Pastoral care (15): The Bible is not a book of oracles

What is there to discuss when a minister meets with believers for a pastoral care visit? That depends on the particular situation. It would certainly not be entirely absurd to think that they might talk about content from Holy Scripture. Or perhaps rather not?

In the question-and-answer version of the Catechism of the New Apostolic Church, question number 12 asks: “What is Holy Scripture?” The response: “Holy Scripture—the Bible—is a collection of writings about God’s activity, promises, and commandments. It consists of the Old Testament and the New Testament. Holy Scripture attests to the revelations of God, however, it is not a complete or exhaustive account of all of God’s deeds. God has seen to it that that which is important for the salvation of mankind has been preserved.”

The Bible is standard reading material for Christians, and it provides valuable instructions for human conduct throughout all time. This has resulted in a certain tradition of referring to the Bible when in discussion with one’s minister. However, the use of Holy Scripture in the context of a pastoral care visit is by no means an obligatory or prescribed directive. Rather, its use should be appropriate to the situation and not seem contrived.

Letting the Bible speak

Since Holy Scripture contains some wonderful messages of comfort, it can be used to convey strength and inner peace to a person in need of comfort. Cares, fears, and despair can be balanced out by the biblical promise of consolation, confidence, and peace. Naturally, this also works well in times of great joy: a message from the Bible that emphasises praise and thanksgiving for divine help would certainly not go amiss. After all, reading together from Holy Scripture in a situational context is always better than talking about everyday topics or even the trivialities of life. And believers should indeed talk about their beliefs. This can develop into a profound and edifying moment of fellowship between the minister and the believers.

But be careful: the Bible is not an oracle

On the other hand, the Bible is not merely a book of comfort, but also a book of admonitions and warnings. The idea of opening Scripture to some random passage over the course of the pastoral visit has already caused a lot of suffering in the past. Here in particular, Chief Apostle Jean-Luc Schneider advises moderation when referencing the Bible: “In many places it is customary for the minister to open the Bible at random and read a passage from it. This tradition is certainly admirable, but it is not without its risks, because it has also happened that members come to regard such passages as a kind of prophecy or divine promise. The task of the minister is not to reveal the future to the members in their care, but rather to strengthen them in their faith and trust in God. I feel it would be better for the minister to prepare his visit by asking God to inspire him with a biblical text that could provide orientation in pastoral care.”

Holy Scripture is not some written oracle to which people can address questions in the expectation of an answer. Often enough, the hearer’s understanding of a Bible text that has just been read out is quite divergent from the reader’s understanding. So who is right? The person reading it out or the person listening? The minister or the believer? And before you know it, irritations, disappointments, and disputes arise—and the whole positive effect of a confidential pastoral care discussion comes to naught!

Faith and rational thought

Faith and realism do not contradict one another. Despite our firm belief that the pastoral visit is guided by the Holy Spirit, the comprehensible horizon of human thought should not be unduly stretched. Although faith frequently deals with the mysteries of God and is often associated with not knowing certain things, it is not intended to burden, but rather edify. Misguided expectations and disproportionate hopes about certain developments in the lives of our brethren in faith should not lead to dubious interpretations of biblical passages.

This becomes particularly evident when it comes to signs. There is no doubt that God can also give divine signs. The question is how people perceive them. Sometimes they choose not to understand a Bible text as one indication among several, but rather take it as an absolute. Caution is advised here: a Bible text should never be understood as the sole sign for or against a particular decision. It may, however, serve as an indication in one direction or another.

That is the subject of the next portion of our series on pastoral care, namely: “When belief in signs leads astray”.

Photo: bobofoto -

Article info


Peter Johanning
Congregational life