Christian counseling theory and the bible: A dangerous mix?

Maybe Christian counselors shouldn’t use the bible when they promote their counseling theory. Maybe they should just articulate their theory and leave the bible verses out. Sound radical? An overreaction? Guilty as charged. But…consider with me that some of our most popular Christian models may be built on rather flimsy biblical data.

Some (simplistic) background thoughts

All Christian counselors recognize that the bible plays a unique role in counseling theory. Otherwise, they would just be “counselors.” But not all use the bible in the same way. Some view the bible as the primary (even sole) guide or resource for understanding human nature and recovery from every sort of relational and/or emotional struggle. These counselors would likely cite 2 Tim 3:15-16 as evidence that Scripture is powerful and primary in our fight against sin and suffering. Others view the bible as a helpful foundation designed to remind us who God is, who we are, and a resource for comfort, encouragement, and rebuke. But, these counselors might also look to other resources as well–psychological research, physiology, medicine, sociology, etc. They would not dismiss the value of the bible but would argue that the bible doesn’t intend to be the answer guide for all the questions we might have. Thus, sources of human knowledge are important to the work of good Christian counseling. Now within this second camp, counselors vary widely as to how important either Scripture or human sources of knowledge function in their given practice. Some seem to emphasize (or neglect) one source more than the other.

The problem…

No matter where a counselor falls on the above continuum, it is far too easy to use the bible to baptize a particular viewpoint or theory. From my most recent christian counseling conference, I heard a plenary speaker say something like this (not a quote but pretty near exact):

Men need respect. It is their airhose. Women need love. It is their airhose.

Along with this statement, the speaker bolstered their points with personal stories and biblical passages indicating the women should be loved and men treated as having authority (submitted to). Here the speaker used bible passages to indicate that men are designed to operate optimally when respected and women designed to operate optimally with love.

Is this true? It could be. I certainly think that this SEEMS to be true for most men and women. But, and this is the BIG BUT…does Scripture indeed teach this. Does Paul teach us that these are our basic needs in order to function well?

Close but way off

Notice that love and respect cannot be our “airhose.” Habakkuk 3:16f would suggest that when everything has been taken away, it is possible to have joy in all things. Notice that Ephesians 5 is about what each are commanded to do…not about what each of us needs to receive. Christ is our “airhose” and nothing else. This speaker would have been better served just teaching us about observations made about what actions tend to make for better marriages than to indicate that the Scriptures teach us we have these two needs.

So, the next time you pick up a cool book by a christian counselor. Check out how they use the bible. As a support for a good theory (e.g., this verse teaches us…)? Or, as a source for understanding the problem of evil and the nature of our God who leads, guides, and saves us?

If you are interested in this topic, let me give you a couple of resources.

  • October 2011 print issue of Christianity Today covers the general misuse of the bible. It is not just counselors who do this. They list the example of a book with anti-aging techniques supposedly gleaned from the bible.
  • 2 chapters in Care for the Soul:Exploring the Intersection of Psychology & Theology (IVP, 2001). Chapters 12 and 13 both cover the issue of hermeneutics. Richard Schultz addresses how counselors misuse wisdom literature and chapter 13 (myself and my colleague Bryan Maier) give more general recommendations for good hermeneutic work.


Filed under biblical counseling, Biblical Reflection, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling science, counseling skills

12 responses to “Christian counseling theory and the bible: A dangerous mix?

  1. Myra Gideon

    I agree with what you’ve said about use of the Bible in counseling. I believe that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God, but it does not speak on everything. God gave humans minds with which to discover and learn. As long as a psychological theory does not conflict with Scripture, I think a counselor who is a Christian may use it.

  2. Thank you Phil. You hit the nail on the head with this. Keep up the great work

  3. Karen

    Keep up the work of being a voice of reason out there! This makes me feel better about being totally uncomfortable in most Christian marriage enrichment-type classes. Something always seems “off”. If we’re all to be like Christ, why constantly emphasize the differences between the sexes?

    • Susan

      Karen’s post is disturbing to me. We are to be “salt and light” in this world which requires that we educate ourselves about what is going on in our world. You cannot give a God honoring defense if you do not know what humanism and post-modernism is pushing. For decades it has been the woman’s lib movement and the liberal agenda of our nation has been to dispel any and all differences between men and women, not Christian teaching on marriage. This information in the liberal media is very much out there and quite easy to find. Frankly, I’m slapped in the face with it all the time and I hear fellow Christians discuss this as well so it’s surprising to hear of a Christian that doesn’t know this. In Genesis, God’s Word is clear, “He made them male and female.” God did not say he made Adam and Eve the same. God put in His Word that we, men and women are in fact different. There are additional passages in the New Testament that specifically refer to the differences in strength between men and women. When God’s Word tells us to be like Christ, it is talking about being transformed in our character – having the fruits of the Spirit of God, such as being patient, kind, gentle, loving, etc. Regardless of gender, we all are to display this fruit. Being like Jesus does not mean that I deny what it means to be female. God has clearly used that aspect of how He made me to minister to others in ways that men can’t, just as he uses men to minister in ways that women can’t. God calls us to be understanding and loving toward each other which requires putting out some effort in trying to understand how he made my husband different than me, not take the easy way out by saying we’re all the same. That simplistic view of human beings is inaccurate and can be damaging. In addition to being a psychotherapist, I am also a published in brain researcher. It has been known for at least 30 years that male brains are literally different from female brains and process information differently. This isn’t a matter of opinion. The brain structure of males and females are different.

