One of the most egregious errors that many Christians make, which is readily apparent among many biblical counselors, is erroneously concluding that those who suffer from schizophrenia have a spiritual problem rather than an illness and, therefore, just need a biblical solution!
Schizophrenia is defined as:
a long-term mental disorder of a type involving a breakdown in the relation between thought, emotion, and behavior, leading to faulty perception, inappropriate actions and feelings, withdrawal from reality and personal relationships into fantasy and delusion, and a sense of mental fragmentation.1
Schizophrenia is not a common mental disorder, but, according to the American Psychiatric Association, there is no cure for it.2
E. Fuller Torrey, MD, is a research psychiatrist who specializes in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (manic depressive illness). He is Associate Director for research at the Stanley Medical Research Institute, which conducts research on schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. In discussing the problem of stigma for schizophrenics, Torrey says:
People with schizophrenia and their families have to live with an extraordinary amount of stigma. Schizophrenia is the modern-day equivalent of leprosy, and in the general population the level of ignorance about schizophrenia ia appalling…. A 1986 poll found that 55 percent of the public did not believe that mental illness existed, and only 1 percent realized that mental illness is a major health problem. Other surveys have reported that many people continue to believe that schizophrenia and other severe psychiatric disorders are caused by sin or weakness of character.3
Torrey also says:
We still do not know whether “schizophrenia” is a single brain disease or several brain diseases with a final common pathway. What appears to be increasingly clear, however, is that classical “schizophrenia” is indeed a brain disease and not caused by a cold, rejecting mother; an unresolved oedipus complex; or ambiguous messages from the parent to the child.4 (Bold added.)
In his book Surviving Schizophrenia, which includes the latest scientific research findings, Torrey says:
Given the complexity of the brain and the fact that it is hidden away in a relatively inaccessible skull, it is hardly surprising that until recently we knew so little about schizophrenia. That is rapidly changing. What we now know about schizophrenia includes the following:
1. The disease is familial.
2. There are neurochemical changes.
3. There are structural and neuropathological changes.
4. There are neuropsychological deficits.
5. There are neurological abnormalities.
6. There are electrical abnormalities.
7. There are immunological and inflammatory abnormalities.
8. Individuals with schizophrenia are born disproportionately in the winter and spring.
9. Individuals with schizophrenia are born and/or raised disproportionately in urban areas.
10. Other abnormalities include pregnancy and birth complications, minor physical anomalies, and an absence of rheumatoid arthritis.
Torrey elaborates on each of the above 10 items and then briefly summarizes the extensive research by asking and answering a most important question:
In summary, what can be said about the brains of individuals with schizophrenia? It can be said that schizophrenia is firmly and unequivocally established to be a brain disease, just as surely as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease are established as brain diseases.5 (Bold added.)
Dr. John Street
Dr. John Street is a professor of biblical counseling at The Master’s University and Seminary (TMU&S). Street’s teaching and counseling reveal the influence of the biblical counselors found in the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC), formerly titled National Association of Nouthetic Counselors (NANC), and the Biblical Counseling Foundation (BCF). As such, he leads the graduate program in biblical counseling at TMU&S.
An egregious teaching given by Dr. John Street at a Biblical Counseling & Discipleship Association Southern California Training Conference is in a talk in which he discusses thirteen psychological labels and avoiding the use of them. One of the labels he discusses is that of “schizophrenia.”6 He begins by saying, “schizophrenia is just a nice Greek word for people who believe that they have personalities talking in the back of their head.”
To begin with, Street has over-simplified a complex and not completely understood condition that comes in a variety of forms. It might surprise Street to know that there are some schizophrenics who do not “believe that they have personalities talking in the back of their head.” His overly simplistic statement is medically appalling as any neuropsychiatric expert would tell him.
Street then compounds his grievous error by saying, “Actually working with schizophrenia’s not hard at all” (bold added). To demonstrate how simple it is to work with schizophrenics, Street begins by saying, “If this represented all the schizophrenics in the world [at this point he stretches his arms out wide], only this many [he holds his thumb and forefinger almost together] are really genuine true Christians.” In other words, there are almost no “genuine true Christians” who suffer from schizophrenia.
