What Exactly is a “Biblical” Counselor?

A Baptist and a Presbyterian walk into a bar—a coffee bar, of course. Both men are local pastors who meet regularly to encourage each other, pray, and discuss theology. As they are exchanging views on some abstruse point of Calvinism, they spot another local pastor across the room and motion for him to join them. As he takes a seat at the table, the Presbyterian explains that they had been discussing Calvinism.

“Oh,” the third pastor responds, “I wouldn’t know anything about that. You see, I don’t follow any man-made system of theology. I am a Biblicist—I just believe my Bible.”

Now, after reading the first sentence of my little story, you may have expected it to end with a punch line. While I did not intend for it to be a joke, perhaps you did chuckle a bit because you recognize it as a common conversation. You probably know a Pastor number three.

Pastor three’s response has several advantages. First, he can use it with the satisfaction that amid the controversy and back and forth of the conversation, his view is correct. It is unassailable.

Second, he does not risk offending anyone. Every party to the conversation wants the same thing—to be biblical.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, it saves him the hard work of thinking deeply about important theological issues and wrestling his conclusions about what the Bible teaches into a coherent theological system.

Currently, many in the biblical counseling movement are having a similar discussion about the term “biblical.” Every conservative Christian who is involved in counseling wants to be biblical, and each believes what he is doing and what he believes about counseling IS biblical—otherwise he would not be doing it. Across the entire spectrum, from the most aggressive integrationist to the hard shell fundamentalist, all are convinced his approach is biblical. So, like the pastor in my little scenario, counselors who use the term “biblical” to define the kind of counseling they do, end up just being nebulous.

Several months ago Heath Lambert published a document he entitled 95 Theses for an Authentically Christian Commitment to Counseling. While his focus was not on the term “biblical”, he addressed the core problem using the phrase “authentically Christian” instead. Obviously, from the title, you can see it was an attempt to capitalize on the 500 year anniversary of Luther’s famous document. To demonstrate how obtuse I can be, after a quick perusal of Lambert’s article I set it aside thinking it contained nothing controversial. There was nothing a biblical counselor would disagree with here, I concluded.

I was wrong. A number of bloggers took Lambert to task over a number of his “theses”. ACBC, the organization Lambert leads, published several responses to Lambert’s critics. Lambert even hosted a live podcast in which he responded to some of his critics. Rehearsing and analyzing those issues is not the point of my blog today. Only that Lambert’s article, and the blowback from it, demonstrates there is no consensus in Christian counseling circles as to what it means to be “biblical” (or as Lambert put it, “authentically Christian”).

Our friends, John Babler and Dale Johnson who teach at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas, wrote one of those articles published by ACBC. Their title was Issues in Biblical Counseling: Addressing the Elephant in the Room.

We would argue that for a number of years there has been an elephant in the room in the field of biblical counseling. There has been hesitancy to address the elephant, but some discussion is beginning to occur. The elephant we refer to is the question of what it means to be a biblical counselor. Professions and various organizations protect the identity of their movements by defining criteria that one must meet to be considered a part of that profession or organization.  We believe that the historical distinctions that have marked biblical counseling are under attack.

Since Jay Adams first published his book Competent to Counsel in 1970 and the contemporary biblical counseling movement began, several core distinctions have marked biblical counseling. We suggest that those core distinctions include the sufficiency and superiority of Scripture, the importance of speaking the truth in love, comforting the suffering, the necessity of calling people to repentance when sin is present, and the reality behind a God-centered anthropology that recognizes personal responsibility for sinful behaviors, words, and thoughts.  Recently biblical counseling has been besieged by many voices that minimize or even attempt to redefine these historical distinctions.  We suggest it is time to return to basics.

Babler and Johnson are exactly correct and their article is must reading for everyone interested in this discussion.

Recently, the biblical counseling faculty at The Master’s University launched a new Journal they have entitled The Journal of Biblical Soul Care. If their journal lives up to the goals they have set out for it, it will be an important addition to the literature of the biblical counseling movement. In the introductory article, Greg Gifford, the Journal’s Managing Editor, pointed out the “ambiguity of the term Biblical Counseling.”

The current climate of biblical counseling leaves the term biblical counseling somewhat ambiguous. There is inevitable ambiguity as to what one actually means when they use the term, especially in light of the rapid growth of the biblical counseling movement and increasing world-wide participation in biblical counseling. It is important to note that the editors affirm and employ the term biblical counseling in our ministry of teaching but that —like any term —we also recognize the natural limitations that this term possesses. Limitations like what exactly is the scope of the Bible in the counseling process; how is the Bible employed in the counseling process; or what is the approach one takes to the Bible when counseling from it. In a very real sense we can be a biblical counselor and integrate secular psychologies if by biblical counselor we mean that we incorporate the Bible into our counseling. This ambiguity necessitates greater clarity and we, the editorial team, sense that.

