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Conventional, Complementary, and Alternative Approaches to Healing

By Christina M.H. Powell

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Good health is a precious gift from God. When disease or injury threatens our health, we quickly seek to have our health restored. In the world of medicine, there are several different approaches to healing: conventional medicine, complementary medicine, and alternative medicine. Pastors can benefit from a survey of the various approaches to healing and their potential spiritual implications as they seek to maintain their own health while they tend to the needs of members in their churches who need healing,

Conventional Medicine: Strengths And Weaknesses

The dominant form of medicine practiced in the United States and other Western nations is called conventional medicine. Those who are licensed to practice conventional medicine are medical doctors (M.D. degrees), registered nurses, and other allied health professionals, such as physical therapists, dietitians, and psychologists. Another name for conventional medicine is allopathic medicine, coined by Dr. Samuel Hahnemann in the late 18th century. The term allopathy is derived from the Greek allo meaning “other” and is based on the theory that symptoms should be treated by substances that suppress symptoms. Hahnemann then founded homeopathy, an alternative medicine system of therapy based on the theory that like cures like.

The focus on treating symptoms and accurately diagnosing their cause is one of conventional medicine’s greatest strengths. Diagnostic tests used in conventional medicine — X-rays, CT scans, EEGs, EKGs, and various blood tests — can reveal the presence of a disease before the patient experiences symptoms. These diagnostics tests can be lifesaving. Conventional medicine has also developed powerful weapons against infectious diseases, such as antibiotics and vaccines. Excellent tools for helping an accident victim recover also abound in conventional medicine — techniques for setting bones, preventing hemorrhages, and restoring a person’s physical appearance through plastic surgery.

Yet, the very reductionist, disease-oriented approach that makes conventional medicine so successful in treating pathogen-based illnesses, biochemical imbalances, and acute injuries can be a weakness in treating many chronic conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, and Alzheimer’s disease. In general, conventional medicine focuses more on curing diseases and less on maintaining health.

The main tools of conventional medicine are drugs, surgery, and radiation. Conventional medicine tends to look at the individual part that is not functioning instead of the whole person. In contrast, alternative medicine focuses more on preventing diseases and maintaining health through lifestyle changes, such as diet, exercise, and the use of nutritional supplements.

Alternative Medicine: Capabilities And Cautions

Alternative medicine is an approach to healing used in place of conventional medicine. Complementary medicine, on the other hand, is used together with conventional medicine. For example, if a special diet is used to treat cancer in place of surgery recommended by a conventional doctor, the diet would serve as an alternative therapy. However, if a special diet were used to combat high cholesterol levels in a patient with heart disease, in addition to coronary artery bypass surgery, the diet would serve as a complementary therapy. Since the same therapy can serve as either complementary or alternative, the various therapies outside the domain of conventional medicine are often grouped together under the term CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) therapies.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine of the National Institutes of Health classifies CAM therapies into five categories: alternative medical systems, mind-body interventions, biologically based therapies, manipulative and body-based methods, and energy therapies.

Alternative medical systems are complete systems of theory and practice that have developed apart from conventional medicine. Homeopathic medicine and naturopathic medicine are two such medical systems that have developed in Western cultures, while traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda are examples of medical systems developed in non-Western cultures. Both of these systems are based on Eastern religious beliefs.

The theory behind Chinese medicine is based on Taoist philosophy and yin-yang dualism. Yin represents the cold, slow, or passive principle, while yang represents the hot, excited, or active principle. Health results when the body has the forces of yin and yang in balance. Disease is due to an internal imbalance of yin and yang that leads to a blockage in the flow of vital energy (qi or chi) along pathways in the body known as meridians. Through the use of acupuncture, herbal preparations, and massage, a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine attempts to restore the balance between yin and yang.

Ayurveda means “knowledge of life” in Sanskrit. Ayurvedic principles are meant to enable a person to take charge of his own life and healing. The theory behind Ayurveda is based on the Vedas, or Hindu scriptures. Like traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda recognizes basic energies. In the ayurvedic approach to healing, there are three basic energies that must be in balance: Vata (wind), Pitta (fire), and Kapha (clay or earth). Through the use of herbs, nutrition, cleansing, acupressure massage, and yoga, the practitioner of ayurvedic medicine attempts to restore the balance between the three energies in a person.

