Putting Christ Back Into Christian Counseling

What Is Christian Counseling?

September 07, 2018

Putting Christ Back Into Christian Counseling

What Is Christian Counseling?


Over the past thirty years the field of Christian counseling has seen many advances.  Some of the finest minds in Christendom have articulated clear and helpful philosophies and techniques.  These differ in some ways, but those which are truly Christian share common elements, including:

  • They are based on the declared truth of the Scriptures and the demonstrated techniques of Christ’s ministry.
  • They permit, and indeed invite, the legitimate expressions of emotions.
  • They acknowledge that many of people’s problems result from attempts to meet God-given needs in ways that are outside the will of God.
  • They espouse the principle that a person whose faith in Christ provides wisdom, insight, love, and strength can only provide true Christian counseling.
  • They carefully observe the human condition to see how the Scriptures can be applied most profoundly.

Providing comfort and direction have been integral aspects of Christian ministry throughout church history.  The apostle Paul wrote the believers in Thessalonica to “warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone” (1 Thessalonians 5:14).  The term-translated therapy indicates service rendered to people in times of turmoil.  In its historic context, therapy (or counseling) is the attentive, careful helping of others.

The etymological history of the word “therapy,” the Greek therapeia, with its derivatives therapon, therapeuo, and therapontos, gives birth to some illuminating meanings for the current practice of Christian counseling.  Therapeia means, “service.”  The noun appears frequently in the works of Aristotle, Hippocrates, Philo, and Josephus.  In his book, Kerygma and Counseling, Thomas Oden wrote, “More particularly, it means attentive, caring service, the kind of heedful, scrupulous, conscientious care that one would hope to receive in private and intimate matters, such as medical service.  The therapon is the servant who renders careful, experienced, watchful, meticulous, skilled, obedient, painstaking service to the one to whom he is intimately responsible.” (Oden, p. 147)

Notably the closest Greek synonym for therapon is diakonos, which also means “servant.”  We can glean from the linguistic resemblance the concepts of the therapist and minister.  In fact, in the ancient world, therapeia was commonly translated into Latin as ministerium.  Among the Greek words signifying “servant” (therapon, diakonos, oiketes, pais, doulos), the most intimate of these is therapon, which always refers to personal, considerate, and confidential act of service. 

The word “psychotherapy” may sound like a purely modern term, but its roots are ancient.  The New Testament prototype of the therapon is Jesus Christ, the message and means of God’s intimate, healing, restoring service to all people (Matt. 9:1-8; Mark 1:32-34; Luke 4:18; et al).  God Himself is the therapon, according to the kerygma, which means “proclamation.”  The therapeia which He renders is the reflection of God’s redemptive love, portrayed in the banishment of demonic powers, and was made clear in the occurrences of the last days of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  

The issue of the lawfulness of rendering therapeia on the Sabbath became a volatile point in the ministry of Jesus (Matt. 12:1-14; Mark 3:1-6; Luke 6:1-11; et al).  The religious culture of the time of Jesus’ ministry did not want to see any therapeia on the Sabbath, but instead, they held to their own rigid interpretation of the Law regardless of the damaging consequences to those they were responsible to serve.  Jesus, however, offered therapeia on the Sabbath as a sign of the emerging reign of God, thus intruding on the holy day with His ministry to sick bodies and tormented souls.

Many passages of Scripture depict Jesus’ interwoven ministry of teaching, preaching, and healing.  His life and ministry validated Isaiah’s prophecies of the Messiah as the Servant who comforted the anxious, encouraged the depressed, reconciled the hostile, and healed the lame and blind.  The three-fold ministry of teaching, preaching, and healing, remains a concise summary of the purpose and mission of the church.

The authority of Scripture and the role of psychology are important to anyone interested in Christian counseling.  Some people use the term integration to refer to the relationship of the Scriptures and psychology, but this term can be misleading.  The Bible and psychology are not two equals blended together.  The Word of God is the ultimate authority by which all theories and practices are measured.

Psychology is man’s attempt to analyze the human condition and provide assistance.  Most psychological theories contain some valid observations of human behavior, but they are usually based upon erroneous presuppositions about both man and God.  Secular theories and practices, however, cannot provide the ultimate source of healing power: the love and strength of Jesus Christ.  He is our Creator and Savior.  He is the one who can touch our deepest needs and bring light and life. 

Our philosophy of counseling is based upon the complexity of God’s design.  We address the interrelationship of thought processes, emotions, behavior, and personal responsibility.  The skill we employ combine medical and psychological expertise with basic relational techniques of active listening, offering support, affirming, and providing feedback to people. 

