Grady Crosland tossed and turned in bed as he wrestled with God’s calling. No stranger to life’s twists and turns, Crosland had been scheduled to attend West Point Academy in 1967. But the war in Vietnam diverted him. Now he found himself trying to decide how he would spend the rest of his life.
He prayed and considered the question before him: “Should I go to medical school or to seminary? Should I be a physician to heal the body, or a pastor to heal the spirit?”
Crosland finally laid down a fleece before God. “If I wake up facing the wall to the left, I go to medical school. If I wake up facing the wall to the right, I go to seminary.”
At the first blush of dawn, Crosland opened his eyes and laughed. “My head was at the foot of the bed and my arms and legs were splayed out like a crucifix.” Crosland finally sensed an answer from the Lord: “Do whatever you want; you can serve Me either way.”
Crosland decided on medical school, not knowing that he’d eventually be able to serve God through both of his passions. He graduated from medical school in 1974 and from Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) in 2005, and now lectures on ethics at RTS in addition to his private practice and medical teaching responsibilities.
“My goal is to model what a Christian doctor looks like,” said Crosland, a PCA elder at Park Cities Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas.
Crosland’s story is instructive as Christians think about the health care issues swirling about Washington today. Many policy experts have dissected the intricacies of the proposed health care plan. But what about the moral issues submerged beneath the debate? How should believers think about health care biblically? How can the church show compassion to those in need of health care? And is it possible that God can expand our vision for ministry far beyond our current conceptions about who should help the sick?
A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE ON HEALTH CARE
Does God Care About Health?
A biblical understanding of health care begins with the big picture in mind. What does God think about human health? And do our thoughts mirror His?
“We need a healthy doctrine of creation here,” says Michael Williams, professor of systematic theology at Covenant Theological Seminary. “God has a concern for all things He has made. Further, He is concerned for the whole person. He doesn’t make a distinction between the physical and the spiritual; rather, He distinguishes between creator and creature. And everything about us is creature.
“The resurrection of Jesus signaled a restoration to the norms of creation, or shalom,” he said. “So we can live in confidence that what we do in the body matters, and it matters forever. Look at 1 Corinthians 15, 2 Corinthians 5, and Romans 8.”
The concept of shalom, of God restoring all things, is essential in evaluating health care, according to Lance Wescher, a Covenant College professor who did his doctoral work in the field of health economics. “There’s a peace element to shalom that is important here,” he said. “The parable of the Good Samaritan isn’t a specific ethic. It’s an example of communally overcoming the effects of the Fall, of restoring a relationship that is broken between two people.”
Further, he says, “We as believers are compelled to be concerned about the health of others. If poor health is an effect of the Fall—and it is—we should try to overcome it.”
Williams agrees, saying that the miracles depicted in the Bible reinforce the concept of shalom. “Apart from the fig tree miracle, virtually all others are involved with repairing creation somehow, restoring people and systems to health.”
Dr. Franz J. Wippold, chief of neuroradiology at Washington University, sees this played out in his day-to-day medical practice. “Luther said we are to be little Christs. Jesus’ compassion is compelling—He always healed with the whole person in mind. I see my work as a physician as part of making the world better in anticipation of the final completion of that work in Christ.”
Who’s My Neighbor?
So if God cares about our bodies and our health, and if we are made in God’s image, must we then care about our neighbors’ health? And how do we determine who our neighbors are?
The parable of the Good Samaritan has much to say in this regard. Some say this parable limits our responsibility to caring for a neighbor’s urgent needs rather than chronic needs. Others disagree.
“This is a story of compassion, of a neighbor helping a neighbor,” said Dr. Bill Warren, a pediatrician who founded and who runs a health clinic for the poor in inner-city Atlanta. “The lawyer in the Bible asked, ‘Who am I responsible for?’ The answer came back: ‘Everyone you can help.’ I see a picture of Christ in this story. Christ rescues us—He brings us from death to life at His own expense.”
