Counseling in the Church: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly — Part Two |

T. A. McMahon

There’s a saying that underscores what the Scriptures declare continually: The Bible is not a book that men could write if they would…or would write if they could. Regarding the first part of the saying, finite man obviously lacks the omniscience of our infinite God, so he cannot know the hearts and minds of his fellow man.

As to the latter part, fallen prideful man would hardly be inclined to expose his wickedness, as is presented in Matthew:15:18-20 and numerous other places: “…[t]hose things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: these are the things which defile a man….”

Clearly the Bible is at odds with psychology’s view of the nature of man, which this pseudo-science proclaims is inherently good. Therefore, any issues adversely affecting our lives are said to be caused by external factors, i.e., parents, friends, enemies, our environment, the media, etc. Moreover, the issue of sin cannot even be addressed in psychotherapy (except for those therapists who will negatively point to belief in it as an obstruction to achieving a healthy mental condition).

Numerous other problems with psychological counseling have been presented in the many volumes authored by Dr. Martin and Deidre Bobgan and a host of others, including books by various researchers and academics. Even so, common sense is often a valued means for discerning what’s wrong with psychotherapy. For the believer in Jesus Christ and His Word, he or she is without excuse regarding turning from God’s Word to psychological counseling for help related to mental, emotional, and behavioral problems.

For all the claims of believing in the inerrancy and authority of Scripture, many, including biblical Christians and pastors, do not hold fast to the sufficiency of the Word of God, which the Bible claims. “…as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue” (2 Peter:1:3).

For a believer, what does not pertain to “life and godliness”? Isn’t the Bible wholly sufficient to meet the needs of our Christian walk? For example, Psalm:119:9 declares, “Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to thy word.” Psalm:1:1 adds an instruction that certainly relates to psychological counseling: “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.”

Even a cursory review of the lives of the founders of psychotherapy and their latter-day disciples reveal their blatant ungodliness, let alone their false teachings. Consider 2 Timothy:3:16-17: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be complete, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.”

What could psychological counseling possibly supply regarding “instruction in righteousness” and the enablement of a counselee to manifest “good works”? Nothing…and worse. The entire field of psychotherapy is spiritually bankrupt, creates confusion and hopelessness, intimidates through its deception and promotions, and keeps people in mental and emotional bondage. Many years ago, secular psychologist Dr. O. Hobart Mowrer, definitely not a biblical Christian, asked this question: “Has evangelical religion sold its birthright for a mess of psychological pottage?”

Time has shown that the answer is “yes!” That’s the bad of “the good, the bad, and the ugly” that has influenced counseling in the church. There is much more that could be said to inform Christians about the unbiblical teachings and practices of psychotherapy. And most of those things can be readily discerned by simply being a Berean (Acts:17:10-11), those who compared what they were being taught with what the Word of God teaches. Furthermore, as has been noted, a biblical Christian has no grounds for turning to psychological counseling.

Yet many would agree and declare with great assurance that they have turned from psychology to one of the programs that are a part of the Biblical Counseling Movement. That would include the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC), the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF), and the Biblical Counseling Foundation (BCF). That may seem to be a good thing but sadly, it’s rarely the case.

What’s the problem?

Biblical counseling programs look to the Bible, for the most part, for its teachings about the curse of sin, the fallen nature of man, the ways and means of how we can be reconciled to God, and receiving the gift of eternal life by putting one’s faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sin. And they are acutely aware that such beliefs are rejected by the psychological approach to counseling. Nevertheless, they have drifted (maybe even rushed!) into some of the methods of clinical counseling that inevitably are counterproductive regarding the spiritual welfare of those involved, and that includes both the biblical counselor and the counselees.

There are a host of practices performed in Biblical Counseling that have no basis in the Scriptures. They include searching one’s past to discover the basis for one’s sin issues through personal data inventory (PDI), setting up a position of counselor within a fellowship, females counseling males and vice-versa, charging for counseling services, either within the church or external to the church, obtaining licenses from the state in order to counsel, earning degrees and certification in counseling, scheduled fifty-minute counseling sessions, and maintaining an air of professionalism.

None of those things can be found in the Bible as relating to ministering to brothers and sisters in Christ. They are in fact the modus operandi of psychological counseling that inevitably compromises biblical truth. As destructive as they are to ministering biblically—and they are really bad—they are not the ugly part, although they are related.

“Problem-centered counseling” is the chief cause of the ugliness.

The Bobgans underscore the unbiblical facets of problem-centered counseling in their books Christ-centered Ministry versus Problem-centered Counseling and Stop Counseling! Start Ministering! They begin by making an important point in their distinction between the terms “counseling” and “ministering.”

“Counseling” is a word that carries a lot of baggage, often bringing to mind psychological ways and means when that is never intended. They chose to distinguish the term counseling (because it is generic enough to cover both psychological and biblical counseling) and ministering, because it puts the emphasis on Christ and the teachings of His Word.

