Competing Models of Christian Counseling? Who is Right?

A couple of recent pieces have me thinking about (a) models of Christian counseling and, (b) the intramural conversation amongst Christians on which model is most Christian. One piece is David Powlison’s article in the Summer 2011 issue of the Westminster Today magazine (this link is to the magazine site but the current issue is not yet up). The second is by Ed Welch–a blog on Biblical Counseling Coalition website.

This is not a new topic for me. From my “About Me” page you can see that I have training in biblical counseling and also in clinical psychology. I respect the folks at CCEF who had a huge impact on my life and thought–especially that lovely editor they employ ;). While getting my PsyD I published on the historic divide between biblical counselors and Christian psychologists and the need to build bridges. I’m an associate editor for Edification, a Christian Psychology peer-reviewed journal.

All that to say, I have some thoughts on some ways we might move beyond right/wrong while still being concerned about building a clear, cogent, God-honoring model of Christian counseling.

Drop the labels

Yes, we should drop our labels. What is the difference between a Christian counselor, Christian psychologist, integrationist, or biblical counselor? These differences are as varied as the numbers of people who use them. Yes, there are probably some benefits to communicating a personal stance with one of these terms. But, for every benefit, there are probably any number of negatives, including the use of the label as a curse. “Are you that kind of biblical counselor” (whatever kind you find offensive)? “Are you a Christian who happens to be a psychologist or a Christian psychologist?”

In addition to dropping labels, we should also drop broad brush judgments. Calling Christian psychologists “syncretistic” is offensive and ill-fitting. Calling biblical counselors “psychology bashers” does not accurately portray their nuanced approach. Saying that psychology and biblical counseling is “fundamentally incompatible” (from either side of the debate) ignores the benefits that both sides gather from each other.

No labels? What then?

Facets. I’m sure there going to be problems with this idea too but let us choose to focus on facets of counseling models. For example:

  • How does Scripture shape counseling foundations and goals?
  • How do we learn from, utilize, and critique psychological constructs, data, etc?
  • How does typical human development trajectories influence our understanding of the change process?
  • How do we learn from those who do not share our epistemic foundations?
  • How do we articulate diverse counseling goals (suffering well? symptom reduction? discipleship? skill acquisition? insight?) as all working toward the common goal of glorying God and enjoying him forever.

Listen first, repent first

In Ed’s blog post (linked above on the BCC site), he captures the most essential characteristic needed if we are going to learn from each other. We ought to,

listen and enter into the world of the other person (or in this case the other counseling perspective) in such a way that the person representing the perspective says, “Yes, that’s me. You understand.”

It is a sad thing that we counselor types start with diagnosing other model builders without listening first to both the content of that model and the person behind it. We treat our fellow counselors in ways we would never treat a client. How should we listen to others? Can we see what they see? Can we see what they see that we tend to ignore? Can we see the benefits of what they do and the potential liabilities they see in our model?

Be willing to repent where you have unfairly labeled, categorized, and marginalized one who was working for Christ’s kingdom–even if you think you have been hurt more.

List own weaknesses first

Most debates, whether between thinkers or spouses, rarely succeed in winning over the other person. Why? Because we are too busy defending, explaining away, pointing out the weaknesses of the opponent to actually deal with reality.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear a counseling model builder express his/her models weaknesses or needed growth points first before exploring the deficits of the another? “My model doesn’t yet have a good understanding of ____. Your model does so much better with that and I want to learn from you.”

Build the center

Rather than start with the differences (which do indeed exist), what if we cataloged the similarities and areas of agreement among Christian models of counseling? In addition, what if we recognized those things we might not have noticed with out the help of those outside our own community. For example, Scripture may speak a great deal about loving neighbors but a particular model of psychology may flesh out what loving a very unique population of client ought to look like. Even if Scripture is sufficient, we do not diminish it when we acknowledge we hadn’t made a particular application without our neighbor’s help.

