Suicide, the church, and “moral culpability”
If you or someone you love is experiencing suicidal thoughts, immediately call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, and immediately seek medical care.
September is suicide prevention awareness month. Fortuitously, a series of passionate, public debates on the subject of suicide recently took place between Christians on Twitter; central to these debates were church teachings and positions on mental illness. While the Baptist faith, specifically, was central to the discussions, I believe that a review of the statements made therein is beneficial to all Christians.
Unless you have lost a close loved one to suicide, it is impossible to understand the utter demolition of the hearts belonging to those left behind to mourn. Your entire being is left irrevocably “changed.” Your entire life is left severed in two, and you are left permanently separated from life before the loss. Nothing will ever be the same. In fact, this unique type of loss haunts every subsequent, happy occasion of life in perpetuity; Christmas, birthdays, graduations, etc. There will, forevermore, be a person missing from the Thanksgiving table. I know this well. In fact, three years ago today (September 1, 2017), we buried my nephew who had taken his own life.
The ways in which leaders in the church discuss the topic of suicide is enormously consequential. Callousness can cause unnecessary re-traumatization for the grieving family. Recklessness and insensitivity can crush those experiencing suicidal thoughts beneath unbearable religious demands (Matthew 23:4).
Who is Jared H. Moore?
The above mentioned debates involved numerous unconventional, controversial, and potentially harmful statements on the topic of mental health which were made by a pastor who is actively a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Jared H. Moore, “a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at SBTS and serves as a teaching assistant for Bruce Ware and Greg Allison,” and has been Southern Baptist pastor since the year 2000, according to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s website profile of Moore.
As a lifelong Anglican, I am unfamiliar with the Baptist position on mental health; in consideration of my lack of knowledge in this area, I reached out to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) to learn the institution’s official positions and teachings on mental health. My hope was that SBTS would accept this opportunity to provide clarification and reassurance to those of the Baptist faith who were clearly concerned by the statements made by Jared Moore during the aforementioned public, online discussions.
Questions submitted to SBTS
On Tuesday, August 25, 2020, I spoke with Caleb Shaw, the Director of Communications for SBTS. He was already aware of the statements made by the SBTS student and stated that no single student is representative of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. While Mr. Shaw wasn’t in a position to speak to the theological positions of the institution, he kindly asked me to submit my questions via email so that someone authorized to speak on such matters could respond to my inquiry.
On Wednesday, August 26, 2020, I submitted three questions, each based on ideas expressed by Jared More during the online discussion. The questions I submitted are shown below. Unfortunately, as of this writing, I have received no response from the seminary.
- A study by the open access, monthly, biomedical sciences journal “JAMA Network,” which is published by the American Medical Association, found that more than one third of adult Americans are using prescription medications which increase depression, and more than one fourth of American adults are using prescription medications which increase the risk of suicide, some resulting in the sudden onset state of psychosis. These drugs include more than 200 of the most commonly prescribed medications, including beta blockers for high blood pressure, antihistamines, proton pump inhibitors for acid reflux, and fluoroquinolone antibiotics (Cipro, Levaquin, etc.) which are synthetic and contain a known neurotoxin and are among the most commonly prescribed antibiotics. Furthermore, the study found that the mental health risks increased significantly for the adult Americans who are taking more than one of these medications. In other words, the risk increases with each additional prescription taken. Anytime a person commits suicide, it is of utmost importance that the loved ones left behind are counseled to understand that they are not responsible for their loved one’s suicide. On the flip side, and in light of the concerning findings of the study mentioned above, a person who commits suicide, for example, in a sudden, chemically-induced state of psychosis due to a prescription medication, did take his/her own life without cognizant free will, but because of a chemically-hijacked mind.
Given such frightening trends discussed above, two questions arise:
(A) Is it Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s position that those who experience suicidal thoughts are always and unequivocally morally culpable for doing so?
(B) Is it Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s position that those who do commit suicide are always and unequivocally morally culpable for doing so?
- What is Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s position on mental health, such as depression? Is depression considered a sin?