So, when does biblical counseling not become biblical ministering? In two very critical areas. First and foremost, when the counseling becomes problem-centered. Predictably, that leads away from a focus that is Jesus-centered and obedience-to-His-Word oriented. As the Bobgans point out, “We contend that as long as personal ministry remains problem-centered, and therefore person-focused, there will be less spiritual growth and more superficial fixing of the flesh.” Once a problem is “fixed,” it usually lingers on and comes up in future counseling sessions. Whether the counselor is secular or biblical he or she becomes the “fixer.” And the approach becomes a revolving door of dealing with new problem after problem.

On the other hand, the ministering approach focuses primarily on encouraging brothers and sisters in Christ to strengthen their walk with Him, thereby maturing the believer in the faith and attaining to godliness. Remember, godliness is one of the traits gained for believers in the verse telling us of the sufficiency of God’s Word (2 Peter:1:3). That will not only help reduce life’s troubles without the need for specifically addressing each one, but it will eliminate many future issues from developing and rearing their ugly heads. Besides that, it does away with dependence upon a fellow human being as the “fixer” and shifts one’s reliance to the Holy Spirit, where it should be.

The problem-centered method is common in the Biblical Counseling Movement, and that may seem reasonable to some. Counseling is in the business of resolving problems. Right? No, not according to Scripture. The problem-centered method is not biblical and has created situations that foster sin rather than bringing about repentance. And it often gets really ugly. For example, counseling, as we noted, is talk therapy. It is conversation. The counselor, in attempting to resolve the conflict between a husband and wife, has them air their problems (which is a problem in itself). That nearly always produces accusations, one against the other, which often results in consequences found and condemned in Ephesians:4:31: “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice.”

The problem-centered exchange between the counselees often exhibits sins such as slander, self-serving biases, backbiting, blame-shifting, etc. Rather than a biblical counselor halting the sinful speaking, he or she often fosters it by asking probing questions that supposedly give insights that reveal the heart of the problem. The methodology of exploring problems in depth in search of solutions related to sin is an act of vanity. It goes nowhere and, in the process, it exacerbates the conflict. Furthermore, and most important, it’s a diversion from what the Bible clearly says, which can be understood and obeyed without difficulty.

Problem-centered counseling rarely, if ever, directs the counselees past the problems to Christ himself and their walk with Him. Some of the Biblical Counseling organizations have produced videos utilizing their people role playing as counselees. What’s presented in their own productions shows clearly their approach to counseling as I’ve just described. The Bobgans “are not saying ‘Do not talk about problems.’ We do listen to problems; but the way we respond and the direction we take differ from those in the biblical counseling movement.” The ministering approach does not major in addressing problems in contrast to the biblical counseling movement’s problem-centered approach. The goal of the ministering approach is to “turn the attention back to the Lord and His Word and the daily walk as soon as possible and as often as necessary. Of course there are exceptions, as when immediate action needs to be taken. For instance, if gross sin has been committed, such as a crime, physical or sexual abuse, or unfaithfulness in a marriage, there must be evidence and there must be action beyond the conversation of personal ministry.”

What of the good in regard to counseling in the church? I know of some, who, although they don’t make the distinctions between the terms “counseling” and “ministering,” nevertheless do not subscribe to either psychological counseling or the hybrid of that found in the Biblical Counseling Movement. They do not refer their people out to professional psychotherapists, do not set apart individuals as counselors, nor do they adhere to any methodology of counseling.

They believe that the full counsel of God, taught through verse-by-verse sermons, Bible studies with like-minded believers, individuals studying the Scripture, much time spent in prayer, and obedience to the Scriptures through the power of the Holy Spirit enables all biblical Christians to be fruitful and productive in their life in Christ. Those things are sufficient in dealing with life’s problems.

Hopefully, the Lord will use these two articles to speak to those who have been confused by, even deceived by, practices and experiences they have had either as counselors or counselees and be encouraged to “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians:5:21).

I believe the Bobgans have pointed the church back to the old paths, which the Holy Spirit inspired the prophet Jeremiah both to restore and to warn his people. “Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah:6:16). My prayer is that the church will not respond as the Israelites did: “But they said, We will not walk therein.”

I can’t think of a better way to end this message than to quote the conclusion given in the Bobgans’ book Stop Counseling! Start Ministering! 

“We urge all believers to grow in grace, in faith, and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ and to be ready to minister to one another as the Lord provides opportunities and wisdom. New believers can certainly testify of the Lord’s work in them, which can be a great encouragement to others. As believers talk with one another, they will find opportunities to give a word of comfort, encouragement, and exhortation.

“They may have opportunities to remind one another of essential truths of Scripture that need to be emphasized. And, they may find themselves sought out for personal ministry by those who are enduring trials and various problems of living. Those who are trusting the Lord and His Word, who are giving themselves as ready vessels for the Holy Spirit to work through them, and who have been walking daily with the Lord through both sunny and stormy days are equipped to minister in some of the most difficult situations that fellow believers may be experiencing.

“We thank God for those individuals who, without counseling certificates, degrees, manuals, books, or programs, are not intimidated by a lack of counseling education and training and who minister to others just as believers were doing prior to the rise of the psychological and biblical counseling movements. We say to all who have been prepared by the Lord and are dependent on Him rather than on the wisdom of men: Go forth and minister by grace through faith.”