Biblical Counseling: Five Myths to Mortify

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This is a blog post for biblical counselors, their counselees, and anyone with an interest in understanding the nature of the biblical counseling model. More specifically, this post will address, in brief, five myths that persist at a popular level concerning the practice of biblical soul care. Each myth deserves its own blog post, but in this article, I will only name the myth, and offer a short rebuttal.

The motivation for this post arises in part from a podcast I recently listened to, in which the podcasters attempted to address the issue of how the church ought to handle the issue of clinical anxiety. It was a good discussion, but twice (and in another episode on depression) they made clear assertions concerning biblical counseling that were less than accurate, and certainly not authoritative.

While I have enjoyed the work of these podcasters (and will continue to do so), their comments reflect an unfortunate reality, namely, that many still hold thoughts and ideas about biblical counseling as a model that are rooted more in fiction, than fact. Because I believe in the hope offered by biblical counseling, and have witnessed the power of the gospel at work in the lives of both sinners and sufferers, I think it's important to bring correction wherever these myths are perpetuated.

Five Myths to Mortify

Myth #1: Biblical Counseling = Nouthetic Counseling-of-Old-Plus-Pietism

Well before the "National Association of Nouthetic Counselors" changed its name to the "Association of Certified Biblical Counselors," the movement formerly known as "nouthetic counseling" began to be called "biblical counseling." This was not a mere cosmetic change. It was not the pouring of old wine into a new wine skin. Nouthetic counseling, a movement largely started by Jay Adams in the late 60s to early 70s, was evolving. The name change was and is reflective of a good and necessary process of maturation in those who practice and carry-on the work of developing and advancing the model.

As to the influence of pietism within the movement, several things must be recognized: a) No one can fully account for each and every biblical counselor, or their work in each and every possible case, b) No one can deny that pietism has influenced some biblical counselors as they most often come from the evangelical church at large, itself influenced by this flawed approach to the Christian life, c) There are some persons and institutions who have taken on the name "biblical counseling" while being outside the bounds of the biblical counseling movement as understood by organizations like ACBC, CCEF, and ABC, and d) While pietism may have had its influence in one way or another, and at various times to varying degrees, biblical counseling as it stands today is not a movement rooted in pietism, even while it encourages counselees to pursue a healthy, biblical piety.

The grace-driven pursuit of Christ-likeness, not pietistic behavior modification, is the pursuit of every contempoary biblical counselor I know. It is possible that there are institutions that teach biblical counseling that have struck a tone of pietism, but that does not reflect the nature of what biblical counseling is.

Myth #2: Biblical Counseling = Take-Two-Verses-and-Call-Me-in-the-Morning

I was not a biblical counselor in the 70s, 80s, 90s, or even the first decade of the 2000s. I cannot speak from personal experience as to this issue, and I cannot personally account for those stories of counselees who may or may not assert that this myth represents the substance of the care they received. What I can testify to is that in my training and education in biblical counseling at the seminary level (SEBTS), and through ACBC, CCEF, and ABC, this myth in no way represents the approach of today's biblical counseling movement, what one professor of mine called "Biblical Counseling 4.0."

While the Bible unapologetically remains the central text of biblical counseling, and scripture memorization remains a staple of homework (imagine needing to defend the primacy of scripture in the care of souls to fellow Christians), the movement's anthropology has and continues to evolve, growing in both depth and width. In today's biblical counseling, there is a clear recognition that to be human is to possess a body and a soul. Further, there is a clear recognition that the effects of the fall, as recorded in Genesis 3, extend to every corner of the human experience, including that place where body and soul intersect.

As biblical counseling properly embraces the good role of empirical medical science (as differentiated from the philosophies of secular psychology), i.e. neuroscience, I would suggest that no movement, on the whole, understands humanity with as much precision as does the best of biblical counseling. In sum, the biblical counseling of today can in no way be properly described according to this myth. From trained lay counselors, to former psychological and medical professionals, the biblical counseling movement is filled with people who care about the whole person in holistic ways.

