By Joel Rainey
A few weeks ago, I was saddened to learn of another pastor who had taken his own life. But regrettably, I was not surprised.
I watched, first of all, as a husband and father of three. There is absolutely nothing I wouldn’t do for my children.
I can’t imagine the helpless feeling of knowing your loved one suffers from such an ailment. And to think that in spite of your best efforts, you may still be unable to prevent them from doing something like this to themselves.
My heart broke for this family, who now feel as helpless as their father did before taking his own life.
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—let alone the pastors of those churches?”
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. Some time ago, Lifeway Research released a poll on mental illness and the church. 48 percent 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 percent of those polled who attend church said they believed they would feel welcome with a mental illness. Additionally, 45 percent 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 do not 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 medical treatment. However, 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 and churches 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 fundamental principle that those entirely 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. Then 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 Hermeneutics are employed.
Where general revelation is concerned, we explore the created order through the earth, life, and physical sciences. We also explore the inward human psyche through anthropology, sociology, education science, and psychology.
A Balanced Cooperation
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. Others were even 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. However, I’m not about to reject the very scientific method that gave my children a vaccine for chicken pox. The 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.
It is Dangerous to Ignore Scripture
First, by appealing to the sufficiency of Scripture as a basis for distancing the church from mental health professionals, we are rejecting what those sufficient 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.
It is Dangerous to Think it is Only Spiritual
Second, we must not 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.
It is Dangerous to Reject Mental Health Care
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 obvious and palpable in too many areas of our culture.
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. Pills are available for 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. No, it’s repenting from gluttony, getting some sleep, or eating some healthy vegetables.
But the answer to a society that over-medicates isn’t no medication. It’s appropriate medication.
Only when pastors and mental health professionals work together can we help to strike that balance. Many of those mental health professionals are 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. We need to equip those saints to fulfill a calling that is ever more crucial in our day. Let’s cooperate with them in a way that integrates our respective disciplines for the glory of God.
A Way Forward
As a pastor, I want to see fewer stories about suicides, especially among pastors. 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 indicates we are perceived to be.
We don’t stigmatize people with heart conditions or diabetes. No, we pray for them, and we urge them to get the medical attention that we all know they need.
We should treat those who have a mental illness in the exact same way. 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 each time they see a church. Let’s work toward that day!
JOEL RAINEY (@joelrainey) is the Lead Pastor of Covenant Church in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. He is husband to Amy, father of three, serves on the adjunct faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the author of three books with a fourth one due out this fall. Joel blogs at Themelios.