spiritual direction & ecclesiology

Written for a Presbyterian, this paper is a review of one of my teachers’ book “Reconstructing Pastoral Theology.”

“We stand before God in Christ’s name alone, and we serve in Christ’s name alone. The real meaning of the Christian’s faith is the trust that “for Christ’s sake” we are enfolded into the inner life of the Holy Trinity, to share in Christ’s communion with the Father and in His mission from the Father.”[1]

I find in this statement the beginnings of an important truth regarding pastoral theology’s need for a well-articulated ecclesiology. Professor Purves has done a wonderful task in reminding the practitioners of pastoral theology of their need to be grounded in a thoroughly biblical Christology, soteriology and eschatology. The aforementioned sentence underscores the two-fold reality of Christian communion and Christian mission being a Trinitarian enterprise and one that may only be accomplished in Christ’s name. Prof. Purves’s Christology that, while not at all polemical, nevertheless sets forth an apologetic for the difficulties and deviations that have grown and which compromise the two-fold objective of Christian theology and life.

Without a well-defined sense of orthodox ecclesiology one is bereft of the rock (which is Christ) to which one must cling in the whelming storms of life. Without a well-defined ecclesiology one is cast adrift to float, from ‘raft to raft’ as it were, in a vain attempt to pursue one’s own definitions. “The doctrine of union with Christ is the central, organizing feature of all Christian faith and life, a basic belief in the act of God that influences every other belief and every act of believing faith.”[2] If the spiritual director assumes a fragmented, hyper-spiritualized, invisible sense of the Church, in what way will they be able to direct anyone to the integrity, the oneness, and the union which is only available through the Body of Christ? When one’s ecclesiology permits the implausible opportunity of independent or private judgment, then one is not able to encourage someone to hold fast, much less solicit one to partake of an amorphous mental construction.

In this milieu of ours (i.e., the Western church) that prizes independence, individualism, diversity and privacy above all; in which loyalties have been diluted to mere affinity within a menu-driven, consumerist society; and where our criteria for decision making are bereft of any complete, biblical ecclesiology, pastors are afforded no axiomatic boundaries. The spiritual director must operate with established theological boundaries.[3] Without a reliable model of ecclesiology those seeking sound spiritual direction are not oriented on the map, are without a compass, and are deprived of the necessary legend to find their path within the context of Christian experience.

I do not share the Protestant assumptions or conclusions of Prof. Purves; nevertheless, I am gratified to see the explicit connection of Christian theology to the embodiment of the Christian Church. “Union with him and in him transcends and overrules every lesser loyalty that threatens to separate people one from another.”[4] The myriad opportunities of relationship with pastors whose ecclesiology is underdeveloped or nonsequitorial[5] is ample justification for his treatise and assists in the desperately necessary task of reconstructing pastoral theology. To share the optimism, with which he concludes, there is hope for the church if we will begin to make explicit these criteria and assumptions in order to pursue to the one God in whom we share.

Jesus is singularly the one through whom God ‘pleased to reconcile to himself all things,…’ All the other claims to divine and strategies pursued with a mind to union with God are rejected not just as worthless religious striving, but also as sinful assertions of human disobedience in the face of the sole righteous obedience of Jesus Christ.”[6]

[1] Andrew Purves, Reconstructing Pastoral Theology: (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 80.

[2] Ibid., 80.

[3] Recently the Rt. Rev. Wm. C Frey, a retired bishop of the Episcopal Church, was heard to remark (at a House of Bishops meeting to discuss certain criteria of church doctrine) that, as presented without sufficient theological perimeter, Muslims would have no trouble at all becoming members of the Episcopal Church.

[4] Ibid., 90.

[5] I especially appreciate the frankness expressed in the need to “think through the content and meaning of our participation in the apostolic priesthood of Jesus Christ…” (ibid., 151).

[6] Ibid., 89, 90.

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