The Whole Counsel of God

There is a wonderful passage from the Acts of Apostles in today’s Mass and it comprises a sermon from an early Bishop (St. Paul) to the priests of the early Church.

Paul’s Farewell Sermon – The scene is Miletus, a town in Asia Minor on the coast not far from Ephesus. Paul, who is about to depart for Jerusalem summons the presbyters (priests) of the early Church at Ephesus. Paul has ministered there for three years and now summons the priests for this final exhortation. In the sermon, St. Paul cites his own example of having been a zealous teacher of the faith who did not fail to preach the “whole counsel of God.” He did not merely preach what suited him or made him popular. He preached it all. To these early priests Paul leaves this legacy and would have them follow in his footsteps. Let’s look at excerpts from this final exhortation. First the text them some commentary:

From Miletus Paul had the presbyters  of the Church at Ephesus summoned. When they came to him, he addressed them, “You know how I lived among you the whole time from the day I first came to the province of Asia. I served the Lord with all humility and with the tears and trials that came to me…., and I did not at all shrink from telling you what was for your benefit, or from teaching you in public or in your homes. I earnestly bore witness for both Jews and Greeks to repentance before God and to faith in our Lord Jesus…..But now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem……“But now I know that none of you to whom I preached the kingdom during my travels will ever see my face again. And so I solemnly declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, for I did not shrink from proclaiming to you the entire plan of God….. (Acts 20:1-38 selected)

Here then is the prescription for every Bishop, every priest and deacon, every catechist, parent and Catholic: that we should preach the whole counsel (the entire plan of God). It is too easy for us to emphasize only that which pleases us or makes sense to us or fits in our worldview. There are some who love the Lord’s sermons on love but cannot abide  his teachings on death, judgment, heaven and hell. Some love to discuss liturgy and ceremony but the care of the poor is far from them. Others point to His compassion but neglect his call to repentance. Some love the way he dispatches the Pharisees and other leaders of the day but become suddenly deaf when the Lord warns against fornication or insists that we love our neighbor, enemy and spouse. Some love to focus inwardly and debate over doctrine but the outward focus of true evangelization to which we are commanded (cf Mat 28:19) is neglected.

In the Church as a whole we too easily divide out rather predictably along certain lines and emphases. Life issues here, social justice over there. Strong moral preaching over here, compassionate inclusiveness over there. When one side speaks the other side says, “There they go again.”

And yet somewhere we must be able to say with St. Paul that we did not shrink from proclaiming the whole counsel of God. While this is especially incumbent on the clergy it must also be true for parents and all who attain to any leadership in the Church. All of the issues above are important and must have their proper place in the preaching and witness of every Catholic, clergy and lay. While we may have gifts to work in certain areas we should learn to appreciate the whole counsel and the fact that others in the Church may be needed to balance and complete our work. It is true we must exclude notions that stray from revealed doctrine, but within doctrine’s protective walls it is necessary that we not shrink from proclaiming the whole counsel of God.

And if we do this we will suffer. Paul speaks above of tears and trials. In preaching the whole counsel of God, (not just favorite passages and politically correct themes), expect to suffer. Expect to not quite fit in with people’s expectations. Jesus got into trouble with just about everyone. He didn’t just offend the elite and powerful. Even his own disciples puzzled over his teachings on divorce saying “If that is the case of man not being able to divorce his wife it is better never to marry!” (Matt 19). Regarding the Eucharist, many left him and would no longer walk in his company (John 6). In speaking of his divine origins many took up stones to stone him but he passed through their midst (Jn 8).  In addition he spoke of taking up crosses, forgiving your enemy and preferring nothing to him. He forbade even lustful thoughts let alone fornication, and insisted we must learn to curb our unrighteous anger. Preaching the whole counsel of God is guaranteed to earn us the wrath of many.