While Gifford has correctly identified the problem, I am not sure he has found a solution by substituting the equally nebulous term “Soul Care.”[1]

“OK Arms,” you may be thinking, “anyone can identify problems. Do you have any solutions to offer?”

Ah, indeed I do, but you are probably not going to like it. You see, we already have a way to describe exactly the kind of counseling that Lambert, Babler and Johnson, and Gifford describe in their articles. It is an unambiguous term that, while at the same time describing what truly biblical counseling looks like, is a term every integrationist will reject. That term is NOUTHETIC.

No wait; do not dismiss me out of hand. I know I may have just lost some readers. Eyes are being rolled, patronizing sighs are being heaved. Stay with me. The term “nouthetic” has boarders—there are fences around it. It is not elastic or malleable. When one identifies as a nouthetic counselor there is no ambiguity about what he is.

“But come on Arms, the organization Adams founded 40 years ago recently rejected the term ‘nouthetic’ in favor of the term ‘biblical’ because ‘nouthetic’ was deemed to be confusing while ‘biblical’ brought clarity.”

Ah, but does the term “clarity” describe what we have today? Would we be publishing articles, blogs, and podcasts explaining what we mean by the term “biblical” if we had achieved “clarity” with the name change? Do not let the irony of our current situation escape you. Listen to what one especially prescient and insightful blogger wrote four years ago when this name change was proposed:

Regardless of how heavy a lift it may seem for some to explain positively what we mean by “nouthetic” counseling, it is a far lighter load than explaining negatively what we are NOT when we use the term “biblical.” With this change, it will become necessary to clarify that we are NOT like the scores of others who use the term “biblical” promiscuously. That will be true, of course, only if we really are different and want to be seen as different.

“Alright Arms, while I am not ready yet to embrace your solution, you may have a point. But still, you have not sufficiently made your case. How does the term “nouthetic” solve anything? What exactly does it mean and how does it bring more clarity than other terms?”

Thanks for asking. If you will promise to check back, we will seek to make our case in the next exciting episode of our little blog.

 

[1] Integrationists have used the term “Soul Care” for many years. Eric Johnson employs in the title of his two mammoth, yet murky, volumes explaining his approach to counseling.

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Egypt–A Perennial Problem

Again, and again, the people of God turned to Egypt for help instead of turning to God. The problem still occurs. Of course, in this article I’m not speaking of physical Egypt, but of all that Egypt came to represent.  Physical Egypt is the type of all that one trusts rather than God.

So, what does the Bible say about Egypt? Here is but one of many passages in which God explains what happens whenever His people turn to Egypt:

When Israel grasped you by the hand, you splintered, tearing all their shoulders; when they leaned on you, you shattered and made all their hips unsteady.     (Ezekiel 29:7).

Christian, are you leaning on a splintering reed rather than the rock-solid One Who saved you? If so, is your shoulder beginning to hurt?

Are you putting your trust in some modern “Egypt” of your own making rather than the unshakable, sturdy Creator and Sustainer of the universe? Foolish, if you are—and do you find yourself beginning to limp?

Staffs made of flimsy reed cannot help. Turn from them and back to the one and only unfailing support—the God Who made you!

An Observation, and a Wise Example

Somebody you’d like to “tell off?” You think he needs a piece of your mind—a good talking to? Think twice; but first, read the following:

When there are many words, sin is unavoidable.
Proverbs 10:19

Most of Proverbs is filled with wise observations given in FYI form (as in this one).  That is to say, they are not in the form of commands, but of information that a wise person, wishing to be wiser, will pay attention to. He will apply them as he sees need to do so.

These proverbs don’t promise anything when setting forth truth in this form—they merely tell you what is happening (generally) in God’s world—in relation to Him and others. The wise will wisely apply what he learns from such observations.

The proverb that you are examining is plain enough—but don’t stop with it. Instead, use the understanding that we have reached about many of the Proverbs from chapter 10 on, and begin to learn how to live wisely as a result.

Disagreement

People may not like Nouthetic Counseling (articles appear from time to time attempting to debunk it). But that’s to be expected. Whenever anyone tries to do something to serve the Lord there will be opposition.

What we ask for is an honest appraisal of what we teach—nothing more. We don’t expect everyone to see eye to eye with us. Far from it. But when they differ, we would like them to represent our views fairly.