Since only the Holy Spirit would know how many are and are not Christians, Street has obviously usurped the place of the Holy Spirit as he presumes to have knowledge that there is only a small number of schizophrenics who are believers, and he does so on the flimsiest and false biblical understanding. Such certain knowledge belongs only to God.
Street proceeds to tell how one can cure schizophrenics by saying:
And of those people [schizophrenics] you have to settle one thing early. Who’s going to define your reality for you? The voices in the back of your head or the Bible? What’s God’s Word say? If you can settle that issue early with this: you can’t work with all these other people. All these schizophrenics think that they’re Christian; they’re not. But you’d only work with a Christian. Remember all counseling is pre-counseling until a person comes to Christ. Right? Well, if you can settle that issue early: Who defines your reality for you? Is it what God’s Word says or is it that voice in the back of your head that says hurt yourself or hurt that other person?
So all one needs to do is to make sure the schizophrenic is a Christian because, according to Street, “you’d only work with a Christian” and “if you can settle that issue early” and “who defines reality for you…God’s Word” or “that voice in the back of your head,” then and only then a possible easy cure. While teaching people to base their reality on God’s Word is sound advice, Street overlooks the complexity of schizophrenia and its range of symptoms.
Schizophrenia is one of the most enigmatic of the mental disorders and its cure has been elusive to this day. For Street to casually set aside the billions-plus dollars spent and the multitudinous hours labored on research on schizophrenia by brilliant minds in his promotion of his personal opinion based on his proposed schizophrenia cure restricted to only an extremely small group of Christians that one is able to identify is reprehensible!
Harvard Medical School reports: “One in a hundred persons will at some time suffer from schizophrenia. Its causes are obscure, and no way is known to prevent or cure it.”7 (Bold added.) In his book Surviving Schizophrenia, E. Fuller Torrey, MD, refers to schizophrenia as “today’s most misunderstood illness” and says:
Contrary to the popular stereotype, schizophrenia is an eminently treatable disease. That is not to say it is a curable disease, and the two should not be confused. Successful treatment means the control of symptoms, whereas cure means the permanent removal of their causes. Curing schizophrenia will not become possible until we understand its causes; in the meantime we must continue improving its treatment.8
Street’s “cure” for “Christian” schizophrenics is based upon his say-so and could never be put to the scientific test; how could it be? To begin with, who or what establishes a person as a Christian, when Street says, “All these schizophrenics think that they’re Christian; they’re not”? Consider the amount of confusion and guilt that Street’s blundering opinion will cause Christians who already suffer from schizophrenia.
Just as Street erroneously justifies his use of the Bible to support his unbiblical problem-centered counseling, he also erroneously uses the Bible to support his corrupt medical understanding of schizophrenia and his supposed cure. Consider the person with schizophrenia, being counseled by Street or by someone he has trained, who tries unsuccessfully to follow Street’s plan, is not “biblically cured,” and ends up concluding that he is willfully hearing “voices in the back of [his] head” and/or that he is eternally lost and rejected by God. Think of what might happen to one who not only continues to be plagued by voices, but enters into deep despair. Hopefully Street’s counseling and that of those who follow his teachings will not increase the suicide rate among those who suffer from schizophrenia.
Imagine all those MABC students and those world-wide who see or hear Street’s presentation on schizophrenia believing this egregiously false teaching and then counseling their counselees accordingly. These counselors will erroneously assume that all schizophrenics “have personalities talking in the back of their head” and that the counselor merely needs to determine whether the counselee is a Christian and proceed to lead the counselee to listen to God instead—and then: “abracadabra,” a cure!
