Doing Doctrine Pastorally?

As Reformed churches face an array of social challenges and pastoral concerns, I have found the idea spreading that we must "do" doctrine pastorally. That is, we must decide the Bible's teaching based on how we think it will impact our hearers. Most recently, we see this occurring with respect to men and women struggling with homosexual desires. The doctrine in question does not concern homosexual behavior, on which evangelicals are agree, but on how the Bible understands same-sex orientation (SSA). In my opinion, the Bible's actual teaching is not seriously in doubt. The desire or orientation toward homosexual sin is not categorically different than other impulses to sin. Not only are we not to engage in the sinful behavior, but we must also mortify the desires toward the sin in question. Jesus even put his emphasis on the inward condition over the overt sinful acts:

"What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person" (Mt. 15:18-20).

The same focus on sinful desire is found in James 1:14-15: "each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.  Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin." (The words for desire - epithumia - does not mean temptation, as is being said, but clearly relates to an inward orientation.)   According to Jesus and James, not to multiply other biblical citations, in order to combat sinful actions one must purify the heart.

Given the clarity of the biblical data, it may seem surprising that many purportedly Bible-believing people take a differing view when it comes to same sex attraction. When it comes to this struggle (and apparently only this one), we change our approach. Instead of mortifying homosexual desires by the power of God through the means of grace, in this one case we tell people that while they must not act on their impulses they may still "flourish" within an SSA identity.

At this point in the conversation I find myself being the socially offensive one by asking, "But isn't that contrary to what the Bible says?" Almost invariably, the reply will speak of the enormous psychological suffering SSA people have experienced, and often an accusation that if people like me had their way we would subject all such people to electric shock therapy (I promise, I have never electrically shocked anyone, though I have threatened to do so when my teenage children won't get out of bed!). But then comes the rub: "we want to do our doctrine pastorally." Doing doctrine pastorally seems, therefore, to mean that we shrink back from stating the biblical truth when we think it will hurt.

Against this relevant backdrop, let me offer 3 reasons why while we should certainly be pastoral as we declaring biblical truth, we nonetheless should never "do doctrine pastorally":

  1. We have no right to do so. The idea that pastors have the duty and/or wisdom to compromise Scripture where we think it will be painful is worrisome in the extreme. In some cases, this practice risks earning the label of false teaching. The Bible insists on exactly the opposite: "We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone's conscience in the sight of God" (2 Cor. 4:2).
  2. We have Jesus' example. One thing Jesus never did was tone down the requirements of God's Word out of sympathy for his hearers (and let us not think Jesus less sympathetic to struggling sinners than we are). Consider Mark 10:11-12. Jesus had answered the Pharisees' "test" regarding divorce by insisting on the standard of Genesis 2: "What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate" (Mk. 9:9). The disciples were shocked! Mark says they asked Jesus about this privately and Matthew 19:10 shows they thought it better not to marry if one could not divorce. So what did Jesus do? Did he "do his doctrine pastorally," not giving offense or challenging them to hard things? Far from it! Instead, Jesus doubled down, insisting that to divorce unbiblically and remarry was to commit adultery (Mk. 10:11-12).
  3. We have no need to. Not only can we be both doctrinally faithful to Scripture and pastorally compassionate to struggling sinners, but we must always do both together. It is not unloving to speak biblical truth, even in extraordinarily challenging situations, when we follow up with personal encouragement, pastoral support, and a loving commitment to pray. In truth, this is the only really loving thing for us to do.

In conclusion, I wonder if in the face of today's social challenges we have simply lost confidence in God and his Word. Do we think our wisdom higher than that recorded in Scripture? It seems that we may. Do we think the Bible's demands for godliness are just too hard? When it comes to mortifying a confused sexual identity, it seems that many Christians do think it is impossible. If this is our attitude - questioning God's Word and doubting God's power - we have good company in the disciples who followed Jesus. Just after the episode where Jesus taught on marriage, the disciples expressed the impossibility of what Jesus demanded. Jesus' answer to us is not only true but it is the most compassionate and loving position we can espouse: "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Mt. 19:26).