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Casting Out Demons: Mental illness and the church’s response

By April 12, 2013 7 Comments

Rev. Angie Mabry-Nauta is subbing for James Bratt today. She is a writer and ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Reformed Church in America (RCA). She served as a solo pastor for six years. A regular contributor to Christianity Today’s Gifted for Leadership, and member of the Redbud Writer’s Guild, Angie blogs for the Church Herald Blogs and at “Woman, in Progress…”. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @Godstuffwriter.

The evangelical church world turned upside down last week when news of Matthew Warren went viral. The 27-year-old was the son of Rev. Rick Warren (The Purpose Driven Life) and Kay Warren. After a years-long battle with depression, Matthew took his own life. As far as I could tell from the outpouring of prayers and messages of love and support flooding social media, Christians responded most appropriately.

As Reformed folk, we look to Scripture for answers to life’s greatest questions. Unfortunately, there is no specific text that addresses mental illness. What is a Reformed Christian to do? How are we to understand mental illness?

The closest Scripture comes to speaking of mental illness is its mention of those who are inhabited by demons. (See for instance Mark 5:1-20, Matthew 17:14-20, and Acts 16:16-18.) This reflects antiquity’s understanding of how the world works. Sickness was not the cause of bacteria, viruses, or cancer cells. It was the result either of sin or of malevolent spirits’ capricious play.

If someone behaved, spoke, or moved his body in an uncontrollable or inexplicable way, he was declared to be demon possessed. She may be epileptic, she may be depressed, she may be schizophrenic, she may have obsessive compulsive disorder. Lacking the knowledge, vocabulary, and trained psychotherapists, wise and common people alike lumped all of these ailments into one evilly-oriented category.

While we understand more today, the church still lacks a good response to mental illness. Amy Simpson, editor at Christianity Today and author of the forthcoming book Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013) found the church ill equipped to serve its mentally and emotionally ailing sheep.

  • Ninety-eight percent acknowledged they had seen some kind of mental illness within their congregation.
  • Only 3 percent of church leaders indicated they feel like experts in ministering to people suffering from mental illness.
  • More than 77 percent of church leaders said they are approached at least two times and even up to 12 times per year for help in dealing with a mental illness.
  • Almost 30 percent of those church leaders said mental illness is never mentioned in sermons at their church.
  • Just over half of church leaders have reached out to the family of someone with mental illness within their congregation.

“Very few churches have ministries specifically geared toward reaching out to and helping people with mental illness,” Simpson reports. “So people with mental illness and their families continue to be lost in the church.”

So, when Scripture provides either outdated answers or no answer at all, what is the church to do?

Perhaps we pray that God cast out our demons that prevent us from caring from the mentally ill, – fear, ignorance, anxiety, etc. – and do what God does. We love and care well for those who are sick and their families, as those who suffer from mental disorders are indeed ill. In a recent article, Simpson suggests starting simply and practically.

Step one, which may be the most important one of all: the church must break its silence. Merely talking about mental illness serves to normalize it, remove social stigmas, and help remove the shame that people who suffer and their families often carry.

Also, the church could care for a mentally ill person and his family the same way that it does those who are physically ill or recovering from surgery.

“Families affected by mental illness need the same kinds of practical help,” Simpson says. “We can help with the cost of medications, which can be exorbitant. We can help with the expenses of hospitalizations and ongoing treatments. We can provide food, we can make sure their children have rides, we can simply ask them how they’re feeling, how they’re doing, how their treatment is going. We can tell them that we care about them and what they’re going through. We can visit them in the hospital.”

Additionally, the church can remain a journey partner with congregants who are in treatment. Oftentimes pastors and church leadership will acknowledge their lack of psychological expertise and refer someone to a professional. At this point, it is important that the church not lose contact with the hurting person and her family. If the church fails to do this, it sends a painful message.

“Unfortunately, [this] suggests that the church is not willing to stick with the person now that their problem is known, that their problem is too overwhelming for the church and perhaps too overwhelming for their faith and for their God,” Simpson writes.

As the body of Christ, we can do better.

“Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).


  • Thank you for this, Angie. Such an important topic, a topic which we must always keep in front of our eyes and minds.

    While many church leaders may not understand mental illness, they also likely do not understand how to remove a gallbladder or something of the like, yet we are not afraid of something such as that. We cannot allow our fears and lack of understanding drive us to keep our hands off (or to refuse or neglect to recommend actual treatment).