- What does Southern Baptist Theological Seminary teach as the proper pastoral protocol for instances when parishioners (or fellow pastors) disclose experiencing suicidal ideations?
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “culpable” as “meriting condemnation or blame.” On August 21, 2020, Jared More tweeted, “Suicide is self-murder. Everyone who desires it is morally culpable for it. That must be the church’s default position. Otherwise, we encourage more suicides. Every Christian has the moral responsibility to fight fleshly desires, including suicidal desires.” With this statement, Mr. Moore stated his belief that all individuals who merely experience thoughts of suicide are worthy of moral condemnation.
As noted above – in the first question submitted to SBTS – side effects from common prescription medications are among the causes of depression, suicidal ideation, and suicide. As University of Pennsylvania psychiatry professor Michael Thase advised, “When you have a patient,“ said Thase, “and their story doesn’t fit the usual pattern — there are no setbacks in the person‘s life, no broken heart, no job difficulty, [doctors] should think of other possible masquerading causes — and the chance that medication could be the cause.”
Yet, according to Jared Moore, “If people are made aware of their responsibility, they can do something about it. But if they are victims of their own desires, they must live w/ them. The person who takes away moral culpability is unloving.” How can he justify assigning responsibility or moral culpability to, or expect repentance from, a person caught in the throws of a prescription drug, chemically-induced state of psychosis? This is simply asinine.
Unfortunately, several of those who attempted to address this issue with Jared Moore were informed by Moore that they “lack biblical empathy,” or “encourage more suicides,” or are espousing “evil” and “teaching contrary to scripture,” among other accusations.
We will return to the topic of moral culpability below…
Are suicidal thoughts a sin?
Back in biblical times, Leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) was considered to be a direct punishment for, a direct result of sin. As such, the purification of lepers was entrusted to priests, as described in Deuteronomy 24. Today, we no longer send those afflicted with Leprosy to priests; rather, those suffering from Hansen’s Disease are put into the care of physicians. Jared Moore, however, appears to still adhere to the biblical-times belief that a disease of the body (including the brain) is the result of sin. In fact, Mr. Moore declared, “Never are medical issues alone. There are spiritual aspects that neither unbelieving doctors nor medicine can fix. Only repenting & enjoying Christ can fix.”
In his exchanges on Twitter, Moore defined sin as “a lack of righteous obedience to God.” According to Moore, suicidal thoughts are not always “‘voluntary sin’ as in ‘deliberate,’” adding, “I affirm the Protestant view of sin—sin is anything contrary to God.”
While Moore was quick to point to the Westminster Larger Catechism and the Baptist catechism to validate his positions on moral culpability and sin, neither catechism states that experiencing thoughts of suicide is a sin, nor that experincing such thoughts merits moral condemnation.
The Westminster Larger Catechism states:
“The sins forbidden in the sixth commandment are, all taking away the life of ourselves, or of others, except in the case of public justice, lawful war, or necessary defense; the neglecting or withdrawing the lawful and necessary means of preservation of life; sinful anger, hatred, envy, desire of revenge; all excessive passions, distracting cares; immoderate use of meat, drink, labor, and recreations; provoking words, oppression, quarreling, striking, wounding, and whatsoever tends to the destruction of the life of any.”
The Baptist Catechism states:
“Q. 74. What is required in the sixth commandment?
A. The sixth commandment requires all lawful endeavors to preserve our own life and the life of others. (Eph. 5:29-30; Ps. 82:3-4; Prov. 24:11-12; Act 16:28)”
“Q. 75. What is forbidden in the sixth commandment?
