A Brief Biblical Theology of Pastoral Care
Although “pastoral care” is not a phrase that is found in the Bible, the concept behind it surely is. The term “pastoral” comes from the Latin for “shepherd”. In other words, pastoral care is the care given by shepherds to their flock or pastors (elders) to their churches. In order to understand this more fully we need to look at the bigger picture.
God is the Pastor of his People
Passages such as Psalm 23 remind us that pastoral care starts with God himself. God is the great shepherd of his people. Pastoral care in the Bible is fundamentally about how God cares for his people.
This is ultimately true of the Lord Jesus who describes himself as the “good shepherd” who lays down his life for the sheep and leads them into the sheepfold. The Lord Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins was the ultimate act of pastoral care.
God Provides Pastors for Israel
Although God always will be the primary shepherd of his people, it is also true that he appoints people to the responsibility of pastoral care on his behalf. This was true of Adam and Eve in the garden and also of the prophets, priests and kings of the people of Israel. Ezekiel 34 reminds us that although God had appointed these ministries to lead, protect and provide for his people, they ultimately failed, necessitating the incarnation of Christ as the Messiah – the ultimate Prophet, Priest and King.
Prophets were to pastorally care for Israel as faithful preachers of God’s Word to the people.
Priests were to pastorally care for Israel by leading them in the temple worship and making atonement for them through the sacrificial system.
Kings were to pastorally care for Israel by ensuring that God’s law was obeyed in every aspect of life in the nation.
What About the Church?
The church continues the story of Israel as the people of God now that the Messiah has come. Obviously however, the people of God no longer have prophets, priests or kings to shepherd them. Rather, all of those Old Covenant patterns were merely types and shadows that have now been fulfilled in the ministry of Christ.
Does that mean that there is no need for “under-shepherds” to carry the responsibility of pastoral care in the church? This is where the ministry of the elders (pastors) comes into the story. These elders, appointed by the apostles shortly after each church was planted, were to continue the prophetic, priestly and kingly ministry of Christ in their churches, supported and assisted by deacons. Their role was to preach the Word, administer the ordinances of baptism and communion, oversee the worship of the church on the Lord’s Day, and lead the church into increasing maturity and faithfulness.
A Biblical Definition of Pastoral Care
The pastoral care defined by the scriptures could be summarised as follows…
- The Lord Jesus Christ is the ultimate pastor of his people who has provided the greatest pastoral care for the church through his teaching, sacrificial death and resurrection from the dead. In this, Christ fulfilled the pastoral ministry of the prophets, priests and kings of the Old Testament.
- The Lord has given to the church pastors (elders) who have the responsibility of providing pastoral care on his behalf and until his return.
- The pastoral care of the elders shares the threefold nature of the Lord’s ministry: prophetic, priestly and kingly. Pastors are “prophets” who proclaim the Word of God as it has been revealed in the Scriptures. Elders are “priests” who lead the people in worship and point people to the sacrifice of Christ as the only way to atone for their sins. Overseers (another word for the pastor/elder office) are the “kings” who are to oversee every area of church life and ensure that Christ’s rule is consistently obeyed throughout the church.
- Therefore pastoral care, biblically understood, refers specifically this threefold ministry of the elders in the church.