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Biblical Counseling, A Danger to Hurting Church Members

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Over the past year or so, I have written several articles about the dangerous practice of “Biblical” counseling. (Please see Beware of Christian Counselors, Questions: Should People Trust Christian Counselors with Degrees from Secular Schools?, Outrage Over Christian Counselor Post, and Why I Thought I was “Qualified” to Counsel Others.) Most Evangelical pastors are unqualified to counsel their congregants, yet because pastors are viewed as fountains of wisdom and truth, church members typically come to them for “help.” On the face of it, this should not be surprising. Evangelical pastors believe they are called and ordained by God to minister to the needs of their congregations — regardless of their qualifications and education. Further, church members are taught that their pastor(s) is God’s chosen spokesman for their church; that the Bible teaches they are to submit to this man’s authority; that God alone judges and disciplines the man of God. Thus, the pastor is the hub around which everything in the church turns. When congregants have troubles that afflict all of the human race, they turn — not to a qualified, educated counselor — to their pastor, certain that whatever he says is gospel.

Yesterday, Brad Brandt, pastor of Wheelersburg Baptist Church (affiliated with the Fundamentalist sect, the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC), wrote an article for the Sharper Iron website titled, The Value of Training in Biblical Counseling. Brandt, the pastor of Wheelersburg Baptist for thirty-three years, wrote:

Thirty-three years ago, the Lord privileged me to become the pastor of Wheelersburg Baptist Church, in Appalachian southern Ohio, where I presently serve. At the time, the church was 109 years old. I was 26 and had just finished four years of Bible college and another four years of seminary. I believed the Bible was the inerrant, infallible, trustworthy Word of God. I was committed to preaching it, making disciples by it, and equipping this precious congregation to live by it.

Then it started. People began opening up to me, saying things like, “Pastor, we’re having marriage problems.” And “Pastor, I’ve been told I’m bipolar.” And “Pastor, they say our child has ADHD, and we’re overwhelmed.” Then came the question, “Pastor, can you help us?”

I responded by listening, praying with them, expressing my concern and support, reading a Scripture or two, but that was about it. I sensed they needed more, but I didn’t know how to provide it.

Consequently, I saw a couple of things happen. First, some of the strugglers went outside the church for help. Unfortunately, though well-meaning I’m sure, this “professional” help typically didn’t increase the hurting person’s confidence in Christ, His Word, and His church. In fact, at times it undermined this confidence. A second outcome I observed was that some hurting people continued to limp along in isolation, receiving little or no help, convinced that no help was available.

After seven years of pastoring this way, I knew something needed to change. I needed to change. The Lord had called me to shepherd His flock, and I wasn’t doing it. Frankly, I didn’t know how to do it.

Good so far, right? Pastor Brandt realized his B.A. from Cedarville University and M.Div from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary — both Fundamentalist institutions — did not give him the tools necessary to competently counsel people with psychological and emotional problems. Good on him for recognizing this. However, what he did next only made matters worse, giving himself the appearance of someone who was qualified to counsel people.

Brandt went on to say:

About 26 years ago, in God’s incredible kindness, I heard about and signed up for a 12-week course in Biblical counseling hosted by Clearcreek Chapel near Dayton, Ohio. It was there I learned from three pastors what the Bible says about the real problems my people were experiencing, that I was experiencing. That was a tough stretch, leaving the house at 6 a.m., listening to lectures in the morning, doing case studies in the afternoon, observing Biblical counselors in action in the evening, and then driving home, pulling in the driveway somewhere between 9 and 11 p.m. It was tough … and life-changing.

A pastor friend of mine recently said, “I wouldn’t be in the ministry today if it hadn’t been for Biblical counseling training.” I agree. That practical course opened my eyes to the reality that God’s Word is not only inerrant and authoritative, it is sufficient to deal with the complex challenges hurting people are facing.

….

The training produced a series of changes, starting with me and my family. I learned from God’s Word how I could, instead of clamming up, deal with problems God’s way. I learned there is no such thing as a problem-free life or family or church and that God’s kind of life, family, and church is one that deals with its problems His way. He shows us what His way is in the Book.

Next it began to change the church. I began a Sunday evening series, “Biblical Answers for the Problems of Life.” We learned together what the Bible says about marriage, parenting, fear, worry, depression, and much more. I also began to do Biblical counseling with people in the church and community, and I went through the rigorous yet valuable process of becoming certified with what is now the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors.

Brandt “solved” his counseling problem by taking a twelve-week Biblical counseling class. Once completed, Brandt considered himself competent to tackle any and every problem church members were facing. Bi-polar? Depression? ADHD? Suicidal? Martial problems? Sexual dysfunction? Same-sex desires? Porn addiction? Schizophrenia? Pastor Brandt, armed with his leather-bound Bible and a framed certificate, was now qualified to dispense “answers” straight from the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God.

