From @EdStetzer…Is the church guilty of “spiritual abuse” toward the mentally ill?

shutterstock_154131002I’d encourage our readers to check out this thought-provoking post from Ed Stetzer of Lifeway Research, titled A New Approach to Mental Illness in the Church, posted at Christianity Today this past Friday.

In the article, Ed shares of his struggles early in his pastoral career when he found himself inadequately prepared for challenges he faced in ministry with people impacted by mental illness. Here’s an excerpt from Ed’s article…

I was unprepared to deal with mental illness, and by my actions, I almost denied that it is even real. Of course, I would have been prepared for any number of other forms of illness. If someone had come to my church with a broken leg, I would have recommend they go see a doctor. For virtually any other illness, I would have said the same.

It is common practice in churches, however, to treat mental illness differently. We immediately assume there is something else, some deeper spiritual struggle causing mental and emotional strain.

The fact is that mental illness and spiritual struggle can be (and are) related. We are not separate things, we are complex people—remarkable connected in spirit, soul, body, mind, etc.

But, let me be direct here: if we immediately dismiss the possibility of mental illness and automatically assume spiritual deficiency, our actions amount to spiritual abuse. I know those are powerful and pointed words, but I believe them to be true. Please, don’t miss them.

I read Ed’s article early on Sunday morning and put it aside for a little while while heading off to church, pondering the definition of spiritual abuse and wondering if it was a little unfair to good people leading in churches with an inadequate understanding of mental illness. In doing a Google search of “spiritual abuse,” I sadly found no shortage of websites and blogs describing church leaders who behaved very badly. But…if one of the ways in which we define “spiritual abuse” is the misrepresentation of the essential teaching of our faith by those in positions of leadership or authority in the church…pastors and elders and deacons and counselors in their daily interactions with vulnerable people, I must reluctantly conclude that all too many are guilty as charged by Ed of spiritual abuse toward persons with mental illness and their families.

Timothy_KellerMy pastor is a big fan of the writing and teaching of Tim Keller, so I thought I’d search out what he had to say about the causes of mental illness. In the process, I stumbled upon this wonderful article from Susan Fiske on reaching out to the mentally ill. In Susan’s article, she shared from a message preached by Keller titled The Wounded Heart.

We have become far too reductionistic in the church about the complexity of the relationship between the mind, body and spirit. Keller discusses this in his message…

“The Bible’s understanding of human nature, understanding of what goes wrong inside is more nuanced, more multifaceted, more multidimensional, more complex than any other answer that I know of.” Any other counseling model, any book on despondency, or what’s wrong or how to have emotional health or how to have a happy life, you read them all and compared to the Bible, they are too one dimensional, they’re reductionistic, they boil everything down, they’re too simple minded, too simplistic, they’re not savvy, they’re not wise. The Bible gives you the most fully nuanced, the most complex assessment of what can go wrong and lead to despondency, lead to a crushed spirit.”

From Redeemer Presbyterian’s website, here’s a summary of Keller’s message…

The Bible teaches an extremely nuanced vision of the human spirit. We are physical beings whose spirits can be brought low by physical ailments. We are relational beings who need the love and support of friends. We are moral beings who can be crushed by the weight of our sin. We are existential beings who seek to find meaning in our lives. Lastly, we are faith-based being who will always put our hope in something. Unless we put our faith and hope in God, we will never satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts.

Many in the church are guilty of spiritual abuse when they communicate to vulnerable people searching for help their certainty that the reason for their distress is insufficient faith or moral failure. They fail to recognize the complexity of the interrelationship between our minds, bodies and spirits, and much like Job’s friends in the Old Testament, exacerbate pain and suffering by misrepresenting God’s grace and God’s character.

shutterstock_69175456In fairness to those accused in the church, pastors, elders and Biblical counselors have no monopoly on reductionistic thinking when it comes to mental distress. I’d argue that many in the medical/psychiatric community misrepresent the causes (and cure) for mental illness by reducing everything to genes, synapses and neurotransmitters. Secular therapists often falsely assume that guilt resulting from our understanding of right and wrong and our adherence to moral absolutes causes mental illness. Others assume that by helping others to identify flaws in our thinking patterns we can provide relief from suffering in most circumstances. Most are reluctant to recognize the presence of a soul or spirit that can’t be objectively measured or observed through a SPECT scanner or fMRI machine.

The church ought to be the very best place for folks to be who are experiencing symptoms of mental illness to be because the Bible provides us with the most complete understanding of the contributing factors to our distress, and we as followers of Jesus uniquely have the capacity to understand the relationship between the brain, body and soul.  Our crew at Key Ministry is eager to help the church “be the church” through helping leaders minister to families impacted by mental illness in a manner that more accurately reflects the fullness of God’s truth and grace.

PS: Here’s the link for Tim Keller’s sermon. Listen to this if you’re prepared to be challenged on any assumptions you fully understand the cause of anyone’s emotional distress…including your own.


Spring Counseling SummitInterested in a “crash course” on some of the most pressing topics in children’s mental health? Join us at Cincinnati Christian University on Friday, April 17th for the 2015 Spring Counseling Summit!

Some topics we’ll be covering include…

– recognizing and treating anxiety disorders
– making sense of the ADHD epidemic
– clinical challenges when kids have two or more psychiatric diagnoses
– clinical challenges with adopted/foster kids
– recognition and advocacy for kids with special education needs
– recognizing and treating mood disorders

For more information, or to register for the Spring Counseling Summit, click here to access the Summit webpage. CEUs are available to counselors, social workers and marriage and family therapists in Ohio and counselors in Kentucky.

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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2 Responses to From @EdStetzer…Is the church guilty of “spiritual abuse” toward the mentally ill?

  1. Rose says:

    yes. That is if they don’t humiliate them enough to never come back in the beginning. But if they stay, you can bet they’ll be abused. I know because I was. Struggling now with the question of why God allowed it, when I spent so many years struggling. do you know what its like to feel that God loves you but the church hates you? do you know what its like to be considered not worth discipling and left to yourself, Just you and Jesus, because the Pastor won’t talk to you. do you know what its like to experience the warfare, but the Pastor won’t help you, and he doesn’t want you to call anyone from the church. Your left to figure it all out on your own, only to lose half of what the Lord gives you because you don’t know what the heck your doing? My question is why does God hate me so much that he let it happen after 15 years of struggle. I thought I’d finally found a living God, which I did, but the church didn’t think I was worth to much.


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