Health, Healing and the Church’s Mission: Biblical Perspectives and Moral Priorities

Willard M. Swartley IVP Academic, Downers Grove July 19, 2012
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Since the middle-1970s, there has been a marked increase in peer-reviewed academic articles tracing the relationship between physical and emotional wellness and adherence to faith, particularly the Christian faith.

The most published authors in this field are Harold Koenig (Duke University Medical School), Jeff Levin (Baylor) and Dale Matthews (Georgetown). Of the three, Koenig is by far the most published. His landmark book, Handbook of Religion and Health (recently updated in 2012) is the standard textbook in the field and is used widely by the medical community. His companion volume on religion and wellness in psychiatry counters Freud’s famous notion, with empirical data, that religion is rooted in neurosis. While this burgeoning field is well known within the medical community, it has historically received little press outside that community until recently. The sheer volume of articles and books on the subject has progressively encouraged theologians to begin writing in this field as well.

Willard Swartley is a Mennonite theologian, published widely in the application of theology to social issues, and he approaches health and healing from this distinctly social perspective. The main argument of his book is that the body of Christ must “own its biblical, historical and theological heritage and its mission in healing and health care” and not “camouflage Jesus’ dual mission of healing and proclaiming the kingdom of God” (p.11). Furthermore, Swartley builds his case for the Christian church to take the lead in addressing the current healthcare crisis through a framework of seven theses.

These central propositions frame the story of God's desired shalom for all his creation and how sin and Satan have terribly disrupted this divine shalom (Thesis #1). The author highlights the distinction between God and human creation. “God is God and we are weak, mortal and frail creatures” (p.30) (Thesis #2). As earthly creatures, humans are vulnerable to illness that “interrupts and challenges God's good world in personal experience” (p. 30) (Thesis #3). Yet, according to Swartley “suffering means not divine absence but testing” (p. 31) (Thesis #4) and that Jesus as “Healer-Savior” is a sign of God's love and compels us to “faith and prayer” (p. 34) (Thesis #5). Furthermore the author insists that the Holy Spirit is healer as well and serves as a “divine pledge of complete healing” (p. 36) (Thesis #6). In light of this reality Swartley views the church as a mediator of the “healing power of God, Christ and the Holy Spirit through prayer and exercise of faith” ultimately serving as “God's face of healing to the world” (p. 37) (Thesis #7).

This means three things: 1) Believers need to be active in prayer for the sick, with the conviction that God can intervene and provide solutions for those in pain. Swartley freely admits we have no control over when, where, or how God might answer prayer. Nevertheless, must still pray and be an instrument of God’s “Shalom” through prayer ministries for the sick. 2) He argues that healing ministries must be viewed holistically. “Since God is the giver of life and the one who bestows health, enabling healing as a creative gift, then all health care service can be viewed as ministry to some degree” (p. 106; Loc. 1106). He then continues to build a helpful construct for viewing God’s sovereignty over the entire healing process. Indeed the medical literature supports this: those who are attached to the body of Christ show statistically higher markers for physical health than those who do not. 3) Swartley rightly cites evidence from church history that the Christian worldview produced a rich variety of health care ministries from the very beginning. He is conversant with the scholarly literature on the subject from Amanda Porterfield to Ronald Kydd.

Health, Healing and the Church has three obvious strengths. 1) Swartley writes with deep compassion for those who are hurting. As a person with his own medical disability, Swartley exudes mercy and authenticity. The tone and content of the book convey a kindness that motivate the reader to consider ways that the church might find creative solutions to what he considers a national crisis. 2) Swartley develops a biblical theology of healing from the gospels that is generally true to the biblical texts, and then he attempts to contextualize the emergent principles to life in 21st century American culture. His approach while is fresh is distinctively Mennonite. 3) Swartley gives examples – case studies – of various parachurch organizations that endeavor to provide healthcare to those who are “the least of these.” His examples are credible, and readers may find helpful ways of contextualizing those examples to their particular needs.

The book does have some glaring weaknesses. For instance, in the opinion of one reviewer (MacIlvaine), Swartley places too much confidence in the Affordable Healthcare for America Act (H.R. 3962) to provide insurance and quality healthcare to the millions of uninsured in the United States (p. 182, Kindle Loc., 1835). While he may have been encouraged by the passage of the act at the time of his writing, it is clear now that there are many unintended consequences of ACA that will most likely further erode the availability of healthcare, especially for those in poverty, due to the following: newly projected increased costs for premiums, increased administrative costs overall, employers dropping employee coverage, and additional taxes to cover the shortfall. What Swartley anticipated would be a solution might indeed compound the problem as it becomes enmeshed in bureaucracy.

And yet, Swartley’s main premise is still correct: the body of Christ needs to be an instrument of Shalom through prayer, and tangible acts of mercy. It should take the lead (as it has historically) in providing compassionate care for those who face need. This book merits discussion within churches, especially those interested in missional approaches to ministry.

—W. Rodman MacIlvaine III, and D. Scott Barfoot

October 1, 2013
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2013 vol. 170 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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