Although Oden has extensive background in the modern methods of ministry, he has largely eschewed them in favor of ancient beliefs and practices grounded in scripture and tradition.
Almost every paragraph bears witness with extensive references to ancient sources.
Pastoral Theology has five major sections: (1) Becoming a Minister, (2) The Pastoral Office, (3) What Clergy Do and Why, (4) Pastoral Counsel, and (5) Crisis Ministry. The introduction addresses the question, "Why Pastoral Theology."
In chapter one, Oden cites or implies five reasons for producing his book: (1) promote inclusion of women in ordained ministry, (2) reaffirm the roots of pastoral theology in tradition, (3) oppose the "lawlessness" of contemporary theology, (4) reinvigorate the study of pastoral theology, and (5) foster an ecumenical understanding of pastoral theology. Although he does an admirable job, the results are not entirely coherent.
For example, his preoccupation with the ordination of women interchangeable with that of men is problematic if the goal is to strengthen the roots of pastoral theology in the NT and tradition. Oden nevertheless makes the attempt. In trying to reconcile those competing goals however, he responds more to modern concerns than ancient ones. In doing that, he necessarily distorts the meaning of some well-known passages. For example, Oden absolutizes Gal 3:28 to argue for radical equality even though the verse is clearly limited to the idea of inheritance. He understands submission in Eph 5:21-33 as mutual despite the presence of three hierarchical examples (husbands/wives, parents/children in 6:1-4, and masters/slave in 6:5-9). He takes women praying in 1 Cor 11:1-16 as sweeping warrant for female leadership even though the passage clearly indicates women had to have a symbol (i.e., a covering) while praying lest their behavior be considered out of order. He considers Phebe, the famous "deacon" in Rom 16:1, as proof of gender equality in the early church when a more holistic account of female ministry would see unencumbered women (single and widowed) as having more of an assistant role than a deaconship interchangeable with men. He understands the role of women in Phil 4:2-3 as wide-ranging leadership rather than the labor Paul actually calls it. Examples like the preceding could be multiplied many times over. In the meantime, the preceding misunderstandings are furthered by Oden's reliance on dynamic equivalence translations that bias the reader toward dubious conclusions. In the end, Oden admits the difficulty of holding his two concerns (tradition and innovation) together and resorts to a "deposit of faith" argument that in essence gives novelty the weight of tradition.
The fundamental issue behind Oden's egalitarian interests is (1) whether the relationship between men and women is an economy of differing natures, virtues, and obligations reflecting the divine economy, albeit distorted by the Fall, or (2) whether the economy (subordination, hierarchy, etc.) itself is the Fall. Oden would apparently favor the latter. For him, progress would appear to be the undoing of gender distinctions. Ordination of women alongside men fits that pattern. A better view would be to see the central challenge of Christian life as redeeming the fallen economies of human life- male and female being the most problematic with marriage and then church live being the most intense arenas. In that light, ordination of women would abandon one of the most important arenas in which the Christian faith must be worked out.
The issue is more than simply theoretical. The gender-consciousness, or lack thereof, of pastoral theology is a serious matter with practical effects that make different approaches to shepherding more or less helpful to different socio-economic groups. To wit, shepherding that appreciates the importance of gender will be more successful among disadvantaged groups than a gender-neutral alternative because gender is a powerful motivator to the kind of moral behavior needed to bring order out of the chaos that plagues lower classes disproportionately. Higher-class groups, in contrast, can better afford egalitarianism despite its negative effects. Even so, wealthier classes do not escape the consequences of going against nature. One example would be the production of fewer children -- and more dysfunction among those children who are produced.
Pastoral theology must also take into account the difference between the Christian faith and the Christian religion. The Christian faith has a prophetic role that stands in judgment on human institutions, including the church. The Christian religion, on the other hand, is not much different from all religions in trying to accommodate faith claims to felt human needs. The Christian faith is the theological basis for ministry- the Christian religion is not. Oden acknowledges the difference, but doesn't consistently follow through. The result is that his pastoral theology is often more grounded in religion than faith.
Oden's strong points are in the theological bases for visitation and discipline- two neglected aspects of ministry. Visitation enriches both pastor and recipient. It is the way in which the "shepherd" knows his "sheep" and the "sheep" know their "shepherd." It is the personalization of ministry. The pastor can go (visit) where other professionals would be out of place (e.g., a dentist) because the pastor is not seeking a profit.
Visitation is also one venue for discipline or admonition. Admonishment is probably the most neglected aspect of pastoral care, viewed by some as old-fashioned if not outright destructive. That's because religion has accommodated secular values (e.g., right to privacy, self realization, and autonomy) that are antithetical to the values that make community possible. Admonition and discipline are chief among those values that enable real community.
Pastoral Theology concludes with a 34-page bibliography, a four-page, triple-column list of names, a fourteen page, double-column index, and a three-page, triple-column index of scripture references. Despite its rather disappointing embrace of egalitarianism, it is an impressive work suitable for anyone who seeks a better understanding of pastoral theology.
-- Bill Brewer
Oden is an elder (pastor) in the United Methodist Church and a professor of theology at Drew University. He is the originator and champion of "paleo-orthodoxy," a term Oden coined to describe a return to the patristic roots of Christianity. His book, Pastoral Theology, pursues that end.