A. The sixth commandment forbids the taking away our own life, or the life of our neighbor unjustly, or whatsoever tends thereto. (Gen. 4:10-11; 9:6; Matt. 5:21-26) “
Due to the fact that people can, unwantedly, experience thoughts of suicide due to any number of complex factors, often beyond their control, several people questioned Jared Moore about his beliefs regarding mental illness. For example, Moore was asked, “Just so I’m sure I understand you, is depression a sin? I think I gathered you believe suicidal thoughts/suicide is, and I realize this is complex…I just want to make sure I understand your position as best I can.” To this, Moore responded, “Depression is difficult to define. As I have told others, I am no medical doctor. I do not try to discern where illness ends & sin begins. Rather, I encourage repentance/fighting against any desire contrary to God…”
Another commenter queried, “I’m asking if you think I need to repent of my depression, PTSD and occasional suicidal thoughts in order to find healing.” Moore replied, “You need to fight those desires. And yes, it is part of healing, because who we are physically cannot be separated from who we are spiritually. Humans are a psychosomatic unity.” The problem with this view, however, is that a person’s moral status is made contingent on his/her mental state/capacity. Furthermore, it inextricably binds a person’s identity to his/her mental illness, to his/her “brokenness.” Still worse, it requires those who are suffering to repent for their “sin of mental illness.”
According to Moore, “Our greatest problem in life is our sin. The #1 reason we should repent of suicidal thoughts is because it is a sin against God.” As Moore explained, “We are guilty, & should not have these [suicidal] thoughts that are contrary to God. But we run to Christ for grace continually as we fight all sinful desire.” While sin is without question a great problem in our lives, it is cruel and perilous to burden an individual in an obvious state of distress with the guilt of the added “sin” of unwanted suicidal ideations. Matthew 23:4 warns us about this.
When Elijah asked to die
1 Kings 19:4 says, “while he himself traveled on a day’s journey into the wilderness. He sat down under a broom tree and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, LORD,’ he said. ‘Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.’” In this moment of agony, we find that “The prophet’s depression here reached its lowest point. He was still suffering from the reaction of overstrained feeling; he was weary with nights and days of travel; he was faint with the sun’s heat; he was exhausted for want of food; he was for the first time alone – alone in the awful solitude and silence of the great white desert. Such solitude might brace the soul in certain moods; but in others it must utterly overwhelm and crush. Thus the prophet at length gave way completely – made his prayer that he might die – and, exhausted sank, to sleep.”
In an attempt to bring awareness to Jared Moore regarding his flawed viewpoint, one commenter – calling herself “Amy Jane” – noted, “in 1 Kings 19, Elijah wants to die, and God lets him rest, sends an angel to feed him, and calls someone to help him. He doesn’t berate him for his moral failures.” To this, Mr. Moore responded, “You’re leaving out crucial details of the story… Elijah asked God to take his life. He did not desire to take his own life. There’s a big difference. The two are not the same. Praying to die is not the same as wanting to take your own life.” “Amy Jane” accurately replied, “For one thing, you don’t know that Elijah didn’t want to kill himself. Asking God to kill him shows a desire to die. Nonetheless, you are missing the point. That is how God treats people who are weary with life. He binds up the broken-hearted. We, as Christians, should too.”
Another commenter – calling him/herself “Dej” – replied to Moore’s statement about Elijah, astutely capturing Elijah’s wearied state as he sat beneath that broom tree. “Dej” explained, “wanting to die (whether by external means or by your own hands) is suicidal period.”
Jared Moore’s solution to mental illness appears to be what is known as Nouthetic Counseling (aka “Biblical Counseling”), which Mr. Moore insisted is the same as “mental health treatment” (it isn’t). According to PastoralCounseling.org, “In more recent years, many people have started using the term ‘Biblical counseling’ instead of Nouthetic counseling to stress the point that the Bible is at the center of this counseling technique. Most who follow the idea of Nouthetic counseling refute mainstream psychiatry and psychology as being humanistic, secular, and fundamentally against Christians and their beliefs. Because of this, very few Nouthetic counselors have any formal training in counseling, therapy, or any related field.”
In “A Critique of the Nouthetic Counseling Technique,” Roger Clayton White, a pastor, described this type of counseling as “a confrontational approach utilizing a literal interpretation of scripture as the basis for counselor directed change… with a very limited basis for application.” According to White, the “extensive use of scripture is… inappropriate to many situations and nouthetic counseling borders closely on… judgemental moralism.” White noted that the nouthetic counselor treats “each case as a confrontation rather than with the compassion that I [White] had learned was expected of a pastor.”
