In this article, I interview Dr. Matthew Halsted about pastoral theology. Halsted is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of McLoud, OK and a lecturer at Oklahoma Baptist University. His academic research has focused on biblical hermeneutics (i.e., interpretation) and the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament especially in Paul’s letters. He is the founder and director of Trinityhaus (a center for Christian thought). He has presented papers and given talks nationally and internationally, and he is passionate about bringing academia into conversation with the local church.
Thank you to Dr. Halsted for taking the time out of his schedule to answer these questions for us. My questions and comments appear in bold font, and his responses follow them.
What is pastoral theology? And what interests you about pastoral theology?
Broadly speaking, “pastoral theology” can be defined as fleshing out theological truths within the context of Christian ministry—particularly at the local church level. It is, by definition, applying God’s unchanging truth to the ever-changing circumstances of the lives of a worshiping congregation.
I suppose what interests me most about pastoral theology is that it requires attentiveness to both the needs of the congregation and to the biblical text. This relationship between Scripture and congregation is fascinating to me. Pastors must remain faithful to the Bible as God’s Word and, at the same time, be creative in how the truth of the Bible is fleshed out into the life of the congregation. This relationship between the truth of the fixed text and its fresh application to the contingencies of parish ministry is the heart and soul of pastoral theology.
Because pastoral theology covers several different topics, I would like to give you space to share your thoughts on a few different ones. How about we start with the office of pastor? Do you think pastors have a special kind of authority? Why or why not?
That’s a good question. There is a sense in which pastors should recognize that their position is one of “authority.” It has to be remembered, though, that it is a derived authority. That is, pastors are not ultimately in charge of, or responsible for, the church (thank God!). Rather, a pastor’s authority is authoritative in so far as it is connected to the truths of Scripture. My Protestantism may be getting the best of me here, but under no circumstances is a pastor to be considered authoritative unless that pastor is operating within the boundaries of biblical, orthodox truth—which has been handed down through the ages.
I have to add one more thing, if I may. Our culture is obsessed with “authority” and “being in charge.” I immediately think of the situation in Mark 10. In that chapter, James and John requested positions of power and glory in the kingdom, but our Lord admonished them to be cautious. The pagan leaders, Jesus said, were too fixated on how they could “exercise authority” over people (v.42). This is not to be the way of Christ followers. Because I think Jesus remains the best mentor for pastors, I think his own model is worth following: Instead of being preoccupied with notions of power and authority, people would do well to become servants. Pastors ought to be the first servants of the church—if they desire to be faithful followers of their crucified Lord.
Prayer seems vital to pastoral ministry. How does your theology of prayer shape your ministry? And how do you teach your congregation to pray?
There is a huge temptation for pastors to reduce their entire ministry down to nothing more than “talking about God.” In many ways, this temptation is always present because—to state the obvious—the pastoral vocation seems to be about doing just that: talking about God. As pastors, we are expected to preach about God, teach about God, and talk about God. To make matters worse, we are expected to teach others to do the same! But if were are not careful, we will make God into an object to be analyzed instead of the One with whom we are to commune. Prayer helps us in this regard.
Indeed, prayer is communion with God. Of course, this involves making requests, lavishing praise, raising doubts, and confessing sin. But these things are not what prayer is; prayer is communion. If we are truly communing with God, then of course we will be doing these things.
Eugene Peterson made a statement once that prayer is not so much about being nice before God but rather about being honest with him. I also agree with Peterson that, if Christians want to develop a prayer life, the Psalter is necessary curriculum. It is indispensable.
Do you think prayer changes how God acts, and if so, in what ways?
I recall reading C.S. Lewis on this very question. His musings, as always, are helpful as we navigate this topic. Following Lewis, I think the ideal prayer request is a request for something good. But if God is good, then surely God would already want the good for which we are praying—independently of our praying or not praying. And if God is powerful, then surely he would be capable in his own strength to bring it about—again, independently of our praying or not praying. So, why pray?
I’ll be the first to admit that prayer is a mystery in this regard. But I think something along the following lines is true. First, because prayer is fundamentally about communion with God (as C.S. Lewis also observes, as I recall), then it only makes sense that God would want to involve his creatures—the objects of his love—to engage him in communal acts such as prayer. Second, if a relationship such as this is to be meaningful in any sense, then a person must be capable of making choices that are significantly free. This leaves open the possibility for God’s people to pray or not pray. And if prayer is to be one of these significantly free acts, it must be—in some way or another—effectual.
What this means is that some things will not happen if we don’t pray. In other words, some prayers are acts that bring about change that, all things being equal, would not have been brought about except through prayer. This seems to be what is meant by certain passages of Scripture such as James 4:2 (“you do not have because you do not ask”). Here, something is not happening because of the lack of prayer.
It is reasonable to suppose that God, in his sovereignty, has set up this world such that his creatures have this sort of significant freedom. This does not imply, of course, that everything depends upon our prayers or that God’s overall plan is itself dependent upon our praying. I have certain metaphysical commitments that permit me to think God, as the Absolute Good, will always get his way no matter what his free creatures choose to do or choose not to do—a subject for another day!
To change the topic a bit, John Calvin argued that a rightly ordered church includes the Word and Sacraments. What are these two different things? And could you explain your approach to both?
I think Calvin is largely correct here. The Protestant emphasis on the preaching of the Word is absolutely important to maintain. It is God’s Word, for example, that brings forth faith; it is God’s Word which instructs, guides, and corrects the church. So the proclamation of the Word, if it is not central, will result in a church that is not rightly ordered. The same can be said of the Sacraments—that is, the Eucharist and Baptism. The Eucharist, mysteriously, functions in the life of the church as a gracious benefit. It is a reminder of God’s goodness—one that is loving and confrontational all at the same time. Baptism, too, is inherently confrontational. It is an initiatory rite into a Kingdom that is opposed to this world’s powers. Like the proclamation of the Word, if the Sacraments are not properly placed within the life of the church, then our witness to the world will go impeded.
For pastors young and old, how would you encourage them to develop their pastoral theology? What resources or biblical passages would you direct them towards? What mistakes would you encourage them to avoid?
Every pastor needs to be a praying pastor. It’s essential. Prayer serves as a reminder that we are insufficient to bring about the Kingdom of God. I think one mistake pastors make is to treat their ministry as if everything depends on them. As a result of this mindset, pastors get emotionally discouraged and burned out. The truth, however, is that the success of the church depends on God, not us. All we are required to do is be faithful to do what he has given us to do, and he will take care of the results.
Again, I think the Psalms are super important for pastors. The main reason is because they will teach us to pray. I also think becoming familiar with the prophets, particularly Jeremiah, would be good for modern pastors. I have found the prophets to be encouraging friends and colleagues. In terms of other resources, I highly recommended Eugene Peterson’s works. His insights are gold.