Hard questions, correct answers, and pastoral wisdom

This is mostly for my evangelical friends, about pastors. It takes off from a recent NY Times op-ed piece but goes beyond it to say something about pastoral leadership and how we respond to it.

Perhaps some of you saw and appreciated Tim Keller’s answers to questions from Nicholas Kristof . I saw them and cringed. Pete Enns does a pretty good job of explaining why. If you have not read these two articles, I encourage you to click the links and do so. Like Enns, I suspect that Tim Keller (whom I knew in a former life and still respect greatly) would have had a more pastoral response in a different setting. And I also understand and affirm that doctrinal propositions matter. Seriously, I do. Doctrinally speaking, as in some other ways, I will confess that I am a bit of a stick in the mud. But when a questioner pretty much tells you right up front that the point of his doctrinal question is to get your take on whether he is in or out of God’s gracious favor, or more simply “in” or “out” with God and with you . . . Well, I would take that as one of the many occasions—as I get older, I think maybe the majority of occasions—where the best answer to a direct, simple question is not a direct simple answer. Questions often need to be explored, deepened, revised; and questioners often need to be encouraged to let God lead them to their own answer to the deepened question—not because there is no truth, but because the truth is not easy and has to be handled wisely and well. It is the job of a good pastor to know that, and to practice it well. A good pastor is more likely to trust that God will in fact lead the questioner aright over time than to fear that the questioner will, unless handed the right answer right now regardless of his or her apparent readiness or unreadiness to receive it, go permanently astray.

Unfortunately, good pastors in some settings these days are caught between their own wisdom—i.e., they know how important it is to respond to questions pastorally, which also by the way means evangelistically: using questions of all kinds as openings for pointing the questioner, gently and wisely, toward the good news that is in Christ—and the anxieties that cause some of their flock to crave hard-line, black and white, unambiguously correct statements from their pastors on all sorts of contested theological and ethical questions. Different individual believers have their own foci for such anxieties. Many of these anxieties are understandable. We live in an age when rapid and drastic changes have occurred in what people believe and in what people think is right, and it is not hard at all to find cases where various churches and various pastors have simply capitulated, accommodated, changed their minds—without really ever having had a very deeply formed mind in the first place. I.e., there has been inattention to scripture and tradition and inadequate use of reason in dealing with challenges to traditional interpretations. I grant all that. But there have also been instances of careful, theologically and biblically faithful reasoning that has produced salutary adjustments in pastoral teaching and practice. I could give examples, but I will mention just two. In the ethical realm, I am thinking of a particular case of which I am aware in which a young Presbyterian pastor (not Tim Keller, as it happens, but someone he and I both knew well at the time) counseled a young woman whose husband was abusing her physically that her biblical responsibility was to be submissive to her husband. Far fewer conservative pastors would give that counsel now. Doctrinally, one could also think of places where literal seven-day creationism was once assumed but is not currently taught. One could come up with any number of examples of illegitimate and legitimate, deleterious and salutary changes in what pastors say on particular contested questions. I.e., doctrine (not dogma) sometimes needs to change and sometimes needs not to change.

But even in cases where doctrine does not and should not change, while there may be a time to bang on the pulpit and say “Here I stand,” there is also a time to step down, come alongside and acknowledge that people’s lives are hard, that the Bible and Christian teaching say some pretty hard things, that for some people in some circumstances those things are so hard right now that if you bang on them you will drive them away from God and from the grace of Jesus Christ and from the community that God has called together precisely in order to invite them in and work transformative grace in their lives—and quite possibly also in the life of the community. Discernment is required. The pastor must rely on the leading of the Holy Spirit to know what to say when, to whom,with what intent, in what tone, with what affect.

And yet in our day, in our settings (I am thinking of conservative settings, and particularly evangelical settings, which I know best, but also I think Catholic and Orthodox and others), some of the very people who profess to be most committed to the gospel, who claim to be the most biblical and the most traditional in their beliefs and practices, and who might be expected, as part of their traditional mindset—which includes a commitment (for some of them, very well demonstrated!) to humility and love—to defer respectfully to the wisdom of their pastor, to trust the leading of the Spirit in the ministrations of that pastor more than they trust their own instincts and anxieties and untrained theological minds—some of these putatively conservative brothers and sisters are the very people who will be most insistent that this pastor shall respond to that person, or this or that question, in a specific, definite way which they themselves are willing to dictate on the basis of some valid or invalid interpretation or emphasis that they learned somewhere, or heard or read from some media preacher.

In effect, they are willing to say: I know that when I joined this church I vowed to submit to the government and discipline, or to follow the leading, of its pastors and elders (the wording varies from denomination to denomination); and I know that I am myself a sinner saved by grace, a seeker, a follower, not gifted or called or trained to exercise the pastoral-teaching office; and I know that our congregation has acknowledged that our pastor is one who was gifted and called, and trained for years both academically and spiritually, to carry out this pastor-teacher office, and more than that, that our pastor is the pastor here now because in a process that was in terms of formal polity “by the book” and in terms of spiritual dynamics suffused from start to finish with earnest prayer, this congregation discerned that God willed this person to lead us; but despite all this I am willing to say that unless this pastor, on this question at this time, says what I already know I want to hear, I can have no further confidence in this pastor; this is not a hard question for me! and if is hard for others they simply need to be told to shape up or ship out; and if this is not what I hear from my pastor, I will feel free to complain to the pastor and to other members of the congregation, and even to simply walk away from my vow. I might feel free to say to my pastor, for example: You should be like Tim Keller in this NY Times op-ed interview with Nicholas Kristof: draw the boundary clearly and tell them (and I will specify the “them” for you) they’re clearly out.

From my perspective, such an attitude is out of order, unwise, immature. It shows insufficient self-awareness (being unaware of one’s own limitations; in Paul’s terms, thinking more highly of oneself than one ought to think) and insufficient respect and love for those called by God to lead as pastors. And really I think that Tim Keller would want no part of it (though it has been many years since I have spoken with him and I certainly cannot speak for him).

I cannot believe that our Lord blundered when instead of handing his disciples a detailed doctrinal and moral manual he assured them that the Spirit of Truth would lead them into all truth. Good pastors have learned that they have no hope outside of believing that promise. We owe such pastors our trust, our prayerful support, and—here I’m going to go a bit old-school—our deferential respect.

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