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Psychology: the Acceptability of Christian Counseling

While most pastors counsel in the form of pastoral counseling, some pastors reject psychology calling it “psychobabble,” even if
done by Christian psychoanalysts. Traditionally the difference between traditional counseling and pastoral counseling is that pastoral counseling has been called clinical theology in the sense that the focus has been to address problems by instruction in Christian doctrine to change attitude and behaviors.

More traditional counseling, even done by Christian counseling professionals, uses one of a variety of methods of psychoanalysis. Perhaps the most famous and the original psychoanalyst is Sigmund Freud, who believed that sexual impulses were the primary motivation and religion is "the universal obessional neurosis of humanity." Certainly these views are in conflict with Christianity but other viewpoints and methods like that of Carl Jung emphasize an individual’s needs including religion.

Today there are numerous Christian psychological professionals. Dr’s James Dobson, John Townsend, Larry Crabbe, and Frank
Minirith are examples of well known Christian psychologists who seek to help Christians with problems using psychology with Christianity at its base.

There are popular Christian radio counseling shows. New life ministries (www.newlife.com) which advertises itself as America’s largest, national, faith-based broadcasting and counseling organization. It offers a program, New Life Live, in many cities across the United States and on satellite radio. New Life has a statement of faith that reads like many bible based churches starting with "We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, inerrant, authoritative Word of God." They continue with declarations regarding the trinity, the need for salvation, the work of the holy spirit, and as regarding psychology, "We believe that all psychological principles should be thoroughly evaluated through the grid of Scripture, and that Scripture always holds the final authority."

Professional Christian counselors hold that their skill and training enables them to help many people with deep seated problems that aren’t being helped otherwise. According to the New life website, "Relational and marriage difficulty, depression, ADD/ADHD, eating disorders, addictions, anxiety and sexual problems are among the many life challenges addressed by our treatment teams."i. The logic is that there are some problems that are beyond the skills, training, and perhaps, time constraints of pastors.

In contrast, some pastors hold that psychotherapy is not a science, not instituted by godly men, and is unscriptural. The term
"psychobabble" that they use to describe psychotherapy literally means that psychology is babble. In addition to these pastors who decry all psychotherapy whether "Christian Psychotherapy" or not there are ministries like PsychoHeresy Awareness Ministries (www.psychoheresy-aware.org) whose purpose is to decry professionals like the ones named above. PsychoHeresy Awareness Ministries (PAM) offers ebooks declaring the heresies of James Dobson and Larry Crabbe specifically as well as numerous other works decrying all psychotherapy in general as well as specific individuals. PAM opposes Hank Hanegraaff and The Christian Research Institute for their support of Psychotherapy in certain circumstances. PAM seeks to expose all pschotherapy as wrong. In CRI GUILTY OF PSYCHOHERESY, they quote Dr. Robyn Dawes, professor at Carnegie-Mellon University, ". . . there is no positive evidence supporting the efficacy of professional psychology. There are anecdotes, there is plausibility, there are common beliefs, yes—but there is no good evidence (Dawes, 58).

They quote The Myth of Psychotherapy in which Dr. Thomas Szasz warns:

"My point is rather that many, perhaps most, so called psychotherapeutic procedures are harmful for the so-called patients . . . and that all such interventions and proposals should therefore be regarded as evil until they are proven otherwise (Szasz, xxiii)."

So we have another doctrine that divides us, with positions from that of all psychotherapy being useless and possibly harmful to that of being there are some cases where a trained Christian professional using true Christian guidelines is the only resource that works in those cases.

Biblical Basis of Christian Psychology

Like so many of the other dividing doctrines this can be a very complex issue that has numerous books already written about it. But, also like many others, an approach looking at an overview does give us some godly guidelines.