      • One does not need to deny the differences between male and female to also say that much of these so-called “differences” are more cultural and not all that biblical. There are many in Christian circles who paint men as drum beaters and grunters. Those men who are not attracted to sports, hunting, and the like feel like something is wrong with them. Not every person finds themselves on the pages of Wild at heart.

        Again the problem is not that there are differences, the problem is stereotyping all males and all females. Each one is unique and must be understood (as you say you are doing as you get to know your husband). And for the record, male and female brains aren’t as different as we have sometimes been told. The research on these differences are sometimes rather flimsy.

  4. Debbie

    Thank you, thank you. We lived for 10 years under the “guidance” of a pastor who worked very hard to prove things like courting (not dating), homeschooling and the authority of parents over grown children was biblical. I still am working through the psychological effects of that time.

  5. Cyndi Pollet

    While I appreciate your insights, I have to disagree to an extent. My husband and I have taught a number of marriage classes in our church and have been trained to mentor pre-marrieds and marrieds. We have used this particular teaching on Ephesians 5 (regarding how mean are to love & women respect). It has, at times, actually helped us in our own marriage. I totally see your point regarding misuse of scripture; this passage does focus on what we are commanded to do as marriage partners rather than on a husband’s or wife’s needs. I believe, however, that your plenary speaker was digging deeper into the reasons behind Paul’s admonitions to husbands & wives. His illustration (I’m sure not meant to be taken literally) was just to show the importance of wives respecting their husbands & husbands loving their wives. When I first heard this illustration, I knew it was meant to be humorous, but it caused me to take my respectful role more seriously. Methinks you are going a bit too far on this one.

  6. Tammy

    My name is Tammy and I am new to this blog. I came across this blog and found this particular article encouraging in the fact that we as Christians are not to be looking to our mates for our sufficiency(airholes) and that are sufficiency is in Christ alone. Yes, I do believe that God has given us spouses to bring us blessings, but ultimately if that spouse fails to obey God in loving/respecting us we are still commanded to love them .I appreciate that this article was written with comparing Scripture with Scripture and not using verses to support someone’s viewpoint. I look forward to reading more articles and learning.

  7. Yes, the Bible can be used for meeting our own ends. It is disappointing that we do not make the effort to be sound hermeneutically. Humility, biblical research, love, human expertise have to be part of our work.

  8. Was scrolling through some of your older blog posts and saw this.

    “No matter where a counselor falls on the above continuum, it is far too easy to use the bible to baptize a particular viewpoint or theory.” Absolutely true. Your “Love and Respect” speaker is making the mistake of hinging his entire approach to marital counseling on this conceptual metaphor on husbands and wives from Ephesians 5.

    Several people I’ve counseled have used his material and found it helpful in their own marriages, but that doesn’t mean, his declaration: “Men need respect. It is their airhose. Women need love. It is their airhose” should be accepted with the same authority as Ephesians 5:33, “Let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” Scripture in its entirety, not one or a few verses should be where our “understanding of human nature and recovery from every sort of relational and/or emotional struggle” comes from.

    Yet at the same time, we cannot make a similar presumptive mistake with the conclusions of “psychological research, physiology, medicine, sociology, etc.” Whether a “fact” is viewed through the lens of “Love and Respect” or a well-recognized evidenced-based counseling methodology, it will still be interpreted. There are no “brute” uninterpreted facts, as Cornelius Van Til has said.

    Finally, 2 Tim 3:16-17 says: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” The grammatical construction here does not contrast “God-breathed” and “profitable”; they are EQUALLY true. All Scripture is God-breathed AND useful for correction, training in righteousness; equipping the individual for every good work; enabling them to be “complete.” I would say that for a Christian believing in the inspired authority of the Bible, any human activity that aspires to correct, train, equip or complete the individual should take this seriously. The resources of psychological research and the other disciplines must be viewed through this lens. When they are used independent of the authority of Scripture, they establish an autonomous authority to Scripture. Equally, when the premise of “biblical” relations between husbands and wives is only seen through the conceptual lens of “Love and Respect” and the authority of Scripture is imputed to its declarations, an autonomous authority to Scripture is created.

  9. Wilson O. V. Ijide

    There is no question that the Bible plays a foundational role in counseling. My view point however is that for the biblical foundation to be efficacious, it requires the combination of other disciplines particularly psychology that understands human behaviour. the reason is simply that scriptural insights come with spiritual growth. Until people attain a certain level of spiritual growth their understanding the power of the scripture is restricted. Psychology does fill the gap.

  10. Hi Wilson. I was just checking some old posts of mine in WordPress and saw your comment here. As Phil said above, “sources of human knowledge are important to the work of good Christian counseling.” But there is typically a worldview with these other sources of human knowledge that is often “out of focus” with what Scripture has to say about human nature and how people are to conduct their lives before God. Some nonChristian thinkers in psychology and science (Sigmund Koch and Thomas Kuhn respectively) have said that psychology itself is not a coherent scientific discipline.

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