I do not remember who said it, but someone once said: “When I was young I gave advice to everyone fearful no one would listen. Now that I’m older I give advice to no one fearful everyone will listen.” There’s a note of wisdom in that self-experience. The Bible praises and commands the need for counselors and counsel. But those most equipped to give advice are those guided by humility in this work of stewardship.
I thought about this yesterday as a piece of advice from a well-known evangelical pastor got attention (and ire) on social media. The pastor was retelling how a grandmother came to him and asked if she should attend the transgender wedding of her grandson. He asked her if her grandson knew of her commitment to Jesus and that this commitment meant she couldn’t countenance his choices. The grandmother said her grandson did, and so in this scenario the pastor said she should go to the wedding and even bring a gift. Immediately, the pastor added the challenge of these kinds of questions saying: “It is a fine line, it really is. And people need to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.”
There’s few living pastors I respect as much as this man — he’s a gifted preacher and sincere shepherd. However, I strongly disagree with the advice this father in the faith gave in this situation. I think it’s wrong. But I’m not interested in assessing the question itself. There’s plenty of pushback happening and some of it is more useful than the mindless ranting of social media warriors.
Rather, my concern in this moment is thinking about the role of pastoral advice in general. With humility, this pastor recognized the responsibility in speaking counsel to people in the situations of life. When people ask elders these kinds of questions it’s because they need help — their consciences need shepherding. Shepherding the conscience is a significant pastoral responsibility.
It’s significant because of our own weakness and sin. After all, we’re cautioned in the context of teaching: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body” (James 3:1-2).
Anyone who gives advice needs to be sensitive to the possibility of giving bad advice. As a pastor there's been times I've had to apologize for the counsel I've given as it lacked true and good wisdom, and when people listened it didn't have the best results. Worse yet is giving sinful advice even if it's unintentional. If it's true that "the companion of fools will suffer harm" (Proverbs 13:20) then it's also true that following sinful or foolish advice isn't without consequence.
It’s also significant because it’s hard work to rightly inform and persuade a person’s conscience. The conscience has to be discipled. As Christians we want to be wise. Paul said: “Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Ephesians 5:9-11). But informing the conscience requires a careful convincing through the application of biblical precepts and principles. Failing to do the work of persuasion quickly makes our advice a domineering “Because I said so,” requiring implicit faith of those we counsel. That’s tyranny and God alone is Lord of the conscience: “Each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12).
It’s a significant responsibility because the counsel given can have lasting consequences in real life. This is becoming more and more true. For example, if a pastor advises a member that they shouldn’t use gendered pronouns in the workplace, he’s giving advice that could get that person fired. They may possibly lose their livelihood even after a long and successful career. If a pastor counsels a member to not attend this wedding or that wedding for such and such a reason, that advice may hurt and ruin relationships that mean a lot to people. Now, that’s the cost of discipleship. Faithful Christians are going to face increasing inconveniences and sacrifices. But it’s a cost they incur in their lives. If people are going to listen to the advice given and pay those costs, we’d better be sure that the advice is biblical.
Despite the significant responsibility, it’s a blessing to be brought into the questions that concern people, and to seek to help them with the answers. We need that in the Christian life. Wise King Solomon said: “Oil and perfume make the heart glad, and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel.” The best way to do this is to humbly live in fellowship with Wisdom incarnate — the Lord Jesus Christ who says: “I have counsel and sound wisdom; I have insight; I have strength” (Proverbs 8:14).