The Art and Science of Biblical Counseling

Counseling, like homiletics and most other aspects of ministry, is both an art and a science. There are specific skills to master—the Biblical disciplines of exegesis, hermeneutics, and theology, plus the counseling skills of listening, data gathering, note taking, and assigning good homework. It is an art in that each counselor brings his own personality and judgment to bear as he builds an agenda, decides when to press the indecisive, comfort the afflicted, confront the disobedient, encourage the fainthearted, or instruct the untaught.

As teen growing up in Waterloo, Iowa my pastor was David Moore. He was a kind and gentle man with a personality that embraced everyone in the room. He was not a pulpiteer but even as a young teenager I enjoyed his preaching because I knew and loved Pastor Moore and I knew my pastor loved me. I never remember a time when I met Pastor Moore that he did not give me a huge bear hug. When I left for college Paul Tassell became my pastor. Dr. Tassell was a short dynamo of a man, a powerful preacher, and a no nonsense kind of guy. He was full of joy and energy but he did not suffer a fool gladly. I never doubted his love for his people but he was not a touchy/feely kind of guy. I do not recall seeing him hug anyone—ever.

Both men were effective pastors. Their churches grew under their leadership and both were universally loved by their respective flocks. Yet they had very different styles of ministry. This will be true of good biblical counselors as well.

I have a friend who believes a good counselor will spend many hours with a counselee building a relationship before getting into the substance of the counseling issue. Typical counseling sessions, for him, will last 2–3 hours. I believe he is a good counselor and I know he has helped many. But this is not my practice nor is it what we teach our students to do. We believe it is far more loving and kind to get at the counselee’s problem as quickly as possible and get them on the way toward solving it.

Jay often tells the story an experience he once had with a dentist. Shortly after moving to California he developed a bad toothache. Since he was new to town he had not yet been to a local dentist so, upon the recommendation of a friend, he called for an appointment. He was greeted on the phone by the sugary sweet voice of a receptionist who gushed that she was so glad he had called and offered set up an appointment with plenty of time for the Doctor to “get to know you first so you will be comfortable with him as your dentist.” Since Jay needed a dentist and not a new friend he politely extracted himself from the conversation and called another dentist who, thankfully, quickly went to work on his problem. This dentist became his friend because he was of genuine help with his toothache. It is a story Jay tells frequently when teaching students about building involvement with counselees. The obvious point being that a counselor will build involvement with a counselee naturally by offering him solid, biblical help, and doing so quickly.

I relate all this because of a document I read recently written by a man who was critiquing nouthetic counseling generally and Jay Adams in particular. Referring to this example Jay often uses he wrote “Jay Adams believes good counseling is like pulling teeth! You just reach into the counselee’s life and yank on the problem regardless of how much pain it causes.”

Biblical counselors can certainly do things differently than Jay Adams or Donn Arms and still be quite effective. Biblical counselors can disagree with Jay Adams on a point of doctrine here and there—I certainly do. But these kinds of mischaracterizations are inexcusable, intellectually dishonest, and cause great harm to students who read this kind of thing. Perhaps we are derelict by not responding to them more often and more aggressively.

“Fearing” the Lord in Counseling

In some ways, there are churches like the Samaritans who were foreigners that were settled in Palestine by the Babylonians and who adopted some, but not all, of the elements of the Hebrew religion. They accepted the law of Moses, but none of the rest of the Scriptures. And included with this deficient, truncated acceptance of divine revelation, we read that “They feared the Lord, but they also worshipped their own gods according to the customs of the nations where they had been deported from” (2 Kings 17:33). Again, we are told, “they feared the Lord but also worshipped their idols” (2 Kings 17:41). They were eclectic “fearers.”

How can you “fear the Lord,” and do what they did? To speak of the “fear” of God was to use what had become a technical term that meant to become a member of the outward community of God. Like circumcision, where there was a circumcision of the flesh and a circumcision of the heart, so too, there was a “fear of God” that was but an outward profession of belief in Him, and there was also the “fear” of those whose profession of faith was also an inner reality.

How much has been gathered into the Christian church today, by people whose profession of faith is merely outward, that is detrimental! It is destructive because God will not take His stand alongside of false gods of man’s making—whether or not it involves idolatry—and accept worship. He tolerates no equal; no partner; no substitute, no one else.

