Chapter 2: The Minister’s Authority

The Minister and the Care of Souls
by Daniel Day Williams

Chapter 2: The Minister’s Authority

In the first chapter we saw how salvation and healing are linked in human living. Now we must consider the relationship of the Christian pastor to the person with whom he counsels on matters of the soul’s sickness and health. Pastoral care extends far beyond the personal counseling of individuals. We shall say more about the significance of the Church as a saving community in the last chapter; but here we concentrate on the pastors responsibility when a person comes to him for guidance. We meet at once the question of the authority of the minister and of his office. There is no place in the life of the church where the issues concerning the nature of the minister’s authority become more sharply defined or where they lead to more fateful consequences than at the point where he becomes responsible for a soul in need. We know that the way in which we conceive our ministry is of critical importance in determining whether there will be healing or failure. Wrong conceptions, distortions, repressed resentment of authority, can get in their destructive work where pastor and person meet. We have to ask how a right theology of authority enters into the practical task of pastoral care.

The significance of the claim for the authority of the Christian minister has been vividly depicted in a motion picture made in France. It tells of a Roman Catholic community on an offshore island in which the people have behaved so badly that the bishop withdraws the priest from the parish, and for a time deprives the entire community of the Mass.

As the people try to adjust to this new situation, a man of strong character who has been serving as caretaker of the church asserts his leadership. He calls the people together in the church, and tremblingly mounts the pulpit to tell them that they must gather on Sundays for prayers and hymns, and strive to make their peace with God. As the story unfolds, a young woman in the community becomes desperately ill and has to be taken to the mainland in an effort to save her life. This lay "pastor" takes her in a small boat across the rough sea. The woman believes she is dying and asks him to hear her confession and give absolution. The climax comes in the agony of his decision as to whether he can presume to do this. What right has he, without ordination, to hear a soul’s confession and to speak the divine word of forgiveness?

Some who stand in a Protestant tradition may be inclined to regard such hesitation at assuming priestly authority as a Roman Catholic peculiarity. But on a deeper view no Christian minister or layman escapes the profound mystery of confession and absolution. How is it possible for us men to speak of God’s word to another? The recurrence of the theme of "unofficial priesthood" in much contemporary literature, such as the novels of Silone, suggests that the question of the spirit and authority of the ministry is close to the surface in all Christian cultures in our century.

I. Authority and Ministry

We get important light on our problem when we see that in the New Testament authority and ministry are inseparable. God’s word in Jesus Christ is his expression of divine authority in history. Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The disclosure of ultimate authority comes through Christ’s ministry. He takes upon himself the form of a slave, and becomes obedient to death, wherefore, Paul says, God has exalted him (Phil. 2:5-10). We rightly use "servant" instead of slave for the New Testament doulos because Jesus freely gives his life. He is not an automaton. Divine authority and power are made known through a life of service voluntarily chosen and lived in uttermost love. "The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister" (Matt. 20:28). Authority always means the exercise of power in accord with some source of legitimacy. There is an authentic order which connects the valid claim to authority with reality. In the New Testament Jesus’ power and right to express divine truth among men are inseparable from his ministry. It is as the Servant that he bears supreme authority.

If we hold, as I believe we must, that authority in the Christian Church is finally personal and spiritual, the reason lies here in the mode of God’s self-revelation. We learn who God is, in the fullest way open to us as men, through his self-expression in the man Jesus.

Thus all ministry in the Church takes its meaning from Christ’s ministry. We can agree with T. W. Manson:

. . . we see a ministry whose norm is the ministry of Jesus -- servant of all; servile to none -- and a liberty of the Spirit that does not degenerate into license.

This means that we take the organic conception of the Church in deadly earnest. When we do that, we find only one essential and constitutive Ministry, that of the Head, our Lord Jesus Christ. All others are dependent. derivative, functional.1

If we hold such a view of the personal nature of authority, we are free to recognize the development of many forms of the ministerial office as an inevitable and valid aspect of the history of the church. There is no need to recall here the story of that development, though we should not forget that the history of pastoral care has been bound up with various conceptions of ecclesiastical office and power. John McNeill’s A History of the Cure of Souls and the essays in The Ministry in Historical Perspectives treat the history in significant detail.2

In our concern for pastoral care, we may hold different views of the historical development of the pastoral office and the ages-long debate as to the proper form of the ministry. We know there has been tension throughout between charismatic and institutional doctrines of the legitimate ministry in the church. And however we may emphasize the spiritual and personal aspects of ministry, we cannot escape the fact that every outburst of spiritual energy as it broke through old forms at the same time used those forms. When it destroyed old ones, it also shaped new types of formal ministry. The history of such spiritual sects as Quakers and the Disciples of Christ is just as instructive in this matter as that of the Catholic orders. The call to ministry is ultimately dependent on the spirit which bloweth where it listeth, yet it normally requires to be brought into connection with historical forms of the Christian community.

