Mental Health and the Church: How Do Christians Get It Wrong?

Exclusive Interview With Speaker at Upcoming Conference at Saddleback Church

Baylor Psychology Professor Dr. Matthew Stanford will be speaking at Saddleback Church's mental health conference on March 29, 2014. | (Photo: A. Larry Ross Communications)

Editor's Note: Leading into an important conference on mental health and the role of the Church hosted by Pastor Rick Warren and his wife, Kay, at Saddleback Church, The Christian Post is offering special focus on the topic. CP plans to continue this coverage including reporting on The Gathering on Mental Health and the Church on March 28.

Dr. Matthew Stanford, a Baylor University Professor of Psychology who studies the intersection of the church and mental health, will be one of the experts addressing attendees at the conference. Stanford has taught at Baylor since 2003 and serves as the director of the Mental Health Grace Alliance. He's the author of Grace for the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness and The Biology of Sin Grace, Hope and Healing for Those Who Feel Trapped.

Here's part one of Stanford's interview with The Christian Post.

CP: What are common misconceptions Christians have about mental health?

Stanford: I have a set of doctoral students that do research in this area and look at how the mentally ill interact with the local church. I think the first misconception in the Christian church is that these things are generated by a lack in faith or some spiritual issue — that they basically have a solely spiritual aspect to them. So we find that when a church believes that or a Christian believes that, they tend to attribute mental illness to one of three things.

1. Personal sin

2. Lack of faith by the individual

3. The demonic

Those are the most common. If you don't have a more traditional view of mental illness as a brain disorder but you look at it solely spiritual, one of those is how you attribute mental illness to that person.

CP: To what extent do past beliefs about mental illness play a role in Christians' assumptions about mental illness?

Stanford: Historically in the church, Christians have actually gone out of their way to serve the mentally ill. Certainly, before there were treatments for the mentally ill, it was Christians, and particularly Mennonites, who built some of the very first what we would think of as mental institutions. I think that one of the first psychiatric hospitals was built in Jerusalem in the 400s. There's a great history of Christians caring for the mentally ill.

I think what happened was as psychology and psychiatry began to become a science, early on there was a lot of disconnect between the early fathers of those disciplines and the faith. Certainly people like Freud were no friend of the faith. As we moved into more of a medical model in the '60s where less of this was done in a care context and more within a treatment context there kind of became a division.

I think in some sense, Christians tried to take back this kind of care notion but they over-spiritualized it in a sense. Instead of caring for mental health problems the same way you would care for someone with diabetes or liver cancer, we make the brain somehow different, as if it's not just an organ in your body.

CP: Where do the assumptions that mental illness may be associated with the demonic come from?

Stanford: Certainly, if you look outside the West, it's not uncommon at all to find cultures in the world where basically any bad thing is associated with evil spirits and demonic, and mental illness is no exemption. Here in the US, what we have tended to find is that the theologically more conservative and/or the charismatic, are the ones that tend to deny the biological view of mental illness and attribute to the spiritual. Typically, you are going to find in the more charismatic church more people who will attribute it to the demonic.

If you look at denominations where they don't really talk about the demonic and don't have active deliverance ministries and things like that, you are much less likely to come across somebody who attributes it to the demonic.

But certainly, what is happening is that people are taking this very bizarre set of behaviors and emotions and feelings, something that we don't understand, something they are fearful of, and they are trying to put it into their spiritual contexts. When someone says they're hearing voices or having thoughts that aren't their own, certainly it's not hard to make a leap to the demonic.

CP: Do you believe that people whom Jesus cast out demons out of were actually only suffering from mental illness?

Stanford: One of the easy answers would be that what we're looking at in the scriptures are people who are pre-scientific and they just are trying to describe something they don't understand by attributing it to the demonic. But, I actually think that's too easy of an answer, because it potentially draws our entire faith into question, because it appears that Jesus believes that the people he is healing [actually are possessed].

I think what's important is that when you look in the Scriptures, not everyone that you would think of as having a have mental illness is said to have an evil spirit. There are clearly examples of people who are physically ill and Jesus heals them. There are clearly people who described who have an evil spirit and Jesus casts out this evil spirit. The gospel writers, for them, it's not a huge distinction. Casting out an evil spirit and healing someone, even when the context is clearly different, to them it's basically the same thing because they see God as the ultimate cause of all things. He's the healer whether that be an evil spirit or physical illness and certainly in the Scriptures, evil spirits can cause physical illnesses, it's described that way.

