The evangelical understanding of mental illness…How Freud, Skinner, Rogers and Ellis led to Jay Adams

BibleWe’re beginning a series today on the theme Sin, Mental Illness and the Church. This study will be accompanied by a more in-depth, optional online study group (you may register here) including Bible reading/study and supplemental media to enlighten participants as we examine the following questions…

  • How has the understanding of mental illness evolved in the evangelical movement in America over the past half-century?
  • How do past and current attitudes in the church influence outreach efforts to families of children and teens impacted by mental illness?
  • What can we learn from Scripture of God’s purposes in the lives and experiences of those impacted by mental illness?
  • How can we help more kids and families impacted by mental illness to experience the love of Christ through involvement in a local church?

An important role that our ministry plays in the larger disability ministry movement is that we see ourselves as bridge builders. From this blog’s initial post nearly five years ago, our purpose has been to leverage the credibility of a number of our leaders as mature, evangelical Christians positioned by God to serve families impacted by mental illness, trauma and/or developmental disabilities in helping the church become more effective in sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with a significantly underserved people group present in large numbers in nearly every city and town in the U.S.

Our purpose in presenting this series is not to promote or defend any specific model of caring for persons with symptoms of what is categorized as “mental illness” by the medical community, the mental health community, the government or insurance companies. Our purpose is to promote meaningful connection between local churches and families of kids impacted by mental illness. At our core, we’re an evangelical organization. We help churches connect with families who need to experience the Gospel, and we help churches strategize how to most effectively make disciples when kids present with conditions that contribute to difficulties thriving in the environments in which we “do church.” We’re seeking to implement the Great Commission where God has positioned us.

With that said, a pastor or a counselor would be challenged to reconcile much of the theoretical foundation of modern psychology to a view of the world shaped by Scripture.

Sigmund_Freud_LIFESigmund Freud was a prominent physician who developed the theory of psychoanalysis as an approach to patients with unexplained neurologic symptoms. Freud’s theoretical framework would frame guilt as pathological as opposed to an warning from one’s conscience of the need to recognize and deal with what we as Christians would refer to as sin. In the psychodynamic psychotherapies derived from Freud’s work, behavior is attributed to instinctive urges or drives as opposed to the exercise of free will for which the individual bears personal responsibility (the Biblical view).

Behavioralism (B.F. Skinner was a key figure, later Aaron Beck with the development of Cognitive-Behavioral therapy) would seek to understood human nature through observation and the scientific method…the two foundational assumptions of behaviorism are that nature is the only reality and reality can only be measured through our senses.The obvious challenge from a Christian perspective is there’s no place for any spiritual component not quantifiable or measurable. Pure behaviorism would be antithetical to the construct of free will and the importance of the soul. If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.

Humanistic therapies (Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers) developed as a reaction to the determinism inherent in psychoanalytic and behavioral theory. The goal of therapy is self-fulfillment and self actualization, The assumption is that the individual is responsible for his or her own happiness and accountable to no one but themselves…there’s no God to answer to. Subjective experience in emphasized as opposed to absolute truth…the “non-judgmentalism” characteristic of the Millennial generation is in part derived from this school of thought.

Albert Ellis developed Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (a hybrid) of  in the mid 1950’s. We’ll discuss Ellis at length a little later in this series because…

  • Ellis was a major intellectual force behind the advance of moral relativism.
  • He was arguably the most influential psychologist of the 1960s
  • Our modern-day understanding of mental illness in many areas of the church is grounded in the response to what was seen as a dangerous influence of contemporary  psychology inside seminaries in the 1960s.

What’s important to understand is that much of what we think of today as psychotherapy in an earlier time was done by pastors. As psychology developed as a science and psychiatry as a medical specialty in the Twentieth Century, the theoretical underpinnings of those fields were incompatible with a Biblical world view of sin, the presence of absolute truth as represented in Scripture and the teaching that all men and women are accountable to God for their thoughts and actions. Many at the time in positions of influence within the church thought it impossible for Christians to be helped by therapies and techniques grounded in an understanding of humanity incompatible with widely accepted teaching from the Bible.

adams10One pastor and professor stepped forward to challenge what was being taught to seminarians. He challenged the entire construct of mental illness as it was understood at the dawn of the 1970s and developed an comprehensive counseling framework based entirely on Scripture. He claimed his model sufficient for treating Christians with all manner of emotional and behavioral issues that and he remains highly influential in the evangelical movement today as younger colleagues modify and build from his foundational work.

In our next post, you’ll be introduced to the teaching of Jay Adams.


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, was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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3 Responses to The evangelical understanding of mental illness…How Freud, Skinner, Rogers and Ellis led to Jay Adams

  1. Dan Maas says:

    This article absolutely hit the mark in terms of brevity, summary and clarity of the issues involved. I cannot wait to participate in the follow up discussions in the course. That said, the issues presented have set our society adrift and the church deeply split on key issues of eternal significance. I pray that this series enlightens and leads us to an action plan for addressing both, or clearly explaining both for the Gospel’s sake and the sake of those who suffer the reality of mental illness.


  2. God gives His people as sound mind, body, and soul. Drugs of any sort “alter the mind” and defile God’s temple. Mental illness is a spirit.


    • drgrcevich says:

      Hi Barbara,

      Would you care to explain your statement in light of the Fall? And how do you explain the differences seen in brain neuroimaging in people with schizophrenia and many other conditions? And all the faithful Christians who have taken (and experienced relief from) medication?


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