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Is Pastoral Care Theological?

Is Pastoral Care Theological?

This very question is the subject of two essays published this week. The first, “Christ and Care for the Marginalized” by Peter Robinson, is located on The Living Church’s Covenant blog, and is part of an ongoing series prepared as part of the preparation for the Anglican Church of Canada’s General Synod. The second, “Jesus and the Theological Priority of the Marginalized” by Brian Walsh, is available here. Both essays explore the underpinnings of the practice of pastoral care for LGBTQIA+ members. Robinson’s argument is essentially that the trend toward inclusion comes at the expense of the full realization of the Incarnation. Walsh’s counters this by asserting that Sabbath, not marriage, is the proper locus for including all at the table.

From Robinson’s essay:

The idea that we should respond pastorally rather than theologically aligns with the tendency in the 20th century for pastoral theology to begin with the social sciences on the assumption that it is pastoral rather than theological. At the heart of our confusion are basic assumptions about the incarnation – that in Jesus Christ God has entered into the world so that we might know him and live in response to him. And, in relationship to pastoral care, that Jesus realizes and shows us what it means to be human.  This, in contrast to the popular assumption that the incarnation is a straightforward affirmation of our humanity as we already understand it to be.  As a result, we avoid the tension of living towards what it means to be remade in Christ and towards Christ.

The incarnation, as such, is not a simple affirmation of the intrinsic value of our humanity but is the declaration that God’s love and judgment are one and the same. This is most fully visual on the cross. Pastoral care, in an era when an emphasis on the incarnation excises the cross, inevitably shifts towards the idea of enabling individuals to realize their own identity, even while it is not clear exactly what that might mean.

… Priests and ministers who hold to the traditional understanding of marriage find themselves facing anger from some for their stance and anger from others because of the actions of the Anglican Church. There is no easy or magical pastoral solution to this conflict. It is rather, to identify with Christ: Christ, held up on the cross, calls us to radically question our “natural” tendency to exclude those we see as different just as he calls us to recognize what it might cost to stand for the gospel and against popular opinion.

We are called to speak the truth of Christ but we can never do so lightly or glibly. In the light of the cross we must allow ourselves to be confronted by the pain that others have faced in being excluded at the same time as we face the inevitable conflict that arises from continuing to speak of our calling towards an identity in Christ that is not about self-realization or self-fulfillment.

And from Walsh’s rebuttal:

Maybe there is a body of literature in pastoral studies out there that divorces theology and pastoral care in this way, but I don’t know of it. But is there really a pastoral theology that says that the best we have to offer is our own human efforts to be caring and inclusive? I don’t think that affirming pastors have given up on biblical reflection, prayer and dependence on the Holy Spirit.

… Just as there is no psychotherapeutic practice apart from fundamental views of what it means to be human, the nature of pathology, etc., so also is there no pastoral care apart from certain kinds of theological assumptions about faithful and healthy human life, sin, forgiveness and redemption. In the matter of LGBTQ+ inclusion or exclusion in the body of Christ there are undoubtedly different theological perspectives at work and they are manifest in contrasting and conflicting models of pastoral care, but no one is saying, “here is my theology on one side, and here is my pastoral practice on the other, and I happen to prioritize one over the other.”

… Jesus ends up on the cross because of his identification with and pastoral care of the marginalized, not because the marginalized are upset at him for maintaining the theological status quo. This is a crucial distinction.

Again, Robinson is right: “in relationship to pastoral care … Jesus realizes and shows us what it means to be human.” Yes, here is the incarnate one, the Word made flesh, the one who demonstrates and makes available to us, what full, authentic and redeemed human life looks like.





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Marshall Scott

While I certainly agree with Walsh, I find myself perhaps more frustrated with Robinson than he. I agree with the critique that Robinson makes an artificial separation between theology and pastoral care. Indeed, among professional chaplains the ability to articulate a coherent theology and to express that with integrity in care of souls is sine qua non in professional certification. So, what seems more apparent to me is that Robinson holds up a theological stance toward human beings that others simply don’t find compelling (and, really, aren’t all our theologies ever only partial?), and then doesn’t find their theology compelling; and then apparently wants to deny that it is theologically coherent. With this in mind, I then reached the end of his discourse thinking, “I really can affirm so much of what he says; and based on those same principles have also come to an almost opposite moral decision.”

John Rabb

Brian Walsh is correct that any and all ministry must be theological grounded, and not conformed to other matters. This is true of traditionalists and liberals as well as any other school of thought. It is not possible for me to read the Gospels and not see the cry for Biblical justice, and so why are we calling it social justice? It is impossible for me to see Jesus among those most marginalized, such as the lepers and, actually, for him the Gentiles and not have to ask what is God calling me to do? Paraphrasing Dietrich Bonhoeffer I have to note that he found so much of the American theology he experienced, and it is still the case, as God in Christ as a safety net, fire fighter or court of last resort. Whereas Christ must in the lead and at center in and through all things. No moe lukewarm theology, and who has ever beeen converted by such?

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