Not Pastoral Malpractice, but Pastoral Malpraxis

A recent blog post on the LifeWay Christian Stores blog claims that the biggest problem in the Christian Church is that pastors commit pastoral malpractice.

Not medical malpractice, but pastoral malpractice. What is that? Sexual misconduct? Stealing money from church coffers? Naaah.

What do I mean by pastoral malpractice? I mean ministers who stand and preach a gospel other than God’s rightful need for punitive justice against our sin and His wrath being appeased by pouring out upon Christ judgment intended for us.
Ouch. Read on to see that malpractice is nowhere near as dangerous as malpraxis, or failing to reflect on what you preach.

Pastoral Malpractice

As both Henry and Will comment, pastoral malpractice is essentially preaching any atonement theology other than penal substitutionary atonement. If we water down what happened on the cross, then we are committing pastoral malpractice and leading our flock astray.

Will goes on to emphasize the love of God as opposed to penal substitutionary atonement
Never mind that this God of wrath is hard to reconcile with John’s view that “God is love,” and that “perfect love casts out fear” (and if there was ever a God to fear, it is the one described above). Never mind all that and so much more besides. If you don’t preach what Rainer says you must preach, you are guilty of treason and pastoral malpractice.
I'm also most struck by Henry's comment here:
A commenter on the Lifeway post cheers on Mr. Rainer, and comments on how people are tired of a “watered down gospel.”
What I’m wondering is this: Why is it OK to water down God’s love, but it’s somehow “treasonous” to water down his wrath?
Amen to these insightful comments on the theological issue at play, and the ridiculousness of narrowing the grievous sin of pastors to not preaching a particular atonement theory.

Pastoral Malpraxis

However, I would claim there is a bigger issue here. Malpractice is defined as failing to act when you have a duty to act. It's not about getting something wrong! Malpractice is professional negligence that causes harm to someone.

I don't think it is negligent to fail to preach substitutionary atonement. Given our diversity of Christian thought, you can preach alternative atonement theologies and still be within the realm of Christian thought.

In my opinion, the bigger sin is neglecting to study the effects of your preaching or actions.

This is the essence of pastoral malpraxis, or failing to reflect on what you preach.

There are some preachers who get one message, have crafted that one message, and are unable to deviate from it. They walk the walk and talk the talk consistently. Their Christian practice is impeccable. However, at what point do they reflect on their ministry and remove their personalities from it to see its effects on people?

It is precisely the act of reflecting on practice that makes it become praxis.

Liberation theologians Gutierrez and Sobrino define Christian praxis as "a combination of reflection and action that realizes the historicity of human persons." Gutierrez further defines praxis in this way:
The understanding of faith appears as the understanding not of the simple affirmation--almost memorization--of truths, but of a commitment, an overall attitude, a particular posture in life (A Theology of Liberation, 6).
To be pastors, we have a responsibility to ensure the whole of our Christian life is in line with the ideals of God. That includes the effects of our sermons and actions on people and ministries. We are called to constant refinement and accountability, and failing to reflect on our deeply personal sermons can lead to unnoticed hurt in people's lives. For instance:
  • If I preach Jesus gave his body to be broken, then am I hurting those battered women who willingly give their bodies to be broken so their families can stay together?
  • If I preach that if you just pray to Jesus, your prayers will be answered (Mark 11:24), then am I giving false hope to people?
  • If I preach that God wants you to be rich (3 John 2 and the prayer of Jabez), then am I siding the church with consumerism and empire rather than the kingdom of God?
It is precisely the act of reflection and action that Christian praxis is built on. And thus any follower of Christ, regardless of their atonement theology or ordination status, who does not reflect on their practice of their faith is committing malpraxis.

This isn't some sort of teleological ethics that focuses on the effects and end results of ministry. It is praxis in the pure sense, of considering Christian ministry by reflecting and acting and reflecting again in a constant circle of refinement to make us holier representatives of Christ to all we meet.

What do you think?
  • Is failing to reflect on your message and life's message (malpraxis) more dangerous than preaching a watered-down gospel to the masses (malpractice)?
  • In what ways can we better encourage those cult-of-personality churches to better reflect on the praxis of their ministries in ways that remove egos from the picture?
Thanks for reading, and I hope you will post your thoughts!


Becca Clark May 13, 2008 at 11:32 AM  

I had to read the opening paragraphs of the article three of four times to assure that I wasn't misunderstanding. God's rightful need for punitive justice? God needs punishment of others? Woah. Any being that needs others to be punushed to--what?-- feel good about "him"self is a seriously flawed and limited creature. Definitely not something I can even reconcile with the Source and Ground of all Being.

I love your distinction about practice and praxis. I think the LifeWay writers are of course saying that a "watered down gospel" is malpractice because we *should* have preached a message of punitive justice and *neglected* to do so, and therefore people are suffering eternal damnation, having never been warned. I don't know if I'd call that any sort of praxis at all; it's just bad religion. Henry's point is the strongest here: the Gospel is overwhelmingly a gospel of love. Watering *that* down or diluting it with fear and retribution, now that's the error of our ways.

Sadly, though, I haven't found any surefire way of encouraging people to reflect more on their preaching.

cometothewaters May 13, 2008 at 12:58 PM  

If I preach Jesus gave his body to be broken, then am I hurting those battered women who willingly give their bodies to be broken so their families can stay together?

How do you deal with this then?

Are you saying that we do not preach that Jesus was broken or that he did not allow himself to be beaten and killed?

I see your point about the abused woman, but do such examples mean we should not preach about self-sacrifice and suffering?

Pardon the harping on a specific. I find it more helpful to discuss particular cases rather than general principles when I'm trying to understand the implications of an idea.


Rev. Jeremy Smith May 13, 2008 at 1:37 PM  

@ Becca, yeah, I wigged a bit reading the post too. Better to read others' evaluations than wading through it, sometimes!

@ John (CttW), the point is "have you ever asked yourself that question?" Have you engaged in reflection on this question? That's the point of praxis. I have no trouble with you (generic "you") preaching this message if you have thought through it and reflected in prayer and study not just the scripture but the effect of preaching.

To your specific example, there are Sundays when I preach self-sacrifice. However, every Sunday, my church has communion. I rarely use the words in the Communion liturgy "The body of Christ, broken for you" because there is little room for context. I usually say "The body of Christ, broken, because we are all broken, but Christ calls us to wholeness" which has a different effect.

cometothewaters May 13, 2008 at 4:14 PM  


I appreciate the question back. I think I think about it. I try to be aware of who is hearing the sermon and participating in the liturgy at every step from planning to prep to enactment.

In even a small congregation, it seems, you can tie yourself into liturgical knots pretty quickly if you try to rephrase things that might be interpreted in the way you suggest.

I'm not sure where you draw the line.

And in my UMC Book of Worship, at least, the Service of Word and Table actually does not use the word "broken" to describe Christ or his body. Maybe the people who wrote it were thinking of your point already.


PamBG May 13, 2008 at 5:18 PM  

I've commented on Henry's blog. I've learned that hard-core Calvinists believe that God's love has to be filtered through his wrath. This is certainly not a Methodist position and, for me, it highlights why the Calvinist[1] vs Arminian debates are still very much alive.

I think that this view of God is 180 degrees incorrect.

[1] I should be clear that I mean 'hard-form TULIP Calvinism here and not the "softer" forms of Calvinism.

Will May 13, 2008 at 10:39 PM  

Thanks for the very thoughtful post the helpful distinction between malpractice and malpraxis. You raise some interesting and pertinent questions for reflection as well.

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