The History of the Christian Counseling Movement:

In an excellent treatise on this modern movement, David Powlison (1992) identifies three distinct stages. The first stage occurred in the 1950’s and 1960’s, when a few people voiced concern that current church teaching and methods were not addressing many problems. Clyde Narramore became the first champion of Christian psychology. The Christian Association for Psychological Studies (CAPS) and Fuller Seminary’s Graduate School of Psychology were founded during this time.

In 1970, Jay Adams challenged the growing movement in his book, Competent to Counsel. “Adams perceived psychology and psychiatry as threats to conservative Christianity in three ways. First, psychology’s influence neutered the ‘in the office’ theology of pastors. Once a pastor left his pulpit he became a de facto “Rogerian.” He no longer proclaimed the claims of Christ and called for repentance. Second, the mental health system offered a persuasive rationale for referring troubled parishioners to secular experts. The province of pastoral care supposedly did not include psychologically, emotionally, or mentally ‘sick’ people. Third, evangelicals in the mental health professions were functionally secular in their ideas and practices. They were intruders into and usurpers of the pastor’s role. In Adams’s eyes the phrase ‘Christian psychotherapy’ was an oxymoron.” (Powlison, 1992)

The response to Adams’ attack marked the second phase of the modern development of Christian counseling. Academics and research continued to grow and give credibility to the movement, and several more psychologists gained wide acceptance beyond the narrow field of psychology, including Larry Crabb, James Dobson, Bruce Narramore and Gary Collins. In this phase, Christian psychology became a respected feature of evangelical Christianity.

The third stage began in the mid ‘80’s when the movement became widely popular and indeed, became the defining influence on the church’s view of anthropology and sanctification. In this phase, terms such as dysfunctional families and victimization became the common language of church life. The best-selling books on the shelves of Christian bookstores became those that dealt with inter- and intra-personal pain, and many groups sprang up in churches to help people experience comfort and strength.

This bandwagon acceptance has sometimes been at the expense of adequate scholarship, and some, such as John McArthur, openly criticize the movement. At this point, Christian counseling is at a cross-roads: Popularity and inclusiveness can open it to infiltration by secular and ant-Christian influences, but perhaps a new wave of scholarship can build on this wave of popularity and provide depth which will sustain the movement for the long haul.

Some scholars claim that the popularity of Christian psychology occurred because the church abdicated its God-given responsibility to speak profoundly to the complex needs of people. Psychology, they claim, simply stepped into this vacuum. The church may have been preoccupied by the fight against liberalism or the authority of Scripture, or perhaps seminaries failed to adequately train pastors to deal with the complexities of people’s lives. These pastors, then, used simplistic pietism, rationalism and voluntarism as antidotes to these problems, but simple answers didn’t work well enough to satisfy the people’s needs.

The weakness in pastoral counseling in the last century contrasts with the profound strength of the Puritan’s pastoral counseling. These pastors in the 17th and 18th centuries, such as Richard Baxter and Jonathon Edwards, were known as “physicians of the soul.” They serve as excellent examples for us as we seek to develop distinctly Christian responses to life’s perplexing problems. Powlison writes:

The Puritans developed a massive and profound literature on a wide range of personal and pastoral problems. They wrote numerous, detailed case studies. They had a sophisticated diagnostic system that penetrated motives. They had a well-developed view of the long-term processes, the tensions, the difficulties, and the struggles of the Christian life. They carefully addressed what the twentieth century would term addictions to sex, food, alcohol, and anger; perfectionism and the drive to please other people; interpersonal conflict; priorities and the management of time and money; unbelief and deviant value systems. (Powlison, 1992)

These Puritan caregivers would appreciate the desire of those in the modern Christian psychology movement to address complex problems, but they would probably have some reservations about the quality of the care. Timothy Keller wrote:

The Puritans would find many biblical counselors are being far too superficial in their treatment of problems by merely calling for surface repentance and behavioral change. But they also would be quite uncomfortable with the ‘inner healing’ approaches that virtually ignore behavior and the need for mortification …Above all, the Puritans’ ‘spirit’ would differ quite a bit from other counselors today. Most modern evangelical counselors simply lack the firmness, directness and urgency of the Puritans. Most of us talk less about sin than did our forefathers. But, on the other hand, the Puritans were amazingly tender, encouraging, always calling the counselees to accept the grace of God and extremely careful not to call a problem ‘sin’ unless it was analyzed carefully. One of their favorite texts was: ‘A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoking flax he will not quench.’ (Keller, 1988)

We can learn a lot from the Puritan’s scholarship, methodology, astuteness and genuine concern for those they counseled.

