Alternative Medicine in the Church
In recent years the term "alternative medicine" has received increasing exposure in the media. Bill Moyer's mind/body PBS series introduced many to meditation and the Chinese metaphysics of Qi Gong. New Age guru Deepak Chopra has found a seemingly permanent dwelling place on the bestseller lists. Alternative practitioners point to the National Institutes of Health's "Office of Alternative Medicine" (OAM) as validation for their practices. This past fall ABC presented an "alternative medicine" special with Hugh Downs chanting the Sanskrit "OM" to induce a state of relaxation and altered consciousness (Turning Point, September 26, 1996).
The Christian community, too, is awash with alternative medicine. Amish farmers are being huckstered with door-to-door suitcase pseudoscience (Canon and Bavley, "Hucksters Peddle to Naive Customers," Kansas City Star, October 20, 1996). A Bible Belt ministry is offering its supporters a book promoting a bizarre theory of disease, including even more bizarre instructions on how to make a machine at home which will zap the offending parasites out of one's body (Today, the Bible and You).
Christian home schoolers are passing out free tapes by an ex-veterinarian turned naturopath (Joel Wallach, Dead Doctors Don't Lie) who has promoted everything from metabolic cancer treatments in a Mexican clinic, to chelation, to multi-level colloidal minerals - now telling people that the secrets to longevity can be found watching the 1930s James Hilton movie "Lost Horizon." Christianity Today looks at Therapeutic Touch, only it can't figure out what's wrong with it (Joel Maxwell, "Nursing's New Age?", February 5, 1996, pp. 96-99), and neither can the Christian nursing professors who teach it.
A Southern Baptist magazine does a feature on reflexology, and includes addresses where one might gain more information about this New Age treatment (V. Bowsworth, "Feet Don't Fail Me Now," Christian Single, August, 1996, pp. 32-34). A group of pastors and their wives in Florida produce a cassette titled "God's Super Food," which chronicles their enhanced (physical, mental, and most certainly financial) well being from eating blue-green algae. Professing Christians use iridology and muscle testing to sell herbs as part of "God's provision." A prominent Christian encourages people to seek alternative treatment for cancer and gives a recommended reading list including books that promote quackery, New Age medicine, occultism, pseudoscience, and health misinformation (Larry Burkett, Damaged But Not Broken).
Physicians with revoked or restricted licenses are given more credibility than reputable physicians with in-depth specialized expertise. Forgeries and fabrications are overlooked, and smuggling unproven drugs is seen as a compassionate form of civil disobedience. Conventional medical practioners are frequently portrayed as victimizing the masses for the sake of money, while alternative medicine is presented as a means of "empowerment" by which one can "take responsibility for one's own health."
There are regular columns in the health sections of newspapers across the country uncritically extolling homeopathy and herbs, and Christians can easily be found who proselytize aggressively for alternative medicine, using testimonies of "alternative" practices being more effective, more natural, more spiritual, and the morally superior choice for health care.
What is happening to the Christian community?
"Alternative medicine" is flowering. Ignored in this groundswell of enthusiasm is that much of alternative medicine is rooted in, or enmeshed with, the New Age world view, antiquated science, superstition, magic, and ritual.
What is "Alternative" Medicine?
"Alternative" medicine is a term often interchanged with "holistic," "nontraditional," "complementary," "mind/ body," "New Age," and "unconventional" when describing medical treatments and theories of disease which originate outside the realm of scientifically based medicine and the natural sciences.
A preliminary problem in looking at alternative medicine is to define what it actually is. In defining "alternative" medicine one thing is clear: Whatever it is, it is not "regular" medicine - its proponents would add - "yet."
Alternative versus regular medical practices should not be thought of as a choice between "separate but equal" systems. A 1993 study in the New England Journal of Medicine described what many call "alternative" medicine as "unconventional." Unconventional therapies are those "not taught widely at US medical schools or generally available at US hospitals." Unconventional was additionally described as "those medical practices which are not in conformity with the standards of the medical community" ("Unconventional Medicine," January 28, 1993, pp. 246-52).
"Alternative" health practices are of concern because many of those practices make claims of diagnostic capabilities, or for treatment, which are unsubstantiated by reasonable means as effective and beneficial. In contrast, "conventional" medicine is based on scientific standards established by objective evidence for effectiveness, safety, and benefit. Practices which meet these basic standards are no longer "alternative" - they are mainstream.
Christians understand that the physical world is a creation of God. This physical world and its components operate in systematic, orderly ways which can be discovered. Practically speaking, a basic system of how to discover things about the physical world and the laws that govern it has been developed over many years. This is called the scientific method.
Over the past few centuries science has emerged from the realm of alchemy, magic, and the occult, using the scientific method. So now there is a base of consistent, orderly, growing knowledge about the workings of God's creation. The scientific method provides a framework by which one can evaluate claims which are made for how God's creation works. That is what good science is about.
Where New Age thinking and alternative medicine mesh is in the failure to have an objective standard upon which one can base, or measure, claims and theories. In New Age thinking there are no absolutes. The bottom line in the New Age is one's subjective experience. A critical point which is overlooked by many Christians and New Age believers is that experience can be manipulated - by others, and even by one's own desires.