There are numerous verses that talk about counseling:

“A wiseman will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels:” Prov 1:5

“Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counselors there is safety.”Prov 11:14

“The thoughts of the righteousare right:but the counsels of the wickedare deceit.”Prov 12:5

This next verse says only godly counsel works in the long run:

“Hear counsel, and receive instruction, that thou mayest be wise in thy latter end. There are many devices in a man’s heart; nevertheless the counsel of the LORD, that shall stand.” Prov 19:20 – 21

And this next verse says that some things need to be drawn out of people, including their counsel:

“Counsel in the heart of manis like deep water; but a man of understanding will draw it out.” Prov 20:5

Noutheteo

Noutheteo is a greek word meaning “to put in mind” and translated admonish, warn, or instruct. Romans 15:4 has this word noutheteo in it, "And I myself am certain of you, brothers, that you are full of what is good, complete in all knowledge, able to give direction to one another. "(BBE version) The Williams translation translates the last part of the verse "competent to counsel"

Therefore there are numerous verses that praise counseling and cite the need for it. What is not cited are examples of people who specialize in counseling. However, there aren’t verses that cite the need for people to specialize in woodworking or metalworking, but it is common sense that to be good at a craft requires training.

Flaws

The argument many use who claim psychology is heresy in the church are the teachings of older psychology. For example, it is commonly known that Freud believed all problems to be sexual in origin. Adler, a student of Freud, disagreed and taught that the need for superiority was the cause of human conflict. Neither of these is equal to scripture’s teaching that we are born in sin and sin lead’s us astray in various ways. Romans 7:14-15 says:

“We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

Scripture lists many sins that may overtake us, not just those sexual or controlling in nature. So if a psychologist tries to integrate psychology and scripture and in the process accepts unscriptural teachings like these of Freud or Adler then, yes, it is wrong.

If, on the other hand, psychologists study methods and theories and study diligently the scriptures to determine which methods and theories are scriptural that is not wrong. In fact, it is the good, diligent, rightly dividing of a workman of scripture in action.

In Against "Biblical Counseling": For the Bible, the authors cite Dr. John Bettler who helped establish the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF). They condemn Dr Bettler as someone who integrates the psychology of Adler with the bible, and the end result cannot be biblical.

Bettler’s statement is simply a shortened paraphrase of Adler. He is saying the same thing as Adler, only without mentioning his
source. He basically is “recycling”. This is an example of how “recycling” works: Christians take notions from secular psychologists, put them into some type of biblical framework (i.e., God telling the “Israelites to remember certain things”), and then teach them as biblical principles of counseling without even giving proper credit to the original theorist. One thing is clear, however. Once a Christian begins to see things through the theories of secularists, he will begin to see Scripture according to those notions. He will think he is counseling biblically, when he is simply being an integrationist. In this case, “recycling” is no different from what Larry Crabb and others believe they have done.

Examples of Biblical Counseling

Boundaries

Boundaries are a topic in Christian psychology. Drs Henry Cloud and John Townsend wrote a book called Boundaries which discusses the topic well. It is one of the leading Christian Books sold at Amazon.com.

Is what is contained in this book good scriptural guidance or psychobabble? Some pastors and groups label Christian counseling as heresy taking the theories of men and parading them as Christian doctrine? Let’s look at this tool, setting boundaries, taught by leading Christian counselors and looks at whether this is an example of biblical guidance or secular psychobabble.

On the cover jacket we read "A boundary is a personal property line that marks those things for which we are responsible." Boundaries are described in various ways in the book. They are described as limits set to protect us. Some examples of boundaries listed in the book are words and distance. Let’s look at some of the instruction in the book.

On page 34 we read about using words for boundaries, "The most basic boundary setting word is no. It lets others know that you exist apart from them and that you are in control of you. Being clear about your no and your yes, is a theme that runs throughout the Bible (Matthew 5:37, James 5:12)

Is this true and biblical? Here’s Matthew 5:37(James 5:12 is similar to Matt 5:37):

Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

This is sound biblical advice.

Going back to the book on page 35 we read about using distance as a boundary, "Proverbs 22:3 says that ‘the prudent man see the evil and hides himself," Sometimes physically removing yourself from a situation will help maintain boundaries. You can do this to replenish yourself physically, emotionally, and spiritually after you have given to your limit, as Jesus often did."

Again this looks like good and appropriate biblical advice.

Other verses cited to establish the biblical precedent of boundaries include Matthew 18:15-18:

“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the
church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

These are not the theories of Freud, Rogers, or Jung. These are from the Bible. The authors are making a diligent attempt to apply it in counseling.

On page 42 the authors explain that it is important to take responsibility for our choices citing self-control as a fruit of the spirit. On page 43 the authors teach that we need to set limits on others and ourselves. Page by page the authors identify aspects of setting boundaries and back up their statements with biblical verses.

