Tag Archives: Faith Healing

The Great Divide: Faith and Medicine, continued

In one of my first posts in this blog I took an historical look at faith-healing, wondering whether the stark divide that we see some Christians make between scientific or rational medicine and trusting God to grant healing miraculously had any basis in the way Christians have seen the matter in the past.  This question was raised for me by the prosecution of a couple in Philadelphia for failing to take their child for medical treatment, choosing instead to rely on prayer. The child died of a simple infection. The couple and their church’s rejection of medical technology and know-how is based on their belief that this was the practice of the first century church. I set out to look into the matter.

My conclusion was that in the first century, and before and after as well, there was no such divide between rational medicine and religious healing. While many Christian teachers and preachers called believers to not forget to seek God’s healing in prayer, and to realize that some sicknesses may be more spiritual in nature, it simply was not the case that they saw a radical difference between rational medicine and faith healing.

I came across further support of this idea while browsing through the library of Westminster Theological Seminary, not far from my home. The 2012/2013 issue of the Bulletin of the John Rylands Univeristy Library of Manchester (volume 89 Supplement) is dedicated to “ancient medical and healing systems and their connections to modern western medicine.”

I thought I’d share some of what that issue said.

In the Introduction, Rosalie David makes the point that a divide rational medicine and religious healing was not recognized. There were indeed two distinct influences to treatment, the more physical treatments we consider rational, and “magico-religious” treatments that dealt with spiritual powers, but it was never one or the other all the time.  Different situations called for different treatments.

A Shrine to Asclepius in Athens turned into a Christian Chapel

A Shrine to Asclepius in Athens turned into a Christian Chapel

“The assumption that, in antiquity, healing achieved through rational means was in direct opposition to magico-religious treatment has now been largley superseded, with modern scholarship accepting that no definitive distinction can be drawn between so-called rational and irrational methods (a categorization which the ancient healer themselves would not have recognized)” p. 8

Another article, “The Cult of Asclepius: It’s Origins and Early Development”, by Trevor Curnow, confirms the wide-ranging popularity and reach of the Asclepius cult throughout the Roman Empire up to the time of Constantine, when it was replaced by the church. There were some 700 cult centers throughout the empire. These houses of healing were places to receive both rational and religious treatment.

The most thorough article is “Roman Medicine: Science or Religion?” by Audrey Cruse. Did the Romans see a divide between rational and religious healing? No. She quotes a Hippocratic treatise, a Greek writing (the Greeks have usually been seen as the ones beginning the rational practice of medicine), “On the Sacred Disease”, where the writer seemingly mocks superstitious, magical practices, only to replace them with other practices we would regard as superstitious.  Secondly, the Asclepius cult combined the two with no contradiction noticed. And third, surgeons’ tools often had religious symbols on them, and doctors often took Asclepaides as a common name in order to identify with the God, giving their treatments credibility. Cruse draws a lesson for modern medicine from all this:

“Just as there was considerable diversity of knowledge and practice in medicine during the Roman era, so diversity remains a feature of the medical scene today. Indeed, we now have a much larger world which encompasses numerous religions and belief systems. In many of these faiths the traditions of religious and orthodox medicine survive side by side! As can be seen at the sanctuary at Lourdes, for example…Religion in medicine can be present in any our all cultures, today just as it was in antiquity.” p. 252

The notion that either we go to the doctor or we pray to God for divine healing winds up being a modern idea. And those who advocate only divine healing, far from being in tune with the early centuries of the church, show themselves to be thoroughly modern in their failure to see that the two, rational and divine healing, go hand in hand.

While the Journal is not available on line without subscribing, for those interested in exploring these ideas further, Audrey Cruse did write a book published in 2004 called Roman Medicine, published by Tempus.

Pills or Prayer, so Which is It?

So, what are we to make of all this?  Should Christians make use of modern medical technology or not?  Is it valid for churches that seek to live like the Christian Church in the first couple of centuries to rely solely on healing through prayer and miracle?  I believe that a survey of the church in those centuries demonstrates that the early Christians appreciated that question, but did not answer it as the First Century Gospel Church does.  But neither did they answer it as many non-Charismatic American churches answer it.

