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Issues Facing Missions Today 25: The Theology of Well-Being

Issues Facing Missions Today 25: The Theology of Well-Being


The discussion of spiritual versus social Gospel—or both in a holistic Gospel—has now been extended to include issues of health, fitness, diet, well-being, medical mission (which fits in but is an older emphasis), psychological health, and so forth. While the new emphasis is something that has been going on under our noses for several decades, a theology of well-being seems to have come of age only recently.

A ‘theology of well-being’ involves some very subtle shifts, sometimes with the same terminology, taking place. 'Holistic,' e.g., used to mean 'not only spiritual but also social' in theological circles. Now people are using it to refer to 'not only spiritual but physical'. This theological move is seen as extending of the tracks rather than a different line for the Gospel train.  Just what is driving this new theological dialogue?  The present essay examines possible forces at work to develop theologies of well-being and then concludes with an alternative understanding that is focused more on the cross.

Six Forces Driving a Theology of Well-Being

There are actually powerful theological forces at work here, and they might not be related in themselves, but they are coming together in a new theology of well-being. Apart from decades of liberation theology and the Prosperity Gospel, new theological ideas are working towards this emphasis on the Gospel and the body.

1. Physicalism:

One new theological idea is physicalism, which downplays the supernatural world (angels, demons, life after death, etc.) and therefore brings the focus on the physical.[1] Another approach is to see spirituality in Scripture as human health in real and embodied relationships.[2] One related consideration is how to understand Jesus' healing ministry: was it first about the coming of the power of God at the end of the age (1 Cor. 10.11), or was it first about God's compassion and Jesus' great example to care for the needy? Are the gifts of the Spirit to be understood as a community ethic or as a Spirit-gifted community of faith? In a word, to what extent does the new physical theology entail belief in a spiritual power at work in and through Christian faith and ministry and in Christian communities? This physical theology is found in modernist theologies that oppose spiritual emphases in traditional Christian theology. It is everywhere present in non-Evangelical, liberal theology, which denies all miracles outright. But it is also present in Cessationist, Evangelical theology, which denies miracles today but, for reasons of Biblical authority, accepts them as they are stated in the Scriptures.[3]

2. The New Pneumatology

Another theological trend is thinking about the Spirit as life force. The Spirit is understood theologically in this new line of thought not so much as a person as what gives us life and makes us thrive as creatures.  This is well represented in Moltmann's theology, who advocates a new era of thinking of mission as a theology of the Spirit (versus Christology).  The new approach is not narrowing, as a mission calling for people to believe in Jesus Christ.  A theology of the Spirit is, on his view, more ecumenical, because it affirms whatever promotes life.[4]

3. Creation Theology

A third focus is on creation theology, which offers a theology for all people, not just Christians, and emphasises the gift of life that everyone wants to acknowledge and promote. This is easily related to the previous point that emphasises a certain understanding of the Spirit. Interestingly, it takes the focus off of Jesus, the cross, and suffering. It is as though creation theology is now about ecology and personal health, and it does not engage a doctrine of sin and the need for new creation in Christ.  Theology becomes very general, whereas the specifics of belief have to do with ecology: climate change, biodiversity, genetically modified foods, etc.[5] The 2013 statement by the World Council of Churches entitled, ‘‘Together Towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes,’ includes understanding health, healing, and wholeness as part of mission and evangelism. Quoting from the document:

‘This understanding of health coheres with the biblical-theological tradition of the church, which sees a human being as a multidimensional unity of body, soul, and mind as interrelated and interdependent. [Note the subtle shifts in view of authority, not using ‘spirit’, etc.] It thus affirms the social, political, and ecological dimensions of personhood and wholeness. Health … [is] the sense of wholeness’ (Section 51). 

Thomas Kemper points out other reasoning in this document.[6]  This emphasis has its roots in Jesus’ healing ministry and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  It is articulated in terms of community, as all the parts of our lives and community are brought together in love.  It practically means work in health mission and ministry.  It works together with other emphases in holistic mission—peace, justice, and liberation.  It unifies the community of faith and helps to build relations with persons of other faiths since healing and wholeness are concerns of all humanity (concerns of having abundant life and affirming the integrity of all creation). The encouraged reader needs to pause, however, and ask where Jesus is in this physio-political description of the mission of God.

4. Ecumenism

The fourth point has already been stated but needs to be represented separately.  Ecumenism is, for some, an end in itself, or at least a powerful driving force in theological work.  Thus, it is either a stated or unstated argument underlying the urge to move to abstract levels of thinking so that greater relationships can be forged between religions. This can lead to people seeing evangelism as problematic, since it can stir disagreement and even result in violence. Thus, a general, international 'ethic' of tolerance lies at the root of some global, ecumenical efforts to promote health.  The issue here is not about health, per se, but about arguments used to speak about promoting health.

5. America’s Religion

Fifth, in America, the current focus on personal well-being fits with a cultural interest in national health, fitness, and diet that, at times, becomes a political focus with significant social implications (who to hire/include in the group, what to permit--as the size of sodas sold in New York, etc.). We do well to understand American culture as a religion that interacts with Christian faith, often influencing and altering it. An example is the Daniel Plan, which reinterprets the Gospel in terms of health and fitness.[7]

6. Spirituality

Sixth, there is a current in popular preaching of what might be called spiritual wellness. This idea is represented in the televised addresses of Joel Osteen, who tells people that they have a force within them to overcome their problems. As the present iteration of the power of positive thinking, earlier associated with Norman Vincent Peale, it is appealing to people who want a good news that is not about God so much as oneself, although the lines get blurred. The result, though, is a theology with little use for Jesus even if God is regularly invoked as the source of the internal energy for overcoming the struggles and challenges of life.

