Theology vs Pastoral Care
“It’s a very difficult subject.” These are words I’ve often heard over the last months as the consequences of the Church of England’s recent announcements are discussed. Don’t worry, this isn’t another blog about that! What I do want to think about is what it means that something’s “a difficult subject”.
There are at least two things we can mean. First, we might mean that the subject is a difficult one to understand. In the way that quantum physics or the question of universals is hard to understand. Secondly, however, it can mean that the subject’s something we don’t want to talk about. As in, “this is difficult to say, but your car’s going to cost £3000 to fix!”
When it comes to discussing the question of offering blessings for same-sex marriages, this is an important distinction because when someone in a church setting says, “I want to admit this is a difficult subject,” it should be made absolutely clear that it’s meant in the second sense. That it’s difficult because we don’t want to talk about it, and not in the sense that we’re not sure what the Scriptures teach.
And yet, it isn’t absolutely clear. What many in the congregation hear (because it’s what many want to hear), is that it’s difficult to know what Scripture teaches and that there are different views that can be tolerated.
Despite knowing this instinctively, it’s sorely tempting to hide behind this particular equivocation. After all, we know what we mean and it’s not our fault if we’re misunderstood. On top of which, it’s pastorally insensitive to be clear on doctrine isn’t it?
And therein lies the real question. The true temptation to equivocate comes from our belief that it allows us to be pastorally sensitive. But does it? Is it really the case that clarity on theological issues means being pastorally hard-hearted? Quite the opposite turns out to be the case. It’s theological clarity that allows us to be pastorally sensitive.
Imagine for a minute that a patient was sat in an oncologist’s office. They know the patient opposite has stage four cancer. The doctor leans over and say, “this is difficult to say, it could be you have stage four cancer.” “Could be,” says the patient. “What do you mean, could be?” “Well,” says the oncologist. “There are different ways the data can be interpreted. There are lots of opinions and so you tell me, do you think you’ve got stage four cancer?”
In the office next door another oncologist and another patient. The second doctor leans over and says, “I’m sorry to have to tell you that you have stage four cancer. I’m so sorry and I’m here for you.”
Which doctor was sensitive? Which doctor opened space for pastoral care? The first doctor, the one who hid from his diagnosis, wasn’t even clear enough to begin a healing conversation. Let alone get very far along with it. The second, no doubt didn’t enjoy giving the news of the reality of the situation but was able to walk alongside the patient through the coming events.
As doctors of the soul, pastoral care isn’t hindered by the clarity of theological diagnosis but begins there. The only person we’re protecting by equivocation is ourselves. Unless, of course, a spirit of unbelief has so gripped our hearts that we don’t believe in the destructive reality of sin’s sinfulness?
Either way we need to repent. If this has been us, we need to repent of protecting ourselves at the price of another’s spiritual well-being. And if the latter, repent and ask for help in our unbelief.
In the end, brothers and sisters, theology and pastoral care are not opposed to one another for pastoral care can only begin where a theological diagnosis leaves off.