So, my friend, is your worship as well as your counseling eclectic? Often the two go together. It is dangerous to adopt alien systems of thought having to do with the very deepest aspects of a man’s life (such as those involved in counseling) and not be personally influenced by them. Have you so compromised your thinking in the area of counseling that it has, in effect, diluted your views of God? This may be especially the case if you tout what you are doing under the label, “Christian,” when it isn’t. Pretty soon, you may come to the place where you even believe it! Whom do you really fear? Who is the sole object of your fear? In the light of much that goes for “fear of God” in the church, it’s a question worth asking.

No Sissies!

Doubtless, there are Christians who have quite a wrong view of counseling, in their minds. They picture a counselor and placid counselee conversing on a high level, untouched by outbursts of anger, times of frustration, periods of disgust, moments of ferocity, or the like. Such conceptions of counseling are naïve. The truth is quite to the contrary. The counseling room often becomes the scene of open hostility, a venue of weeping, a place of agonizing, of stress, of fear, of . . . You name it, and it probably has happened in counseling!

Now, of course, that isn’t what the counselor strives for or wishes to bring on himself; but, nevertheless, it may happen in spite of his best efforts to allay it. Counselees are in trouble, and they bring their troubles with them. Many—not all—of those troubles are also troubling. Their troubles spill over into the lives of others—family, friends, fellow-workers—counselors. It is the counselor’s task (and great privilege) to help them find God’s good solutions to their problems to replace their own bad solutions that didn’t work, and often made things worse!

It’s not pleasant to have to tell a counselee, “Please sit down, so that we can discuss the matter civilly. We’ll get nowhere so long as you keep yelling at your wife that way.” But it must be done. It isn’t easy to comfort one who has just broken down and is sobbing uncontrollably. But a counselor must do so. There can be little hope for a counselee who, disgusted with what her husband has just said, gets up to leave; but the counselor must stop her. There is no hope for a counselee if he refuses to do the appropriate homework that will solve his problem. But the counselor must persuade him to do it. It is never an easy thing to bring a counselee to repentance, or to tell him to confess his sin to another. But he must, for counseling to get anywhere. In other words, counseling isn’t the neat, simple, friendly matter of pleasant relationships that some may picture it to be.

There are times when in the course of counseling, someone may even turn on the counselor himself. He may threaten, utter epithets that we shall delete, or slam a door in his face. No one is exempt from the wrath of some people who want things their way and will broach no other. Very seldom does physical harm ensue, but even that is not beyond possibility. In other words, rewarding as it may be to see many of those very people I have been describing repent from their ways and receive the help of the Lord, the process of achieving those results isn’t easy or always pleasant. The road may be hilly and rough.

It is most difficult in many cases to persuade counselees that the prime purpose for seeking help ought not to be relief from some difficulty, but ought to be to please the Lord whether or not relief comes. Yet, that intellectual/spiritual struggle cannot be bypassed, and is necessary in the majority of the cases in which you will counsel. Counseling has its compensations, of course—wonderful ones! But that isn’t what I’m discussing at the moment.

Why, then, discuss it? Won’t that drive potential counselors away? Yes and no. For those who really want to help people, it will perhaps be enlightening, but helpful. They will not enter the lists unprepared. For others who wanted an easy, respectable “job”—well, yes, unless they repent I hope it does drive them off. But in the Scriptures, Jesus never called men to softness; it was always to hard things. And, as a result, He forged a team that would endure and spread His message to the ends of the earth.

It would be less than honest to allow potential counselors to think that counseling is a neatly-tied, easily-unwrapped package of goodies. It isn’t. You have to dig down through the stuffing to the bottom to find the prize. But it is a blessed way of serving Christ. Jesus calls no sissies to be counselors! Can you measure up to the task?

Casting Out Demons

Does God expect you to cast out demons? Have you wondered whether or not that ought to be an adjunct to your counseling? Some have; others have assured them that it is necessary to do so.

In counseling for 10 hours a day two days a week for many years, I have yet to encounter anyone demon-possessed. Oh, sure, I’ve had people claim that a counselee is; I’ve had counselees say so too. But in every instance, the problem turned out to be something else.

But, enough for my experience. What does God say about the matter? The answer? Nothing.

“Nothing?”

Precisely. He says nothing about it. And because nowhere in the entire New Testament does He command you or me to cast out demons there is no reason to expect that He wants us to do so. We ought never to do in His Name that which He doesn’t command. To do so is to misrepresent Him.

“Are you sure He doesn’t tell us to do it?”

