We live with implicit theological maps. No one lives merely with a mental outline of his or her chosen confessional statement; no one lives with a mental transcription of Scripture that is their sole guide to life. Instead, Scripture is dispersed into the internal topography of our minds. That topography takes its shape from Scripture, our pasts, our personalities, our sins, and dozens of others influences. These “maps,” whether we know it or not, guide our ministry.

Let me explain using the topic of divorce. There are at least three ways to respond to someone who is proposing divorce. Each way involves a different theological map.

Map 1. Divorce is against God’s law. Here is the simplest map. All we need to know is contained in one biblical teaching. In a sense, this map is one “country.” It takes up a huge area and nothing surrounds it. Nothing needs to. The Bible says that divorce is sin. Period.

Pastoral care, using this map to guide your response, is straightforward. You don’t have to ask who did what. Divorce is wrong, and you advise the person not to divorce.

Map 2. Divorce is sinful. God is faithful even when it hurts. This version includes the predetermined moral judgment about divorce, but it is more personal. Right next to the territory on the map that is identified “Divorce is sinful” is another territory labeled “God is faithful.”

This simple addition changes pastoral care. This care will be sensitive to the hardships of a difficult marriage, and it will remember God’s sworn faithfulness to us and the power he gives to faithfully imitate him. Pastoral care will vary though depending on which territory you gravitate to the most. If your emphasis is on God’s faithfulness, you will spend more time in that territory. If divorce-is-sin is the more dominant terrain for you, then the moral prescription will dominate. You can see how boundaries, size, and placement all yield different pastoral emphasis.

Map 3. Divorce is so hard, divorce could be sinful. God hates the violence that can be part of divorce, and he hates the casual discarding of a spouse. He wants us to live in peace... Here are just some of the territories that might abut or surround the moral judgment on divorce. We can easily imagine that as these proliferate, the judgment on divorce that was so easy using Map 1 becomes much more difficult. Pastoral care using Map 3 is less predetermined. We emphasize the various neighbors of Jesus’ words against divorce as they seem to be relevant to the story that is unfolding in front of us.

By defining these maps, I am trying to illustrate a recurring phrase in theological studies: theology limits theology. It suggests that biblical teaching and theological judgments cannot be dominated by a favorite emphasis (or one map) in Scripture. Instead our theological maps typically include neighbors. God’s sovereignty shares a border with human responsibility. Victimization shares a border with God’s righteous and future judgment against the oppressor. Our task is to identify the relevant theological neighbors in each ministry opportunity. Since that can be complicated, we are compelled to humility and are quick to ask for help to enrich our maps.