Traditional churches and the mental health system…Irreconcilable differences?

Two weeks ago, I shared a post on the topic of Why the church and the mental health system should work together. Upon further reflection, I think a better question is: Can the church and the mental health system work together? And sadly, I’m coming to suspect the answer to that question is NO…so long as that church adheres to traditional teaching and Biblical interpretation addressing human sexuality.

Since my last post, I spoke at an event sponsored by a mental health board here in Ohio that serves a large and diverse population in a region of our state that most sociologists would describe as “culturally conservative.” The panel discussion that followed my talk on how the mental health system could help churches serve individuals and families affected by mental illness was dominated by LGBTQ-oriented questions and statements.

During the panel discussion, one attendee strongly implied that the inclusion of statistics in my presentation from Lifeway Research and Focus on the Family and referencing organizations such as Saddleback Church and the ERLC represented an act of hostility toward the LGBT community. I’d think the reaction would’ve been pretty similar from any secular group of mental health professionals anywhere in the country.  I found myself very encouraged by the presence of a pastor on the panel involved in ministry with at-risk kids who also represented a more traditional Christian perspective pertaining to human sexuality.

The church’s teaching on sexuality is a big issue to a great many people in the mental health field. Let me try to summarize what I see as a prevailing view among many mental health professionals

Sexual minorities represent a vulnerable population. Their status as a sexual minority is largely immutable and an essential component of their identity. The increased prevalence of mental illness and suicidal behavior reported among sexual minorities is a function of the shame and condemnation of their lifestyle they experience from contact with the larger culture. Failure to accept and affirm them in the expression of their sexual identity (with sexual activity representing an integral component of such expression) is tantamount to assault upon their dignity. Any statements or teaching with the potential for causing guilt or distress increase their risk for suicide and a variety of mental health conditions.

Contrast that with what I would consider a traditional Christian view of sexuality…

God intended for sexual relationships between one man and one woman in the context of marriage. In Jesus’ words…

He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?

Matthew 19:4-5  (ESV)

The Bible clearly teaches that alternative sexual relationships are sinful and disrupt our relationship with God. See Leviticus 18, Romans 1, or 1 Corinthians 6. In the final passage, Paul emphasizes that once we become Christians, our bodies are not our own – they – and everything we have belongs to God! In the next chapter, he expounds on this teaching by noting that husbands and wives are to give their bodies to one another – and one another only! The expectation for sexual expression outside of marriage is self-control.

Moreover, the Bible has very different thoughts than the larger culture on the source of our identity. Paul makes a point in Romans 6 that we take on a new identity when we come to faith in Christ…

We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

Paul continues in Galatians 3

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Throughout Romans 7, Paul describes the internal struggle on the struggle between our old and new identities…

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

The traditional Christian view of sexuality and identity is radically countercultural and the teachings are essential to the faith and not easily dismissed as belonging to a different time and context. Life would certainly be easier for believers such as myself if they could be easily dismissed. But we don’t get to decide which of God’s commands we choose to honor and which we can easily dismiss. We put ourselves in the position of God when we assume we can do so. And when we do so, the Gospel loses its power and allure.

The reality is that the traditional Christian view of sexuality and identity is irreconcilable with very closely held values and beliefs of an influential majority of mental health practitioners. How do we work with folks who view our core beliefs as an assault on their dignity and the dignity of those we serve? Churches or individuals who support traditional marriage and expressions of sexuality are pariahs to them. Given the incompatibility of the prevailing views on sexual expression between churches and the mental health community, I think there will be little possibility for partnership unless at least one of the following conditions is met…

  • The church abandons traditional teaching on sexuality and marriage and seeks to affirm alternative definitions of marriage and avenues of sexual expression.
  • The church is predominantly composed of members of a protected class.
  • The church has an unimpeachable reputation in the community for work on behalf of social justice and downplays public pronouncements or teaching related to sexual expression.

I met a very kind and compassionate pastor at my recent presentation who started a church specifically to serve the LGBTQ community. When I asked her how the church was doing, she indicated they were struggling and explained her challenge by stating that gay and lesbian people aren’t in the habit of going to church on Sunday. What I wish I had said in the moment is that I can’t imagine why a watered down version of the faith that declares  our sexuality to be off-limits to God would be appealing to anyone. While I fervently hope that individuals with mental illness and their families come to be included in their larger family in Christ, we can’t compromise the integrity of the gospel message to bring about that goal.

When I first launched this blog eight years ago, my intent was to build a bridge between two worlds…the “church” world I inhabited as an attendee and a leader and my “work” world inhabited by kids and families impacted by mental illness or developmental disabilities. While I certainly see myself as qualified to serve as a guide to church leaders as they seek to understand the struggles of families impacted by those conditions, I no longer feel I belong in gatherings of my fellow mental health professionals. My values and beliefs are too incompatible with those of the vast majority of my peers.

The chasm between my two worlds is widening…making the need for the church to extend the love of Christ to kids and families on the other side of the chasm even more imperative.
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Are you a pastor or ministry leader searching for resources to better understand how to support children, adults or families affected by mental illness in your church or in your community? Check out Key Ministry’s Mental Health Resources page, containing links to video, articles and topical blog series designed to help you minister with persons with common mental health conditions. Also available through the website are a free, downloadable mental health ministry planning tool designed to accompany Mental Health and the Church, along with links to recommended books, like-minded mental health ministry organizations, relevant research, sermons addressing mental illness, social media resources and a compilation of stories from families affected by mental illness.

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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