The ultimate goal of pastoral care is Christian maturity

The ultimate goal of pastoral care is presenting “everyone mature in Christ” (Col 1.28). Alas, all too often pastoral care is perceived as comforting the hurting, rather than enabling people to grow and develop in the faith. Martin Thornton, in his classic book on Spiritual Direction, put it this way:

“It is curious that what we ambiguously call pastoral care is seen as something entirely negative. It invariably suggests the dispensation of human benevolence with a sprinkling of Christian saccharin: helping those in trouble, counselling the disturbed, solving human problems. This is the ambulance syndrome, implying that Christianity might alleviate suffering but that it has nothing more positive to offer. The pastor is there to pick up the pieces after an accident, and barring accidents he is out of a job.”

Paul, however, in Col 1.28 seems to imply that pastoral care is about bringing people to Christian maturity. Pastoral care is about discipling, it is about mentoring, it is about facilitating growth. To quote the Apostle:

“It is Christ whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (NRSV)

Or in the words of the GNB:

“We preach Christ to everyone. With all possible wisdom we warn and teach them in order to bring each one into God’s presence as a mature individual in union with Christ.”

In the first instance, Paul was attacking the intellectual and spiritual snobbery of those within the Colossian church, who saw salvation as a long drawn out process, in which perhaps only a few could graduate. By contrast, Paul believed that the Gospel for all – and what’s more, that everyone should grow and develop in the faith. In effect, we have here the Pauline equivalent of the Great Commission, where the call to make disciples involves not just ‘baptizing’ but also ‘teaching’. The universality of the Great Commission is reflected in Col 1.28 by the three-fold use of the word “everyone”.

Pastoral care is not just about listening, empathising, and counselling. Pastoral care involves teaching, instructing, and training. My mind goes to Acts 20, where Paul reflecting on his ministry in Ephesus, declared: “I did not shrink from doing anything helpful, proclaiming the message to you and teaching you publicly and from house to house” (Acts 20.20). There we see that pastoral visitation involved teaching – and if Col 1.28 is a guide, then it was not teaching for the sake of teaching, but rather teaching for the sake of enabling people to grow and develop in their faith.

In Col 1.28 Paul uses two words for such instruction. The first word (noutheteo) is sometimes translated into English as “warning” (NRSV; similarly GNB) or “admonishing”. It is a negative word, in the sense that it involves putting things right. It involves ‘straightening out muddled or immature thinking’. The second word (didasko) is the normal Greek word for ‘teaching’. It is a positive word, in the sense that it involves straightforward imparting of knowledge and skills. These two negative and positive approaches to learning are also found in 2 Tim 3.16 where Paul says that Scripture is useful for “teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults and giving instruction for right living” (GNB). Here we have a reminder that Christian maturity involves not simply growth in understanding, but also growth in grace; it involves not just the mind, but also the will. It is not knowledge for learning’s sake, but learning for living’s sake.

So how does this relate to pastoral care today? It means that pastoral care should have growth in mind. It means that when we visit, we read Scripture and reflect on how it applies to our walk with Christ. It means that we are concerned for a person’s spiritual well-being, and not just their physical well-being. Pastoral care is not just about showing love and friendship, but about helping our brothers and sisters journey forward in their faith. What’s more, this kind of pastoral care is not just the province of the pastor – it is a task to be shared by all church ‘carers’. Wow, that really would involve a revolution in the way in which pastoral care is exercised in most churches!

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