To say that we believe everything bad that happens in a person’s life is due to his personal sin, is a calumny. We have never taught any such thing. Yet, this is frequently parroted by those unsympathetic with NC. Trouble comes our way because of Adam’s sin, yes. But certainly not all of it because of the sin of individuals since. This was made perfectly clear in Competent to Counsel as early as 1970!

Additionally, to say that we don’t believe in doing good to unbelievers is equally false. We would want to feed them if hungry, clothe them if needy, and so forth. But to ask them to do what only Christians can do is not only to treat them unkindly, it is counterproductive. It is one thing to do good to another; something quite different to ask him to do the same.

In a recent blog we were accused of teaching that the counselor cannot be wrong—only the counselee. That is nonsense! We have said so much about how a counselor can go wrong that there is hardly anything left to say. For instance, we have set forth Fifty Failure Factors for counselors to use in order discover possible ways in which they might be failing counselees.

In this same blog, the writer claims that the goal on NC is control. Yes, control of one’s own lifestyle by the Spirit—but never control of counselees by counselors. In Galatians 5, Paul speaks of the fruit of the Spirit, one piece of which is “self-control.” That is precisely the goal of our counseling. It is always interesting to note how far from the actual practice of NC a critic can come, but it would be nice if he would read far enough in the literature to know what he is criticizing.

Empirical Evidence?

Question: What empirical evidence do you have that Nouthetic Counseling is superior to other forms of counseling?

Answer: Quite frankly, none. Do you wonder at that? Let me tell you why you shouldn’t. To compare Christian counseling with other forms of counseling is to compare oranges to apples (no, let’s say, oranges and socks!). Consider the goal of Christian counseling over against that of others. Most counseling seeks to solve a person’s problem in order to bring relief. That is the prime goal. In Christian counseling, however, the goal is to honor and glorify God, whether or not relief is obtained. How, then, do you compare the outcomes?

Moreover, since the object of biblical counseling is to bring about change in the counselee that honors God, how would you test for that empirically? Would you put his soul in a test tube, shake it up and hope it turns blue? How would you test whether God was honored, whether the motives of the counselee were sound (since God looks upon the heart; not merely on outward behavior) or whether he only made changes outwardly? How would you determine the extent of the Holy Spirit’s work in the counselee’s life so as to make the desired spiritual changes? In other words, there is no way to obtain empirical evidence. Since it is biblical attainments that are under consideration, it is impossible to get statistical evidence for the spiritual changes that the biblical counselor seeks to bring about.

Then, further, why would we need any tests anyway? The One Who tries the hearts of men is the Lord. He infallibly knows what is happening within the person. We can look only at his outward behavior and listen to his speech. It is He Who tests; and that is all that counts. Besides, from the counselor’s perspective, success is measured not by the outcome of the counseling sessions but ultimately by whether the counselor did those things that were biblical, thereby honoring his Lord. Success may be measured in many ways; Christians should measure it in terms of how well the counselor followed the Bible in a given case. And once again, there is no way to test this except by comparing what he does with what the Scriptures require of him.

So, what does the Christian counselor have to demonstrate the effectiveness of Nouthetic counseling? Nothing, as I said before. And he is absolutely content to say so. He must do as well as he can to meet biblical requirements in order to please God, and then let the chips fall where they may. He knows that his performance as a counselor will be flawed since he is not perfect. But he also knows that when he asks for forgiveness for failure God measures his success by that as well as by the performance. So, given the goals, given the persons at work (the counselor and the Holy Spirit) and given the kinds of outcomes that are expected and achieved in the sight of God, it would be not only foolish but arrogant to attempt to test Nouthetic counseling by some human apparatus. We do not have to set results of the sort that they might wish before the world, so long as we honor and please God. On Judgment Day, He will reveal the statistics! Any counseling claiming to be “Christian” that makes much of statistics thereby invalidates itself as such by showing that its goals and outcomes are not thought of in biblical terms.

Since the human counselor is not the only one who is at work in Christian counseling, the Christian has an “unfair advantage” over other counselors. With the Holy Spirit enlightening the minds of counselees and enabling them to overcome sinful propensities that hinder growth, producing His fruit through His inerrant Word, what profit would there be in trying to determine how well a human counselor counsels? In effect, he is but a catalyst, ministering the Scriptures in ways that the Spirit utilizes to bring about change in counselees. The Spirit is the ultimate Counselor. The whole concept of empirical evidence, statistics and the like, begs the question. And the thought of attempting to obtain them is repugnant. Sorry, but that is how it is.

Grow By Grace

There are all sorts of ideas floating about today in various circles concerning sanctification. If you are getting confused by them, consider the following:

But grow in (by) the grace (help) and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:16).

