Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
September 6, 1962
NUMBER 18, PAGE 2,11

The Attack On Mental Illness

Norman L. Parks

Is there a disproportionate amount of mental illness among the members of the religious groups that call themselves "The Church of Christ"? Is there something in their credo or religious culture which tends to promote sick minds? Robert C Welch resorts to rather crude propaganda techniques in his article, "The Mental Illness Attack" (Guardian, June 28), in an attempt to deny the existence of such a problem.

As long as 42 per cent of the inmates of Tennessee's largest mental hospital are listed as "Church of Christ" in an area where they compose between 10 and 20 per cent of the population Mr. Welch is not likely to convince any except those who want to believe there is no problem. Nashville is often pictured as the "Jerusalem" of the "Church of Christ." Yet in this city it is reported that 37 per cent of the people who seek psychiatric or psychological aid belong to this religious group.

How does the Guardian author dispose of these shocking facts? I call attention to his methods: (1) By alleging that those who are concerned over the problem are enemies of the church. His titles speaks of the "mental illness attack." Since only enemies attack, this allegation neatly categorizes any who dare mention the matter. But in all fairness, is a man who is concerned about the health of his own (religious) family an enemy? (2) By alleging that most psychiatrists are infidels who actively oppose the Bible and "try to dissuade" their patients from following it. Even if all of this were true, it would not empty the waiting rooms and mental hospitals. Of course these claims are the recognizable "glittering generalities" of the propagandist — utterly without statistical or any other proof and doubtless in conflict with the personal experience of many of the Guardian's readers. I doubt that there is even one psychiatrist who has tried to persuade a patient to surrender his religion or to give up following the Bible. And many people know psychiatrists who are deeply religious men. Moreover, this allegation ignores the work which teachers and researchers in religion have expanded on this problem, not to mention one national organization which is at work on the relation of religion to mental health.

(3) By alleging that Dr. Robert R. Meyers, who expressed concern over the mental health problem in a recent article is more than suspect — sounding "more like he is a disciple of Harvard and Yale theologians than of the Lord." By discrediting Mr. Meyers, the author hopes to discredit his concern. The readers are not advised that Mr. Meyers is not a product of the Ivy League universities, but largely of Christian Colleges, that he preaches for a church in Wichita, Kansas, and that he spent some years as a teacher in several Christian colleges. (4) By alleging that the publisher of Mr. Meyer's article (W. Carl Ketcherside in Mission Messenger) "is a crusader for the fellowship of all religious people, irrespective of their obedience and conformance to the specific teachings of the New Testament." Though Mr. Ketcherside actually advocates fellowship and unity among all immersed believers in Christ, the reader is left to assume that he bundles Protestants, Catholics, Mohammedans, and Buddhists into one group.

The Guardian opens its article by sadly observing that it is a "grievous thing for men who are trying to follow the New Testament to be stigmatized as legalists and authoritarianists" (sic). Having rejected stigmata presumed to be directed against himself, the associate editor then launches a quadruple stigmatization against others, thus shifting the reader's attention from the problem of mental illness to the orthodoxy of the "enemies." Despite this diversionary "solution," certain mental hospitals and waiting rooms of psychiatrists and psychologists continue to be filled by anxiety-ridden and emotionally disturbed church members--in numbers far in excess of their ratio to the total population. The data (42 per cent) on the hospital referred to above were not prepared by a psychiatrist but by a preacher who worked with the patients. He would be a very unconcerned man indeed if he did not ask why one religious group, which ranks no higher in numbers than third or fourth in the area (Baptist, Methodist, Church of Christ, no church identification), should supply nearly one half of the patients.

Jesus Christ came to heal and create inner security. Is It possible that a group wearing his name may unintentionally and ignorantly contribute to illness and inner insecurity? Out-of-hand rejection of this possibility without weighing the facts may be hard to resist, but it spells sorrow and trouble if we do. It is better that members within the group dig into this possibility than to leave such questions to outsiders. Self-examination is a most fundamental Christian doctrine, even when it leaves us naked and exposed. Some say don't "criticize the church." One wonders if such people ever read Paul's letters to the Corinthians or the saintly John's stinging message to the churches of Asia. If the purpose of critical examination is to find the basis for improvement rather than to tear down, such criticism is the signpost toward the upward way.

