Pastors Aren’t Experts in Everything (And Shouldn’t Be)

Pastors Aren’t Experts in Everything (And Shouldn’t Be)

Pastor John MacArthur recently made waves by claiming that mental illness doesn’t exist. He made these remarks during a Q&A session at a church conference.

“Psychiatry and psychology is finally admitting the noble lies they’ve been telling for the last hundred years,” MacArthur said. “And the major noble lie is that there is such a thing as mental illness.” 

It is unclear exactly who from the fields of psychiatry and psychology has been making such a shocking admission.

“There’s no such thing as PTSD. There’s no such thing as OCD. There’s no such thing as ADHD,” MacArthur continued. “Those are noble lies to basically give the excuse, at the end of the day, to medicate people.” 

“Take PTSD, for example. What that really is, is grief,” he added. “Grief is a real thing, but grief is part of life. And if you can’t navigate grief, you can’t live life. But if you clinically define that, you can give him a pill, a series of medications, and they end up in LA, homeless on the sidewalk.” 

MacArthur went on to argue that treating children with ADHD by using medication turns them into “a potential drug addict” and “maybe a potential criminal, because they never learn how to navigate life in a socially acceptable way.”

MacArthur then expressed that he had written about these things in his most recent book but that several Christian publishers had passed on the book—because, MacArthur believes, they are “woke.”

These remarks are consistent with MacArthur’s long held beliefs about mental health professionals. It’s just that they misrepresent the nature and science of psychiatry and psychology and are indicative of a significant knowledge gap. 

Because of this knowledge gap, and because MacArthur is simultaneously willing to speak with such great certainty and simplicity about the complex matters of brain chemistry, psychopharmacology, and clinical diagnoses, he is unfortunately spreading ideas that are not only unfounded but actually dangerous to the health and safety of people who might be struggling with PTSD. 

It is not overstating to say that taking John MacArthur’s analysis to heart could literally lead to fatal outcomes. And lots of Christians listen to MacArthur and take his opinions seriously.

There are arguments to be made about whether MacArthur should be taken seriously as a Bible expositor. What is beyond debate, however, is that he should not be taken as an authority in disciplines and fields of research where he has no formal training. 

My conviction is that Christians—and especially pastors—should never speak definitively about matters of which they have no expertise. The problem for pastors is that they are seemingly always the ones who are asked to do so. 

In today’s world, pastors are often called upon to give the “Christian” perspective on issues ranging the gamut of disciplinary study. 

They are asked to be experts in mental health, marriage, parenting, political theory, the current geopolitical conflict (whatever it may be), human biology and the nature of sexuality, natural science and theories of the earth’s origins—this in addition to biblical archeology, church history, systematic theology, and biblical exposition (all of which are entirely separate academic disciplines, by the way). 

No human could possibly have expertise in this wide a range of issues.

And here’s the thing: While the Bible is comprehensive, it is not exhaustive. In other words, the Bible speaks to every aspect of life. But it does not say everything that could be said about every aspect of life. 

When God created humanity in his image, he commanded us to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). We tend to think of that command in terms of procreation, which is certainly part of it. But it’s also more than that. Part of being created in God’s image is that we are called to be fruitful and multiply in the way we build society, pursue innovation, make discoveries, and create a better world for the next generation. 

This mantle is given not only to Christians, not only to God’s chosen people, but to the whole of humanity. And so what that means is that pastors and theologians do not corner the market on truth. Neither does the Bible. 

Hang with me. 

Everything that’s in the Bible is true. But the Bible does not say everything that has ever been true. It gives us the most central truths—those that lead to eternal life in Jesus. It also gives us a rubric for evaluating competing truth claims. It is the final authority. But it also leaves much to be discovered through God’s common grace. 

There is a narrow view of the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture that denies the reality of truths that are congruent with Scripture but that can be discovered without Scripture. However, that view is only selectively applied—usually to the fields of psychology and sociology, as well as historical science. 

The Bible is sufficient. But for what? After all, there is no chapter and verse that instructs us how to treat cancer or perform open-heart surgery. And I’m pretty sure that we trust architects and general contractors who don’t measure everything in cubits. 

In those cases, we seem to be willing to defer to those with training in fields that are well established and backed by multigenerational bodies of teaching.

The Bible teaches us everything we need to know about who God is, who he created us to be, and how we can begin walking with him. But it simply does not teach us everything-everything. There are some things that God has invited us to discover ourselves. 

So rejecting entire disciplines of study, to me, seems deeply cynical and uncurious. In fact, it seems incongruent with who God created humans to be. And speaking authoritatively about disciplines that we have not studied is downright foolhardy. 

This isn’t to say that pastors have nothing to offer by way of wisdom about marriage and parenting, politics, mental health, or the origins of the earth. Indeed, they have a wealth of insights gleaned from the careful reading of Scripture. They can help us think theologically and pastorally about all of these issues. In fact, that is one of their main duties. 

It’s just that all of us need to be more humble about the limits of our knowledge and expertise. And we need to be more judicious when speaking to issues that are near or beyond those limits.

No one can be an expert in anything. And we shouldn’t have to be. There’s a reason why God gave us each other. 

So for pastors, I encourage you to be open about what you don’t know and to invite the wisdom of others. And churchgoers, while I urge you to respect the spiritual authority of the pastors in your life, understand that they are regular people and not the all-knowing wizard of Oz.

And in all things, may we seek to replace our cynicism with curiosity and suspicion with empathy.