Uniqueness’ of Christian Counseling:

The Journal of Psychology and Theology conducted a study (1992) to determine the implications of personal faith on counseling practice for Christian counselors. The results were disturbing and instructive. Their survey of alumni from three doctoral and four master's level Christian graduate programs in psychology asked people to indicate which statement they were most in agreement. The statements and percentages of respondents are:

  • “My faith shapes my professional practice in a substantive way.” (51.9%)
  • “My faith provides the foundation for my beliefs, but the majority of my professional practice is guided by psychological principles.” (28.4%)
  • “My faith is moderately related to some aspects of my professional practice.” (12.5%)

From this study, we can conclude that barely half of the professionals surveyed provide (or even attempt to provide) genuine Christian counseling care.

Gary Collins (1988) wrote about several uniqueness’ of Christian counseling, including:

  • Unique Assumptions – Most psychological paradigms involve the study of man in a closed system, that is, the only way to find out about man is to study man himself. The Christian view, however, is an open system in which God reveals the nature of man as well as His own nature. Though Christians differ on points of doctrine, we generally agree on the basic tenets of the faith about God, man, truth and the authority of Scripture.

    Some secular paradigms claim to be values-free, but Scott Peck destroyed this illusion in a speech at the American Psychiatric Association in May 1992 when he said: “Most of us were taught that psychotherapy should be a values-free activity, and that values belong to religion. It was nonsense. It is impossible to do anything without values.” Christian counselors acknowledge the values inherent in the Bible and accurately represent these to the patient or client.

  • Unique Goals – Both Christian and secular counselors attempt to help clients gain insight and change behaviors, attitudes, and responses. Both teach responsibility and skills in communication and problem solving. The Christian counselors goal, however, extends farther to include helping the client love God with all his heart and to live by biblical values. In
    accomplishing this goal, the Christian counselor may present the gospel to someone who is not a believer or is unsure of his faith. He encourages the person to confess his sin and experience forgiveness, and also, to extend forgiveness to others. He helps the person understand proper behaviors and to take substantive steps to act appropriately and responsibly.

    Secular psychologists acknowledge the need for people to find purpose in life. Victor Frankl identified this striving to find meaning as a potent motivational style. Abraham Maslow said that people have just as great a need for philosophy of life as for vitamins and minerals, and he said that people without a system of spiritual and moral values are likely to be psychologically unhealthy. The Christian, of course, has transcendent values to motivate and guide, as Paul wrote, “For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, that they who live should no longer live for hemselves but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15).

  • Unique Techniques – Collins writes: “All counseling techniques have at least four characteristics. They seek to arouse the belief that help is possible, correct erroneous beliefs about the world, develop competencies in social living, and help clients accept themselves as persons of worth. To accomplish these goals, counselors consistently use such basic counseling techniques as listening, showing interest, attempting to understand, and at least occasionally giving direction …But the Christian does not use counseling techniques that would be considered immoral or inconsistent with biblical teaching.” (Collins, 1988) Christian counselors do not choose techniques based upon their pragmatic value; they test each technique’s validity against the values of the Scripture. They may use prayer and instruction on various biblical themes, and they may confront people’s attitudes and behaviors based on biblical mandates.

    Prayer is not used, however, if the counselor perceives the client is avoiding personal responsibility by “trusting God to take care of them.” One of the Christian counselor’s goals is to help the person find the balance of trust in God and personal responsibility (see Philippians 2:12-13). And the counselor needs to be a good listener first to grant the person
    permission to express himself and to gain insight into the person’s real problem. Then the use of Scripture can be much more effective.

  • Unique Counselor Characteristics – The integrity of the counselor, studies have shown, is even more important than therapeutic skills in counseling effectiveness. C. H. Patterson concluded that an effective counselor must be “a real, human person” who offers “a genuine human relationship” which is “characterized not so much by what techniques the therapist uses
    a by what he is, not so much by what he does as by the way he does it.” (Patterson, 1973)

    As a servant of Jesus Christ, called to love and to strengthen others out of a full heart, the Christian counselor has limitless resources as he or she experiences the wisdom of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. The counselor, just like the client, is in the process of growing in the knowledge of God and is being watered, pruned, and shaped by the Spirit’s work. This process makes the counselor increasingly effective and competent to counsel.

