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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"Biblical (or Nouthetic) Counseling"--Another Way to Keep Women Down

Recently I have written about the case of a 15 year old girl who was raped twice by a church leader in Trinity Baptist Church in Concord, NH. The crime itself was bad enough but the Pastor of Trinity, Chuck Phelps (now the Pastor of the large Colonial Hills Baptist Church in Indianapolis), reportedly told the girl that she bore at least 1% responsiblity for the crime. He had her get up in front of the church and acknowledge her sin. Then she was moved to Colorado to be under the "care" of another evangelical Baptist Pastor, Matt Olson (now the President of Northland Baptist College). Olson had the girl write a letter of apology to the wife of the rapist for "violating her trust." She had also been advised of the importance of "forgiving" her assailant. Where did these Pastors come up with such asinine advice? It comes from a school of thought known as "biblical (or nouthetic) counseling." The basic premise of this school is that modern psychology is flawed by secular presuppositions and that the Bible contains everything that is needed for a Christian to live a happy and healthy life.

"Nouthetic" comes from a NT Greek word meaning: "to admonish," or "to correct." This type of counseling says that man's basic problem is sin and that the job of the counselor is to point out to the counselee the nature of his sin and then admonish him to confess it and ask God to heal him. The father of the movement is Jay Adams, longtime Professor of Pastoral Counseling at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Westminster is a very conservative evangelical Reformed seminary. Adams burst on the scene in 1970 with his book, Competent to Counsel: Introduction to Nouthetic Counseling. The very popular book has been used by thousands of Pastors to guide them in their counseling methodology.

According to Adams,

[N]outhetic 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. . . . 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. . . . 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
("What Is Nouthetic Counseling?").

This "biblical counseling" methodology has become increasingly popular among the more conservative evangelical Pastors. As a result of the fundamentalist take-over of the Southern Baptist Convention, it is now taught in all of the SBC seminaries. In a 2007 article entitled: "Biblical Therapy: Southern Baptists Reject 'Pastoral Counseling,'" (The Christian Century 124 [2]: 24–27), David Winfrey discusses how this came about. He writes:
It was not a big surprise in 2005 when Southern Baptist Theological Seminary announced that it was makiing a "wholesale change" in its counseling program. The Louisville school, flagship seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention, declared that it was jettisoning the "pastoral counseling" model [which attempted to integrate psychology with Biblical principles] in favor of "biblical counseling" [a purely biblical approach].

The switch was foreshadowed three years earlier when Southern' dean coauthored a resolution at the SBC's annual convention on "The Sufficiency of Scripture in a Therapeutic Culture." School officials say the new approach is "built upon the view that scripture is sufficient to answer comprehensively the deepest needs of the human heart"
(p. 24).

How does "biblical (or nouthetic) counseling" deal with an issue like depression? Stuart Scott, Professor of Biblical Counseling at Southern Seminary, explained that
"if [the person is] not a Christian, there's hope through Jesus Christ, the gospel, for salvation. If [the person is] a Christian and [is] disillusioned and discouraged, there's just the various promises of God and the hope that's there" (p. 26)

"All issues are in some way related to the fall of Adam," Scott maintained, adding that some of these issues can be traced to a person's sin and others traced to trials that the person is facing in a fallen world . Thus, the first place one is to look when one is depressed is inside to see if maybe there is some unconfessed sin there. Perhaps there is someone he has not forgiven. Perhaps there is some action that he has not taken responsibility for and confessed to God (p. 27).

How would a "biblical counselor" deal with an issue like bulimia?

Scott says scripture is sufficient to treat even dysfunctions such as anorexia or bulimia. Though the term "bulimia" is not in scripture, the principle for treating it is. "We would look at that as lusting over something so much that you're willing to do what you are doing . . . . Another word for lust would be "idolatry." Persons suffering from bulimia "want something so much they're willing to sin to get it or sin if they don't. So what we would ask is, "What is it that you want so much that you're resorting to gorging the food down and then throwing it up?" And oftentimes it centers around appearance" (p. 27).

