Yesterday I caused quite a stir by talking about some of the problems with how the biblical counseling movement started, and some of the problems with some places it’s currently being taught.
I want to stress that we don’t need to think of biblical counseling vs. secular counseling, because there’s a really good alternative: integrative counseling, where Christians learn all about psychology and evidence-based therapies for anxiety, depression, and trauma, and receive licensing to practice.
Many, many Christian counselors choose the licensing route, becoming Licensed Cliinical Psychologists, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists, Licensed Social Workers, and more. With licensing comes ethical guidelines, including about confidentiality, that one must follow or risk losing one’s license.
Some Christians choose to go the biblical counseling route, which is founded on a belief that the Bible is all one needs to counsel, and is sufficient for handling issues that require counseling.
I understand there are some WONDERFUL biblical counselors, and I know many (Kyle Howard who was on the podcast recently is one). I know others in my personal life. And there is definitely a role for pastoral care and spiritual direction. I don’t want to discourage anyone. It’s just that because being evidence-based and grounded in research is such a strong value of me and my team, i do think that there are some issues with a counseling method which eschews modern psychological research and methods.
I’d like to think about this overnight and then write more about what I think tomorrow, but today I wanted to share some of the comments that came in yesterday across different social media platforms (and there were hundreds!). Some were very interesting, and we all had a great discussion.
First, though, I want to point you to Julie Roys’ most recent podcast about Master’s Seminary.
In her podcast, she played clips from John Street, the head of the Biblical Counseling program at Master’s Seminary (run by John MacArthur). Those clips included what we were talking about yesterday, where he said that a stepfather raped his four-year-old stepdaughter because the mother didn’t give him sexual fulfillment. It also includes clips saying that women should endure abuse unless she is about to be killed, because otherwise we’d be hypocritical about missionaries.
It’s an important one, and worth listening to (with major trigger warnings).
From a Biblical Counselor: It’s not like that anymore
Nope, this [about enduring abuse and blaming women for men’s abuse] is not still being taught. I’m currently studying to become a biblical counselor. It is stressed over and over again that every church needs to be prepared with multiple “safe house” families that can take in an abused woman and her children on the spur of the moment if necessary. It is stressed that abuse is against the law in America, so we are obligated to report it to the authorities instead of trying to handle it “in house.” It is stressed that a no-tolerance stance on abuse would be a huge deterrent if more churches would actually start to practice it.
We are taught that women can still grow and become more like Christ in the midst of abusive situations (as in the story of Joseph, what people intend for evil, God uses for good). So after everyone is safe, we work through any heart issues with her (bitterness, resentment, anxiety, fear, etc).
Jay Adams is considered “old school” and outdated by many in the current generation of teachers/counseling fellows. None of his books were on my required reading list for that reason.
My biblical counseling training lectures were actually the first place that I heard teaching from the church that sex is to be pleasurable for BOTH men and women, and that my husband’s one job in sex is to bring me pleasure. It was the first place I heard the “do not deprive” verse talked about for both men and women equally. And this was before your book was even released.
That’s wonderful to hear that it’s getting better in many places.
Here are some other stories:
How Licensed Counseling Differs from Biblical Counseling
I’m a Licensed Professional Counselor, and I earned my Master’s degree at a secular state university. But I offer Christian Counseling, so after graduation I felt I needed more training in what it means to be a *Christian* Counselor. I read books on Biblical Counseling and a version of Biblical Counseling called Theophostic Counseling. As I read about it, I didn’t see how it would help my clients. But at first, I was intimidated by this and wondered if the problem was that I was such a bad Christian Counselor that I didn’t know how to use Biblical Counseling to help my clients. I think for many counselors or potential counselors, like myself, there’s trust that the “experts” teaching this stuff must know what they’re talking about, so if it doesn’t make sense to me or if I disagree, then the problem must be with me.
I never used Biblical counseling and I stuck to the Cognitive-Behavioral and Solution-Focused methods that I had learned in my secular university. It seemed to me that CBT and SFBT worked equally well with Christians and non-Christians, and Christians would naturally bring up faith while using these methods. So that’s what became “Christian Counseling” for me. And after being successful with these methods and growing more confident as I gained experience, I was able to see Biblical Counseling for harmful, unvalidated, snake oil.
I am not a therapist but went to an undergrad program for Christian counseling. Toward the end of my years there, they switched to the “biblical counseling” model and it was a drastic change to what I had been taught the first many years. In the beginning we were taught by professors who believed psychology and found a way to integrate that with Christian beliefs. They were all actual licensed therapists. When it switched to biblical counseling none of the professors were licensed or had really any credentials and the one class I had under the new program was a drastic and horrific change. I remember feeling sick during that class as the professor would blame everything on personal sin, even going as far as to say someone with schizophrenia just has unrepentant sin they need to repent of to be healed. I remember thinking this can’t be for real. I suffered through that class to get my degree and was glad to be done. I trashed that book as soon as I was done.
