The other day I was talking with a colleague about how the Church should be prophetic or pastoral: When do we be one more than the other, how do we be both, when should we be one or the other proactively rather than reactively, and how often do we wait too long to choose which one.
There are obviously a lot of things going on right now—and have been going on for quite a while—that the Church could proclaim and project an image of prophet or pastor: Taking the Knee in Protest, What it Truly Means to Honor the Flag, Racism and White Supremacy in Society, LGBTQIA+ and Biblical Interpretation, Relief Efforts to Natural Disasters. That’s just a few….and it’s already exhausting to think about all the context and history and arguing and statistics and the demand to pick a side and argue against the other until one submits or gets the most attention. And there is certainly something cathartic about standing up and shouting one’s belief and seeing all the people who agree applaud you, and even all the people who disagree curse you. Sometimes it can even fuel us in our cause to hear the criticism more than the praise, as though we’ve been trained now to be fueled by vitriol more than support.
Is that what it means to be “prophetic?”
We can certainly see from history that prophets were the folks who were usually alone and showed up to tick people off. They were/are usually not very soft-spoken in their speech, didn’t/don’t waste much time leading to their points, and at the end had/have more closed fists than open hands. Pastorals (and not just in the church) tend to start with open hands, trying to carefully articulate dialogue, bring people together, and perhaps often seem non-committal.
So which are we supposed to be?
I personally can’t recall many times I have either seen or participated in a discussion or a sermon where the “prophetic voice” has called people or society out on their faults, proclaimed how bad the “wrong” side is, and afterward, an individual or group which represents that side has come up afterwards and said “Thank you so much for telling me how wrong I’ve been. Your shouting and condemnation of my beliefs and values have opened my mind to seeing things differently.” On the other hand, I can think of many times I’ve been asked what my beliefs have been regarding certain issues, and I’ve used the “pastoral” card to dodge my way out of it; either because I was trying to truly be pastoral, realizing that I am to pastor and care for an entire congregation which is filled with individuals of many different views and beliefs. In the midst of this I’ve been told that I was “very diplomatic” in my response—but to be honest, there have been times when I’ve done that simply to avoid conflict and disagreements. I would venture to say there are as many pastors who are pastoral for the same reason, just as there are many pastors who are “more prophetic” who simply like to use the pulpit to spout what they think is right, regardless of who it affects and how, because they’re “proclaiming God’s Word.”
Lately I’ve been seeing many posts, articles, and videos about how stating facts to affect change really doesn’t work with the opposing arguer; in fact, all it really does is reinforce and strengthen the opponent’s belief, particularly because we as humans innately desire to be connected to a tribe—meaning we usually prefer to be surrounded in a community, even if that community’s ideology would seem unreasonable if we were able to step back and take more of an objective look at it….but most of the time we would rather not step back because of the fear of isolation. And so we can go round and round, shouting and arguing our facts which represent our side—the “right” side—and all it does it reinforce our own values, make us more furious at the others’, and creating more walls of isolation. And while this may feel cathartic in the moment, the result is this ever-widening gap of non-communication.
So does the prophet should louder? Does the pastor reach farther?
As a pastor, I came from a fairly conservative Christian background. I was taught—whether outwardly or implicitly—that the Bible was the inerrant Word of God, that Christ paid the penalty for our sins, that homosexuality was one of those sins, and that those who didn’t submit to the truth of God’s Word would be punished in Hell, to name a few. The manner in which I learned these teachings was for a long time from the implied culture I grew up in, and then in my teenage years from the pastor who shouted these truths at us. Once I left that community I went off to college, and began hearing a different set of ideas—and not just from the university setting, but more importantly, from a church.
Some may remember the heap of controversy that fumed around the Harry Potter novels, how they were satanic and promoted witchcraft to kids, and it was unchristian to read them. I remember at the time being more or less done with the church; I just didn’t have the desire to get up early on Sunday morning to be surrounded by a bunch of people I didn’t know to continue to hear about how anything enjoyable was from the devil. But somehow, I ended up attending an evening service, and the theme of the sermon given by the pastor was about “Harry Potter and His Friends.” She preached on the power of friendship, the sacrifice needed at times from one on behalf of another, and that seeing beyond one’s own worldview is a demonstration of strength, not weakness.
It was this message that got me to try Christianity again.
But even in the midst of that, I became very conflicted; and the confliction was not so much which view was right and which was wrong, because in my heart I had already decided what that was, and I really always had….but I was afraid of losing my tribe if I said anything.
Then I realized there were other tribes all along. Not only that, but I realized I did not have to completely leave one to join the other. I could live and be present in both. That meant awkwardness at times, it meant difficult conversations, sometimes even arguments, but I always remembered that sermon, and that one simply didn’t need to argue to present one’s belief. Sometimes we can be both prophetic and pastoral at the same time. And sometimes loving “the other” pastorally can also be a prophetic message, either to the one we disagree with, or those we are trying to help when everyone else is telling us we’re wrong.
My all-time favorite depiction of Jesus in a movie is the 1959 Ben-Hur, the scene when Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince who is now part of a Roman slave group is being pulled along the desert, and make a pit stop in Nazareth….
What I love about this scene is how Jesus is portrayed as both pastor and prophet, that his first response was to care for the sufferer, not just with the water, but the personal attention, even as the Roman Commander was telling him to stop. And then as the Roman approached them, ready to enact physical violence, that’s when Jesus the Prophet stood up, and only stood up. We never see Jesus’ face, not just because we don’t need to be told who he is, but the point is to see how he was reflected in the faces of those he interacted with—to those he was the pastor, and those he was the prophet, to those he showed love and those he showed defiance.
Perhaps it comes down to this: who are we really doing it for, whether it’s prophetic arguing or pastoral care? Who are we arguing and avoiding arguments for? Who are we shouting at and listening to for? Who really benefits from our being argumentative or diplomatic, prophetic or pastoral? The other….or ourselves?