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He sent them out to heal! Reflections on the healing ministry of the church.

Healing is nothing alien to biblical tradition. Healing has been present among the people of God from earliest times (Exod 15:26) and was linked to faith in the living God (Num 12:10-16; 21:4-9; Isa 38:1-6; Sir 38:9-15). Particularly in the New Testament, healing is accorded a pointed significance. Matthew unambiguously states: "Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom ... curing every disease and every sickness" (Matt 9:35).

In contrast to other religious traditions, healing is nothing marginal within Christianity. This is due to the imprint of not only the ministry of Jesus but also that of his disciples. Jesus sent them out to do as he did, namely, "to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal," giving them "power and authority over all demons ... to cure diseases" (Lk 9:1-2; 10:9). The risen Christ reconfirmed this mandate: "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation ..." adding that by using his name "they will cast out demons" and "will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover" (Mk 16:15-18). The book of Acts shows that the apostles did, in fact, pay heed to this command--Peter and Paul being the most prominent, though not the only, examples. (1) And when writing to the Corinthians Paul acknowledged that healings are graciously granted gifts (charismata) of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:9-10). (2)

Healing was a common phenomenon in the early church (3) as it always has been for popular religion. (4) Surprisingly, though, the topic has received only slight attention within established academic theology. (5) But the situation is changing, because healing has staged an impressive comeback within Christianity, first at the beginning of the twentieth century as a spinoff of the revivalist/Holiness movements in North America and Europe, (6) eventually triggering in-depth studies by such bodies as the Anglican Church in Great Britain and the Lutheran Church in America. (7)

In recent years, healing has become one of the notable characteristics of many churches, especially in the churches of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Some have experienced prayer-healing movements and met with remarkable activities of charismatic healers, while others have straightforwardly become healing churches, like the Zionist churches in southern Africa. But all of these churches still have a hard time gaining sympathy, much less acceptance, for their particular kind of witness and for their way of doing theology within the ecumenical fellowship. This is especially true on the part of the historic churches in the Northwestern parts of the world with their sophisticated theological education, their focus on their abundant diaconal programs, and their commitment to caritas (charitable love). (8)

Thus, the reason why healing matters is twofold. The first is its basis in the broad biblical and historical tradition of Christianity. The second is the actual presence of healing as a phenomenon within the ecumenical community of churches today. This makes healing a prime topic for contemporary academic theology in general and for missiology in particular. Can conventional Christianity honestly face the innocent, very simple and yet surprisingly disarming question "How come you know Jesus and you no heal nobody?"--a challenge once put to a gathering of Roman Catholic priests in the United States? "The Sioux Indian Christian received no answer from his audience," reports one of the attendees, who then goes on to ponder: "We may smile tolerantly at what we regard as his simplistic reading of the biblical narratives. Yet his question leaves an uneasy feeling that we might be missing something. It cannot be easily brushed aside. Should we be doing more to fulfill Jesus Christ's commission to his disciples, 'Go preach ... go heal'?" (9) Because of that question, at least one person--the writer concerned--did become one of the most articulate advocates of the reconsideration of the healing ministry within Roman Catholic circles and beyond.

Still, healing poses an enormous challenge to conventional theology (which may well explain the reluctance of church authorities and theologians to address it), a challenge rooted in the fact that healing is not a Christian prerogative and is not at anyone's disposal. It is a vital sign of all life. It has been present since the very beginnings of life--in the continuous mending of incomplete and broken strings during DNA reduplication in the course of cell division--as well as since the earliest beginnings of the human species. People did not just fall ill. Most of them also recovered and became strong again, whether "naturally" or by quite ordinary culturally established treatments and remedies, or even totally unexpectedly in ways beyond anyone's comprehension, causing people to speak of it in terms of the miraculous. But the miraculous is just one end of that continuum of which regeneration and recovery are the other--which is to say that healings are not synonymous with miracles. This suggests a further complication: Healings are never unambiguous. Even when experienced within a Christian setting, they do not bear proof of Christ's authority or indisputably signify his power in and of themselves. Already in the New Testament we read that Jesus' own healings were doubted (Matt 12:22ff.). The serious theological challenge healing experiences pose is how they relate to salvation.

