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Tag: Nouthetic Counseling

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.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

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 email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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Beware of Christian Counselors

bible has all the answers

Originally published in February 2015. Edited, corrected, and expanded.

In communities where Evangelical Christianity dominates the culture, it is often hard to find a counselor/psychologist who is not a Christian. It stands to reason that, in a predominantly Christian culture, most counselors would be Christian. This is not a problem if the counselors are able to compartmentalize their religious beliefs, but many counselors who are Christian can’t or won’t do this.

When counselors believe the Bible is an authoritative text, and the standard for moral and ethical conduct, it’s impossible for them to counsel someone objectively. No matter how much they tell themselves otherwise, sooner or later their religious beliefs will affect the advice they give to their clients. The skunk/smell analogy applies here. You can’t separate a skunk from his smell, and neither can you separate an Evangelical Christian from his or her presuppositions and beliefs.

Back when I was still an Evangelical pastor, I started taking classes to become a licensed social worker. It wasn’t long before my Bible-based beliefs were conflicting with what I was being taught in class. I asked the dean of the department:

Suppose I am a licensed social worker and I am working for the Department of Human Services. The client is pregnant and is thinking about getting an abortion. Since I am a Christian and I think abortion is morally wrong, would I be able to counsel the woman according to my pro-life beliefs?

The department head made it very clear that, based on my religious and moral beliefs, I would have a hard time working in a secular/state environment. She suggested that I might be able to work for a private, religious service provider, but my religious beliefs would likely preclude me from working in a secular setting.

Of course, this offended me. I thought that I should be able to push my religious beliefs on others. I now see that the department head gave me sound advice. Evangelical Christians often demand they be permitted to work any job in any profession and not be forced to compartmentalize their beliefs. (A current example of this is Evangelical pharmacists who want the right to withhold morning-after drugs from women who might be pregnant.) However, there are some professions where people’s religious beliefs would preclude them from working in that field because their beliefs would not allow them to provide a client or a customer certain services or goods.

Many pastors provide counseling services. Here in Ohio, a pastor is not required to have ANY training before counseling someone. The fact that the counseling is done through the church exempts the pastor from any governmental oversight. I knew several pastors who were high school dropouts, with no theological or counseling training, who regularly counseled people — both in and outside of their churches. In the twenty-five years I pastored churches, I never had one person ask me if I was qualified to be a counselor. If asked, I would have told them I took a one-semester counseling class that was more about debunking secular counseling than in techniques to help people. (The professor was a pastor who had no training in counseling.) I did, however, get an A in the class.

Many pastors don’t think they need specialized training to counsel people. After all, the inspired, inerrant, infallible Bible has the answer to every question and problem. All a pastor needs to do is figure out what the problem is and find the appropriate Bible verse that addresses the issue. Every difficultly is reduced to obedience/disobedience, sin/righteousness, God/Satan, flesh/spirit. These kinds of pastors are very dangerous because they give simplistic answers to complex problems. It is not uncommon to find pastors counseling congregants who have medically diagnosed conditions, but want “God’s help” to overcome their mental illness.

Before seeing a pastor for counseling, a prospective client should ask about his training and qualifications. Even if a pastor has college-level training, the value and extent of that training depends on where he got the training. Many Evangelical colleges have counseling programs that do little more than teach pastors how to proof-text any problem. Many Evangelical colleges teach some form of nouthetic counseling:

Nouthetic counseling (Greek: noutheteo, to admonish) is a form of pastoral counseling that holds that counseling should be based solely upon the Bible and focused upon sin. It repudiates mainstream psychology and psychiatry as humanistic, radically secular and fundamentally opposed to Christianity. Its viewpoint was originally articulated by Jay E. Adams, in Competent to Counsel (1970) and further books, and has led to the formation of a number of organizations and seminary courses promoting it. The viewpoint is opposed to those seeking to synthesize Christianity with secular psychological thought, but has failed to win them over to a purely Biblical approach. Since 1993, the movement has renamed itself Biblical counseling to emphasize its central emphasis on the Bible. The Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology and Counseling states that “The aim of Nouthetic Counseling is to effect change in the counselee by encouraging greater conformity to the principles of Scripture.”

Ponder, for a moment, the aim of nouthetic counseling: “to effect change in the counselee by encouraging greater conformity to the principles of Scripture.” In other words, get right with God, and obey the teachings of the Bible (as interpreted by the pastor/church). Imagine being a woman and seeing a pastor for counseling who just so happens to endorse patriarchal thinking, complementarianism, and quiverfull philosophy.  Women not indoctrinated in such teachings will find themselves at odds with their counselors (pastors) and churches. If a woman has egalitarian beliefs, what should she do? Her trusted advisor’s goal is not to “help” her per se, as much as it is to get her to conform to certain theological beliefs.

Some Evangelical pastors go so far as to say that mental illness is the result of demonic oppression or possession. Again, the Bible becomes the solution to whatever problem a person may be having. Whether the problem is due to sin or a demon, God and the Bible are always the cure for whatever ails the person. This approach rarely addresses core issues and, in some cases, can lead to more problems, including suicide.

