The Perilous Business of Pastoring

I am grateful to Doug Wilson for his thoughtful response to my post yesterday on the matter of binding consciences. It offered a good opportunity, I think, to move the conversation forward in clarifying the central issues at stake, both for the purposes of the present kerfluffle and any others that might arise. I agree with almost everything he has to say at the level of principle, and my only concerns lie with how one might apply these principles to particular issues of controversial preaching and teaching.

But first, let me clear up two possible confusions.

First, let the record show that my essay was not intended primarily as “a contribution to the great pink hair discussion,” so much as an attempt to clarify some principles that underlie both it and a number of other discussions ongoing at Trinity Reformed Church about preaching, good hermeneutics, conscience binding, and Christian liberty. For myself, I must confess, I am probably a 9 out of 10 on the troglodyte scale when it comes to matters such as pink hair, piercings, yoga pants, and the rest, and were I a pastor, I would no doubt have to be restrained often by my dear wife from venting my huffy opinions on such subjects. That she ought to so restrain me, more often than not, I will proceed to fortify with arguments below.

Second, I am puzzled by Wilson’s line that I was “was going great until he got to the part about what binding consciences actually looks like.” Not because I am puzzled by criticism per se, but because I am puzzled as I search Wilson’s post as to what the criticism actually is. It seems that it might be here:

“In his piece, Brad defines conscience-binding this way:

‘Speaking more loosely, however, and from the subjective viewpoint, conscience-binding happens whenever a believer thinks, based on what another Christian (often a pastor) has said that they must act in a particular way or else incur divine wrath.’

But left out of this equation is whether the pastor is correct, and whether the believer would be right in thinking what he now does based on what the pastor says. And this goes back to the clarity of the scriptural teaching.”

But I did not leave that out of the equation at all. Immediately following the sentences Wilson quotes from my original post, I wrote:

“Given the power asymmetry between a minister and most congregants, it is very easy for congregants, particularly those of tender consciences, to feel bound in this way, even if Scripture does not seem to justify the pastor’s words. There are at least four dangerous responses that can result from such conscience-binding when it is not according to the Word” (emphasis added)

After summarizing the four dangers, I added,

“Of course, if the rebuke is according to the Word, if the minister does indeed accurately proclaim and apply God’s wrath against a certain kind of behavior, then it may be worth the risk of such responses; something will need to be said, although one still needs to be wise in when and how it is said.”

In other words, of course it matters whether the pastor is correct, in the sense of whether he is actually speaking according to the Word. This was kinda the point of my post, in fact.


Now, let me summarize what I take to be the chief points of Pastor Wilson’s post:

  • Yes, there are many challenging matters of ethical complexity that a pastor is called to address in the course of his ministry, and responses “will vary according to the importance of the issue, and the clarity of biblical teaching on the subject.”
  • If biblical teaching on a subject is clear, then the pastor is not binding consciences inappropriately if he says so.
  • [Unstated, but probably to be inferred: if biblical teaching on a subject is not so clear, the pastor may still need to address it in certain circumstances, but should be very clear about the limitations of his prudential advice.]
  • In the present issue (matters of feminine modesty, and particularly neon hair), biblical teaching is clear at least on the principle in question, and it is appropriate for a pastor to try and apply it.
  • The issue is also one that is particularly important at least in our cultural context, where the ideal of individual self-expression has become an idol that licenses every kind of vanity and indecency.

This is all very well and good. I am certainly not among those who think that just because something is a matter of Christian liberty in principle, it is a matter of complete indifference; on the contrary, I have argued in writing to the contrary for years, including even arguing the point against Pastor Wilson in the past! Intention matters, and context matters, and a whole host of things matter, and it is clearly the case that something as mundane as hair color can readily become freighted with moral weight. Moreover, self-expression really has become one of the great idols of our time, and needs to be resisted as such. Still, it seems to me that there are a couple important things missing here that explain why not everyone seems to be on the same page.

