Saturday, December 2, 2023

What we need is real pastoral practice. . .

We live in an age in which there is great debate over whether the practice of the Church should be softer or easier OR harder and more rigorous.  This has everything to do with things like who communes to what instruction is required of converts to the routine of coffee cups and water bottles in the pews.  We are also instinctively adverse to zealots of any persuasion so it goes without saying that the image seems always to be moving toward a kinder and gentler Christianity.  That said, what exactly should be our practice?

The reality is that kinder and gentler usually ends up being fuzzier.  It is not good pastoral practice to end up with confusion.  The Church owes it to her people to be precise -- especially when it comes to doctrine but this is not less true for faithful practice.  Though many would see the retention of dogma in theory as good, most folks probably would like to see more latitude in practice.  How odd it is, however, that we want what we believe to be consistent and clear because we consider it theoretical but in the practical realm we would prefer some flexibility.  Yet the real question is whether the doctrine is preserved at all if the practice is unclear, diverse, or inconsistent.

Now there are radically different applications of this.  On the one hand we could be talking about sin.  How does it help to be fuzzy about sin and how does it foster the growth or life of the Church at the expense of the Biblical morality in which right and wrong are clear?  Absolution does not mean we are fuzzy about sin.  Jesus forgives the sinner but does not shrug off or dismiss the sin as no big deal.  Just the opposite.  The woman in John 8 was not given an easy way out of her sin.  Yes, the Lord forgave her but then He sent her forth saying "Go and sin no more."  Jesus did not tell her that her sin did not matter nor did He leave her with the impression that absolution was license to continue in her sin.  So at least the Church must do what Jesus did.

On the other hand, faithful pastoral practice realizes that people are different and our response to them must reflect this.  Jesus treated the Pharisees with little patience and, though He engaged in conversation with a lawyer seeking His approval, Jesus did not make it easy on him (Go and sell all that you have and give the money to the poor).  Likewise, we meet people where they are but we do not leave them there.  Meeting them where they are means the response will be different without compromising the truth.  A person with same sex attraction who struggles to be celibate is far different from a same sex couple showing up asking to have their "marriage" blessed.  Again, it is not a matter of being liberal or conservative, harsh or easy -- it is a matter of being faithful.

Jesus Christ is the surely model for all pastors.  Pastors are called to love and care for their flocks, to seek out and reclaim the lost, to console and encourage the hurting, and to comfort the sorrowing.  We do this with the resources God has supplied in His Word and Sacraments.  In the same way pastors are called to protect their flock from danger (very real danger).  No faithful pastor allows the sheep in his care to wander off into the wilderness without seeking them out and calling them back.  No faithful pastor abandons the flock to wolves (either by silence or by the failure to teach who the wolves are). Pastoral means being strong enough to warn, to exhort, and to correct -- not out of anger but in love as our Lord warns us.  In the same way, being pastoral does not mean catering to the whims of our people any more than they are to cater to the shepherd.  What ought to be the concern of the pastors is that which ought to be the concern of the sheep -- is it faithful and true according to God's Word and apostolic tradition.  The most pastoral thing a shepherd can do is to be faithful and the least the sheep can expect from their pastor is this -- in doctrine, of course, but also in practice.

The Church will not be guided by listening to the people nor will pastors find success by listening to their flock.  We should both be listening to the voice of God's Word.  We should both endeavor to faithfully confess and live the sacred deposit once delivered to the saints, passed down to us, and preserved by us for the sake of the next generation.  This is what it means to be pastoral.  The reality is that kinder and gentler tends to me less faithful and because of that it is also less pastoral.

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