Who should do counseling?

The answer to this question is of central importance. Many have taken it upon themselves to do counseling. That is to be expected from those who make no profession of saving faith in Jesus Christ. They must stumble their way along through life, doing what they can. But it was not to be expected that there would be those within the church who, in a lawless manner, would arrogate to themselves tasks which God, in His Word, has assigned to elders [pastors]. Yet, to the great confusion of many, unauthorized individuals have taken it upon themselves to engage in every sort of practice from hanging out shingles to the forming of large corporations that staff multiple counseling "centers." There seems to be little or no concern on their part about the question that heads this article, yet, it is one that I have heard asked over and over again by others. Because these persons fail to acknowledge the rule of scriptural principles in doing what they do in this regard, we might also expect their counseling to be suspect. And, sure enough, in most of these free-lance counseling venues one finds eclectic rather than biblically-based counseling. Those who care enough to ask the question posed above will receive a satisfying biblical answer, only from those who practice what the Bible teaches.

"And, that is---?"

In short; God gave the task of counseling as a life calling to the ruling officers of His church. This may be demonstrated in many ways. I shall mention two:

  1. the New Testament commands the shepherd-teacher---as such---to counsel;
  2. we see from descriptions of his work that he is precisely the one who, in the early church, did counseling.

While God assigned the counseling task informally to all Christians just as all are expected to teach, exhort, and perform other tasks informally), He assigned the work of formal nouthetic counseling to the church elder.* Such counseling is a part of his official job description.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:12,13, the congregation is told to "recognize those who labor among" them and to "think quite highly of them in love because of their work." What is that work? Clearly, it must be something distinguished from that of the average Christian. Paul explains that it is to "manage you in the Lord and counsel [nouthetically] you" (v. 12). Then, speaking to the elders themselves, he says, "We urge you brethren, counsel** the idle, encourage the timid, support the weak, be patient with everyone" (v. 14). In Colossians 1:28 Paul speaks of his special ministry this way:

Whom we announce, counseling [nouthetically] every person and teaching every person as wisely as possible, so that we may present every person mature in Christ.

In that summary statement of what he considered his work to be, we see that counseling was a prominent part. Those who speak of the "primacy of preaching" mean well, but seriously err. They ought, rather, to speak of the "primacy of the ministry of the Word" (Acts 6:4). That ministry is the work of the pastor-teacher*** (Ephesians 4:11) who ministers the same Word of God to the same people privately as well as publicly (Cf. Acts 20:20). Counseling was a considerable part of the work of the apostle at Ephesus. This is clear from Acts 20:31: "Therefore, be alert, remembering that for three years, night and day, I didn't stop counseling [nouthetically] each one of you with tears."**** Other passages might be mentioned, but for now, these will suffice. Isn't it clear, even from these passages alone, what God's expectations for counseling are? And yet, among Christians, the biblical data having to do with the matter has been virtually ignored. Not only is this a matter of disobedience, but it is a matter of following the world, whose values many Christians adopt. Counseling is the official task of the elder!

* In the New Testament the words "elder" and "bishop" are used interchangeably (cf. Titus 1:5,7; Acts 20:17,28). "Elder" speaks of the man's qualifications; "bishop" (overseer) speaks of his task. There are two functions within the one office (1 Timothy 5:17); rule (managing the church) and teaching. All rule (as pastor-shepherds; Ephesians 4:11); some, in addition, teach.

** Here, parakaleo, a more general term that may refer to any sort of help, is used. It may refer to comforting, counseling, encouraging, exhortation, pleading, assistance of various sorts and even to advocasy in a court of law (cf. 1 John 2:1). Though some have suggested that this term ought to be used rather than noutheteo, the great range of meanings that is inherent in parakaleo and parakletos would be confusing and, therefore, unhelpful.

*** A composite office embracing as we saw both ruling and teaching. The rule is that of a "shepherd" who ministers to his sheep in many other ways than feeding them. He heals their hurts, he protects them from wolves, etc. He is truly a counselor as a shepherd.

**** Note, particularly, the individual approach ("each one of you); cf. also Colossians 1:28) and the loving concern ("with tears"). Those who only preach to groups fail to do the full work of the ministry which involves much individual ministry as well.

Jay E Adams

Institute for Nouthetic Studies

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Simpsonville, SC 29681

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