One notices subtle differences between the various accounts of healing within the Scriptures. While the Synoptics view Jesus' healings as efficacious signs of the presence of God and as manifestations of "the kingdom of God at hand" (Matt 12:22-32; Lk 10:9; 11:17-23), John regards them as revelatory "signs" of Jesus' messiahship. (Jn 3:2; 5:36; 9:3; 20:31). And while the apostles were "healing in the name of [Jesus] Christ" (Mk 16:17; Lk 10:17; see also Acts 3:6), healings also were perceived as the work of the Holy Spirit by the first Christians (1 Cor 12:4). This calls for caution and suggests reflecting first upon healing in the ministry of Jesus before turning to the healing ministry of the church.

Healing in the ministry of Jesus

The simple fact that Jesus healed clearly indicates that to him salvation had an unquestionable bodily dimension. In his ministry healing became one legitimate corporeal aspect of salvation, albeit never synonymous with salvation (see Mk 2:1-12). This is indicated by the numerous people who were healed by Jesus or drawn to Jesus on account of his healings (Matt 4:23-25; Mk 3:7; Lk 6:18-19; see also Acts 9:42) without becoming his disciples. Impressive as they were, Jesus' healings evoked appreciation and fear, sometimes leading to awe, sometimes to rejection (Matt 8:34; Mk 5:17; Lk 5:37). However, in Jesus' unique ministry, salvation was always accompanied by healing. No sick and diseased person left Jesus without being fully and completely restored, as this happens to be characteristic of the "kingdom of God" (see Rev 21:4; 22:2). That explains the bold generalization in the Gospel account that Jesus cured "every disease and every sickness." It is just such corporeality of salvation to which the indigenous churches of the Southern hemisphere appeal and that disembodied academic theology has to rediscover, as do all those churches that hail care for an "eternal soul" at the expense of the dissolving "temporal body" with all its "sinful desires." (10) Already as early as in the dawning days of neo-Platonism in the third century, with its neglect of the body, the North African church father Tertullian, in making reference to the Incarnation, had to remind his contemporaries that "the body is the pivot of salvation" (caro cardo salutis). (11)

A random sample of biblical passages quickly shows that corporeal individuals--not disembodied souls--are indeed the addressees of the Word of God (see Rom 10:14-15). First the Creator cared for Adam and Eve wholly, providing them the Garden of Eden with all the means for life (Gen 2:7ff.). And when they strayed in their longing to become their own masters, their bodily needs were not lost from view. Instead, God provided clothing for their naked bodies (Gen 3:21) and later revealed to his people guidelines for a good life in the Torah. Thus God set into motion the history of salvation culminating in the Incarnation. In Jesus Christ God continued to live out the compassionate care for humanity by feeding the hungry (Matt 9:10ff.; 14:13ff.; Mk 6:31ff.; Jn 6:1ff.), listening to those who cried (Matt 15:21; Mk 10:13ff., 46ff.), comforting those who wept (Jn 11:33), and healing the sick. Jesus really did care for people and their corporeal well-being, thereby reinstating their God-likeness (Gen 1:26-27).

This of course did not mean that Jesus worshipped the body. Far from it. At times he showed obvious disregard for it: "If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire" (Matt 18:8). What matters and makes life worth living is not a perfect body, despite what is advocated from within today's health, wellness, and bodybuilding madness, which is solely concerned with the prolongation of life, as evidenced in its favoring strong, healthy, unmutilated, young, beautiful bodies. (12) What really matters in life is the way in which one enables life to thrive. This is the perspective in which the true significance of Jesus' healings becomes manifest. They literally brought about life in abundance (Jn 10:10). That was his sole ministry--and at the same time, that was what made him suffer!

It is the healing on the Sabbath that leads to the accusation of blasphemy and the stated decision to destroy Jesus (Mk 3:1-6; Matt 12:9-14). This is a powerful but often overlooked indication of the fact that engagement in this kind of life-furthering activity sometimes occurs at the expense of the body, even at the expense of one's own life; the crucifixion is the strongest case in point (Jn 15:13). Indeed, the first Christians perceived Jesus' passion in just this way, as is indicated by their explicit reference in this context to Isa 53:4: "He took our infirmities and bore our diseases" (Matt 8:17; see 1 Pet 2:24). It is this awareness that safeguards all talk of healing ministry against its perversion into special pleading for vitality or for any kind of health-and-wellness ideology. Looking up to Jesus on the cross makes the life-furthering healing ministry focus on its genuine task, namely, to restore Godlikeness to all people, enabling them to become aware of it and, in turn, bring others to realize it, too, for this is the way to stay truly human.

