December 3, 2020

The Use of the Bible in Pastoral Care (3)

Taj Mahal, 1996

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:

  1. To make it my priority to study, teach, and preach the Bible.
  2. 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.

CM in India, 1996

• • •

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.


  1. “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.”

    Mike, you have come to the heart of the post-evangelical journey. As you say, there are still many good things about evangelicalism, but this fostering of the “temple mentality” is destructive and counter-productive to our “ministry of reconciliation”. This mentality makes the God-breathed scriptures “the letter that killeth” instead of the spirit that gives life.

    • I do feel like evangelicalism knows theoretically it is supposed to be equipping you for the world outside the doors, it just gets snarled up in the details of its complex and forgets to leave time for people to LIVE that life. I think this is especially true of suburban evangelicalism, and suburbia is already a lifestyle that is particularly isolating. It takes a model of hobbies and activities that are ends unto themselves, which works fine for lots of things, but makes for insular churches.

    • I liked those two paragraphs, too, Mike the Geo. I’ve heard several Christian speakers begin to address the idea of “how to know yourself, how to be fully human, and how to live in the real world among your neighbors.” It’s been quite refreshing. The battle, however, is against those whose perception of God is as “moral manager,” which is still a significant viewpoint of Evangelical Protestantism. When we view God as more interested in our “sin” behavior than anything else, it’s no wonder we run back to the temple.

      To me, the Bible’s purpose is to illuminate the Good News of Jesus Christ (the amazing love and grace of God through Jesus) to those who don’t yet know it, which hopefully fuels a desire to follow Him, and as we follow Him (which reading the Bible is a part of) we hopefully then recognize the Good News of Jesus to even GREATER depths, which hopefully then fuels a desire to share the Good News with those who don’t know Him.

      I love reading the Bible. I love teaching it. My understanding of His love has grown way beyond what it was when I initially decided to follow Him. That process does, at times, cause me to drift toward a “temple” mentality. I’d like to think, though, that it’s also led me to bear better fruit of the Spirit outside the walls of my church.

      I guess what I’m saying is that I think a healthy, right perspective of God’s being/essence/character is vital to being a good pastor, a good Christian, and approaching the Bible correctly.

      • “When we view God as more interested in our “sin” behavior than anything else, it’s no wonder we run back to the temple.”

        Ok then, let me ask a hypothetical question then, in the absence of anyone else to raise the subject… what do we do with all of the OT and NT passages which indicate that God is indeed primarily interested in our sin behavior?

        • I could go on and on about certain interpretations of those particular verses, but I’ll keep it at a few main points:

          1) Original “sin” manifests itself more in our hiddenness from God and His desire to be in relationship with us than about anything else.

          2) The “legalism” that crept into sin management in the OT was promised to be done away with by a new covenant (which came through Jesus).

          3) I would say that Jesus rarely talks about sin management in the gospel accounts. “Go and sin no more” is in there, sure, but he’s primarily interested in our right relationship with God. And he never condemns sinners; he directs his most pointed barbs at the religious folks who HAVE made it all about sin management aka legalism.

          4) Having recently gone through four of Paul’s epistles and now the book of Hebrews, I’m fairly certain God is most specifically interested in our understanding of His love for us and His grace to us through Jesus Christ His son. Sure, some specific verses seem to hit on “sin”, but when taken in the context of the messages in the entire books and letters, they’re rather minor.

          In other words, my opinion…sin management is totally blown out of proportion by evangelical protestants.

        • Here’s a daring and perhaps heretical question: Do we follow Jesus by saying, “You have heard it said…but I say…?” Do we see the evolution of human consciousness being brought into a more demanding arena of responsibility? One that requires more of us? One that requires the individual to shoulder the burden of his or her own darkness by finding meaning in it and thereby transforming it. Jesus said, “It is done.” He opened the Holy of Holys and brought us into the blazing presence. That eternal reality is real but often in a nebulous way. Still here we are in space and time experiencing darkness. Perhaps more is required than the sin repent sin repent cycle. Finding new meaning ourselves may reveal unseen meaning or a new context in scripture. I’m really not sure exactly what I’m getting at but the morality policing seems like old wine skins that have lost staying power. When that happens a new, and usually more challenging, thing takes its place. Something that restores light and meaning. Logos is the eternal and living word. I’ll stop now before I confuse myself.