Fortunately not all Christian counselors agree with this form of counseling.

Loren Townsend views biblical counseling as a very flawed model. Townsend, who teaches pastoral counseling at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, just down the road from Southern, said he sees many clients who have been hurt by biblical counseling. These patients, he said, are deeply
burdened: "Not only haven't they been able to get over their depression following the biblical example, but now they're also a failure as Christians because they had inadequate faith to be able to do that."

He recalled one woman whose marriage was falling apart and who had experienced abuse in the relationship. "The biblical counselor [gave her] no choice. "You stay married. That's the way it is, and here's how your're to organize it." The way it was organized was the woman being subjected to this man's abuse," Townsend said.

"What ended up happening was that this woman finally just came apart at the seams. She wounded up psychotic as a result of that and ended up in our system of care. Now we have to deal with her psychosis and the fact that she has the religious ideation that's eating her alive as a result of failing as a Christian"
(pp. 25-26).

One of the key characteristics of "biblical counseling" is that the woman has fewer rights than the man. Of course, this is what the Bible teaches, so the "biblical counselor" is being consistent here. Bill Gothard, a very popular evangelical speaker [I attended his week long seminar in 1979 in Atlanta at the Omni with 19,000 other people], has taught for years the "umbrella of authority" concept. In his view, most of the problems that people face are due to getting outside of the umbrella, i.e., not submitting to the legitimate authorities in their lives. For a woman, this is his her husband or her father. And for all Christians it is their Pastor, who of course, is male.

So in this model, the woman, even if abused, is still under the authority of her husband or father and her Pastor. Is it any surprise then that women who are victims of abuse have little recourse in conservative Evangelicalism?


  1. Ken, thank you for posting this. Even though I'm obviously not a woman, this hits close to home. I've struggled with anxiety and depression. When I was an evangelical/fundamentalist Christian, people in those circles just kept telling me to read the Bible and pray more, and that is how I overcome depression. What hogwash!

    It wasn't until I purchased a book by a professor of psychology at my alma mater that I started to make true progress in this area. The professor's prescription was something called therapeutic lifestyle change (TLC), which included taking omega 3 fish oil and other vitamins and supplements, getting adequate sleep, getting regular exercise, spending time with other people, getting adequate sunlight, and regularly doing activities that will not allow you to think and think (ruminate) about negative experiences. I've adopted TLC into my life and even though I still have bad days (everyone does), it has made a huge hell of a difference! It sure has helped me more than praying or reading the Bible every did!

  2. I experienced some of this myself. My marriage was lousy, but I was trying to do things the Christian way. I think all that confusion as to how to deal with my husband while trying to do things the Christian way was VERY harmful to me.

    When I finally started doing things the NON-Christian way, things started turning around. Why? Because I started living in REALITY instead of trying to plug in our personality issues into the Bible model.

    Another thing I noticed is that the Christian couples who had good marriages had characteristics that would give them good marriages whether they were Christian or not. Also I remember thinking, "What about the millions of long-term happy marriages between those who are NOT Christians?? Christ is not head of their household. They've never seen the diagram with Jesus in the middle and the husband and wife plugged into him.

    I realized that whole idea was baloney. And I knew that goofed-up marriages were not going to have all their problems solved by making Jesus the head-whatever the heck that even means in real life. Makes me mad remembering all this stuff.

    But I'm so glad you brought it up, cause there are bound to be many more women out there like me who kept trying to figure out how to make things better god's way-when what they needed to do is get a little angry and use common sense.

  3. I've been to a couple nouthetic counselors -- even talked to Jay Adams once on the phone.

    Many years ago, my wife and I had some counseling, and the nouthetic practitioner gave us a book on biblical marriage. When we got to the part on authority and decision-making, my wife hit the roof. This author (I think it was Adams) said that the husband should make the decisions of the household, but can delegate certain trivial decisions to the wife. He even mentioned the color of the drapes as an appropriate decision for the woman. My wife was outraged and thought the author was an idiot. We never returned to the counselor.

