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The Pastor’s Quandary

By March 3, 2015 6 Comments

March is Oral Comp season here at Calvin Seminary where I teach.   In a couple of weeks all of our seniors who are completing their Masters degrees will endure the academic ritual of facing a panel of two professors and one area pastor who will have a free hand across an hour to ask most anything they want of the students.  The goal is to see if after three or four years of graduate school education in Bible and theology the students can pull it all together as integrative thinkers.  Soon each of these students will be the pastor-theologian in residence in various congregations, the local expert in Bible, theology, and history.  The Oral Comprehensive Exam, then, is not so much a one-off academic exercise as it is a preview of the kinds of questions the students will face for years to come in the church.  As such, can these students-cum-pastors draw on all the right resources to formulate wise, credible answers to the questions that will come their way?

I will be on a couple such panels and so have been mulling possible questions.  Like most of my colleagues, I never know for sure what I will ask until I get in the room (and a lot of it depends on what my fellow panelists ask and what topics those questions raise in the course of the hour).  But in reviewing with a small group of students the other day, I did think of a possible question (and I realize some of my students might read this blog and, if so, heads up, folks!).

I wonder what a pastor would do if–taking cues from Jesus in the New Testament–the pastor prayed some Sunday morning for the forgiveness of ISIS as it persecutes the church in the Middle East and kills sisters and brothers in Christ.   Jesus did, after all, tell us to love our enemies, pray for them, turn the other cheek, and a few other radical things that start to look a whole lot more radical if in fact you end up having actual enemies.   (C.S. Lewis made a similar observation over half a century ago when noting that everybody agrees forgiveness is a lovely idea until there is actually someone in front of you to forgive, such as the British faced with former Nazis after World War II.)

So suppose a pastor prayed for forgiveness of ISIS militants, for a turning of their hearts, for a Gospel witness of love from Christians everywhere.  And then suppose that after the service this pastor was assailed by someone who believes that what the pastor should really do is take a cue from Romans 13 and pray for the governing authorities (who do not wield the sword in vain, Paul wrote to the Roman Christians who were even then being persecuted by Rome) to do a fine job of wiping these evil militants off the face of the earth?   “Should there not be justice?” such a person might say at the church door.   “Should the United States just sit by and pray for forgiveness even as innocent people are beheaded?”

A few days ago guest blogger Angie Mabry-Nauta wrote a thoughtful post on this very subject.   Her words–and the citations she had from Jim Wallis–are very helpful.   But pastors do find themselves in a bit of a quandary.  On the one hand as a church it seems pretty clear that Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere apply to situations of persecution.   We could add also Paul’s words at the end of Romans 12 about Christians’ not taking vengeance or Peter’s words to persecuted Jewish Christians to be polite, gentle, and Christ-like in the face of criticisms and worse.  On the other hand the church also prays for the governing authorities who inevitably have a different role vis-a-vis entities like ISIS than does the church.

To again channel C.S. Lewis, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to forgive one’s enemies only after making sure they were well hanged.  So if a pastor prayed both for the patient and gracious response to persecution Jesus recommended and for wisdom for those in government who are bombing those same people, would that pastor in essence undercut him- or herself?  Would the latter prayer request as good as wipe out the former?  Or should prayers for the government be only that they, too, not engage in warfare but engage only diplomatically for peace?  And if so, would a pastor have to pray for forgiveness for a country like the U.S. for all the bombs we have dropped or will drop on ISIS?  (And how well will that sit with some members of the congregation?)

Here is one of many biblical-theological balancing acts that pastors face all the time.  And unlike perhaps other parts of the world, pastors in the U.S. face the added wrinkle of a long history among American Christians of eliding church and state, using the alleged status of the U.S. as a “Christian Nation” as a reason to fuzz out the lines between church and state in ways that frequently leave the church unable to provide a counter-cultural witness.

The church surely should have a unique approach to the issues of the day, and it seems pretty obvious that the way of Jesus is what should determine that unique approach and perspective.   I am not always sure just how to help fellow believers keep those sight lines clear, especially when push-back comes from members for how the pastor prays.

But I might just ask some students what they think and see what wisdom emerges and where the ongoing conversation goes from there.

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Marvelous post, Scott. And if you get a good answer, would you pass it along to the rest of us so we could use? By the way, I really like the Oral Comps practice.

  • Many of us in the NYC area faced this following 9/11, when we suggested to congregations that we needed to pray for our enemies. The suggestions wasn’t received well, but it provided occasion for important, difficult, and powerful conversations.

  • Jerry VS says:

    “It’s easy to love your enemies — until you have some.” Martin Marty

  • Robert says:

    Thank you for raising the question and highlighting some possible responses. I would only add that forgiving Nazis subdued before you for trial, is not the same as forgiving Nazis rampaging across Europe….

  • Renee says:

    The story of a pastor in a similar quandary plays out in *Benediction* by Kent Haruf – a good book.

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