Brandt also sports certification from the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC) — a Fundamentalist group established to give pastors the appearance of training and certification. On their Our Approach page, ACBC states:

  • We endorse trusted certified biblical counselors who provide faithful counseling and we endorse trusted certified counseling centers that provide robust counseling ministries with training in biblical counseling.
  • We certify individuals and institutions who know how to do counseling and counseling training in a way that is faithful to Scripture. We certify both individuals as biblical counselors, and training centers who faithfully train biblical counselors. 
  • Counseling certification is crucial because counseling is a ministry of the Word that happens in private, and is thus more difficult to assess for faithfulness than more public ministries. A careful process of training, evaluation, and supervision demonstrates counseling skill. 

Listen to the following three minute ACBC video that answers the question, “What is Biblical Counseling?”

Video Link

Think I am being harsh about Brandt and his ACBC certification? One need only to read Biblical Answers for Schizophrenia on ACBC’s website to see that I am likely not being harsh enough.

In a discussion about schizophrenia between Dale Johnson, the executive director of ACBC, and John Street, a professor of Biblical Counseling at The Master’s University and Seminary (John MacArthur’s school), we find this:

Certainly one of the most compassionate things you can do is lovingly help the person in this condition [schizophrenia] with their suffering. You want to do that because it’s compelled, because you love the Lord as a biblical counselor first and foremost and the natural growth of that is going to be loving others as passionately as you already love yourself (Matthew 20). Counselees with schizophrenic characteristics are not used to that, at least in my experience. They’re oftentimes closed or guarded because they’re accustomed to hiding from the criticism of other people—and especially sometimes other Christians—because of their bizarre behavior. There’s feelings of shame and guilt that go along with that.

I think it’s vitally important that a biblical counselor begins very slowly. They build that person’s trust with very easy questions to help them understand that we care from the depths of our heart how well that person is faring and whether or not they’re really suffering. The other issue is as a biblical counselor you’ve got to begin with the gospel. You really do because that’s the most loving thing that can be done, and it’s the most hopeful thing that can be done. You begin with a gospel, no matter how well you think you know the person that you’re counseling. Because the overwhelming number of schizophrenics may say that they’re Christian, but they are really not believers. God’s Word must determine their view of reality—not their voices or not what they see in their visions. It’s God’s Word that’s got to determine that, and the only way that’s going to happen if they become a believer, they trust what the Word of God says. The Word of God’s got to frame their reality for them. 

Did you catch what Street said about Christians with schizophrenia?

Because the overwhelming number of schizophrenics may say that they’re Christian, but they are really not believers.

You see, True Believers® don’t have schizophrenia. The goal is to get schizophrenics (and others with mental health issues) to bow to the authority of an ancient religious text written by authors with no understanding of science and mental health. In the Biblical counseling universe, Jesus is the cure for what ails you.

After Brandt took the twelve-week counseling program and received ACBC certification, he decided that he was ready to impart his counseling wisdom to church members and other pastors:

Twenty years ago, as a church we realized that God had given us something we could not keep to ourselves. So we began our first year of training in Biblical counseling. About 50 people from nine area churches were in that first class. The next year we offered a second track. The following year we began offering an advanced track, as well as continuing our fundamentals track. Eventually others in our church family began counseling and teaching. We started going on the road to do training in other places, even overseas.

Wheelersburg Baptist’s website states:

The Counseling and Discipleship Ministry of Wheelersburg Baptist Church is committed to the absolute sufficiency of the Word of God. We believe that in the Bible God has provided us with real answers for the real problems people encounter in life.

Wheelersburg Baptist Church offers Biblical Counseling Training Courses as well as individual Biblical Counseling for those seeking help.

Wheelersburg Baptist is located in southern Ohio. The church and its pastor are exempt from state regulation. They are free to counsel people as they wish, even using magic — prayer, laying on of hands, anointing with oil, reading incantations from the Bible, listening to a voice in your head. Such churches and pastors rarely make referrals to competent medical or secular counseling professionals. Doing so would force them to admit that Jesus is not the cure-all and the Bible is not the answer.

Brandt is hardly alone when it comes to practicing Biblical counseling. Here in rural northwest Ohio, many counselors use the Bible in their practices. When I sought out a counselor years ago, I found it difficult to find one that wasn’t an Evangelical Christian; one that put science first; one that wouldn’t try to get me to see my problems through a Biblical lens. Sometimes, counselors hide their religious beliefs, but press them on the matter, or let them know you are a Christian, and out pops Jesus. I remember calling numerous counselors years ago. The first questions I asked were this: Are you a Christian? Do you do Biblical counseling? Thinking I was a believer, many counselors quickly touted their Christian bona fides. “Sorry, but I was looking for a secular counselor,” was my reply. Fortunately, I found one.

