What’s in a Name?, Part Two

Last week we published an article on our blog explaining why, even though it grieves us, we were in favor of the name change the NANC board is asking us to ratify at our annual conference next month. If you have not read that article it might be helpful for you to read it before proceeding here. I came to that position only after assurances that the name change is in no way intended to be a repudiation of Dr. Adams and what he has taught about nouthetic counseling, especially in his foundational books on counseling.

Then, this past weekend, a communication appeared in my inbox from NANC promoting this change. My heart sank as I read the explanation for dropping the word “nouthetic.” It contradicted the assurances I had received about not repudiating nouthetic counseling as taught by Dr. Adams and revealed a lack of understanding of what nouthetic counseling is. It did, however, confirm me in my opinion that we should indeed change the name so as to conform to what is indeed the reality—that NANC is no longer nouthetic.

Here is that paragraph:

First, the word nouthetic is a perfectly good Greek word, which most people simply do not understand.  Most of us in NANC spend more time explaining the meaning of a Greek word than we intend to when we mention the name of our organization. Once people understand the meaning of the term it does not help us that much.  The term means “to confront or admonish,” and this only describes a narrow slice of the kind of counseling endorsed by NANC.  Of course biblical counselors admonish people in their sin, but at NANC we also encourage our counselors to comfort the fainthearted, help the weak, pray, encourage, instruct, take care of their physical bodies, and 101 other things the Bible says to do.  In its precise meaning the word nouthetic is a truncated expression of the many and varied counseling styles that God communicates in Scripture.

Let’s unpack this. First we have this statement:

the word nouthetic is a perfectly good Greek word.

No, “nouthetic” is an English word coined by Dr. Adams in the late 1960’s and explained carefully in his book Competent to Counsel. Its etymology is Greek and it is derived from the Greek word that can be transliterated “noutheteo” in its verb form or “nouthesia” in its noun form. But it is an English word. The email defines it like this:

The term means “to confront or admonish.”

Because the English was confused with a Greek word it is unclear which is meant here. While “confront” and “admonish” are two possible translations of the Greek word they do not explain the robust and colorful nature of the word and neither translates it literally. Noutheteo is a compound word blending nous (“mind”) and tithemi (“to place” or “to lay”) producing a word that literally means “to place (or lay) on the mind.”

In Competent to Counsel Dr. Adams goes to great length to demonstrate that Paul uses the term to communicate how he gently and compassionately counseled those to whom he ministered. In Acts 20:31 it is something he did “with tears.” In 1 Cor. 4:14 he did it as though his readers were his “beloved children.” In 2 Thess. 3:15 he did it in a serious situation “as a brother.” In Ephesians 6:4 it is what fathers are to do with their children.

Anyone curious about the definition of the Greek word can consult any number of reference works for help. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Kittle) has a thorough discussion that is quite helpful. Better still, one can read Competent to Counsel pp. 41 – 56 where Dr. Adams does the research for us. Long before Dr. Adams became well known for his work in the area of counseling he had become an accomplished Greek scholar having studied Koine and Classical Greek under the foremost scholars of the day at Johns Hopkins University.

But none of this is the point, however. The issue before us is the English word “nouthetic,” not the Greek word from which it was derived. Before casting this vote we should be sure we understand what exactly this word means that we are discarding. At about the same time NANC was founded Dr. Adams wrote a short book entitled What About Nouthetic Counseling in which he sought to set straight many of the canards his critics had devised. This is how Dr. Adams says he used the word:

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.

So while Dr. Adams derived the English word “nouthetic” from the Greek word “noutheteo” it was understood by him, and each of the men who founded NANC, to be shorthand for that system of biblical counseling taught by Dr. Adams in his foundational books. Adams was concerned that supporters would attach some awkward adjective like “Adamsonian” or “Adamsian” to it so he preempted them with the word “nouthetic.” The assertion that the term “nouthetic” means “to confront or admonish” is spurious.

So let’s get this clear:

Nouthetic counseling is that system of biblical counseling that is defined by and flows from the foundational books written by Dr. Jay Adams.


Continuing from the NANC email:

Most of us in NANC spend more time explaining the meaning of a Greek word than we intend to when we mention the name of our organization.

Every form of counseling practiced on the planet has an adjective attached to it—Freudian, Adlerian, Rogerian, Humanistic, Existential, Jungian, Cognitive, Behavioral, et al. Each requires that the practitioner be able to explain his method to those who inquire. Pity the poor counselor who has to explain his Gestalt therapy! Why is it a burden too great to bear for us to explain Nouthetic Counseling?

