The Church: 18f. The Pastoral Care of Sinners and False Teachers

Introduction 

The past few weeks have entrenched immoral practices and the teaching of error in whole provinces of the Anglican Communion.  The affirmation of same-sex unions for laity and clergy in the Scottish Episcopal Church (and the Church of Scotland, with whom the Church of England has a relationship) and the Anglican Church of Canada have so compromised the Gospel at many levels that the mission of these ‘Churches’ is no longer viable.  The Church of England may well be on the same trajectory.

The only way to regain the ministry of pastoral care for sinners is to pursue with all diligence a movement of God’s Kingdom and its righteousness outside the Church of Men and Women.  True pastoral care involves the shepherd’s crook and the shepherd’s rod, not the false unity of a sheep pen for sheep and wolves.  The ministration of divine mercy in pastoral care–particularly in the Church’s mission in the West–requires the merciful call to repentance rather than toleration of sin, the merciful practice of judgement for the sake of restoration, and the merciful practice of separation for the sake of unity.

Pastors as Messengers, Watchmen, and Stewards of the Lord

The Church is not a depository for theological and moral diversity but a discipleship community devoted to God: ‘as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD’ (Joshua 24:15).  The voice of love is not toleration of error but obedience to truth: You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart’ (Deuteronomy 6:5-6).  Mercy is not indifference to error but forgiveness of error: ‘Remember your mercy, O LORD, and your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O LORD! Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way’ (Psalm 25:6-8).  Confusion over such basic truths inevitably means pastoral abuse, not care.

The Anglican service for the ordination of priests has the bishop charge the ordinands, who have earlier been reminded that Scripture is the ultimate authority for their ministry, as follows:

In the name of our Lord we bid you remember the greatness of the trust now to be committed to your charge, about which you have been taught in your preparation for this ministry.  You are to be messengers, watchmen, and stewards of the Lord; you are to teach and to admonish, to feed and to provide for the Lord’s family, to search for his children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations and to guide them through its confusions, so that they may be saved through Christ for ever.[1]

Indeed, pastoral care is an administration of the Word of God to wounded souls: pastors are messengers of His Word, watchmen of error contradicting His Word, and stewards of the grace taught in His Word.  The Anglican Communion, however, is being torn apart by unworthy shepherds, instructed by false teachers denying the clear teaching in God’s Word, tended to by quacks perpetrating errors contracted from the culture, and abused by leaders perverting the grace of our Lord by licensing immorality in the Church.

Just how might pastors be faithful to their calling in such a dire situation?  Some have suggested unity over against truth, as though unity is some mere social practice for people to pursue instead of a unity in truth.  Others have suggested a pastoral accommodation to minister to all with a form of love that disregards the truth.  Still others have called for an obedience to the truth as the practical expression of godly love, calling for pastors to be messengers of mercy and watchmen against wolves.  Indeed, as shepherds carrying both a staff to guide the sheep and a rod to fend off wolves, pastors are called to exercise both forms of care.

Two Stories of Pastoral Care

Two stories of the Apostle John’s pastoral care circulated in the second century.  Both are aspects of pastoral care.  The first story was told by Clement of Alexandria and demonstrates the pastor’s unwavering ministry of mercy to sinners.[2]  While visiting churches in Asia Minor, John entrusted a particular boy to a bishop’s care.  The bishop agreed and raised the child in the Christian faith.  However, once the boy had matured into a young man, he came under the corrupting influence of other young men who knew nothing of the faith.  He took up a life of self-indulgence and luxury, and, with his new friends, engaged in highway robbery.  The young man rose through the ranks of his gang, outdoing all in violence and cruelty.  The gang recognized him as their leader.

Some years later, John visited the bishop and asked him to return the ‘deposit’ that he had left with him on the previous visit years earlier.  The bishop eventually realised that John meant the deposit of that boy’s soul, left in the charge of the overseer of the church.  He said that the young man had ‘died,’ that is, that he had turned his back on the Christian faith and entered upon a life of sin.  The apostle John thereupon reprimanded the bishop, called for a horse, and made his way to the gang’s hideout in the hills.  The gang captured John and brought him to their captain.

When the captain saw John, he began to run away—to the astonishment of everyone else.  John, though a very old man, ran after him.  He called after him that he should not be afraid as there was yet hope for his soul, that he, John, had a duty to give an account to Christ for the young man’s life, and that Christ had sent him to extend mercy.  The young man stopped running, flung himself into the apostle’s arms, and wept bitterly in repentance for his sins.  John assured the young man that the Saviour forgave him, and the two returned to the church.  The young man was then encouraged to follow a discipline of repentance, a contrition for sins that included much prayer, frequent fasting, and the subduing his mind by hearing the Scriptures and words of the apostles.

Another story is told of John.  One of his disciples, Polycarp, recalled a story about John’s encounter with a heretical teacher, Cerinthus.  On this occasion, John was in a bathhouse in Ephesus when he learned that the false teacher, a theologian altering orthodox theology by reinterpreting it with the philosophy of his day, was also present.  Rushing out of the bathhouse before bathing, John exclaimed to his own followers, ‘Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within’ (Irenaeus, Against Heresies III.3.4).  John thereby taught his followers to have nothing to do with false teaching, to give it no voice, and to expect God’s judgement on all such purveyors of error.

