‘God Works through Doctors’: Perceptions of healing within a Baptist Church

By Bex Thompson (Staff Writer)

The notion that biomedicine and faith healing are two distinct spheres prevails within the United Kingdom[1]. Biomedicine based upon the physical body cures diseases through scientific intervention. In contrast, faith healing is understood to centre upon divine forces able to penetrate and transform ill bodies. Problematizing the distinction drawn between the spheres of science and religion, this fieldwork report considers portrayals of physical healing within a Baptist church and assesses the extent to which the categories of faith healing and biomedicine are considered mutually exclusive within the church context.

My research was conducted in a large, urban church affiliated with the Baptist union of Scotland and my findings are based upon observation of participants attending a 12-week Alpha course (approximately 50 people) and Sunday night worship. The Alpha course allows individuals to find out about Jesus and to start or enhance their personal journey to faith, while the Sunday service of approximately 250 individuals allows for weekly singing, prayer, and worship. Many of the informants I spoke with discussed a desire for an intimate relationship with God through prayer and strongly advocated God’s power to heal, indeed no ailment was considered too severe. As Bonny, a maths student professed, ‘even HIV could probably be cured alongside God’s intervention’. Despite such claims, informants also discouraged overt public healing outside of the church. As Bonny concluded, ‘no-one wants the embarrassment of having fraudulent healing claims’.

If one accepts the distinction made between disease as a pathological, physical ailment treated by biomedicine and illness as the ‘personal, social and cultural reactions to the disease’[2], it could be postulated that curing only occurs in relation to a disease and healing in relation to illness[3]. However, during an interview with Edward, a theology student, he claimed, ‘I pray and consult Doctors. I trust both religion and science but neither alone, it’s a ‘both work together and through each other kind’ of thing’. Thus, the relationship between biomedicine and faith healing, disease and illness, curing and healing, is significantly more blurred within the church context than first conceived.

Faith healing is frequently conceptualized as ‘a belief in the power of Divinity to the extent of total dependence’[4].  Accordingly, stories told of physical healing during my observations were elaborate and plentiful. Every informant at Alpha had heard of or claimed to have seen instant and miraculous healing. Backs cured, fingers straightened and bodily pains dispelled. During Sunday services, individuals often came to the front to discuss their weekly experiences of God. As Margaret claimed on two occasions, ‘I was struggling with chest pains and I said to my neighbour pray for me, she did, and God took the pain away’. After the testimony everyone cheers, claps and prays.

One Wednesday, an Alpha faith leader concluded a healing sermon by stating, ‘yes, most people are sceptical of faith healing but it is not possible to reject the wonderful physical transformations seen’. Successful healing is therefore not based upon the assessment of an objective, external body or professional- as biomedicine would argue- but instead upon the acceptance that God has effectively transformed the physical body[5].

As physical transformations raises faith, the pastor often offered healing services. This is performed through laying a hand on the injured part of the body and simply praying, ‘Dear Lord, please restore this body fully, thank you Lord’. The laying of the hand on the body is seen as particularly important as it conveys a ‘magical transference of power’[6] and is seen to emulate Jesus’s practices as presented in the Bible.

Physical transformations were seen through the healing of minor cuts to the curing of major ailments such as cancer. Nothing was considered too trivial or too serious for divine intervention. Accordingly, during an Alpha interview, an energetic yet softly spoken Medical consultant recalled how a woman diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, started treatment and within a week the tumour completed vanished. The woman was not surprised, claiming her church had prayed and God had told her there would be a miracle. After her recovery, a medical conference was held in order to comprehend the tumour’s disappearance. However, they simply concluded it was indeed a miracle.

Thus, while biomedicine and faith healing both focus on the body and symptom alleviation[7], faith healing cannot simply be reduced to the physical body as it incorporates prayer and enhancing one’s relationship with God. This is also apparent through the Pastor’s following prayer for the physical healing of a woman’s broken leg during a Sunday evening worship session:

‘In the name of Jesus, pour out your Holy Spirit; touch our bodies. I pray for wholeness. Saturate our bodies. Everyone needs God’s touch. SATURATE! SATURATE! SATURATE! Lord you are the healer, the Lord who heals’.   

While prayer was often said to be the first step in faith healing, alone it was not regularly perceived to fully allow for physical healing. As Simon, a biologist who came to Alpha because he wanted to explore his faith stated, ‘faith healing for physical problems is never immediate. I mean I would believe it if an amputee regrew a leg but prayer only works for managing chronic illnesses or those that would get better regardless’.

Consequently, although occasionally there are stories of miraculous physical healing, they seldom occur. Healing is therefore bound within the continued reliance upon and faith in God’s ability. As Edward concluded, ‘God’s will is perfect, he never fails to physically heal and that is why he has given us medicine, to enable us to live when he is unable to directly answer our prayers’. This interplay between prayer and biomedicine was reiterated in almost every group discussion and individual interview.

