Mental Health Counseling and the Church


If John the Baptist walked into your church next Sunday morning, would he be welcomed, or would his apparent lack of mental stability frighten the body, and cause noses to be turned up toward the sky?

I open with this question not to offer commentary on John’s mental health, but to press in on our ability and willingness to understand and minister to those who dress in animal skins, eat bugs for dinner, and reside in less than desirable conditions.

By all accounts, John the Baptist would fit today’s description of an emotionally disturbed person (EDP). With a ruddy complexion, and an appearance that would make some good Christians uncomfortable, his entrance into a packed sanctuary would leave just a few clutching their children tightly, and secretly praying, “Oh, dear Lord, don’t let him sit by me.”

But, this example is too easy. It’s too much of a cliché. While there’s always a group of us in the body who secretly desire John to sit elsewhere, there’s also a group of us who revel in the opportunity to show how spiritual we are—sitting with John, it turns out, is sometimes our way of proclaiming our fast to the masses (Matt. 6:16).

Here’s a challenge: If we invite John to sit with us in church on Sunday, but wouldn’t think of inviting him to dinner on Monday, what does this really say about the direction we’re moving in as God’s people, in relation to those with apparent mental health disorders?

In a broad sense, the church in America is still too distant, but growing closer to those with these and similar concerns. Some generations ago, as modernity took control of society’s understanding of man’s condition, it gave up the proper place of counseling within the church almost entirely to the field of secular psychology.

The end of this is that, today, if you want to get well, you go see your psychiatrist, begin a regimen of psychotropic drugs, and only then, if you still desire a little entertainment, you talk to a naive pastor about God. Considering that the field of psychology is founded upon the work of men who denied the very existence of God and man’s need of the Gospel, this reality shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Things are changing though.

Thanks to the good work of some of God’s most gifted men and women in our own time, folks like David Powlison, Brad Hambrick, Ed Welch, and Elyse Fitzpatrick, the body/soul connection is being re-established in the middle of a culture bent on the denial of Christ. Once again, the word of God is being elevated to its proper place in our anthropology—and that place is not in subjection to man’s theories about the causes of behavior and the appropriate remedies.

We call this movement Biblical Counseling.

Not to be confused with the field of Christian Counseling, Biblical Counseling is re-discovering for the church at large the many and diverse ways that the Bible speaks with precision to our sin and suffering. Once again, sense is being made of the condition of man. Where modernity distorted truth, and left us gasping for answers it promised but never delivered, God still speaks.

In past generations, Christians were told to move away from those who suffered from various mental health maladies. Conditions like depression, anxiety, fear, worry, anger, bitterness, and even more complex mood disorders, it was said, can only be understood by learned men in white coats. With increasing intensity, the church was informed that it had little or nothing to offer those who needed help.

The experts couldn’t have been farther from the truth (2 Tim. 3:16).

Today, armed with the inerrant, infallible, and authoritative word of God, a growing consensus within the church is seeing to it that we’re once again moving toward those with mental health concerns, instead of drifting away. As long as we have the word of God, we will have a word from God to deliver to those who are struggling. And none of this precludes or denies the good work and contributions of modern science.  

With confidence, the church is being empowered to help the weak, admonish the unruly, and encourage the faint hearted (1 Thess. 5:14). Here is the work of ministry as it was intended in the beginning, moving toward those in need, and extending the hope of healing and restoration to the hopeless.

We do this for John, because Christ did it for us (Romans 5:8).