Listen again to Dr. Adams from page 52 of Competent to Counsel:

I have no great zeal for the label “nouthetic” beyond its obvious advantages. However, since every school of thought eventually must be identified by an adjective, I should prefer to choose that adjective for myself. The importance of the word, however, as describing a regulative central activity involved in the ministry of the Word should not be missed.

The name of our organization (The Institute for Nouthetic Studies) includes the word “Nouthetic” as well and I have it stitched onto the polo shirts I wear. Several years ago at Christmas my daughter gave me a vanity plate for my pickup bearing the word “nouthetic.” I get questions about it everywhere I go and I have never considered it a burden. It has opened the door to a number to wonderful conversations. I even had one person pull up beside me at a stop light and ask what it means. I gave a two sentence explanation before the light turned green!

If you find explaining the term difficult let me help. Next time you are asked try this:

It is derived from the word the Apostle Paul used in the Greek New Testament to describe the kind of counseling he did. We use it to communicate that our counseling flows from our understanding of what Paul and the other biblical writers taught.

Now if that quick explanation elicits more questions, GREAT! I have a two minute version, a five minute version, and a ten minute version. If there are still more questions I can launch, with great glee, into my 30 minute lecture! If, however, one does not himself understand what it means, it would indeed be difficult to explain it to others.

But 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.

The paragraph continues:

. . . this only describes a narrow slice of the kind of counseling endorsed by NANC.  Of course biblical counselors admonish people in their sin, but at NANC we also encourage our counselors to comfort the fainthearted, help the weak, pray, encourage, instruct, take care of their physical bodies, and 101 other things the Bible says to do.

This is a sad and unfortunate assessment. To claim that nouthetic counseling does not “comfort the fainthearted, help the weak, pray, encourage, instruct, take care of their physical bodies, and 101 other things the Bible says to do” is inexcusable and dishonors Jay Adams. This “more compassionate than thou” attitude must end. Even a cursory reading of Competent to Counsel, The Christian Counselor’s Manual, or More Than Redemption should convince any skeptic these are spurious charges. In these books there are entire chapters about prayer and comfort. Adams has written entire books about instruction and encouragement.

In its precise meaning the word nouthetic is a truncated expression of the many and varied counseling styles that God communicates in Scripture.

This is just not true. Again, because the English and the Greek words have been confused it is not clear what is meant. The English word does indeed encompass all “the many and varied counseling styles that God communicates in Scripture.”

It is in the final paragraph that we get insight into the real issue here:

Because “NANC” is in our constitution it cannot be changed without the approval of our membership.

It seems clear that if the word “nouthetic” was not a part of our constitution the board would have made this change unilaterally and merely announced it to the membership. In my naïve desire for peace and unity in NANC circles I have not come forward widely with my concerns about the actions of our board. As a result the board has become confirmed in their direction and we have come to this place. Let me now correct what I should have reported more widely before now.

A little over three years ago the NANC board was “confronted and admonished” because they were not following the constitution. This was manifest in two important areas. First was in the makeup of the board. In the previous two years three veteran men retired from the board—Jay Adams, Wayne Mack, and John McConaughy. The constitution required that these men be replaced unless there was a vote of the general membership not to. Yet the board decided they would not be bound by the constitution and refused to replace them. This had the effect of concentrating decision making into the hands of a fewer number of men.

Second was the matter of finances. The constitution required that an annual budget be submitted to and approved by the general membership each year and that a financial report for the previous year also be submitted. Neither was done and all financial matters were handled behind closed doors. Thus, when one influential board member asked NANC to help fund a Biblical Counseling Coalition the board considered themselves free to give him $30,000 for this project. The constitution required that such an expenditure be part of a budget approved by the general membership. It was not. Nor was it ever reported to the general membership.

Rather than conform to the constitution when confronted about these irregularities they decided instead to ambush the general membership with several amendments to the constitution at the next annual meeting. I use the word “ambush” purposefully as there was no advance notice given that there was to be a vote on amendments. The amendments were not made available prior to the meeting. Members were not even given a copy at the meeting. Instead they were flashed on an overhead screen. When I asked to see a copy one day before the meeting I was refused. Because the general membership desired to trust and follow the board’s leadership the amendments passed and the board became a completely autonomous, self-appointed, self-perpetuating entity that no longer had to answer or report to anyone outside of itself on any matter. Thus NANC is now an organization in which the general membership has no voice or input on any issue—save this one.