Imagine for a moment, an Evangelical woman going to her pastor for help. He listens to her “confession” and then prescribes whatever Bible verse is appropriate. The woman profusely thanks the pastor, and leaves his office determined to put the Word of God into practice. Perhaps this works for a day, a week, or a month, but, sooner or later, the problem returns. She goes back to the pastor, and he reminds her of what the Bible says. He tells her that she needs to repent, walk in the Spirit, be filled with the Spirit, put on the whole armor of God, withstand the devil, etc. The message is clear: If you are still having a problem it is YOUR FAULT!

I know some pastors will be offended by what I am about to say next, but I need to be clear: Most Evangelical pastors are unqualified to counsel people. They lack the necessary training to provide counseling competently, and their commitment to the Bible keeps them from properly helping people. It’s one thing if people have questions about the Bible or are questioning their faith. Certainly, those people should seek out their pastor’s counsel on spiritual matters. However, many so-called “spiritual” problems are actually mental/physical/emotional problems which pastors dress up in religious garb. An untrained pastor has no business counseling people who have mental/physical/emotional problems.

Sadly, many people think pastors are experts on everything. Little do they know that many pastors aren’t even experts on the Bible, let alone anything else. Many Evangelical colleges have turned their pastor-training programs into business and marketing programs. Actual training in the fundamentals of the ministry and the Bible is often quite limited. Many pastors-in-training will graduate from college without ever having studied most of the books of the Bible (and OT or NT survey classes don’t count). Many Evangelical pastors-in-training only take one or two counseling classes. Yet, because they have taken these classes, these pastors think they are qualified to be counselors. They may not be counselors, but they did stay at a Holiday Inn, right?  I know several pastors who got counseling degrees from Christian mail-order diploma mills (along with other advanced degrees, including doctorates). (Please see IFB Doctorates: Doctor, Doctor, Doctor, Everyone’s a Doctor) They proudly let everyone know that they have a degree in counseling and are qualified to counsel all comers, yet truth be told, they are as ignorant as backwoods moonshiners.

Over the years, I counseled hundreds of people. Not one time did I tell people that they needed to see a medical professional or a psychologist. I firmly believed the Bible had all the answers. My judgment was further clouded by the fact that my mother was mentally ill, was on all kinds of drugs, was treated by psychiatrists, and attempted suicide numerous times before eventually killing herself at age 54. (Please see Barbara) I considered psychologists and psychiatrists to be enablers who encouraged people to continue in their sin.

In the late 1980s, I was visiting with a fellow pastor in his office when a severely agitated young man came into the office. The man was either high on drugs or mentally disturbed. I thought my pastor friend would try to calm the man down and offer him some Biblical counsel. Instead, he told the man that he needed medical help. My pastor friend took him to the hospital in Zanesville and dropped him off. I was shocked that he did this. When I questioned him, he told me that he was unqualified to help the man. He was the first pastor I ever heard say such a thing. I now know he was right.

I did have two members who ended up seeking treatment at a stress center. I had tried to help them, and when I couldn’t, they had sense enough to seek out competent help. Both of these women stopped going to church after they got out of the stress center. At the time, I saw this as an example of what happens when you go to the “world” for help. I now know that these women learned for themselves that the Bible was not the answer to their problems.

Most of the people I counseled learned to play the game that long-time Evangelicals are experts at playing; they learn to pretend. The Bible, God, praying, confession, and self-denial, are of little help to them; they can’t seek help outside the church, so they learn to fake having the “victory.” This leads them to live schizophrenic lives. Sadly, the person’s spouse, parent, or children know that their loved one doesn’t have the “victory” because, at home, that person can’t or won’t hide his or her mental health problems. It is one thing to pretend for an hour or two on Sundays, but rarely can a person pretend every hour of every day.

I spent most of my adult life playing the pretend game. I struggled with depression, perfectionism, and OCPD, and while I could hide it while at church, it was impossible to hide it at home. My wife and children suffered because I couldn’t get the “victory” over sin, the flesh, or whatever else the Bible and preachers said was “wrong” with me. I lived this way until 2010, when I finally decided that I needed to see a counselor. Next to marrying Polly, it was the single most important decision I ever made.

The psychologist I see has not “cured” me, but he does help me deal with depression and the mental and emotional struggles I have as a result of being chronically ill and in constant pain. I consider him to be a lifesaver. He has helped me to embrace my life as it is, and he has also helped me come to terms with my religious past. I know that I can talk to him about anything. He listens and then tries to constructively help me. Sometimes, he listens and says nothing. He knows that sometimes the help I need is just having someone to talk to. He doesn’t view me as a problem that needs fixing, and he allows me the space to be my authentic self. If I have learned one thing in counseling, it is who Bruce Gerencser really is. Before this could happen, layer after layer of religious belief and thinking had to be peeled away. At the heart of my difficulties was Evangelicalism and the Bible, and they had to be confronted head-on. Even now, as an atheist, my religious past and the beliefs I once held affect how I think and reason. I now realize that the scars of my religious past will always be there. The longer I live without religion and the Bible, the easier it becomes, but these things can, when I least expect it, come to the forefront and cause emotional and mental problems.

I know that some readers of this blog have similar pasts and are all too familiar with pastoral counseling and how the Bible is not the answer for whatever ails a person. If you are able to do so, please share your thoughts in the comment section. I know that others will be helped by you sharing your story.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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