Graham Heslop
Graham Heslop Graham has an insatiable appetite for books, occasionally dips into theology, and moonlights as a lecturer in New Testament Greek at George Whitefield College, Cape Town. He also serves on the staff team at Union Chapel Presbyterian Church and as the written content editor for TGC Africa. Graham is married to Lynsay-Anne and they have one son, Teddy.

Not Many of You Should Become Teachers (on Mental Illness)

Not Many of You Should Become Teachers (on Mental Illness)

I posted a short article last week on John MacArthur that upset some readers. Admittedly, more care could’ve been taken on my part, especially around my rhetorical mention of senility and click-baiting. For the record, I don’t believe MacArthur is suffering from dementia. Nor do I think he’s deliberately sensational in order to generate income online. However, I stand by my original post and its sentiments: don’t read or listen to what John MacArthur has to say concerning mental illness or psychology—maybe also take a wide berth of his counsel around childrearing too, based on his recent comments.

The reason I’m doubling down is twofold, which I’ll outline below. Firstly, MacArthur’s comments around mental health weren’t only ill-informed but recklessly extremist. Secondly, his unguarded words have incredible potential for hurt and harm. Below I’ll engage with some of the comments and messages I received, following my original post, developing these two themes. In the first I consider a common defence of MacArthur’s comments. The second is largely made up of quotes from readers who’re trying to faithfully navigate the “noble lies,” as MacArthur calls them, in their own lives or their children’s.

A Necessary Caution and Corrective?

Not a few readers felt that my original post failed to give MacArthur the benefit of the doubt. The question they asked, in a few different ways, was this: isn’t MacArthur sounding a timely warning concerning worrying trends? In the words of one reader, “I do think there’s a tendency to pathologise issues,” our failures and frustrations. He continues, “It’s easier to externalise our problems by pathologising them,” which is tied to recent shifts in Western culture from culpability to victimhood. But is that what MacArthur is doing?

Of course, he isn’t. If you look at the first words of my transcript, he says: “There’s no such thing as PTSD. There’s no such thing as OCD There’s no such thing as ADHD.” He goes on to call those labels “lies,” and an “excuse” to medicate people. Let’s be clear—before we attempt a kind of alchemy on MacArthur’s actual thoughts and intentions—he doesn’t critique problematic trends in our culture relating to the overprescription or psychologising every problem; he denies the existence of mental illness.

I appreciate that most readers recognised this. As one commented, “I think what John MacArthur said represents an extreme that should be rejected, but I also think that to dismiss him and uncritically accept psychology/psychiatry as just another medical science is also an extreme that Christians should avoid.” I agree, for the most part. That is, there is need for discernment concerning the mental health sciences, but we can simultaneously dismiss MacArthur’s view of them. We must reject his irresponsibly ham-fisted handling of the matter and exhort other believers to do the same.

The reader quoted above continues, “It is true that we live in an overmedicated society and I know from first- and second-hand experience how easy it is to be prescribed, for example, antidepressants. Antidepressants which are extremely difficult to stop taking once you start. One cannot blame people for at least being sceptical of the pharmaceutical industry in cases like this, especially after some widely-publicised issues last year.” Again, I’m mostly ‘amens.’ Only, MacArthur isn’t merely skeptical. Nor does he identity overmedication as a problem. He actually implies that mental illnesses are the fabrications of Big Pharma. At this point he’s more conspiracy theorist than pastor or theologian.

Perhaps an illustration is in order, before moving on. Medical research has shown that GPs should be slower to prescribe antibiotics, only writing scripts when it’s necessary. So it would be extremely foolish to take an antibiotic for every cough, rash, and ache. But imagine me standing up in church this coming Sunday and saying, ‘There’s no such things as Meningitis. There’s no such thing as bladder infections. There’s no such thing as bacterial pneumonia. Those are noble lies. To basically give the excuse to medicate people. And companies like Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson are in charge of a lot of that.’ I hope elders would usher me off the stage before I could utter such harmful nonsense.