The first issue is sufficient clarity on the difference between stating a principle and applying a principle. Thus, there is ambiguity in exactly what Wilson is trying to do under (4). He quotes 1 Tim. 2:9 (and notes also 1 Pet. 3:3-4) on the matter of women not adorning themselves with braids and gold and whatnot, and says,

“Now I could look at this passage, and apply it woodenly, and crack down on a cute ten-year-old girl who did up a braid with a red rubber band. Or I could do what I actually do, which is to interpret this passage as prohibiting ostentatious displayThat is the principle. Some women in the first century would go in for ornate braiding systems, with jewels braided in, and then top it off with gold dust sprinkled on. Okay, don’t do that.”

All well and good. But what exactly does this mean for the way that the pastor is to preach and teach today? Clearly, it can be appropriate for the pastor to say, whether from the pulpit or, if he must, from the blog soapbox, “Women, beware of ostentatious display, and conduct yourselves with sobriety and modesty.” There is no doubt that our culture being what it is, even saying this much would raise howls of indignation from a few quarters, and the faithful pastor should ignore them. But that is not, after all, what the present debate is about. The present debate is about whether, or how, a pastor should say, “Women, beware of ostentatious display, and that means you absolutely must not do X, and anyone who does so is doing it out of a sinful spirit.” Not to put too fine a point on it, that is certainly what it appeared to many (though perhaps they were reading him uncharitably) that Toby Sumpter was doing last week. This is a different matter. Why? Because it brings together a reading of two different things, one of which is in this case clear (Scripture) and another of which is decidedly not (our contemporary context and the meaning of an action within it). I am very fond in this regard of a wonderful line from Oliver O’Donovan which alas I can never remember verbatim—the gist of it, though, is, “When applying Scripture to our times and our lives, we often think that the hard part is understanding Scripture, and our own context is transparent to us. On the contrary, quite often it is Scripture that is clear enough, and our own context which is opaque.”

Does this mean we should not venture such application? Assuredly not! As Wilson and I have both insisted, application is unavoidable. But application always brings in some level of uncertainty, and the pastor has a responsibility to be quite frank about this level of uncertainty. Consider how statisticians or scientists, when presenting the results of a calculation, often include the rounding error or “confidence interval” so you know not only what their judgment on a subject is, but how certain they judge that judgment to be. I don’t ask that pastors quantify this (“I hereby declare with 90% confidence that pink hair is out of bounds”), but with every step of prudential reasoning that connects biblical principle with contemporary application, some qualification is necessary. Otherwise the believer is left with the impression that all dicta proceeding from the pastor’s mouth are of equal unambiguity and non-negotiability. And from that misunderstanding flow all the dangers I laid out in my last post—fearful consciences, Pharisaism, rebellion, etc.

In the present kerfluffle, it is my impression (though I have not done a poll) that most of those upset have not been upset either by the principle (women, and indeed everyone, must beware of ostentatious display or rebellious symbolism) nor even by the application (dying your hair pink seems like an ostentatious display, and in our context, a rebellious symbol) but by the failure to admit some gap, and some uncertainty, between principle and application.


Before proceeding to the second set of qualifications I would like to add, let me interpose an interlude:

One of the most troubling things in the present kerfluffle, I must confess, has been the implication that the only possible reason someone could object, and be upset, is if they refused to accept the principle, or were somehow rebellious or insecure or captivated by the zeitgeist. Consider where Pastor Sumpter said, “if a blog post pointing out the connections between gender confusion and gaudy hair styles seems threatening to you, I sincerely doubt your heart is very quiet” and where Pastor Wilson said, “among thoughtful Christians, there really should be no discussion whatever” (in the sense that what Pastor Sumpter was saying ought to be a no-brainer). But this is precisely where alarm bells go off—it is perilous to adopt the standpoint that the only possible reason that someone could be upset by your words is because they have some deep-seated sin issue.