All that to say, I think it is important to understand there are two very different veins of Christian counseling. The very core and training of them are different, they are different methods and not at all the same. I saw first hand the drastic difference. One of my favorite professors who had been there for a decade was ousted for being too “liberal” and he was an amazing, humble man who was very intelligent and he wouldn’t fall in line with the changes to the program. This was 15 years ago and it grieves me that “biblical counseling” has such a hold and following and I know it must be hard to differentiate yourself when all Christian counselors get lumped in with them.
I also received so many heartbreaking stories from people yesterday who were seriously hurt by biblical counseling.
It was actually quite a hard day. I normally get a lot of difficult DMs in a day, but yesterday there was a flood of them, with heartbreaking stories of being told that they had to forgive their cheating husband, put a line in the sand, and decide never to speak or think of it again or else they were in sin. Stories of being told they had to reconcile with their rapist. And more.
I am not saying that problems do not happen with licensed counselors, but when someone has a license, that means there is also a board where you can report them for malpractice, and they can potentially lose their license. There is no route like this for biblical counselors.
It’s just been a really heavy day processing so much trauma that so many people have been through. I need a day to figure out what I really want to say. I know that people go into counseling because they truly want to help, and like I said–I know some amazing biblical counselors.
But I also have to be evidence based, since that’s what my team and I are about. So I’ll be back tomorrow with more, but in the meantime, please listen to Julie Roys’ podcast to get an idea of the problems I’m talking about.
And now I’ll wrap it up with this about how we got into this mess with abuse.
I want to give commenter Sarah O the last word, because I thought this was so insightful, in answer to my question yesterday about how we got here where we blame victims for their own abuse.
I’m going to try and put this gently and also to start off by saying that I have been guilty of this in examples unrelated to this post.
The problem is cowardice.
For abuse to occur, there must be at least two people: a victim and a perpetrator.
And honestly, both Christian and secular resources put 100% of their focus on the victim, because of cowardice.
The victim is far more likely to want help. The victim is far more likely to thank you for your involvement. The victim is far less dangerous to the interloper. You will probably get “cookies” from the victim if you offer compassion and care.
But more than this, abuse completely undermines our deep desire and need to feel that the world is inevitably just, that people are basically good and trying their best – things we HAVE to believe in order to navigate life.
You can almost see a grief process in the terrible abuse responses. “That can’t have happened, such a great person, such a great witness, mustn’t be, or at least can’t be THAT bad.” (denial) “Why are you trying to RUIN this person? Why are you tearing your house down with your own hands? Why won’t you take our advice and shut up?” (anger) “Have you tried not provoking? Not wearing that? Not going there? Giving more? Surely there’s something you can do apart from accountability to resolve this?” (bargaining) “I just don’t know what to do with this. I don’t even think anyone can do anything. I don’t want to hear any more about it.” (depression)
The reality is, if a wolf attacks a sheep, the ONLY thing you can do for the sheep is to fight the wolf. You can’t educate the sheep out of the attack. You can’t comfort the sheep while it’s under attack. You certainly can’t heal the wounds while the wolf is actively biting and clawing. But in fighting back, you aren’t guaranteed costless victory, or victory at all. Sometimes, both you and the sheep get killed. You might lose your job, or your church, or your friends, or your family. And the wolf runs loose anyway.
So that’s what we’re trying to avoid doing so desperately. We do “enough” on abuse so we can say “well, I didn’t do NOTHING”…but we never actually fight the wolf. Because wolves hunt in packs. Wolves are dangerous. And we are hired hands who don’t love the sheep and don’t see them as our own. We love our own selves and our comfortable lives and our secure (but inaccurate) world view far more.
This avoidance comes in a variety of flavors that are the result of other beliefs (Calvinism, misogyny, power-worship, celebrity culture, etc.), but at the end of the day, here’s the test: “what does your organization/program/church do to abusers?”
Most will pivot immediately to the victims and “investigative process” and never actually answer the question (these are looking for cookies, not justice). Others will recommend counsel, support and care (these are protecting their worldview, holding onto faith that the abuser is basically a good, reasonable person and no one would choose to harm someone else because they like to). The upper crust will actually offer real safety and support to the victims.
And a bare, bare few shining examples will recommend transparency and accountability for an abuser. “We report them to the police” “We excommunicate them” “We publicly censure them” All of which, weirdly, churches have absolutely done to victims with no fear of the dreaded law suits. Just not abusers.
Solving for cowardice is hard, but simple. We have to love someone else more than we love ourselves, and to do that we have to be lavishly loved by God. I am not where I used to be, but not where I wish I was on this virtue. For those who are vocationally in the path of victims, let us all pray for them to have great love and great courage.
What do you think? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
Biblical counseling is a "school" or method of counseling that believes the Bible is sufficient...
Biblical Counseling Can Be Dangerous. Julie Roys has been doing an expose of how John MacArthur...
Sometimes church is a toxic place. Not always. Not even usually! Study after study has found...
Do you know who reads marriage books and seeks out marriage advice? Usually it's people having...
Okay, everybody: raise your hand if you're pro-abuse! Of course no one is pro-abuse. So what does...
On my Friday Round-Ups I like to focus on things that have happened around the web on social...
I read two terrible news articles over the weekend that had me grieving and got me all riled up....
Sheila here! Last week I published some "Fixed it for Yous" from biblical counselors which were...