Critical evaluation, testing, questioning, replication of experiments, comparison with established, proven standards, responsibility, and accountability - the stuff of the scientific method - are not significant criteria for New Age medicine or "alternative" practices in general. The need for scientific validation is skirted with stories, anecdotal reports, testimonials, and unsubstantiated claims. These are offered, and uncritically received by participants, as evidence for success, safety and efficacy. Sometimes the claim is that a practice is "too far advanced" to be measured by the primitive methods we have today, or the request for validation is dismissed with "Science doesn't know everything."
Making it even more difficult to verify claims, alternative practitioners keep lousy records - if they keep any at all. It is reasonable to expect that health care providers who urge clients to "take responsibility for their own health," would themselves take responsibility for accurate client records, research, and documentation for what they are doing and why. Unfortunately, that is seldom the case with alternative medicine.
Most alternative practitioners claim to offer safe, "natural" treatments for prevention and cure, to provide maintenance for optimal well being, while condemning the use of drugs (synthetic, not herbal) as poison. Many invoke the "holistic" approach saying that they are treating the body, mind and spirit. Some practitioners claim to use innovative but as yet unrecognized diagnostic and drug therapies which they say conventional medicine refuses to accept because people would become healthy sooner, thus depriving the "medical establishment" of income.
The incredible variety of alternative practices available is limited only by the creativity of the human mind. Some of the common techniques are aromatherapy, Bach flower remedies, polarity therapy, various "electromagnetic" or computerized devices - Interro and Vega machines, zappers, and diodes - homeopathy, acupuncture, Touch for Health, Therapeutic Touch, iridology, kinesiology and muscle response testing, ear coning, palmistry, craniosacral adjustment, crystals, reflexology, aura reading, psychic readings, sweat lodges, pendulums, color therapy, ayurveda, naturopathy, some nutritional counseling and herbalism, energy balancing, some of the massage therapies, chelation, and the cancer "cures" - the Manner Seminar, Greek Cancer Cure, Gerson's diet, Burzynski's "antineoplastons," - and the other treatments of assorted Mexican and European alternative clinics. Most have Christian promoters.
This list includes practices which are 1) quackery - health schemes and remedies known to be false, unsafe, or unproven, being promoted for financial gain; 2) occultic - methods which train practitioners to personally access hidden sources for knowledge and power; and 3) New Age/eastern metaphysics based on a monistic world view, Hinduism, Taoism, native healing, shamanism, and nearly everything else from the world's spiritual salad bar.
How Should Christians Evaluate These Practices?
Christian "alternative" practitioners can utilize health misinformation, misuse Scripture and introduce occultic and New Age ideas into their business and to their clients. Christians are not immune to deception, even in practices which involve metaphysical principles which are contrary to Scripture. Unfortunately, due to the spiritual/philosophical roots or associations involved, participating in alternative medicine practices can lead to compromise of standards and spiritual contamination. It may even lead to early death.
The scriptures tell Christians to test all things (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Is there evidence that the claims made are consistent with what is known about creation/the physical world so far? In the area of the spiritual, Christians use the Word of God to evaluate the claims of Mormonism, the Watchtower, and the David Koreshes of the world. Using the scientific method to test claims made for things in the natural, physical world is as reasonable and responsible as applying the revelation of the Bible to religious claims.
How Common is this Problem for Christians?
As indicated earlier, Christians seem to be peculiarly vulnerable to swallowing the unsubstantiated claims of alternative medicine.
A popular home health care book promoted by Christians is Back to Eden, written in 1939 by a Seventh-day Adventist who claimed then that he knew the cure for cancer, heart disease, asthma, polio, syphilis and tuberculosis. According to the author, the trip back to Eden is nutritional.
Another nutritional advice book by a professing Christian (Ed Bashaw, Life Abundantly) shows the metaphysical confusion and contamination which comes with spiritual and intellectual compromise. The author, a multi-level herb salesman, describes a life force (energy) which can be transferred through inanimate objects (p. 38). This is occultism. Throughout the book he depersonalizes the Holy Spirit to the occultic "Spirit" (e.g. pp. 62, 63, 68) and grossly misreads the Word of God (he finds candida, a yeast infection, in Scripture - pp. 55-57). He quotes positively from Unity School of Christianity founder Charles Fillmore (p. 74). He teaches metaphysical causation (pp. 75-77), writing that strokes are caused by "rejection of life," foot problems come from a "fear of the future," and halitosis from "vile gossip." He promotes a theologically bizarre concept from New Thought/occultist Joel Goldsmith that "There is no law of disease" - therefore it does not exist. "This is the truth that sets you free." (p. 75; emphasis added.) The author thanks his Baptist pastor for creating the environment necessary for him to consider writing his book (in the Forward).
