrically opposed Churches together to no good end.

Conclusion

In these five posts on the subject of a ‘pastoral accommodation’ of same sex relationships in the Church of England—and elsewhere in the Anglican Communion—we have sought to identify the lie in the political arrangement being proposed, which only undermines the Christian faith and offers nothing in the least pastoral.  It amounts only to an accommodation of heresy. 

Yet we have also been somewhat able to explore a truly pastoral care of persons struggling with besetting sins.  Such care can only begin by acknowledging that the care needed from the Church is for sinners.  It is a care that the Church learns from the Triune God’s own mission among us to, as Paul says in Colossians, reconcile to himself all things through Jesus Christ (1.20).  Thanks be to God, it is a care that includes not only God’s direction and grace but also His empowering presence in the Holy Spirit to transform us into a cleansed, holy, and righteous people.




[1] In both Hebrew and Greek, unlike English, the same word is used for ‘spirit,’ ‘breath,’ and ‘wind’—the NRSV translates Gen. 1.2 with ‘wind’ instead of ‘Spirit,’ as in the ESV and NIV.  In Gen. 2.7, all three translations rightly translate that God ‘breathed’ into the man, but note that the same verb for ‘breathed’ in the Greek (emphysēsen) is used in John 20.22 (enephysēsen), where Jesus ‘breathes’ on His disciples for them to receive the Holy Spirit.
[2] While some interpreters suggest that ‘other flesh’ means non-humans, i.e., the two angels of the story of Genesis 19, this seems to us impossible.  The focus here is on sexual irregularity, not wrongfully desiring angels.  Moreover, 2 Peter 2 uses Jude in such a way as to focus on sexuality, not angels.  Finally, angels do not have ‘flesh.’  Readers will find various interpretations of the phrase ‘other flesh’ in translations, but we take the reference to mean, as the story of Genesis 19 suggests, homosexual practice.
[3] ‘Grace and Disagreement: Shared Conversations on Scripture, Mission and Human Sexuality’ (p. 19) [online: https://churchofengland.org/media/2165235/grace1.pdf]
[4] Through numerous primary source quotations and analysis, S. Donald Fortson and I have demonstrated this in Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Church Tradition (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016).
[5] See this 224 page report of the ‘House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality,’' produced in 2013, online: https://www.churchofengland.org/media/1891063/pilling_report_gs_1929_web.pdf.  Professor Oliver O’Donovan proposed a pastoral accommodation to the group, which is really a political accommodation.  Thankfully, Bishop Birkenhead offered a dissenting opinion, starting on p. 119, but his solitary dissention from the working group’s rejection of orthodoxy is sadly telling on the state and direction of the Church of England.  Indeed, as this commitment to falsehood continues, the need for a new and truly Christian Anglican mission in England becomes increasingly urgent.
[6] ‘Grace and Disagreement,’ p. 20.