“Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.” – Mark 3:1-5
Mental health is an important aspect of a person’s overall well-being. The Holmes-Rahe scale of stress is a reliable predictor of both past and future health problems. Relieving a person’s emotional stress can go a long way toward preventing flu, colds, and other illnesses resulting from compromised immune and/or cardio-vascular systems.
That said, while mental illness is not specifically mentioned as a category of sickness dealt with within the healing ministry of the New Testament church, meeting physical needs – especially the needs of the sick – is an important aspect of Christian ministry. During his ministry, most of Jesus’ recorded miracles involved physical healing: giving sight to the blind, raising the dead, and many others. One of the expectations Jesus has of His people – one difference between sheep and goats listed in Matthew 25 – is that, among other physical needs being met, “I was sick and you ministered to me.”
Likewise, when the ministry of Jesus extended from Jesus Himself to His disciples (and later the apostles and the early church), healing remained central to the work. The “limited commission” of Matthew 10 included the command to “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers.” In Acts 3, for instance, the lame beggar at the gate of the temple was told by Peter, “Silver and gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus, rise up and walk.” Peter and Paul both had the experience of having sick people flock to them in hopes that their illnesses would be cured just by falling under an apostle’s shadow.
Healing, then, is central to the work of the early church. Even with the caveat that the healings Jesus, Peter, and Paul performed were miraculous manifestations of the Holy Spirit, there is ample evidence that the imperative to heal did not disappear with the deaths of the apostles. In fact, James instructs the sick to “call for the elders of the church” who will pray for the sick and anoint them with what are most likely medicinal oils. When Timothy is struggling with stomach troubles, Paul gives him medical advice.
So if mental and emotional health contribute to a person’s physical well-being, and if meeting the physical needs of the suffering is an essential element of the work of the church in the world, then it stands to reason that a counseling ministry would be a part of that. In fact, rather than seeking Biblical authorization for a counseling ministry, the greater challenge would be finding a way to practice New Testament Christianity without counseling playing a key role.
The challenge faced by the church, then, is not seeking divine permission to counsel. The challenge is finding individuals within the congregation who are able to meet the need in an appropriate way. Like any medical situation, this may on occasion require the services of a trained, licensed professional. Other times it may simply require an experienced voice to offer the wisdom that comes from a lifetime of, well, living. That counsel can come from an experienced student of the word counseling an entire congregation all at once from the pulpit on Sunday morning, or it can come from an older woman at a kitchen table advising a younger woman on some aspect of raising her kids. In any case, the example of Peter at the gate of the temple is instructive in any helping situation. We don’t have to perform beyond our means, but if we will do the best we can with what we have, God will bless us.