When I was introduced to biblical counseling, it seemed as if I had discovered some rare jewel. There were several aspects of the biblical counseling movement that captivated my attention. Classical soul care drew upon a rich heritage of faithful practice by pastors spanning centuries. The theological depth and orientation to this counseling approach emphasized the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture, while framing people as image bearers of God in need of redemption. The problems that people faced did not take central stage; in fact, quite the opposite was true. One of the most precious characteristics of biblical counseling is that the person and work of Jesus Christ is given center stage.
I began to realize that for many of my years growing up in the church, I had never seen anything close as to this approach to soul care and counseling. As my paradigms for pastoral ministry and Christian care were shifting and being reformulated on historical and biblical grounds, there was one central question that began to formulate in my mind. Why is biblical counseling such a novel concept in theory and practice for many in the church today?
Miscategorizing Counseling in Principle and Practice
It is common practice in many churches today for pastors to defer counseling responsibility to trained professionals and refer struggling members of their flock to professionally, clinically-informed counselors who operate outside of the church. So, what is wrong with the ‘defer and refer’ method of pastoral care and counseling? The very question itself reveals wrong thinking concerning the nature, purpose, and method of genuine Christian counseling and these misunderstandings must be addressed and corrected in order for us to see the situation clearly.
The Proper Jurisdiction
The first error is a general ignorance and misunderstanding concerning the institutions that God designed to work together in achieving His will in the world. God provided three institutions in which mankind was to operate, these being the family, the church, and the government.[i] While this is not the place for a lengthy discussion on jurisdictional theology, it should be noted that each of these have good and proper roles and responsibilities, and while they differ, each are ordained by God to bring Him glory and honor.[ii] When any of these institutions either overstep the bounds or overreach in their authority, God’s original design becomes frustrated and disorder abounds.
The Practice of the Ministry
The second error is that counseling has largely become viewed as a practice that belongs under the jurisdiction of the government and not the church. When it comes to soul care, the Bible is clear that the church is uniquely tasked with serving as the context of seeing Christians equipped for the work of the ministry, for being the body of Christ by which personal sanctification occurs and gifts are corporately exercised unto the glory of God and the good of others, and ultimately as the vehicle of obedience and fulfillment of the Great Commission.[iii]
These examples of wrong thinking result in a two-pronged problem in the church that reveals that one of their greatest tasks has become interrupted. Churches have become anemic regarding their responsibility to engage the problems people face with the sufficiency of Scripture. The call of scriptural sufficiency may be incorporated in verbal confessions or written statements, but the practice of sufficiency is betrayed by the ‘defer and refer’ model of pastoral care and counseling. Additionally, Christians who desire to counsel God’s Word faithfully find themselves burdened and bound-up by a secular society which promotes a worldview antithetical to that of the church. Christians who attempt to engage in biblical soul care under the jurisdiction of the state, do not find a safe haven in their private practices or government-supported institutions.[iv] In fact, those Christians are under immense pressure to capitulate their biblical mandate to unapologetically counsel the truth of God’s Word under the threat of losing their professional license, and thus forfeiting their livelihood, and becoming an open target of litigation.[v] With the reality of such pressures, it doesn’t make sense that born-again believers would send one of their own out of the church to find help from either a secular psychologist (who does not even pretend to operate from a biblical worldview) or a Christian counselor who operates within a system whose foundations are openly hostile to Christianity.[vi]
Now that you know a little as to why biblical counseling is such a novel concept for many in the church today, it is important to also ask how we got here.
Biblical Soul Care and the Age of Psychology
It is an ambitious task to attempt to properly treat the various developments that led to the church essentially abandoning its proper jurisdiction regarding soul care and counseling, and in fact, I won’t be able to give this the fair treatment it needs here.[vii] However, I can still provide a broad historical survey that will outline points of philosophical and theological shifts that explain how the American church got to a place where biblical counseling is considered a novel concept to many.
