Date of Award

2022

Document Type

Project

Degree Name

Master of Arts in Reconciliation and Intercultural Studies (MA-RIS)

Department

Theology

First Advisor/Committee Member

Brenda Salter McNeil, D.Min., Associate Professor of Reconciliation Studies

Keywords

Christian education; Curriculum enrichment; Education—Curricula; Healing—Religious aspects—Christianity; Health education—Study and teaching; Health promotion; Holistic medicine—Religious aspects—Christianity; Human body; Jesus Christ—Incarnation; Public health; Reconciliation—Religious aspects—Christianity; Shalom (The Hebrew word); Social justice—Religious aspects—Christianity; Spiritual healing—Christianity; Theological anthropology; Theological seminaries; Well-being

Abstract

Christianity is an embodied faith. God shaped human beings from the dust of the earth in God’s own image, in relationship with God, each other, and creation, and called us “good”. Our bodies, souls, and relationships are inextricably intertwined, and full health can be defined as a state of shalom, the flourishing of our whole selves in the context of our relationships and environment. Alienation, sickness, injustice, and suffering are experienced as brokenness in our bodies, souls, relationships, institutions, and environment. Restoration of health involves identifying and healing what is broken. God affirmed the goodness and worth of our bodies by becoming incarnate as Jesus, the son of man, entering and sharing our brokenness. Through his life, ministry, death, and resurrection, Jesus revealed what salvation, restoration, and shalom look like. His proclamation of salvation was embodied and demonstrated through healing the sick, cleansing the lepers, freeing the captives, proclaiming good news to the poor, and letting the oppressed go free (Luke 4:18-19; 7:22). His bodily resurrection ensures the redemption and healing of our own bodies. Not only does Jesus offer this salvation and shalom to us as individuals; as the church, we are also sent as he was sent (John 20:20), called and empowered by the Holy Spirit to participate in Jesus’ work of reconciliation and healing and become his healing body on earth.

The early church took this mission seriously. Even as they endured persecution, they became known as a community of healing, both for their own members and for those outside of it. During famine and plagues, the early church was often the only institution that systematically cared for the sick and dying. The church’s healing ministry encompassed cures accomplished in Christ’s name, the relief of suffering, caring for the sick, reconciliation and peace-making, building families out of strangers, relieving isolation, challenging injustice, and reforming society. Historian Amanda Porterfield claims that “healing has persisted over time and across cultural spaces as a defining element of Christianity and a major contributor to Christianity’s endurance, expansion, and success.”

In much of the world, the contemporary church is still known as a community of health and healing. However, many American churches define their mission and purpose without reference to health. They see themselves as the stewards of a spiritual gospel, focusing on the salvation and care of people’s souls and leaving issues of physical health and healing to systems and providers outside the church. Perhaps this is part of the reason that the American church’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic differed so dramatically from the witness of the early church in the face of epidemics.

I believe that churches have unique healing gifts and assets, and that the church’s call to participate in Jesus’ work of healing and reconciliation remains as pressing today as it was at Pentecost. Churches can answer that call by developing, teaching, and embodying a theology of health and healing and making it an integral part of their mission; by identifying where health is lacking in their own context and in the communities in which they’re placed; by employing multidisciplinary tools and frameworks to identify and understand the determinants of health issues; by discerning the unique resources the church community can offer in response; and by partnering with community members and organizations in the work of healing brokenness and restoring shalom. This is work that requires knowing how to work in partnership with church and community members in a way that empowers them as co-participants and co-agents in every part of the process.

How can seminaries effectively prepare Christian leaders to form their churches into communities of health and healing? Because of the interdisciplinary nature of health and healing work, much of what is needed is already covered in seminary education and training, especially if there are reconciliation-centered classes offered as a part of the curriculum (as is the case in SPS). Classes which teach and discuss spiritual, emotional and relational wholeness, as well as issues of justice and racism that disrupt the health of individuals and communities, address important determinants of health. However, there are specific skills and competencies for leading churches in the areas of health and healing that are not included in a standard seminary curriculum. In addition, seminary students are rarely given a theology, framework, and vision for church-based health and healing with which to integrate relevant resources and skills from other sources and classes. There is a clear opening and need for a seminary class that will help Christian leaders recover a vision of the church as a community of health and healing and equip them to lead churches into this vision.

In my final chapter, I describe a 2-3 credit class on health, healing and the church as a seminary course offering. This class will equip students with the skills to lead churches in their health and healing mission and will support and strengthen the reconciliation and theology classes already offered. My hope is that such a class would prepare Christian leaders to form their churches into communities of health and healing that can build shalom in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic’s destruction.

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