Two different things, both of which I have seen in churches:
The church’s leadership distinguishes carefully between spiritual care/shepherding work and mental health/therapeutic care, preserving space for both, but keeping them clearly separate. “Parishioner” is not another word for “client” or “patient.”
It is made clear every week that God’s answer to sin is the Gospel, that through Christ we can be made new, and that there is hope for restoration and renewal in this life because of the work of Christ. When someone in the church expresses a sense of struggle or despair, the typical response is sensitive and empathetic and characterized by pointing people toward Christ and the Gospel, not only as a reminder that they are loved by God, but also as an encouragement that another life is possible and that God’s Word can free them from their struggles.
In specific situations, the pastor’s policy is that if a shepherding situation arises that requires more than four or five meetings to resolve, it is usually appropriate to refer it to a mental health professional or counselor. He does this both to protect his own time so that he can be available to the entire congregation and because complex problems of this sort may well involve mental illness, long-term unhealthy patterns in a marriage, addiction, past experiences of abuse, etc. and he thinks there are other resources that can help people work through those problems.
The church also hosts a couple support groups for mental health issues and the diaconal fund can be used to help cover the costs of counseling for parishioners who aren’t able to pay for that sort of help on their own.
All of the above seems quite right and good to me, preserving the centrality of the Gospel in the life of the church while also recognizing that in certain situations professionalized care can be beneficial. The primary thing the church is dedicated to is discipleship. Within that work, it is understood that in certain situations counseling, therapy, medication, etc. can be helpful tools to help people deal with particular issues.
The church’s leadership is marked by a commendable burden for its members and desire to love them well, in particular to love those who have been in abusive churches well. In practice, this often means that they see their job as helping their congregants experience an inner sense of peace or calm as well as freedom from shame, both of which are needed in their view because of the deep sense of badness and guilt that many people from abusive churches live with. The church’s liturgy is also designed to help people toward peace.
Unfortunately, the result of this is that there is very little conversation about sin, holiness, or Christian maturation, all of which are fairly central themes in Scripture and are, indeed, regular topics of conversation for Jesus in the Gospels. Additionally, the topics that are discussed often seem to be approached more from a therapeutic lens than a Biblical lens.
So, for example, discussions about “shame” will draw more from Brene Brown, who has no positive role for shame in her definition, than from Scripture, which has both positive and negative understandings of shame. When parishioners are struggling, the typical response is to exhort them to have grace for themselves, practice self-care, and be gentle with themselves while remembering that everyone struggles and that they aren’t alone. This is done from a commendable desire to not harm, but it often has the effect of leaving people stuck and even of suggesting to parishioners that they will always be where they are now, which can actually lead to despair.
Additionally, because of the formation the congregation has undergone in both the culture and in the church, it has become very difficult to deal with moral failings in the life of the church. When a pastor attempts to lovingly confront someone over behavior that is obviously sinful and is doing real harm to their loved ones, the pastor is rebuffed and told they shouldn’t shame their congregants. The pastor may even be accused of either incompetence or of being abusive, which then triggers broader crises within the church.
All of this is what I am trying to write against. If you haven’t seen it, that’s fine. But I can assure you it exists. I have received more emails and text messages from church leaders over the stuff I’ve written on this issue in the last month than I have anything else I have written at Mere O ever. So it would seem that a lot of pastors are dealing with these dynamics.
The difficulty is that much of this is a kind of vibe within local churches and pockets of denominations and church networks. So it can be hard to point to a single book, podcast, or author who fully and completely exemplifies all of this. I’m not writing these things with some kind of vendetta against a specific author or public figure. And yet I can assure you that what I am describing here is a thing that happens in many churches. I once sat through a sermon on Genesis 3 that never once used the word “sin” and in which virtually the entire sermon was a loosely adapted Brene Brown lecture. By the end of it one could be forgiven for wondering if God did something wrong by “shaming” Adam and Eve. I also, earlier this year, heard a prominent Christian author give a talk in which the author suggested that Paul was sinning by “shaming” the demoniac girl in Acts 16. (It is perhaps worth noting here that some of this isn’t far removed from what routinely goes on in the mainline Protestant world.)
I also speak not infrequently with people struggling in marriage, struggling with parenting, who want actual help—both practical help and some sense of hope that they won’t always have these struggles, that things can actually get better. And in too many cases what they are hearing in church is “it’s OK to not be OK, have you tried therapy?, practice self-care, be gentle with yourself,” and so on.
The result is that people feel stuck and one of two things usually ends up happening: They either learn to see that struggle as being inextricably part of their identity and so it becomes a central part of who they are, thereby exacerbating all the issues that already exist, or they give in to despair because they actually hate the struggle, they want to be free from it, and they don’t think that’s possible.
Why Church Two Exists
To be sure, I understand why this happens. I grew up in an abusive church myself. One pastor there spent over a decade in prison for sexually assaulting young boys from the church. Another was eventually fired after decades of cheating on his wife with women from the church. On more than one occasion, significant amounts of church money disappeared without explanation or any investigation that I know of.
Of the folks I grew up with, something like 85% at least are no longer Christian. I nearly lost my own faith due to this church. When I tried to talk to the pastor about it, he wrote back that, “your spiritually barren condition is entirely your own creation and is in no way the fault of the church.” So, yeah, I’ve seen some things, I’ve been wounded by the church, and I desperately want people with stories like mine to be loved and cared for by healthy Christian churches. But when I look back on the pivotal moments in my own story, nearly all of them are interactions in which the person speaking with me was gentle and empathetic and in which they didn’t flinch from calling me toward repentance and calling me toward holiness in response to God’s extravagant love for me. Certainly, that is what I found at L’Abri and it is what I found here in the Platte Valley presbytery of the PCA.
If the Christian story is true, then our ultimate measure for judging health and maturation is proximity to Jesus—and Jesus was holy and calls us to be holy. When concepts, techniques, and habits of thought creep into the church that undermine the call to holiness, then the church’s ability to provide care for victims of spiritual abuse is actually being crippled, not helped.
The hope of spiritual abuse victims is ultimately found in the Gospel, in Christ. The Christ who saves them also calls them to a life of Christian discipline, both for their own good and the good of their neighbors. None of this categorically rules out practices of spiritual direction (which should be sharply distinguished from therapeutic care anyway) or the prudential use of therapeutic aids or medication to deal with specific struggles. Nor does it mandate that Christian counselors adopt a nouthetic approach to care.
What it does require is that we say nein to any attempts to make Christianity answerable to the therapeutic approach or to situate Christianity within the therapeutic schema laid out by Sayers. God’s Word must reign. It must be the norm that norms all else. If that ever ceases to be true in our communities, then our communities will have ceased to be meaningfully Christian.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).