We will, with this letter, begin correspondence on another subject, the subject of what is sometimes called “Christian Counseling” but what is perhaps better called simply “Pastoral Labor.”
I have wanted to write to you for some time about this subject, but have been somewhat hesitant to enter an area which is so difficult and filled with so many problems. Nevertheless, you have repeatedly urged me to write to you about this, and so, with a great deal of hesitation, I shall attempt to do it.
I said that I prefer the term “pastoral work” to “Christian counseling” because of the emphasis which the former term places upon the minister himself as a pastor of the sheep entrusted to him by Christ. The Scriptures never speak of “counseling,” and the term has, according to my dictionary, the connotation of, “to give advice, advise.” This is not, after all, what a pastor does. He does not come to the sheep to give them some advice when they need it. He comes as a pastor who has been appointed by Christ to care, in Christ’s name, for the sheep who belong to Christ.
The point is quite important. I do not like to quibble about words, but it seems to me that the point here is worth making. When the pastor assumes that title, he is taking a term which is eminently Scriptural. In John 21:16 Jesus says to Peter, “Feed my sheep.” The word Jesus uses here really means something like, “shepherdize, do the work of a shepherd.” The same, word is used by Paul in Acts 20:28 where he admonishes the elders of Ephesus, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which: the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the, church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” In his admonition to elders in the Church, Peter uses the same word: “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof.” This is therefore the expression which Scripture uses. “Counseling” is an idea foreign to the Scriptures.
And it is no wonder that this is so because, after all, the pastor who is called to “shepherdize” the flock of Christ is not called to come to the sheep with some advice, no matter how good that advice may be. He is called to bring the Word of God to God’s people. But God’s Word is never “advice.” It is God’s Word. It is authoritative. And for that reason it always comes as a command. It must be obeyed. And the issues of obedience or disobedience are issues of life and death. To obey is to live; to disobey is to die. The pastor therefore must never say, “I think it best if you do this.” Or, “Perhaps the wisest course of action is to do this.” Or even, “This is the way which, in my experience, has proved to be most helpful.” He must always say, “Thus saith the Lord.” “And, because the Lord says so, obey!”
So there is a point here which is important enough that it ought to determine our terminology. Terminology is, after all, important. If we use wrong terminology, we so easily slip into patterns of thinking which are in keeping with the terminology which we use. And especially in this area, that would be disastrous. So, we; shall not talk about “counseling”; we will eradicate this word from our vocabulary.
By writing on this subject I have no intention of repeating what you learned in Polemics class in Seminary. Rather, I hope that this effort will enable you to put some of the principles learned in Seminary into actual practice in your work in the congregation. There is no question about it that this is an extremely important part of your work and the work of any pastor.
In a way, this has only become true in the last few decades. It was not so many years ago that the pastoral demands which were placed on a minister were relatively few. The pastor went to see his sheep when they were sick in the hospital or at home. He visited them when they were bereaved. He called on them when discipline was required. But there were in those days few problems which occupied his attention.
There are probably several reasons why this part of the work of pastors has increased. One reason is that, for good or for bad, our modem day has placed a great amount of emphasis on psychology and has brought psychological problems to the foreground. One need only read a few issues of the Readers Digest, e.g., to become aware of how preoccupied people are today with psychological problems of every sort. One recent issue has articles on, “To Increase the Enjoyment of Sex in Marriage,” “Get Yourself on a Good Footing,” and “Clues to Living Longer, Staying Younger.” The most recent issue of this widely read magazine has articles on, “How to Stand Up for Yourself: I. Coping With Shyness; II. Pulling Your Own Strings,” “Pitfalls of ‘Romantic’ Love” and “Put Some New in Your Year.” The books which pour from the presses by the, hundreds not only deal with every aspect of life, but also become, in some instances, best sellers. They range all the way from “The Power of Positive Thinking” to “Transcendental Meditation” and “I’m Ok, You’re Ok.” It is not surprising that, when so much emphasis is placed upon psychology and life’s problems, many people who never knew they had problems now begin to think they do.