While Csordas claimed faith healing is open ended with ‘no therapeutic outcome, only therapeutic process’[8], I alternatively postulate that religion and science are being synthesised with biomedical cures being perceived as the end product of God’s therapeutic process. On this basis, the dichotomy between faith healing and biomedicine reinforces a false distinction between therapeutic processes and illness from therapeutic outcomes and diseases.

Furthermore, ailments are often real, urgent and demand instant redress[9]. While faith healing is often tied to chronic afflictions in which patients seek justifications and long-term therapeutic processes, in many cases healing warrants immediate and practical amelioration. Although faith healing is often perceived as something relied upon when biomedicine is unsuccessful[10], it is now argued Doctors and God are seen to work in conjunction, with medicine ultimately a reflection of God’s power.

As Ruth, a junior doctor explained during an Alpha discussion, ‘my knowledge of the body is down to a minute atomic level. Science is complex but it is not accidental. Plants, people and drugs developed together, God made them to help each other’. In line with this, Edward stated, ‘God is the greatest physician’ and Tim concurred explaining, ‘It would be easy to say illness is bodily malfunction but we are more than random cells. I think God lets us be sick to come to Him in prayer and he has also provided us the tools to help him’. Thus, God responds to prayer through providing the biomedical tools for curing.  

It was during an interview with Sarah that the interweaving of prayer, faith and biomedicine became clear. Sarah believed in God- ‘100 per cent’- but could never refuse biomedical treatment. This was because, if the miracle of God is performed through humans, then Doctors are essentially tools provided by God. Sarah summed this up through the following story:

‘It is like the story of the man in a flood, in which a boat of rescuers came to save him but he stayed and prayed, reassured God would save him. Then a helicopter came and the pilot said, "this is your final chance to be saved" but the man refused again. The man died, went to heaven and asked God, “Why did you not save me?” God answered, "Why didn’t you realize, I sent a boat and a helicopter to save you".

Among many of my informants, biomedicine and Doctors were perceived like the boat and the helicopter in the story-sent by God to save you. Similarly, in a study conducted among churches practicing faith healing in Seattle, it was found subjects uniformly voiced ‘no disapproval of physicians or the practice of scientific medicine’[11].  All the patients perceived physicians as useful and necessary and significantly a gift from God.  In the current study, Edward also articulated that ‘God works through Doctors’. The rise and effectiveness of biomedicine was, he claimed, ‘God’s way of saying this is how healing works now’.

Faith healing, Mohyuddin claims, is a belief in the supernatural that ‘leads to total dependence on them for any cure’[12]. Thus, the cure provided by biomedicine is now being encompassed by faith healing. Whereas previously thought a doctor would cure the body, a priest the soul, this is no longer the case. Prayer and faith in the work of God, facilitates the curing of the body through Doctors and medicine. Such an insight collapses the premise that biomedicine and faith healing are distinct.

This report suggests that biomedicine and faith healing are conflated within the Baptist church. Through considering physical healing it becomes clear that while transformations do occur they are seldom miraculous and usually take extended periods of time. Moreover, with faith considered integral to biomedical practices, it is concluded that biomedicine is perceived as a reflection of God’s power, with Doctors and scientific knowledge imbued with divine spirits to save individuals. Consequently, this suggests that faith healing and God cannot be perceived as peripheral to biomedicine, but rather as something understand to be intrinsic to, and entangled with, its practices.  

[1] Vellenga S J. (2008) ‘Longing for Health. A Practice of Religious Healing and Biomedicine Compared’. Journal of Religious Health. 47:326-337.

[2] Kleinman, A. (1980) Patients and Healers in the Context of Culture. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

[3] Vellenga S J. (2008) ‘Longing for Health. A Practice of Religious Healing and Biomedicine Compared’. Journal of Religious Health. 47:326-337.

[4] Mohyuddin, A. & Ambreen, M. (2014) From Faith Healer to a Medical Doctor: Creating Biomedical Hegemony. Open Journal of Applied Sciences, 4, 56-67.

[5] Good, B.  (1994) Medicine, Rationality and Experience: An Anthropological Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[6] Csordas, T.J. (2002). Body/Meaning/Healing. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

[7] Pellegrino, E, D. & Thomasma, D.C. (1981) A Philosophical Basis of Medical Practice. New York: Oxford University press.

[8] Csordas, T.J (1983) ‘The Rhetoric of Transformation in Ritual Healing’, Culture Medicine and Psychiatry 7: 333-375.

[9] Littlewood, R. & Dein S. (1995) ‘The effectiveness of words: Religion and healing among the Lubavitch of Stamford Hill Culture.’ Medicine and Psychiatry. 19(3): 339-383.

[10] Finkler, K. (1994). ‘Sacred Healing and Biomedicine Compared’. Medical Anthropology Quarterly. 8 (2): 178-197.

[11] Doerr, H,A. (1973) Faith Healing: A study of personality and function. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. 157(6): 397-409.

[12] Mohyuddin, A. & Ambreen, M. (2014) From Faith Healer to a Medical Doctor: Creating Biomedical Hegemony. Open Journal of Applied Sciences, 4, 56-67.