Criticism of Biblical Counseling: Are Joyce’s Concerns Valid?


Katheryn Joyce has recently published a long post about the rise of Biblical counseling and the concerns some have about the movement [read it here].

Most people who have thoughts about counseling and Christianity tend to fall into one of to categories: Those who oppose biblical counseling as dangerous and those who oppose the various versions of Christian psychology as shallow and full of humanistic ideology. Very few people try to maintain identity in both worlds. If you have read my “about me” you will find I’m one of those who does accept the label of biblical counseling and Christian psychology (more on this below)

I encourage both proponents and opponents of Biblical Counseling to read her essay. Let me even take the liberty to suggest some starting questions to keep in mind as you read. While the essay may not answer the questions, having them in mind will keep you from solidifying stereotypes of either sides.§ If you are inclined to reject biblical counseling, consider these questions:

  1. Where might I find a more thorough history of biblical counseling and its various permutations?
  2. What main biblical counseling author voices are missing in this piece? [Note that the mentioned ACBC was, until recently, known as NANC (National Association of Nouthetic Counselors)]
  3. What failures in Christian psychology movement(s) led to the need for a biblical counseling movement?

If you are inclined to defend biblical counseling, consider these questions

  1. Even if some of the bad examples of biblical counseling do not represent you or the heart of the movement, what aspects of the movement may support or encourage some of these distortions?
  2. How might you better communicate “sufficiency of Scripture” to outsiders?
  3. Does biblical counseling seek to eliminate symptoms or improve spiritual responses to symptoms? How might it better acknowledge the body when talking about the causes of mental health problems?
  4. Where does fear of “integration” hinder the maturation of biblical counseling as a movement?

Indeed, these questions have already been asked and answers given in a variety of locations. Readers unfamiliar with biblical counseling should start with websites such as this one, CCEF, ACBC, BCC, and the Society of Christian Psychology to find further and deeper readings on related topics.

Where the Concerns are Valid

Not acknowledging benefits from psychological research. Joyce notes that a good biblical counseling session looks a lot like a good professional counseling session. Why? Well, it is obvious that change happens best in the context of kind, compassionate relationships. Why the similarity? While it is true that psychotherapists didn’t discover empathy, it is true that psychotherapy research has expanded our understanding of the best way to encourage trust relationships in therapy. In addition, some of the cognitive, affective, and dynamic interventions developed from these models are used within biblical counseling. I have absolutely no problem from biblical counseling deriving benefit from interventions developed in other models of therapy. I only desire biblical counselors or acknowledge that benefit. It is clear Jay Adams benefited from Mowrer (and said so to boot). We can do the same. We can admit that Marsha Linehan has revolutionized our understanding of how we work with people exhibiting symptoms of borderline personality disorder.

Emphasizing false dichotomies. Joyce quotes Heath Lambert in this piece (near the end),

“I’m concerned [that] if we say, ‘Oh my goodness, people with hard problems need physicians and need a drug,’ we’re going to lose much of what the Bible has to say about hard problems.”

The quote above is in the context of dealing with difficult or serious mental illness. He worries that if the church creates two categories of problems (normal and special), those with serious problems will no believe that the bible has things to say about those suffering with suicidal ideation or schizophrenia. It seems that some biblical counselors take a negative stance on psychiatry and medical intervention because they fear doing so will hinder the work of the Spirit through the bible. I would argue that this dichotomy does not need to exist. I agree that the bible speaks to everyone, whether they are having difficulty or easy problems. I don’t think that use of medications or medical practitioners has to hinder pastoral care. The message that others get when we suggest that medical intervention need to be avoided is that somehow it is less spiritual to seek a medical intervention. This is patently false. Now, not every medicine is worth taking. Some may create more problems then they solve. But that fact should not cause us to lump all professional/medical care into the same category.

Where the Concerns are Overplayed

Heath Lambert gets it right when he claims that all counseling models will fail, due primarily to the quality of the practitioner. Biblical Counselors do much work that is commendable and successful. Joyce’s piece may suggest that most biblical counselors are ineffective and incompetent. This is not true. Matthew Stanford suggest he has never seen a biblical counselor do well with difficult cases. That may be the experience of my friend, but I can attest to seeing biblical counselors working well with people with serious personality disorders, delusions and other difficult mental illnesses. Now, the truth is, these counselors have succeeded because they did not follow the stereotype and reject learning from professional psychology. Further, these same counselors did not take “sufficiency” to mean that they could only use the bible in considering how to respond to their clients.

Take a moment and read her piece. Review the questions above and keep an open mind to both sides of this story.

[§ I have written on the relationship between Christian psychology and biblical counseling in the Journal of Psychology and Theology, volume 25, 1997. You can buy that essay here.]

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Filed under CCEF, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling skills, Psychiatric Medications, Psychology, Uncategorized

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