And, imagine the potential lawsuits that may occur because of this teaching carried out by Street and all these biblical counselors who follow him. This is one more tragedy of Street’s false teaching that is available at TMC&S and the BCDASoCal web site for anyone in the world to see and hear and erroneously believe and follow. Because of Street’s position and background and because Dr. John MacArthur, who heads TMC&S, is so highly regarded world-wide, many will embrace these teachings.
E. Fuller Torrey, M.D, quoted earlier, is a research psychiatrist specializing in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Torrey is the executive director of the Stanley Medical Research Institute and has written several important best-selling books on mental illness. Torrey is an eminent research authority, who has over many years seen numerous patients suffering from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Therefore, we were interested in Torrey’s response to Street’s teaching on schizophrenia.
We were also interested in Torrey’s medical response to Street’s belief that bodily diseases are “easily discernible” and that “a good thorough physical” will rule out disease, if the physical reveals “no sign of any organic abnormalities.” In addition, we were curious as to what Torrey would say about Street’s views on schizophrenia.
Torrey responded to us as follows:
Dr. Street’s advice betrays a woeful lack of knowledge. Depression and many other psychiatric disorders are physical diseases of the brain which are not detectable by “a good, thorough physical,” including blood tests. Psychiatric disorders can be caused by genetic, infectious, metabolic, and other organic etiologies, some of which are detectable by a physical exam and blood tests, but many cannot be.
His [Street’s] statement about schizophrenia is simply ignorant. I have known many “true Christians” who have schizophrenia. The fact that Dr. Street is in a teaching position is scandalous.9 (Bold added.)
Marshall and Mary Asher
The back cover of The Christian’s Guide to Psychological Terms, Second Edition, describes its authors:
Marshall and Mary Asher are graduates of the Master’s College with Master of Arts degrees in biblical counseling. They are both certified by the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors. Mary also holds a degree in psychology. Together they serve Christ as biblical counselors at Redeemer Community Church of San Antonio, Texas, where Marshall is anelder.10
Because we have been concerned about how some biblical counselors view schizophrenia, we turned to that page in Ashers’ The Christian’s Guide. Under the “Biblical Description” for schizophrenia, the Ashers say:
Schizophrenia is an exaggerated response to fear, guilt, and hopelessness. He has unmitigated guilt and much to fear. For this reason, a schizophrenic should be considered an unbeliever until proven otherwise (even if he has a history of effective Christian ministry).11 (Bold added.)
Note the difference between Street’s view of “Schizophrenics as Christians.” For Street, “there are almost no ‘genuine true Christians’ who suffer from schizophrenia.” For the Ashers, “a schizophrenic should be considered an unbeliever until proven otherwise (even if he has a history of effective Christian ministry).” Instead of “almost no” (Street), it is absolutely “no” for the Ashers.
Compare Street’s cure, stated earlier, for the schizophrenic, which is the answer to his question, “Who’s going to define your reality for you?” with the Ashers’ cure from their brief response: “Teach the Gospel…. Confront them with their sin and point them to the Savior…. Regeneration will transform them.”10 In other words, once they are regenerated, they will no longer be schizophrenic, according to the Ashers.
Torrey’s remarks about schizophrenics as Christians apply to the Ashers, only more so because of their extreme position. Torrey would be clearly disappointed with the Ashers and doubly condemn their ignorant view of schizophrenics as “unbelievers.”
Rev. Dr. Robert J. K. Law and Malcolm Bowden
Rev. Dr. Robert J. K. Law and Malcom Bowden, authors of Breakdowns are good for you! subtitle their book A unique manual for True Biblical Counselling. 12 The cover also asks a provocative question, which reveals the direction of the authors: “Is self-pity the cause of ‘mental illness’?” The authors claim they offer “True Biblical Counselling” (TBC) and give their readers the “true causes” of “mental illness”: self-centeredness and self-pity. Law was an experienced psychiatrist until he entered the Anglican ministry. Bowden is a creation science writer.