We may say, then, that there is authority in the office of Christian ministry, and in the pastoral function of that office. The Christian minister enters into a distinctive relationship to the Church and to the people of a congregation when he is ordained. The precise definition of that new relationship is notoriously difficult. Indeed, some of its aspects will always escape clear analysis, for there is the mystery of the new life in the Body of Christ surrounding it. We must avoid any view which separates pastor from people, for Christ’s ministry is there wherever his work is being done. Yet the minister-pastor in the church is primarily responsible for presenting the truth and demands of the Gospel in preaching, in leadership, and in the care of the congregation. No adequate view of the ministry can avoid recognition of this representative character of the ministerial office. There are very different views of how the representative character of the office is established in the Church, and there are different views of the way in which the authority it involves is conferred and can be exercised. But we see in every actual ministry an office and a vocation which involve the special responsibility of the Christian minister for presenting to the church and representing in the church the ministry of Christ which brought the Church into being.

This special character of the ministry as sacred office constitutes a major resource in dealing with the sick soul; but it also gives rise to real problems. Distorted notions of what the ministry is and of what ministers are like as persons can obstruct effective counseling. There are, for example, the attitudes of submission and of resentment which often lurk beneath the surface of an apparently straight-forward acceptance of the ministry and what it stands for. What we are here emphasizing is that the pastoral counselor does his work within the structure of the pastoral office. This is true whether or not he explicitly uses Christian language or any special Christian symbols in a particular situation. It is of greatest importance, therefore, to see clearly what the minister’s authority means, and what its limits are.

II. The Claim and the Gift

The minister presents a Gospel which has two themes. the claim of God and the gift of God. We need to examine both of these.

To begin with the claim and demand. The minister desires to help people, but he begins with the conviction that God has set the pattern of life and determined the conditions under which there can be real help. "No man is an islande" in the great words of John Donne. That means not only that each life is bound up with every other, but that man is beholden to his Creator, who has made him and established the boundaries of his spirit. We do well to underline this Christian perspective as we approach the pastoral task. It constitutes one of the clear and specific differences between the pastoral relationship and many other counseling relationships. We are not forgetting the freedom of the Gospel and its promise of freedom to the human spirit; but are saying that in the Christian view all freedom has its conditions set by the creative action of God in determining the conditions of life. One thinks of John Oman’s word, "Sin is the attempt to get out of life what God has not put into it."3

The claim which God makes is in one of its aspects ethical. The first obligations of life are love to God and to the neighbor. We rightly think of pastoral care as an effort to bind up wounds, to heal the sick, and an encouragement to bear the pain of life. But the Christian knows that the fulfillment of any life depends upon discovery that life must be lost for Christ, that it must be given in love to a center outside oneself. Personal satisfaction does not constitute the goal of life. To live in fellowship with God and the neighbor is the secret of the soul’s fulfillment.

One of the weaknesses of our culture is our desire to be rid of the ills of body or mind without taking account of the iron necessities of life and the ultimate law of self-giving. This is one reason why an emphasis on healing alone can threaten the morale of the Church. The truly healthy in spirit do not expect life to offer them a cure for every ill. There can be no real health of spirit until we come to terms in humility and repentance with our self-centeredness. We see, then, that the moral dimension of life has its place at the basis of pastoral care. Strength of soul has many roots, and it is true that many of them lie deeper than the acceptance of the moral law; but God has given that law to his creation, and knowledge of that law is, as for the Apostle Paul, one ingredient of the knowledge of God, and therefore of a true self-knowledge.

The claim of God also transcends the moral dimension. "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" is more than a summons to obedience to law. It is the claim of the Creator upon the whole being of his creature. To accept it is to know the true center of life and hope. The Christian counselor knows that there is no final solution of the ills of life other than through faith in God. He will not treat the meaning of that faith as an addendum to his pastoral work. It constitutes the very foundation of the care of souls.