The healing ministry of the church

While Jesus healed by the authority of God incarnate, his disciples did so "in the name" of Jesus (Mk 16:17; Acts 3:6). This does not mean that they availed themselves of this name as a magic formula. It does say that their very ministry was vested with an authority not their own. It further says that they also had been mandated to bear witness to a potential that was, however, not at their disposal, something they painfully experienced when their well-intended attempts to heal failed (Matt 17:14-20; Mk 9:14-29; Lk 9:37-43). They thereby came to realize the difference between their ministry and that of their Lord and Master, which theology later described as "eschatological."

However, the early church also experienced the "gifts of healing" as present in its life and ascribed these to the workings of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:9-10). But the church, while acknowledging the Lordship of Christ, is not a straightforward continuation and unimpeded extension of the ministry of Jesus, and this has a huge impact on its ministry of healing.

The church has its share in the history of salvation, without a doubt. It is called to bear witness to the mighty acts of God past and present by proclaiming "God's deeds of power" (Acts 2:11), the foremost of which is that God "in Christ ... reconciled the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them" (2 Cor 5:18-19; see 1 Jn 2:2; 4:10). This proclamation cannot remain content with just passing on the requisite information or telling the story. It asks for corporeal authentication by appropriate actions of faith and hope (Col 3:1-17; Rom 13:11-14; Gal 5:22-26). This does not mean that the church has to vindicate God or that it is asked to demonstrate the might of the Holy Spirit by signs and wonders (Lk 21:12-19; Mt 10:17-22; Mk 13:9-13) as promulgated by the advocates of "power evangelism" and "power healing." (13) Rather, God vindicates the church (Matt 10:19-20; Lk21:15; Mk 13:11). Nevertheless, the credibility of the church's proclamation hinges critically on the authentically lived corporeality of its witness (Matt 25:31-46; James 2:14-26). But just how do healings and the healing ministry come into play, if not as signs of might and power?

I have argued above that the goal of the ministry of Jesus was to reinstate the God-likeness of all humans. This later became the well-known leitmotif for Christian caritas as well. Surveying the history of the church, one cannot but give due honor and credit to the many works of charity that people felt called to do for the betterment of their fellow human beings and the alleviation of suffering "in the name of Christ." They intended to help those marginalized by society and those suffering from a lack of the basic needs for life to experience tangibly that there is a loving God who cares for them, despite and within their misery. Thus from its very beginnings (Acts 6:1-6) until the present, the history of the church is also one of genuine compassion and care, entailing the establishment of institutions and programs devoted to caritas. And while the healing ministry pursues the same objective, it acts in a particular and highly distinctive way, namely, by drawing attention, in a very strict and literal sense, to the bodily and corporeal dimension of salvation.

The proclamation of the gospel attempts to bring people back into the presence of the living God as it was in the very beginning. The good news of the gospel is that their original integrity is restored to humans by the reconciliation brought about once and for all in Christ (Rom 6:1-11; Heb 7:27). Such decisive restoration of humankind is commonly termed "salvation" and has also fittingly been described as "healing." (14) It is the proper task of the church to make the restoration to original integrity known to all. Since this proclamation will always have to make reference to the passion, cross, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as well as to the life of believers and the life of the church, it cannot but be mindful of corporeality. If it were not, it would mock the incarnation and disgrace God the Creator. Also, this proclamation must never forget the promise that in the end God "will wipe away every tear" and that "death will be no more" (Rev 21:4).

And yet, while seeking to bring about healing, it will again and again have to be painfully realized that the positive outcome of all such efforts can never be definitely guaranteed. There always remains a noticeable discrepancy between claim or promise and the actual result. This holds true for scientific medicine practiced in hospitals and for the workings of medicines and charismatic healers. No less does it hold true for the healing ministry exercised in churches and by prayer groups. Indeed, the church cannot claim to have control over healing as a demonstrative sign of God's presence and supreme power. Healing is not a dispensable commodity, even for those who hold themselves to be genuinely pious believers. (15) Quite to the contrary, very often healing simply does not take place in spite of all endeavors.