I am not opposed to church members seeking advice from their pastor. However, congregants should not assume that their pastor is qualified to offer counseling. Far too often, people assume pastors have extensive training in counseling. Most don’t. And in the case of pastors such as Brandt, their training is sectarian and biased in nature. And it for this reason that I remain firm in my belief that Biblical counseling is dangerous and should be avoided. Further, pastors advertising themselves as qualified (certified) counselors as Brandt does should be required to meet state education and licensure requirements.

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Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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9 Comments

  1. Avatar
    mary

    wow this brings back awful memories. people with clear mental illness who needed help, not to be told they were hiding sin or not trusting god enough. it was all so terrible and harmful. it pains me to realize that we still have folks getting hurt by this strange and irrelevant belief system even in our modern times. what a load of crap that this guy and his followers believe a 12 week course is more valuable than a pro who has studied for many years? but this is typical of fundamentalism. as recently as the 1980s i recall witnessing people being told they had demons not psych issues. thankful for public school/media where i learned that the cult i was raised in was wacko and not based on reality.

  2. Avatar
    annanoedenelsewherecom

    I saw a Christian therapist (my choice) who incorporated faith & psychology BEAUTIFULLY and I was able to find hope and healing in that therapeutic process. Even though she worked as an LPC in a church counseling center, she told me she had clients who were not Christians and she did not force faith or Christianity on them. They came to her for professional (state-licensed) counseling, and that was what she was ethically bound to provide for them. I always respected that about her.

  3. Avatar
    Eva

    Wow! He spent a whole 3 months taking a class at a church, and he thinks that qualifies him to counsel people with schizophrenia? Why waste years earning a medical degree, when you can get a certificate in 3 months?

  4. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    ANNANOEDENELSEWHERECOM, It is possible for Christians to be therapists who respect an individual and basic human boundaries. I would hazard that it is very unlikely in most cases, though. The nature of evangelical faith is based in harming self and others and a Christian therapist has to be pretty far in denial to overlook that and work in a church counselling center!
    I’m glad you felt fairly and truly helped.

  5. Avatar
    JJ

    I am a Christian, and I agree with you. Unfortunately, with the type of man that often gets elevated to authority in churches, the training that they really need should focus on their own application of Biblical standards of kindness to others. We love narcissists in the church. When such men get “certified” as experts in helping hurting people, it just feeds their own already inflated view of their position.

  6. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    Being a follower of Christ is not itself antithetical to being a reasonable counselor. I’ve had three different (secular, properly licensed) mental health therapists. I know one is Jewish, because it came up in passing in a conversation about families and holidays several sessions into our work together. I suspect another is an unbeliever, but I’m not certain. The third is originally from Taiwan, and might be Buddhist, or Christian, or something else, or nothing at all. None of these people dragged their religion into counseling, and all of them helped, though their approaches were different and one person’s approach worked better than the others for me personally. Other people might find that not to be true.

    I would never have started with anyone who offers explicitly Christian counseling, and walked out if they didn’t admit it in the beginning and then tried to drag Christ into the conversation later. I’ve heard of that happening.

  7. Avatar
    Troy

    This comes closest to answering my original question regarding the dual accreditation (secular and Christian). Even though your counselor felt ethically bound to give secular counseling (seems like tailored to the demands of the patient) I wonder if this is typical or if it runs a gamut of those who get a secular degree for various reasons but instead just talk and pray. I can see why someone might want to mix the two. For example the Christian counselor with dual accreditation around here seems to have found a synergistic way to employ his services: The church helps him get new patients, provide him with an office and a venue, and once cured they can then just become tithe paying members of the church.

  8. Avatar
    Autumn

    I worry about these pseudo therapists talking people out of taking psychiatric meds. I’m talking about them discouraging meds that can really help people.

    What I really want to see is pastors taking a class similar to what a registered nurse takes in the course of study. As in 16 credits of college work, with the capstone class being a huge dose of “ this is what you know, all the stuff you don’t know and how to tell the difference”. As in when to send someone for real medical/psychiatric help. What I’m getting at here is that people recognize when they are dealing with someone they can’t help with Bible verses, prayer and mindfulness. All of these things are fine alongside real counseling.

    If real counseling is going to undermine someone’s belief in a certain sect…well that probably needs to happen. That’s when a pastor has to demonstrate true humility. (Like that’s gonna happen sigh)

    We give religion way too much latitude in this stuff. We could make it better, but I don’t think we will.

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Bruce Gerencser