Christian Life

Are we confused about pastoral care? Part 3

We Still Need to Love One Another

Just because the activities we have traditionally associated with pastoral care are not in keeping with the biblical language, does render them unimportant activities. All that it means is that we’ve started to call it by a different name.

In fact, what people often mean when they use the term “pastoral care” is simply the responsibility of every member to “love and care for one another.”  We mean that we should make ourselves available to serve one another through practical demonstrations of love such as: spending time with each other, visiting people who are shut in, visiting the sick in hospital, praying for each other, helping each other in practical ways, offering emotional support in times of crisis. All of these acts of love prove to the watching world that we are disciples of Christ. As we have mentioned at the beginning, loving one another is absolutely vital to the health of the church.

Where do we go from here?

What are we to do with the conflict between the secular and biblical definitions of “pastoral care”. I think there are three possible ways forward…

  1. We reject the secular definition and embrace the biblical definition. This may sound like the most sensible option for Bible-believing Christians but waging war against the evolution of language may end up as a whistling in the wind. 
  2. We reject the biblical definition and embrace the secular definition. Although this may seem like the path of least resistance, it leads to confusion down the line. Ultimately we lose sight of the God-defined priorities for the church.
  3. What I propose is that we create a distinction between “pastoral care” (referring to our responsibility to love one another) and “pastoral ministry” (referring to the threefold ministry of the eldership). This way we can create two separate biblical categories that can both be developed and defined biblically.  Hopefully this will help us to protect  and clarify the ministry of the elders (cf. Acts 6) and also emphasise the importance of every member ministry. On this basis I will move forward.

The Every-Member Ministry of Pastoral Care 

Ultimately all aspects of the church’s health and life are the responsibility of the eldership. However, because we are defining pastoral care as “love one another” ministry, we need to recognise that the entire congregation is needed to ensure that the church is effectively caring for itself.

What Pastoral Care is Not

We’ve already established the difference between pastoral care and the pastoral ministry of the elders. However, even after making this distinction we still need to point out some services that people may expect from the church that do not fall under the biblical definition of pastoral care – that is, of loving one another. 

  1. Pastoral Care is not counselling, therapy or medical practice. Christians can offer a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, and Bible verse and prayer to encourage. However, sometimes we need to recognise that this will not be enough and that professional and medical help may be needed. We should not feel that we have failed if this is the case nor should we pretend to be something we are not – qualified counsellors.
  2. Pastoral Care is not social work. Likewise when the ministry of the church intersects with difficult family or home life, vulnerable adults, or comes into the territory of social services, we should not act out of place or pretend to be trained professionals. Rather we should offer support and encouragement during difficult times. 
  3. Pastoral Care is not legal or police work. Some churches find themselves in trouble because they have sought to deal with criminal offences as pastoral care. For example, cases of child abuse or sexual assault should be reported to the police rather dealt with internally. This does not mean that  we abandon those people who need us, but care for  them as they trust the laws and justice of the land.

I would however, like to make a distinction between counselling and biblical counselling. Biblical Counselling is merely the application of biblical teaching to the messiness of life. It is part of the teaching ministry of the church and as such comes under the “pastoral ministry” of the elders. However, any Christian can “counsel” other Christians by helping them to think biblically about their circumstances. What we should be on guard to avoid is the temptation to stray into matters that may require medicinal or professional help.

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