Additionally, wrote White, nouthetic counseling’s “incessant claim that confrontation with biblical principles and subsequent repentance is sufficient for any counseling therapy is simplistic and dangerous.” This reality was somewhat acknowledged back in 2013, when Heath Lambert – the executive director for The National Association of Nouthetic Counselors (NANC), which later changed its name to Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC) – wrote, “Some of the stories are really bad: A NANC counselor . . . ‘Told my brother to get off of his prescription medication,’ ‘Told my aunt to return to her abusive husband,’ ‘Told my mom she was sinning by using psychiatric medication,’ ‘Berated my depressed brother for being guilty of sin.’”
“I’ve served in pastoral ministry for over 20 years. I’ve walked with several Christians through repenting of suicidal thoughts,” tweeted Jared Moore. “I will keep walking w/ people thru repentance of suicidal thoughts,” he pledged.
When pressed with the scenario of a suicidal parishioner, Moore stated, “If a man came for counseling who said he was suicidal, I would show him God’s value first, then God’s value of him, then his sin, and the beauty of the gospel. I would continue to walk with him through the fight. If the battle required more than I could offer, I would refer him [to a doctor].” Within this one statement alone, Jared Moore (1) oversimplifies the almost infinitely complex causes of unwanted suicidal ideations, which is evident in his insistence upon mental illness as a sin to be repented, (2) demonstrates a reckless lack of urgency towards to the prevention of his parishioner’s possible suicide by delaying what should be an immediate referral for medical care, and (3) profoundly exhibits his overinflated sense of self in assuming that his “biblical” counsel is sufficient for the prevention of suicide. This is truly stunning.
Back to Moral Culpability
Unfortunately, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has not responded to my request for information. Thus, we are given no clarification regarding the various statements made by Jared Moore, nor provided any specific teachings or positions adhered to by the seminary.
However, I did consult several ministers from other denominations, including Anglican, for theological guidance. Because I went to each for personal moral guidance after reading the public exchanges involving Mr. Moore, I will not be identifying these ministers by name. I will, however, paraphrase their statements below in regards to moral culpability.
Each minister expressed the belief that, generally, a person who takes his/her own life is not of sound mind and, as such, not acting upon his/her free will. Rather, the act was committed because of a sickness of the mind which afflicted the individual with mental torture in immense confusion. An analogy was given: humans, like other animals, instinctively flee from harm. Therefore, the act of suicide is actually an act against the free will of the individual. As such, said one of the ministers with which I spoke, “Suicide is an accident.”
To further illustrate the complexity of suicide, let us also refer to an example given by Martin Luther:
“It is very certain that, as to all persons who have hanged themselves, or killed themselves in any other way, ‘tis the devil who has put the cord round their necks, or the knife to their throats.
“Mention was made of a young girl who, to avoid violence offered her by a nobleman, threw herself from the window, and was killed. It was asked, was she responsible for her death? Doctor Luther said: No: she felt that this step formed her only chance of safety…”
Suicide will permanently devastate your family. It is an act that unquestionably causes far greater pain to those left behind than the pain which the individual was experiencing at the time the act occurred. However, saddling the suffering with shame and biblicism is not the answer; it is, however, a sure way to further isolate those struggling with suicidal thoughts.
It is unspeakably cruel to burden the already heavy laden and desperately distressed with statements likening their mental illness and their emotional anguish to “sin.” It is unspeakably cruel to re-traumatize mourning families with rigid declarations of moral culpability, of responsibility for sin, of meriting condemnation.
People experiencing suicidal thoughts are suffering, are not in their right minds, and are in desperate need of both mental health care – from a licensed professional – and supportive loved ones.
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
If you or someone you love is experiencing suicidal thoughts, immediately call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, and immediately seek medical care.
Posted in: Issues in the Church, Theology, Uncategorized
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