It’s no secret that we are in the midst of a mental health crisis. According to research conducted by Barna across 25 countries, 40% of adults ages 18-35 struggle with anxiety, loneliness, and isolation. Many of these young people who are plagued by mental health concerns sit in our pews at church every weekend.
Nevertheless, many Christians, including some influential pastors, are not only suspicious of mental health interventions such as medication and therapy, but actively campaign against them.
“If your pastor attends therapy regularly, he’s unfit for the pulpit,” one pastor recently tweeted. “If your pastor tells you to seek the world’s advice over Scripture, he’s unfit for the pulpit. If your pastor tells you God’s Word is sufficient—you stay at that church and invite everyone you know!”
Similarly, when another pastor publicly advocated for pastors regularly going to therapy, another pastor questioned, “What planet are you from and who sent you to destroy churches?”
Arguments against the benefits of therapy and other mental health interventions are often rooted in the theological doctrine of “the sufficiency of Scripture.” Some see the study and practice of psychology as fundamentally at odds with the wisdom of Scripture or as a godless form of “human wisdom.”
In this case, the sufficiency of Scripture is so narrowly defined that it excludes and denies the benefits of research-driven therapy methodologies and medications aimed at decreasing the symptoms of common mental illnesses.
As an alternative, a number of these anti-therapy theologians advocate for “biblical counseling.”
Biblical counseling is defined as “the process where the Bible…is related individually to a person or persons who are struggling under the weight of personal sin and/or the difficulties with suffering, so that he or she might genuinely change in the inner person to be pleasing to God.”
Looking at this definition, biblical counseling sounds a lot like good, old-fashioned Christian discipleship, which could offer benefits not only in terms of personal sanctification but good mental hygiene as well.
However, in practice, biblical counseling is often offered in lieu of psychological treatment, is conducted by individuals who are not trained mental health professionals, and often falls into the trap of framing mental health concerns such as anxiety or depression in terms of sin and obedience rather than as a complex cross section of neurological, social, and emotional factors.
While Christians may benefit from engaging in biblical counseling, in my view, to present it as the only option for faithful Christians struggling with mental health concerns is not only unwise, but unsafe.
Here are three dangers present when a pastor espouses anti-therapy rhetoric.
A Danger to Themselves
When pastors cut themselves off from the wisdom provided by mental health professionals, many of whom are Christians and practice psychology in a way that is congruent with biblical convictions, they reject resources that could keep them from mental health crises of their own, which could result in burnout, moral failure, or worse.
Being a pastor is a stressful job. This has always been true, but it has increasingly become the case as a result of the pandemic, social unrest, and other pressures that weigh on the hearts and minds of ministers. Therapy can help.
Pastors who wish to do ministry in a way that is healthy, sustainable, and ensures that they stay in it for the long haul should heed the reality that while mental health has a spiritual component, seminary training does not sufficiently equip someone to rise to every mental health challenge that may come their way.
Pastors and ministry leaders who are unable to remain open to mental health treatments, including therapy, will become a danger to themselves.
They will also become a danger to others.