Scott and Laura were married 12 years ago, but recently, Scott got involved in affair with a woman at work. He’s a “Type A” kind of guy, making it to an executive vice-presidency within three years of joining the company. He’s married to Laura—a shy, retiring kind of a girl, who is a stay-at-home mom. Needless to say, when she found out about the affair, she was devastated.
One day Laura was listening to the local Christian radio station and hears a nationally syndicated program with a couple of Christian counselors—one a psychologist and the other a psychiatrist. She calls the show and after listening to her story, they advise her to either check into a local hospital, which has one of their in-patient programs, or maybe even see some counselor that she trusts.
The next day she has to take one of the boys to the doctor, and while there, she notices a magazine published by a well-known Christian psychologist. She sees an article about infidelity. The advice is simple, yet it seems to make sense. “Tough love” is the answer. Draw some lines; don’t put up with any of that kind of behavior. If you are not tough and let him get away with this, you will drive him away. But if you put down some boundaries and make threats, he may respect you and you may gain him.
Laura decides that’s what she’ll have to do. On the way home she stops at the Church, because she thinks that maybe she ought to run this by the pastor. Of course, he is saddened by the news of Scott’s infidelity. “Look,” he says, “I’m no expert in this area, but the advice sounds good. Now that I think of it, I just got a pamphlet about a support group that meets at the local mental health foundation for women in your situation. Why don’t you check it out? I’m sure that they can help you.”
Can you see what’s missing from this picture? Who is not involved in this heartbreaking situation? There certainly are a number of Christians involved, but no church is. How is it that God’s people can get all kinds of counsel and help without any reference to the Church and Jesus Christ? Laura has received counsel from sources with no connection to the Church. The help offered does not come from the Church; in fact, Laura’s pastor does what many do. He refers her to some local “experts”. Is that legitimate?
If you claim to offer “biblical” or “Christian” counsel/counseling; or if you claim to serve God by counseling and helping others, then would you not agree that the theory and practice of such counseling should grow out of the Scriptures?
I believe that if you look to the Bible you would find that it asserts that the legitimate context for counseling is the local church. Many of you may be shocked at such an idea! Isn’t it interesting that today, young people can grow up in a Bible-believing congregation, graduate from a Christian college, enter a graduate doctoral program in counseling or psychology, and never be challenged with the idea that counseling is the work of the Church? Indeed, the Church is the biblical context and the best context for counseling.
Your Church Must Counsel Because of the Nature of Counseling
All counseling systems have a common goal—change. On this the most biblical counselor can agree with the most atheistic counselor. Every system sees a need for change. Every system uses verbal means to bring about change. Every counseling system claims to be for the benefit of the counselee.
Now, a biblical term for counseling is noutheteo/nouthesia, from nous for “mind” and tithemi for “to place”, thus “to place into the mind” (Colossians 1:28; Romans 15:14; 1st Thessalonians 5:12; 2nd Thessalonians 3:14-15). It presupposes a need for change. The word is often used in the sense of providing “instruction as to correct behavior and belief”[i] or to “admonish” or “warn.”[ii] Although it is often used in conjunction with teaching, it is not synonymous with teaching (Colossians 1:28). So counseling is about change and the Scriptures speak specifically about the need and method of change.
Now, change occurs in counseling by influencing behavior, motivations, values, thoughts, and attitudes and that is a ministry of God’s Word (2nd Peter 1:3; Psalm 1:1-3, 19:7-14, 119:9-11, 119:97-101; 2nd Timothy 2:15, 24-26).
Change also occurs in the framework of a worldview, and that is provided by the Scriptures. For example, all counseling operates with an ethical system; so, what is the right thing for Laura to do in this situation? Ethical norms are the basis for alteration of attitudes, values, motivations, and behavior. All counseling operates with a particular view of man—that is, what is his composition, what motivates him, why is he the way he is, what is the source of his behavior? All counseling operates with a view of man’s environment—that is, how do you explain what happens to man?