One of the downgrades leading to the shift away from church-based soul care and counseling was the intentional restricting of a biblical understanding of humanity. It had been twenty years since Charles Darwin had surveyed the now-famed Galapagos Islands during his voyage, but in 1859, On the Origin of Species, a compilation of observations made during this trip, was finally published. This book sent shockwaves throughout the scientific and ecclesiastical communities, not because Darwin was the first to propose an origin of humanity that subverted intelligent design, but because his theory sought to explain the origin of man solely from a materialistic worldview. In other words, God was written out of the picture completely. The publication of On the Origin of Species provided explanations of life and human existence solely on materialistic grounds and pushed against the dominant Judeo-Christian ethos of the day. Darwin’s radical claims were disguised through a philosophy designed to seem objectively scientific in terminology and form, but without any of the traditional hallmarks of scientific inquiry.[viii]
Psychology without a Soul
In 1879, Wilhelm Wundt, a philosophy professor and founder of experimental psychology, established the first modern psychological laboratory at the University of Leipzig in Germany. Up until this point in time, psychology was considered a sub-discipline of philosophy and a sister to the “queen of the sciences”—theology. However, with the waning influence of the church in the West and an emphasis on empiricism and materialism, psychology and psychiatry sought to move out from under the realm of the immaterial and under the emerging empirical sciences. In his book, The Leipzig Connection, Lionni noted, “To Wundt, a thing made sense and was worth pursuing if it could be measured, quantified, and scientifically demonstrated. Seeing no way to do this with the human soul, he proposed that psychology concern itself solely with experience.”[ix] While many may not be familiar with Wundt, there were many who traveled from around the world to study under his tutelage. Wundt influenced the later work of early behavioral psychologists including Ivan Pavlov, J. B. Watson, and B. F. Skinner. His first American graduate student was G. Stanley Hall who became the first president of the American Psychological Association as well as the benefactor and host who made it possible for Sigmund Freud to travel to America for his one and only speaking tour. Progressive education philosopher John Dewey, as well as Edward Thorndike, the father of the new educational psychology, were also both heavily influenced by Wundtian psychology and paved the way for a humanistic and secular approach to education, which dominated teaching schools, curriculum, and public education programs for generations.[x]
Industrial, Professional, and Clinical: The Remaking of Pastoral Counseling
Concurrent with the major philosophical changes sweeping the intellectual landscape, the dawn of the twentieth century saw a second industrialization take hold in the United States. This brought with it a rapid expansion of manufacturing that utilized the new psychological sciences to increase factory productivity, industrial efficiency, and general worker performance. More Americans than ever were given opportunities to continue in their education and take advantage of high-skilled labor and white-collar professional careers.
Later in the century, America experienced an explosive post-World War interest in the therapeutic value and application of psychology as embattled American soldiers returned home with a host of mental health concerns.[xi] The mental health field attempted to converge with traditional medical disciplines in an effort to meet the demands of this population by presenting an effective and legitimate treatment options. Along with this came a shift in the perception pastoral responsibility and purpose, which seemed to echo the scientific and professional milieu in which they found themselves. In an effort to maintain credibility and relevancy, pastors had to become united with the helping professions found within secular institutions.[xii]
The clinical pastoral education (CPE) movement provided the context for a professional approach to pastoral ministry. Such CPE programs involved experienced and skilled supervisors who helped pastors-in-training to deal with issues and problems faced on the frontlines of ministry. The end-goal was the “fusion of scientific understanding with Christian wisdom and concern.”[xiii] The early leaders of CPE viewed the classical pastoral care as antiquated and outdated. In the following decades, this pastoral training became standard in theological seminaries and thus solidified a professionalized and therapeutic interpretation of the Christian minister’s role as shepherd and counselor.
