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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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.

When Counseling, Also Don’t . . .

Yesterday we published Dr. Adams’ list. Here is mine. What would you add?

  1. Minimize your counselee’s problem. It was important enough to him to seek counsel.
  2. Tell your counselee that you understand what he is going through. You probably don’t. Tell him Christ does.
  3. Use psychological labels and jargon.
  4. Debate counseling models and methods with your counselee.
  5. Give homework that does not directly relate to the problem.
  6. Delay addressing his problem thinking you must build a relationship first. Build a relationship by addressing his problem.
  7. Adjudicate disputes between two people.
  8. Overwhelm your counselee with too much homework.
  9. Let your counselee’s emotions dictate the agenda.
  10. Let other things distract you during a counseling session.
  11. Fail to laugh and enjoy a humorous moment when appropriate.
  12. Try to make a point with a long list of verses. Instead, explain carefully the one or two verses that best meet the need.
  13. Fail to take good notes during the session.
  14. Charge your counselee for the privilege of counseling with you.
  15. Commiserate with a depressed person—help him!
  16. Excuse failure to do homework.
  17. Allow someone, whose own life is out of control, control yours.
  18. Have your counselee read Scripture during the counseling session. You read it TO HIM—clearly.
  19. Yawn
  20. Fake it. If you don’t know what to do next ask the counselee to pray for you as you study the issue during the coming week.
  21. Do another pastor’s work for him. Insist that your counselee’s pastor come along to the counseling session.
  22. Become angry with an angry counselee.
  23. Pity a pitiful counselee.
  24. Think more highly of yourself than you ought.
  25. Speak in abstractions, be concrete.
  26. Assume your counselee understands the biblical principle or passage you are referring to.
  27. Let your counselee settle for relief from the immediate problem.
  28. Give up.
  29. Settle for some substitute for church discipline.
  30. Promise absolute confidentiality.
  31. Ignore or gloss over doctrinal differences.
  32. Fail to secure commitments from your counselee.
  33. Confuse repentance with regret.
  34. Monopolize the conversation. Listen!
  35. Talk about a counseling case with someone who has no reason to hear about it.
  36. Fear litigation because you have obeyed Scripture.
  37. Back down when you should stand firm.
  38. Fail to handle the Word carefully and honestly. Do your exegesis!

Buy Now!

Several weeks ago I explained what was happening with a number of Jay Adams’ book titles. Today I have an update you will want to hear. Our friends at Timeless Texts have made good progress in selling down much of their inventory but they have a significant overstock on 14 titles. That is great news for you! For a limited time they are offering an unheard of 75% discount on these books. Now is the time to buy!

One of my favorite books is The Grand Demonstration which features Jay’s careful exegesis of Romans 9 and makes clear the nature of God’s sovereign grace in lives of His people. I have given away scores of these books over the years and now I will be stocking up again. Your counselee, your bible study group, and your family need to hear the message of this book. At this price, you can order 20 copies and give them away.

Another important book included in this great deal is Winning the War Within. In recent years some confusing teaching has come forward on the subject of sanctification and it has even infected some corners of the biblical counseling movement. This book is the solution. At this great price you can buy one or two dozen and give them to counselees and others who may be confused on this important theological issue.

You should own every one of these books but let me highlight another. A Thirst for Wholeness is easily the bestselling of these 14 titles—for good reason. This is a topical study of the book of James. Countless small groups have used this book and now, yours can too at a price you will never see again.

One of the most astonishing and grievous charges leveled against Jay Adams personally, and Nouthetic counseling generally, is that it is somehow dispassionate and unconcerned with the suffering of God’s people. Those who level this charge are either uninformed and therefore careless in their accusations or they are dishonest. Jay’s book Compassionate Counseling gives lie to this canard. This is a must read book.

These books and more are now available to you at 75% off. Go to the Timeless Texts website, grab these deals now, and fill in the holes on your Jay Adams shelf. And, even more unbelievably, if you spend over $50 they will ship for free!

 

Update on Books by Jay Adams

We get calls regularly now from counselors, pastors, and students seeking to locate a place to purchase Jay’s books. I am sorry to report that a number of Jay’s books are, temporarily, out of print. Let me explain why. A number of years ago a friend of Dr. Adams, Dave Crawley, started a publishing company to publish Jay’s books. While most of Jay’s basic books are published by Zondervan, and are still available, Timeless Texts became the publisher of a significant number of titles. After Dave Crawley’s death last year his family made the decision to liquidate Timeless Texts’ inventory and seek another publisher for Jay’s books. As the inventory has become depleted many of the books have become unavailable.

Do not despair. Talks are underway with another, well established publisher, to bring most of Jay’s books back. We find ourselves, however, in a period of time during which some of Jay’s books will be out of print and unavailable. While this is a temporary situation, it will work a hardship on many who are studying biblical counseling. Let me make some suggestions.

First, go to the Timeless Texts website and see which of Jay’s books are available. If there are titles listed there that you do not have, NOW is the time to buy. Everything in stock is at least 50% off!

Second, search Amazon.com for available books but beware, do NOT buy a book for more than the original price. Some sellers have realized there are folk who so want to obtain these titles that they will pay confiscatory prices. If you do purchase from Amazon, please use this link. When you do we get a small cut.

Third, check out used book sites such as Alibris. Often you can find a used book at a good price.