Two Lessons for Pastors

These two stories teach us two important lessons about error in the Church.  The first reminds us to continue to hold out the grace of God to all sinners.  As Jude says, believers are to snatch persons in error as though from the fire (verse 23).  James, too, says,

My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins (5:19-20).

In so saying, Jude and James affirm Jesus’ teaching of pastoral care through his parable of the lost sheep (Matthew 18:12-14).  Jesus instructed his disciples to leave the ninety-nine safe sheep and pursue that one, lost sheep on the mountains because God rejoices over the sheep that is found and does not will that any one of His little ones should perish.

Regarding the person disobeying his teaching in the Church, Paul says:

2 Thessalonians 3:14-15   If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.  Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.

With this, we see both the continuing message of mercy and the need for discipline—both aspects of pastoral care.  Similarly, in the case of the man sleeping with his father’s wife in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul calls for a discipline that cares for the whole church while also extending mercy to an unrepentant sinner.  First, Paul reminds the church that they are to have nothing to do with sexually immoral persons in their community:

1 Corinthians 5:9  I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people….

The church’s correct response is not mercy expressed in toleration of immoral relationships but mercy expressed through a pastoral and congregational process of exclusion from the community, recognition of error, repentance from sin, reformation of conduct, and restoration to community.  They are not taking the morally high ground in continuing to accommodate the openly sinful person in their midst who will not change his ways or to tolerate a diverse spectrum of views on sexual morality.  This is not Christian mercy but certain destruction.  The person desperately needs to be excluded from the church to learn a lesson and be warned of what will inevitably be a more serious exclusion when God’s judgement of sinners brings a final verdict, after which there is no further opportunity to repent.  Paul says,

1 Corinthians 5:4-5  When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus,  5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.

In this, Paul picks up language from the Holiness Code in Leviticus 20.11: a person who ‘lies with his father’s wife’ is to be ‘put to death.’  Yet Paul does not apply the punishment called for in Leviticus literally, for he transfers the meaning of a negative, literal death penalty to a positive, spiritual purification from sin.  The ‘flesh’ to be destroyed is not the person’s body but the ‘flesh’ in the moral sense of his sinful life.  Only by turning the person over to Satan—that is, putting the person out of the church and into the arena of Satan—will the person appreciate that he is, indeed, no longer part of the church.  Only then is it possible that he will repent and return to the church.  Not turning the person out of the church will only encourage him to continue to live a sinful life that will ultimately lead to God’s condemnation, an exclusion from the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).  It also destroys the church as ‘a little leaven leavens the whole lump’ (1 Corinthians 5:6).  The church is not to pass judgement on unbelievers outside the church but to purge the evil from its own midst (1 Corinthians 5:13).  Far from being a way to unify the church in holiness, toleration of sexual immorality only brings further division as others are encouraged to pursue the same path of destruction (cf. Jude 12).

The second story of the Apostle John’s pastoral care, however, addresses not those who have fallen into error but those who teach error—the false prophets and false teachers leading others into error.  In this case, the Church is hard-pressed to take swift action against falsehood.  As Paul says,

Titus 3:10-11  As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.

The case of false teachers is more serious, potentially reaping great destruction in the Church.  James warns, Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness’ (James 3:1).

Paul does not entertain the mistaken notion that such differences call for ‘shared conversations,’ as the Church of England has done over the heretical teachings on sexuality in the past few years.  Regarding the false teachers who misled the Galatian churches, Paul minces no words—this is no time for politically correct tones of civility:

Galatians 1:8-9  But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.  As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

Indeed, he later says, ‘I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!’ (Galatians 5:12).

John, moreover, writes to the church at Thyatira:

Revelation 2:20  I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.

Merciful Care: Not Toleration of Sin but Judgement Leading to Repentance

Diversity is not something to celebrate if it is a diversity that deviates from the truth proclaimed by the apostles (i.e., what we would now refer to as the New Testament).  Mercy is not about toleration of error; on the contrary, mercy is expressed in judging and shaming the person in order to lead to hope for repentance and restoration.  Exclusion is an important process for a community to use in order to warn a person bent on error that his or her views or practices are wrong and dangerous: only then is there hope that the person will repent and return to the truth.  Ongoing toleration sends the wrong message that the error is not really that significant—a matter of indifference—and will not be judged by God.  Rather, the church’s judgement of a person persistent in sin is the first step in sincere pastoral care for recalcitrant sinners. As Paul says, ‘have nothing to do with him’ and ‘warn him as a brother’ (2 Thessalonians 3:15).

This is not only true for the sheep.  It is also true for false shepherds: even with false teachers, Paul holds out hope that discipline will lead to repentance.  He says that he hands over two such false teachers ‘to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme’ (1 Timothy 1:20).

 

[1] ‘The Ordination of Priests,’ The Alternative Service Book (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 356.

[2] Clement of Alexandria, ‘Who is the rich man that shall be saved?’ (XLII). Clement lived in Egypt towards the end of the 2nd century and was a teacher of the Christian faith.

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