Empathy Scott Johnson
Columbia International University (CIU) Professors Steve Johnson and Seth Scott challenge the notion that empathy is sin in a video released by CIU.

Columbia Intl University Professors Confront Notion that Empathy is Sin

By Julie Roys

Contrary to what controversial pastor Doug Wilson and his protégé Joe Rigney espouse, empathy is not a sin. It’s a virtue Jesus displayed. And failing to show empathy makes someone “come across as hardened, narcissistic, emotionally detached.”

So says Dr. Seth Scott, professor of counseling at Columbia International University (CIU), in a video released today on CIU’s YouTube channel. Also appearing in the video are Dr. Steve Johnson, CIU professor of counseling and president of the prestigious Albert Ellis Institute, and Dr. David Croteau, CIU professor of Greek and New Testament, who acts as moderator.

The video is a response to a Man Rampant podcast released in 2019, which recently became one of several flashpoints dividing members, staff, and elders at Bethlehem Baptist Church (BBC). In the podcast, Doug Wilson and Joe Rigney, president of BBC’s associated school Bethlehem College and Seminary (BCS), argue that empathy is a sin. The podcast upset some members of BBC and prompted a motion that BBC separate its views from those of Rigney. The motion ultimately failed.

Wilson and Rigney say sympathy, defined as “to suffer with” someone, is synonymous with compassion and is commanded by Scripture. Empathy, on the other hand, means “to suffer in” someone, or “to enter into their pain.” They say this leads to “siding unquestioningly with aggrieved parties,” which is unbiblical.

Not true say Drs. Scott and Johnson.

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“The error in the assumption that (empathy is sin) is this assumption—that in feeling with someone else, you lose all sense of self, all sense of perspective or capacity to maintain even groundedness in your own sense of authority,” Scott said. “And it’s an oversimplification . . . We don’t shift wholly into just emotion and lose all sense of capacity for cognition.”

According to Johnson, pity, sympathy, empathy, and compassion are responses to someone’s pain that exist along a continuum. Pity, he said is experiencing distress because someone else is feeling distressed. Sympathy is experiencing similar distress, but with “more emotional distance” than someone who’s “sharing in the emotional response.” Empathy, he said, is not just understanding another person’s perspective, but also “their emotional response.” And compassion, according to Johnson, is suffering along with someone else.

Dr. Johnson also explains that when someone feels empathy, certain neurons are activated in the brain that enable a person to experience the same emotions someone else is feeling. This, he says, brings understanding and allows someone “to be objective” about how someone else is experiencing something.

He added that people who can’t empathize are disadvantaged because they aren’t able to understand another person’s feelings.

“For example, research shows that if your mirror neurons are lit up, and mine are too, then that really helps the relationship,” Johnson said. “But there are particular people—we call it psychopathy, like psychopaths—when they experience somebody . . . there’s doubt, right? . . . They’re only acting ‘as if.’ We’re going beyond acting ‘as if,’ because we’re participating in their experience.”

While Dr. Scott admitted that empathy is a modern term that didn’t exist in Bible times, he said Jesus clearly exhibited not only empathy, but compassion. Scott describes compassion as having an action component.

“Jesus frequently shifted along that continuum from sympathy, empathy, to compassion, in a regular response,” Scott says.

As an example, Scott mentions the story of Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha who was dead for three days before Jesus raised him to life. But before doing so, Scripture says, “Jesus wept.”

“He’s joining with (Mary and Martha) in their sorrow, in the experience of this loss,” Scott says. “And the fact that he’s able to do this demonstrates that his mirror neurons are operating. He is human. But because of that, Mary and Martha understand that he loves them. And that’s the function of empathy. It’s this necessary relational component that says . . . ‘I love you and I care about you.’”

However, both Scott and Johnson acknowledge that it is possible for someone to lose all objectivity and “get lost” in someone else’s emotions, which is unhealthy. But they say the correct term for that is “enmeshment” or “codependence.”

They say viewing empathy as sin seriously hinders Christians from ministering to others as Christ did.

“The concern with this issue goes beyond just the fact that if you if you view empathy as a sin, then you don’t express empathy, and then you come across as hardened, narcissistic, emotionally detached,” Scott said. “But there’s also a theological implication in how we view what God has called us to do and be in relationship with others and representing his image to the world.”

Scott adds that in the incarnation, Jesus provides the perfect example of how to empathize with someone else, while also maintaining a proper perspective.

