Ed Stetzer is dead-on about mental illness and Christians…now what?

“Followers of Jesus are required to pursue truth wherever it leads them.”

Dallas Willard

I’ve been involved in the mental health field for nearly thirty years both as a practitioner and as a member of the scientific/research community. It’s only been in the last year that I’ve begun to recognize the extent to which an ongoing debate between factions of seminary professors, pastors and counselors influences attitudes about mental illness…and efforts to include persons with mental illness in the modern church.

Ed StetzerEd Stetzer serves as President of LifeWay research and is a highly influential speaker, teacher and author in Christian circles. Ed has written extensively on the mental health-related topics and shared a remarkable post this past week raising the issue of whether Christians struggling with mental illness look to Scripture, science or both.

In his post, Ed references articles written by Heath Lambert, Executive Director of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors arguing that practitioners of Biblical Counseling are neither anti-science nor anti-medication. After quoting extensively from these articles, Ed strongly implies a hypothesis that the conceptualizations and attitudes demonstrated by many Biblical counseling practitioners have greatly influenced understanding of mental illness among pastors and lay Christians…

“Perhaps the perception that biblical counselors reject medicine and science is because of the rejection among some biblical counselors of, well, medicine and science.

So, I’m not sure the example of the rogue cashier is the right example. The beliefs that Dr. Lambert writes against are not fringe, because I’ve run into them on many occasions.”

In his commentary, Ed appears to support the view of “integrationists” in the church who see benefit to incorporating approaches from secular psychology (and psychiatry) in caring for those presenting to the church with mental health concerns…

But, yes, I believe we can take the healthy parts of psychology and psychiatry and use them in counseling. Furthmore, there may be physiological reality that require medical intervention. I’m concerned that many Christians appear to not see that– believing that prayer and Bible study alone can cure genuine mental illness (a view I don’t generally share, miraculous intervention an exception).

Readers interested in a deeper understanding of the differences between “Biblical” and “Nouthetic” counseling or the “Biblical” and “Integrationist” approaches to mental health treatment may feel free to click the links included here.

I find there’s an extraordinary (and tragic) disconnect between the pastors and seminarians in positions of influence within the church and faithful Christians working in the highest level of the medical/scientific community…a disconnect that may help to illustrate the lack of progress or indifference among church leaders to view families impacted by mental illness as an identified people group for evangelism, outreach or inclusion.

NeurotransmittersFor six years, I served on the Program Committee and New Research Subcommittee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Our committee was responsible for reviewing ALL proposals for symposia, workshops case presentations and research for the world’s largest gathering of professionals interested in child and family mental health. I never heard of any of these people who exercise great influence among pastors or Christian counselors before seeking to understand the debates influencing attitudes toward persons with mental illness in the church…nor is it likely that any of those people ever heard of any of my colleagues seeking to unravel the mysteries of the brain and the role of neurobiology in the suffering of kids and families impacted by mental illness. Unfortunately, this disconnect is getting in the way of our ability as church to share the love of Christ with the largest population struggling with disability…persons with mental illness.

Looking at this debate from the perspective of a physician contributing to and familiar with the current research on mental illness, I’ve never come across any “settled” science that can’t be reconciled with the truth revealed to us through Scripture.

I’m certainly sympathetic to concerns that a secular worldview influences the way scientists may design or interpret their research…I’ve witnessed that firsthand. I can also see how approaches to mental health treatment grounded in theoretical foundations antithetical to the teachings of the Bible present an enormous problem when caring for vulnerable people. At the same time, I don’t see why pursuing the approach that Ed espouses in his post should be all that difficult for mature Christians…

“Yet, since all truth is God’s truth, there are parts of psychology and parts of psychiatry that we accept, parts we adapt, and parts we reject.”

Sadly, I can’t help but conclude that in our desire as church to avoid the influence of anti-Biblical worldviews foundational to some treatment orientations employed in the mental health community and worldviews held by the vast preponderance of mental health practitioners…we’ve forgotten to love the people experiencing mental illness and contributed to needless suffering by millions of Christ followers and their families.

I’d like to think that Key Ministry…and other like-minded ministries could facilitate conversations and dialogues that would advance the church in embracing kids and families impacted by mental illness while accepting and adapting the parts of psychiatry and psychology consistent with the absolute truth revealed to us through Scripture.

Revised October 8, 2014

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KM Logo UpdatedKey Ministry has assembled resources to help churches more effectively minister to children and adults with ADHD, anxiety disorders, Asperger’s Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, depression and trauma. Please share our resources with any pastors, church staff, volunteers or families looking to learn more about the influence these conditions can exert upon spiritual development in kids, and what churches can do to help!

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, www.church4everychild.org was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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13 Responses to Ed Stetzer is dead-on about mental illness and Christians…now what?