More often than not, in NT (Koine) writing, it seems that the Greek “en” (often translated “in”) ought to be translated by one of its other possibilities–“by, with,” etc. Here, I am sure that it should read “by,”as I noted in the parenthesis in the quotation. The idea of a “spherical dative” is foolish here (as in many of the translations made of this important preposition).

What Peter was trying to get his readers to understand is that in order to grow in their faith it takes grace and knowledge—both, of course, applied to daily living—in order to grow. And growth, as one learns more about Christ and becomes more like Him, is what sanctification is all about. That grace (here, “help,” the second meaning of the word grace, is also a more appropriate translation).

Growth comes about as a believer learns more of the Christian faith and is helped by God to practice it. More and more he progressively comes to walk as he should (not, in this life without failures, of course). But if one is a true believer, he grows. He will change. He can because he is a new creation. Sanctification is not “on the spot,”as one modern preacher recently said. Nor does it come about without effort: studying and prayerfully applying scriptural truth. It is the result of knowing God’s truth about putting off the old sinful ways and replacing them with new biblical ones that please God. Growth is a sign of life—in this case spiritual life. No growth—no life.

Think about this and refuse to be herded by the crowd that teaches that something other than growth is essential.

ACBC

The National Association of Nouthetic Counselors (NANC), now known as the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC), has had a powerful influence in my life and ministry for over 35 years. As a young pastor, I looked forward each year to spending a few days with men who influenced the course of my ministry through their teaching and example. Bill Goode, Jay Adams, Tim Turner, George Scipione, Howard Eyrich, Wayne Mack, Lloyd Jonas, and Randy Patten were among the men who helped and encouraged me in ways they probably never knew. The friendships I formed with other pastors who were learning and growing with me remain a valued part of my life today.

Those who are regular readers of our little blog know that my enthusiasm for the organization began to wane about seven years ago, and will recall several blog posts from those days in which I expressed my disappointments. Last year, however, marked a turning point for me. I came away from the conference in Louisville with a renewed hope for the direction of ACBC. The leaders were beginning to address many of the concerns I had, and many loose procedures were being tightened up.

Last week I attended the annual ACBC conference in Jacksonville. In the same way I thought it was important to express my misgivings in the past, I think it is equally important that I now express my enthusiasm and gratefulness for the direction I now see ACBC headed. Let me note a few takeaways I had from the conference this year:

  1. Each plenary speaker was helpful and encouraging. I especially appreciated the keynote address by Heath Lambert. It was a clear and bold explanation of the need for a faithful, biblical, and uncompromising stand for the authority and sufficiency of the Scriptures. Well done Heath.
  2. Several initiatives were announced that addressed areas that have needed to be “beefed up.” Asking members to get more training in specific areas of counseling is a great step forward.
  3. First Baptist Jacksonville were great hosts. The music they led was wonderful.
  4. There was a great spirit of comradery among those who were present, much like the “old days” that I remember.
  5. I was struck, however, by these who were NOT there. There were no displays, and no representatives from organizations and schools that like to identify with Christian Counseling broadly. Now I doubt they were asked not to attend, but I want to think that those organizations that would be comfortable at an AACC conference, or who believe it necessary to “build bridges” to integrationists, concluded they would have little to gain by displaying at an ACBC conference. If our message at ACBC clearly communicates we are not of that ilk, it would speak well of us.

Now I would like to think that the powers that be at ACBC were so greatly influenced by my opinions and came to see the great wisdom of what I was saying that they embarked upon these corrections because of my vast influence. But I doubt anyone reading would conclude the same. Still, from my little corner of the biblical counseling world, I would encourage anyone contemplating pursuing certification to hesitate no longer. The certification process is a bit stiffer than in the past, but that is a good thing. I believe ACBC is an organization with which you can identify with confidence.

Written In Stone

How would you like to have your words written down when you didn’t know they were going to be?

Well, listen to Job 19:23-24:

I wish my words were written down,
That they were recorded on a scroll
Or were inscribed on a stone forever
By an iron stylus and lead.”

He got his wish! Only from what he says later on in the book, I doubt that he would want them to be written anywhere by any kind of instrument after having been laced out by the Lord.

Still think he’d want his words to be recorded? Listen to Job 40:4:

I am so insignificant. How can I answer you?
I place my hand over my mouth.

So much for bolstering self-esteem! So much for questioning the Lord’s will as Job did.

“Will all of my words be recorded somewhere?”

Who knows?

Have you read Luke 12:3 lately? I suggest you get out your Bible right now and do so. It might have a salutary effect on your speech!

Using the Original Languages in Preaching

Why do I need to? After all, there was no time in the history of preaching when there were more good translations than now.