We are poised on the precipice of a slippery slope. Others have lost their footing and plummeted down the hill before us. One well known example should be instructive. CCEF was founded by Dr. Adams in 1968 to serve as a kind of laboratory as he developed his counseling model. Today, CCEF has so far distanced itself from Adams that Ed Welch can “shamelessly” write that CCEF has “never identified itself as Nouthetic but steered a more moderate course” (Transformative Encounters, IVP, 2013).

Let me reiterate what I said in my last article. I love NANC. I am grateful for the ministry it has had to me and that I have been able to have through it. I continue to count our new Executive Director as a friend and I know, in spite of these differences, he will continue to befriend me. I know he desires the best for NANC and is burdened to see positive changes in the days to come. I do believe, however, this proposal is an unfortunate distraction at a time when at least a dozen more pressing issues require attention. I am glad, however, that it has given me an opportunity to clarify what exactly is meant by “Nouthetic Counseling.” Understand also that what I have written here are my views. Even though I work closely with Dr. Adams he has not contributed to this article. He has endured far more slings and arrows in his lifetime than those I report here. Sadly, in the past those projectiles have largely come from his integrationist critics. These days they are launched by his friends.

In light of this you may ask, “OK, so what should we do now?” Well, my advice is that you should come to Alabama in October, enjoy the conference, and vote. If you are happy with the direction NANC is going and have confidence in the board you should, of course, vote yes on their motion. If these things concern you and you believe there remains the possibility that NANC can be steered back to its nouthetic roots you can vote no.

It is my view that NANC’s orientation is irremediable. I would love to be proven wrong. From my own selfish and self-serving perspective, this change will help us at the Institute for Nouthetic Studies preserve the integrity of the term “nouthetic.”

Finally, I believe this proposal lays open an undo concern many of our leaders have about what our critics think of us. We can reassure each other as we talk among ourselves that nothing is changing with this vote and how much we appreciate our founder. But regardless of how many press releases we issue about this change, these critics will see it as a repudiation of Dr. Adams and the stand those who founded NANC took supporting him. It will be difficult to refute them.

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7 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?, Part Two

  1. Thank you for this explanation. I, too, was uncomfortable with that paragraph as it did not fit what I’ve read in Adams’ books.

    Second, I remember that vote at the annual meeting. I remember thinking how inconsiderately it was done and how unlike the way the business world handles such things. Properly, notice ought to have been mailed out weeks in advance. I remember feeling bowled over and frustrated that I did not have the time to think out the ramifications of a vote. It was thrown at us, just like you describe. The explanations on the overhead went so fast. I remember feeling frustrated because I couldn’t understand what the issue was on which I was being expected to vote. While I wanted to trust the board, that method required a willful choice to trust while my alarms were ringing and my sense of trust was being undermined. I would agree with your label; I felt a sense of being “ambushed.”

    I am also quite tired of hearing veiled (and some not so veiled) inferences that Adams’ way of counseling is harsh and that now WE’RE compassionate and now WE deal with suffering. This is the same method by which prejudice is being kept a volatile issue in politics. What difference does it make to me in my present counseling!? If people would stop harping on a past supposed failure all unfairly tied to one man, this generation of counselors would never know there was a problem and would not be distracted from simply counseling now as they ought.

  2. Thank you, Donn, for your insight and Christ-like approach to this issue. Thank you also for your courageous stand against the slippery slope of counseling compromise. As a NANC trained and certified pastor/counselor, I stand with you. For me, it is important to remember that regardless of what name I’m called, I will still be providing nouthetic counseling.

  3. What is Nouthetic Counseling?

    Nouthetic Counseling is Not New

    While the name is new, the sort of counseling done by nouthetic counselors is not. From Biblical times onward, God’s people have counseled nouthetically. The word itself is Biblical. It comes from the Greek noun nouthesia (verb: noutheteo). The word, used in the New Testament primarily by the apostle Paul, is translated “admonish, correct or instruct.” This term, which probably best describes Biblical counseling, occurs in such passages as Romans 15:14: “I myself am convinced about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and competent to counsel one another.” In that passage, the apostle was encouraging members of the Roman church to do informal, mutual counseling, something that all Christians today should learn, as well. On the other hand, the leaders of a congregation are to counsel nouthetically in a formal manner as a part of their ministry: “Now we ask you, brothers, to recognize those who labor among you, and manage you in the Lord, and counsel you.”

    Nouthetic Counseling Embraces Three Ideas

    Because the New Testament term is larger than the English word “counsel,” and because it doesn’t carry any of the “freight” that is attached to the latter term, we have simply imported the Biblical term into English. In that way, the full force of the Biblical concept of counseling may be set forth while avoiding the many contradictory connotations surrounding the English one. The three ideas found in the word nouthesia are confrontation, concern, and change. To put it simply, nouthetic counseling consists of lovingly confronting people out of deep concern in order to help them make those changes that God requires.