Christ became fully human, but never lost “sight, capacity, rationality, or perspective from what his father called him to do. In his mission in us, and as counselors . . . as followers of Christ, we’re called to that same thing—of walking with someone, entering into their situation, but bringing an aspect of God’s perspective to that. And those things aren’t necessarily in opposition to one another.”

Doug Wilson and Joe Rigney’s Man Rampant podcast video:

 

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17 thoughts on “Columbia Intl University Professors Confront Notion that Empathy is Sin”

  1. Immediate “money quote” that stood out to me:

    “The error in the assumption that (empathy is sin) is this assumption—that in feeling with someone else, you lose all sense of self, all sense of perspective or capacity to maintain even groundedness in your own sense of authority,”

    Empathy gets in the way of POWER.

    “YOU WILL RESPECT MAH AUTHORITAH!!!” — Eric Cartman, South Park

    “Power is Power.” — Queen Cersei Lannister, Game of Thrones

    “There is no Right, there is no Wrong, there is only POWER.” — Lord Voldemort

    “The only goal of Power is POWER. And POWER consists of inflicting maximum suffering among the Powerless.” — Comrade O’Brian, Inner Party, Airstrip One, Oceania, 1984

    1. Comparing the Pied Pipper , his successors and Doug Wilson to Eric Cartman is incredibly disrespectful. I think you need to apologize to the entire town of Southpark.

    2. After listening to the Johnson and Scott video in its entirety, I believe that Mr. Scott used the word “authority” when he intended, instead, to refer to agency (in other words, thinking for yourself). No mention is made of power, money, compulsion, or coercion.

  2. I personally appreciate Doug Wilson’s view. As a psychology student, I was never informed of the demonic associations nearly every father of the psychology field had. Carl Rogers popularized empathy if I’m not mistaken and he had ties to occultic practices. If one is doing client-centered counseling and not christ- centered, then there’s a problem.

    1. This is the fallacy of guilt by association. The fact that someone holds an erroneous belief may be a red flag that should lead us to further investigation, but it doesn’t by itself establish that something else they believed was a direct result of their erroneous belief.

    2. Sara Zobrist,

      I appreciate your contributions here. It’s refreshing to see someone who shares their experiences without spin or an agenda.

  3. Nothing personal here Sara. I find this kind of hairsplitting absolutely obnoxious and 2 things happen. One eventually gets sucked into that kind of hairsplitting thinking and ends up chasing away Christians, or those on the fence about Christianity, heck the whole modern world…or…they have an epiphany regarding that kind of thinking and end up walking away from western organized religion.

    So quick to place heavy burdensome loads on others shoulders in the middle of our piety. What are we doing, people??

  4. I’m responding having only watched the first of the two relevant videos. There being so much to grapple with in each.

    I propose to be empathetic in my engaging with the video’s two speakers. By that I mean I want to see and understand them, as best I can, in their own terms of being and understanding. Where what they say, and what I feel as they speak, are both data streams for that empathy.
    A first encounter is with what they say about empathy, and what I understand about empathy. The two differing. So I have work to do to glean understanding of what they mean and understand as empathy. I get clues when they speak of going all in, the other as sinking in quicksand, relativism, the shore, the branch, reaching out a hand, and much more.
    I then have to recognise that they and I differ in our understanding of God, Jesus, Christ, men, women, and much more.
    My understanding of empathy is that we come to swim in what waters of being the other swims in. If our faith integrity is strong enough, then we can swim powerfully enough to keep both of us afloat. We can get a sense of what they have to do to stay afloat. We don’t become them. There is no tribal identification. There is no taking sides.
    So I believe in the process of faith; in what we might do individual to individual, to head off what our two speakers see as tension likely to lead to civil war and bloodshed.
    Our two speakers appear to see Christ cleaving in structural terms. Where you take a structural stand in truth, and then look out upon a world of others who are fundamentally problematic relative to your own stand. What I would look to see defused across interaction between individuals, they see as only defusable across a macro-net of apocalypticall Christ triumph.
    All that being said, they speak well to their on understanding and stand; and for that they deserve respect and a hearing.

    Some claimed facts need correcting. Empathy was a term coined in the nineteenth century, and was derived from the Greek; so not a twentieth century invention. Very few instances of what others mean and understand by empathy, have much or anything in common with what our two speakers mean and understand by the term.