That thus leads to my final point or cluster of points. This is to assert that there is not only a difference between principle and application but a difference between the principle of an application and the application of that application. Confused yet? Sorry, let me say that a different way: there is a difference between saying that a certain pastoral application of Scripture can be justified and saying that every just application is in fact justified and appropriate. After all, the point of pastoring is not primarily to be right, but to succeed in shepherding sheep. And shepherding sheep effectively requires a very keen sense of context, audience, and rhetoric. (Like I said, I’m glad I’m not a pastor!) It strikes me again that in the present kerfluffle, many of those who have raised red flags have done so not because they are fans of pink hair and self-expression, but because they had serious concerns about the rhetoric and forum in which the issue was broached, deeming it pastorally ineffective.

Although I have no desire to cross-examine Pastor Sumpter’s posts as such here, I do think it may be helpful to humbly propose a list of additional criteria that come into play in determining the wisdom and effectiveness of pastoral speech, even when the pastor is entirely correct in the point he is trying to make. I do this with some trepidation, recognizing that it is not the task of the parishioner to tell his pastor how to do his job. But I will overcome that trepidation, inasmuch as we are all, in fact, called to be pastors to one another on some level, and the principles here apply almost as much to any Christian, ordained or not, seeking to wisely apply the word of God to his or her times and community. Since I’ve just come from a conference on just war theory, allow me to adapt traditional just war criteria to the purpose as appropriate:

Just cause—is the pastor right in identifying something as sinful, or at least as potentially/probably sinful (I have argued above that he will more often need to restrict himself to the latter)? We are assuming at this stage in our argument that he is.

Legitimate authority—does the pastor have the authority to address the issue? Well in one sense, by virtue of being an ordained pastor, yes, that is his job. But we could perhaps add here, by extension, that the pastor should really make sure he knows enough about a subject before pronouncing too dogmatically on it (otherwise he is likely to misfire on the “just cause” criterion). If the pastor wants to speak to political issues, he should know a thing or two about political philosophy and constitutional history; if he wants to declaim on child-rearing techniques, he should probably be careful until he has a few children of his own. And, with respect to the present kerfluffle, I do think that male pastors (as, in my view, all pastors should be) do need to exercise care in addressing female behaviors. They may not know as much as they think they do on the subject, and even if they do, they lack a certain ethos. Obviously, since half their congregation is female, they have a responsibility to pastor that half too, but with particular care and restraint.

Right intention—does the pastor write or speak with the desire of comforting, correcting, and edifying his congregants, or just to get something off his chest? Usually the former, no doubt, but of course, it is important to note here that this is just one criterion—there is a recurrent danger of thinking that just because one means well, no one has reason to be offended.

Probability of success—is the teaching in question likely to be heard receptively by the people it is intending to reach? If not, should a different approach be taken? If you are thinking of blogging on something, maybe a carefully exegetical sermon is in order instead, or maybe a Sunday school class with lots of opportunity for Q&A and clarification. Or perhaps, particularly if you have only a few members of the congregation in mind, a one-on-one conversation.

Last resort—This criterion does not quite apply here as in just war theory, since we’re not talking about killing people, but pastoring them, which must be done at all times. But we can sort of adapt it with the distinction of different forms of engagement I just outlined. Preaching from the pulpit against some specific sin is the highest-stakes form of pastoring (though blogging carries some unique, and sometimes greater, dangers). Before resorting to such, other approaches should be considered—whether these be private conversations, Sunday school teaching, or just preaching and teaching that sticks much closer to the biblical principle, and waits to see if the congregants recognize the application for themselves. The Spirit has a wonderful way of making the mere Word effective, without the pastor having to adopt shock-and-awe tactics.

Proportionality—speaking of shock-and-awe tactics, the matter of proportionality is just as important in pastoring as in war. How important is this behavior or sin really—both in the abstract and concretely, for this set of congregants in this time and place? How receptive vs. recalcitrant are these congregants? If they’re generally a teachable lot, gentle guidance should be all that is needed. If they’re a bunch of stiff-necked Pharisees, then pull out the Matthew 23 bazookas. One should always adjust one’s rhetoric to the matter at hand—if you don’t need to invoke Satan and hellfire to make your point, then maybe don’t. Likewise, one needs to beware of equating the relatively minor sins you wish to address with massive big-E-on-the-eye-chart sins. Even when you can draw some kind of useful analogy between them or show that they might be connected by some long slippery slope, it’s important to recognize that merely making the connection ratchets up the tension level immensely, and often makes it less likely that you will actually succeed in being heard and understood on the point you really wish to make.


