A biblical understanding of the whole person and why the Church should be involved in seeing people from all nations living lives of health and wholeness.
In the Luke 8 story of the woman afflicted with 12 years of bleeding we see a wonderful story of healing and restoration to health and wholeness. No matter the combination of English words we use, we are unable to fully express the newfound health this woman realized after simply touching the hem of Jesus’ garment.
The last 12 years of her life had been spent as an outcast—an untouchable. To even push her way through the crowd risked her very life. But by faith she elbowed her way forward, and with much fear and trembling touched the hem of his robe. And I believe she sensed that she had been healed of her disease. But she didn’t get away with it. Jesus exposed her action, causing her to declare in the presence of all the people why she had touched him and how she had been immediately healed (iaomai: cure [literally or figuratively], heal, make whole). Rather than condemn her, Jesus says, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well (sozo: saved you, healed you, made you whole), go in peace’ (eirene: peace, oneness, rest).
She was now able to once again experience shalom, but this time with a completeness that only comes from faith in Christ. Healing and returning people to wholeness was central to the earthly ministry of Jesus, and he expected his disciples to carry on this same type of ministry. We suspect it was also expected the early church would continue this tradition. But as the centuries passed and the church became an institution rather than a movement, it lost the integrated nature of its calling. Especially after the advent of modern medicine around the middle of the 19th century, the church (especially in the West) slowly handed over the physical healing side of ministry to secular institutions that had no knowledge of how to truly heal the whole person.
The human being had become dis-integrated in the eyes of the church and culture in general. The church continued to see itself as a place where people’s souls were ministered to and where their spirits were saved, but the truly holistic care of the whole person became a rarity. Jesus cared for the whole person, mind/body/spirit in the cultural/social context of that person. And this he continues to call his church to also do.
Our starting point for a discussion about the background of ministries of health and wholeness begins with the ministry of Jesus the Christ (although the discussion could actually start in Genesis with a reflection on the ideal health conditions that existed in the Garden of Eden before the fall).
Our command to move beyond our cultural comfort zones and engage the many needs of the peoples (ethne) across the earth comes in several forms, but not in such fullness as in John 20:21,22 (NIV): ‘Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’’ This Great Commission points us back to experience the narrative of the Gospels—to enter into the story of how Jesus demonstrated the Trinity’s intent to communicate love and mercy.
In Mark 1: 15 we learn how Jesus began his earthly ministry. He entered Galilee preaching, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel (the good news).’ Immediately, Jesus began his ministry of discipleship by recruiting his first followers and then proceeded (again immediately) to the synagogue where he began the teaching aspect of his work, and with such authority that it amazed the people because it wasn’t the way in which their own scribes taught.
What happens next while still in the synagogue? The deliverance of a man with an unclean spirit. Again, we read of the amazement in the minds of the people who ‘questioned among themselves, saying, ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority!’ (vs 27) And Jesus’ fame began spreading quickly. Immediately (just think of how much was revealed in such a short period of time), he and his small band of followers entered the home of Simon and Andrew and there encountered Simon’s mother-in-law, diseased with a fever. Jesus took her hand, the fever left her, and she began serving them. Jesus’ first demonstration of his healing power. And the day is not over! At sundown they brought many who were possessed by demons and others with various illnesses. The healing and delivering continued. How late into the night he worked we do not know but we can surmise it was likely a very long shift.
Mark 1 concludes with another very important story concerning Jesus’ ministry strategy. It would have been simpler to stay right where they were to continue his ministry of healing and deliverance. His fame was spreading, after all, and undoubtedly the people would have continued coming to him wherever he was. But his was a ministry of going to where the people were, not a ministry that required the people to come to where he was located. And so, he travelled around the region preaching, discipling, teaching, delivering, and healing. He expected his disciples to carry on these ministries, and no doubt it was what the church was expected to do in his name. In Acts we read of how the early church continued with this holistic ministry but slowly and steadily it began to lose its way.