A study of the acceptability of Christian techniques was performed with Christian counselors and published in the Journal of Psychology and Theology (1992), showing “Rated Utilization and Appropriateness of Religious Techniques. This chart depicts the study’s findings:

Rated Utilization and Appropriateness of Religious Techniques
Religious Technique Mean Appropriateness Rating
% of Cases Utilized Religious Clients General Practice
Implicitly teaching biblical concepts 68.1 4.4 4.0
Praying for clients outside session 61.0 4.6 4.6
Instructing in forgiveness 41.9 3.8 3.4
Explicitly teaching biblical concepts 28.3 3.5 2.5
Confrontation over sinful life patterns 27.7 3.2 2.6
Instructing in repentance/confession 21.7 3.3 2.6
Praying with clients in session 17.7 3.1 2.1
Using guided religious imagery 12.1 3.1 2.2
Teaching religious meditation 11.5 3.0 2.1
Claiming or praying for divine healing 7.4 2.5 1.8
Deliverance or exorcism from the demonic 1.8 2.2 1.8

Note: Appropriateness ratings were made on a 5-point scale from 5 (Always Appropriate) to 1 (Never Appropriate), reported in descending order of frequency of utilization.

Models of Christian Counseling:

Psychologist, professor, and author, Siang-Yang Tan, quotes Larry Crabb’s description of four approaches to the relationship of psychology and Christianity. These are:

  • Separate but equal
  • Tossed salad (equal but mixable)
  • Nothing buttery (psychology is irrelevant and unnecessary; only the Scriptures are needed to deal with human problems and needs
  • Spoiling the Egyptians (using whatever concepts or methods from secular psychology that are consistent with Scripture, hence subjecting them to the authority of Scripture. (Tan, 1991; Crabb, 1977)

A person’s view of the validity of any aspect of secular knowledge often depends on his view of natural revelation. Other fields, such as medicine and engineering, rely on empirical evidence to support new theories, which, if proven, are useful in people’s lives. In the same way, secular views of the human condition can prove valuable if they are consistent with the assumptions of biblical anthropology and theology. The problem, of course, is that “observing the human condition” (or psychology) overlaps with the domain of the church, so differences in values, techniques, and interpretation of evidence looms large.

Gary Collins states: “…the Bible never claims to be a textbook on counseling. It deals with loneliness, discouragement, marriage problems, grief, parent-child relations, anger, fear, and a whole host of other counseling situations, but it was never meant to be God’s sole revelation about people helping. In medicine, teaching and other ‘peoplecentered’ helping fields, we have been permitted to learn much about God’s creation through science and academic study. Why, then, should psychology be singled out as the one field that has nothing to contribute to the work of the counselor?” (Collins, 1988)

Appropriate integration IS NOT:
  • The merger of two equal systems of thought. The Bible is the ultimate authority, yet both disciplines retain their own distinct identities.
  • Avoidable because many of the people-helping skills in the Bible overlap with those of psychology, such as listening, providing hope, forgiveness, confrontation, responsibility, grief, and love. Psychologists and theologians share these fundamental human concepts.
  • Adding verses to a psychological model. Proof texting is not a valid academic way of proving compatibility.
  • Syncretism, that is, taking various aspects of several models which fit our needs without reference to analyzing each system’s presuppositions and synthesizing the whole.
Appropriate integration IS:
  • Bringing God’s truth from all areas of His creation, both special and natural revelation, to bare on the therapeutic endeavor.
  • Careful study, selection, and orderly combination of compatible concepts from a variety of sources, based on the principle that “all truth is God’s truth.”
  • Based on the presupposition that there is no fundamental incompatibility between the truth of the Bible and accurate, observable truth about man. Incompatibility and conflict comes in man’s faulty observation or interpretation of either or both of these bodies of truth.
  • Based on the thorough study and interpretation of the Scriptures and the human condition to equip us to apply truth profoundly and specifically.
A Multi-Modal Approach:

People seem to yearn for a clear, simple answer to life’s complexities. Many people view psychological problems through a simplistic lens and desire one definable set of problems and solutions. These simple answers, however, seldom stand the test of scrutiny. Some religious people follow the “sin model”; some in the recovery community follow the “medical model”; and others follow the “not so simple model.”

  • The Sin Model – Some well-meaning believers reduce all the problems of human interaction, personality, and physical functioning to sin. In this paradigm, sin accounts for emotional distress, addictions, and other behavioral difficulties, and idolatry is the fundamental problem of mankind. Predictably, repentance is seen as the single solution to this problem. Individuals are responsible for both the problem and the solution.
  • The Sickness Model – The idea that emotional problems originate from natural causes was popularized in the early years of the Alcoholics Anonymous movement. Dr. Silkworth introduced the disease concept of alcoholism to Bill Wilson, one of the founders of AA. Later, the disease concept was applied to drug abuse, and still later, to codependency. In this model, the person is not responsible for the perceived medical problem, just as he isn’t responsible for contracting the flu.