By the mid-to-late 1900s, professional pastoral counselors, known as pastoral psychologists, were highly valued and sought after. This new and professional pastoral ministry, characterized by objectivity and scientific methodology, was further nuanced to refer to pastors who were “precisely competent to help all people become responsible participants in society.”[xiv] Pioneers in CPE understood the focus of the professional minister to be not so much concerned with biblical soul care, but rather with individual and social mental health. The task of shepherding was now concerned with “adopting an approach that prioritized the individual emotional needs of those [pastors] interacted with.”[xv] This therapeutic process was aimed at developing one’s personality, assuaging guilt, and providing comfort in the face of disease, unhappiness, and disappointment. The minister as therapist followed the mandate of an old French proverb, which had for its goal, “to heal sometimes, to remedy often, to comfort always.”[xvi]
Secular humanism and modern psychology took a firm footing within the church because a void had already been created. Decades of doubt in the inerrancy, trustworthiness, and sufficiency of the Bible necessarily led to another authority taking its place.[xvii] In this article I have attempted to explain why and how a biblical approach to counseling has become a foreign concept to many within the church. While there is nothing that can be done to what has happened in the past, we have a responsibility to do something in the present. We must be aware that the church has a unique and special role and that counseling is central to that role. We must know that the world can only offer a weak and cheap imitation to soul care. We must understand that counseling techniques and theories are never neutral. We must decide if we will once again pick up the task of biblical counseling—a task that has been interrupted for far too long.
[i] Rob Rienow, Limited Church: Unlimited Kingdom, (Nashville: Randall House, 2013), 61-68.
[ii] The first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism states, “What is the chief end of man?” The answer to this question is, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” See, 1 Corinthians 10:31; Psalm 73: 24-26; John 17: 22, 24.
[iii] Ephesians 4:12-14; 1 Corinthians 12; Matthew 28:16-20; Acts 1:8.
[iv] Jay Adams, Competent to Counsel, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1970), 17-19.
[v] There are many reasons why a Christian counseling outside of the church context may feel these external pressures, but many within the fields of integration practice counseling in a “faith-based” or “biblically-informed” manner, meaning that they allow their clients to direct the conversation onto spiritual matters and do not broach the subject of the Gospel unless a door is opened.
[vi] Edward Shorter, A History of Psychiatry: From the Age of the Asylum to the Age of Prozac, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997); Richard Ganz, Psychobabble, (Wheaton: Crossway, 1993); Paul Vitz, Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1994).
[vii] For a more in-depth treatment of these issues see: Samuel Stephens, The Psychological Anthropology of Wayne Edward Oates, (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2020) and T. Dale Johnson, Jr., The Professionalization of Pastoral Care, (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2020).
[viii] J. P. Moreland, Scientism and Secularism, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018).
[ix] Paolo Lionni, The Leipzig Connection, (Heron Books, 1993), 2.
[x] Ibid., 67
[xi] Stephanie Muravchik, American Protestantism in the Age of Psychology, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 13.
[xii] Stephens, The Psychological Anthropology of Wayne Edward Oates.
[xiii] Richard Niebuhr, et. al., The Advancement of Theological Education, (Harper & Brothers, 1960), 123.
[xiv] William Oglesby, New Shape of Pastoral Theology: Essays in Honor of Seward Hiltner, (Abingdon Press, 1969), 228-29.
[xv] Muravchik, American Protestantism in the Age of Psychology, 30.
[xvi] Wayne E. Oates, Pastoral Counseling, (Westminster John Knox Press, 1974), 9.
[xvii] Tom Ascol, “Theoretical Inerrantists,” Founders Ministries, Accessed August 26, 2020. https://founders.org/2020/06/22/theoreticalinerrantists/
Dr. Stephens serves as Assistant Professor of Biblical Counseling at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in addition to his role as Director of the Training Center Certification for the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC). He earned both his Ph.D. in Biblical Counseling (2018) and M.A. in Christian Education (2014) from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX. Dr. Stephens has served in churches and para-church ministries relating to counseling, education, and discipleship ministries. He is a frequent guest and contributor for the Truth in Love podcast and is the author of The Psychological Anthropology of Wayne Edward Oates (Wipf and Stock).