The Foundation of Biblical Counseling
Reformed Free Publishing Association
The following blog post article is written by a guest writer, Trisha Haak. Trisha was born and raised in South Holland, Illinois. She is currently an English teacher at Covenant Christian High School and attends Hudsonville Protestant Reformed Church.
The opinions expressed in this article are hers and she is solely responsible for the contents of her article. By posting this article, the RFPA seeks to provide an open forum for thoughtful discussion.
Imagine a worst fear realized. Consider a woman going about her daily life yet with the unsettling feeling that something is wrong. She’s experiencing headaches, blurry vision, and memory lapses. At first, she ignores the symptoms, but as the symptoms increase in intensity, she makes an appointment with her doctor.
Before her appointment, she goes to visit with a friend who has experienced similar symptoms and has helped counsel others who have battled this dreaded illness. She sits with the friend who prays with her, reads the Bible with her, and asks some basic questions in order to get a better understanding of what the woman is experiencing. The woman begins to open up about the emotions and feelings of fear as the tears pool in her eyes.
“No,” replies the friend. “We can’t talk about emotions. Emotions are unbiblical and, therefore, unreliable. We must focus on your biblical response to what God has placed in your life.”
And so a woman, already weighed down with great burdens, sinks further down. Her friend isn’t wrong. Our emotions can get the best of us. God does call us to rejoice in all things. And yet….
“Well, I will pray more often. I’m nervous about seeing the doctor, but surely the doctor will help me. God is good in all things,” she replied to her friend, stifling down the pain and fear. How weak she was to feel such things.
“You have to be careful with the doctor. He doesn’t adhere to the word of God, so he must be of the darkness and Belial. Likely, he will not pray with you. One will wonder if you’re really getting the help that you need.”
Again, she couldn’t deny what her friend said. She had seen this doctor before. She knew that he believed in evolution. She was torn. In order to get treatment for her ailment, she had to see a doctor for medicine. But didn’t God provide all the answers in scripture?
“But I’m not telling you to not see him. Go. Take the medicine. But remember, you must consider what sin you have committed and to repent from that. The scriptures are all you really need. They are sufficient for all things. Only the scriptures can truly heal you.”
The woman nodded in reply. “Yes,” she thought, “the scriptures are all-sufficient. I will try harder. I will be a better Christian. I will trust in God more. I will confess my sin. I will repent. I will try to live more godly. I will…I will…”
Yet even as she thought this, her spiritual feet dragged through the mud and mire of her burdens. She would try, yet in the deepest region of her conscious was a seed that whispered into the darkness of her fears...but in and of myself, I can’t.
While such an encounter seems outlandish when battling physical afflictions, it is not so outlandish in the realm of mental illnesses under a discipline of Christian counseling called nouthetic counseling. Developed during the 1960s by Jay Adams, a Presbyterian minister, nouthetic counseling is a movement that rejects secular psychology and teaches that counseling exclusively belongs to the church.
In his day, Adams saw the world of psychology growing in power: Freud, Skinner, and Maslow were becoming household names, and Adams knew it would eventually impact the church world. To further his understanding of mental illness, Adams visited two mental institutions in Illinois. There he and a psychologist worked with a schizophrenic named Steve, who, through admonishing with tough love and a no-nonsense attitude, confessed that he was not schizophrenic, but actually fearful to face his problems due to being behind in his classes at college (Adams Competent 31–32). Similarly, they worked with Mary, a manic-depressive. Once again through admonishment and “getting to the heart of the matter” (34), Adams discovered, not a woman suffering with depression, but rather an adulteress who needed to confess her sins. Thus, by “call[ing] a spade a spade,” Adams realized that there was no such thing as “mental illness.” In fact, mental illness was really a “misnomer,” an incorrect label for the real problem: “people with personal problems often us[ing] camouflage” (28–29).
To Adams, a Christian could not speak of mental illness because the Bible did not mention or use such a term. In his book, Competent to Counsel, Adams writes, “But where, in all of God’s word, is there so much as a trace of any third source of problems which might approximate the modern concept of ‘mental illness’?” (29). Therefore, the root of all problems was sin, whether because of the actions of the individual or because of living in a fallen, sinful world (Adams A Theology 139–40). The only approach to counseling was through “nouthetic confrontation” (Adams Competent 41). The Greek word nouthetic appears often in the Bible, especially in the writings of Paul (e.g. Rom. 15:14, Col. 1:28; 3:16), and often has the connotation of “admonishing with blame” in order to do what is necessary to restore the heart (41–46). Adams was clear on the end goal of his counseling model: “the fundamental purpose of nouthetic confrontation, then, is to effect personality and behavior change” (45). Based on his exegesis of nouthetic as it appeared throughout the Bible, Adams determined all psychology to be unbiblical, and the scriptures sufficient.
