Counseling Inside or Outside the Church

Stanton Jones, a psychology professor at Wheaton and the co-author of the book Modern Psychotherapies, described an encounter he had with Jay Adams while he was in graduate school at Arizona State University in the 1970s. With the publication of Competent to Counsel in 1970, Adams initiated what has become known as the Biblical counseling movement.  Jones asked Adams if he had any advice for him as a Christian studying psychology.  Adams responded by suggesting that he drop out of graduate school. “If you want to serve God as a counselor, you can only do so by going to seminary, studying the Word of God rather than the words of men, and becoming a counselor.” Jones didn’t take the advice.

This exchange illustrates what has been a split among conservative Christians over the care (cure) of souls. David Powlison wrote an article in the Spring 2007 issue of the Journal of Biblical Counseling entitled: “Cure of Souls (and the Modern Psychotherapies)” that looks at this divide from the perspective of a Biblical counselor. Dave is the Executive Director of the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation (CCEF), which was founded by Jay Adams. He is also the senior editor of the Journal of Biblical Counseling. Powlison’s article is made available here by CCEF, where it was included as an appendix to his book: The Biblical Counseling Movement: Its History and Context.

Powlison proposed that two acronyms refer to the divide between what has been traditionally known as Christian Counseling (VITEX) and Biblical Counseling (COMPIN). His thinking is that the traditional labels have given rise to objections from both sides. Biblical counseling can imply that “whatever [its] advocates believe and do comes with the full authority of the Bible” and anything else is unbiblical. What do you do when biblical counselors refer to Biblical Counselors as psychoheretics? Christian counseling suggests that: “what [its] advocates believe and do is distinctly Christian.” But what if what they teach is at odds with their professed faith? Powlison rightly noted that: “In both cases, the reality beneath the label is a complex maybe/maybe-not.”

Both sides say that Christians can learn something from psychology; and both say the Bible gets the final say. But the stalemate comes with how each position tends to see the role Scripture in counseling. Does it provide control beliefs for a Christian model of counseling, while secular psychologies make a VITal EXternal contribution? Or is Scripture a COMPrehensive INternal resource for the construction of a Christian model of counseling, where secular psychologies “do not play a constitutive role in building a robust model.”

Powlison went on look at the intellectual, methodological, and institutional characteristics of evangelical counseling; and how these characteristics will be shaped by either a VITEX or a COMPIN vision of counseling.  He structured this within three sections addressing epistemology (what knowledge matters most for helping people), motivation theory (how do we fundamentally understand people) and the social structure of how to educate, license and oversee counselors.

He concluded by stating his firm commitment to the view of counseling he has labeled COMPIN. He did not think that the VITEX epistemological priorities could help the church to understand and help people. He called for the development of a systematic theology of counseling, a paradigm that would: 1) guide our interaction with the people entrusted to our care; 2) guide our interaction with the secular models of counseling; and 3) become institutionally incarnated. “We need a fresh practical theology of the cure of the souls.”

So will your counseling be primarily within the church community, or outside of it? The COMPIN model is a paradigm for counseling WITHIN THE CHURCH community. It could also be done in a private practice or parachruch context, but would not be well received in secular counseling situations. And its credentials would probably not meet the educational requirements for most licensures outside of the church. On the other hand, VITEX has the ability to “integrate” with secular counseling programs and credentialing organizations and is a model for Christians who will be counseling OUTSIDE THE CHURCH. The secular structure required for this integration will not provide a solid foundation for a biblical understanding of human nature and motivation or developing a fully orbed biblical counseling epistemology.

I generally advise Christians seeking a career in counseling to get a both-and education—especially if they see themselves only counseling within the church. Get at least a masters degree in counseling from a secular or VITEX institution, and a certificate or a masters degree in counseling from a COMPIN organization like CCEF or a seminary like Westminster Theological Seminary. The COMPIN training will temper the paradigm bias of secular and VITEX counseling programs. And the VITEX training will help the Biblical counselor develop a more effective “apologetic” for reaching individuals in the church who have a secular view of the issues that brought them to counseling.

Would you pursue a both-and counseling education if you wanted to counsel within a church setting?


Restoring the Ancient Ministerial Work

BaxterJ. I. Packer called Richard Baxter the most outstanding pastor, evangelist and writer that Puritanism produced. He was the vicar of the church in Kidderminster from 1647 to 1661. When he arrived in Kidderminster, Baxter said the towns people were “an ignorant, rude and reveling people.” Yet in 1743, when George Whitfield visited Kidderminster over eighty years later, he said to a friend: “I was greatly refreshed to find what a sweet savour of good Mr. Baxter’s doctrine, works and discipline remained to this day.”

According to Baxter, pastoral ministry should be a combination of public preaching and private conference (counseling). He thought the two activities complemented each other. First, members of the congregation would better understand the sermons. Second, getting to know your people would help the pastor know what he should preach on.

