What would cause Christian parents to withhold medical care from their children? Or, for that matter, what would cause Christians to withhold care from those who are in need of medical intervention?
I read a 2003 article written by C. W. Booth in response to a three-year-old dying because the parents withheld needed antibiotics in the hope that God would heal the child. In it he wrote, "Biblical doctrine results in righteous behaviors of faith, whereas the end of faulty doctrine is unrighteous behavior; whether the world understands the difference is another matter. The key is not whether one has faith, but in what and in whom has that faith been placed?" As we shall see, misplaced faith can lead to fanaticism.
According to the Associated Press (AP), two members of the religious community called Followers of Christ Church pleaded guilty on Monday, July 9th, 2018 to "negligent homicide and criminal mistreatment in the death of their newborn daughter, who struggled to breathe for hours as family and friends prayed over her but did not seek medical care." The Oregon Church is known to shun "traditional medicine in favor of prayer and anointing the sick with oils." The members "believe in a literal translation of the Scripture, which states that faith will heal all and if someone dies, it is God's will." That is religious fanaticism writ large.
Sadly, the couple's daughter was the fifth child to die under similar circumstances in that religious community. Mercifully, the couple's other twin daughter was saved by a deputy medical examiner who after being called to the house for her sister's death, noticed that she too was struggling to breathe. The AP found that 78 children have been buried in the church's graveyard since 1955, and at least 21 children have been saved by medical intervention.
The first clause of Mark 2:17 says, "And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, 'Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.'" Clearly, and there is nothing written in scripture to the contrary, Jesus understood the need for physicians: they tend to the sick. Jeremiah 8:22 says, "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has not the health of the daughter of my people been restored?" We can safely deduce from this question that there was an understanding in ancient Israel that physicians tend to the medical needs of the sick.
Especially coming from the Healer - that he would recognize the usefulness of medical interventions - it should make us accept their usefulness as well. In fact, the knowledge to heal through medicine is a gift from God, and is therefore something he has provided for us to use when we need it. The word translated "physician" is actually "healer". It goes without saying, then, that if we are sick it is not undermining of our faith to seek help from a doctor.
The account of the woman with the issue of blood for twelve years mentioned that she could not be helped by any physician at the time (Luke 8:43-44). This tells us that even as Jesus walked and healed, there were doctors practicing the art of healing by physical means. It is often what the doctors cannot heal by their practices and methods, or when the sick cannot reach a doctor in time, that Jesus heals miraculously.
Hezekiah asked God to heal him, and God instructed the physicians through Isaiah to "Make an ointment from figs and spread it over the boil, and Hezekiah will recover" (Isaiah 38:21). When Timothy was having stomach problems, Paul advised him to drink wine, a form of medication, to relieve his illness (1 Timothy 5:23). Both instances were acts of real faith in which men received healing by believing that God can accomplish it through medical intervention.
What would cause parents to withhold medical care from their children? It may seem to some that by relying on God to heal their daughter rather than relying on man's ability, albeit a trained medical professional, the parents were courageously extending their faith and ought to be commended and, for that matter, proves that it was God's will that the child should die. But the truth is, they really did not believe God, and consequently did not use what He provided for them.
Jonas Salk developed the successful inactivated vaccine for polio, and now the disease is virtually wiped out. Before Salk's effective vaccine, thousands of people in the United States were paralyzed from the disease each year, and thousands also died. But thanks to the effort of the government and healthcare services, this feared disease of the mid-twentieth century is of little concern in the twenty-first century.
Today we have the resurgence of some diseases that were virtually wiped out. But because of the refusal of some parents to have their children vaccinated against them, diseases such as whooping-cough, measles, mumps and chicken pox are resurgent in the United States. These are easily preventable diseases with the use of vaccines. These parents and people who refuse useful vaccinations are called anti-vaxxers. Sadly, we have a significant number of anti-vaxxers in the Christian community with many claiming religious exemption, and are being accommodated by the States.
The religious rejection of life saving vaccination is based on the objection to abortion by some, notably in Australia, claiming that "use of vaccines containing fetal material violates the teaching of pro-life religions such as Christianity." They protest any government mandate on that basis because it would violate their religious freedom. However after the outbreak in the US of "measles and other diseases once nearly eradicated, legislators in 19 states have introduced legislation to tighten or eliminate those exemptions."
Often, though, this rejection of vaccinations and other medical interventions are based on ignorance, and perhaps worse, on conspiracy theories and urban legends that many Christians have come to sincerely believe. Unfortunately, it is the children who most often suffer the consequences of this sincere but misguided faith of their parents. This faith is not based upon a sound doctrine balanced by the corpus of biblical teachings about the providence of God and his operation in the world, but on a narrow, self-righteous interpretation of isolated texts.
A warning is warranted for those who gravitate to these isolationist religious sects, and for those who embrace extreme so-called faith practices. Withholding necessary and needed medical intervention from children or anyone is indeed "unrighteous behavior" based on "faulty doctrine." It is not real faith, but self-righteousness and fanaticism disguised as faith. Jesus said to those religious people who thought they were in the faith "Depart from me... I was sick and...you did not look after me" (Matt. 25:41-43). Real faith leads to choices that provide care to the sick and needy; fanaticism leads to choices that bring harm to others in the name of religious faith.