Biblical counseling is a “school” or method of counseling that believes the Bible is sufficient for the problems that we encounter in life.
It eschews psychology and “secular” research, and focuses on using the Bible to counsel people.
Many Christian counselors are not biblical counselors. To become a counselor you can use, in general, four routes:
Four Types of Counseling Christians Do
- Biblical Counseling: Unlicensed counselors who use the Bible alone. They often focus on advising clients what changes they must make.
- Pastoral Counseling: General counseling that incorporates many psychology findings, but is limited in scope to allow pastors to do some basic counseling
- Integrated Licensed Counseling: Training in integrating your faith and psychology and evidence-based therapies to help people. They do not tell clients what to do but rather give them tools to think through their situation.
- Licensed Counseling: Training in evidence-based therapies and psychology without a faith component. Again, they do not tell clients what to do.
Licensed counselors could include Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFT); Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW); Licensed Clinical Pyschologists, and other professions that include licensure.
The term “biblical counselors” does not encompass all Christian counselors.
I know that biblical counselors go into counseling because they love Jesus and want to help people.
For the vast majority of biblical counselors, the intent is pure and good.
However, that does not mean that the results are necessarily pure and good.
On this blog, I tend to avoid controversial subjects that aren’t directly related to sex or marriage because I’m already controversial enough; I don’t want to turn people away about things that aren’t central to my main subjects.
When it comes to biblical counseling, then, I would prefer not to talk about it. I know that this topic is really hurtful for many biblical counselors. Nevertheless, this does directly relate to how we handle sex and marriage in the church, because in doing our research for our books, we heard so many stories of people who received very well-meaning but ultimately harmful counseling from biblical counselors.
I’m hoping that by raising these issues we can raise awareness of the different types of counseling, and help people “stay in their lane”, so to speak.
With that, I’d like to share my four concerns about biblical counseling.
Yesterday on my Facebook post about this so many people shared great points and great stories, and I’ll incorporate these where they fit.
1. Biblical counseling can too often fail to define the problem appropriately
Biblical counseling tends to see all issues through the lens of “what can this person do differently or think differently to get in line with Christ?” The focus then is on fixing the person who is coming in for counseling.
This is entirely appropriate when the person has guilt from past sin, or when they’re confused about what to do with their life, or when they have general malaise and feel unmotivated in life and they need to work through some things.
In fact, biblical counseling would likely be the BEST course of action when a person needs to be told to repent (something licensed counselors can’t do).
However, I can think of three situations where this isn’t an appropriate approach:
When Biblical Counseling May not Be Appropriate
- Trauma: When a person has undergone trauma, that “fight, flight, or freeze” response has been triggered and not resolved. This isn’t a sin or faith issue but instead a trauma response issue, and needs proper therapies to help through it. Treating panic attacks or externalizing behaviours or fears that are trauma responses as sin or lack of faith actually exacerbates trauma.
- Mental Illness: Our brains are organs; they are part of our physical bodies, and they can go wrong. Most biblical counseling programs see spiritual roots to all, or most, mental illnesses.
- Dysfunctional or Abusive Relationships: Having someone focus on what they should be doing or thinking differently to exhibit the fruits of the Spirit is warranted when they are in fact thinking or acting badly. But in many relationship situations, the fault is not shared Telling a person who is responsible for 10% of the problems that they have to own their stuff and work on themselves rather than identifying a perpetrator and a victim is not a good or safe idea. Sometimes the reason a wife may feel exhausted and depressed is not because she isn’t grateful or submissive, but is instead because she bears all the mental load, her husband ignores her, and she’s forlorn. It’s an entirely appropriate response to the situation.
Of course, some biblical counselors would handle all of these situations appropriately!
But the stories that I have heard, and the curriculum that I have seen, tends to raise red flags for me in each of these three categories. I shared a few years ago on the blog about a homework assignment a woman was given when she went to biblical counseling at Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago for help with her cheating husband. She was told to complete the form 98 Ways I May be Sinning Against My Husband–a checklist I found throughout biblical counseling websites across the United States, which originated from a biblical counseling textbook and is still handed out by a biblical counseling professional development center (while there isn’t an equivalent one for men).
In my post yesterday where I shared commenters’ thoughts about biblical counseling, I shared a comment where one biblical counselor defended her counseling practice, which actually demonstrates the problems I’m talking about. She claimed that they now treat abuse really well. They make sure to get the woman to safety, and then: “we work through any heart issues with her (bitterness, resentment, anxiety, fear, etc).” The problem is that someone escaping abuse is in a trauma recovery situation. She needs trauma therapy. Being told instead that she needs to deal with her bitterness actually exacerbates the trauma.
Let’s hear from some other commenters, most of whom were reacting to #2 and #3 above:
Anytime I have gone for ministry, I have been made to repent repeatedly for sins I didn’t consent to, or commit, but were atrocities committed against me.
And when I am still bound by shame, they blame me for not choosing to “walk in freedom”, failing to see that their insistence on my self-condemnation binds me into toxic shame far more than anything my abusers did to me.
I found it really helpful to go to a LCSW counselor who didn’t have an agenda other than my health, and no emotional involvement other than simple human care. She had professional boundaries and the emotional space to help me process my grief, and all she cared about was my healing.
I didn’t even look for a Biblical counselor but knowing what I know now I’m grateful I didn’t. Honestly any form of spiritual pressure over my depression, anxiety and grief might have sent me into more suicidal ideation.
We also heard from some where the “sin leveling” approach was really harmful–where the approach was assuming that everyone had something to repent of and that reconciliation is always the goal:
(TW: description of rape)
“Biblical counseling” advised and encouraged my mother to invite my rapist and his parents into our home for a round table discussion on “why we should keep these two apart going forward so they aren’t tempted to sin again and have sex before marriage”.