What questions may be fairly raised about the problem? (1) Reports from Texas and Tennessee (the leading "centers" of the "Church of Christ.") show a high incidence of mental illness among church members. Is this representative of the membership at large? (2) Does this group attract a higher per cent of the emotionally insecure than other religious groups do? If so, why? (3) Is it possible that doctrine, creed, and interpersonal relations may promote guilt, fear, hostility, and tension--factors which make for mental illness? (4) Is this group characterized by love — the force which above all else promotes security and inner peace? And if not, what can be done about it? (5) What challenge does mental illness carry to any religious group, irrespective of the degree of incidence? (6) What are the types of mental illness among us and what types may be rooted in conditions which churches may correct?

There is in Christianity an inherent and inevitable tension--the flesh versus the spirit. There can be neither moral nor social progress without a certain amount of tension. A fundamental question is where does a healthful and constructive tension leave off and frustrating, destroying tension begin? Psychologists already know enough about personality structure to call attention to the fact that some kinds of religious influences may injure personality. Social psychologists have documented some of the effects of religious authoritarianism and legalism on the psyche.

Mr. Meyers expressed the view that authoritarianism and legalism may be responsible for mental ill-health among members of the "Church of Christ." His view has much to support it. The members have heard a religion of law thundered from the pulpit and press, coupled always with the warning that if they fail in one law, they are guilty of all. Mr. Welch describes Christianity in terms of law--"strict adherence to the ordinances and precepts of the New Testament." It is here that devout believers run into trouble--trying to adhere strictly to all the laws religionists have constructed for them. Of course they fail, for no man can live up to law. The agony and plight of such people is graphically described by Paul in Romans.

One may "strictly adhere" formally to the "laws" of baptism, the observance of the Lord's Supper "every" first day of the week, the singing of hymns without instrumental music, and the laying by in store "every" first day of the week. But how may he strictly adhere to such "impossible" laws as being perfect, forgiving seventy times seven, denying himself, loving his neighbor as himself, or becoming one flesh with his spouse? Such commands are far more explicit than those relating to the frequency of the Lord's Supper or the nature of the "offering." Even easier "ordinances" have their problems for those who must cross every "t" — at what point is giving balanced with prospering, and is prayer meeting included in the "assembling of yourselves together"?

The legalist is never forgiven until he has confessed the sin. While confident that "we have the truth," he is far less confident of his salvation. Recently at a state college a hundred "Church of Christ" students were confronted by another group with the question, "Why are Church of Christ members so unsure of their salvation?" It is probably true that these students and their parents are less confident about their lives than were the "elect" of Puritanism — a religion of tension and fear that cut a swath of insanity across two continents.

One solution to this insecurity is to retreat into Phariseeism by reducing religion to laws that can be observed. This is a poor means of protecting the threatened ego. Often the line of defense collapses and the person undergoes severe personality impairment (low of speech, withdrawal from others, censoriousness) or he breaks away from the church abruptly and entirely. Every person knows at least one highly orthodox preacher who without warning kicked over the traces and landed in another less authoritarian religious group.

Watching the growing authoritarianism in the church, one is left to wonder if the Tennessee hospital in question may not soon hit the 50 per cent mark. Eiders and preachers emerge as dictators, reducing the pew members to passivity and conformity, exclusion-ism, division, aggression, submission, hatred, word violence, suppression abound--each being evidence of rampant authoritarianism and its underlying fear anal insecurity. Who could read the periodicals of each "loyal" "Church of Christ" group as they blast away at all of the others (premillennial, institutional, anti-institutional, or what-have-you) — who can read thee., periodicals and say, as was said of the early Christians, "See how they love one another!"

Who can honestly affirm that any one of these groups is distinguished above all other things for its love? Or even distinguished by love to the degree of the average protestant body? Yet it is only within the love-environment that wholesome personality flourishes and a well integrated group is possible. How can sanity grow or inner peace be felt in a judgmental environment? On every hand the member hears judgments proclaimed — this man is unsound and is to be rejected, that man cannot be "fellowshipped" in error, yonder church is blacklisted as departing from the faith, these men cannot be asked to lead the prayers or discussions because such recognition is "endorsement."

Let it be asked: Is it not time to quit attacking each other and start attacking those forces that make for mental illness? Not the "mental illness attack," but the attack on mental illness--this is what we need.

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