And even the most well-heeled members of society are needy at heart, Warren says. “We are all that wrecked human being. Jesus is the one who came and rescued us.”
In fact, Michael Williams says, we are to consider the health of our neighbors as more important than our own health. “Philippians 2:3 makes it clear that we are to consider others more important than ourselves. That doesn’t make room for evangelical individualism, or easy religion, but it’s biblical. I am responsible for the health and well-being of those around me. I can’t say I’m not connected to them or use the spiritual/material trap. The Bible doesn’t present those options.”
“We are all called to serve our neighbors,” says Warren. “Look at Luke 9:15. My platform happens to be health care ministry, which allows me to pronounce the kingdom in that way, but we’re all called upon to serve.”
Is Health Care a Right?
One of the thorny problems inherent in the current policy debate is simply defining what health care is. What should constitute baseline health care coverage? Who should have access to it? And is it a right or a privilege?
“Few people have agreed upon what health care is,” said Wippold. “In Mozambique, it’s a 15-minute walk to a clinic to get aspirin for a headache. In Manhattan, the same headache might call for an MRI, a CT scan, and bloodwork.”
The abundance inherent in modern American life brings with it a certain level of expectation, according to Warren. “In the U.S., we earn things. We think that if we earn it, we have more of a right to it. So, is health care a right? I’m not given the right to 80 years of life. … But God does give us His promises: He says that He will never leave us or forsake us.”
This begs an additional question. Are those who cannot afford health care victims of injustice?
“It’s not injustice that every American doesn’t get the same level of health care,” says Warren. “Different areas of the country have different levels of sophistication in their medical facilities, and that’s not injustice. But barring people from the opportunity to get health care when they want it—that’s wrong.”
Williams views the issue through a philosophical lens. The modern West is suffused with the idea of egalitarianism, he says, but in truth, this never works.
“One person is always taller, prettier, richer. Health care is an element of God’s blessing, but we have to be careful not to turn that into a sense of entitlement, a sense that we deserve it because of our efforts.
“It’s clear in the Bible that God has a particular heart for the poor, the needy, the widow, the orphaned. God aligns himself with the downtrodden and oppressed—that story is there over and over and over again in the biblical narrative.”
What then, we’re called to ask, does that mean for those who bear His image?
HEALTH CARE AND THE CHURCH: WHAT HISTORY CAN TEACH US
Stories from the early church may provide instruction on modeling Christ’s heart for those in need. Covenant professor Lance Wescher recounts this story from third century Rome:
A deadly plague struck Carthage, killing upwards of 5,000 people per day. Citizens fled to the countryside to buffer themselves from the sick and dying. But Cyprian, one of the church leaders called his people together and challenged them to stay in the city, saying, “Christ gave up His well-being for others—we must also value others over ourselves.” These early Christians were the only ones who stayed in the city through the plague to care for the sick and the poor. And it was at least in part because of their remarkable actions that so many flocked to the early church. In fact, the Roman leader Julian, who tried to rid the empire of Christianity, attributed the success of the early church to their willingness to care for the suffering Christians and non-Christians alike.
Some say that the early church was the first group to systematically care for the needy. “But health care back then primarily involved monks wrapping wounds,” said Wescher. “Over time, as medicine became more scientific, many in the church felt ill-equipped to respond and began to cede responsibility to those in the medical profession.”
So, whose responsibility is health care? Historically, the church has been proactive in providing care for those in need—founding many of the hospitals in operation today.
“It’s only in the last 100 years that health care has been taken over by the government and private enterprise,” said Warren. “I think that part of the church’s role is to provide health care.”
“Christians have been involved in health care for a long time,” said Crosland, “mostly to help the poor. In the 1950s, 80 percent of the hospitals were Christian. For-profit hospitals didn’t come to the U.S. until the 1970s.”
All the more a challenge to believers to stay in the health care sphere, mirroring Christ’s compassion and drawing the lost to the church.