At 17yrs old I was forced to sit at a kitchen table with my mother, MY rapist (19), and both his parents for an “open discussion” on what went wrong and how to ensure we didn’t have “unsupervised” contact anymore. The rapist was a school friend of mine that had invited me over to his home to watch a movie while his father was in the other room. After giving me massive amounts of alcohol I blacked out and he proceeded to violently rape me in the bedroom of his parents home and then drove me home and dumped me on my doorstep, drunk. This wasn’t a “sex before marriage” situation. It was rape. Full stop.
There’s not enough money in the world that would ever have me setting foot in another “church” again in my life.
2. Biblical Counselors most likely have little training to adequately know when they are out of their depth
Even if biblical counselors are told that they should refer out people with mental illness issues, if they are not trained on the DSM (the manual for identifying mental illnesses and personality disorders and other issues), they often miss these diagnoses.
So, there are benefits to both! Licensed counselors are not there to give advice (and certainly can’t do so from a Biblical perspective). But they ARE trained in appropriate treatments and therapeutic interventions for both individual diagnoses and couples counseling.
If an individual or a couple are specifically seeking Biblical guidance, they’re not going to find that from a licensed counselor. They literally cannot find that because it is inappropriate for a licensed counselor to provide biblical guidance.
There is, and should be, room for both. A licensed counselor is going to say “what feels right for you?” And a Biblical counselor is going to ask “what actions will glorify God in your life?”
The problem is when Biblical counselors practice outside of their scope and can’t identify (or don’t care) when there are deeper issues at play that require (or at least would benefit from) therapeutic intervention.
I think both have an important role, and the issue, as I’ve seen it, is that a licensed counselor may encourage a client to seek spiritual support if those systems are important to them, whereas a Biblical counselor doesn’t always recognize the importance of actual therapy and think that “just trust God” is a cure-all for actual issues.
3. Biblical counseling too often ignores evidence-based therapies
Along with that, biblical counseling doesn’t train people in what we know are evidence-based therapies for some maladies. I don’t believe that we need to flee “secular” research. When studies have been done that shows that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or EMDR helps with different conditions, we don’t need to flee them because they aren’t directly in the Bible (though I would argue that 2 Corinthians 10:5–taking every thought captive to Christ–shows CBT perfectly).
Our medical therapies that we use today aren’t in the Bible either, but we don’t flee from them. Jesus is the Truth; He said that we could judge a tree by its fruit. If something has been shown to bear good fruit, we should rejoice in that and embrace it, because it tells us more about how God made us.
4. There’s no guarantee of confidentiality or accountability with biblical counseling
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, unlike licensed counselors who have strict ethical guidelines around how they practice and strict guidelines around confidentiality, biblical counseling has none of that.
Yes, there can be bad licensed counselors as well, but as one commenter said:
While it can come down to individual “practitioners” who do the most direct harm, licensure has accountability for those individuals, whereas “biblical counseling” does not. And so often the latter has abusive power structures in place to keep people from turning to other resources when an “individual” “biblical counselor” fails them.
There is actually no guarantee of confidentiality in most biblical counseling situations.
It’s common practice with biblical counselors to require clients to sign consent forms acknowledging that the counselor can share information with the church leadership when the counselor thinks that’s appropriate. (I have an example of a biblical counseling consent form here).
This has been greatly misused in far too many cases (James MacDonald, now disgraced megachurch pastor, used information gleaned in counseling sessions to have power over their congregants, according to various news reports.)
My plea to biblical counselors
Keep doing research outside typical biblical counseling fields. Read books that aren’t from biblical counselors (The Body Keeps the Score, about trauma, is a great place to start. I realize that the author was credibly accused of harrassment himself, but the book is filled with wonderful research).
Read some critiques of biblical counseling. Learn to recognize your own limitations and know what you can do and what you shouldn’t do.
Many biblical counselors have become trauma-informed and are well-versed in many of these issues, and do great counseling. But it takes an openness to explore resources outside of your typical professional development.
And, if you’re willing, taking extra courses so that you can qualify for licensure is a very good idea.
My plea to those who want to go into counseling
Please pursue the licensed route. You can still learn how to integrate your faith with counseling when you take counseling at a Christian university through a track heading towards licensure. But remember that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. When we study his creation–including humanity–and make discoveries, we’re pursuing Jesus because we’re learning about Truth. We don’t have to be scared about learning things from outside the Bible. Psychology can teach us so much, and there are so many evidence-based therapies for depression, trauma, relationships, and more.
I know this is an emotional topic for many. I just ask that biblical counselors listen to some of the comments on yesterday’s Facebook post. If you could only see the emails that I get constantly! As Rachael Denhollander, the abuse advocate who was the first to go public about the Larry Nassar gymnastics abuse scandal said, she has yet to meet any trauma survivor who went to a biblical counselor who didn’t emerge more hurt than before. When we treat trauma like a faith issue, we further traumatize the victim.
I know you mean well and you love Jesus. But as this person said:
Biblical counseling made things worse for me after I sought help after leaving a multi-trauma complex abuse situation. The intent seemed kind but it was so damaging.
I know you don’t want to do damage. Nobody does! And that’s what this blog is about: looking at where harm is being done, even if it’s unintentionally, in the Christian church, and calling us to more.
If you have a heart for Jesus and a love for people, you can be an amazing counselor. Just, please, educate yourself on some of these drawbacks, and make sure that you avoid them.
Help me with this one–how can we handle this better? I know that so many biblical counselors feel attacked right now, but I also feel this is vitally important. How can we advocate for the best care in the Christian church? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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