Not that the church gave up on caring for the possessed and diseased. It never lost its passion to minister to the needs of the sick and demon possessed. Indeed, because of this persistent calling, the modern world now enjoys the care offered in hospitals around the world. Alvin Schmidt, in his chapter ‘Hospitals and Healthcare: Their Christian Roots,’ clearly tells the story behind the modern hospital movement and healthcare systems.1 And through the strong influence of the Christian Medical Commission, the World Health Organization developed a very comprehensive definition of what Primary Health Care is supposed to be.
Christoffer Grundmann in his work, Sent to Heal,2 does a thorough job of detailing the beginnings and progress of what many commonly refer to as ‘medical missions.’ This term came into existence in the mid-19th century and although some believe its use is out of date, it remains the main term used to describe what Christian healthcare professionals are involved in when they use their skills to cure people of disease in association with and as an integral component of bringing good news—the gospel message.
The early part of the 20th century was characterized by rapid expansion of the medical missions movement. No one knows the exact numbers, but hundreds, if not thousands, of hospitals were built during this time by nearly all denominations of the Christian church. These compounds were built in the most remote and difficult-to-reach places in the world. Thousands of ‘medical missionaries’ were sent to these difficult places and they died at the same rate as the non- medical missionaries and their families.
These initial efforts focused on building hospital compounds where the staff would live and to which the people had to come. The shortcoming of this approach eventually manifested itself in the fact that though much curative care was being provided, there wasn’t any significant improvement of the people’s ‘health.’ The pendulum thus swung in the direction of a focus on community health to the detriment of the hospitals. Originally the ‘medical missionary’ understood that they were making a long-term commitment and that there was a high likelihood that they would never return to their home country. This attitude has now been supplanted, to a certain degree, by the short-term medical missions trend.
Where are we presently? Exact numbers are impossible to discern but there are thousands of Christian healthcare professionals from many cultures in long-term service around the world, and they continue serving in some of the most difficult and dangerous places on earth. Witness to this is the recent history of Christian missionary physicians caring for and becoming infected themselves from caring for patients with the Ebola virus.
There are still many hospitals operated in the majority world by Christian churches and para- church organizations; upwards of 40 percent of healthcare services in Africa are provided by Christian faith-based organizations. After all the missionaries left and, usually without any government or international assistance, this sizeable presence of caring and healing in Christ’s name perseveres long after most thought it would die. Many of these hospitals now have developed community health outreach programs, the effectiveness of which we have no data. Also, countless thousands of Christian healthcare students and professionals are spending millions of dollars, likely hundreds of millions) being involved in short-term medical missions outreaches every year. This, of course, in large part, is a reflection on the status of the West’s efforts in such endeavors.
The Majority World is increasingly embracing their role in the great commission by becoming very active in sending cross-cultural workers to serve in difficult to reach places. This includes an increasing number of whom will be professional healthcare providers. There are many Christian health associations spread throughout the majority world and in India the Emmanuel Hospital Association has been doing excellent work, including research, for many years. But there are at least two huge disconnects creating obstacles that need to be addressed.
What are the challenges that keep the Church from understanding Her full calling to care for the whole person and to bringing the Shalom of God to all the nations?
- The first obstacle is the silo approach that often characterizes our Great Commission efforts. Evangelism is the job of the Church and they have their silo. Education happens with this group, Business as Mission with that group, Medical Missions is the job of that group over there, and the list goes on. There has been much effort to heal this breach in the mission of the church; the work of the Lausanne Movement and Missio Nexus are two examples, though neither has included elements of Christian healthcare services in their strategies. But a significant and harmful ‘separateness’ still exists to a significant degree in the church’s efforts to reach the lost. If we are to see the ‘Whole Church taking the Whole Gospel to the Whole World’ there must be even greater effort to cooperate, coordinate and collaborate in our efforts to achieve the great commission. This is especially true in our efforts to ‘partner’ with our sisters and brothers in the Majority World where, if truth be told, there is still much paternalism/neo-colonialism going on that creates significant unhealthy dependency.