As you counsel, a worldview will frame how you interpret people and their circumstances. Why did Scott do what he did to Laura? Did he sin against her or did he just act out of his own insecurities? Is this reason for Laura to despair or can she view these events as a trial coming from the hand of a loving heavenly Father? What should Scott do and what should Laura do? You can see then that the most crucial elements in counseling are directly addressed by God’s Word.
We also know that God has entrusted the ministry of the Word to His Church (1st Timothy 3:15 and 2nd Timothy 3:10-4:5). The ministry, which changes beliefs, attitudes, values, motivations, and behavior and that builds worldviews, has been committed to the Church of Jesus. The Church is the “pillar and foundation of the truth” (1st Timothy 3:15). The Church defends and spreads God’s Word so that it has a hearing. It is to the Church that God commits the life-changing ministry of His Word. It is through the Church that God intends believers to be regenerated, educated, edified, strengthened, and nourished throughout their entire lives.
Note as well that God gives the task of changing people’s lives through the authoritative ministry of the Word by the shepherds of His flock. Notice, too, that the ministry of the Word is more than just preaching, but ministering in a variety of ways for various situations in order to bring about change (2nd Timothy 3:10-4:5). Laura should be able to come to the Church to find hope, comfort and answers. We must conclude, then, that because of the nature of change involved in counseling, the Church is the right and best context for counseling.
Your Church Must Counsel Because of the Nature of the Church
Counseling is discipleship and Jesus commands the Church to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). Take careful note that making disciples is not merely learning the commands of Christ, but learning to obey His commands. A disciple is one who translates truth into life. Counseling is nothing less than helping people learn to obey the commands of Christ. It is, in fact, intensive discipleship.
Have you ever looked closely at how these disciples carried out this commission? In obedience to Jesus’ command to make disciples—that is, to help people “translate truth into life”—they established churches (Acts 2:41, 14:21-13, 20:17-35; Titus 1:5). Jesus always intended believers to become part of visible, distinguishable, organized, communities of disciples. He intended that individuals learn to obey all that He commanded in the community of believers called the Church. He intended that ministries to help believers grow be accomplished in the community of believers called the Church. Thus, it is biblical and proper to assert that churches are counseling centers! Laura should have been able to go to her church and find all the help she needed in her situation.
You must also see that the Church possesses the resources for effective counseling. Many folks believe that if they only had one hour a week of counseling, they could handle life so much better. But counseling is not the “magic hour”! Rather, counseling is but one part of God’s church-wide plan for growth.
There is the worship of the Church. Counselees will grow as they gather with others to delight in God and to see that there is more to life than their problems. They come face-to-face with the majesty of God and the fact that they live for His glory. This is so important that I insist that anyone who counsels with me must also attend worship services, or counseling cannot continue. Again, counseling is just one part of God’s church-wide plan for growth.
There is the fellowship of the Church (Romans 15:14; Colossians 3:16). Fellowship is the intersection of lives; the intimate knowledge of one another. It provides more opportunity to counsel/admonish one another. Personal counsel can take place through this since the counselee has the opportunity to observe truth lived out in the lives of others, and other members have the opportunity to model the truth taught in the Scriptures. It’s Tuesday and your counselee is at your house for dinner when your son has a disagreement with his brother and chooses to “clean his clock”. Your counselee now has the opportunity not to just hear what you’ve told him about raising children, but to actually see it modeled. With the fellowship of the Church, the counselee has more chances to grow.
There are the ordinances or sacraments of the Church. These exist to strengthen believers spiritually. The Lord’s Table is a means of grace by reminding us that it is the righteousness of Jesus, not our righteousness, which makes us right with the Father and keeps us right with Him. Such means of grace are necessary since it is grace that “trains us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age…” (Titus 2:12).
There is the preaching and teaching of God’s Word. On Thursday you might help your counselee see how she can love a difficult husband and on Sunday she hears that her sufferings are not wasted since they actually produce for her an eternal weight of glory. In counseling she hears of very specific ways to glorify God and on Sunday she can see how it all fits into the bigger picture (Colossians 1:28-29).