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Thank you for this article. As a pastor, I was always thankful for having had a few years' worth of experience as a Mental Health Worker (glorified Nurse's Aide) at a Christian mental hospital which gave me an incredible wealth of knowledge and awareness. But as a pastor what my knowledge mostly told me was that when it came to helping these people, I had to make the right referrals because I knew I was not competent to help via counseling. But indeed, there is ignorance in the church. When my wife took Stephen Ministry training years ago in our congregation, they had a session on mental illness, prompting two older members taking the training openly to question why this was needed seeing as NO ONE at our congregation is, for instance, bi-polar. Well, had I wanted to breach confidentiality, I could have provided them with a list of members I knew were struggling with this.

    One last note: Some of what the NT may label as demon possession is what we today would call mental illness but I myself am not comfortable chalking up every instance of Jesus' encounter with demons as a mis-label. I think Jesus did also encounter actual demons as part of his wider struggle with the powers and principalities of the age. FWIW.

  • Mental illness is just the disability we are least willing to deal with as a church and as people. Statistically, we are more willing to work or live near recently released sex offenders than with people we know have mental illnesses — no wonder people stay "in the closet." Ironically, discrimination has risen in the two decades since we have found better medical treatments. Even more ironically, George MacDonald put a person with bipolar disorder near the center of one of his 19th century novels, and described him with nothing but charity. Indeed, by the end of the book, you were pretty sure he was going to be "fixed up" with the novel's most admirable female character. Our perspectives have changed greatly, not for the better.

    I found myself greatly saddened that Rick Warren's family seems to have lived their difficulties in isolation from their church family until after the tragedy occurred, and that their son had been living alone with his thoughts. Everyone was making everything look perfectly normal when it wasn't, not at all. We know how to use isolation to create pain among prisoners of war. But we don't think for a minute that we are equally — if unintentionally — creating pain by isolation of hurting people. We do this when we force them to live in isolation behind a pretend life of "normalcy" all day, every day.

    I've already lived through two suicides in my church circles and six attempts by people I know. I can't even count the number of attempts by relatives of people in the NAMI family education classes that my husband and I have taught. The church is intended to be family together. When one part of the Body hurts, all parts are supposed to feel the pain. But as long as we feel it needful to hide our greatest difficulties from each other, that cannot happen.

  • Jamie says:

    Thank you for addressing this issue. I agree that the most important step is normalization. Congregations must understand mental illness is not a sign of weak faith or punishment, nor is it something that can necessarily be prayed away. We do not see cancer as a demon to be cast out, so why should a mental illness be viewed through that lens? We are all given our burdens to bear, and often those burdens can help us better minister to others.

  • Jill Vande Zande says:

    I think part of the reason why such a stigma exists around mental illness is because we in the church see it as a weakness, in body, mind, and spirit.

    What if we thought of mental illness as something other than a weakness? I'm not sure what that definition would be, but as someone who struggles with depression (and has learned to live with it and learn from it), I wish we could come up with something. Yes, it is sometimes a detriment, but there are other times where it simply–is. And I don't think that's a weakness.

  • Thanks to each of you for reading and engaging. I suffer from chronic depression and anxiety. Even as a pastor I can testify to the church's lack of ability to care for a person with mental illness. I was the one that people typically count upon to care for those who are hurting. When I was the one suffering, the consistory knew not what do to. The classis involved itself, and I was sent to a pastoral intensive center, and given an emergency sabbatical. Perhaps the elders felt that this was enough.

    I heard a statistic on the radio today that 1 in 5 American adults suffer from mental illness, with depression and anxiety being the most common. Of course we have this going on within our congregations. I pray and pray that we will do better.

  • @Jill: What if we stopped being afraid of "weakness"? "God chose the weak things in the world to shame the strong … When I am weak, I am strong." This is what God says. If we as a church look at weakness and see failing, we are not looking with eyes trained to see as God sees. God prays that we might recognize the riches God sees when looking upon God's inheritance: the people of God. Not the strong people of God but the people through whom God is strong. I wish you could see the kindness of God in the man disabled with bipolar disorder who lives with us. Or the love of God that shines through the man with schizophrenia who shares our home. It's not yet as strong as we saw during his father's final years with Alzheimers but it is remarkable and beautiful. We cannot afford to believe anything but what God teaches us to believe about ourselves and these: we are one Body, knit together with every bone and ligament serving its purpose according to God's design. Blessings to all.

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