    By confrontation we mean that one Christian personally gives counsel to another from the Scriptures. He does not confront him with his own ideas or the ideas of others. He limits his counsel strictly to that which may be found in the Bible, believing that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and useful for teaching, for conviction, for correction and for disciplined training in righteousness in order to fit and fully equip the man from God for every good task.” (2 Timothy 3:16,17) The nouthetic counselor believes that all that is needed to help another person love God and his neighbor as he should, as the verse above indicates, may be found in the Bible.

    By concern we mean that counseling is always done for the benefit of the counselee. His welfare is always in view in Biblical counseling. The apostle Paul put it this way: “I am not writing these things to shame you, but to counsel you as my dear children.” (1 Corinthians 4:14) Plainly, the familial nature of the word noutheteo appears in this verse. There is always a warm, family note to biblical counseling which is done among the saints of God who seek to help one another become more like Christ. Christians consider their counseling to be a part of the sanctification process whereby one Christian helps another get through some difficulty that is hindering him from moving forward in his spiritual growth.

    By change we mean that counseling is done because there is something in another Christian’s life that fails to meet the biblical requirements and that, therefore, keeps him from honoring God. All counseling — Biblical or otherwise– attempts change. Only Biblical counselors know what a counselee should become as the result of counseling: he should look more like Christ. He is the Standard. Biblical counseling is done by Christians who are convinced that God is able to make the changes that are necessary as His Word is ministered in the power of the Spirit. It is their hope to help every interested church develop a nouthetic counseling program that will be a blessing to all of the members of that congregation. The importance of such counseling in churches is underscored by the words of Paul as he described his ministry in Ephesus: “Therefore, be alert, remembering that for three years, night and day, I didn’t stop counseling each one of you with tears.” (Acts 20:31) The regularity and intense nature of Paul’s counsel during his three-year ministry at Ephesus is emphasized by these words. If Paul found it necessary to counsel nouthetically for that entire period, as he said, surely our churches need it, too.

    Dr. Jay Adams

  4. Although I will be unable to attend the conference, I would vote “No” to the name change. I think this would be confusing, as was the issue with BCC, and the name should be left as it is.

  5. Donn thank you for a better explanation about the word Nouthetic and its true meaning. I am concerned about moving to inclusiveness in NANC. I like the delineation NANC brings to the conversation. It clearly helps people understand we believe in the sufficiency of Christ and scripture. I think the separation is good to note. I do not agree with some who state that Nouthetic Counselors are insensitive scripture thumpers.I am concerned about inclusion of neo-orthodox counseling philosophies that lean into integrationism. Sanctification is a battle of the flesh and Spirit that war within humans. Galatians 5:16-25. It is active warfare that Nouthetic Counselors teach and exhort to the mortification of the flesh, walking in the Spirit. Romans 8:13-14. Those who fall away from being led by the Spirit need Nouthesia. Whether temptations and trials are internal or external we need to walk in the Spirit. 1 Corinthians 10:13. It is love to exhort people to faithful obedience to Christ when they are hurting. We do this as fellow sufferers who are also working out our salvation in fear and trembling. Philippians 2:12. I applaud your courage to make these clarity points. I personally want the name to stay NANC. Either way I will promote the sufficiency of Christ and scripture as I speak truth in love to those God brings my way. Romans 15:15, 1 Thess 5:14, Ephesians 4:15. To God Be The Glory.

  6. Regarding the paragraph: it is sad that whoever wrote the paragraph has such a narrow and limited understanding of the word “nouthetic.” The word is a very rich word as indicated in its definition. ““The verb means ‘to impart understanding,’ ‘to set right,’ ‘to lay on the heart.’ The stress is on influencing not merely the intellect but the will and disposition….the idea is not that of punishment but of a moral appeal that leads to amendment.” (Theological Dictionary Of The New Testament – Kittel)”

    The sentence, “Of course biblical counselors admonish people in their sin, but at NANC we also encourage our counselors to comfort the fainthearted, help the weak, pray, encourage, instruct, take care of their physical bodies, and 101 other things the Bible says to do.” was especially disconcerting.

    As someone who has known Dr. Adams for over forty years, sat in on several cases with him, and read many of his books, it is clear to me that the person who wrote that paragraph is either uninformed or simply reacting to a stereotype.

    Again, very sad and I would even say disrespectful in so far as it is a miss-characterization of Dr. Adam’s and his life time work.