Published on May 4, 2022 by Doug Webster  
Beeson students worshipping

The best way to understand a gospel-centered pastoral theology is to preach it in the household of faith. If it were up to me, a course in pastoral theology would add nothing new to what my students experienced in their home churches before coming to Beeson. A biblical pastoral theology grows out of a lived experience of the priesthood of all believers, the shared work of the kingdom of God, the gifts of the Spirit and life together in the body of Christ. A church rooted in the gospel transforms theological abstractions into theological realities and inspires people to embrace ministry, attend seminary and own their pastoral identity. There is a dynamic interrelationship between pastoral identity and congregational identity, and both are necessary for the sake of the other. Instead of preparing seminary students for churches that don’t exist, we need churches that model what it means to be the church and pastors “who equip the saints for the works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph. 4:12).

A faithful and fruitful pastoral theology is best understood out of a disciple-making theology of ministry. Everything we expect of pastors is rooted in the household of faith and formed in context of every-member ministry. In the early church, congregational identity shaped pastoral identity, rather than the other way around. Instead of looking to the pastor to understand the nature and responsibility of the disciple, pastors and people looked to Christ and the whole counsel of God. The church wasn’t built on a pastor’s personality and gifts. The household of faith was meant to be rooted and grounded in the love of Christ and the gifts of the Spirit. It was never a one-man operation.   

The long tradition that divides clergy and laity is deeply ingrained in how we do church. Specialized training for pastors can reinforce the notion that virtually everything that goes on in the church is pastor-dependent. All the wisdom, gifts, responsibilities, sacrifices, power and authority that belong to the church as a whole is funneled down to the pastor. The pastor is officially designated as the representative of the church, and his portrait hangs in the foyer of the church. Recently, a pastoral care director shared with me that when she walks down a hospital corridor to see a church member, she knows that when she walks into the patient’s room the member’s first thought upon seeing her is disappointment because she’s not the pastor.

First Benefit

The first benefit of a preachable pastoral theology is its biblical transparency. To be preachable is to be biblical. Every pastoral expectation and responsibility are rooted in Scripture. The most effective way to challenge layers of tradition and cultural expectations is to take the Word seriously when it comes to the role and responsibilities of pastors. One of the first things we discover is that the Bible has much more to say about living the Christian life than it does about being a pastor. Little is said specifically and practically in the New Testament about pastoral work, but a great deal is taught about what it means to follow the Lord Jesus and serve as his disciple. In a seminary lecture, it is easy for a professor to turn the Bible’s many discipleship texts into proof texts for pastoral ministry. John 10's description of the Good Shepherd becomes a key text for modeling pastoral ministry instead of how all disciples ought to respond to Christ’s shepherding. Jesus’s post-resurrection conversation with Peter, when he said: “Do you love me . . . Feed my sheep,” is a favorite ordination text, but we should not forget that Peter is the representative disciple, and what Jesus said to Peter he says to us. The call to love and to bear witness to the gospel belongs to each and every Christian.

Second Benefit

A second benefit of a preachable pastoral theology is its biblical honesty. We often harbor the unbiblical notion that being a pastor or a missionary is superior to all other callings. Instead of recognizing that all Christians are called to salvation, service, sacrifice and sanctification, we have been tempted to label pastoral ministry as the highest calling. We have equated a call to “the ministry” as a special pastoral call. A preachable pastoral theology will examine the Bible’s call narratives, call images and call sayings. It will take seriously the priesthood of all believers. It will emphasize that the Lord calls each and every believer to follow him into a life that bears witness to his gospel relationally and vocationally. Whatever God has called us to do is our highest calling. The benefit of biblical honesty is that no one can claim superiority, and no one can evade responsibility. We are all called. Everyone is on mission. Everyone serves at the pleasure of King Jesus.

Third Benefit

A third benefit of a preachable pastoral theology is developing a biblical profile of discipleship. Pastors are not a special entity or tribe unto themselves, as if they were meant to be the New Testament version of the Levitical priesthood. They are, along with the rest of the body of Christ, the disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. They are called, gifted, trained and recognized by the church to lead and shepherd the household of faith. They work within the priesthood of all believers and, along with their fellow disciples, to serve and represent Christ. They are gifted heralds of the gospel and servant leaders, but every believer proclaims the gospel and has responsibilities in the household of faith.

Pastors can confidently say to their congregations that the Bible has much more to say about how we serve the Lord together than how pastors serve the Lord alone. Pastors are trained in Bible and theology, but everyone is meant to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Pastors lead us in worship, preach the Word in season and out of season, counsel the brokenhearted, care for the needy, comfort the grieving and offer friendship and hospitality. But, all ministry, all witness and all kingdom work is the shared effort of Christ’s followers. Pastoral identity is shaped by every-member ministry, shared leadership and the gifts of the Spirit. The ecclesial reality of the body of Christ shapes the disciple-making ministry of the congregation and the pastors.

Fourth Benefit

Finally, a fourth benefit of a preachable pastoral theology is the shift in focus from an individual to the body of Christ. Too much of our sermonic attention is individualistically oriented. On Sunday morning we tend to appeal to the existential self (“come to Jesus”) and we give little time and effort to disciple-making and our shared ministry responsibility for God’s kingdom work. Preaching ought to be both evangelistic and edifying – reaching the lost and building up the body of believers. We seek to understand what it means to be called of God, to engage in biblical self-understanding and self-examination. We long to grow in our discipleship through difficulties and embrace vocational holiness. We want to help our children to experience the beauty of God’s creation, the wonders of science and the reality that all truth is God’s truth. Pastors and people alike seek to bear witness to the gospel of grace in our secular and religious age.

Dr. Doug Webster is professor of pastoral theology and Christian preaching at Beeson Divinity School.
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