Since our position here raises questions about the "permissive" spirit in counseling, it is interesting to observe the way in which Erich Fromm treats this problem of whether life can be understood without faith in God. Fromm wisely sees that even from his humanist perspective the issue concerning God cannot be set aside. He takes the view that while man cannot know the true God he can discover and identify the false gods, and exclude them from his loyalty.4 But surely this is a quite unstable position. How can one know a god to be false unless he has some sense of what the true God would be? And such insight must of necessity contain an element of genuine knowledge of God. But Fromm is right in recognizing that questions of ultimate meaning are involved in the search for health of body and mind.

Alongside the claim of God, and inseparable from it, there is his gift. The same Lord who claims all of life for himself and for the community of loving service is the gracious God who "forgives all your iniquity and heals all your diseases," as the Psalmist sings (103:3).

We shall look more deeply in the following chapters at the meaning of forgiveness, but here we need to stress that forgiveness has both a moral and a transmoral aspect. It is God’s action in standing by the sinner and reconstituting the relationship broken by our wrongdoing. Sin is not only the breaking of the divine law; it is personal estrangement, it is the separation of man from the true source of his being. It is the life created for love twisted into the life of lovelessness. The gift of God is his powerful invasion of the disordered life we create for ourselves, and his persuasive power to set us in a right relation again.

It is toward the grace of forgiveness that the minister would point all who seek God. When he speaks of forgiveness he is not merely announcing a doctrine which the Church teaches, but he is declaring a present and powerful reality. The very office of minister, which far too often is understood to symbolize only judgment upon sin, should be known as one expression in the Church of the forgiving spirit. We have said that to be a minister is to enter through a public vocation and office into a responsible continuation of the ministry of Christ whose ministry was the disclosure of the gracious will and the forgiveness of God. To minister in Christ’s name is to accept the vocation of witnessing in a public way in the Church and the world to the grace which Christ has brought.

Three aspects of this high view of the ministry can be briefly stressed. First, the minister’s representation of the claim and the grace of God is not something which belongs to him simply as an individual, but to him as he stands within the community of believers, the Church, which God has brought into being through his gracious action. One protection against some common misunderstandings is to keep clear this fact that the minister has his vocation only in dependence upon the whole community of faithful and needy people. He is one with them. Therefore, the Christian minister has as the keystone of his calling the truth that he stands under the judgment of God and in need of forgiveness. A wise chaplain in an American prison was once asked what he regarded as the prime requirement for an adequate ministry to those in prison. At once he replied, "To realize that you are in the same need of grace as these men who are sent here."

The second point is that the office of ministry creates certain temptations and possibilities of injury to the minister and to others. There is, for example, the fact that he can use the office and its powers as a protective device against facing himself. He can further use the office in various ways to acquire special status or achieve power over other people. This can happen quite unconsciously as well as deliberately. What honest minister will not confess that he has been guilty of such misuse of the sacred office at some time under certain stress?

In the third place, we recognize the inevitable tendency of the ministerial office to separate clergy from laity. This can be true actually even when it is denied theologically. Church history is partly the tragedy of clericalism and anticlericalism. There is collective guilt as well as individual guilt in this history. The guilt is on both sides, but ministers never should forget that when they encounter the resentment, the misunderstanding, or sometimes just the plain ignorance of what the Christian ministry is, they are in part seeing the consequences of the sins of the Church and churchmen through the centuries. The very fact that the minister deals with sacred symbols, and standards may make it in some cases most difficult to get down to the reality underlying those symbols. Voltaire’s jibe that of course God will forgive, since it is his business, really points to a profound problem in the spiritual life. All organizing and routinizing of the great experiences must at some point become a threat to the spirit. That, at least, is a good working assumption to put us on our guard. It is a theme which Nicolas Berdyaev expressed discerningly in his view that history is "the tragedy of spirit."5 If Berdyaev exaggerated the tension between form and spirit, he still saw the problem in its full dimensions.

A positive meaning can be drawn from these acknowledgments of the pitfalls of the ministry. It is that the minister can be bold to act in the name of God and in the truth of the Gospel just because he belongs within the community which God has created out of his sovereign act of forgiveness. It is by faith alone that any Christian can minister to another person, and any Christian minister can preach or teach or counsel. Faith in Christian language does not mean a sheer leap in the dark. It means personal response to God’s action in Christ. It means to stand within the orbit of God’s grace and acknowledge one’s absolute dependence upon God for a new life of hope and love.