Obviously, as with just wars, believers will differ frequently when evaluating these criteria and determining whether a given teaching was helpful and effective or not. Ordinary believers like myself have a serious responsibility not to be contentious and raise a fuss every time they think one of the criteria has been violated—pastors aren’t perfect, and perfection should not be demanded. On the other hand, pastors need to beware of thinking that just because someone raises an honest concern related to these criteria, that means they just don’t want to submit to Scripture. There are plenty of professing Christians out there who don’t, but there are plenty who deeply and earnestly do, and fair questions deserve a fair hearing.

I say all of this, mind you, as someone who has benefited enormously from the ministry of all my pastors at Trinity Reformed Church—Peter Leithart (now gone), Toby Sumpter, and Joshua Appel. Indeed, I don’t know where I, or my family, would be without their ministry, and I offer these reflections in gratitude for it.

3 thoughts on “The Perilous Business of Pastoring

  1. Hey there Brad, In your blogpost you say, “Preaching from the pulpit against some specific sin is the highest-stakes form of pastoring (though blogging carries some unique, and sometimes greater, dangers). Before resorting to such, other approaches should be considered—whether these be private conversations, Sunday school teaching, or just preaching and teaching that sticks much closer to the biblical principle, and waits to see if the congregants recognize the application for themselves.” You are certainly right that private conversations and sunday school classes are great places to address specific sins. However, I would like you to clarify what you mean when you state that “Preaching from the pulpit against some specific sin is the highest-stakes form of pastoring…”. It seems to me that the greatest preachers of the history of the church engaged in just this sort of “high-stakes” preaching. One thinks of Chrysostome, the Cappadocian Fathers, and many puritans, who preached entire sermon series on specific sins, and saw this as a key part of their role as pastors. Perhaps, however, I am misreading you, or not understanding the context, or am misinformed. I would like to hear your thoughts on the pertinence of preaching on important moral issues such as Abortion, Euthenasia, Gambling, Substance Abuse, etc. Should these subjects never be the subject of sermons, except in “high-stakes” extreme circumstances? Or, is there room in the pulpit for sermons on these subjects?


    • Thanks, David, good question. I think it can be pretty easily addressed, though, just by saying that I never said this was reserved for “extreme circumstances.” In fact, I noted that the “last resort” criterion didn’t apply in nearly the same way to preaching as it did to starting a war! (And, it should be added, even as a just war criterion, “last resort” hardly means that war is never resorted to.) I think it is true that preaching against specific sins is a high-stakes activity, and one hopes that Chrysostom, etc., recognized this fact, but the stakes of the Christian life *are* high-stakes, so it is an activity that may often have to be resorted to. I do think that my point about considering the appropriateness of other forms of pastoral teaching still stands, though—if you are thinking of preaching on a sin and really just have a few congregants specifically in mind, consider whether it’s not something to address privately with them instead. Or if it’s a controversial topic with a lot of opportunity for misunderstanding, consider doing it in a catechetical setting with more opportunity for Q&A. And if it’s a really “Big E on the eye chart” issue like the ones you mentioned (though I would say the former two differ from the latter two significantly inasmuch as the latter two are sinful only as part of addictive behaviors), on which there is little room for debate among faithful Christians, then I think there is less concern about addressing it emphatically from the pulpit.

      Of course, I might then ask the question of what the objective is. That is, if you find yourself preaching fervently against an evil that no one in your congregation is actually likely to commit, then are you just indulging in a kind of rallying-the-troops-for-the-culture-war kind of exercise? There’s an appropriate place for such troop-rallying, but I think it should be done sparingly.


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