Rather than ignoring this dilemma, Christians will consciously acknowledge it and thereby rise to their calling. Instead of proving God right, the church has to be watchful not to take God's place or attempt to command God, the Holy Spirit. What the church is called to do is to let God truly be God by praying fervently with the afflicted and on behalf of the suffering, desperately longing for a turn to the better. While such empathy might well have the impact of some kind of relief on those immediately concerned, it should not lead to the assumption that this fulfills the goals of the healing ministry. Euphemistically deeming any felt relief as "healing" where there is actually none is to the detriment of both the suffering individual and the healing ministry. This happens when it is declared that God always "heals" while humans merely "cure." (16)

We should refrain from sugarcoating grim situations by entertaining convictions like these, not only because they separate what actually is one but also because they disgrace the work of the Creator and discredit the labors of all those who are honestly engaged in bringing about healing by their expertise in the various fields of medicine and in the healing professions. Further, broadening the meaning of healing to such an extreme so dilutes it that it becomes void of any specificity, in this case its corporeal dimension. There are, however, strident arguments to do just that in order to avoid facing the embarrassing dilemma of the obvious disparity between claim and outcome, between promise and fulfillment. But easing the sting by spiritualizing healing corrupts the ministry inasmuch as it suggests that such activity is always successful, totally ignoring that healing is not at the handy disposal of anyone and is always just a provisional mending, preventing untimely death, not death as such.

Of course, this constant defeat frustrates many. In a scientific, secular setting such an experience leads to indifferent professionalism on the part of experts and to fatalistic desperation on the part of patients. In the context of charismatic or "power" healing, such desperation may bring about depression in those who sought healing in vain, the disappointment of their false hopes eventually leading to loss of faith, at the same time that the "faith-healers" will refuse to reckon with failures threatening their authority. (17) But Christians, certain "that in hope" they are "saved" (Rom 8:24), face this situation without becoming paralyzed or disillusioned. Faithful to the healing mandate, they keep on "hoping against hope" (Rom 4:18) amidst all setbacks, which they, too, experience painfully. But the strength and power of their witness lies precisely in always beseeching God fervently to make himself known as the savior while at the same time refraining from trying to prove God right. That is God's very own work. Consciously facing and existentially enduring this tension by clinging to the promise of corporeal restitution is the unique contribution of the healing ministry. Without it the church will simply forget that its being is eschatological (see 2 Cor 1:22, 5:1-5; Eph 1:13-14; Rev 21:1-22:5).

Christoffer H. Grundmann

Valparaiso, Indiana

1. Peter not only healed a lame man at the entrance to the temple (Acts 3:1-8) and the paralyzed Aeneas at Lydda (Acts 9:32-35) but also raised the dead Tabitha at Joppa (Acts 9:36-41). Ananias healed Paul from his blindness at Damascus (Acts 9:17-19), and Paul healed a man unable to walk (Acts 14:8-11) and the sick father of Publius on the island of Malta (Acts 28:8-9). And, like Peter, Paul also raised someone from death (Acts 20:9-12). There are several other accounts of the apostles' activities in Acts (see 5:15-16; 8:6-7; 19:11-12; 28:9). Other references to "wonders and signs" are found in Acts 2:43; 5:12; 6:8; 14:3; and not to be forgotten is Paul's famous reference to healing as a charismatic gift in 1 Cor 12:8-10.

2. For a comprehensive account of the biblical material see Klaus Seybold and Ulrich B. Muller, Sickness and Healing, trans. Douglas W. Stott (Nashville: Abingdon, 1981).

3. See A. v. Harnack, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961), esp. 101-46.

4. Mention need only be made of the Cosmas and Damien cult, which is alive predominantly in southern Europe (see E. Giannarelli and A. Dillon Bussi, Cosma e Damiano--dall' Oriente a Firenze (Firenze: Edizioni della Meridiana, 2002), and of the shrine at Lourdes (see Suzanne K. Kaufman, Consuming Visions--Mass Culture and the Lourdes Shrine (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 2005).

5. For a survey of recent literature on the topic of healing (mainly in German) see Christoffer H. Grundmann, "Heilung als Thema der Theologie" (Healing as a Topic for Theology), ThLZ 130:3 (2005), 231-46.