Baxter saw personal catechizing and instruction of every willing person within the congregation as the duty of the pastor. He said: “It is but the more diligent and effectual management of the ministerial work. It is not a new invention, but simply the restoration of the ancient ministerial work.” He suggested that a pastor should set aside two days out of six for the personal instruction of individuals within his parish. If the pastoral work grew to the point that he could not keep up with the need, then another minister should be hired.

He hoped that no one would be silly enough to say that individual conferences weren’t preaching. “What? Do the number we speak to make it preaching? Or doth interlocution [dialogue] make it none? Surely a man may as truly preach to one, as to a thousand.” If you examined the New Testament, “you will find that most of the preaching [there] was by conference.”

Anticipating the objections to his advocacy of private conferences, Baxter commented how some ministers may point to their labors in the public teaching. Why then should they obligated to teach congregants individually besides this? Baxter’s answer went to the heart of the matter. Some who come for private meetings would be “grossly ignorant” in matters of their faith. Yet in one hour of private, instruction, “they seem to understand more, and better entertain it than they did in all their lives before.”

Among the seventeen benefits of private conference, Baxter said:

  • It would help to convert individuals.
  • It would promote the orderly building up of those who are converted and help establish them in the faith.
  • It will make the public preaching better understood and regarded.
  • By it you will become familiar with your people and possibly win their hearts.
  • In becoming better acquainted with each person’s spiritual state, you can better know how to watch over him or her.
  • It will help with the better ordering of families.

In a previous post on preaching and counseling, “Preaching and Counseling Are Complementary” I referred to Carl Truemen’s article for Reformation 21, “Why is So Much Preaching So Poor?” Perhaps the answer to Trueman’s question should be that modern preaching is so poor because modern pastors have largely lost the connection with their church members that Richard Baxter had because of his private conferences.

Do you think that Biblical counseling can be a restoration of an ancient ministerial work of the church?

Also read, “Preaching and Counseling Are Complementary.”


Preaching and Counseling Are Complementary

John Wesley

image credit: iStock

Carl Trueman wrote a helpful article for Reformation 21 that discussed why much of modern Protestant preaching was so poor. But in his third point, he said something that I found troubling since I am a counselor by profession and calling. Dr. Trueman said in our culture, there was a “relativizing of the preached word and the growth of emphasis on one-to-one counseling.” He quickly acknowledged the usefulness of one-to-one counseling. But then commented how he thought most of the problems people experienced could be adequately dealt with from the pulpit.

What Dr. Trueman said next seems to be why he sees counseling and preaching at odds with one another in our culture. The world tells us we are unique, with unique problems. “Talk of our uniqueness is greatly exaggerated. We need to create a church culture where uniqueness is relativized and where people come to church expecting that the preached word will meet their particular problem.” True, but oftentimes this may not be enough.

In The Reformed Pastor, Richard Baxter noted how he met with people who had sat under his preaching for eight or ten years and yet did not know whether Christ was God or man. Even when an individual knew the gospel, they often had an ungrounded trust in Christ. They hoped He would pardon, justify and save them; but the world had their hearts.

Dr. Trueman is correct. There is individualism and self-centeredness in American culture and in counseling. In Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship, Paul Vitz called it selfism. He described Americans as having a Burger King mentality: Have it your way!

Counseling that panders to selfism is theologically wrong and spiritually damaging. Preaching that panders to selfism is also theologically wrong and spiritually damaging. But counseling and preaching can and should be co-laborers in the ministry of the gospel. They don’t have to be opposed to one another. Again, Richard Baxter spoke to this concern.

Baxter said preaching the gospel publicly is the preferred means, because we can speak to many people at once. “But it is usually far more effectual to preach it privately to a particular sinner.” Public sermons are long and can over-run a person’s understanding and memory. People may become confused and therefore are not able to follow the preacher. So then they do not understand what was said, regardless of how effectual the preaching was to others.

“But in private we can take our work gradatim, [step by step] and take our hearers along with us.” By the questions we ask and their answers, we can see how far they understand us. Publicly, we lose their attention through the length of what is said and the lack of an opportunity to respond to what was said. Privately, we can easily cause them to pay attention. And we can more effectively engage them and answer their questions. Baxter urged that his fellow ministers would see preaching and personal instruction (counseling) as complementary:

I conclude, therefore, that public preaching will not be sufficient: for though it may be an effectual means to convert many, yet not so many, as experience, and God’s appointment of further means, may assure us. Long may you study and preach to little purpose if you neglect this duty.

Counseling that is biblically-based complements preaching. In the Introduction to Competent to Counsel, Jay Adams said: “It is amazing to discover how much the Bible has to say about counseling, and how fresh the biblical approach is.”

Do you think that public preaching is adequate for people to address most of their problems? 

Also read, Restoring the Ancient Ministerial Work.