Myth #3: Biblical Counseling = Psychotropic-Medications-are-Sinful.

It may be that no myth produces as much confusion as this one. In the podcast referenced at the start of this post, there was a clear statement made as to the (perceived) proclivity of the biblical counseling movement to actively discourage counselees from taking prescribed medications as directed by a medical doctor.

The insinuation was that the biblical counselor, operating out of a pietistic framework, considers the taking of anti-psychotics, anti-depressants, etc. attributable to a lack of faith in the counselee, and quite possibly sinful. Again, while no one can account for every single biblical counselor in every single possible case, this myth is foreign to the biblical counseling movement of today (BC 4.0).

The fact is, biblical counselors, whether lay or those who provide ministry service vocationally, do not counsel directly concerning the issue of medication, unless they themselves possess a medical degree. It is not the role of the non-medically trained biblical counselor to counsel as to the taking of medication, or the diagnosing of clincial mental illness.

In my practice of soul care, I routinely inform counselees that my part in their total case management is the care or shepherding of their soul, while I leave the care of their body in the hands of their medical doctor. This bifurcation creates clear lanes of complementary responsibility. There is no threat to the biblical counselor's work when the counselee is working responsibly with their medical professional.

Myth #4: Biblical Counseling = Idols-of-the-Heart-are-Always-the-Problem.

This myth arises out of the perception that biblical counseling is primarily focused upon identifying sin issues in the counselee, to the exclusion of all other potential influencing factors. To be sure, much has been written about "idols of the heart," from blog posts to books. But, any assertion that biblical counselors of today make a unique habit of identifying idols of the heart, and labeling counselees as "idolaters" is, in my experience, a fabrication.

Never once in my training and education in biblical soul care has this been the instruction. Some counselees will benefit greatly by coming to see how their hearts are inclined to desire or trust in something other than Christ alone. Some of them will benefit greatly by learning to confess and repent of heart-level idolatry, wherever it truly exists. Still, to suggest that this encompasses, in any large measure, the work of today's biblical counselor is a straw man argument.

Myth #5: Biblical Counseling = Everything-is-Sin-Nothing-is-Suffering.

This myth is related to Myth #4, but it requires that we consider the very real and specific ways in which natural suffering is a universal human experience in our Genesis 3 world. As a cancer survivor myself, without having had any known risk factors, natural suffering and the emotions that may accompany it are realities that biblical counseling well acknowledges and embraces.

Any why not?

The Bible itself is replete with examples of natural suffering contrasted with sin struggles. It is as good, proper, and right for the biblical counseling movement to operate according to these categories as it is for the counselor to understand the differences between law and gospel.

Critique with Care

For my part, I'm thankful to be a part of the movement at this exciting time of advancement. I'm convinced that biblical counseling, armed with the truth of Scripture, offers the world a hope that cannot even be named in any other counseling theory. That said, no biblical counselor I know believes that either they or the movement have "arrived." The good work of God's grace begun in Jay Adams continues to this day. Our understanding of the human experience continues to grow, and with it, our capacity to help others.

While I do not speak for anyone outside of myself and my organization (Baylight Counseling, Inc.), I think I can confidently assert that biblical counseling welcomes thoughtful criticism of our work and practices. We want to progress in every relevant area so as to provide our counseles with the very best care possible. We have but one request: When offering your critique, make certain that your critiques are rooted in the way things actually are, and not in the way you once heard they were, or based upon one review of one counselor you received from a distant relative back in the mid-80's.

Times are changing, and so are we.

*For further reading:

  1. Dr. Heath Lambert wrote a series of blog posts over at ACBC addressing biblical counseling myths. You can read the first one HERE.
  2. For a good introduction concerning what is meant by pietism versus piety, you might consider downloading a copy of this helpful resource HERE.