We learn of the divine self-identification with sinners as we see the story of Jesus unfold in the New Testament. We see Jesus maintaining an unbroken devotion and love toward God; but he does not separate himself from the sins of men or the consequences they entail. As Donald Baillie says concerning the Gospel record of Jesus: "He did not set up at all as a man confronting God, but along with sinners who do not take this attitude he threw himself solely on God’s grace. The God-man is the only man who claims nothing for himself but all for God."6 A ministry in the spirit of Christ has no place for pride of status or exemption from judgment. Its authority lies elsewhere.

III The Person in Need

In our inquiry for the source of ministerial authority we must next give our attention to the person to whom pastoral care is given. Who is this person who comes to the pastor with a burden, a bewilderment, perhaps a flaming hatred? What does it mean that he seeks out a pastor or is thrown into a situation where a pastor may hear his story? The Christian answer to these questions is startling. This person is Christ himself standing before the minister. Christ, the Son of God, is in reality present wherever man is. Christ is not only present in the world through our Church and our ministry. What a false and wrongheaded notion it is that Christ is present only where we Christians are! Christ is wherever men are living, hoping, suffering. The text here is Jesus’ word, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me" (Matt. 25:40). This truth affects the pastoral relationship profoundly and we must explore it further.

Christ is present in the person in the obvious sense that the purpose of God, made known in Jesus Christ, is the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom in all of life. Christ is therefore present in every person as the ultimate meaning and reality which leads to the fulfillment of God’s will for life. This does not mean that the Christian serves others for the sake of obedience to an abstract principle which he names ‘‘Christ.’’ It means that in the Christian view Jesus Christ is the person through whom we know concretely the personal reality at the heart of God’s purpose for the world. In Christ we see Gods will to create a community of persons. That is to say, we know who each person is, in the ultimate significance of his life, as we know him "in Christ."

Paul’s phrase "in Christ," which he used more than any other single expression, cannot be fully explicated until we all "know as we are known"; but Paul surely means that in the Christian life we are not only separate individuals, but we are incorporated into the new reality which God has created in history through the life of Jesus. We must keep in view, therefore, the fully personal meaning of being "in Christ." It is not absorption or destruction of personality, but its fulfillment. Christ is "being formed in us" as we enter fully into our humanity through the gracious action of God, who has broken through our old and estranged ways and established the foundations of the new life.

To see every person as created for life "in Christ" is the key to the meaning of Christian "realism" in dealing with persons. Such realism does not mean passing over the reality of sin, the evil in the human heart, or the inexplicable tragedy of the suffering in creation. It is in the midst of these realities that the story of Jesus has its meaning. But realism means knowing that each person has been created in God’s image and is capable of being open to the grace of God and of beginning to love. We cannot say that pastoral care depends on the assumption that we, or -- to put it bluntly -- even God, will find a way to solve every problem man faces. We can speak only of the way in which Christians understand the hope which guides our dealing with the ills of the soul and body of man. We must take a clear view of the medical realities of disease and the spiritual realities of sin, but it makes a difference in the pastor’s understanding of all human ills that he sees every person as created for a life of love to God and his neighbor. We can understand many ills of the spirit and even of the body as caused by the damming up of the way to a life of free and self-giving love. We will not leave out of account in meeting any problem the possibility of uncovering resources in the human spirit of courage and power to love.

We can take a further step in learning the significance of the presence of Christ in the person. We have been speaking from the point of view of the pastor’s concern for the person in his need. But to recognize Christ in the person is to see that he is a bearer of grace to the pastor. Christ is present as the One through whom we ever receive more than we give. Sometimes we receive grace through discovering the understanding, courage, and capacity for forgiveness in the other person who is struggling for light and peace. There is no minister who knows what he is about who has not been renewed again and again through discovering in others, even those in desperate need of help, a strength upon which he himself drew afresh.

The grace of Christ can be released through the new relationship into which a pastor and his people enter. There are times when it is given to him to enter with another into the deepest level of searching for insight, for healing truth, and sharing the joy of discovery. Such experience is the product of no technique by itself. It is the gift of God to those who are open to the full adventure of searching for truth. We have already recalled Martin Luther’s declaration that we are to become Christ for one another. We do not take the place of Christ, but we enter into a relationship where he is present through what we give of him to one another in our broken ways.