Illness has different sources.  It is a simplistic worldview that always sees natural causes for everything.  While we resist the idea that God visits us with illness, it seems apparent that illness can and does result from sinful behaviors.  It can also stem from more spiritual roots.  Sometimes a pill isn’t going to touch the real source of our suffering.

All healing comes from God.  Whether through prayer, a miracle, or a medical treatment, the origin of all helping is God.  It may come in one of many intermediate means, but it comes ultimately from God.

God can heal.  The historical record is clear.  God does heal directly, through miraculous means.  We may not believe it today in the west, but it is unavoidable in the record that healings happened.  And not only among Christians, but in those pagan temples.  More is out there than we imagine.

The Church has a two-fold role today in relation to illness and healing. Continue reading

Pills or Prayer, the History of the Dilemma

So, what did the world of the first Christians think about the relationship of religious healing and their form of modern medicine?  

Among the Jews, while generally sickness was seen as coming as a punishment for sin, the physician had a place.  The second century B.C. writer of ben Sira says, “give the physician his place, for the Lord created him…There is a time when success lies in the hands of physicians, for they too will pray to the Lord that he should grant them success in diagnosis and in healing.” (38:9-14)  God’s lordship over illness and health did not rule out modern medical technology, such as it was.

This compatibility was even more striking among the Greeks.  The same people from whom Hippocrates rose, an early champion of rational medicine, also were devotees of the god of healing, Asclepius.  Several major cities held temples to this popular god, and his priests melded religious treatment through sacrifices, prayers and vision interpretation, and rational treatments of medicines and physical cures.  The sick person would go to the temple, which were the hospitals of the day, sleep over and have dreams in which the god would appear to them and either heal them by touching them or by giving a prescription for a more rational treatment.  This was not seen as a conflict.  All healing, whether miraculous or through the ministrations of a physician, originated from the god.  The Romans, being the great borrowers of culture, added a healthy dose of superstition, magic and astrology all with the same result.  Healing came in a variety of ways, including more rational medicine and religious practices.

This is the world out of which the Christian Church grew.  Did they repudiate these attitudes, or continue them?  The early church understood that illness came from three sources: God, evil, and nature.  If an illness was from God, the healing should come from him alone.  If evil, then exorcism was the way.  If natural, then natural, rational treatments were prescribed.  (Of course, it is taken for granted that divine healing happened.  But this post is about the attitude toward rational medicine, not about faith healing itself.)  So the physician had his place, but it was considered a better thing to seek healing through prayer and anointing.  There has always been the tension between divine and natural healing, and a unified voice is hard to find.  Origin did teach that those of a “superior spiritual nature” should not resort to medicines, but seek help through prayer and devotion to God, and Basil stressed using medicine only if the cause of the illness was natural, but otherwise “to reject medicine and the medical art entirely not only is not recommended but is disparaged.” (1)

But the practice of the early church is particularly striking.  Christianity brought in “the most revolutionary and decisive change in the attitude of society toward the sick.  Christianity came into the world as the religion of healing, as the joyful Gospel of the Redeemer and of Redemption.  It addressed itself to the disinherited , to the sick and afflicted, and promised them healing, a restoration both spiritual and physical…it became the duty of the Christian to attend to the sick and poor of the community…The social position of the sick man this became fundamentally different frown at it had been before.  He assumed a preferential position which has been his ever since.” (2)

This was demonstrated by the behavior of Christians during the plagues of the third century.  While pagans would flee, abandoning even their own families, Christians stayed behind, caring not only for their own, but also for those left behind.  Rodney Stark holds that this was a big piece of why Christianity came to dominate the Romand Empire in time.  Through practical nursing care, and not only prayer, many survived who would otherwise have died.  And many of these would become Christians having been so loved.  Stark also suggests that due to their exposure and survival of plague, Christians were more likely to survive future outbreaks. (3)

During the fourth century we see the beginnings of the hospital, established by Basil the Great and John Chrysostom, places that were devoted to the care of the sick.

The practice of early Christians was a union of the seeking of divine healing and rational medical treatment.  While there were many warnings of not idolizing natural treatment and reminders to trust God for healing, there was no rejection of medical treatment as we see in some Christian communities today.

The next post will draw some lessons form this history.


1  Amundsen, Darrel W.  Medicine, Society, and Faith in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds.  The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, Baltimore, 1996, 143.

2  Henry Sigerist, quoted in “Medicine and Religion: Early Christianity Through the Middle Ages”, by Darrel W. Amundsen and Gary B. Ferngren, in Marty and Vaux, p. 110

3  Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, Princeton Univeristy, 1996, pp.88-91.

Pills, or Prayer?

In May of this year a Philadelphia couple was charged with the murder of their 8 month old son.  He died of pneumonia, dehydration, and strep.  All easily treated with antibiotics.  But he was not treated.  Rather, his parents, following the teachings of their church, the First Century Gospel Church, placed their trust solely in prayer.  This was not the first son they lost.  In 2009, another son, a 2 year old, died of bacterial pneumonia after the couple again relied solely on prayer when he was suffering from congestion and a sore throat.  This family is not from some remote backwater.  They live within a mile of the church I pastor, in a city with medical care easily available.

From a perusal of the church’s website and the posted sermons, along with the site of the Nigerian branch of the church, which includes a somewhat longer and more helpful statement of faith, the church believes that believers are called to put their full faith and trust in God alone.  This is done by not trusting in anything else other than God.  Those things we might trust in, which include medical care, insurance policies, and even seatbelts and safety devices, are idols that lead us away from God.  

“If we are depending on, or have it hidden in our heart to depend on, anything, anyone, any plan, pill, procedure, or power other than the living God alone for what we need in life— spiritually, physically, financially, and every other faith issue, it is idolatry and must be corrected” (1).

“The church’s foundation belief is to trust in and depend on God to control every fact of our life; that includes the control of every person we meet with in the course of a day. The church belives that no human effort be used to manipulate or control the actions of others to our advantage or for our benefit.

“Another belief is to trust God for protection from accidents, dangers, and from any other physical harm or injury. We do not believe in the use of seat-belts and other safety devices that are designed to protect a person in the event of an accident. Our trust is totally in God to be protected from such incidents in the first place, and it is our belief that to use any type of safety device, is to be disloyal to God and to be disobedient to His will.” (2)

Of course, this is just a recent case of something that happens repeatedly, although not terribly often, in the US.  “Perhaps a dozen children from faith-healing churches die without receiving medical care each year in the United States, but no one really knows the true number, said Shawn Francis Peters, who wrote the 2007 book ‘When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law.'”  (3)

Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses also frown on medical care, although do not always forbid it.  To be fair, First Century doesn’t forbid it either, but it is a sign of a lack of faith and zeal to seek medical care.

There are a lot of things we can say about this case.  It touches on matters of church and state, the justice system, public welfare departments tasked with watching over children, and freedom of religion.  We can analyze it theologically and Biblically. But what does the history of the Church suggest about the issue of whether Christians should use modern medical technology or rely solely on prayer?  How has the Church wrestled with this in the past?  What do we see the real First Century Christians doing in this regard?

In my next post we will explore that history.  A third post will draw some conclusions for how we practice ministry in light of all this.


1  from the message “The Object of God’s Truth”, http://fcgchurch.org/Messages/Pages/The%20Object%20of%20God’s%20Truth.html

2  from a Statement of Faith of the Nigerian branch, http://www.fcgchurchnigeria.com/Fcgchurch_statement.php

3  Mensah M. Dean, “First, Do No Harm: Prayer or Medicine”, Philly.com, 12/7/2010, http://articles.philly.com/2010-12-07/news/25293479_1_faith-healing-faith-tabernacle-congregation-first-century-gospel-church