I haven't seen any yet, but I would imagine that we are going to get questions asking for pastoral input. It may be anything from "I can't seem to stop surfing internet porn", to (if we're really having a bad day) "My friend has started cutting herself and cursing Jesus – is she demon-possessed?" We have the potential to be on dangerous ground here, at least as dangerous as medical advice. And like the medical questions, we almost certainly don't have the information anyone would need in order to offer good quality help. How do we want to deal with them?
The most important thing is that we resist the temptation of providing an answer. I know that Christians are supposed to love others, and questions like this will undoubtedly tug at the heart-strings, but answering questions like this will always be a disservice to the questioner.
Why? The analogy of a medical diagnosis is a good one. Would any of us make a clinical diagnosis on the basis of a post on the internet? I don't think so. And neither should we make a spiritual one. We simply don't know the people involved, their motivations, their support network, their beliefs, their hurts... By answering requests for pastoral input we are more likely to do harm than good.
What we can do is the following:
- Add a note in the FAQ that clearly states that this is a Q&A web site, not a church, and that this means that requests for pastoral input are off-topic.
- Immediately close questions like this as off topic. Explain why the question has been closed.
- Immediately delete answers that actually give personal advice.
- Signpost the questioner to other agencies: their local minister, doctor, Citizens Advice service or whatever appears appropriate. Add a note that explains that we're offering suggestions, but they are no more than that. The questioner must take responsibility for their own actions.
- Make it clear that we'd love to help directly, and explain why we can't.
The FAQ should contain boilerplate text that covers all of the above, and copy and paste this in (or at least a link) so that questions receive a kind, thoughtful and well-expressed "no" to the request.
I think they should be closed promptly as "Off-Topic" and comments can point out a relevant course of action to take instead of consulting this site. This site is not a church. Pastoral advice questions should be referred to the relevant pastor in that persons life. Other resources can also be suggested, but in the form of comments, not answers and the main point should emphasize that that sort of thing is off-topic.
What is the difference between "pastoral" and just "a question someone has because it affects them?" Because that is the main point of an SE, to answer questions that YOU have, that are relevant to YOU.
Sure, if someone is asking for an answer that is only specific to them, it should be closed as "too localized."
"Pastoral" should only mean "the center circle."
However, this does not mean you should not ask questions that are IMPORTANT TO YOU. On SEs, you are encouraged to ask questions that you actually, personally have, not just "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin" thought questions.
So here's the first question to get closed on "pastoral" grounds and it demonstrates the weakness of this approach.
Though the poster shares a bunch of personal details, he does not ask "help me!"... He asks extremely specific and legitimate Christian belief questions.
How is it fair that I am not aloud into heaven when God was the one who made me homosexual?
In that case, should homosexuals be able to marry and love one another (husband/husband, wife/wife) but be forbidden from sexual conduct?
How can a God who created my body and mind, create a world where I am specifically hated or considered "mentally ill", and/or "not of God".
If someone who wasn't gay asked these same questions, they would be legitimate? If someone was "just askin'" out of morbid curiosity?
So someone who actually has a vested interest in the question can't ask them? And you think that is a positive think that will make this SE more valuable?
There is a huge difference between someone asking for specific pastoral advice, and someone asking about general Christianity questions because they bear upon their specific situation.
I'll be honest, interpreting questions like this as OT is more restrictive than what other "subjective" SEs are doing. Go look at parenting.SE. The highest rated questions there are EXACTLY parallel to questions like this one. https://parenting.stackexchange.com/questions/1776/how-can-i-prevent-my-8-year-old-from-spending-time-with-his-bad-friend
Or heck, like my Tyranny of the Weaker Brother question. It's a point of theology, but it does affect me. Is that asking for "pastoral advice" and should be mod-closed? Because I see zero difference in nature between the two questions.
Furthermore, I hear concerns about legal implications of giving religious advice. Unless this is based on real feedback from the SE team, it is totally a made up concern. Someone might write bad code based on Stack Overflow and crush someone under a bridge. Someone can poison themselves off Gardening, or crush their kids' fragile little minds from Parenting. This is known and accepted, and is no different here.
I've got some good news for you: God actually speaks through people. Furthermore, He has made us able to communicate for a very good reason: so that we can communicate good and useful things to each other, which is part of loving each other as we love ourselves. As such there are many blessings available through wholesome communication. Whilst it's true that people abuse the gift of communication, if we allow this to prohibit communication in any way, evil has won: as long as evil can stop good being commuincated, that cuts off those in need of help from that help: a cruel blow to many. Of course God can send help to them through any number of sources other than this website, but it does seem strange that the most helpful form of communication (pastoral advice) is what's being prohibited. For any pastoral advice to be credible, it must surely refer to The Bible, which thankfully we've been provided precisely for the purpose of answering such questions.
On the related subject of what this site is supposed to be about, this is what the site currently says its about: 'Q&A for committed Christians, experts in Christianity and those interested in learning more'. I've seen these words on another question: 'brothers we are not Christians'. It seems at best misleading, at worst dishonest, to claim to be a site where committed Chrsitians can ask questions but not answer them. Anyone reading the description of the site above would surely conclude that answers are provided by committed Chrsitians. Why would a committed Christian seek guidance on the Bible from someone who isn't a committed Christian. It's utterly preposterous.