As a priest I have sadly had to bid farewell to congregations and this is a critical passage whereby I examine my ministry. Did I preach even the difficult stuff? Was I willing to suffer for the truth? Did my people hear from me the whole counsel of God or just the safe stuff?

How about you? Have you proclaimed the whole counsel of God? If you are clergy when you move on…..if you are a parent when your child leaves for college…..if you are a Catechist when the children are ready to be confirmed or have reached college age…..If you teach in RCIA and the time comes for sacraments……Can you say you preached it all? God warned Ezekiel that if he failed to warn the sinner, that sinner would surely die for his sins but that Ezekiel himself would be responsible for his death, (Ez 3:17ff). Paul is able to say he is not responsible for the death (the blood) of any of them for he did not shrink from proclaiming the whole counsel of God. How about us?

The whole counsel of God.

This video contains the warning to the watchmen (us) in Ezekiel 3. Watch it if you dare.

23 Replies to “The Whole Counsel of God”

  1. Amen! Getting closer to ordination as a Permanent Deacon, we were skillfully guided in our Canon Law class that all of this is for the salvation of souls. How can we save souls if we dare not speak the whole truth? Our task as Deacons will be to preach AND go out among the poor, widowed and dying. In that mission, we have to bring the whole truth in our hearts and not be afraid to speak it and live it to the fullest.
    We have a major homily to prepare to give to the Bishop next semester. We are being allowed to choose any reading we want and practice it well. I have just made my choice. Ezekiel, here I come! Wish me well Father, and thank you for your blog. It is almost liking having another instructor online.

    God Bless,
    Jimmy from Louisiana

  2. I must confess that I have shrunken from certain topics with my wife, particularly birth control and women covering their heads in church. The topics would come up, but based on other conversations we had I figured why bother, she has made up her mind. I always made sure she knew my feelings and exactly what the rule was but I left it at that. I did not debate her on the issue. It wasn’t that I did not want to defend God or I was afraid she would get mad, I just figured she has made her choice which is her free will to do so. I feel like all I can do is try, pray and leave the rest up to God. Other than that all I can do is make sure I am free from responsibility myself. Just a side note. I almost did not bring up women covering their heads in church because it is, in my opinion, an extremely tough passage to read for women and it is VERY politically incorrect to even suggest these days to your wife or otherwise! But, alas, I decided to include it ,and like St. Paul speak of the whole word of God. Hey, it’s a start! Thank you Father for another enlightening post.

    1. Brian,
      I think it might be dangerous theologically to associate the “whole counsel of God” with “every line in the Bible”. “Birth control” deals with general moral issues of life and one would be hard pressed to find a direct teaching about it apart from the indirect reference in the story of Onan in Genesis–it is the result of later reflection by the Church on the content of Scripture. “Women covering their heads in Church” was a particular social practice aimed at showing reverence to God– it was never taught by Jesus and represents a Paul’s particular cultural interpretation of “reverence”. As far as I know the Church has no official Tradition about the specific custom of women covering their heads any more than it says whether men should cover theirs. Just because it is “politically incorrect” does not de facto make it an essential element or practice of Christianity…

      1. Well OK Daniel I agree with some of what you say but If I understand you properly I must say I wouldn’t lump birth control with head covering insofar as both being examples of your point. The prohibition of contraception is part of the deposit of faith to which we must adhere. We are not a sola scriptura Church and hence, while the moral teachings cannot contradict scripture (and they do not) it does not follow that every moral requirement is explcitly spelled out in Scripture either. As you do note, the Sin of Onan is a root text for this teaching but the more fundamental roots of the teaching are simply the long standing prohibition on contraception stretching allw the back into Jewish times. My point is that the teaching against contraception IS part of the whole counsel of God, though it clearly comes more from Sacred Tradition than Scripture per se.