The Damage Done by Careless Words

This brings us to the second theme of this article. When I heard John MacArthur’s I was immediately concerned for people who struggle with their own mental health or are parenting children who’ve been clinically diagnosed with a mental illness. Below I quote two readers in those respective categories, illustrating just how destructive MacArthur’s careless words have been.

Parents of Children With a Mental Illness

One parent wrote to me, “Obviously the PTSD statement is wild. But that ADHD comment is so rough to handle as a parent. And not just in an ‘Oh, I may be getting this wrong, in biblical sense,’ but actually wrestling with being faithful parents. Because the truth is that question is always there in the back of your mind: are we doing the right thing here? And MacArthur is like, ‘Yeah, they’ll probably be druggies or criminals—well done poor and unfaithful servant.’”

I shudder to think how many parents MacArthur has saddled with guilt, specifically with these comments, which stem from his broader views of parenting. Raising children is tough enough without being told your best efforts to help them have probably set them on a trajectory towards substance addiction, crime and homelessness.

Believers Wrestling Their Own Mental Health

Another reader admitted that MacArthur’s comments stirred in him a dangerous concoction of anxiety, rage and guilt. As someone who’s struggled with his mental health since being the victim of sexual abuse in his childhood. Growing up in a church that revered John MacArthur, this reader only recently started receiving psychiatric diagnoses and care. But now, he writes, “reading MacArthur’s words ignited a fire in my brain I’d managed to extinguish. I’ve questioned more frequently, this last week, than I have in years, whether my medication is godly. And I’ve have found myself feeling incredibly guilty this past week for seeking ‘worldly help.’”

But guilt wasn’t all he felt. He also expressed worry and anxiety, writing “my fear is that MacArthur’s careless words could encourage others to come off their medical regimes. While I have received significant amounts of therapy and counselling, I am still all too aware of how my medication helps me to live a relatively full life.” MacArthur has faithfully served God’s people the world around, for decades. Many readers pointed this out to me. Isn’t he deserving of more respect? Shouldn’t we be slower to critique him? No. When his words resemble the faith healer telling someone with stage four cancer to stop their treatment, a robust response isn’t only valid; it’s crucial.

The above reader also voiced his anger at MacArthur’s comments. This, he says, wasn’t only due to them being woefully reductive but because of his own PTSD. As he puts it, “My PTSD is related to years of sexual abuse, neglectful parenting, emotional abuse and bullying. To tell me that all of my issues are because of grief is enraging.” Would this reader have been a better adjusted adult if he’d had someone talk him through his abuse all those years ago. Sure, it would’ve helped. But can we really say that grief—or guilt—is all there is to it? Surely not. We’re talking about devastating trauma, at a young age, followed by years of painful confusion, oftentimes guilt.

Finally, this reader says, “My hope is that those who have heard MacArthur’s latest statement will not continually question their decision to medicate, nor fall into the spiritual guilt that comes from it. Secular psychological  intervention and medication is a gift from God to all people who suffer from mental illnesses. It is by God’s common grace of doctors, nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists and Big Pharma, that I am still living and breathing to write this.”

Not Many of You Should Become Teachers

So, to slightly adapt a familiar verse, not many of us should become teachers on mental illness, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness (James 3:1). It’s always struck me that this is the verse James uses to introduce his section on the destructive power of an untamed tongue(James 3:2-12). That section, of course, develops an earlier exhortation in the same epistle: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:19). Taken together, this is perhaps especially applicable to influential Christian figures, such as John MacArthur.

I’ll conclude with something a psychologist in my local church sent to me, which touches on a lot of what we’ve covered in this article. “MacArthur seems like the kind of man who would distrust left-handed people because it’s not the ‘correct way.’ A total dark ages view of mental health. His carelessness in communicating his concern about overmedication is absolutely going to bring guilt and shame on to people who listen to him and struggle with mental illness and will then not seek appropriate treatment. They will suffer all the more for it. I think it is a reckless and dangerous stance to take when you have such a public platform.”

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