Finally, if all else fails and you are a student who needs a book that is out of print to complete your studies, email me at donnarms@nouthetic.org. We may be able to help.

Please pray with us that this time of transition will be smooth and brief. If you already have most, or all, of Jay’s books I urge you to guard and treasure them. I often tell our students that 100 years from now our descendants will be reading and discussing Jay’s books in the same way that today we read and discuss Spurgeon, Calvin, Machen, and C. S. Lewis.

Have You Already Had Your Reward?

Blogs, tweets, Facebook pages, and the internet generally have changed our lives in dramatic ways. Wise believers have embraced our new technologies and have used them to promote the gospel of Jesus Christ in ways inconceivable just ten years ago. Much of what we do here at the Institute for Nouthetic Studies would be impossible without these new tools.

Some creative believers, however, have also found new and inventive ways to use the internet to dishonor both Christ and themselves. Consider our Lord’s words in the Sermon on the Mount—

Be careful not to do your righteous acts in front of people, so that you will be seen by them. Otherwise you will have no reward from your Father Who is in the heavens. Therefore, when you give to charity, don’t blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets so that they may be praised by people. Let me assure you, they have their reward.

Today, there is a growing trend to replace trumpeting with tweeting and the streets with the digital highway. Facebook and Twitter have become places for many to advertise their good works and promote their own spirituality. This past week I have read reports of how may counseling sessions a particular counselor has conducted (and how many overwhelmed pastors he has bailed out by his wisdom), how many tracts one individual has passed out, how much time one person has spent in prayer, and how many hours a pastor spent in sermon preparation for one sermon (which caused me to wonder about his sermon preparation skills). This morning I just defriended an individual who thought all his friends would appreciate knowing how much he loves the people in his church, the unique worship experience he feels only when he is with these wonderful people, and how much of this is caused by the ministry he is having there.

What about you? Do you use the internet and the many new social networking tools to communicate effectively and profitably with friends and family, or is it a means to promote your own personal piety?

Mental Illness

Folks let’s get this straight. The mind is not a physical organ. It cannot have a disease, illness, or injury in anything other than a metaphorical sense such as a sick economy or a sick joke.

Typhoid fever — disease
Spring fever — not a disease
Scarlet fever — disease
Bieber fever — not a disease

Paying the Pastor

Your Pastor is NOT going to get into this with you. He does not want to sound self-serving and he is going to trust God to provide for his needs. I believe it is a mistake many pastors make. We are commanded to teach “the whole counsel of God.” Every subject the Bible addresses should be taught by the pastor, including this one. If he does not, who will? Not many pastors have a guy like me blogging about such things. Hear what Paul says in 1 Cor. 9:7-14

Who at any time serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat the fruit of it? Or who tends a flock and does not use the milk of the flock? I am not speaking these things according to human judgment, am I? Or does not the Law also say these things? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing.” God is not concerned about oxen, is He? Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher to thresh in hope of sharing the crops. If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share the right over you, do we not more? Nevertheless, we did not use this right, but we endure all things so that we will cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ. Do you not know that those who perform sacred services eat the food of the temple, and those who attend regularly to the altar have their share from the altar? So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel.

Paul’s logic is clear. Even though he had made a personal decision not to accept support from the churches in which he ministered, they still had a responsibility to support those who were to have a continuing ministry to them as their pastors.

“But Donn,” you complain, “No one thinks a pastor should not be paid. What’s your point?”

Stay with me here. I wanted to begin by establishing the basic fact that God requires us to pay our pastor. How much we should pay him is the more controversial question. Did you know the Bible answers that for us as well? No, it does not give us a dollar amount but listen to this:

The elders (pastors) who manage well should be considered worthy of double pay, especially those who are laboring at preaching and teaching.  (1 Timothy 5:17)

Paul is prescribing an attitude, not a figure. A mind-set, not a number. When it comes time to vote on a budget, and when the various committees meet to decide upon a salary package, how should they approach their decisions? Will it be “How much does our pastor need to get by?” or will it be “How generous can we afford to be?”

Paul urges you to consider your pastor to be worthy of twice the pay. No, you will probably not be able to afford to pay him double, but you should aspire to do so. Remember, your pastor will probably be one of the best educated people in your church. How many people in your church have a Master’s degree in whatever it is they do? He will have paid for his education himself. If the pastor receives a higher income than you do would you be jealous or would you be thankful?

Your pastor has many burdens, paying his bills should not be one of them. He should be paid well enough that he can purchase a home in the same kind of neighborhood you live in. He should be able to purchase a vehicle that is dependable and comfortable. He should be provided life insurance, health insurance, and a generous pension. His wife should be free to work outside the home if she desires, but she should not HAVE to work for the family to survive.

“But Donn,” you say, “we can’t pay him more than we have. All these things will bust our church budget.”

Well, I will admit I am not familiar with your church’s finances. All I am doing is pleading for a biblical mind set as you make decisions. There are many good and worthy ways a church can spend money. Of course you have to pay the utility bills, purchase insurance, and do maintenance on your buildings. But of all the other things in your budget, only one is commanded in the Scriptures—paying the pastor.

The cooperative fund, missions, convention agencies, camps, schools, and benevolence are all good and worthy things. But if a church cannot obey Christ in paying their pastor because they are supporting these other things, then ultimately, it is the pastor, not the church that is supporting them. Only one budget item is prescribed in the Word. All others come in second to that priority.