    One thing I will say about nouthetic counseling: At least it holds people accountable for their improvement and maintains that people's problems are often the fallout of their own behavior. They go much too far with the second part, though. For example, a woman suffering from anxiety because of a rape doesn't need to be admonished for having "sinful" fear. Still, I think traditional counselors who always see their patients as hapless victims of external forces do a disservice to many.

  4. Counselling and religion of any kind should not go together. Counsellors should at least try to be objective Unfortunately there are some organisations such as Cornerstone Counselling who pretend to be secular but have a hidden agenda of Christianity. In Canada there is also Catholic Social Services. How objective can they be if a woman needs an abortion?

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Hello,
      I was quite surprised to get an email that included a link to an article that included our name “Cornerstone Counselling”. While Clare’s location in Ontario makes it unlikely that she is referring to our Centre in Alberta, I thought I would make a couple of clarifications.
      Our agency employs Register Psychologists, Clinical Social Workers, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists and Certified Canadian Counsellors who are all accredited by outside, secular organizations. All these counsellors must abide by the same code of ethics that every other counsellor in their accrediting organization does. Our counsellors have at least a master’s degree with the exception of the master’s level practicum students who receive training and support at our centre. Although I have not worked for Catholic Social Services, it is my understanding that they have similar standards for their counsellors.
      In 2013, approximately 55% of our clients self-identified themselves as not participating in any faith or as belonging to a faith other than Christianity. We offer faith based and secular counselling using a variety of approaches including CBT, Narrative, Jungian, and Existential.
      Until today, I had never heard of Jay Adams and I have never been involved in Bill Gothard’s teachings. I think it is a mistake to hold these two writers up as examples typical of Christian counsellors. Throughout our city there are Christian counsellor providing professional services in their private practices and government agencies. Further, there are Christian judges, nurses, social workers, etc., who hold their own beliefs while fulfilling their professional obligations.
      Our mission is to demonstrate the love of Christ by helping people become renewed and whole. Our goal is to have each client feel that they received professional help in an atmosphere of respect, acceptance, and compassion.
      Sheila Stauffer R.S.W.
      Executive Director
      Cornerstone Counselling Centre

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Boy, a whole lot of things come to mind on this topic... I was first a psych major at Biola U. in the early Gothard days (yeah, that "phenomenon" was quite interesting); eventually went into marriage counseling and individual therapy as a Christian (left the fold years later). At seminary--Talbot (prior to becoming a therapist) Adams was debated some. Fortunately, because of the moderating influence of the Rosemead PsyD/PhD program that joined Biola, and other psych profs, "biblical" counseling never caught on much.... Even within Evangelicalism there are major divides on things like this.

    I don't find even the more open/moderate "Christian psychology/counseling" viewpoints any longer to be wise or good to follow, but thankfully much of that realm does not share the male-dominant, restrictive, and downright stupid aspects of the Adams crowd. It does draw heavily from "secular" psychology and often integrates valid insights from there with various theological concepts. And some Christians who are therapists ARE good and generally helpful to people, Christian or not, as I think I was in those years, tho I now wish I'd not had the theological orthodoxy mixed in.

    Mike, I'm glad you shared, for any readers who might struggle similarly. There is no question to me that the elements you mention, along with things like coming to forgive, including oneself, etc., are critical. And some people are just "wired" to be more suseptible to depression, anxiety, or other conditions and have to work harder at finding/keeping balance and emotional health... having nothing whatever to do with "sin" or the fall of Adam. Nutrition, sunlight, exercise and such are often of high importance... things we ALL should be on top of even if not prone to emotional problems.