    The most valid contention, amongst many valid observations of the world we live in, is about the tension and conflict between what truth is to had in Christ, and how language and social psychology work in the world in which we find ourselves.
    They appear to be referring to that powerful non-Christian effect, when they refer to this deleterious effect as empathy. Something others might flag with the imperative of being in the world but not off it.
    Bottom line. I think that difficulty and confusion is going to arise around our two speakers use of the term “empathy”. By empathy they mean conveniently putting Christ on semi-detached hold, while we empathise; and they are right in this, within the parameters of their own frame of reference or hermetic of being. It would be best if they could use another term; while anchoring it to the observed contextual world they cited in this video.

    Of to watch the other video now.

  5. The speakers in the second video are fluent and coherent, just as those in the first video were. However the second video is complex to grapple with, compared to the first.
    In the first video, where the notion of empathy is sin is spoken to, we have two individuals giving witness to their Christ conviction and associated thinking. In the second video, you have a third party interlocutor, and the speakers, for the most part, speak to the complexity of science and a field of professionalism.
    The extent to which the speakers in the second video, speak to what the speakers in the first video had to say, is actually limited. Giving itself over to rebuttal rather than dialogue.
    Bottom line, what the two videos mean and understand by the term empathy, so differs that their respective testimony rather slides by each other, not much engaging.

    It is then arguable that even with two variants of the meaning of empathy being offered, we have not covered the field.

    My sense of empathy, which I relied on professionally, associates it with how children learn and develop in the very early pre-language years. It also attaches to my personal sense of how I continue to learn.
    Basically we can glean something from the circumstance and dynamics of our context, without going through the cognitive processes we often associate with learning. So empathetic learning here is an innate capacity to learn from what our context communicates to our selves.
    I wonder whether Adam might be considered empathetic in the dynamics of his being, before knowledge kicked in as a dimension of human occurrence.

    When one of the speakers in this second video, says he no longer speaks about affirming, but rather speaks about acknowledging: he appears to be referring to how he adhered to the thinking of Carl Rogers when younger; but now for one reason or another, he has moved on from that corpus.
    Roger’s corpus remains valid and applicable. The difficulty for some Christians might be the extent to which Roger goes to affirm the importance of allowing feeling. Where here Roger’s takes a very different attitude to being human, than do the speakers in out first video. Dialogue between him and them would have been interesting; three persons implacably wedded to their respective hermetics or faiths.

  6. I’m puzzled by the declaration that ’empathy is a sin’; like we can go around labelling things sin or not sin. It potentially reduces Christian faith to a set of dos and don’ts rather than growing in grace. Faith as works is just around the door, potentially.

  7. “Empathy is a sin?”

    Sure. Empathy belongs to the devil not God…….sarc

    Whoever claims that empathy is a sin is neither of Christ, has Christ in him, is not born again, possesses no fruits of the Spirit and has not read nor understood nor followed the teachings of the Bible.

  8. Julie,

    I know little of anything about Doug Wilson–but I will say that there’s quite a bit of evidence that modern society practices a lot of false, hypocritical “empathy” and “compassion”.

    –Unborn children up to and including at the full 40 weeks are all worthless parasitic sacks of tissue that should all be murdered (and you’re canceled if you disagree) BUT we are awful people if we don’t want to give the most hardened of violent criminals a second chance at freedom?

    –Israel is an evil terrible apartheid state BUT we need to respect the choice of the Afghan people to be governed… by the Taliban?

    –A minor child isn’t even allowed to have an aspirin without parental permission BUT the federal government, with the power of the executive order, can forcibly transition a boy/girl without anyone’s consent?

    90% of what passes for “compassion” in this secular and godless society is utter garbage and somebody needs to start calling that out. A civilization that explicitly sets out to reject Biblical truth is not going to correctly arrive at rightness and wrongness on any meaningful issue.

    You don’t go to heaven by being nice, kind, well-behaved, etc. Some truly saved people, even pillars of the faith such as Jacob and Samson really were/are jerks and generally unpleasant human beings their whole lives. Honestly, right about now, we need a few more “jerks” to set things right and less pathetic, mamby-pamby conformists.

      1. Loren Martin,

        Please see the obvious point. I’m not saying that we are to strive to be like them. I am saying we have ample Biblical proof that salvation doesn’t hinge on worldly standards of niceness and compassion.

  9. Colin, I enjoy reading your comments so much! I think DW and JR are twisting the meaning of the word “empathy” to make a political point.

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