A Christian group in Bath has been banned by the Advertising Standards Authority from claiming that God can heal illnesses. This follows a very similar ruling in Nottingham last year. These groups, affiliated to the Healing on the Streets ministry, had claimed that God can heal people from any disease and mentioned a number of specific diseases. The Healing on the Streets website offers testimonies from people claiming to have witnessed miraculous healings.
In the Telegraph, Brendan O'Neill claims that this is a very fundamental attack on Christian liberty. Tom Chivers disagrees, saying that advertising standards must apply to religious groups or else those with quack remedies could simply brand themselves as churches to exempt their fraudulent claims from regulatory scrutiny.
What should we think of this? Well, the first thing to note is that the issue of whether God provides specific miraculous healings today is one upon which Christians (and in particular Anglicans) are divided. One school is called the "cessationists". These believe that miraculous healings (and other miraculous works) had the function of providing authority for the writers of the New Testament and the establishment of the church, and ceased (hence, "cessation") with the end of the Age of the Apostles (i.e. late in the first century AD). Probably the best-known group dominated by cessationists is called "Reform". This would have been the standard view of what were called "evangelicals" (i.e. Bible-based Christians) in the Church of England until the 1960s.
More recently, evangelicalism in the Church of England has come to be dominated by what is called the "charismatic" movement ("charismatic" means "gifted", from the Greek "charis" – grace, and refers to the "gifts of the Spirit", which include things like speaking in tongues, prophecy and miraculous healing). Charismatic Christians believe, inter alia, that God continues to heal people today, much as the blind and the lame and the lepers were healed in the time of Christ. "God heals" or "God can heal today" would be regarded as completely mainstream Anglican Christian beliefs – almost every town in Britian will contain Anglican Churches that hold occasional or regular "healing services" at which people pray for miraculous healing, as well as Baptist, Pentecostal and sometimes also charismatic Catholic churches with similar beliefs and practices.
As with almost everything that happens at churches – from sermons to hymns to prayers – some things that happen in healing services, and some of the ways they are promoted, can be regarded as theologically dodgy even by Christians that are broadly sympathetic. For example, in charismatic circles the distinct impression is often given that if a prayer for healing is delivered with sufficient conviction, healing will follow, and if there is not healing that must therefore indicate some lack of faith or unresolved sin. Such belief and practice is, in my view, a violation of the Third Commandment – and it will be important in what follows to understand why.
The Third Commandment states (NIV): "You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name." What does this mean? My understanding is that in the ancient world it was believed that if one knew the name of a spirit or demon or god, one could force it to obey one's commands. The point of the Third Commandment is thus that God is not to be invoked, as if one were channeling a demon. It is not for mortal man to believe that he can chain and command God. In my view, when some charismatics engage in what they would regard as the "prayer of faith", declaring that such-and-such shall happen or such-and-such disease will be healed in the name of Jesus, they (to be generous) come perilously close to violating the Third Commandment, acting as if Christ's name were to be invoked with power and effect at their command.
God is not a magic stone to be rubbed with healing flowing. He is a person who does what He wills. The function of prayer is to align our will with God's and to offer our supplications to him, not to force His will to ours. So when God heals miraculously (as, with mainstream Anglicans, I believe he does still today) he does so on His terms and for His purposes.
One implication of this is that God's healing is intrinsically non-replicable. The claim is not that performing such-and-such a ritual in such-and-such a way raises the probability of recovering from this ailment by that percentage. God's miraculous healing is not induced by any act of ours, and thus is intrinsically not something to be subject to scientific standards of controlled replicability (indeed, the very attempt to test it for replicability is literally and specifically blasphemous). So it can never qualify as a medical claim under normal advertising rules – and I avow that non-replicability as a theological claim, not an empirical one.
So if my understanding (which, as far as I am aware, is entirely orthodox) is correct, then if Christianity is true, no Christian claim that "God heals" or "God can heal diseases" could ever have an evidential basis to satisfy the ASA. Note: that's if Christianity is true! So the ASA ruling says, in effect, "If Christianity is true, no Christian church can ever be permitted to claim that God heals." How could that be other than an attack on Christian liberty?
What, then, of Tom Chivers' charlatans? Well, I'm very happy to restrict anyone that wants to charge anything for a "faith healing" from doing so absent replicable evidence that such practices are efficacious (and, who knows?, perhaps one day it will turn out that something we now call (non-Christian) "faith healing" will have a proper scientific explanation – why not?). I'm also happy to say that even for non-charging Christians (and of course for non-Christian religious groups) anyone claiming that "performing such-and-such a ritual will cure your cancer" should have replicable evidence for such a claim. But neither of these is the orthodox mainstream charismatic Christian belief that God (according to His own will) can (and sometimes does still today) heal miraculously. For the ASA to restrict that is simply (and not for the first time recently) to place the law at odds with the living out of orthodox Christian belief.