The argument sounds good; but the objector misses the obvious fact that the more translation possibilities that he has to choose from, the more one needs to know (at least something about) the original languages; otherwise, when they differ (and they do), how does he know which is correct? From which should he preach? Which more faithfully represents the original text of the writers? This is a special problem today, when so many translators have determined to become interpretive in their renderings. The very wealth of modern options itself should (all the more) point up the need for an acquaintance with the original languages.

“Where can I get this knowledge?” Self-help books, printed languages courses in both Greek and Hebrew, and internet courses exist. But (easiest) many Bible colleges. All conservative seminaries and a number of other schools provide courses in the original languages. Any pastor who has never had Greek or Hebrew (even if he doesn’t ever complete a seminary education) ought to take these courses. “Why?” Well, not only to decide between translations, but:

  1. To be able to “get the feel” of a passage. English translations tend to trowel off the original tone of the writers. Only by becoming acquainted with the original can one restore this. This “feel” is essential to good preaching.
  2. To be able to use the best commentaries and read the better Bible helps (most of which refer to the original text). Without some knowledge of the languages, one cannot follow the reasoning behind the renderings suggested.
  3. To be able to evaluate other books that (again, not using the original) may be far afield in their interpretations and/or uses of many passages.
  4. Preaching that flows from the study of a passage in the original moves forward with a more sure-footed stride; other preaching often limps. A certain confidence derives from having examined the text for one’s self.

“But I’ll never be a Greek or Hebrew scholar.” Right! That is true of most pastors. And right there lies the problem. Many good men who could have profited from a sensible use of the original languages were turned off by seminary teachers who taught them the study of languages as if their life occupation would be to teach Classics or Semitics in a university. They never recommended short cuts (e.g., like forgetting all about the rules for Greek accents—learning these is an almost totally unnecessary chore. One can get along well with learning only those distinguishing accents that count). They tried to build up a conscience against using analytical lexicons and interlinear translations (two very valuable helps that no one should feel guilty about using freely). They talk negatively about such books as Kubo’s Reader’s Lexicon and don’t tell students about Spiros Zodhiates’ crib for Machen’s grammar. All such “purism” is sheer nonsense. Who cares if a pastor leans on some Bagster help? Who cares how a person learns to get the right answers to his exegetical questions concerning the original languages so long as he gets them? Of course one should use the Englishman’s Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance if he finds it helpful. Why not?

With all that a busy pastor must do, it is only right for him to employ every available aid that he can afford, to keep his hand into the continued use of Hebrew and Greek. He would be a poor steward of time and energy if he did not. Many men have lost any language ability they once had because they believed (what they were told, or strongly led to think) that it was wrong to use anything but the naked text and the standard grammars and lexicons. Sheer, unadulterated nonsense! Pastor, if using an interlinear will help you get back to the Greek and Hebrew, use it—let me emancipate you from the chains of guilt forged in the shops of language teachers who never had to face the everyday problems of the pastorate. Use it! Use whatever is available. Indeed, every teacher of Hebrew and Greek in a theological seminary ought to take the time to compare and contrast these helps, giving his opinion about which is best (and why) and instructing pastors in the most effective and intelligent use of each.

Preach; preach from a study of the original text, and you will preach with confidence and joy.

All Truth

According to John 14:26, the apostles received the last revelation that would ever be given this side of eternity. Jesus told them

But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, that the Father will send in My name, He is the One Who will teach you everything and remind you of everything that I told you.

It’s a good thing that God provided the Spirit to give all remaining revelation to the apostles, as well as to enable them to remember Jesus’ ministry so as to write inerrant Gospel accounts (See also John 12:16). We know that He met with them for forty days following His resurrection talking to them concerning the things that pertained to the church (Acts 1:3), but it was only after the Spirit of truth came upon them that they were given “all truth” (John 16:13), including prophetic understanding of the future. To know that they received all the truth that the church will ever have is important for many reasons, among which are the following:

  1. We can be sure that claims to additional revelation are false, and know, therefore, to reject them.
  2. We can know that there are no more prophecies to be forthcoming.
  3. We can know that the Scriptures, in which all truth is deposited, are sufficient for our lives.
  4. We can know that the more that we study the Bible and come to know the truths therein, the closer we come to knowing all the truth that God has disclosed (not that any of us gets all that far).
  5. We can know that there is a source of truth available to those who ask the Spirit to enable them to access and appropriate it as they study the Bible.
  6. We can know that God has completely provided a fixed rule of faith and practice for us in a world where everything else seems uncertain.

How richly God endowed us when in the coming of the Spirit, we also received all truth through the apostles!

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