Robert Law and Malcolm Bowden begin their section on schizophrenia by saying:
Of all the various “mental illnesses” Schizophrenia is one of the most difficult for psychiatrists to deal with. Orthodox practitioners insist that it is definitely due to some cause over which the patient has no control, such as chemical imbalance, genetic inheritance, etc. We, and a few others, however, contend that it is almost entirely due to bad (i.e. self-pitying) behaviour. If there are any other external factors, then they are not the controlling cause but possibly a minor contributory factor. If it can be shown to be a behavioural problem, as we hope to do, then virtually all other “illnesses” that lack any specific organic cause are even more easily explained as a behavioral problem. Schizophrenia, therefore, is a “test case” of the two approaches.13 (Bold added.)
Before we discredit Law and Bowden through their “test case” of schizophrenia, we wish to challenge their reference to “a few others” who “contend that it is almost entirely due to bad (i.e. self-pitying) behavior.” We repeat, none of the individuals they favorably name, including Dr. Jay Adams and Dr. William Glasser, would endorse their unique position. Law and Bowden may claim Adams, Glasser, and others, but we predict they will not obtain a written endorsement for their self-pitying preoccupation from any of them.
Law and Bowden say their position is unique. Their position would be better described as extraordinary. They make a variety of extraordinary claims. Some extraordinary claims require faith to believe them; others require scientific evidence. We state categorically that Law and Bowden’s extraordinary claims for “a full cure,” “proven totally effective with no relapse” 14 require extraordinary evidence, and they only provide evidence based on faith (theirs and their readers’) and not scientific evidence. Extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence smack of quackery. Law and Bowden’s only evidence is anecdotal and personal testimonies, which require an extraordinary amount of faith to believe. Anecdotes and personal testimonies may be interesting to read, but should never be relied upon for extraordinary claims, unless accompanied by scientific evidence. We are not impressed with anyone, regardless of academic credentials, who wreaks havoc with or ignores the scientific method related to their extraordinary claims.
We give two of many quotes that reveal Law and Bowden’s view of schizophrenia: (1) “Not wanting to take responsibility is a prime cause of depression and schizophrenia” and (2) “schizophrenia, like mental illnesses in general, is far from being an ‘illness’ but a moral problem of pride, self-centeredness, self-pity and avoidance of responsibility for guilty actions in the past.”15
In the section on schizophrenia, where Law and Bowden present “proof” for their position, they say:
Treating schizophrenia as a behavioural problem definitely produces results in returning patients to society both rapidly and with a very high success rate.
With all the evidence set out above, and much more could be quoted, we ask how anyone can honestly hold to the concept that schizophrenia is a “mental illness.” Surely these facts are incontrovertible, and we would claim that our case is proven.16 (Bold added.)
Their “case is proven” anecdotally, but not scientifically!
Dr. Heath Lambert
Dr. Heath Lambert is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Florida. He taught counseling at Southern Seminary and served as the Executive Director of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors from 2013 to 2018. Lambert authored the first chapter of the book Counseling the Hard Cases (CTHC)and titled it “Introduction: The Sufficiency of Scripture, the Biblical Counseling Movement, and the Purpose of This Book.” Lambert’s main theme is the sufficiency of Scripture for the hard cases. Lambert quotes Dr. Ed Welch as saying that the Bible is “able to speak to the common problems we all encounter…. But it also speaks to distinctly modern problems such as depression, anxiety, mania, schizophrenia and attention deficit disorder, just to name a few”17 (bold added). Welch is in error in that the problems listed are not “distinctly modern problems,” but merely modern names for symptoms that have always existed. However, Welch’s theme about the use of the Bible is coterminous with Lambert’s sum and substance subject of the sufficiency of Scripture for the “Hard Cases.”
Lambert notes that students ask about such hard cases as “schizophrenia, sexual abuse, eating disorders, bipolar” and “dissociative identity disorder”18 (bold added). The only other place schizophrenia is mentioned in CTHC is on page 172 where it is said, “The people who accept our invitation often come with difficult issues to overcome: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, suicidal to name a few” (bold added). However, that chapter is about “‘Tony and Bipolar Disorder.” Schizophrenia is listed in passing as one of the hard cases. Nevertheless, there is no example in all ten CTHC cases of schizophrenia being cured, let alone dealt with. But, a cursory reading of CTHC would lead one to conclude that schizophrenia can also be dealt with through Scripture alone, along with the other “Hard Cases.” With no clarification by Stuart Scott or Lambert as editors, such statements are extremely egregious.