To Adams, the rewards of nouthetic counseling were great. By using the Bible to counsel nouthetically, “not only will many of the present problems encountered in counseling sessions be diminished, but a new day of preventive counseling will dawn” (Adams A Theology 277). Any Christian would be lured by such an attractive promise.
To speak of nouthetic counseling is to speak of biblical counseling because the biblical counseling movement had its birth in nouthetics. When I refer to biblical counseling, I am not referring to the simple practice of any individual using the Bible to counsel another, but I am referring to a specific approach to counseling and psychology as originally developed by Jay Adams and used in many evangelical churches. The world of biblical counseling is the world of Paul David Tripp, Ed Welch, John Macarthur, David Powlison, Ed Bulkley, the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF), and the Biblical Counseling Coalition (BCC). It is a world connected to the Bob Jones University, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Independent Fundamental Baptists. It is a world that has connections to the Patriarchy movement, the Purity movement, the Quiverfull movement, and the ongoing problems of Sovereign Grace Ministries. It’s a movement to which every reader should ask himself: What is this?
Adams’ teaching ignited a fire in the evangelical world. Ministers and Christians followed after Adams’ teachings and developed more philosophies, practices, and beliefs creating a second generation of nouthetic counselors who renamed the movement as biblical counseling in order to avoid negative connotations that had arisen out of nouthetics (Lambert). While nouthetic counselors are more likely to adhere to the teachings of Jay Adams, biblical counselors are more likely to follow the teachings of Paul David Tripp, the late David Powlison, and Ed Welch, second generation counselors or integrationists, who have, to varying degrees, taken the teachings of Adams and soften it with some use of psychology for the sake of peace (Lambert). Although some claim a difference between nouthetic counseling and biblical counseling, there are enough similarities between the two movements to label them nouthetic-biblical counseling (Lambert).
Another important aspect of biblical counseling is its reliance upon The Christian’s Guide to Psychological Terms by Marshall and Mary Asher. Published by Focus Publishing, an independent company that publishes material on biblical counseling, The Christian’s Guide attempts to be a manual for Christians to better understand the world of psychology by listing psychological terms and descriptions alongside the biblical description or interpretation. Marshall Asher, a dentist, and Mary Asher, a psychologist, are both biblical counselors who wanted to help Christians navigate the psychology world. According to the Ashers, “A psychological diagnosis is unnecessary and may not be correct, but the ability to translate psychological labels into specific attitudes and behaviors helps the counselor to know what questions to ask during the data gathering process” (Asher and Asher The Christian’s Guide). This, for many biblical counselors, is the solution to the unreliability and ever-changing nature of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
Each disorder then is listed with its corresponding sin. Thus, depression is given a clinical description, while the biblical description column encourages counselors to investigate “symptoms of… wrong thinking and spiritual problems” such as hopelessness or guilt and to help the individual “structure his life to overcome laziness, disorganization, and a lack of self-control” (Asher and Asher 56). Although nothing is mentioned regarding medication for individuals, Asher and Asher do recommend medical treatment for people suffering from conditions such as dementia or narcolepsy (52, 109). However, The Christian’s Guide proves problematic for some descriptions. For children suffering from elimination disorders (bedwetting), the goal is clear: counselors are instructed to “focus on the spiritual condition of the child” and “pray for their salvation” while helping the child to possibly “overcome the fear of man” (66). An individual with Asperger’s disorder, due to “no evidence of brain damage or disease,” must be admonished when “fail[ing] to establish mutually supportive interpersonal relationships with other believers” because “his behavior is sin” and he must be “challenged to repent” (14). Because of “evidence of brain damage,” autistic individuals are not subjected to this severe admonishment although they too must be “taught what the Bible commands regarding our relationships to one another [and that] to neglect these commands is sin” because “the goal of both parents and counselors must be the salvation of the child” which is possible because “there are no limits to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit” (19). Some of the harshest critique is reserved for anorexics: “the counselor should carefully investigate the possibility that she is not saved” (10).