Absolutely. Read your New Testament from beginning to the end and you’ll find no such command. That is an important fact because in Jesus’ parting words to the apostles (Matthew 28) He told them to teach their disciples to “observe all things, whatsoever I have commanded you.” Obviously, since they left no such command for s to observe, there is no reason to think that we should do so. Don’t let anyone add to the commandments of Jesus and tell you that he has the right to do what He never gave Him the right to do. To do that is a serious matter. The issue is as simple as that!

For whatever reason, today we are to preach the Gospel to the lost, and nothing more. We’re not apostles armed with signs and wonders as they were (Cf. 2 Corinthians 12: 12). They faithfully did as they were commanded. Let us do so too.

Sufficiency—Another Explicit Statement

Often biblical counselors who understand what Paul’s use of the word “noutheteo” means turn to 2 Timothy 3:15ff to prove that we have, in the Bible, all we might ever need to do effective counseling. They rightly point out the fact that it provides what it takes to carry a counselee through the four stage process of change mentioned there, to a place where he is able to live rightly in the future. Three times in that context, in various ways, the apostle says that the inspired Scriptures are sufficient to make the man of God adequate to deal with every difficulty that has to do with loving God and one’s neighbor. The passage should be so used.

In addition, another portion of the Bible frequently cited to provide the same thing is 2 Peter 1:3, where we are told that the Bible contains all that we need to find eternal life and live in a godly way. This, too, is a powerful testimony to Biblical sufficiency. If “all things necessary” are provided, what else could we possible wish for?

Yet, there is another passage, often omitted in such discussions, to which I want to call attention today. It is found in Hebrews where the writer tells us that God will “equip you with every good thing for doing His will, producing in us what pleases Him through Christ Jesus” (Hebrews 13:21).

That verse ought to be more frequently on the lips of those who contend for the sufficiency of Nouthetic counseling. Let’s take a second glance at it:

  1. The verse affirms that equipping necessary for doing God’s will can be found in Jesus Christ. The information and the know-how that it takes to counsel correctly is what Hebrews is referring to. It is precisely what a biblical counselor must have. And here, we are assured, he does—if and when he is willing to search it out. What an important fact that is!
  2. In addition, the verse states that “every good thing” for doing God’s will is available for the Christian counselor and counselee. That means in every case where there is a problem of loving God or one’s neighbor—the goal of all biblical counseling—what is needed is there for the taking. There is no excuse for claiming he doesn’t have all he needs, or for turning to non-biblical counseling for help.
  3. Along with the Scriptural information that He provides, we are told that God is at work using it to produce in those who need it those changes which please Him. It is important to help others, of course, but what biblical counseling, at its core, is all about is pleasing God. This happens whenever a counselor honors God by presenting the biblical way to help, and when a counselee accepts and follows it.

A Systematic Theology of Counseling

Part Three in a series

God’s Word comes to us as poetry and narrative, proverbs and prose, metaphors, parables, prophecy, letters, edicts, law, and so much more. Is it not given to us in dictionary form enabling us to look up subjects in an index and learn what God says about a specific subject. Because of this, our forefathers in the faith have labored to organize biblical data in a systematic way. We refer to these efforts as “Systematic Theology” and the study of Systematic Theology has produced hundreds of systems of theology over the millennia since these efforts began.

Most of these systems of theology have been given names. Sometimes these names are descriptive of the conclusions of the system—Unitarian, Postmillennial. Often they are named for the originator or key theologian of the system—Calvinism, Arminian, Lutheran, Wesleyan, Pelagian.

Even subdivisions of these systems have identifying names. Under eschatology, we have Premillennialism, Postmillennialism, and Amillennialism. In Ecclesiology, we have Presbyterian, Congregational, and Episcopal forms of church government. Even the order of salvation has subdivisions—Supralapsarianism, Sublapsarianism, Infralapsarianism, etc.

In the area of counseling, the secular world has been devising and debating systems for more than a century. For many years three main systems held sway—Freudian, Rogerian, and Behaviorism. Each had a plethora of subdivisions and spinoffs. Today, there are hundreds of these systems, including systems that seek to integrate a secular system of counseling with a theological system.

Beginning in the early 1960s, an accomplished theologian, Greek scholar, and Bible exegete launched a personal study of the popular secular systems of counseling and labored to understand how any one of them could integrate with what he believed would be a faithful system of theology. After pouring over scores of psychological textbooks, and spending an entire summer traveling with a former president of the American Psychological Association, he concluded such integration was a hopeless task. Once he came to that conclusion, he was able to free himself from the rubble and clutter of these secular systems and focus on building a thoroughly biblical counseling system. He formed the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation to serve as a kind of laboratory in which he and his students could do counseling and study what the Scriptures taught about the various problems counselees presented to them.