For example, setting boundaries includes boundaries in thinking. According to the authors we need to grow in knowledge and expand our minds. One area in which we need to grow is in knowledge of God and his Word, “My soul is consumed with longing for your laws at all times. Your statutes are my delight; they are my counselors”(PS 119:20,24).

Non Verbal Communication

I took a number of Psychology classes in college. In addition I have been to a number of professional counselors as well as have counseled a few people myself in a small group setting or just as a trusted friend. In spite of this diverse exposure to counseling I have placed the highest priority on words. After all we have a charge to speak the truth in love. So I never placed a high priority on non verbal communication. That’s not to say that something said sarcastically doesn’t mean something different to me than the words in a sincere tone. But psychologists make statements that greatly emphasize the importance of nonverbal communication. Psychologists say non-verbal communication is as much as 90 percent of communication.

My opinion was that, yes, nonverbal communication was important, but, as a Christian believer,I placed the emphasis on the words. Isn’t to speak the truth in love one of the most important guidelines for all Christians? The emphasis on "truth" is what I heard in the message. The words are either true or they are not. It is the truth that will set you free. It’s about truth; it’s about words, right?

A Clearer Understanding

It really is more than just saying the right words. In fact, I was surprised to find numerous places in the scriptures that speak to the limitations of thinking communication is all about the words. The first set of scriptures I want to look at deal with what I will call pure non-verbal communication. These examples describe communications that are completely without words. How powerful these images are:

Proverbs 6:12-13 reads:

A worthless person, a man of iniquity, is he who walks with a perverse mouth; who winks with his eyes, who signals with his feet, who motions with his fingers; (emphasis added)

Clearly these are nonverbal communications. Picture a crime boss from a movie like the godfather. There he is, in a meeting with a competing gang, and as he is offering a deal he motions with look of his eyes to a subordinate who comes forward with a briefcase full of cash. The look was a complete communication. It was a command to bring out the cash and it was completely understood.

Or picture this: A man is at a bar talking with a man of unsavory character. The man is complaining about someone, his boss or a competitor. The unsavory guy says in a sly voice, “Well, that can be taken care of.,” then winks with his eye. The wink communicates the evil intent of the statement. The wink says that the “problem” can be intimidated or even killed.

Back to the book of Proverbs and continuing in chapter 6, verses 16-17 we read:

There are six things which Yahweh hates; Yes, seven which are an abomination to him: Haughty eyes…

The first item listed in Proverbs 6:17 is a look, haughty eyes. Maybe you have seen a movie or maybe a scene in real
life of good looking guys or girls walking past the common looking person with upturned noses. The common looking person looks longingly at the group, and offers a “hi” to one of the group. The good looking crowd just look at each other with a look that says, “We’re not talking to (him/her), who does (he/she) think (he/she) is that we would talk to (him/her)” You can see the same scene perhaps with some atheletes and the chess club, or in the business world perhaps, with some high priced consultants, and the lowly
support staff.

So far we have winking, signaling with the feet, motioning with the fingers, haughty eyes, and we are not done. Proverbs 20, starting in verse 2, has another example similar to the haughty eyes example above.

Every way of a man is right in his own eyes; but Jehovah weigheth the hearts.
To exercise justice and judgment is more acceptable to Jehovah than sacrifice.
Lofty eyes, and a proud heart, the lamp of the wicked, is sin.
The thoughts of the diligent [tend] only to plenteousness; but of every one
that is hasty, only to want.(emphasis added)

Back in chapter 6, verses 23-25, we have yet another example:

For the commandment is a lamp, And the law is light. Reproofs of instruction are the way of life, To keep you from the
immoral woman, From the flattery of the wayward wife’s tongue. Don’t lust after her beauty in your heart, Neither let her captivate you with her eyelids.

What a powerful example this is. This verse declares the power of a look. Men are cautioned to beware the enticing
look of the immoral woman. This isn’t referring to the casual look of a woman. There is a definite purpose in the captivating look of a woman. It is an invitation.