There are many implications of this conception of mutual dependence in the pastoral relationship. We cannot reduce them to formulas; but the clear conclusion from this way of seeing the pastoral task is the recognition that one of the surest aids to an effective pastoral care is to think of the pastor as involved in the needs, the suffering, the adventure of the spirit to which he brings the insight and concern of his office. He is a participant in the story of sin and sickness and restoration. It takes place again through and in him as he becomes a pastor to others.

IV. The Nature of Pastoral Authority

We have been searching for the nature of pastoral authority and we have been led to an analysis of the pastoral relationship itself. That relationship has some radical implications for the meaning of authority in the Church.

In the New Testament, as we have seen, the authority of Christ and his ministry are bound together. Pastoral care is service to persons in the spirit of Christ. The principle we now have to grasp is that the authority of the pastor is not something merely brought into the pastoral relationship, but is born out of that relationship. I am taking the view that the authority of the Christian minister, that is, his authority to speak and act as a representative of the Gospel of God’s forgiveness and his healing power, is given only through the actual exercise of the pastoral office. Real personal authority arises out of the concrete incarnation of the spirit of loving service which by God’s help becomes present in the care of souls. And this means that ministerial authority can be lost as well as won.

In taking this position I do of course raise a very old question in the doctrine of the ministry, the question of whether the minister’s authority to preach the Word, administer sacraments, and act as pastor inheres in his office and ordination or whether it inheres in his person and is dependent upon his faith. But need we make a simple choice between these? Surely authority inheres in the office of ministry, for that office is the Church’s expression of its reception of the ministry of Christ, and its provision for the representation in word and action of his ministry. The office is created as an expression of the continuing personal authority of Christ himself, and is dependent upon that authority.

But surely authority inheres in the person as well as the office, for where there is no actual ministry -- and that means where there is no loving service -- there the participation in the authority of Christ is obscured and may be lost. Both office and person become channels of grace through the concrete task of facing personal needs. It follows that to enter into the pastoral relationship involves, along with the assertion of authority, a risk and a search. New light on the Gospel and new self-discoveries are possible for both the pastor and the person who stands before him.

Some confirmations of this truth are so familiar that they need only be mentioned. We all know there is a difference between the authority with which the young seminary graduate begins his preaching and that of the pastor who has had years of experience of life and death among his people. There is authority in both cases. The untried young person may be wiser than the older one. He may quickly assert the authority of insight and spirit. But something must come slowly from the encounter with life and the testing which is brought by tragedy.

What needs our especial attention in this matter, however, is that every experience, with or without the high commission of the Church’s ordination, opens the question of authority to interpret the Gospel. Every new problem and decision in the Christian life presents a new demand for the discovery of the real meaning of ministry.

A person may come to the minister with a question or problem which he has heard a hundred times, yet the question of the meaning of human existence is raised anew. To enter with any person into the search for the healing which the Gospel brings means to risk having one’s understanding and one’s faith challenged. We never know where a new human problem may lead us. This does not mean that the pastor is examining himself every five minutes to see whether he is establishing an authoritative relationship with his people. The point we are stressing here is perhaps quite rightly kept in the background most of the time. We have to go ahead and do what needs to be done, trusting in God’s mercy and power. But when the question of authority to speak the words of forgiveness, of hope, and of judgment is decisively raised, we will discover that the crisis of authority is the crisis of faith itself. Without risking our very being in the service of Christ, we have no authority to speak in his flame. We may rightly stress the positive aspect of this view of authority. The authentic power to be a pastor to another is born out of living encounters with those in need. God gives authority when we are open to his leading.

We should not oversimplify what is immensely complex and full of mystery. Pastoral authority has many dimensions: the tested experience of the pastor, the suffering out of which insight and strength are born, the knowledge of technical aspects of counseling and skill in dealing with human problems, all these play a part. There is the historical experience of the Church and the tradition of the pastoral office. No one ministers for himself alone. What is effective in any ministry is far more a power accumulated through centuries of experience than anything which we exercise as individuals. But tradition must finally take form in the personal actions of those who seek the healing power of God in present life.

