Standing on the Promises of God

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As the Executive Director of Baylight Counseling, a ministry dedicated to the practice of biblical soul care for the building up of the church, I've had the opportunity to connect with a few friends in the counseling world lately concerning the topic of counseling theory.

For the layperson, this topic will be dreadfully boring, but for the counselor, theory and model mean everything.

An issue unrelated to this post from within the biblical counseling community served as the impetus for these conversations. The dialogue that ensued served as a reminder for me as to why we at Baylight Counseling chose the biblical counseling model in contrast with other options, particularly the Christian-integration model, which is perhaps the most common.

As we not only provide counseling services at Baylight, but seek to advance the cause of biblical counseling in the church broadly, I thought a post that focuses on some of the issues surrounding our decision to choose biblical counseling would be appropriate.

I don't intend this post to serve as a polemic against those who choose differently (i.e. choose to attempt integration or pursue state licensure), but there should be no doubt that there are real differences between our two camps--differences that cannot and should not be ignored by counselor or counselee.

The theological and ethical issues are many, and sometimes difficult to parse. One blog post can't be anything more than an introduction to the issues, so I pray that you'll read with this in mind. A fuller understanding of the topic would require study of counseling theories, along with topics such as systematic and historical theologies.

Nonetheless, I think this discussion is an important one, perhaps one of the most important that too few in the church are actively engaging (not just that the church engages with soul care, but how). I agree with Dr. Heath Lambert, Executive Director of ACBC, who writes, "It is a matter of urgency that Christians coalesce around an understanding of counseling that is authentically Christian" (95 Theses; #4).

Defining "authentically Christian" may be a clarion call for Christian counseling's own Reformation, much as justification "sola fide" was for the church in 1517.

Drawing Distinctions

In the world of Christian counseling of all stripes, it's important to know that the broader category of integration has long been and remains the dominant model. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that colleges, universities, and even most seminaries teach only (or primarily) this approach.

Dr. Stanton L. Jones, in the book "Psychology and Christianity: Five Views," defines the Christian-integrative (CI) approach in this way:

Integration of Christianity and psychology (or any area of "secular thought") is our living out-in this particular area-of the lordship of Christ over all of existence by our giving his special revelation-God's true Word-its appropriate place of authority in determining our fundamental beliefs about and practices toward all of reality and toward our academic subject matter in particular. (p.101)

The fact is, a great majority of Christians who enter the field of counseling will only be exposed to and trained to counsel according to some definition that comports with Jones, and the dominant medical or behavioral models that pervade the field. If they are exposed to biblical counseling as a model, it may well be cursory, and likely by professors who are less than favorable toward biblical counseling.

While no one person has the authority to define CI counseling, Jones is an authority, and his voice is one that lends credibility. Still, his definition is one that evidences fundamental discontinuities with the biblical counseling community.

For example, we do not "assign authority" to Scripture, but Scripture assumes its own inerrant, infallible, sufficient, God-breathed authority as God's special revelation to humanity, to include the critical categories of law and gospel. What's more, unlike any other person, system, or philosophy of man, God's word knows and discerns the heart and thoughts of man (Hebrews 4:12). No theory of secular pscyhology can make this claim.

Conversely, biblical counseling (BC), formerly "nouthetic counseling," must also be defined. That definition has changed over the years, since Jay Adams launched the movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Dr. David Powlison, in the same volume as Jones, writes, "Biblical counseling wisdom is an ongoing construction project, like all practical theological work" (p.245). This means that BC cannot be infallibly defined by any one person any more than CI can, partly because it is an evolving and maturing field.

But, we still need to have an understanding of what it is we speak. Here's how Dr. Bob Kellemen defines BC:

Biblical Counseling is Christ-centered, church-based, comprehensive, compassionate, and culturally-informed one-another ministry that depends upon the Holy Spirit to relate God’s Word to suffering and sin by speaking and living God’s truth in love to equip people to love God and one another (Matthew 22:35-40). It cultivates conformity to Christ and communion with Christ and the Body of Christ leading to a community of one-another disciple-makers.

When I consider these two definitions, I cannot help but agree with Powlison, when he writes of CI and BC practitioners, "We see with different eyes and proceed with different intentions." Powlison acknowledges points of agreement and the opportunity for shared growth, while refusing to ignore the real and meaningful distinctions.

Careful Considerations

Having done my best to set the table for an introductory blog post, I offer just two considerations that have been important in my decision to not pursue either CI as my counseling model or state licensure.

  • Maximum Biblical Fidelity

This consideration must come first. If it didn't, I think I would have to turn in my biblical counseling certification. While there are many good, sound, reasonable, and dare I say, "helpful" or "useful" observations coming from the field of secular counseling, with which CI seeks to integrate, I am not persuaded of its necessity to the work of counseling for or in the church.

I sometimes say it this way:

I have never encountered one item coming from the field of secular counseling over which I was left thinking, "I must incorporate that into my work in order to be an effective counselor."

The eternal opposite is true as regards Scripture.

I cannot imagine ever counseling without it. Further, it seems that when I encounter something helpful or useful in secular theory or practice, the point can just as easily (and perhaps more appropriately) be drawn from Scripture, even if some exegetical work is necessary.

By "maximum biblical fidelity," I don't mean to say that CIs are intentionally less loyal to the words of Scripture than are BCs. BCs are not super-Christians or heroic, or whatever else.

I do mean to say that my personally held conviction is that secular theory is born out of unbiblical contexts (outside the church), in an unbiblical arena that blatantly wars against Christ (the academy), for what are ultimately unbiblical purposes (spiritual-emotional growth and healing apart from Christ and his gospel).