Conclusion: A Christian Alternative—a Theology of the Cross

The theology of well-being brings together diverse and powerful theological traditions and cultural forces, and the result is a direct, albeit subtle, attack on orthodox theology. It is more of an anthropology than a theology, focussing on the physical without the spiritual, anthropology rather than theology, generic theology rather than Christology and Pneumatology, a ‘life-giving’ Pneumatology that is for everyone rather than the breathing of Christ on the disciples to receive the Holy Spirit (Jn. 20.22), and on what humans can do to overcome the curse of Gen. 3. It reinterprets what has been understood of Jesus' ministry, it deemphasizes the cross, and it reframes a doctrine of the Spirit. Practically, it presents itself as a positive theology about well-being for body, mind, and spirit.

The alternative theology is a theology of the cross.  It is clearly articulated throughout the New Testament.  It is, first of all, Christ-focussed.  Any theology of creation is now to be understood in terms of Jesus Christ and not as a theology without Christ (cf. Col. 1.15-20).  Creation is now to be thought of eschatologically as well: if anyone is in Christ, ‘New Creation!’ (2 Cor. 5.17; cf. Gal. 6.15).  A theology of the body is now understood in terms of Christ’s purchase of us that we might glory God in our body—and this is said not in terms of health and fitness programmes but in terms of being done with sexual sins; 1 Cor. 6.20).  And so forth—numerous examples could be given from Scripture.  Such a theology must also be held with reference to the resurrected Christ (1 Cor. 15).  Paul simply takes every theology captive with his Christ-focussed theology.  Moreover, in Paul, we find how the theology of the cross of Jesus Christ becomes the reality (more than ‘story’ or ‘paradigm’!) in which Paul lived.  The cross is an essential reality in believers’ lives in terms of dying to sin (e.g., Rom. 6) and facing opposition, persecution, and suffering in this life and in ministry (e.g, 2 Cor. 10-12).

The other corrective to this general drift of theological writing in our day is to realize that the Gospel entails the good news of the transforming power of God in people’s lives. Healing is reduced to mere well-being when we articulate it simply in medical and psychological terms. If it is to be understood in terms of Jesus' ministry, it is the in-breaking power of God to transform sinners, heal the sick, and exorcise the demon possession. Healing is all about the fact that Jesus has inaugurated the reign of God. If we miss this, then we'll limit ministry to a homosexual or paedophile or person addicted to pornography to the level of offering a few precautions to take to avoid temptation. Such a mindset denies the power of the Gospel.  Christian ministry of the ‘good news’ will involve praying for the power of God to transform a person’s life to free them from sin and to offer their bodies as living sacrifices, holy and unblemished to the Lord (Rom. 12.1f). God’s grace is not just forgiving grace but transforming grace.  It is a power at work within us (Eph. 3.20).

If we miss the point that the Gospel is good news because it announces the transforming power of God, then we will try to talk about well-being for pastors in struggling circumstances in merely human terms: stay fit, eat well, take sabbaticals, have a good rhythm to the work-week, go to seminars on dealing with conflict, etc. Absolutely none of that (and let's grant it is all fine to a certain extent) comes close to Paul's understanding of ministry. He could say that he was outwardly wasting away but inwardly being renewed day by day (2 Cor. 4.16). He was 100% Christ focussed (Gal. 2.20, e.g.). He held out the hope to abound in the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 15.13).

As Luke demonstrates in Acts, the early Church was a ministry of and in the power of the Holy Spirit in a sinful world of suffering and death.  This does not lead to a Prosperity Gospel.  Suffering and death are part of the present age.  Yet we are ministers of good news, that there is in Christ forgiveness, redemption, salvation, reconciliation, healing, freedom from demonic forces, and ultimately resurrection in Christ Jesus.  This does not lead us to a theology of well-being, of physical health, contentment in ministry, psychological strength, and so forth.  It rather leads us to say that, whatever state we are in, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Phil 4.12-13).

None of this, to be sure, restricts us from doing good to all, especially to the household of faith (Gal. 6.10).  Rather, the issue is the right perspective, that whatever we do, whether in word or in deed, we do it in the name of our Lord Jesus (Col. 3.17).  With this, we move from understanding ministry as leadership instead of service, discipleship as satisfaction instead of sacrifice, and the Christian life as well-being instead of suffering.  With this, we hold on to our future hope in Christ rather than cash in our theology for what it offers us here and now--for when Christ, who is our very life, appears, we will appear with him in glory (Col. 3.4).

[1] For example, see Nancey Murphy, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
[2] James K. Bruckner, Healthy Human Life (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012).
[3] For a discussion of views, see Wayne Grudem, ed. Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996).
[4] J. Moltmann, 'The Mission of the Spirit--The Gospel of Life,' in Mission: An Invitation to God's Future, ed. T. Yates (Calver, Hope Valley, Near Sheffield: Cliff College Pub., 2000), pp. 28f.
[5] See papers from The John Ray Initiative connecting environment, science, and Christianity.  Accessed 2 October, 2014:
[6] Thomas Kemper, ‘The Missio Dei in Contemporary Context,’ International Bulletin of Missionary Research 38.4 (October, 2014): 188-190.
[7] See the website for the Daniel Plan.  Accessed 2 October, 2014: