Pastoral Care and the Mission of the Triune God (IV)

The Pastoral Care of God the SonThe Lion and His Table

Rollin Grams

[This is the fourth of five posts.]

Introduction

As we continue to explore a Trinitarian pastoral theology for the pastoral care of sinners, we now turn in this fourth study to how our theology of God the Son can guide us.  With so much of Christian teaching about the person and work of Jesus Christ, this phase of the study could be considerably expanded beyond what will be offered here.  The entire study in these five posts is meant to initiate further such reflections on a Trinitarian pastoral theology.  The occasion for these studies is the Church of England’s present consideration of a ‘pastoral accommodation’ for persons in same-sex relationships.  The concluding, fifth study in our series will focus on this proposal more directly after considering pastoral care with reference to the person and work of God the Holy Spirit.  Our argument is that pastoral care, not accommodation, is what the Church needs to offer sinners.  Indeed, accommodation of sin is not pastoral in the least.  It is destructive.  Moreover, as we will see in this study, Jesus’ ministry could be defined as a ministry to oppose a system of accommodation of sin by giving his disciples a new moral vision of the Kingdom of God and by performing the ultimate pastoral care of sinners, His sacrificial death on the cross.  This then leads us to consider Jesus’ partnership and high priestly work on our behalf and then his example as the chief shepherd—images that explain the pastoral role of God the Son.

The Moral Vision of the Kingdom of God

What was the major point of division between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees?  After all, both believed the Scriptures (the Old Testament) were the Word of God.  Both believed that God called for a high standard of righteousness and that this was revealed in His Law.  Yet Jesus minced no words when it came to the scribes and Pharisees.  The division was precisely over pastoral care for sinners.  The Pharisees, whose very name likely has to do with the word ‘separate,’ held to an interpretation of the Law that involved the righteous separating from sinners.  Jesus, on the other hand, called for a pastoral care of sinners.  He was accused of being a friend of sinners (Matthew 11.19; Luke 7.34).  Yet there is an irony to Jesus’ criticism of the scribes and Pharisees: they were, Jesus claimed, actually offering a pastoral accommodation for sin by the very ethic that involved separation from sin.

How could a separation from sin lead to a pastoral accommodation of sin?  The problem lay in having to make exceptions to a legal system with high standards.  The same system that provided detailed definitions of sin also provided loopholes to the laws in order to accommodate sin.  Three examples suffice to make the point.  First, Jesus criticised the Pharisees’ accommodation of divorce for any cause (Matthew 19.1-9).  Second, he criticised the Pharisees’ law of ‘Corban,’ which allowed people to designate something to God in order to avoid using it to support their parents’ when there was need (Matthew 15.1-6; note Mark 7.11).  Third, he criticised the scribes and Pharisees for scrupulously following the letter of the law so as to avoid the spirit of the law (Matthew 23.15-33).  For example, Jesus says,

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others’ (Matthew 23.23).

The problem with the ‘letter of the Law’ is not the letter but the limitation of the Law to the letter.  Jesus says,

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others’ (Matthew 23.23).

Jesus does not overthrow the Law with a value or virtue ethic; he rather affirms the Law and its further implications by highlighting the fact that the laws are concrete expressions of God’s Kingdom values and virtues.

Indeed, the solution to the inadequate ethic of pastoral accommodation of the scribes and Pharisees did not lie in lowering the standards of righteousness.  In fact, Jesus heightened the standards of righteousness!  He said to his disciples,

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5.17-20).

One way in which Jesus corrected the ethic of pastoral accommodation was to return to a creation ethic.  Whereas the Pharisees’ legal ethic was designed for living in a sinful world, the moral vision of the Kingdom of God was designed for life in God’s world.  Jesus made the point when rejecting the Pharisees’ acceptance of divorce and remarriage:

Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?”  4 He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’  5 and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?  6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matthew 19.3-6).

Christ Our Saviour

So, what is the solution that Jesus offered?  The answer comes in the last third of each of the four Gospels: Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection.  If God’s standards of righteousness are not negotiable so that sin may be accommodated, then the only solution for sinful humanity is a salvation from God.  Such a solution is already articulated in the Old Testament.  Isaiah, for example, says

He saw that there was no one, and was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm brought him victory, and his righteousness upheld him…. And he will come to Zion as Redeemer, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression, says the LORD (Isaiah 59.16, 20).

Quite possibly with reference to this passage,[1] Paul says

But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets,  22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction,  23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God;  24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,  25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed;  26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.

Christ Our Partner and High Priest

Not only is Christ our Saviour and Redeemer in the sense of his doing something for us.  The New Testament also speaks of our participation in Christ.  Paul develops this notion through the repeated phrase ‘in Christ’ (and variations).  A passage in Colossians is indicative of this view: we participate in Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, and coming again (Col. 2.20-3.17).  This involves, e.g., our dying to the sinful ways in which we once lived just as Christ died for our sins.  Paul says,

Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is

idolatry).  6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient (Colossians 3.5-6).

It also means living the resurrection life, which in Colossians Paul refers to as the ‘new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator’ (Colossians 3.10).

The author of Hebrews articulates the relationship between Christian ethics and the work of Christ in a similar but different way.  He offers a very pastoral theology for a church undergoing persecution and flagging of zeal—even abandonment—of the faith.  One way this theology is developed is by describing Christ as our ‘partner’ and ‘high priest.’  Several passages make this point:

Hebrews 3:12-14 Take care, brothers and sisters, that none of you may have an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.  13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.  14 For we have become partners of Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end.

Hebrews 2:17-18 Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.  18 Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Hebrews 4:15-16 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.  16 Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Hebrews 5:7-9 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.  8 Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered;  9 and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him,

The message of Hebrews is that Christ knows our weaknesses and temptations, and He is the high priest who has dealt with our sin and continues to minister on our behalf.  Christ’s incarnational empathy with humanity and His high priestly work give hope to anyone—all of us—struggling with and needing forgiveness of sin.  Every minister offering comfort and hope to a person struggling with sin, like the author of Hebrews, needs to do so by pointing the person to Christ our partner in temptation and our high priest dealing with our sins and offering us salvation in His perfect sacrifice.

Christ the Good Shepherd

In his first epistle, Peter refers to elders as shepherds of God’s flock, with Christ as the chief shepherd (1 Peter 5.1-4).  Jesus is an example to ministers in their duties of pastoral care.  Peter’s main point is that Christians follow in the suffering of Christ.  The source of suffering—not only for the ministers but for all believers—was in Christians deciding to give up the sinful life of their culture.  They determined to give up their former life and to live the rest of their lives not by self-gratifying desires but by the will of God (1 Peter 4.2).  Peter expands on what he means:

You have already spent enough time in doing what the Gentiles like to do, living in licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry.  4 They are surprised that you no longer join them in the same excesses of dissipation, and so they blaspheme.  5 But they will have to give an accounting to him who stands ready to judge the living and the dead (1 Peter 4.3-5).

Positively, Peter calls on believers to be serious and discipline themselves (4.7), maintain constant love (4.8), be hospitable (4.9), serve one another with the gift God has given (4.10), speak to one another only with the words of God (4.11), and rejoice in the honour of sharing in Christ’s sufferings (4.13-16).  The role of an elder in the community is to tend the flock of God that is trying to live in this way as shepherds serving the chief shepherd, Jesus (5.4).

Frankly, false shepherds abound.  They are warned against throughout the New Testament writings.  They likely did not see themselves as false teachers, but, in one way or another, led their followers to continue to live according to their own sinful desires instead of by the will of God.  They coddled sinners and applauded their sins (Romans 1.32).  Jude says that they ‘pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness’ (v. 4).  Some in our day, following a hermeneutic of ‘reading against the text,’ even locate the power of Christian faith not in its teaching but in its subversiveness.  They then use this subversive hermeneutic to read against the Scripture, and they do so in order to exhort the very perverse activities that Scripture condemns.[2]  One has to wonder if—or when—this same hermeneutic will also be applied to bestiality and not just homosexuality.  ‘Because of these teachers the way of truth will be maligned’ (2 Peter 2.2).  They ‘indulge their flesh in depraved lust’ (2 Peter 2.10—‘depraved lust’ likely includes a reference to homosexuality, given the reference to Sodom and this text’s dependence on Jude 7).  And they ‘speak bombastic nonsense, and with licentious desires of the flesh they entice people who have just escaped from those who live in error’ (2 Peter 2.18).  Indeed, their liberation teachings are nothing more than the advocacy of slavery—a slavery to corruption: ‘They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption; for people are slaves to whatever masters them’ (2 Peter 2.19).  Peter concludes his description of these false teachers in his day with words of equal relevance to today:

For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment that was passed on to them.  22 It has happened to them according to the true proverb, “The dog turns back to its own vomit,” and, “The sow is washed only to wallow in the mud” (2 Peter.2.21-22).

Thus, the direction of false teaching is to accommodate oneself to the world rather than find salvation in Christ.  Jesus died for sinners.  Pastoral care continuously points people to the cross: Jesus died for all our sins once for all (1 Peter 3.18).  False shepherds undermine the cross because they undermine the presence of sin.  Instead, they affirm the sins of the people.  What the early Church encountered in false teachers was an accommodation of the Christian message to Greek and Roman culture.  The false teachers in our day accommodate Christian teaching and ethics to the sinful ways of our culture.  As certain preachers accommodated Scripture to a slave culture in the 19th century southern America, so also in our day preachers are accommodating Scripture to the sexual debauchery of Western culture.  But Christ came to die for our sins.  Jesus the Pastor died for our sins.  The Shepherd gave his life for the sheep (John 10.11, 15).  This fact sticks in the throat of all who whitewash what the Church has called sin: if Jesus died for our sins, and if what Scripture has said is sin is not any longer considered to be sin, then why did Jesus die?

Conclusion

The language of ‘pastoral accommodation’ has helped give us language to understand Jesus’ criticism of the scribes and Pharisees, whose accommodations to a status quo of sin formed the backdrop for Jesus’ own Kingdom of God ethic.  Jesus refused to relax the commandments of God but, in fact, extended their interpretation to call for the sinlessness expected at the pre-Fall time of creation.  Indeed, this point was made precisely in regard to the sexual ethics around divorce and remarriage: Jesus argues that, except in the case of immorality, this amounts to nothing more than adultery (Matthew 19.1-9).  The relevance for this exchange is directly applicable to other sexual ethics condemned in the Scriptures, including homosexuality.

With the ethical bar raised rather than lowered, the only hope for sinful humanity is the work of Christ himself to bring God’s salvation, His forgiving and transforming grace.  Pastorally, this means that sinners are not welcomed because their sin really is not sin or really is not sinful enough.  It means that sinners are welcomed because they have a Saviour, who not only forgives their sins but is at work in their lives to transform them from one degree of glory to another into the image of the Lord (2 Corinthians 3.18).  The incarnated Jesus knows our temptations and, as our high priest, has offered the perfect sacrifice for our sins.  He also continues to function as our priest.  The way to inclusion is not to deny sin but to confess our sinfulness and turn to Christ.

Finally, Christ as our Shepherd sets the example for elders serving the Church as shepherds and that over against the false shepherds that have always plagued the Church and assuredly do so today.  The false shepherds bend the Christian faith to the culture and away from Christ’s death as it inconveniently points out our sin.  Pastoral care of sinners helps them turn to the cross, for the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1.7).

[1][1] Paul has earlier quoted from several verses in Isaiah and may still be developing his interpretation of Isaiah 59.  Romans 3.15-17 quotes Isaiah 59.7-8.  His reference to the ‘righteousness of God’ and ‘redemption’ may continue the connection with Isaiah 59.20-21.

[2] This can be said, e.g., of Alan Wilson, Anglican Bishop of Buckingham, UK.  He avers, ‘It’s the queering – the subversion – that actually is the power in the religion, not literalism about what was in the book.’  See the video of his speech and Jeffrey Walton’s ‘UK Bishop Alan Wilson on Jesus’ ‘Queering Project;’ available online at: https://juicyecumenism.com/2016/06/27/uk-bishop-speaks-jesus-queering-project/ (accessed 28 June, 2016).

Posted by Rollin Grams at 17:40

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Labels: Afflictions of the ‘Body’, Christian Mission in the West, The Church

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