It is also true that in our modern scientific and technological age life is very fast paced and far more complex then it has ever been. And this kind of hectic life, with no time for meditation, prayer, Scripture study, quiet reflection, is a life conducive to creating all kinds of problems in people’s lives. This is sad, and it simply remains a fact that there are no solutions to many problems in life without a radical change in the way we live.
But I suppose that it is also true that there were problems in the past which people faced, but they tended to struggle along with them because they did not recognize them as problems or because they were unaware of the fact that help could be had.
Whatever the reasons may be, however, the fact is that in our day heavy demands are made on the pastor, and he often finds himself in difficult situations where his pastoral wisdom is taxed to the utmost. There are times when he is at a loss as to the best way to handle a situation and he experiences a great lack in his education and experience. There is, as you so well know, little time in the Seminary to be busy with the practical aspects of pastoral labors, and his work, especially when first in the ministry, is a kind of trial and error work.
I recall so well the days of my own early ministry when I was confronted with problems of many different kinds. Because I always had an interest in psychology, I found that the pressures of modern day approaches to problems had left a mark on me. I often worked hard to try to make modem psychology tit pastoral situations in the congregation. The fact is that it seldom worked. And there was always the feeling deep down that this was not proper and really had nothing to do with my calling as a minister of the Word. If we can analyze such work from our present perspective we can easily see that one, perhaps subconsciously, adopted a position which held that the Word of God was so narrow that it did not fit the whole of life. There was an area of life, so we thought, which was more susceptible to psychological techniques than to the Word of God. This was a serious mistake. It is well that we are rid of it.
The one who has done a lot to get rid of these ideas is Jay Adams, for some time professor of Practical Theology in Westminster Theological Seminary. We owe him a debt because he did much to put pastoral work back in the hands of the pastors. He was the one who pointed us to the fact that no pastor ought easily to abdicate his position and allow psychologists to do work that pastors ought to be doing. And he pointed out the total pertinency of the Word of God for every part of life.
Nevertheless, there were several lacks in his work. For one thing, his approach, while generally sound, was not based upon a genuine Christian and Scriptural psychology. At the time I reviewed his book, “Competent to Counsel” for a Ministers’ Conference, I wrote him about this, and he responded that he intended to work in this field. But, so far as I know, this has not yet been done. I am not saying that he does not have a psychology, but it is not explicit in his writings.
We must also remember that his work is in a different ecclesiastical tradition and situation than ours. While, of course, this does not make his work wrong, nevertheless his work does not always fit the situation in which you find yourself, and our pastors in general find themselves. In his work, to use but one example, there is insufficient emphasis placed upon the preventive pastoral work of the minister. Perhaps it is not altogether clear what I have in mind, but I refer to the fact that in our ecclesiastical tradition a great deal of emphasis is placed upon such things as family visitation in which the minister and/or the elders visit the homes of the people to learn their needs, discuss with them their problems, and bring the Word of God to them in their own family life. This has the benefit of giving the pastor and the elders opportunity to learn of potential problems, to admonish God’s people concerning particular dangers, and to work with them in connection with problems which have not yet become serious. We must not underestimate the value of this work.
Furthermore, Jay Adams has a broader conception of the ministry of the Word than we do. To point to one example, he speaks of the clinic which has been formed in Philadelphia to put his principles into practice as an arm of evangelism. Now I am not saying that it is necessarily wrong to form such a clinic; there may be much in its favor. But its precise relation to the Church and its role in relation to the pastoral ministry ought to be spelled out more clearly.
Finally, I have the feeling that his approach to the problems of life is sometimes too simple. He does not always seem to be sufficiently impressed with the tremendous complexity of life and its problems and seems to offer solutions to problems which, in actual fact, are no solutions at all. He seems not to appreciate fully what Jeremiah writes in Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”
Well, it is for these reasons that we shall venture into this field. I hope that worthwhile discussions will come of it and that we may together grow in grace and in the wisdom to do the work to which God has called us.
Fraternally in Christ,