Acknowledge differences

We will not see eye to eye. We will disagree. Let us acknowledge these where they arise. Let us make sure the differences are real and categorize them into those that are peripheral and those that are substantial. For example, David Powlison speaks about the need for a counseling/care for the soul model back in the 1950s. Despite quality practical theology and discipleship programs, he asked,

But what was the quality [in the 50s] of corporate wisdom in comprehending the dynamics of the human heart? What sustains sufferers and converts sinners? Westminster Today, 4:1 (2011), p7

Right away I ask myself, are these the only two options (sustaining, converting) for Christian counselors? Is it possible also to have the role of treating symptoms? Teaching skills? Reducing suffering? I’m fairly sure that this initial difference is not really there. I suspect David does not reject mercy ministry to reducing suffering. But in dialog, he and I might end up agreeing that some biblical counseling models fail to focus on skill intervention in their quest to address the human heart. And we would likely agree that some christian psychology models fail to address the spiritual discipline of suffering well and the need for conversion. Might we end up agreeing that we want a full-orbed model that neither diminishes nor over-promises symptom care or sanctification?

Promote each other

Finally, we do well to promote each other at our conferences and learning communities. We encourage wide-ranging reading, critical interactions (note, not criticizing), and sharpening of each other. And we commit to lovingly correcting those of our “friends” who speak ill about our neighbors. We reject the fear of defending an outsider for fear of being rejected ourselves. 



Filed under AACC, biblical counseling, CCEF, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling, counseling science, Psychology, Uncategorized

11 responses to “Competing Models of Christian Counseling? Who is Right?

  1. Steve Cranston

    Unfortunately, even as I sincerely tried to be objective and positive as I read this, it seems to give the impression (to me, at least) that defending the “psychology” position and being accepted are the author’s major concerns and goals. The “finding common ground” principle isn’t one that I see scripturally presented or founded, nor is looking for acceptance.
    Though I believed in the sufficiency of Scripture as the basis for counseling, I’ve found two other very good pragmatic reasons for purely biblical counseling as opposed to Christian psychology and “integrationism”: 1) We see so many coming to us for counseling who’ve already tried everything else (including Christian psychology), and 2) I know numerous others who’ve been trained as Christian psychologists who’ve (on their own) come to the conviction that biblical counseling is the only truly effective means of facilitating biblical transformation to Christlikeness. My understanding of the Bible is that it presents both the source of and solution to the problems. The root is in the heart and the fruit is seen in the outward conduct. In essence, you’re not likely to use the world’s methods and achieve the Lord’s desired results.
    While I do believe we are biblically compelled to love everyone and show grace, I see no reason to look for common ground with or to accept a practice which is based on an unbiblical and secular philosophy. I don’t mean to sound harsh, that’s simply what I believe and am convinced it’s a biblical position to hold.

    • Steve, just what was said that was unbiblical? What bias do you put on my position since I have not even mentioned a particular model or technique. I’m talking about common ground amongst believers. Scripture is NOT an encyclopedia for counseling (or any other issue for that matter). It is sufficient but we also do learn from fellow humans. Human wisdom does have value. It cannot get you saved. True.

      Second, psychology is just a large conglomeration of ideas, data, theories, descriptions of human behavior. Some is good, some is awful. But to use broad brush strokes to dismiss…well, you make my point. Because I use the word psychology in positive sense, you assume it must be worldly. Again, I ask you to evaluate what in any of what I said (or what else is in this blog) brings you to the conclusion.
      I will say I understand that the “not listening” goes both ways. I spent my first year in a doctoral program debunking what some people thought biblical counseling was. They had almost no idea and whatever idea they had was from 3rd or 4th hand. Whether you are a biblical counselor or a Christian counselor, it isn’t nice to be slandered without having been understood.