And, without faith, it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6).

This point must be made, though: Faith is not an adendum for the sanctification or importing of unbiblical philosophy into the church. That which denies or upends the gospel is anathema, whether it does so by acts of commission or ommission. This is to say, you cannot simply add a verse of Scripture to a secular counseling theory that denies biblical truth, and declare it to be "good" for the church.

But, "Sift the good and throw away the bad," I'm told. I would rather devote my counseling practice to the word of God, where nothing is wasted, and nothing ever needs "sifting."

It may sound rhetorical, but shall the Christian counselor take this advice and sift the music of Jay-Z for marital counseling, or the practices of Buddhism to help with depression? Or, have these two sources never spoken truth that could be said to be "helpful"? In other words, where does this ethical decision to "sift" the things of the world for counseling find its standard or control?

We must take heed of what Paul writes in Colossians 2:8:

Be careful that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elements of the world, rather than Christ.

As a cancer survivor myself, I deny the common assertion, often made by well-meaning Christians, that there is no difference, in principle, in applying chemotherpay to the cancer patient, versus applying psychotherapy to the angry and abusive husband.

The former is by nature a matter of physical suffering which is rightly treated by medical professionals, whereas the latter involves a spiritual sickness for which there is no pill. Only the Gospel can transform a man's angry heart, and lead him to love his wife well.

I am therefore persuaded of the truth concerning Scripture as found in the Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6:

The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and **life**, is either expressly set down in Scripture, **or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture**. [emphasis mine]

These words, if true (and I submit they are), bear (or ought to bear) incredible weight for the Christian counselor.

  • Uncompromising Biblical Ethics

I recognize that each individual Christian counselor, according to our culture's counseling system, will have to discern for themselves what is "biblically ethical." I suppose I could assert here that those who counsel within the biblical counseling community have the benefit of being under the auspices of the church, and in fellowship with it, thereby diminshing this issue of sheer autonomy of the local counselor, but I'll leave that topic for another day.

Suffice it to say that my concern here is in the wedding of a counselor's vows to the demands of the academy and state, or the entering into a covenant with secular authorities for the purposes of providing what is supposed to be Christian soul care. I deny that the state, or any university, or any secular governing body (i.e. APA) has any authority or jurisdiction concerning what is true and proper Christian or biblical counsel because they do not know and cannot know what it actually is (see 1 Corinthians 2:14).

Currently, a battle is forming in the secular arena over counselor ethics. The broader culture's struggle with sexual ethics and human sexuality is and already has found its way into the ethical statements for counselors. As I read these statements, they are unacceptable to me, or my ministry at Baylight Counseling. Examples of this can be found in the APA's General Ethical Principles, Principle E, as well as the ACA's Ethical Code (see A.4.b. and C.5).

Nationally, these issues are in fact leading to the involvement of civil courts, both for counseling organizations and counseling students. This canot be avoided: those who are involved in the creation of secular counseling theory and practice are also those who generate and control ethical and licensing procedure. Increasingly, these are becoming hostile to those who wish to counsel from a uniquely Christian or biblical worldview.

What meaningful partnership can the committed Christian have with the state and academy under these conditions? David Garland's commentary on 2 Corinthians 6:14-15 speaks powerfully to this question. I cannot recommend these few pages enough to those who are seriously considering these issues. Garland warns the reader, "Those who harness themselves together with unbelievers will soon find themselves plowing Satan's fields" (p.331).

Some have suggested, as Dr. Bob Kellemen notes in his book, "Gospel Centered Counseling," that Christian counselors are at liberty to "plunder the Egyptians" (Exodus 3:22; 12:36). By this they mean that any seemingly useful or helpful wisdom coming from out of the realm of secular psychology may be co-opted by Christian counseling as "plunder" or "spoil." 

To this, Kellemen writes, "Connecting that verse to counseling theory and practice involves an inaccurate analogy and an incorrect application. In Exodus, God's people were leaving a pagan nation and were told to spoil them, not of their wisdom, but of their material possessions" (p.44). There are much clearer passages in Scripture to guide the counselor, than the isolation of this phrase in the Hebrew text can provide.

Finally, beyond the hot topic of sexuality, but no doubt related, is the issue of religion and secular counseling ethics. This document from the ACA contains a variety of points that ought to give any Christian counselor pause. Again, in my estimation, this document is unacceptable, and not one to which I would align myself or our ministry at Baylight Counseling.

Standing Firm

In light of the Protestant Reformation's 500th Anniversary next month, I'm especially glad to be part of the biblical counseling movement at a time when many are beginning to question the place of secular philosophy in the church's care of souls. To be sure, it isn't always easy. Our's is the minority position by far, but Luther was just a voice crying out in the wilderness in 1517.

We know how that story ended. Or, how it continues to our very day.

The reality is that in our culture, Christian counselors will continue to choose for themselves whether they will integrate and seek state licensure. The practice of counseling in our culture is an autonomous venture, so far as the church and counselor relationship is concerned. Most folks will likely continue to choose integration because the system is most favorable to that.

Perhaps, as local churches return to the work of counseling, more counselors will be influenced to plant their flag on the church side of the church-state divide.

Many Christian psychologists and mental health counselors have chosen and are now choosing this path, even after practicing in the state arena for many years. One of my professors was himself a licensed psychologist for some twenty years, before surrendering his license to enter biblical counseling. This is not an entirely uncommon occurence. I hold these people in high esteem. It's not an easy decision.

"Be alert, stand firm in the faith, be courageous, be strong. Do everything in love." Paul, 2 Corinthians 16:13-14