    Indeed, many behavioral and emotional problems are related to specific chemical deficiencies, and medical treatment is a vital part of care. The model is taken too far, however, when it is applied indiscriminately to any emotional problem. For instance, it can be argued that alcoholism addiction has a physiological component, but codependency does not include any identifiable, external substance.

  • The Not-So-Simple Model – The psalmist proclaims that man is “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14-15). We are made in the image of God, but we are deeply fallen. Our complexity includes physical, mental, emotional, behavioral, and social aspects of our being. Virtually every problem we have is multifaceted; its solution is then multi-modal.

For instance, an addict has chosen coping mechanisms outside the will of God to block pain and to gain a sense of value or control. There are usually factors outside his control, and therefore, outside his responsibility, such as childhood trauma, poor parental modeling, cultural reinforcement, and biochemical deficiencies. The biochemical dependencies may require detoxification. Effects of depression may require medication to enable the person to think clearly and make wise choices. New communication skills need to be learned, and new courage needs to be acquired in order to follow through with the communication and the skills. Repentance is right and appropriate in particular points of responsibility, but we do not repent of the wounds received from others or of biological factors outside our control.

Though the symptoms and the contributing causes of a person’s problems are multifaceted, the root cause of all human problems is our fallenness, manifested in apathy toward God, rebellion, and a desire to keep control of our own lives whatever the cost. All of our relational, behavioral, and emotional difficulties spring from this underlying condition. Physiological and psychological analysis certainly has validity to enable us to understand the dynamics and destructive powers in our lives, and also, to help us gain insight into channeling our motives and energies into constructive attitudes and behaviors. At the deepest level, however, the sin problem exists and must be addressed so that people can be rightly related to the God who created them and loves them, and so they can draw on His strength and wisdom to live more healthy lives.

Some have questioned the validity of Christians’ use of medications for emotional problems. Gary Collins writes:

Among Christians, …resistance to psychotherapeutic medication probably comes from those who believe that drug use is a sign of spiritual weakness. Many feel that Christians shouldn’t have overwhelming struggles and psychological problems. When stresses arise, these people feel that prayer, trusting the Lord and meditation on Scripture are the only Christian ways to cope with anxiety. Even in Jesus’ time, however, the God-given wisdom of professional healers was not dismissed. If the Lord has allowed us to discover new chemical tools to counteract the biological bases of human problems and to help us cope temporarily with the stresses of life, are these necessarily wrong? When drugs distract us from facing problems or prevent us from seeking biblically based solutions to our struggles, then using them is not right. But psychotherapeutic medications can help us relax so that we can think more clearly. Their use is neither wrong nor an indication that we lack faith.” (Collins, 1988)
Counseling Considerations:
  • The complexities of the human experience demand that counselors carefully take a complete history on each person. Past and current emotional traumas, environmental and family difficulties, physical problems, behavioral manifestations need to be considered in order to make an accurate assessment.
  • The goal is that the person will feel better, but also take steps toward knowing, loving, and following Christ. For Christians, recovery is inherently a part of the process of sanctification, including foundational spiritual issues of our identity, repentance, and our motivations.
  • Bible-based teaching, prayer, meditation and other Christian disciplines must be used knowledgeably. If the person uses these as “spiritual crutches,” he or she will need loving, direct confrontation about this problem. Quite often, spiritual behaviors are held most tightly, perhaps because they falsely represent God and ultimate authority and safety. Giving them up is both difficult and confusing to many people. We need to show the negative effects of trying to find ultimate meaning and safety in these activities, and also, we need to present the Lord, Himself, and the attractiveness of a vital relationship with Him.

    Our goal is not just right actions about spiritual disciplines. Our goal is not only correct theology. Our goal is a vital and rich experience of Jesus Christ, with theology and the disciplines as important but secondary underpinnings to our relationship with Him.

  • Most people come for help because they are in an emotional crisis, not because they are in a theological crisis. Our calling is to offer care that is both emotionally sound and theologically astute. The Scriptures are full of profound and meaningful messages for those who have been devastated by divorce, disease, displacement, dysfunction, or depression. For instance, the psalmist felt permission to pour out their painful, as well as their hopeful, emotions to God. The Proverbs contain practical advice for every aspect of life. Jesus ushered in a new way to relate to God and to others.

The message of the Scriptures is one that every hurting person needs to hear: We can find hope in a trustworthy God who loves, forgives, accepts, and gives strength to follow Him.