The Use of the Bible in Pastoral Care
Part Three: Drawn to the Religionless
These first few posts in this series are autobiographical, tracing my journey as a minister within the world of evangelicalism. I’m doing this with the goal of putting some “flesh” on the subject. In posts to come, we’ll look at some thoughts about the Bible itself and how caring Christians and pastors might find it to be a rich resource for ministering to others.
Here are a couple of quotes to set up one last stage in my own experience that changed the way I came to view my vocation as a minister.
…the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.
• Luke 4:25-28
Think of it this way. The program of our church is everything all the members are doing between Sundays. The church keeps house, goes to school, teaches, practices law, medicine and dentistry, runs business and industry, farms, works on construction jobs, researches in many fields, sits on school boards, city councils, county councils, state legislatures and congress. Between Sundays the church is involved in everything productive and constructive that is happening in our community. And it does so as a witness to Christ, to the glory of God, in His love and in the power of the Holy Spirit, sensitive to its accountability to Christ.
“And what of the church work which is done in and for the church organization? Its purpose is to equip each member to do the work for the church Monday through Saturday. All the programs within the church are for the purpose of enabling the church to do the work of ministry between Sundays when she is invisible as a congregation.”
• Richard Halverson, How I Changed My Thinking about the Church, p.106f
I often ask myself why a “Christian instinct” often draws me more to the religionless people than to the religious, by which I don’t in the least mean with any evangelizing intention, but, I might almost say, “in brotherhood.” While I’m often reluctant to mention God by name to religious people — because that name somehow seems to me here not to ring true, and I feel myself to be slightly dishonest (it’s particularly bad when others start to talk in religious jargon; I then dry up almost completely and feel awkward and uncomfortable) — to people with no religion I can on occasion mention him by name quite calmly and as a matter of course. Religious people speak of God when human knowledge (perhaps simply because they are too lazy to think) has come to an end, or when human resources fail — in fact it is always the deus ex machina that they bring on to the scene, either for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure — always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries. Of necessity, that can go on only till people can by their own strength push these boundaries somewhat further out, so that God becomes superfluous as a deus ex machina. I’ve come to be doubtful of talking about any human boundaries (is even death, which people now hardly fear, and is sin, which they now hardly understand, still a genuine boundary today?). It always seems to me that we are trying anxiously in this way to reserve some space for God; I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the center, not in weaknesses but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness.
• Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letter to Eberhard Bethge, 30 April 1944
I was trained and equipped by my evangelical education to do essentially two things:
- To make it my priority to study, teach, and preach the Bible.
- To center my life and work in the institution of the church.
Little encouragement or education was given me in the realm of pastoral care. In my segment of evangelicalism, at least, it was understood that a pastor = a “pastor-teacher,” a syntactical combination which was justified through a certain reading of texts like Ephesians 4:11 and passages in the Pastoral Epistles. The pastor’s duty was to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2).
Ministers in historic traditions and mainline Protestant groups were trained in worship and sacraments, church history and tradition, pastoral care, counseling, and visitation, and community service and social engagement. They were encouraged to read widely, to be students of the world and culture, to see a kinship between their religious studies and the liberal arts, the sciences, and creative arts.
The Bible school movement, on the other hand, and the culture of fundamentalism and evangelicalism was separatist in nature. From its pietistic and revivalist roots, it created institutions whose world was dominated by a focus on the Bible (and some particular doctrinal emphasis) alone. Some evangelicals tried to balance that in the mid-20th century, and the seminary I attended was heir to that “neo-evangelicalism.” Nevertheless, in reality, TEDS never strayed from their foundationalist bottom-line, and its education was oriented around training us primarily to study and communicate the truths of an inerrant, authoritative Bible.
It was also very church-centered. The men and women who went there expected to find vocations within the church world, either in local congregations, denominations, missions, or parachurch organizations. Although there was a spectrum of separatistic attitudes about how much Christians should be involved in the community and the world, it was clear to me that we were to be “temple servants,” doing most of our work within the boundaries of the ecclesia.
A couple of major influences in my life after seminary, while I served in local churches, opened me up to a wider world and a broader view of ministry.
First, I had children, children who we enrolled in public schools and who participated in community activities such as youth sports programs. As they grew, and they became more involved, I began to not only attend games but to coach. This not only rejuvenated my long set aside love of sports, baseball in particular, but it increasingly immersed me in a world outside the confines of the sanctuary and study.
Over the years, I received some criticism from church people for the amount of time I gave to these activities. I’m sure there was some validity to this, and I probably became defensive about it in some unhealthy ways. However, there was also something happening in my heart and life through this “real world” experience. Like Bonhoeffer, I found myself being “drawn to the religionless.” Some of our friendships with school and sports neighbors became deeper and more meaningful than relationships within the congregation. I learned new ways to talk about faith and “spiritual things” that seemed more natural and down to earth. I felt myself becoming more human, less “spiritual,” more a person who was part of the fabric of an entire community, and not just a “pastor” whose life was hidden away within a religious organization.
Once my youngest, when our car stopped at a crossroads where we could see our church building, said to me, “Look Dad, there’s the church where we live.” Ouch. I was learning not to like that idea much anymore.
Second, I went around the world on some mission trips, primarily to India. Though these trips were very evangelically oriented, the mere act of leaving my comfortable home and going to a place so different, so complex, with so much variety, with sights, sounds, smells, and experiences so far beyond what I had ever imagined the world to be like, was the best kind of shock treatment. I was awakened and lifted out of the smallness of my world, my thinking, my experience, my expectations, my presuppositions.
People who go on these kinds of trips will tell you that one of the greatest challenges is not the culture shock you feel when you get to a new place, but when you get home. These trips uncovered the parochialism of the world in which I lived. In particular, I began to see the parochial perspective of the church and evangelical culture. What was important to me and so many of my fellow parishioners now seemed to pale in comparison with the grand vision of the world to which I had been exposed. Our little programs, the teaching we found comfort in, the inability to see beyond our agenda became increasingly frustrating to me.
• • •
You may well ask, at this point, okay I get your journey, but what does this have to do with the use of the Bible in pastoral care?
But you see, I can’t talk about the latter without describing the former. The way we read the Bible, the way we understand what it is and what it’s designed to do, is intimately tied to the community in which we practice our faith and the expectations and traditions we buy into in that community.
I ultimately came to think that evangelicalism was often missing the mark when it came to what the Bible was for, and how to use it in ministry. I still love the church (in all my conflicted relationship with it), and I still believe in good preaching and teaching. I consider that a gift of evangelicalism to me. But it is an incomplete gift.
Evangelicalism’s perspective often fails to include how to know yourself, how to be fully human, and how to live in the real world among your neighbors. It fosters a “temple mentality” in which people separate themselves from the world in many different ways and focus their attention on programs and priorities within the institution.
I came to think that the Bible does not really support that point of view, and that the Bible itself should be set free from the chains that perspective puts on it.