The Southern Baptist Convention on Mental Illness and the Sufficiency of Scripture

June 24, 2013

I love being a Southern Baptist. I grew up in an unbelieving home, and a precious Southern Baptist minister shared the gospel with me at the age of 14. I have been in Southern Baptist churches as a member or pastor ever since. It has been a dream come true to serve as a professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary since 2006. To tweak a saying often employed by Texans, “I wasn’t born in the Southern Baptist Convention, but I got here as fast as I could.”

I also love being a biblical counselor. As a new believer, it was the teachings of the biblical counseling movement on the profundities of struggles of life in a fallen world that helped me make sense of my own mother’s struggle with alcohol and mental diagnoses. The biblical counseling movement’s articulation of the sufficiency of Scripture has been, perhaps, the most helpful doctrine I have embraced when it comes to helping people with complex problems in my own ministry. As a professor of biblical counseling and as a servant of The National Association of Nouthetic Counselors (NANC), I remain unflinchingly committed to all that the biblical counseling movement stands for.

Because of my dual affinities for the SBC and the biblical counseling movement, I am thankful that the SBC passed a resolution on mental illness at its most recent meeting in Houston several days ago. The resolution grew out of a desire of Southern Baptists to speak compassionately to millions of people who are plagued by the profound pain of difficulties that few understand how to address. The following are examples of the many good things included in the resolution:

Those with mental health concerns, like all people, are crowned with honor and dignity, being made in the image and likeness of God (Psalm 8:4–6; James 3:9) . . .

 The mission Jesus described as His own in Luke 4:18-19 should also be the mission of His church, namely to proclaim liberty to those who are oppressed by means of godly biblical counsel . . .

 We call on all Southern Baptists and our churches to look for and create opportunities to love and minister to, and develop methods and resources to care for, those who struggle with mental health concerns and their families …

These are wonderful statements that the SBC has made about those struggling with some of the most difficult problems on planet earth. The resolution affirms the worth of people with complex problems, encourages the ministry of biblical counseling to them, and points forward to the development of more effective ministry than is currently available. Every compassionate and Spirit-filled person who is committed to the ministry of biblical counseling should embrace this resolution.

Of course the resolution isn’t perfect. (What resolution could be?!) I wish that the resolution had offered more clarity about the nature of mental illness and had utilized more precision in making distinctions between the various kinds of hard problems that it listed. But technical precision wasn’t the goal of the SBC messengers. This wasn’t a gathering of experts articulating these issues with technical precisions, but of ministers of the Gospel seeking to communicate God’s care to deeply troubled people.

I have also heard from many who are concerned that an amendment to the resolution was defeated about the sufficiency of Scripture for mental illness. I, too, wish that amendment had passed, but I don’t think its absence is a cause for concern for several reasons.

First, the purpose of this resolution was to express love for people in need of help. It was not intended as a treatise on medical or counseling theory or even on the doctrine of Scripture.

Second, as a technical matter it is often quite difficult to get an amendment passed on the floor of the SBC. The failure of the sufficiency amendment may say more about parliamentary procedure than it does about the Southern Baptist commitment to the doctrine of sufficiency.

Finally—and most significantly—the SBC has already passed a strong resolution on the sufficiency of Scripture. In 2002, Southern Baptists adopted The Sufficiency of Scripture in a Therapeutic Culture in which they clearly affirmed the authority of Scripture for the kinds of problems they addressed this year. In that resolution they rejected secular and therapeutic alternatives to the Word of God.

This year’s resolution from the SBC makes me encouraged and determined. I’m encouraged to be a part of a denomination that wants to speak to complex problems with compassion. I’m determined that all of us committed to biblical counseling need to redouble our efforts to show the church what a biblical understanding of these problems is. When messengers to the SBC are speaking with less exactitude than we would wish, then we should strengthen our efforts and help them add precision to passion.

Join the Conversation

What are your thoughts on the SBC Resolution and the effort of Southern Baptists to address this important and complex issue?

7 thoughts on “The Southern Baptist Convention on Mental Illness and the Sufficiency of Scripture

  1. Heath, thank you for your ministry and thanks for this article. I’ve been fighting for the Sufficiency of Scripture in Biblical Counseling (SOSBC) in the Missouri Baptist Convention for years. I love NANC and we practice those principles in the congregation where I pastor. But, I do think there is a major problem in the SBC in general regarding this issue. I think, first of all, that people really do not get it. They just do not understand why the SOSBC is majorly important. Second, we under estimate the impact that integrationist groups, such as Focus on the Family, etc, have had on the Christian community. While I’m certainly thankful for their attempt to help families who are hurting, the end doesn’t justify the means. Third, I think when the SBC won the battle for the inerrancy and authority of the Bible, it didn’t go far enough. We’ve failed as a denomination to understand that SOS is an attribute of the Bible, which Scripture claims for itself, just as it does authority and inspiration, etc. And, fourth, there are many who wrongly assume that if you are for a NANC approach to counseling, that means you are always and totally against any use of medications. I’m totally supportive of your role at NANC, and I hope you will be able to be a voice of reason to the SBC about these issues in the future. I would love nothing better than for than for the SBC to come to the place, where we do more than give lip service to the SOS, and where we actually put it into practice in counseling, church ministries and methodologies, and even by what is published by LifeWay. I will be praying for you. — Dr. Jeffery S. White

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  4. Hello Heath, thank you for answering God’s call on your life in ministry. Several months ago, I began to be burdened with the need to minister to those who are suffering from various forms of emotional or mental illness. I have taught God’s word for over 25 yrs. and in many ways have heard the cry for help from our brothers and sisters in Christ. God will not let go of me in my burden as my Pastor and I pray for guidance. The stigma associated with mental illness makes it difficult to gain participants knowing there are many seeking help. Another hurdle is approaching this ministry from a solid Biblical perspective. My preferred method of teaching would be a group DVD workbook format. I personally have seen wonderful results with this style for study. Interest level is kept high and participation is high and fruitful. Which leads to my problem; I can’t find such a study. Our literature seems to be out of date with the term bi-polar not even mentioned in our lifeway studies. Some of the greatest needs in a ministry like this are for people to first realize that they are not alone. They think that they are bad Christians, if Christians at all. They think that no one in the Bible was ever depressed, and there was. These people need HOPE and we know that Jesus gives hope, but at times they need hope that is wrapped in skin. Gary Super 937-452-7520

  5. I was searching online to see what various Christian denominations think about mental illness and came accross this site and decided to comment on it.

    This resolution confuses the Sufficiency of the Bible for faith and Christian living with the treatment of mental illness which is an inaccurate application of Scripture to a health problem that is like any other health problem.

    The presupposition behind this resolution and mental illness is that the person’s problem is all about something being wrong with a person’s relationship with God and thus they either need more faith of need to confess sin in their lives. To tell Christians who have a diagnosed mental illness that all they need to do is to improve their relationship with God is ignorant as well as emotionally and spirituallly abusive of people needing proper medication and therapy.

    The stigma surrounding mental illness is stil very strong in socieity although some progress has been made. A resolution like this only continues the stigma from the very group of people whom mentallly illl people and their families often turn to at first, i.e. the clergy.

  6. I am looking for a friend who needs counseling and would love it to be christian counseling, she is very depressed, just ready to give up, she has 2 children and I have no idea where to turn

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