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.

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, 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 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 (and I remain blissfully optimistic that Jay will eventually come around on the subject of baptism). 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.

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