    • My ears perk up when I see the word “tried” used in this way. I’ve listened to parents describe the treatments their troubled children have “tried” in the past without success; if I happen to know the clinician who delivered the treatment that was “tried,” they may relate to me a completely different account of how the treatment process went. What the unsatisfied client calls “tried” may have actually meant “showed up, put in minimal or no effort, expected the counselor to do the work, left feeling justified that no new ground was broken…I “tried” but it didn’t work”. Then again, “tried” might have meant the opposite…genuine effort to employ the treatment was made on the parts of both the client and the therapist, but it was not successful. “I tried Paxil for depression, but it had no effects…so I tried Zoloft, and the blackness lifted.” A friend of mine dealing with severe depression “tried” working with a Nouthetic counselor (which in some quarters is considered the gold standard for being purely biblical), and her depression worsened with each confrontational session. Another Christian friend worked with an Atheist psychologist who used cognitive techniques to help her identify distorted interpretations of the reality around her, and she emerged not only feeling better, but better equipped to challenge her own distorted views of God with Scriptural truth…and unbeliever taught her a universal skill and it strengthened her faith! Without knowing what’s really going on the counseling session (which we rarely would), it’s difficult to accept the word “tried” at face value…there are too many uncertain variables, from which to conclude an approach isn’t effective (or even biblical) just because someone “tried” without success.

  2. Lauren Bouchard

    I feel that relying on the availability heuristic–“well, everyone I know who went to a psychologist, or everyone I know who went to a Biblical counselor”– can be extremely deceptive. Simply because a person tried one kind of treatment or counseling and it didn’t “work” does not make it ineffective (kind of along the lines of what Scott was saying). Perhaps that is why different treatment modalities even exist whether they are biblical or whether they are secular.

    From my standpoint, I am an undergraduate psychology student and I am a Christian. Being in a secular department has been hard at times because I feel as though they forget about the aspect of spirituality. Despite not learning about human behavior and mental processes from a Biblical perspective, I have learned a great deal about the way in which God created his most prized creation. Learning about anything from motivation and perception to development and social psychology has given me great insight into the complexity of our minds, emotions, and consequent actions.. I find it delightful that God has chosen to reveal wisdom to me through psychology.

    As someone who wants to become a mental health clinician in some aspect, I have struggled with the deciding the “right” avenue of helping others to “achieving Christlikeness”. And, I think there is a problem with simply “achieving Christlikeness.”Like Phil stated in the blog, counseling is so much more than that. We have the ability to help believers and non believers alike. Counseling can be about gaining insight, forming coping skills, rebuilding relationships, reducing tension (and I could go on). Honestly it’s kind of disappointing to me to see Christians battling it out. It was said earlier in these comments that, “In essence, you’re not likely to use the world’s methods and achieve the Lord’s desired results.”

    I find that to be an underestimation of God’s power and sovereignty. My God can use anything, anytime, anywhere to achieve His purpose. It’s terribly sad for me to see people so prideful about a specific approach. I agree that we need to build each other up and let Spirit change hearts and lives regardless of the avenue of treatment.

  3. Jord

    Who is that “lovely editor they employ”?

  4. Great topic, and one I am also passionate about, Phil!

    I think one of the difficulties in this topic is the position we are in as counselors (to listen well, reflect, use a technique that we have a rationale for that works on the goal the person seeing us has…) and as people of a specific faith (we listen but there is an apologetics stance we take that can at times interfere with our truly listening because we feel we need to defend a position). Differences even in denomination of Christianity, as well as across faiths, can interfere with our ability to converse effectively, hear from each other and learn from each other. To label a technique as good or bad can be scary, since no one thing works for all people… this is why we develop rationales for what techniques we use. We forget at times that a part of our job in the informed consent process is to clue our clients in on that rationale so that they can decide what they want to try. My bias towards a recovery-oriented practice is showing in that way.

    However, I see faith as having an integral part of Cognitive-Behavioral techniques as someone looks at their automatic thoughts, interpretations, expectations, beliefs, and choices they make in response. Because I come from this viewpoint, I get highly confused when persons do not see the beautiful working relationship that psychology and faith can have. But, I want to listen and try to understand their perspective or their fear. I do think we can at least agree to disagree in a respectful way, without labeling one as “wrong” or “unbiblical” and the other “right”. Are we at times talking about therapeutic rationale for interventions, but using different terms?

  5. Pingback: Pastoral Picks (6/16) | HeadHeartHand Blog

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