Theology is a messier concept than we like to admit. I grew up in predominately black, Pentecostal circles that had rich theological rootedness but often shied away from the word “theology.” Historically, inner city black preachers were not often invited to participate in seminary education and the word “theology” was for seminarians. Even as a fourth-generation church planter, I remember there being a strong distain for seminary training within my family of origin. In light of rejection from seminary institutions, many minorities began associating formal theological development with a lack of dependence upon the Holy Spirit. That in and of itself unveils a particular theological belief … but the word itself carried negative baggage for my communities growing up.
On the other hand, the word “theology” comes with positive feelings and all-around good vibes for many. When they imagine a theologian, they picture a wise old preacher in a dusty study pouring over books and notes, fervently seeking to unlock the mysteries of God for a world desperate for the knowledge of truth.
Whatever baggage we come to the word “theology” with is most often a caricature of the truth of its meaning, however. The word itself could be broken down to mean “study of God,” but we cannot place God under the microscope of our investigation. We can only examine the patterns of how God has self-revealed throughout the dynamic relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit with creation. It is more readily graspable for us to think of it as humanity’s shared study of Creator’s relationship with creation.
Sadly, the Western Church has relegated our popular use of the word theology to only what we teach or say about God. We don’t often remember that it encompasses all the ways we respond to our understanding of God’s relationship with creation. What we have observed of God’s patterned love, authority, grace, justice and mercy should impact more than just our sermons. It should shape everything we do from the way we engage politically to how we get rid of bugs in our houses. As Western cultured Christ followers, it is natural for us to believe the most important thing we can offer to God is our intellect. But Scripture invites us to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength. So, our theology must encompass more than just what we think and say about God. It should envelop the whole of our being.
When we consider The Wesleyan Church’s distinctive of “theology as pastoral care,” we are positioning our shepherding philosophies within the context of our understanding of Creator’s relationship with creation. Jesus expresses this concept when he describes himself as the good shepherd in John 10. He is highlighting a stark contrast between his leadership values and those of the Jewish leaders his listeners had been accustomed to. Jesus is also nodding to a prophetic imagery found in Isaiah and Ezekiel aimed at that same contrast. The appointed leaders were to be benevolent shepherds of God’s people as a reflection of his character. They, instead, abused and mistreated his people.
God’s frustration with this neglectful and abusive leadership culture is scattered throughout Scripture. In Amos, God is so fed up with their vain religion he says,
“I hate all your show and pretense—the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies. I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings. I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings. Away with your noisy hymns of praise! I will not listen to the music of your harps. Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice, an endless river of righteous living” (Amos 5:21-24, NLT).
This passage was not written to the general public. It was addressed to the leaders: the shepherds. This sentiment carries in many of Peter’s, Paul’s and James’ writings as well. God’s grace is sufficient for all our weaknesses and imperfections, but he has a low tolerance for corrupt leadership of his people. God’s appointed leaders have a responsibility to care for his people the way he would as his representatives. When we don’t, we dishonor his identity: in essence, taking his name in vain. Jesus corrects their theological infraction by teaching, rebuking their neglect and pointing to what a good shepherd looks like.
As pastors, our theology should shape the methodology of our care for the communities we serve. That’s not always an immediate instinct for every Christian: including pastors. But for Wesleyans, we believe that what we have seen of God should be evident in our engagement in the community along with our teaching of the congregations. We are present in the joys and challenges of our church family members because God is present in their joys and challenges. We hold in tension the need for patterned rest while being relationally and emotionally available for those whom we lead because this is what the good shepherd modeled for us.
We are not God, but we are empowered by his Spirit to represent him in a wise, compassionate, humble, just form of authority that consistently points his people to him.
This Wesleyan distinctive brings glory to the Father, was modeled by Christ and as reflection of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our movement. In such, it was also present in many of those black, Pentecostal circles that avoided the word “theology” but fervently lived to show the character of God in pastoral leadership and care. I was able to see it back then and am so blessed to be a part of a movement that cultivates a culture of theology as pastoral care.
Rev. Chase Stancle is pastor of Unison Christian Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and a General Board member of The Wesleyan Church.
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.