By 1970 he was ready to publish his first book detailing his conclusions, and with Competent to Counsel, began to build a system of counseling that would be constructed only of materials he found in the Bible. Before he could build, however, he had to do for his reader what he had done himself. He had to clear away the ruins of the shoddily constructed systems that had gone before and prepare a level building site. In order to do the work of site preparation, one has to use a bulldozer. Shovels and rakes will not do. In Competent to Counsel, Jay Adams took a bulldozer to the failed secular systems that many Christians were trying to use along with their Bibles.

The results were predictable. Those who were still living in those dilapidated structures railed against Adams and his system. He had pushed their systems aside and warned others not to take shelter under their roofs. Those structures were built with inferior materials and would collapse and injure those who abode there. But countless pastors and other believers rose up and called him blessed for providing a sturdy new system built on a solid foundation.

Competent to Counsel was only the beginning. In it, Adams cleared a building site and poured a solid foundation—he told us what needed to be done. In his next book, The Christian Counselor’s Manual, he showed us how. The Manual was a practical volume that examined methodology, explored specific counseling problems, explained how and why to assign homework, promoted careful data gathering and listening, and led the counselor through the counseling process—explaining what the Scriptures taught about each matter.

But Adams was still not done building his system. His next volume dealt with theology. Adams believed every counseling problem was, at its core, a theological problem. Good counseling could only rise from good theology. More Than Redemption, a Theology of Christian Counseling was his explanation of the theological underpinnings of his counseling system.

One more book rounded out his seminal works explaining Nouthetic Counseling, How to Help People Change. Since change is the goal of every counseling endeavor, it was vital that the Nouthetic counselor understand God’s change process.

Nouthetic counseling is a counseling system. It is NOT built around one Greek word, but rather, on the entire canon of Scripture. It is Jay Adams’ attempt to systematize what the Scriptures say about counseling. Listen to Adams’ explanation in 1976:

I prefer the words “biblical” or “Christian” but reluctantly I have used the word “nouthetic” . . . simply as a convenience by which the biblical system of counseling that has been developed in such books as Competent to Counsel and The Christian Counselor’s Manual might be identified most easily.

In the first article of our current series, I demonstrated that using the term “biblical” to describe the kind of counseling we do has become confusing and requires further clarification. By it, many mean simply that they use the Bible somehow, somewhere in the counseling process. I believe the term “Nouthetic” brings clarity to the conversation about counseling. It is a term that has boundaries. The seminal textbooks written by Dr. Adams fence it in. It explains exactly what we believe the Bible says about counseling issues, not simply that we believe it is good to use the Bible.

Ah, but for some reason, there are some readers who chafe at the word. You may have heard, read, or learned about nouthetic counseling from someone who lives in one of the structures Adams has demolished. Imagine you had spent your academic career, and many thousands of dollars, learning secular counseling systems. Your financial livelihood rose from your teaching or practice using those systems, and your standing in society or your own sense of “self-esteem” rose from the books you have written or the lectures you had delivered promoting those systems. Then imagine someone comes along and not only challenges the validity of those systems, but insists that the systems you promote inflict harm rather than good on those you seek to help.

How would you be expected to respond? You would be left with few options. You could repent, disavow what you had been teaching and practicing, and instead seek honest work. You could try to refute this person who says such things about your system, but since you are seeking to refute what is biblical you would quickly find yourself trying to refute the irrefutable. Or, you could attack the messenger, seek to discredit him, complain about his tone, his friends, his scholarship, or even his beard.

If you object to Nouthetic counseling but you have not read these four foundational books by Dr. Adams—shame on you! J. Gresham Machen once wrote:

It is usually considered good practice to examine a thing for one’s self before echoing the vulgar ridicule of it.[1]

If you have read these books and you find them objectionable, you should stand ready to explain exactly what Adams writes that is off putting. Do you object to the idea of the sufficiency of the Scriptures? How about the doctrine of progressive sanctification? The authority of the Scriptures? Is Adams wrong about gathering good data, listening carefully to counselees, assigning homework, insisting that counselees obey God’s Word, or that sin must be put off and replaced with God’s solution? Maybe you think Dr. Adams has mishandled the Word in some way. Is his exegesis of a key passage faulty? Which one?