I think ultimately the question there is turning to God and looking to God. I think it's a little bit of a more complex answer. I certainly know that some of my secular colleagues would say that these people are just mentally ill and attribute it to mental illness. I would say certainly in some instances that might be true, but in other instances, we don't want to completely deny the existence of the demonic, because within our faith, that's a component of our faith, that there is evil adversary whose out to thwart the will and purposes of God and his people.

CP: My pastor shared a story several weeks about serving as a chaplain intern in a hospital ward, where she had to counsel a family whose son had epilepsy according to doctors. However, the family claimed he was demon possessed. What type of advice might you give to Christians working in the mental health profession working with clients who believe or whose families believe they are possessed?

Stanford: You don't want to destroy someone's faith whether you are a person of faith or a secular individual. Either way that would be equally bad.

I think one of the things is that if you are a person of faith and you work with people of faith, you need to have a good understanding when people throw terms out like "possession" or "oppression" or "affliction." What are they talking about there?

Possession in the classic, historical Christian sense, you've literally been taken over by a demon and that demon is causing things to occur and you are no longer in control. There are a few instances of that in the Bible, but I also would say that a majority of Christendom, in the faith, don't believe that a Christian can be possessed because that would mean that the demonic has taken up residence in the same place as the Holy Spirit has taken up residence and that doesn't seem theologically possible from the way the Bible describes it.

Certainly, there's a possibility that the demonic could afflict or oppress an individual that's a Christian because that's throughout scripture. You look at Job. You look at Paul, when he talks about his thorn in the flesh as a messenger of Satan. One of the things I do with my clients or when people ask me about it, I say "Look, let's pray against the demonic." I have absolutely no problem with that. Let's have people pray against the demonic.

I would say, if we look at the Scriptures, would it be possible for the demonic to cause someone to be schizophrenic? Well sure, they made Job have boils all over his head and body — I don't think that's the only illness they could cause. Would it be possible for me to differentiate demonically induced schizophrenia from the real thing? I don't know that I'm that spiritually discerning and say that I can treat it the way I know how to treat schizophrenia and if the person gets some relief from that than I doubt that that was demonic.

But all my clients we'll pray for them for healing. All my clients we'll pray for them against the demonic, particularly if that's something they are very interested in doing. I think that all Christians should pray for healing for people and all Christians should pray against the demonic. That's just part of our faith.

I think if we approach it from that perspective, we're not then labeling the person. Because really when someone says "this is demonic," usually where that goes then is that somehow that person did something to cause this to occur to them.

With your pastor and the epileptic boy, I imagine if someone came in to do a deliverance, they would start to talk about generations of curses, something the family did to open themselves up to the occult or the demonic, and really, it's no longer a discussion of "Did the demonic come out to thwart the purposes of God's people?" and becomes a question of the family's faith and what they're not doing.

CP: What are your thoughts on Christians who refuse medical care out of a belief that God will heal them?

Stanford: Those individuals are a small sect within Christendom that fully believe in what we might call "faith healing," where you go to doctors at all because God will heal you — or not. I think that's the thing we always forget is that they don't think "God is going to heal me for sure." They're just saying, "I'm supposed to put my faith in God and if he chooses to heal me, I'll be healed and if he chooses not to heal me, than I'll die."

What's interesting about mental illness is that I have plenty of pastors that I've talked to that will tell people "Don't get treatment for your psychiatric illnesses — this is a spiritual problem. Don't take medication." But those same people, they go to doctors. They don't have any problem with doctors. They just have problems with doctors in relationship to mental illness.

To me that seems like a very inconsistent theology. If you have a consistent theology and don't ever go to a doctor I have a lot more respect for you, than if you say "You don't go to a doctor for your schizophrenia or your depression, but I'm going to the doctor for my diabetes."

To me that doesn't make a lot of sense because [that's just like saying] there's no organ in your head. It's somehow different.

Was this article helpful?

Help keep The Christian Post free for everyone.

By making a recurring donation or a one-time donation of any amount, you're helping to keep CP's articles free and accessible for everyone.

We’re sorry to hear that.

Hope you’ll give us another try and check out some other articles. Return to homepage.

Free Religious Freedom Updates

Join thousands of others to get the FREEDOM POST newsletter for free, sent twice a week from The Christian Post.

Most Popular

Free Religious Freedom Updates

A religious liberty newsletter that is a must-read for people of faith.

More In Church & Ministries