Joel Rainey is the Director of Missions at Mid-Maryland Baptist Association, an adjunct professor at Capital Bible Seminary and blogs at Themelios (Twitter - @joelrainey). This post was originally published at his site.
On Monday night, my wife and I watched the heartbreaking interview with Rick and Kay Warren in which, for the first time, they shared with the public their experiences surrounding the April suicide of their 27 year old son Matthew. Due to the circumstances surrounding Matthew’s death, the interview spanned a number of issues: including parenting, gun control, and the struggle of faith that occurs in even the most committed during such gut-wrenching times. But the primary focus of the interview centered on the state of mental health care in our country, and the role the church should play in that discussion.
I watched, first of all, as a father of three. There is absolutely nothing I wouldn’t do for my children. I can’t imagine the helpless feeling of knowing your son or daughter suffers from an ailment, and that in spite of the best doctors, you are still unable to prevent them from doing something like this to themselves. My heart broke for the Warren’s when I first heard of their son’s death back in April. Last night, this father’s heart broke all over again.
But I also watched this as a pastor, and I did so with one question in my mind: “Why would anyone suffering from mental illness turn to the church for help?” I want the church to be the first stop for people in need. Unfortunately, I was unable to answer my own question.
As it turns out, my reservations have some statistical warrant. Just this week, Lifeway Research released its latest poll on mental illness and the church. You can find the bulk of that research here, but what haunts me about the results is this: 48% of evangelicals believe that Bible study and prayer ALONE can cure mental illness. Essentially, that means that half of regular, church-going, evangelical Christians see mental illness as solely a “spiritual” issue. By contrast, only 21% of those polled who attend church said they believed they would feel welcome in their church if they had a mental illness. Additionally, 45% of the unchurched don’t think people with mental illnesses are fully welcome in the body of Christ.
I believe that prayer works, and I believe that God still heals! I have no doubt that the people of God, praying in faith, could certainly see someone fully restored to health. I’ve seen it with my own eyes–cancerous tumors that no longer appeared on the CT scan after God’s people have prayed, for example. At the same time, I don’t know of any church who would discourage their people from visiting the doctor, or getting needed medical treatment. Yet in too many churches, when it comes to mental health that same common sense approach goes out the window.
In my experience, this is primarily due to the misconception by many pastors that to accept the validity of mental health care is to deny the sufficiency of Scripture. The problem with that assumption is that to deny our parishioners access to care that can potentially save their lives and help their families is to ignore one very important principle that those fully sufficient Scriptures teach.
Scripture teaches that God reveals Himself to us in two primary ways. General Revelation is the process whereby God reveals truth through the created order (Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:20-21) and also through the human consciousness (Romans 2:14-15). Special Revelation is the description given to specific ways in which God reveals truth throughout redemptive history, first through miraculous phenomena such as burning bushes, still, small voices, and messages in tongues, and ultimately in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-2), who in turn is revealed in the written Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16).
So, while God reveals Himself in these two primary ways, human beings also explore truth in two primary ways. Where special revelation is concerned, disciplines like Biblical studies, Biblical and Systematic Theology, and Hermaneutics are employed. Where general revelation is concerned, we explore the created order through the earth, life and physical sciences, and we explore the inward human psyche through anthropology, sociology, education science, and psychology.
In short, through the behavioral sciences, God has provided us an avenue by which we can learn things about the human mind that will allow us to help. Sure, some who handed these sciences down to us in history didn’t always have the purest motives, and still others were openly hostile to Christian faith. But we also can’t dismiss that they stumbled onto some very legitimate findings that can be of help where mental health is concerned. Some veins of historical science haven’t exactly been friendly to Christians either, but I’m not about to reject the very scientific method that gave my children a vaccine for chicken pox. Truth was discovered, albeit through some rather crooked vessels.
With all this in view, here is why it is dangerous for pastors to reject the help that can be offered by the mental health field. First, by appealing to the sufficiency of Scripture, we are rejecting what those Scriptures tell us about the validity of discovering truth via general revelation. To put it bluntly, we are ignoring Scripture in an attempt to defend it, and that never ends well.
Second, we treat people with legitimate illnesses as though their problems are solely spiritual. Admittedly there are times when this is the case. Over the past 20 years, I’ve met with more than a few who claimed to “need counseling,” when what they really needed was repentance. But often, working together with mental health professionals will help us help our people with the scientific advances God has given us. My friend Ed Stetzer said it well earlier this week: Let’s treat character issues like character issues, but let’s treat illnesses like an illness.
Third, the rejection of mental health care sets up a polarization between two disciplines that should be helping each other. The lack of trust between clergy and mental health professionals is both obvious and palpable in too many areas of our culture, and both sides need to rid themselves of the false assumptions they have about the other, and talk openly with each other.
I’ll be the first to agree that we are an over-medicated society. We pop a pill for just about anything these days–when we get too fat, when we are working too hard, or when we need more vitamins. It is true that sometimes the answer isn’t becoming dependent on a synthetic substance, but instead repenting from gluttony, getting some sleep, or eating some healthy vegetables. But the answer to a society that over-medicates isn’t no medication. Its appropriate medication. Only when pastors and mental health professionals work together can we help to strike that balance. Many of those mental health professionals can be found in our churches each and every Sunday. Let’s seek to understand each other within the church–the very context in which God intends that trust grow between brothers and sisters. Let’s equip those saints to fulfill a calling that is ever more crucial in our day, and let’s cooperate with them in a way that integrates our respective disciplines for the glory of God.
As a pastor, I want to see less Matthew Warren stories. If the church doesn’t play a role in mental health, we will see more suicides, not less. The spiritual dimension that churches bring to the healing process is absolutely and critically essential. But if the church wants to play a role, we have to be more approachable than recent research would indicate we are perceived to be.
We don’t stigmatize people with heart conditions or diabetes. We pray for them, and we urge them to get the medical attention that we all know they need. Those who suffer from mental illness should be treated in exactly the same way, and mental health professionals who love Jesus can help us take a badly needed and new approach to these precious image bearers of God.
Together, we can create the kind of church environment that causes the mentally ill to see open arms everywhere they see a church. Let’s work toward that day!