          • I think you’re onto something, Chris. The analogy I’ve used in the past is teeth cleaning. It’s perhaps a bit of a stretch, but hopefully it makes a bit of sense. Here it is:

            When we stepped away from God to “eat of the world”, our teeth became unclean. God said, “Well, if you want to come back to me your teeth must be clean, and for them to be clean you must brush daily, using this specific toothpaste, and not just brush but you must brush following this specific pattern and in this specific bathroom. Only then will your teeth be clean. But because you continue to eat of the world, you must keep cleaning and brushing your teeth.”

            Then God said, “But my promise to you is that I’ll send you a new toothpaste that will make it so you’ll only need to brush with once, one time only, and then your teeth will be clean forever. And even though you continue to eat of the world your teeth will remain clean, no need to continue to use the old toothpaste, no need to brush using the specific pattern, no need to brush in the specific bathroom.”

            So the question is…once you use a toothpaste that cleans your teeth once and forever…WHY WOULD YOU EVER GO BACK TO THE OLD TOOTHPASTE!?!?

          • Thanks Rick and Charles for your responses

        • Sin is one of those religious words that everyone uses and if you ask what it means, everyone says that everyone knows what it means. But if you ask people to write down in ten words or less what sin is, you get wildly divergent answers and some people cannot answer without taking two pages. Too often the discussion takes a very low and limited level of spiritual consciousness, God as Santa Claus, sin as breaking the law and needing to be punished, He sees you when you’re sleeping, He knows when you’re awake, He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake! Let’s call this the first grade level of consciousness.

          There’s nothing wrong with being in the first grade if that’s your natural level at the time. We all have to start wherever we are and God meets us there. With some exceptions, there probably is something wrong if we insist on staying in the first grade sitting sideways because our knees won’t fit under the desk anymore. There is probably also something wrong if you are in the sixth grade and you wait outside after school to harass and bully the first graders because they are in the first grade and don’t know how to read or work decimals. Quite possibly some kindness and protection and help for those showing more ability might work better.

          Beyond a childish perspective, sin might be seen as anything coming between us and the ongoing Presence of God. This could vary for various people, and beyond the rule book would need the ability to be able to experience the Presence of God or its lack rather than merely reading about it. Now we’re into more grown up territory and a lot of people prefer to play in the grade school playground. It’s much easier to just memorize your Thou Shalt Nots to avoid coal in your stocking.

  2. “If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world, it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better, but rather because it is a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.”
    James Davison Hunter. It is fair to say that Hunter maintains mainline Protestant, Catholic, and evangelical attempts at evangelism, political action, and social reform are going to fail because of the working theory that undergird their strategies. I call them pietism, idealism, and individualism. Or in other words, in relationship to culture, conservative Christians are defensive against, liberal ones try to be relevant to, and anabaptist strategy is to try purity from. There is quite a bit to unpack in the idea of being a faithful presence. Wouldn’t hurt anyone. In fact, could be a quite a helper.
    A type of the annointed one.

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    I’m doing this with the goal of putting some “flesh” on the subject.

    Hopefully the normal meaning of “flesh” instead of the Christianese one.

  4. Yep, slowly learned that along the way, too. Maybe cuz of kids, maybe it was simply the scales dropping from eyes to see the world around me.
    No one had ever thought to tell me to engage in culture, neighbors, etc..but rather, just hangout with people who believe like us. My mom still has this mentality.
    Thankfully as we started to get it–mostly from reading scripture–we stepped away.
    Now at the Lutheran church…wow, what a fabulous balance!