Why many in the church don’t see ADHD as a disability…

shutterstock_185745920In the fourth installment of our series, Sin, Mental Illness and the Church, we look at the sources of a mindset that exists in many churches that ADHD isn’t a real disability and fails to recognize the challenges parents of kids with ADHD might face in regularly attending church.

“People in the church believe they can tell when a disability ends and bad parenting begins.”

This statement was made by a parent from my church during a disability awareness Sunday service conducted in the late ’90s. Sadly, it summarizes the experience of church reported by all too many families passing through our practice over the last 20+ years.

Within the evangelical subculture, some very prominent leaders and organizations have espoused opinions on the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD that would lead parents of kids identified with questions as to whether they or their children are welcome at church.

macarthurbioJohn MacArthur is a highly respected pastor and Bible teacher from Southern California. I grew up listening to his teaching…my dad accepted Christ around the time I started high school and MacArthur’s radio program was on in the background just about every morning when I was getting ready for school. It’s probably safe to say that I may be the only child psychiatrist in America who owns (and uses) MacArthur’s Bible Commentary. Nevertheless, he’s a big proponent of the Nouthetic Counseling movement and has some decidedly countercultural things to say about ADHD

“Parents who have been programmed not to spank them because that’s been reclassified as child abuse, parents who really don’t know what moral system to teach them, parents who are too busy to bother largely are now trying to deal with these children who are angry because they’re not given the love and affection and attention that they need, who are uncontrolled because they have not been taught self-control. Parents are now trying to deal with these children in the most frightening ways.

It takes a lot of time to train a child, a lot less time to give him a pill. But turning your disobedient child, your child that lacks self-control, maybe your angry child because that child is not cared for properly, turning that child into a drug addict, is that a solution?”

“You know who they’re describing? All of our children. Don’t kid me, that’s all of my children. That’s all of my grandchildren. That’s me. I don’t have a disease. Every kid is like that if he’s not taught self-control.”

“I had a lot going on in my head, and I couldn’t concentrate on just one thing because I was busy with a whole lot of things. God made me a certain way, wired me to be able to deal with a lot of stuff. And that’s my life now. I’m glad my parents didn’t turn me into a drug addict. I didn’t have a disease or a disorder, that was just me.”

Pat Robertson has said some pretty provocative things over the years on the cable television channel operated by his ministry. Some statements he made a couple of years ago about adoption got the attention of many of our readers. Pat had some especially interesting things to say in the last minute or so of this video segment looking at one alternative approach to treating ADHD…

john_rosemond_headshotJohn Rosemond stands out as perhaps the most prominent (and vocal) critics in the church of the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD. Rosemond is a popular speaker at church-based parenting events, and authored The Diseasing of America’s Children: Exposing the ADHD Fiasco and Empowering Parents to Take Back Control. He has some provocative things to say about ADHD in his book…

“Where ADHD is concerned, neither verifiable, objective evidence nor replicable experimental results exist to support the claims of the ADHD establishment. We are convinced, therefore, that the science behind ADHD and other childhood behavioral disorders it has birthed (primarily, oppositional defiant disorder and early-onset bipolar disorder) is not science at all.”

“We are alarmed that so many parents are allowing members of the Establishment to manage their children for them through the use of powerful, potentially hazardous psychotropic drugs. As we will show you, these drugs are unnecessary. We have seen enough children diagnosed with ADHD begin behaving functionally at home and school without medical intervention to know that this is not a medical issue. We further know that parents who accept responsibility (not blame) for their children’s problems take the first step toward self-empowerment and disentangling.”

“But is ADHD a disorder? Does its nomenclature accurately reflect that there is something amiss with the children in question, that for whatever reason-biological or otherwise-they can’t “think straight,” and thus their behavior is often chaotically disorganized? Or is attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder simply a more scientifically-sounding way of referring to what, not so long ago, people simply called a spoiled brat?”

Rosemond has lots of good parenting advice to offer and encourages parents to raise kids who will accept responsibility for the consequences of their own behavior. He also appears to have won acceptance within evangelical culture. He has interviews and podcasts over at the Focus on the Family website, and one of his books was a premium for those who contributed to their ministry.

One critique of mainstream psychology and psychiatry that Rosemond and proponents of Biblical Counseling share that I fully agree with is the failure to recognize the sinful nature each and every one of us is born with. I like to remind my atheist/secular progressive colleagues of this reality when their two and three year olds start hitting, kicking and tantruming…behaviors they surely hadn’t been taught or observed at home! I would question the extent to which the twenty-month old child who was the subject of this consultation was capable of exercising free will…

Had this mother not been willing to accept that her child’s sinful nature had awakened, she and her husband might have fallen for the currently popular notion that any persistent behavior pattern that deviates ever so slightly from the norm is a sign of either psychological or physiological problems. Both of these explanations—which are really two sides of the same post-modern coin—deny the sinfulness of human nature, deny that even a toddler exercises free will, and deny that a child is (and should therefore be held) fully responsible for his behavior. These parents might have wasted years, not to mention thousands and thousands of dollars, pursuing a chimera. They would have begun, when their child was not yet two, ceding authority in his life to medical and psychological professionals who would have had a field day with his “case.”

Ed WelchSome voices within the Biblical Counseling field have come forward to temper criticism of the diagnosis itself and parents who pursue the mainstream treatment approaches recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Ed Welch, who had previously written a book critical of the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD, posted a very thoughtful article on the website of the Christian Counseling Educational Foundation (CCEF). Here’s a brief excerpt…

These are helpful observations but now the real fun begins. With our spiritual lenses we can see even more as we place these observations into a much richer context.

Wisdom: Many of our daily decisions are moral ones but there are also decisions that are not essentially right or wrong, though Scripture’s wisdom still guides us. For example, a decision to embezzle money is a moral one but a decision about how much money to save or give away is not; it is a matter of personal wisdom. In the same way, decisions about medication are not right or wrong; instead, medication might be wise for some children and unwise for others. This should take some of the pressure off parents.

As the series progresses, we’ll discuss how our attitudes and understanding of disability in the church has led to specific conditions being included (or excluded) from the scope of what most churches understand as the purview of disability ministry.


ADHD Series LogoKey Ministry has assembled a helpful resource page for church leaders and parents addressing the topic of ADHD and spiritual development. This page includes our blog series on the topic and links to helpful videos and resources for pastors, church staff, volunteers and parents. Access the resource page here.

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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