        As for head coverings for women I agree that this is more a question of custom and isn’t a huge deal BUT I regret that we as a Church do not advise it as a norm. Paul gives reasons for it that are largely still factors today. For both men and women, humility before God is the real point. In the ancient world as now, women gloried in their hair and often gave great attention to it. As a man I an unot unappreciative of this. Women do wonderful things with their hair. As such their hair is part of their glory and, as St. Paul says it seems appropriate to cover our glory before the presence of God. As for men, in the ancient world more than now, hats often signified rank and membership. As such men displayed their rank and membership with pride. Hence Paul tells them to leave their worldly glories aside when coming before God. Men still some of this (esp. in the military) but men wear less hats in general. But when they do they are often boasting of allegiences to sports teams and the like. Likewise, some men who belong to faternal organizations such as the Various Catholic Knights groups foten display ranks on their hats. We clergy do this as well to some extent with different color poms on birretas etc. Paul encourages all this to be left aside in Church.

        You know this might make an intresting post! It would really stir the pot!! Stay tuned

      2. Thank you Father. I was trying to cater my response, as far as birth control goes, in just that fashion. As far as women covering their heads, personally, I don’t think, again just my opinion, the Lord would allow something to be included with such strong conviction in the book of life if he did not intend those beyond the period in which it was written to consider it. My point was, and I could have explained it better, that in trying to help my wife with her faith I have realized that she has made up her mind as far as how she wishes to worship. So, I would decide against discussing something I felt properly honors the Lord and believed strongly in. I was wondering if it is relevant in the sense that in avoiding conversation I am shrinking from the counsel of God?

  3. I love this sentence: “Expect to not quite fit in with people’s expectations.”

    A big obstacle to fulfill God’s counsel is the attachment to praise. From a young age people are inadvertently more familiar with the Jesus that parents and friends love. At some point, of course, with His grace, one must choose to take a stand for Him and his teachings with the real situation in front, not just words but with actions, that is, in the present. This action is a teaching moment for the disciple and a seed that is planted in his Name.

    Loving my enemy it is still for me the hardest counsel to practice.

  4. the teaching against contraception IS part of the whole counsel of God, though it clearly comes more from Sacred Tradition than Scripture per se

    I know very little about the history of the development of the teaching aside from the fact that it has been a teaching from the earliest days of the Church (yes, primitive contraceptives were available 2000 years ago), suggesting that even back then they believed that there was a firmer scriptural basis for it than Tradition would account for. Specifically, I am thinking of, not Onan, but the Creation account in Genesis (two become one flesh, and “be fruitful and multiply”), especially as expounded by Jesus, revealing the truth of the unitive and fruitful nature of human sexuality. To be sure, Pope Paul and John Paul greatly expanded upon this, but I would think that the Apostles and their immediate successors were aware of it as well.

  5. It is true that ARTIFICIAL contraception is against church teaching, because it is against the natural law of God.
    The Church embraces the natural law in its entirety. As for women covering up their head when in Church, that
    was a law of the Church. It always seemed “sexist” to me especially the way you explain it to us, Monseignor. When you consider the gold, glitter, silks and satins and lace displayed in the vestments worn by the male clergy including the rings and jeweled crowns, is not that real pomposity and vanity? No doubt
    the answer will be the male clergy represents the King of Kings and therefore this display is only fitting. Really? Woman should cover her head, as a sign of her humility. This, since the “rule” comes from an all male hierarchy, seems like sexist nonsense. Perhaps we women should just stay away all together except when the male clergy need their linens cleaned and their churches spotlessly maintained. Or maybe a burqua covering the un-worthy female body from from head to toe so the first class males would be preserved from evil thoughts. Or perhaps we could go back to the days of the Temple and assign women a section away from all the male worthies.
    Don’t misunderstand…I am not for women’s ordination nor am I an ultra feminist! But women in the Church have been abused and mis-used by this kind of male dominant, left-brain thinking in the past…and in some quarters still today. I love St Paul but he had a really misogynistic approach to women, inspite of the rare
    Phoebe’s who managed to escape his wrath and condemnation. Even Paul, it seems, had need of female
    domesticity on occasion and so a chosen few passed muster. Usually I enjoy and appreciate your homilies
    Monseignor, but in this one you obviously hit a nerve…and not the one intended I believe. I would say this is
    all Brian’s chauvinist thinking if I had not taken exception to your response to his nonsense. No doubt that
    Brian’s wife is long-suffering and probably most likely a candidate for sanctity given his selfish views. It takes
    two to practice birth control in any marriage…and a grown woman ought to be able to decide what she will
    wear to Church. Brian needs to stop being so controlling and love his wife for who she is…and a little brush
    up on church rules..since Vatican II women have not been required to cover their heads.