Psychiatrist Laura Hendrickson, MD, the biblical counselor who does the first case in CTHC, says, “There is no known cure for schizophrenia.”19 In contrast, Scott and Lambert’s view of a biblically curable schizophrenia is held by many biblical counselors and will be held by many more and pursued by others who undiscerningly read CTHC. This is doubly bogus by those who practice according to this view, first by the fact that true schizophrenia has no known cure, and, second, because Scott and Lambert list it as a spiritual disorder curable by biblical means. That is not to say we cannot minister Christ to schizophrenics as we have in the past and currently do.
We quoted Torrey’s summary of scientific research at the beginning of this article, and we repeat it here:
It can be said that schizophrenia is firmly and unequivocally established to be a brain disease, just as surely as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease are established as brain diseases.20 (Bold added.)
Unfortunately the foregoing examples are quite characteristic of too many Christians who, out of ignorance, spiritualize schizophrenia! It is important for Christians to be aware that in the future more mental-emotional-behavioral designations will be proven to be objectively based as biological causes of the symptoms are discovered.
We recommend that Christians who minister to others begin with the understanding that all individuals, regardless of their mental-emotional-behavioral symptoms or designations, can be ministered to biblically, as long as a rational conversation can take place and that the content of the conversation is undergirded by love and is biblically-based.
All decisions regarding whether to take or stop psychotropic medications should be done only under the supervision of a medical doctor.
1 “Schizophrenia definition” https://www.google.com/search?client=firefox-b-1&q=schizxophrenia+define, 12-12-2018.
2 “What is Schizophrenia?” American Psychiatric Association, https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/schizophrenia/what-is-schizophrenia, 12/12/2018.
3 E. Fuller Torrey. Surviving Schizophrenia: A Manual for Families, Patients, and Providers (5th Edition). New York: Harper, 2013, pp. 394-395.
4 E. Fuller Torrey. The Death of Psychiatry, Radnor, PA: Chilton Book Company, 1974, p 158.
5 Torrey, Surviving Schizophrenia, op. cit., pp. 121, 130.
6 John Street, “Gathering Data: Discerning Problems Biblically,” Video Session Four, Biblical Counseling & Discipleship Association Southern California (BCDASoCal) Training Conference, Fall 2011, http://bcdasocal.org. All of this critique of Street is from this same video.
7 Harvard Medical School Mental Health Letter, Vol. 2, No. 12, p. 1.
8 Torrey, Surviving Schizophrenia, op. cit, p. 156.
9 E. Fuller Torrey email 9/13/12.
10 Marshall and Mary Asher. The Christian’s Guide to Psychological Terms, 2nd ed. Bemidji, MN: Focus Publishing, 2004, 2014, back cover. Subsequent references to this book will be in parentheses within the text of this section.
11 Ibid., p. 180.
12 Robert J.K. Law and Malcolm Bowden. Breakdowns are good for you! Bromley, UK: Sovereign Publications, 1999.
13 Ibid., p. 47.
14 Ibid., pp. 7, 21.
15 Ibid., p. 57.
16 Ibid., p. 55.
17 Heath Lambert, “Introduction: The Sufficiency of Scripture, the Biblical Counseling Movement, and the Purpose of This Book” in Counseling the Hard Cases, Stuart Scott and Heath Lambert, eds.. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2012, p. 17.
18 Ibid., p. 24.
19 Elyse Fitzpatrick and Laura Hendrickson. Will Medicine Stop the Pain? Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2006, p.175.
20 Torrey, Surviving Schizophrenia,
op. cit., p. 127.
PsychoHeresy Awareness Letter, May-June 2019, Vol. 27, No.3)