6. See David E. Harrell, All Things Are Possible--The Healing and Charismatic Revivals in Modern America (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1976); and The Church and Healing, Studies in Church History 19, ed. W. J. Sheils (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1982).

7. See A Time to Heal--A Contribution towards the Ministry of Healing, A Report for the House of Bishops (London: Church Publishing House, 2000); Ralph E. Peterson, A Study of the Healing Church and Its Ministry: The Health Care Apostolate (New York: Lutheran Church in America, Division for Mission in North America, 1982); B. Haring, The Healing Ministry of the Church in the Coming Decades (Washington, DC: Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, 1982); Our Ministry of Healing--Health and Health Care Today (Chicago: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2001).

8. See, for instance, the various papers in Report of the Umpumulo Consultation on the Healing Ministry of the Church, Lutheran Theological College, Mapumulo, Natal, South Africa, 19-27 Sept. 1967 (Umpumulo, 1967). Much more understanding is Marthinus L. Daneel, Zionism and Faith Healing in Rhodesia--Aspects of African Independent Churches (Mouton: The Hague, 1970); Marthinus L. Daneel, Old and New in Southern Shona Independent Churches, 3 vols. (Mouton: The Hague, 1971-1988); Bengt Sundkler, Zulu Zion and Some Swazi Zionists (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1976); Gerhardus C. Oosthuizen, The Healer-Prophet in Afro-Christian Churches (Leiden: Brill, 1992); and The Church and Healing--Echos from Africa, ed. B. E. Larty et al. (Frankfurt: Lang, 1994).

9. Francis MacNutt, Healing (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1974), 333.

10. Liberation theologies, feminist theologies, and all the indigenous theologies can be seen as expressions of the desire to experience the corporeality of salvation.

11. Tertullian, Treatise on the Resurrection (De resurrectione carnis liber), text edited with intro., trans., and commentary by Ernest Evans (London: SPCK., 1960), 26.

12. Just note the many fitness studios and wellness spas and the huge amount of related literature on the market, for example the series of publications and programs offered by James Villepigue and Hugo Rivera, The Body Sculpting Bible for Women--The Way to Physical Perfection, rev. ed. (Long Island City, NY: Hatherleigh, 2002), and The Body Sculpting Bible for Men--The Way to Physical Perfection, rev. ed. (Long Island City, NY: Hatherleigh, 2002).

13. See the various books by John Wimber with Kevin Springer, such as Power Evangelism--Signs and Wonder Today, 1985; Power Healing, 1986; and Study Guide to Power Healing, 1987 (all London: Hodder & Stoughton); Peter C. Wagner, Seven Power Principles That I Didn't Learn in Seminary (Colorado Springs: Wagner, 2000); Che Ahn, The Authority of the Believer and Healing (Colorado Springs: Wagner, 1999); and Che Ahn, How to Pray for Healing (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2003).

14. The Formula of Concord describes the ministry of Jesus, the restitutio ad integritatem as "healing" the "rift" between God and humanity. See Solid Declaration I--Concerning Original Sin, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. and ed. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959), 511. For the medical maxim of restitutio ad integrum and its relation to the restitutio ad integritatem, see H. Schipperges, "Motivation und Legitimation des arztlichen Handelns," in Krankheit, Heilkunst, Heilung, ed. H. Schipperges, E. Seidler, and P. Unschuld (Freiburg/ Munchen: Alber, 1978), 482ff.

15. Everett I. Carver totally misses this point when he states: "As long as Christ has true followers upon earth--persons who truly believe in Him and His promises--sick people will be healed through the laying on of hands and the exercising of faith" ("Divine Healing," in Dynamics of the Faith--Evangelical Christian Foundations, ed. G. Miller, M. Gaulke, and D. Smith [Panama City, FL: Gulf-Coast Bible College, 1972], 284.)

16. A good collection of such contemporary healing stories is Here is My Hope--A Book of Healing and Prayer: Inspirational Stories from The Johns Hopkins Hospital, ed. R. Henderson and R. Marek (New York: Doubleday, 2001).

17. For a critical look at so-called faith healings see Richard J. Brenneman, Deadly Blessings: Faith Healing on Trial (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1990).
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Title Annotation:christian science
Author:Grundmann, Christoffer H.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Geographic Code:0LATI
Date:Oct 1, 2006
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