    1. You might want to post this comment on my latest blog post Adele which is on whether women should wear a veil.

      However Adele I think you are a little unkind in your repsonse here, toward men in general and brian in particular. Further, Paul was not a misogynist.

  6. But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate, so let us not talk falsely now, the hours getting late.Jesus said, “All that the Father giveth to me shall come to me, and him that cometh to me, I will not cast out. Because I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. Now this is the willl of the Father who sent me that of all that he hath given me, I should lose nothing; but should raise it up again in the last day. (physical death) And this is the is the will of my Father that sent me; that every one who seeth the Son and believeth in him may have life everlasting; and I will raise him up in the last day. (physical death). Jesus said, ” No man cometh to me, except the Father, who hath sent me, draw him. And I will raise him up in the last day.(physcial death). Not that any man hath seen the Father; but he who is of God, he hath seen the Father. He that believeth in me hath everlasting life. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven; that if any man eat of it, he may not die..Jesus said ” I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If any man eat this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world. I say unto you; except you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath everlasting life; and I will raise him up in the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed;(spiritual body) and my blood is drink indeed (everlasting life), He that eateth my flesh abideth in me and I in him, As the living Father (everlastin life) hath sent me and I live by the Father; so he that eatheth me, the same also shall live by me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Not as your fathers did eat manna and are dead. He that eateth this bread shall live forever. It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profit nothing. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. Therefore did I say to you that no man can come to me, unless it be given him by my Father. One small step for God. One quantum leap for mankind.

      1. That the New Testament is much more to the point than the Old Testament.

  7. Amen, a great reminder for preacher and to the son of man who was given the task to make the proclamation. And it gave me a way to meditate on my political works, my warnings and the plan of God for the country, His call for a Divine Government. I have done my part and decided not to show myself to the institution that handles the political election of leaders and in this time of pentecost, i am lifting everything to the Lord God Almighty for His judgment and requesting that those who remained faithful be saved from the things that is to come. Please continue to pray for peace and practice sharing love to our brothers and sisters especially the poor and the needy. If others do not want to practice the teachings of God, then try to do and practice the teachings for God’s glory, even if you are alone, God will listen to those whom you are praying for. His Holy Spirit will do the touching of men’s heart and wake them up. The Holy Spirit will keep their heart burning for love and will strengthen them in their works. May the Lord God have mercy on His people.

  8. There is also a practical application to the veil as there is with many things in tradition. Just as there was to seperating the men from the women in ye olde times. (Including some old calendar orthodox churches today). To put it bluntly, men think about sex all too often and it is distracting. Women covering their heads in a full veil or seating them seperately is a practical approach to keeping mens thoughts on God and not the long golden locks of hair in front of them.

    1. Irenaeus,
      If men are as helpless in the face of sexual temptation as you believe, it would seem that the only hope of sanctity for any man is to avoid contact with any woman to whom he is not married. As we are called (ideally) to be disciples and keep our” thoughts on God” at all times, not just in Church, must we also segregate the workplace? Recreation? Seems a bit radical to me.

      1. I am not sure if my thread got misplaced by a glitch or my own ignorance (it was supposed to be a reply to the post on veils)… either way I appologize to Daniel that I wont continue a rebuttal for obvious reasons.

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