The strengths of these alternative medical systems is the integration of mind, body, and spirit that is often lacking in conventional medicine.

For the Christian, however, the link between these approaches to medicine and ancient Eastern religions is cause for caution. The theories of life energy behind these systems have no known scientific or biblical basis. Some medical doctors who reject the Taoist theories of acupuncture have developed physiological theories that may justify the limited use of acupuncture as a painkiller. In such cases, cause for spiritual concern is minimized.

The second category of CAM therapies is mind-body interventions, where a variety of techniques is used to enhance the mind’s capacity to affect the body. Some techniques in this category are now considered a part of conventional therapy, such as patient support groups. Other techniques are still considered alternative, including meditation, prayer, biofeedback, and therapies based on art, music, and dance. Research findings related to mind-body interactions include studies that show the importance of social interactions, healthy relationships, and church attendance in maintaining both mental and physical health. Such findings make excellent material for sermon illustrations. On the other hand, other therapies in this category derive from New Age religious thought, and caution must be observed.

The third category of CAM therapies is biologically based therapies. These therapies use substances found in nature, such as herbal products, vitamin and mineral supplements, and antioxidants derived from fruits and vegetables. Herbs are the oldest form of health care and are the basis of many drugs commonly used in conventional medicine. In fact, about 25 percent of prescription drugs dispensed in the United States contain at least one active ingredient derived from plant material synthesized to mimic a natural plant compound. Thus, herbal medicine can be effective in treating various conditions. In addition, some herbs, just like the drugs used in conventional medicine, may cause side effects and toxicity in high doses.

Purity and dosage are important issues related to herbal medicine. Herbs can contain a complex mixture of active ingredients. Drugs derived from herbs are pure preparations of the main active component of a given herb. Thus, it is easier to establish the correct (both safe and effective) dose of a purified component from the herb than the correct dose of the herb. In addition, some components of an herb may be toxic. Purification allows the medicinal component to be purified away from any toxic components. On the other hand, the effectiveness of some herbs may be from a number of constituents, making the unpurified herb more effective than one or two components purified from the herb.

A number of cautions are to be observed for biologically based therapies. First, natural does not necessarily mean nontoxic. Some plant components, such as pyrrolizidine alkaloids, are carcinogenic. For example, the herb comfrey, whose leaves and underground parts are considered to be wound-healers by modern herbalists, derives this ability from its content of allantoin, a compound that promotes cell proliferation. However, since comfrey also contains carcinogenic pyrrolizidine alkaloids, purified allantoin would be a safer choice than the herb itself.

A second caution is that herbs and supplements can interact with common drugs to cause serious side effects. For example, leafy green vegetables and broccoli, high in vitamin K, should not be consumed in large quantities while taking Coumadin, an anticoagulant (blood thinner). These vegetables could render the drug ineffective, resulting in blood clotting. For this reason, it is important to fully inform your doctor of any herbs or supplements that you are taking or any dietary changes you have made.

The fourth category of CAM therapies includes manipulative and body-based methods, such as chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation, and massage. These methods focus on maintaining and restoring health through aligning the body’s musculoskeletal structure to improve the body’s functions. Emphasis is placed on health rather than disease and on restoring the body’s natural ability to heal itself. Problems can arise when body-based methods are used in an attempt to treat conditions beyond their proven capabilities. While chiropractic care can be helpful for musculoskeletal problems, be cautious about claims that spinal adjustments can treat diseased organs and heal infections. Furthermore, manipulation of the cervical spine (neck) in rare occasions can cause a stroke by tearing the arterial walls. For this reason, neck manipulation should not be done in elderly patients.

A spiritual concern regarding chiropractic therapies is the concept of innate intelligence espoused by chiropractic’s founder, David Daniel Palmer (1845–1913). He described an innate intelligence within our bodies that was connected to the universal intelligence through our nervous system. These spiritual concepts are compatible with a pantheistic worldview rather than biblical truth. However, there are many Christian chiropractors practicing today who have removed themselves from the spiritual concepts of Palmer and think of the innate intelligence simply as bioelectrical energy flowing from the brain to the rest of the body through the nervous system.