Another Christian alternative practitioner, Darlene Haberer, uses naturopath Donald LePore's The Ultimate Healing System which describes how to use his version of muscle testing (a disproven technique) to check and balance everything from chakras (Hindu energy centers) to gems (crystal power). LePore's book describes treating allergies (pp. 9-17), diabetes (p. 283) and depression (with useless occult Bach Flower remedies - pp. 213-15) using this muscle testing. He teaches how to integrate muscle testing with most of the occult health related alternative theories, including picking colors for occult "color therapy." "Blue gives my vocal directives added power of command, and without raising my voice volume to be dominating, people still listen and obey my suggestion. . .People will listen to me!!" (p. 360).
Occult views of "energy" are utilized by Christian muscle testers who will "test" children by pushing on mom's arm (while she holds the child) because the "energy level" is transferred by contact. Likewise, introductory exercises train nurses studying Therapeutic Touch to awaken their latent telepathic capabilities.
Homeopathic remedies have found renewed favor among Christians who see them as non-toxic medicine which gets to the "real" root of the problem - a supposed energy imbalance. Christians ignore the real source of the supposed power of homeopathy - an unmeasurable, undefined (no one says exactly what it is) mystical "energy." This energy is magically released by vigorous shaking between each of the numerous dilutions. No shaking, no power. Each solution (some so highly diluted that they contain virtually nothing but the base solution of alcohol or water) is matched to the perceived energy imbalance manifested by the personality of the patient.
It should be particularly disturbing when Christians make or accept egregiously false interpretations of scripture in support of alternative medicine's practices. Christians who utilize iridology (a disproven practice using the iris of the eye for diagnosis) repeatedly misuse Matthew 6:22, "The light of the body is the eye. If therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of ligh," as the indication that iridology is divinely provided.
Christian herbalists misuse Genesis 1:29, "And God said, 'Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth. . .to you it shall be for meat,'" to validate their position that "herbs" are a special category of plant divinely provided for healing.
These practices, all offered or experienced by Christians, are occultism, magical thinking, and quackery. These practices are "alternative medicine."
Alternative Medicine/ Alternative Gospel?
So it appears that it is not only the good news of Jesus Christ's liberating salvation that Christians are now vigorously promoting. Many seem to have embraced "another gospel" of nutritional and medical misinformation, error and quackery, occult practices and New Age teaching, all under the banner of "God's provision."
However, God is a God of truth. The Apostle John wrote "No lie is of the truth" (I John 2:21b). The Psalmist stated "All His (the LORD'S) works are done in truth" (Psalm 33:4b). If healing systems are based on misinformation or occultism, they are not "from God."
God's desire for the spiritual purity of His people in the Old Testament has not changed. Christians are called to truth because God calls them to Himself. But spiritual integrity cannot exist together with intellectual dishonesty. Christians are in a precarious position, spiritually, when they become so desensitized that trite, trivial and erroneous use of scripture to promote products and practices goes unnoticed, unchallenged. And the danger may even include their physical health as well. If Christians don't examine the way the Word of God is being used, how well are they examining their other sources of information? If Scripture is misrepresented, what other information is also being misrepresented?
Christians who avoid examining, or accede to, the rampant misuse of Scripture cannot claim to "love the truth" and should plan on being deceived (2 Thessalonians 2:10-11). When alternative practices find their way into a church or Christian community, false teaching almost always comes in the same package. A faction will take root and grow. Their once biblical world view will shift to include misinformation and occultism - where subjective experience becomes the basis for all decision making. When remonstrance is offered, even though appropriately and biblically, the practitioners (and some clients) will often choose to leave a church rather than give up their false beliefs. The body of Christ is dismembered.
How Does This Happen?
Desperate Christians with serious or chronic illnesses may be tempted to try questionable alternative practices. Highly conscientious people who want to feel they are doing everything they can to be more useful to God may also be attracted. Disappointment with physicians, impersonal care, or human error may send some people to the doors of an unconventional practitioner. The equation of scientifically based medicine with "the world system" leads some to reject the medicine as being ungodly. The view that "natural" equals good that is from God may attract some folks. The need to be in control of what is happening with their health leads some to simpler explanations and treatments which involve them more.
A recent series in the Kansas City Star (October 20-22, 1996) on the Amish, alternative health, and huckstering, gives some additional insight into how Christians are influenced to use such practices. A traveling "nutritional consultant" who moves among Amish communities with his phoney blood tests and microscope was interviewed. "Ich kann schvetza vie sie dien" he tells the reporter. "I can speak their language." When Christians hear someone who "speaks the language" of evangelical Christianity, they assume that the person is sincere, honest, and well meaning. But promoters of quackery and health misinformation within the Christian community can be sincere, with that in which they are involved still being beyond their understanding. Evangelical Christians who have a basically orthodox Christology may be promoting the hope that they can "return to Eden" by eating food "the way God made it," or that they can detect and repair "subtle energy" imbalances with hand motions.
Hebrews 5:14 reminds us that the mature believers are those who through practice have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. This is especially important when it involves one who "speaks the language." Teaching people to be discerning, in both the spiritual and scientific sense, is a critical defense against misinformation and occult influences. It will help protect the fellowship of believers against false teaching, spiritual contamination, poor stewardship of financial resources, and possibly physical harm and death.