HOW THE BODY CAN HELP
Regardless of where believers fall in the debate over health care reform, they can, reasoning together, ask throughtful questions that probe the heart of the issue.
“I think this debate is causing tension within a lot of Christians,” said Williams. “Many Reformed conservative believers don’t like socialized health care but are also turned off by the rhetoric and the ‘tough luck’ mentality that is prominent in the debate.”
Lance Wescher brings a different line of questioning into play. “Why aren’t we in the church actionably caring about the poor, the health care of the poor?”
As a professor of economics at Covenant College, he’s well aware of the limitations inherent in this debate. “Economics is about meeting unlimited wants and needs with limited resources. So, in practical reality we have to draw a line somewhere. We have to prioritize.”
The health care policy debate may rage for months to come—and the implementation of any new policies will take years to assess. As Christians living in the here and now, how can we make a difference with our current resources?
“We have a responsibility to lead others in this process,” says Wescher. “We can’t just preach the Good News, we must help people experience it as well.”
Wescher envisions a future where the church could lead a compassionate effort to provide health care to those in need. “We could be sponsoring hospitals, health clinics, encouraging Christians to train in medical fields, encouraging them to work in low-income health clinics. If the church did this we could eliminiate the need for a major policy shift in the U.S. regarding health care.
“Obviously, that would require some changes: Church members would have to give more than a tithe, and make some lifestyle changes as well. But I believe the church has the capacity to meet the needs of the 40 million Americans who do not have health care coverage right now.”
Michael Williams challenges believers to maintain an outward focus. “Let’s not take our largesse for granted. Sometimes one is given more for the purpose of distributing to more. God called Abraham not because Abraham was a great guy, but because he wanted to use Abraham in His mission.
“The people of God are to become agents of redemption, helping in the mission of reclaiming, restoring, and renewing all things. Our salvation is not the endpoint, but the beginning point, to bring the world back to God’s healthy rule.”
Melissa Morgan Kelley is associate editor of byFaith.
ONE DOCTOR’S PASSION
Physician Bill Warren has dreamed of running an inner-city medical clinic ever since his days in medical school.
“I wanted to provide the same level of care to the poor that middle-class people receive,” said the trim pediatrician, speaking in his immaculate office. He links his emphasis on excellence to his faith: “If you’re a Christian it doesn’t matter where you serve—you can have an impact for the kingdom.”
In 1999, Warren realized his dream by founding the Good Samaritan Health Center in downtown Atlanta, with a mission of “spreading Christ’s love through quality health care to those in need.” The facility employs 30 staff and hundreds of volunteers who provide medical and dental care to more than 8,000 patients each year.
“We’re a stopgap to help people who are without health care coverage,” said Warren.
Good Samaritan’s office space is modern, spotless, and supremely orderly, reflecting the values of its founder. Today, the waiting room holds an eclectic mix of people: a disheveled man in scruffy sweatshirt, a stylishly dressed black woman, a subdued Hispanic family, an elderly woman in a wheelchair.
“We’re a sliding-fee scale clinic, which means that people pay for care depending on their income,” said Warren. Roughly a quarter of the clinic’s budget comes from patient revenue, while 70 percent comes from donations.
But in addition to medical care, Good Samaritan also focuses on practical ways to help patients find employment. “There are a couple of important things I’ve learned,” said Warren. “You’ve got to give people teeth and give them glasses. No one’s going to hire them if they don’t have a good smile, and they need to be able to see.”
Warren acknowledges that his privileged background can make it difficult to understand his patients’ needs at times.
“I grew up with privilege and education—the polar opposite of most of the people I serve at the clinic,” he said. “The disease burden is so much higher for the poor—they have less resources and less education. I need to learn to walk in their shoes and understand what their life is like, instead of wondering, ‘Why can’t you take your medicines and get here on time?”
Still, he admits that poverty medicine isn’t easy: “I see half as many people in twice as much time.”