A group of ministers in New York’s East Harlem Protestant Parish, a significant church mission in a critical area of a great city, describes so exactly the discovery of authority through the act of ministry that it is appropriate to quote it here -- all the more so since it deals with ministry to an entire community and not only to individuals.

In the beginning, the church was met with many signs of rejection and misunderstanding. Some thought it was a racket of the . . . congressman from the area. Others thought it was some kind of experiment or study project to investigate the people of the area. Sometimes the ministers were greeted with hostility or suspicion, although far more often with apathy, the incredible hopelessness about life that seemed to hang over so many of the people of East Harlem like a black cloud. In modern urban life, many people seem to have lost any sense of purpose or meaning in life; this was surely true in East Harlem. The problem for the young ministers, first of all, was to establish some kind of communication with East Harlem, to overcome the cultural barriers and get to know people at the level of our common humanity where the genuine religious issues arise. The key word became participation. They had so to share in the life of the community, to feel its concerns and pain, to face the same daily frustrations and tensions of urban life. The staff moved into tenement apartments, sought to meet people where they lived and played, to be on hand when trouble came, to listen and feel and wait. Gradually, over the early years, the ministers earned the right and opportunity through this kind of participation, to confront -the people of East Harlem with the Gospel. Just as often, through sensitive and concerned members of the little colonies that began to grow, they were themselves ministered unto and inspired.7

Let us be clear that the final judgment as to what is authoritative in any Christian ministry and what is not, does not lie with us or with any human institution. It lies with God. Our world is full of claims to authority in matters of politics, of ethics, of the intellect, and of religion. We can pay our full respect to the tested structures of authority in our common life, but all conventional human authorities easily assume a finality beyond their competence, and this is nowhere more dangerously true than in the high forms of spiritual authority which belong to religion and its institutions.

V. The Hiddenness of Ministry

We began by stressing the public nature of the minister’s authority. He presents, through his office and his vocation, the divine claim and gift to men. But the analysis of the actual content of that authority leads to the conclusion that there are two forms of exercise of ministerial authority, one public, and one hidden. If we do not see this, we will lack one of the main keys to understanding what happens in pastoral care, as well as miss some fundamental realities in the life and work of the Christian minister.

What we have to see is that the pastor not only embodies and uses the symbols of his public vocation, but that he has to learn to divest himself and his language at times of just these recognizable symbols in order to help people recover their real meaning. Most ministers at some time feel a deep need to become "anonymous" so that they can act as Christians without reference to their special vocation. There are many sources of this need, and one of them may be in the desire to escape the discipline involved. But at its deepest, this need stems from the realities of the Christian life. It is the need to get behind the veil of conventional symbols and forms to the quick of human life and experience. It is the protest against the misuse of sacred forms as escape from the real issues.

What all sensitive Christians feel here at some time about the danger of unreality in religious forms and symbols has received abundant confirmation in contemporary psychology. Religious symbols have an ambiguous power. For some people they become the main barriers between the self and reality. They function as bridges upon which we may walk to and fro from our private hurts to communicate with others, but never take a step off the bridge into a new way of life.8

For example, the great words and signs of grace and healing, such as forgiveness and love, may become the focus for resentment against other persons and life itself. The pastor who is trying to be helpful may become the surrogate for a parent who talked much of love and never understood it. The image of the Church may become inseparable from a class or caste, or from remembered injustice.

There is the further psychological insight that the person who uses religious language very freely, and who appears completely dependent on pious feelings and sentiments, may be concealing a profound disbelief in the very doctrines he aggressively affirms. Ambivalence in feelings is one of the first lessons the pastoral counselor must learn, and it raises many sharp questions about the meaning of pious observance.

We see, then, more clearly why the minister’s office constitutes a special problem for him in many of his relationships even with his own congregation. There are always those Christians who have not reached enough maturity to discriminate between reality and form in religion. And we see why every minister will experience a sharp longing to exercise his vocation incognito.

Of course he cannot become completely divested of his public vocation; but he can know that for the sake of getting at realities he must become skilled in describing human problems in more than one language. We need not advocate the pastor’s adoption of a completely secularized language in his counseling work. That is not an uncommon phenomenon; but surely it is a mistake. The Christian pastor has no adequate substitutes for the vocabulary which includes such words as "God," "faith," and "grace." Further, the use by either a pastor or a secular counselor of a profane and shocking vocabulary to exhibit his personal "release" is more a sign of lingering infantilism than of maturity. But the pastor may have to set aside all specifically religious language for a time precisely because at some stage of communicating with the person these get in the way of clear thought and honest feeling.

