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.
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.