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  3. Renee Hughes says:

    Mental illness is a chronic illness as any other chronic disease . I am a Christian and a woman who has struggled with major clinical depression for my entire adult life and hid it from other Christians who believe I suffer from depression because my relationship with Jesus is compromised, as I’ve been told by Pastors and Christian friends. Its time for all churches to accept this disease for what it is, a disease, and support ALL Christans with love and without judgement

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  4. 71 & Sunny says:

    I have struggled with severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and I finally sought Cognitive Behavioral Therapy using Exposure and Response Prevention (CBT/ERP), which is the only therapy scientifically proven to be effective for OCD. I HAD to seek out secular therapy as there are no Christian counselors in my area that understand how to use CBT/ERP. I only know of two Christian practitioners in the U.S. that are properly qualified to treat OCD (there may be more, but I am very involved in the OCD Community, and I just don’t know of any more). In fact, many, many secular therapists don’t even know about or use CBT/ERP. OCD, when severe, absolutely destroys lives and rips families to shreds (don’t believe most media portrayals of OCD) leaving sufferers distraught, and often suicidal. I’ve had more than one fellow Christian with OCD share with me their hesitation to get treatment (therapy and/or meds) because of spiritual concerns. It breaks my heart that people continue to live in agony because others around them steer them away from the only legitimate treatment for OCD. Going to a secular psychologist does not mean having to compromise your faith. I was very clear with my psychologist at the outset that I was a believer and that I would never do anything to contradict my beliefs. And because she was a REAL scientist/therapist, she kept an open mind about where I was coming from, and respected my values. I am not cured by any means, but treatment was effective for me and I praise God for how He has worked and restored a large part of my life. Treatment and Christianity don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Granted, there is a fine line to walk at times, but it can be done with careful consideration.

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  5. I have found as a Christian suffering with Bipolar Disorder that most pastoral staff is hesitant to help those with the afflictions of mental health other than referring to a mental health professional.
    I truly look at my affliction like the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 “Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” I have had many Christians say “I really want to be like Jesus!” Yes as I do too!… but I ask them this pertinent question…”Are you ready to suffer like He did also?” some have a hard time with that. I sum up with the verse from 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 3 “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 5 For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. 6 If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. 7 And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.” this has helped me in Truth to help other afflicted with mental health disorders. However the stigma which actually I found worse than mainstream society prevents many afflict from getting help of being served by a Christian ministry specifically for mental health.

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  6. Darcie says:

    I come from a deep history of sexual and emotional abuse and was in ministry for 10 years. His was a powerful article to read and see that information is getting the needed balance to help people like me.

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  7. Steve Haney says:

    I am husband/caregiver for my wife of 41 years. She has lived with dementia for almost 6 years. Diane was very active in youth ministry for over 30 years. She taught 7-8-9 grade for 30 years, and was a writer for Lifeway Youth for over 20 years. When her illness entered our lives and time went by our church family became more absent from our lives. I hear I, we are praying for you but spend a lot of days alone. Just a few visit her since she has been in the nursing home from time to time. This has been very difficult and painful for me. Diane was always so upbeat, smiling and laughing! She enjoyed life and really loved younger teens! I just don’t understand?? Why are people so distant in this crisis? We both still need them!!!

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  8. Richard Anderson says:

    I am thankful for Dr Grcevich’s attitude. A man has been attending our church who has definite mental problems, and is on medication as part of his disability status. We have accepted him into our small group studies and many of us ferry him to and from his home since he does not drive. Despite his illness he understands a great deal of the faith. I would think part of what helps this man is that he knows his identity is *in Christ,* and not in himself. Christ, now in his resurrection body, by his representation of his people (and God’s imputation of Christ’s whole person and work to his people), is every Christian’s good health, whether we are personally “mentally ill” or not. (And none of us is as whole as Christ is now!) If we believed and practiced this, I think there would be less pressure on mentally ill people to “conform” to some “normal” idea of life, and less pressure on people in the church to try to “fix” damaged people. We don’t shy away from or criticize people with cancer, heart disease, cataracts or diabetes. Why the mentally ill? We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and the interactions between neurological circuits and the capacities of the mind and heart are complicated. I think “secular psychology” has traced out the paths of a lot of mental dysfunctions and their sources as well as other conditions that “cluster” around an ill individual’s main problems. No question some medications help, but some also hurt. My daughter is a poster child for why anti-depressant ads say “don’t administer to children under 18.” She is a believer, but suffers from chronic Pure-O OCD, hemiplegic migraines, and fibromyalgia, in part due to medical interventions to help her with depression. Part of the reason she has not sought out Christian counselors is her fear of “Bible-beating” — showering Bible verses and encouragements on people with broken nerves, as if that would magically fix their troubles, or make them feel terribly guilty (or doubt God) if they don’t. I think a primary focus on the love and grace of God, imputing Christ’s perfections to imperfect people could be a great relief. So also could the cross — we were executed in Christ’s death, therefore our bodies, brains, minds and their problems no longer “count” in God’s eyes. However, grasping those things is also a work of the Holy Spirit and not merely one of “education.” Perhaps we would be helped if we learned to look at ourselves and the mentally ill from God’s perspective for starters, instead of skipping the gospel in favor of the “fix-it” approaches in medicine and counseling. It is an art to combine the two faithfully and with trust in God’s providence.

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  9. Colleen says:

    I felt shamed by the biblical leaders whether at church or bible study looking down on anti depressant medication use. Their words spoke death into me and kept me in bondage to my mental illness which I now realize is bipolar II. I’m on the rights combination of meds now and it’s changed my life. It’s not a happy pill, but it turned on whatever switch needed to be on, and now I live a normal productive life and I’m a better mom. Christians need to stop the shame and accept people with different struggles.

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    • drgrcevich says:

      Hi Colleen,

      Sorry to hear of your experience. Our team hopes and prays you’ll connect with a church where you can experience encouragement, support and the opportunity to use your gifts and talents to share the love of Christ with others.

      Like

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