Worship As Pastoral Care

March 8, 2013

The presentation at a recent Covenant Network gathering by Plains and Peaks EP Dan Saperstein on “Marriage Equality in the PCUSA” is an articulate and careful assessment of political realities within our denomination. Dan is what I would call a moderate liberal, although in this talk he embraced all the progressive watchwords, concepts, and assumptions familiar to those who have debated sexuality issues for years. He represented well the dilemmas we have faced; and while I disagree with his conclusions, I think his characterization of conservatives in his speech was fair and balanced.

So this post today should not be read as a slam of a colleague I respect, but an engagement with an idea he is proposing. I think he offered his idea in that spirit, albeit among Covenant Network followers, not necessarily for conservatives’ consumption. But consider this post to be conservative/evangelical “feedback” on his suggestion of “how to create space to allow same-sex marriages to be performed in PCUSA churches.”

After a good summary of the issues and polity dynamics of the last twenty years, Dan suggests that openly redefining marriage within the Directory for Worship (DFW) would be ill-advised and inflammatory. He is certainly right about the effects of such an attempt, and I can promise strong opposition to whomever else is contemplating a same-sex marriage overture. But with an eye to the ultimate goal of so-called marriage equality, he suggests another approach based on a concept he feels is not particularly controversial in the church. This is “the historic right given to pastors to exercise discretion in the conduct of pastoral care.”

First, I would like to unpack this claim, and then examine how he extends the concept to include “discretion regarding the conduct of worship as pastoral care.”

Discretion in the Conduct of Pastoral Care. Pastors are given wide latitude in decision-making about pastoral care, I think because the belief is that one’s education, pastoral preparation, and accumulated wisdom through a candidating process adequately prepares one for pastoral discernment. Confidentiality in the conduct of pastoral care is a legitimate necessity. Situations already in process come to a pastor’s attention at midpoint, and sound guidance is needed to work through the messes of real life. We have all been there. We do the best we can, under the inspiration and with the power of the Holy Spirit. We are called to lead people to Christ, to the throne of grace and truth, for proper diagnosis, prescription, and healing action. We might give excellent counsel, but it falls on deaf ears. We might give lousy counsel, and a person surprises us with a much better response to a difficult situation. What pastors are called to do, though, is to represent the will of God, the compassion of our Savior, and the prophetic courage of Nathan as we come alongside those who see us as their shepherd.

Worship As Pastoral Care? What happens in private stays private as long as the counseled one requires privacy. But what happens in worship is by its very nature a public act, subject to the ordering of God’s Word enacted by Christ’s Body. A pastor in the Reformed tradition does not have full discretion as to the conduct of worship. The limitations are not only imposed by a session (e.g. regarding the conduct of sacraments, choice of hymnal) but also by the Directory for Worship, which outlines the essential elements of every service for the Lord’s Day and gives guidance for other occasional services. This guidance can be quite specific. For instance, the DFW strongly discourages an open casket or Masonic ritual during a memorial service held at the church, because we understand that this is a worship service celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ (DFW, W-4.10005).

Further, it is important to note the definition of worship and question whether it is proper to designate worship as pastoral care. Worship firstly is the corporate expression of praise, gratitude, and submission to God Almighty (DFW, W-1.1001). Worship is worship, directed to God. But as people join together to worship God, their corporate voice to God ministers consolation to the souls of those worshiping together. But it ceases to be worship if the events of the service turn away from God’s revealed will, promote disobedience, wallow in hopelessness, or otherwise focus on something other than the One and Only. [Do not misunderstand me here. This is not strictly a liberal vs. conservative issue; I’ve witnessed “evangelical” services that were not really about God at all. And memorial services can become simply idolatrous, on that scorecard.]

The issue at hand is this: with this proposed constitutional amendment, does pastoral discretion include the freedom to marry a same sex couple, so long as the worship service is necessary for “pastoral care”? Dan Saperstein believes that it does. But I think Dan is in error to believe that the worship of God can affirm and give permanence to a relationship God cannot bless. Yes, we have come to different conclusions about what the Scriptures teach on this matter. But I respectfully submit that the tie-breaker here is not what our society says is now okay. We must hold fast to the male-female prerequisite for marriage, which is never questioned in Scripture.

In the meantime, let us not get confused about what worship is and what pastoral care is. Invoking worship as a means of blessing something specifically proscribed in the Bible is nothing short of blasphemy, attributing to God what is not of God. God has abundant grace and power to transform the lives of repentant people; God has a deep love for all and welcomes them all into worship. But worship is a cleansing experience for all of us, as we bring everything to God’s throne and submit all of life to God’s refinement, reformation, and yes, extreme makeover. That may mean that one must give up expectations for a particular form of “pastoral care” and another must give up “tickling peoples’ ears” (as in 2 Timothy 4:30).



One Response to “Worship As Pastoral Care”

  1. Linda Lee, mukilteo Says:

    Your blog today wakes me up to the reality that what is being proposed in the PCUSA in relationship to marriage and homosexuality is happening in the realm of WORSHIP
    OF GOD and a covenant before God. That is serious
    and not to be taken lightly. It has been easy to be complacent
    in accepting what is happening as non consequential and inevitable, just apart of church life. Your words today, make me more aware of the seriousness of the direction the church is going. How can we Worship God, but be in a mind set
    opposed to God’s word and God’s acts in creation?
    When you put these things in the area of Worshiping God
    and not just the politics of church……it makes these decision
    have great weight before God.

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