Take the term "sin," for example. There is no substitute for this word. There are analogues in "maladjustment," "egocentricity," "lack of integrity." But "sin" means man’s willful turning away from a loyal and trusting relationship to God. It is a rupture at the center of the personal existence, a rupture for which we in our freedom are responsible. It is the self’s flight from reality. Thus the word "sin" carries a great freight of judgment and acknowledgment of wrong with it. "For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me" (Ps. 51:3). This confession of the Psalmist is at the center of the Christian experience. Yet no word in our culture is more misused, misunderstood, and flagrantly exploited than "sin," and none of us completely escapes the distortion which it has undergone. Its religious and moral depth has been flattened out to make it a suggestion merely of the bad things people do, of unconventional behavior, or failure in a purely legalistic morality. It is used to sell books and moving pictures. At a more subtle psychological level it becomes a useful word for those who do not really want to change, and so they indulge in a continual "confession of sin," replacing the will to change with the ritual of wallowing in guilt.

The skillful counselor looks beneath the words and symbols and finds ways to communicate around and through the blocks which people may have about even the greatest words. It can be truly said that the pastoral task is so to minister to people who have lost the power of a right use of Christian language that this language can be restored to them with reality and with power.

What we are saying about the concealment of truth by language is but one aspect of the ultimate truth about the hiddenness of ministry. We are dealing here with the hiddenness of God himself. The Protestant Reformers rediscovered what the New Testament declares, that in his revelation in Jesus Christ God has expressed his love and at the same time concealed his being. A strange ambiguity runs through the Gospel record of Jesus. There are the signs of the Kingdom and of its power. These appear unmistakable. He taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes (Matt. 7:29). And yet none of the signs were really "unmistakable," It is possible to read the record and to remain, as many eyewitnesses were, quite unmoved by it. There is the important testimony in much of the Gospel record that Jesus disavowed all the common expectations of the power of Messiahship. He taught that the Messiah must suffer and die a human death. Here all the traditional signs and symbols break down. There is nothing left but the naked man upon the cross. The resurrection is indeed a sign of God’s power, but it is surely not a public one. It was those who had lived within the orbit of the new faith who saw the resurrected Lord. After a brief period, Jesus "ascended to heaven," a clear indication that the presence of the resurrected Christ is a spiritual presence. We cannot say, "Lo here, and lo there," and point to the Kingdom. We can only say in the crises of life, "Surely the Lord was in this place." The Holy Spirit makes use of human and historical forms, but the Spirit bloweth where it listeth. God lends his presence through religious forms, but is not bound to them. The Scripture itself helps to protect us from a false faith in purely objective signs of authority. "Now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face." "Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be." (I Cor. 13:12; I John 8:12.)

It has been the theme of this chapter that when we speak of authority in the Christian faith and ministry we must see that authority through its source in the revelation in Jesus Christ. This is to say that our authority derives from him whose claim rests finally on nothing other than the sheer expression of love to God and to men. We do not all agree in the Christian Church about the proper forms of authority in the ministry; but whatever they may be, we cannot escape the truth that God in his decisive word to us has left us no ultimate reliance upon institution or tradition save that which arises from personal trust in him.

In the next two chapters we shall discuss what happens when the pastor and another seek the healing power of grace in personal relationships.



1. T. W. Manson, The Church’s Ministry (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1948), p. 30.

2. John T. McNeill, A History of the Cure of Souls (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951).

3. H.R. Niebuhr and Daniel D. Williams (eds.), The Ministry in Historical Perspectives (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956).

4. John Oman, Grace and Personality, 3rd ed. rev. (Cambridge: The University Press, 1925), p. 225.

5. Erich Fromm, The Sane Society (New York: Rinehart & Co., Inc., 1955), p. 351.

6. N. Berdyaev, Slavery and Freedom (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons), Pt. IV, 1.

7. Donald Baillie. God Was in Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948),p. 127.

8. From an unpublished monthly report to the Administrative Board of the East Harlem Protestant Parish, no date (about 1958).

9. Cf. Carroll A. Wise, Religion in Illness and Health (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1942), pp. 222-23.