Remember, Nouthetic counseling is a system of counseling. One does not have to agree with everything Jay Adams believes to embrace his counseling system. I certainly don’t. I am still trying to bring him around on the subject of baptism. If you believe Adams has some personal character flaw that disqualifies his system, please email me with the details. I will take any valid concern to him and nouthetically confront him about it.

In an article I cited in the first of this series, Drs. Babler and Johnson wrote:

Recently biblical counseling has been besieged by many voices that minimize or even attempt to redefine [the historical distinctions of biblical counseling].  We suggest it is time to return to basics.

Nouthetic counseling embodies those basics. That is why we, at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary and the Institute for Nouthetic Studies, still boldly and unashamedly call ourselves Nouthetic counselors. Perhaps you should too.

[1] Christianity and Liberalism, p.62.

A “Nouthetic” Ministry

Part Two in a series

On January 15, 1968, a 38 year old seminary professor took his turn addressing the students in the chapel service at Westminster Theological Seminary. While he was primarily a homiletics professor, he had been researching what the Scriptures taught about the pastoral ministry of counseling. He was especially interested in a word the Apostle Paul used to describe his ministry, and this cold winter morning in Philadelphia presented him with his first opportunity to present what he had been learning.

The people Paul ministered to, like the people to whom these students would minister, struggled with problems and sinful lifestyles. Paul used this word, “noutheteo,” to describe the kind of ministry he had to help them with these problems. It was not a common New Testament word, and only Paul used it. While it is often translated “admonish” or “warn,” neither of these English words adequately communicated Paul’s idea.

Jay Adams unpacked the word for the students that day and concluded by urging students to emulate Paul by having a “nouthetic” ministry in the churches they would be leading. Adams coined the word “nouthetic” that day, and in the years to come referred to the counseling system he was building by his new term.

Biblical counselors need to understand this word, stand ready to explain what it means, and combat the misinformation, straw men, and scurrilous canards that critics have invented. First, however, it is necessary to separate the Greek word Paul used (noutheteo) from the English word (nouthetic) coined by Adams.

The Greek word “noutheteo” is a compound word built by bringing together the Greek words “nous” (mind) and “tithime” (put, place, lay). It is at this point many interpreters take a wrong turn. Compound words are not always the sum of their parts—in Greek or in English. Paul does not use the term to mean “to place or lay upon the mind” as well-meaning counselors sometimes teach. A “butterfly” is not a fly that landed in the butter dish. A “turnkey” operation is not a description of how a lock works. It is usage that determines meaning, both in English and in Greek. To understand the Greek word “noutheteo” it is necessary to examine how Paul uses the word, not simply do a word study.

Paul uses the verb form eight times in the New Testament. From these uses, we can identify three primary components to the word as Paul used it. First, there is the element of confrontation, verbal confrontation. Does that trouble you? Perhaps our word “confrontation” hits your ear as something harsh or unpleasant. It shouldn’t. Paul saw it as a necessary function of the pastor. He did it with Peter (Galatians 2), Nathan did it with David, Jesus did it with Nicodemus. Paul saw it as a helpful thing, a necessary part his ministry. Our English word “appeal” may say it better if “confrontation” is off putting to you, but the word “appeal” implies an option. Paul’s word was directive. He did not use it when forwarding his opinions or preferences. He counseled people to obey God.

The second element is concern. He did not confront his people in order to lord it over them. His heart yearned over them and his desire was for their good. In Acts 20 it was something he did “with tears.” In 2 Thessalonians it was to be done “as a brother.” In 1 Corinthians Paul had to write pointedly and frankly about some difficult issues, issues in which the Corinthian believers were sinning or not resolving. But he assured them in 4:14 that his goal was not “to shame you, but to counsel (noutheteo) you as my dear children.”

Third, there is the goal of bringing about change in those to whom Paul ministered. In Galatians 1:28 it was what Paul did to “present every man complete in Christ.” In Ephesians 6:4 it is what fathers do with their children to bring them to maturity.

As Adams concluded his remarks in 1968, he urged his listeners to do good for their people. That means they must emulate the kind of “noutheteo” that characterized Paul’s ministry. Or as Paul said in Romans 15:14, they should desire God’s best for their people (be “filled with all goodness”), study diligently in Seminary (be “filled with all knowledge”), so they will be “competent to counsel.” God called on them to prepare to have a “nouthetic” ministry.

What Exactly is a “Biblical” Counselor?

Part One of a series

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 have 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 several 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 it in the title of his two mammoth, yet murky, volumes explaining his approach to counseling.

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.

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.