Book Review: The Emotionally Healthy Church, by Peter Scazzero


…you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness’ (Eph 4:22-23).

We see in these few lines, the Apostle Paul teaching the Ephesian Christians how they were to grow to spiritual maturity. First, they received the truth. This truth then informed their thinking, and consequently led to the transformation of their conduct. The end result was godliness; a new self “created to be like God…”

In his book The Emotionally Healthy Church, Peter Scazzero is similarly concerned with the matter of change and transformation in the Christian life. As a pastor in New York City he raises what he believes to be a pressing need in most churches – emotional health. Scazzero’s thesis is that many Christians need what amounts to a second conversion. “Something is desperately wrong… We have people who are passionate for God and his work, yet who are unconnected to their own emotions or those around them’ (37). Much of the basis of this conclusion stems from personal experience; Scazzero had trained and pastored for a number of years before he came to these conclusions.

A turning point came for him, however, following a breakdown. He reflects on this time as a Copernican Revolution when he discovered the concept of emotional maturity. Thus he writes, “I felt very much as if I was betraying my spiritual forefathers who had shaped me spiritually. The ship had left shore, and I did not know where it was going” (56). This book is essentially a presentation of the lessons which he learned during this period. The core of the book, “Six Principles of an Emotionally Healthy Church,” represents the nuts and bolts of how, in his view, emotional maturity is attained.

The book is probably best considered in terms of the concepts of diagnosis and cure. In diagnosis we are given a wealth of stories and biographical material to consider. Scazzero shares story after story of woe – church splits, marital strife, bitter pastors, etc…. So what was the problem? Why all this failure? Interestingly, Scazzero lays the blame squarely at the feet of a church culture of “emotional repression” (55). He says,

My inner world was not in sync with my exterior behaviour. The Bible has a word for this gap, a word that Jesus repeatedly used toward religious leaders: hypocrisy…. What is particularly frightening is that this ‘playacting’ is often taught and expected in our churches. The result is that huge numbers of people are totally unaware of the dichotomy between their exterior and interior worlds (55).

This diagnosis raises immediate questions. Surely, the stories and lists of failure here must be primarily understood as sins against God. For Scazzero, however, the greatest sin appears to be a failure to be emotionally integrated or true to one’s self. Hypocrisy, as Jesus used the word, was primarily about double standards which dishonoured God – saying you believe one thing and doing another. He never condemned anyone for not being “true to themselves”. While right to diagnose a problem, Scazzero errs in taking for granted some of the basics principles of the Gospel. In turning to matters of self-integration rather than the problem of our sin and our need for reconciliation with God, he strays away from the teaching of Scripture. We are certainly wise if we manage our time and energy to avoid living in a perpetual state of physical and emotion exhaustion; however, we must never abdicate responsibility for our sin. The NT epistles frequently address churches and individuals directly on matters of unity and holy living. Yet contrary to diagnosing the problem as a lack of emotional integration, sin is attributed fundamentally to a lack of understanding of the Gospel itself. Sin is grossly inappropriate in a Christian because Christians have a new identity and life in Christ.

Through being united with Christ, a Christian has died to the old life of sin and their lives are now gloriously united with Christ. Sinning Christians are Christians who have lost sight of the gospel.

It is in his the cure, however, that Scazzero makes the most fundamental errors. Instead of directing the readers to Christ, his word, and the Work of the Holy Spirit to bring “maturity”, he in fact down plays the impact of these vital means of grace and tells the reader to look inside himself and to look back to his past.

Most leaders shipwreck or live inconsistent lives because of forces and motivations beneath the surface of their lives, which they have never even considered…. The longest journey of any person is the inward journey…pioneering new parts of my self – the good, the bad and the ugly (72, 75).

Scazzero here advocates a form of introspection as a means to maturity (though he denies he is doing this). “I spend much time in a quiet place alone with my feelings, wrestling with the ‘why’ questions, in an open, contemplative way before God and listening to him” (80). As an extension of this, he speaks also of the need to look back to one’s family roots to discern generational sins and to understand behavioural patterns. “It is impossible to help people break free from their past apart from understanding the families in which they grew up” (93).

What is most striking here is the way that Scazzero is promoting emotion and reason as authorities in the life of the Christian. He tells us that we will mature through introspection and reflection. The quotation above illustrates how much importance Scazzero places on these techniques; breaking free from the past is otherwise “impossible”. This emphasis should set off alarms, because the effect of his argument is to undermine the authority of Scripture in the life of the Christian. Instead of encouraging us to look to Christ through his Word, we are told to look inside ourselves and into our past. Contrast Scazzero’s thought with that of Martin Luther: “[The] righteousness of Christ is entirely outside and above us.”[1]

A number of general observations may be drawn by way of conclusion. First, the book is preoccupied with man. It does not present to us the great Sovereign God of the Universe who holds our lives in his hands and who purposes good for us in every detail. The focus is largely upon being self-fulfilled, happy, “whole” and true to ourselves. By focusing on self and our past, the process of “maturity” for the Christian becomes largely one of self-effort. Little place is given to the Holy Spirit and the sovereign working of God in our lives.

Secondly, the book minimizes the offensiveness of sin. This is perhaps most strikingly seen in a quotation where he reflects upon a scene in a film.

Sonny has a temper. He is a womaniser. He misuses alcohol. He kills a man in a moment of passion. At the same time, observers cannot deny the evidences that Sonny is a true believer in Jesus Christ. He preaches the new birth and is committed to the power of the Holy Spirit in order to live a supernatural life (39).

It appears that for Scazzero, the evidences of being a true believer are different from those of Scripture. If sin is rampant in someone’s life the Bible is clear that they are to have no assurance of salvation. Christ came to save us from our sins; this implies change. Sadly, again and again throughout the book, Scazzero laments people’s “emotional immaturity” rather than their sin. Maturity is presented more as a means of functioning “healthily” in life rather than as a means of pleasing God.

Lastly, Scazzero, as noted already, undermines the authority of Scripture. His constant comments in the vein of ‘Bible studies are not enough’ are compounded by his minimal use of Scripture in the book overall. He quotes much more extensively from popular culture (novels/ films etc) and personal experience than from scripture. A typical line of argument is as follows:

Film/novel illustration/experience > personal reflection > principle for living

Consequently, emotion and reason compete with Scripture as the authorities for what is considered true. It is fitting to consider C.J. Mahaney’s words here.

That which is subjective changes regularly, like shifting sand. But that which is objective is built on the solid rock of the gospel. When we look inward, we live by the subjective, the temporal, the ever-changing, the unreliable, the likely-to-be-false. When we look outward, to the gospel, we live by the objective, the never changing, that which is perfectly reliable and always completely true.[2]

If we are to expect maturity in our Christian lives, it is only going to come through looking outward to the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ. We must therefore be positioning our lives such that we are constantly hearing God’s Word and living it out with a dependence upon the power of Holy Spirit. Perhaps this seems simplistic and un-profound, but it is what God has ordained. Who are we to suggest anything else?

[1] Luther’s Works, Vol 24: Sermons on the Gospel of John.

[2] C.J. Mahaney, The Cross Centred Life; Multnomah Books, Sisters, Oregon, p51

Chris Ambridge

Chris Ambridge is an architect in Washington, D. C., and an elder at Restoration Church.

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