Finally, the Church has the authority for effective counseling. Church discipline is sometimes the means that God uses to see that the lesson one must learn is actually learned. Learning can only take place when there is discipline. Have you ever been to a classroom where there was little or no discipline? How much learning took place? Discipline is education with teeth; education that sees that the lessons are learned.[iii] If you preach against adultery and if you counsel others to avoid it, what do you think happens when a church member commits adultery and the Church does nothing? Christ gives the Church this authority in order to help counselees change. Sometimes a counselee refuses to listen to the Word and so the resource of discipline must be utilized to help him change. That is exactly what Matthew 18:15-35 addresses.
Church discipline always ties up loose ends. What can Laura do in order to help her solve this problem? Many times counselees will say, “I’ve tried everything to get this problem resolved,” when, in fact, they have not since they have not utilized the resource of discipline. It ties up loose ends for you as a counselor. The situation with Scott and Laura will be settled one way or another. The means that Jesus gave the Church in Matthew 18 will result in reconciliation or discipline, thus clarifying what steps Laura can take.
Church discipline guarantees that the counsel given is biblical. Counselors deal with values, motivations, and beliefs. So who is going to make sure that they teach the proper values and beliefs? To whom are counselors accountable? They must be accountable to the local church which has authority over the doctrine of its members. The problem with the so-called “Christian” counsel that permeates the air waves and that sets up “counseling practices” is that none of them are accountable to a church that can make sure their teaching is sound. So again, because of the purpose of the Church, the resources of the Church, and the authority of the Church, counseling is biblical and proper in the context of the Church.
Your Church Must Counsel Because of the Nature of Shepherding
Counseling is a shepherding task (Ezekiel 34:4-10; Hebrews 13:17; Acts 20:28; 1st Peter 5:1-4; Ephesians 4:11). Shepherding involves the “extension of help to wandering, torn, defeated, dispirited sheep” who need restoring.[iv] That is what counseling is all about. It seems obvious—counseling is a vital part of pastoral ministry. This must be a part of pastoral ministry. Preaching and administration do not exhaust the requirements of such ministry.
What must God think of those who refuse to bind up the wounds and help God’s sheep? What must He think of the shepherds who refer Christ’s sheep to the counselor down the street, who cares nothing for Christ or His Word, who thinks that people with the deepest problems can deal with them without reference to their God? How can shepherds, entrusted with the precious sheep of Christ, believe that? By such actions the Church forfeits a ministry that God certainly expects it to fulfill.
Pastors are best suited to the task of counseling since they are ordained to the task of “keeping watch over” the sheep. If they are faithful to the task, they will be alert to problems, and thus able to help more effectively. The shepherd who lives with—and loves—the sheep is more able to help them when they are in need than some “professional” who does not know them.
Does this mean that those not ordained to this ministry should not counsel? Certainly not, for God gives you opportunity as people “fall across your path on the Jericho road”, as Jay Adams puts it. You are “Colossians 3:16 and Galatians 6:1-2” counselors.[v] You help as God provides opportunity, but the pastors are intended to watch over and search out any problems. Again, we must conclude that the best and legitimate place for counseling is within the Church since counseling is a shepherding task.
Your church must counsel. The nature of counseling, the nature of the Church, and the nature of shepherding demand it. What an incredible opportunity God has given our churches to make a difference. But we have forfeited a ministry that God always intended local congregations to fulfill.
If the Lord of the Church expects your congregation to make disciples, and discipleship includes counseling, then ask what you need to do to begin. If your church has all the resources and the authority to effect change in people’s lives, what keeps you from the task of counseling? Pastors, if counseling is nothing more (and nothing less) than shepherding Christ’s sheep, why have you neglected it? What steps should you take to learn how to shepherd effectively? You see, your church must counsel!
[i] Louw & Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, Vol. 1 (New York: United Bible Societies, 1989, 2nd ed.), 33.231.
[ii] Ibid., 33.418, 33.424.
[iii] This extraordinary, yet biblical, understanding of discipline has helped me understand the necessity of church discipline in counseling. See Jay E. Adams, Handbook of Church Discipline (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986), pp. 13-19.
[iv] Jay E. Adams, Shepherding God’s Flock: a Handbook on Pastoral Ministry, Counseling and Leadership (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975), p. 172.
[v] Adams, Ready to Restore, pp. 1-4.