Much is as stake here in affiliating with the biblical counseling movement, and much that requires further study and discussion. What of the biblical counseling movement led to accusations of abuse and cover-up that continue to plague Sovereign Grace Ministries (Galli)? What of the biblical counseling movement led to the lawsuit against John MacArthur’s church for their “inept” counseling of one man who eventually died by suicide (Joyce)? Has biblical counseling delivered on the promise that Adams offered so many years ago? Have churches that adopted this movement seen a “diminishing” in problems and a dawn of preventive counseling? And if churches and denominations claim such, what of the growing trend of “Christian blogs and websites” where “complaints of biblical counseling are beginning to accumulate” (Joyce) by victims, predominantly women and children, who claim to have been bullied into forgiving their abuser or left in the ashes or their suffering?
Much is inexplicable in the realm of biblical counseling. By claiming scripture to be all-sufficient in the fight against the world of psychology, the scriptures have been twisted to fit the model of that very world filled with heresies. Biblical counseling is really psychology dressed in the clothes of Christianity. It then no longer holds to the sufficiency of scripture: in order to truly counsel, one needs to cut a check for $300 and take a class in order to help people who are suffering.
But then biblical counselors become the very people that Adams railed against in his speech at a school of psychology: people who have chased after a “life-calling” and based it on “free-lance” work (Adams A Theology 276). People who are trained in biblical counseling are not truly trained in psychology: they are trained in biblical counseling’s view of psychology, a stark difference that must be acknowledged and addressed lest the most vulnerable members of the denomination are subjected to potential carelessness that leads to further damage and suffering.
The church has always had the authority to admonish through the preaching, the sacraments, and church discipline. By occupying the office of prophet, priest, and king, the people in the pews have the power to encourage and admonish one another because they have the Spirit. No special class is required to equip them. What Jay Adams alighted upon was not revolutionary or enlightening, but messy and problematic. The danger came when he declared authority over the world of psychology by dragging the church world to cover its vast, heaping pile of terms, philosophies, and practices. So ministers, elders, deacons, and ordinary laymen became counselors and therapists, fearful of the people getting professional help, not trusting that the Spirit would lead these people to discern and discover his path for them.
Using admonishment as a platform to counsel is to lay the whole process on a cracked foundation. Yes, we all need admonishment. But Adams was wrong to use it as a springboard for the suffering and those battling mental afflictions. We only have to look at the book of Job to see why. Job’s friends came with admonishment. What sin did you commit, Job that would cause God to bring you so low? Repent. Submit. And it seemed like good advice. His suffering was so great, surely he had somehow incurred God’s wrath. Yet, God was not pleased with their counsel. He admonished them for not speaking the truth about him. It was Job who found the counsel he needed: “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” The counsel needed was the cross. Job’s suffering was more admonishment than any man could place upon him.
It can be argued that there is value in biblical counseling, and of course there is. There is always beautiful, inherent value in a sympathetic ear of a fellow believer and counseling that is given in the light of scriptures. But we must be careful to say that biblical counseling is necessary because the inherent value is not the counselor or the counseling center; it is the Holy Spirit who applies the scriptures to the heart of the believer and transforms them according to his grace. Yes, the suffering people of God need help. They need the word of God undoubtedly. But is this biblical counseling movement, with its pseudo-science and transformation of church roles, the answer for our churches?
Adams, Jay E, Competent to Counsel: Introduction to Nouthetic Counseling (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1970).
Adams, Jay E, A Theology of Christian Counseling: More Than Redemption (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1979).
Asher, Marshall and Mary, The Christian’s Guide to Psychological Terms (Bemidjii, MN: Focus Publishing, 2004).
Galli, Mark, “We Need an Independent Investigation of Sovereign Grace Ministries.” Christianity Today, March 22, 2018, accessed July 8, 2019, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/march-web-only/sovereign-grace-need-investigation-sgm-mahaney-denhollander.html.
Joyce, Kathryn, “The Rise of Biblical Counseling.” Pacific Standard, The Social Justice Foundation, September 2, 2014, accessed July 8, 2019, https://psmag.com/social-justice/evangelical-prayer-bible-religion-born-again-christianity-rise-biblical-counseling-89464.
Lambert, Heath, “Two Sides of the Counseling Coin.” The Gospel Coalition, October 8, 2012, accessed July 8, 2019, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/two-sides-of-the-counseling-coin.