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?