I’ve been thinking about biblical texts that have informed my practice of ministry. The potential list is long and most of the texts are familiar, but one of my “go-to’s” is a rarely noticed text in Galatians 4:17ff.
You’ll remember that in Galatians Paul is resisting the influence of “Judaizers” who are insisting on some sort of Torah observance, including circumcision, for Gentile believers. For Paul, this is not only not in keeping with his understandings of faith and grace, but is also pastoral malpractice.
He describes their practice this way: “They make much of you, but for no good purpose; they want to exclude you, so that you may make much of them.” Here’s how I understand what’s going on in these verses. Paul’s opponents, using the law, are constantly fussing over the Galatians to see whether or not they measure up. This seems like care because of the constant attention required to make sure standards are being met. But for Paul, this “making much” is for no good purpose. The result of this fussiness is exclusion, which serves the power interests of the one doing the fussing.
If we do pastoral care according to fixed standards of measurement, then the one being cared for is constantly at risk of coming up short, and, therefore of being excluded or diminished, even if this is not the intent of the one providing care. The power in this exchange is now solidly in the hands of the one who can pull the excluded back into the circle of acceptance. “They make much of you…so that you might make much of them.”
I had a bad therapist once who kept me in constant crisis. I left every session feeling like I was coming up short, which in turn made the next session all the more urgent and the therapist all the more powerful. So, this phenomenon is not just limited to those who would require adherence to matters of the law, but any kind of “making much of” that makes the pastor, or the discipler, the standard keeper. It’s why I’m skittish about accountability groups that are constantly measuring performance. “How are you doing with (fill in the blank)?” The answer determines your level of meeting the standard, and, therefore, your wellbeing related to the group.
Paul goes on to say that it is “good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you.” And what is that good purpose? “Christ formed in you.” Notice that Paul sees this work of formation as ongoing even in his absence. The thing about fussiness as a pastoral strategy is that is only works in presence.
I love Henri Nouwen’s little book, The Living Reminder, that talks about the interplay between presence and absence. Spiritual care requires presence, what Paul calls “making much of.” But it also requires absence. Even Jesus told his disciples that it is best for them for him to leave them so that the Spirit might come. In the same way, our absence leaves room for the Spirit to do the work of forming Christ in others. Our presence, then, serves the purpose of pointing not to ourselves as the effective agent, but to Christ. We are a “living reminder.”
Here’s the thing. For Paul, grace is not simply a way to “get saved.” Rather, it is a certain kind of power in the world that works in certain ways to form people and communities. His opponents’ pastoral style keeps people as children, clients, dependents. But grace works differently to form people. It works in freedom and love, in faith and through the Spirit. “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything. The only thing that counts is faith working itself out in love” (Gal 5:6).