Confession and Pastoral Theology: The Usefulness of Confessional Orthodoxy
Whether formally acknowledged or not, confessional orthodoxy is a matter of importance to every genuine Christian. This is true even for Christians who might tend to be put off or dismissive of the term "confessional" or "confession" on the grounds that it either smacks of a mainline flavor, or, ironically in the opposite direction, that it sounds too "Reformed" or "Calvinistic." The reason is that all those who take the Bible seriously, and therefore take the gospel seriously, are committed to some set of statements that summarize what they believe and which therefore govern why their particular church functions as it does. It may be an elaborate confession that is written down, or it may be a set of views that are more implicit and simply part of the church's environment that one becomes more aware of as time goes on. But it is most definitely present.
We know that such confessional statements are used to test whether a visitor to a given church will decide whether or not to settle there as an active member. If there are too many points of difference, the chances are high that the individual will opt for another church where he or she shares more in common. That in itself is a matter of pastoral significance. Too often these days, doctrinal concern is so low, at least in terms of the published confessional statements one finds on the average church website, that it appears that the general consensus is that it is better to not put down too much, lest one lose potential members because the church was too careful and precise about theological convictions. Where that is the case, a tremendous amount of theological opinion can exist under the same roof, and the glue that binds the church together ceases to be doctrine and instead shifts to things such as programs or worship style.
But for those churches who do care about theological formulation, what is the pastoral importance of confessional orthodoxy for those who are already members of such churches, and have been happily so for years? It in fact shapes a number of things, such as how the worship service is constructed, what the preaching is like, who will serve as pastors, and what books are used (and not used) in group studies. The overall practice of the church, and the things that it values, are shaped significantly by the concern for confessional orthodoxy.
In addition to directing the church's primary tasks of preaching and teaching, it also aids in the kind of pastoral care that is given to individual members of the congregation. Confessional orthodoxy does not take its cues from the surrounding culture in dealing with the problems experienced by its people. It does not look to psychology, sociology, or prevailing popular opinion to chart the proper course of action. Nor does it use the individual's feelings as the gauge for deciding what the person needs to do, and whether or not they should be corrected or affirmed in their inclinations. Whether the matter is one of facing a difficult decision, the nagging bout with discouragement, the crisis of an unexpected death, or the sorrowful revelation of sin in the camp, pastoral care is offered in these and other cases with a keen sensitivity and perception of what the Bible says about it, and what steps are to be followed, and remedies offered, to the Christian in need.
Confessional orthodoxy, because its foundation is the Word of God, can be used to remind the struggling believer of what he truly believes, even as that same one is being intensely reminded of the devastating effects of sin that afflicts the Lord's people. Knowing what one believes, and why, directs the one in distress to the character of God, whose faithfulness, love, grace, and mercy have been supremely displayed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who offered up himself over to death for the eternal salvation of the one in the pit of despair and turmoil. Only sound, biblical theology can do that, because it is through God's active and mighty Word that the Holy Spirit works sanctifying grace in the hearts and minds of the one who is in most need of it. That is the range, both of the pastoral challenge, and also the privilege of ministering in the strength and wisdom that the Lord provides to those called to so serious and holy a task.
Michael D. Roberts (DTh, University of South Africa) sits on the committee for the Quakertown Regional Conference on Reformed Theology.