- The second massive obstacle we must address is the dualistic, reductionist way in which we (mostly western trained Christian healthcare professionals) think and conduct much of our Christian healthcare missions efforts. Equally important is the need for non-healthcare related missions individuals and organizations to fill in the hole that exists in their understanding of Missio Dei to include a health, healing and wholeness component. If we in the Christian healthcare missions world come to more deeply understand what the Bible says about health and wholeness, we can conduct our ministries in a more integrated way. We can deepen this understanding by sitting with, listening to and learning together with pastors and theologians who can help us all develop a theology of health. Those in the ‘Integrated Mission’ world (including pastors, theologians, missiologists, sociologists, educators, business as mission folks, etc) will thus also deepen their understanding of Missio Dei and the Kingdom of God, and see more clearly the important role that can be played by those in the church who are called to be involved in ministries of health and healing. This is especially pertinent as we address the need of reaching the 7,000 or so people groups who still lack any witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ.
What are initiatives we can develop and strategies we can implement that will help overcome these barriers?
We believe significant progress can be made toward overcoming the aforementioned obstacles by developing and maintaining a Lausanne Issue Network entitled ‘Health in Mission—Shalom in Missio Dei.’ We believe this will give us a platform to more effectively bring together all disciplines from the global church. Those called to ministries of health and healing will be more biblically informed about how our work can best integrate with the overall work of the Body of Christ, and ‘Integrated Mission’ individuals and organizations will also understand how important ministries of health and healing are to the overall calling of the church to take the Whole Gospel to the Whole World. This was accomplished in 2015.
We also believe it would be helpful to work with the World Evangelical Alliance in a similar way and for similar purposes. This is presently being worked on.
We also believe it useful to develop relationships within what remains of the Christian Medical Commission within the World Council of Churches. This too is in process.
Many health-related conferences and gatherings coordinated by Christians already occur around the world. We will collaborate with those who have a desire to bring this more biblically based understanding of health and wholeness into the context of their gathering and conduct workshops/seminars.
In this White Paper we have shown, however briefly, that ministries of health, healing and wholeness were at the very heart of Jesus’ work on earth. Mark chapter 1 was used to illustrate how his ministry immediately started with preaching, discipling, teaching, delivering, and healing. He healed people from sickness and delivered people from demon possession in order to restore them to wholeness and in order to usher in the Kingdom of God. God’s shalom was possible now. One needn’t wait until the afterlife to enjoy this health and wholeness.
But over the centuries since, we, primarily the Western church, have forgotten the integrated mission of the church’s calling. Our healthcare efforts became too contaminated with a dualistic/reductionist view of man giving us excellent clinical skills in diagnosing and treating sick people while ignoring, or at least not knowing how to deal with, the whole person! Our efforts became very high tech and at a cost that could not be sustained. We are very good at getting donations to build more buildings and set up the use of CT scanners yet those we seek to see live healthy lives in Christ still go first to the local shaman when they become ill! And pastors in churches still put up their hands and say we pray and hope in the Lord to protect us from the Ebola virus, so we don’t really need to follow your instructions on how to avoid becoming infected.
As our friends at Missio Nexus put it; ‘The Great Commission is too big for anyone to accomplish alone and too important not to try to do together.’ We would say the church’s mandate is to establish ‘Communities of shalom among all peoples.’ In order to do this we all must more effectively work together. Pastors, theologians, missiologists, sociologists, and professionals of all types and from all cultures need to be in the same room deepening the church’s understanding of Missio Dei, the Kingdom of God, the calling of the church that we believe will lead to a deeper understanding of health as shalom. This more profound understanding will then lead us to more effective strategies for reaching the least, the last and the lost with the Good News of Christ.
- See How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004).
- Sent to Heal (University Press of America, 2005).