Pastoral Pelagianism

Andrew Purves, Reconstructing Pastoral Theology

Apart from union with Christ, ministry is cast back upon us to achieve. This is a recipe for failure, for we all fall short of the glory of God. The understanding and practice of pastoral work in this case is a burden too heavy to bear and follows a path that denies the gospel. We do not heal the sick, comfort the bereaved, accompany the lonely, forgive sins, raise up hope of eternal life, or bring people to God on the strength of our piety and pastoral skill. To think that these tasks are ours to perform is not only hubris, but also a recipe for exhaustion and depression in ministry (45).

The effect [of developing “an imitative rather than a participatory approach to ministry”] is to cast the pastor back upon his or her own resources – thus it can be defined as pastoral Pelagianism, a ministry by works rather than a ministry through grace (xxx).

The professional pressures on ministers today are immense. At the level of practical theological argument, the case can be made that to understand the burnout rate among ministers and the lack of vocational fulfillment that many experience we must also recognize the decision we may have made to turn away from this theological and practical foundation for ministry in general, and preaching in particular. [That foundation being, as Barth wrote, that the sum and substance of all pastoral work is the declaration of Him who proclaims Himself.] We must consider this turn because it signifies…the introduction of a countergospel basis for ministry and means here that preaching becomes something we do, something that we must make effective. Preaching becomes the minster’s burden, a new law, the consequence of which is a kind of ministerial Pelagianism in which there is now a strictly human, albeit religious or churchly, criterion of success. Bluntly put: this turn means that it is up to the preacher to make preaching effective (158-60).