The final category of CAM therapies is energy therapies, which involve the use of energy fields. They are of two types: biofield therapies and bioelectromagnetic-based therapies. While the existence of biofields — energy fields surrounding and penetrating the human body — has not been scientifically proven, therapies such as qi gong, Reiki, and therapeutic touch purport to manipulate these fields to restore and maintain health.

Qi gong is based on the concept of vital energy from Chinese medicine and Taoist philosophy. Reiki was developed by Japanese Tendai Buddhist Mikao Usui who claimed that he gained knowledge of this therapy through a mystical revelation. The ki in Reiki is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word qi, the Taoist life force. A nurse and professor of nursing at New York University, Dolores Krieger, Ph.D., R.N., who is a theosophist, created therapeutic touch in the early 1970s. Christians would do well to avoid therapies with no foundation in either biblical or scientific truth.

Bioelectromagnetic-based therapies involve the unconventional use of electromagnetic fields to treat a range of musculoskeletal disorders. Included in this category are the shoe inserts, knee wraps, and other bandages meant to relieve soreness in joints and muscles from sports injuries. Two possible explanations for the effectiveness of magnetic therapy exist. The first theory postulates that the magnets stimulate nerve endings in the skin surface releasing the body’s natural pain-relieving chemicals called endorphins. The second theory maintains that magnets promote healing by increasing blood flow through the attraction of ions (electrically charged molecules) present in the blood.

Complementary Medicine: The Best Of Both Worlds?

Perhaps an approach to healing that makes use of the strengths of both conventional medicine and alternative medicine would enable a person to experience the best of both medical worlds. The forms of alternative medicine with scientific backing could be used to maintain health and increase physical fitness, while conventional medicine could be used to accurately diagnose and eradicate disease. Certain cautions, however, should be observed.

First, an unconventional route to healing is not necessarily the more biblical or spiritual route. Good scientific research is key to discerning the difference between effective treatments and useless and potentially dangerous ones. Practitioners who assume an adversarial relationship with the medical establishment are often trying to avoid the accountability of subjecting their cures to sound scientific and medical review. Unfortunately, some Christians who have a negative view of science as the domain of atheists can fall prey to approaches to healing that use spiritual language. However, we must be careful to discern biblical approaches to healing from other spiritual concepts.

Second, be wary of claims that appear too good to be true because such claims probably are not true. Miracle cures do not exist apart from genuine biblical miracles. Be suspicious if one product or approach is being touted as the treatment for a variety of diseases.

Finally, a system that explains bodily processes using theories outside the medical understanding of anatomy and physiology should be suspect. As Christians, we believe that truth is established through God’s revealed Word and through careful observation of God’s creation. Mystical theories that cannot be validated through research should not be trusted.

Implications For Pastoral Care

The increasing interest in alternative medicine, which attempts to treat a patient’s body, mind, and spirit, can be viewed as a measure of the spiritual hunger in our high-tech society. The desire within the medical community to integrate treatments for a patient’s spiritual needs as well as physical needs is validating the importance of pastoral care in the hospital setting. These trends can be viewed as doors of opportunity for ministers of the gospel. The increased use of alternative therapies based on New Age philosophies and ancient religions means ministers must be prepared to educate their flocks on the spiritual implications of such belief systems in the same way ministers would provide teachings on the danger of cults. For example, the biblical model for healing outlined in James 5:14,15 must not be confused with the laying on of hands to balance vital energy.

While a pastor is not in a position to pass scientific judgment on the effectiveness of a given alternative therapy, he is in a position to provide insight on the importance of using discernment when seeking medical care. In addition, a pastor is uniquely qualified to address the underlying spiritual needs of a parishioner who may be seeking spiritual answers and emotional comfort from questionable sources. My prayer for each pastor is that he would be effective in turning hearts to the Great Physician and protecting the flock from spiritual harm disguised as health care.

Christina M.H. Powell, Ph.D., an ordained minister and medical research scientist, preaches in churches and conferences nationwide. She is a research fellow at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital as well as the founder of Life Impact Ministries.

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