This example shows the combination of verbal and non-verbal communication. She flatters with her words while giving the
enticing look. It is a package. The non verbal communications (captivating looks) speak as loudly as the verbal (flattery)

Learning Empathy, Matching Someone’s Emotional State

Another non-verbal communication that is important is matching someone’s emotional state. This is clearly seen at events
of extreme emotions like wedding and funeral. As you come up to the jubilant bride and groom it is appropriate to congratulate and express your joy to them about the celebrated event. It would be important here to express your joy for their union at this celebration. It’s not the best time to share about all your grievances with some family member. Likewise, at a funeral, the appropriate response is to express sadness at the family’s loss. When a child is crying, its appropriate to express concern instead of just smiling at them and telling them they shouldn’t cry.

Romans 12:15 reads: “Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.” This verse says the very thing that we talk about in the preceding paragraph. It talks about matching the speaker’s emotional state.

Look at Proverb’s 25:20: “Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on soda, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.” I remember one time I got a bad case of the flu. One of my roommates, Bobby, was a new believer. He was especially impressed with the verse, “By His stripes we were healed” He came into my room and excited began preaching, “You are healed.” When I didn’t get better, he was upset at me for not believing. He got downright angry, and yelled at me.

The image here is very powerful. What a shock it would be to be out on a cold day and have someone take your coat. This
is the shock people feel at inappropriate responses. It is not just about weddings and funerals. It’s important to talk appropriately no matter how traumatic the concern or joyful the event is. The spouse who brings up a parenting problem only to met with a disinterested “Oh” is still stung to the degree that this issue concerns them.

Christian Criticisms of Psychology

THere are numerous criticisms of psychology by some Christian groups:

  • Psychology starts with the ideas of men
  • Pschologists will advise divorce and other unbiblical practices
  • Psychology is focused on self rather than God
  • Psychology is its own religion

Verses cited in sbustantiating that psychology is worldly rather than godly include:

Take heed lest there shall be any one that maketh spoil of you through his philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ:Col 2:8

The point here is that since psychology is part of man’s study of life, it is a philosophy. As such it often runs contrary to God’s teaching.

Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?1Co 5:6

The principle of leaven is that it permeates the dough to change it all, making all the dough lighter. The point is that a little of man’s psychology mixed into the bible changes the whole perspective to a more worldly point of view.

C. G.Jung was the first understand that psychoanalysis belong to the sphere of religion. Jung wrote:

“Religions are systems of killing for psychic illness…. that is why patients force the psychotherapist into the role of a priest, and expect and demand of him that he shall free them from their distress. That is why we psychotherapist must occupy ourselves with problems which, strictly speaking, belong to the theologian.ii

I agree that there is concern for all of these issues. It does appear that pychologists can bring their worldly based training to the counseling office where ungodly ideas can permeate. Using a counselor, even a Christian one requires the counselee seeking to find answers in a Christian context to be diligent to stay focused on Christian teaching or run the risk of being seduced by a worldly philosophy.

Summary and Conclusion

Upon investigation many psychological concepts dismissed as “psychobabble” do seen to be more biblical than first estimated. On the other hand the Christian must be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” in evaluating the advice given by counselors. This may be hard to do in light of the authority given the couselor.

With the diversity of beliefs that Christians espouse it may be difficult to find a psychologist that agrees with the theology of your church, but psychologists are trained to work with a person’s faith as opposed to trying to change it. The bible clearly advocates consulting counselors, the only question is whether the wisdom the counselor uses is biblically based or not. As seen above, concepts such as boundaries or nonverbal communication have biblical bases. This is not an all or nothing proposition. It is available to glean godly counsel from a couselor even if there are pitfalls to watch out for. Some problems, for example dealing with substance abuse, traumas including spousal abuse, or childhood sexual abuse, often require more in terms of insight and length of care than some pastors can provide. There is something to be said that people trained and experienced in certain mattes are better equipped to care for them than the rest of us.

Nevertheless this is a divisive issue in the church. Just as there are parachurch ministries that promote and provide “Christian counseling”, there are ministries devoted to stopping Christian counseling.

i From http://www.newlife.com/nll/about.asp, the link has since been removed.
iiCarl G. Jung, “Psychotherapists or the Clergy,” Modern Man in Search of a Soul. (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1933), pp. 240, 241.

(c) copyright 2009 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.

April 25th, 2009 Posted by | Divisions | no comments

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