I am often unsure what to make of people, faced with teaching from scripture, want to encourage us to consider the “pastoral implications”. Whether it be facing the biblical teaching on marriage and its implications for same-sex attracted people, the doctrine of complementarianism and its implications for gender roles or that vexed issue of the ordinances and who it is appropriate to welcome into the church and what is demanded on those who would seek to be welcomed. All of these are examples of teaching on which the Bible has something specific to say but some are keen to encourage us to be aware, and even to moderate what we perceive to be the biblical position, based on “pastoral concerns”.
My major concern with the call to be mindful of the pastoral implications is that it so often sounds to me like a call to set aside what the bible clearly teaches on a matter so we can make people who will not abide by it feel more comfortable. Of course, I would love it if a church altered its position on any number of things to align with my views and welcome me. But I, ironically, wouldn’t want to join the church that did that in the face of what it actually believed on the matter at hand. A church willing to change its position in the face of what it thinks the Bible is teaching in order to welcome those who see no reason to abide by such things is not, in my view, being faithful. It is placing the desire to welcome over and above what the Lord explicitly commands and sets aside the very grounds by which Jesus says we ought not to welcome.
Of course, everyone agrees with this when it concerns matters they reckon to be sinful. You don’t get many genuine evangelicals arguing that our churches should become affirming despite teaching clearly about Jesus’ views on marriage and same-sex relationships. Their uniform understanding of what is and is not sin in these circumstances mean most are quite ready to say that we ought not to welcome those who would ride roughshod over the commands of Christ in this area.
The issue tends to come when one party considers a matter one of sin and faithfulness while the other does not. The argument in such circumstances boils down to I do not find this sinful so you should welcome me. There seems to be little recognition that I might find it sinful so cannot welcome you if you refuse to acknowledge it is so.
There is also little recognition, when it comes to this pastoral argument, that none of us think the pastoral answer to sin is to welcome the person doing it and to say no more about it, content to let them continue in it. We can say all we like that the matter is “second order” or whatever, but since when is it “pastoral” to let people continue in sin? Since when is it “pastoral” to welcome them in when we are convinced Jesus says we are only to welcome them if they address that particular thing? Are we not called to remove people from the church who are in sin, not to welcome them and comfort them in their ongoing sinfulness? It seems strange to me that we would welcome those Jesus has told us not to welcome, on terms he has told us not to welcome them on, and then to argue that we are somehow being pastoral in doing so.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think in any area there may be pastoral issues involved. If we are calling people to do A, B or C because Jesus says so and we cannot welcome them into the church until they do/stop doing those things, there are pastoral implications. In a sense, everything is pastoral. Everything will have pastoral implications that must be worked through, both welcoming and not welcoming, affirming and challenging. The question is not whether there will be pastoral implications, but how we address the pastoral implications.
It is all very well worrying about the pastoral implications for the individuals (which tends to occupy our thoughts) but there seems to be little concern for the pastoral implications for the rest of the church. If we welcome this person sleeping with their unmarried partner, what are we communicating to the church about the need to remain faithful in our singleness or in our marriages? Pastoral implications abound. In the lesser order, but nevertheless serious matter, of the ordinances – welcoming this unbaptised person and admitting that non-member to the table – what are we communicating to those who profess faith about baptism, membership and the Lord’s Supper? If these are all things we can agree to disagree on, we can take or leave, that are “second order” issues not to split hairs about, can we be overly surprised if one unbaptised person and non-member who professes faith is admitted to the table that nobody else in the church sees baptism or membership as overly important when they can access the privileges of membership apart from the those things? If we think Jesus did actually teach a mode of baptism, can we be very surprised if those who reject it see no reason to do anything to obey Jesus on this matter when we ourselves are telling them it just doesn’t really matter.
But which of the commands of Christ do we have liberty to say that about? Which commands of his does Jesus say the pastorally appropriate thing to do is to set it aside because it isn’t that important? Which of them does Jesus say we can agree to disagree about it and we don’t need to call to repentance those who will not do what Jesus says (so we believe) they ought to do? If the answer is none of them, what business do we have suggesting the pastoral response is the one that disregards them?
In the end, the pastoral thing to do is to point people to Christ and to call them to faithfulness in him. If we think Jesus has put things in place that matter for the local church, being pastoral must mean faithfully standing on those things Christ has called the church to stand on. It cannot be pastoral to encourage people to set aside Jesus’ commands and to say they simply do not matter. The pastoral implications of doing that, I would argue, are far worse.