  6. Howard,

    Yes you are right. As with most doctrines and practices, evangelicals cannot agree among themselves. With regard to "biblical counseling," it tends to be practiced by the most conservative evangelicals and the strictly Reformed. For example, in addition to the SBC seminaries mentioned, Master's Seminary, Bob Jones Univ., Detroit Baptist Sem., Calvary Baptist Sem., and the GARBC Seminaries would all adhere to it. To them its not just a matter of choice either, it is the only "truly" Christian approach.

    1. I find your blog very informative and full of awareness and pay you lots of thanks and we are also offering Marriage Counsellor in Delhi by our Marriage Counsellor organization.

  7. Ken,

    Thanks for the added details... you have familiarity with parts of the evangelical/fundamentalist world that I don't much, especially in recent years. But I like to be aware and follow trends, developments, etc.

    For readers who may not have much exposure, here is some broader context: Conservative brands of Christianity overall practice a selective kind of scholarship. In many cases it amounts to true anti-intellectualism or anit-intellectual-freedom. It's not just in biology, paleontology, astronomy and the "hard sciences" that the relationship is strained (and much that is solid is strained OUT). As you're pointing out, it is at least as bad with the human sciences, such as anthropology (potentially contra much of "foreign missions"), sociology and psychology. It is psychology (and its relatives of family life, social patterns, etc.) where the bulk of the "practical" and personal issues of life, of pastoral care, etc. are involved.

    So it is here where leaders want to keep control (often subconsciously) and keep people from finding that perhaps "secular" or "humanistic" sources DO have some good, healthy, workable solutions to common life problems... ones that don't appear in the Bible (though almost anything can be found between the lines there, we know).

    On a different angle re. Christians in psychology and counseling, I've been wondering about the type I described in my prior post, the ones NOT favorable to Adams' approach, who I know ARE plentiful, and publish some good, probing research, etc. I'm wondering if they might be, more than other Christian leaders, able to look openly at things like the mythological and social interest/social formation aspects of earliest Christianity... how "orthodoxy" evolved only slowly in the intense, experimental crucible of the tumultuous first century, and following. That "forced inventiveness" creatively combined the power of wisdom and antiquity from Judaism with the insights of Greek philosophy and the mysticism of pagan sects in a way that met social needs in a time of rapid change and often chaos. "Psychologists" of Master's and PhD level are probably the largest of educated groups among Evangelicals who are set up to potentially both understand this, and to grasp/apply the implications of it (less dogmatism, more movement toward compassion, etc.) (They understand and respect, generally, the relevant work of scholars like Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, Claude Levi-Strauss, Margaret Mead, etc.)

    Most of them already hold (as I did, while still Evangelical) a more open/flexible form of faith, and I think would have some courage to advance new understandings they might come to. So far I'm not aware of anyone addressing materials or education toward them particularly.... Are you (or any readers)?

  8. When I said "...addressing materials or education toward them..." I meant material on issues I'd just described about Christian origins. But also the "psychology of religion" focused toward literalism and such (which there IS some of); and I would also include topics that you've raised on the blog such as the real basis of forgiveness (could it really depend on a "substitutionary atonement?), etc. From my experience of the centrality of person-to-person forgiveness to mental/emotional health, nothing could be more pertinent to the interests of Christian counselors/therapists.... And dealing with the theological and philosophical issues involved, as you have, could be interwoven with consideration of the evolution (not revelation) of atonement concepts in the Old and New Testaments and beyond.

  9. I used to be one of Jehovah's Witnesses. While they didn't use that term, they sure used the practice. They used to be dead set against any outside help (don't want the doctors realizing how crazy the cult makes people). But as long as the members just go for happy pills and not actual counseling, they're fine with it.

    And those last two paragraphs are dead on. I was supposed to follow my husband's "headship." But if he screwed up (getting us into deep debt) I was also held responsible for it. Damned either way.

  10. As someone who suffered through Christian therapy for anorexia as a teenager, I think that pastors and Christian therapists who incorporate their religious beliefs into their practice are doing serious harm, and while adults can make their own choices, I think it's wrong to send your child/teen to a Christian counselor. I was just made to feel worse by the counselor I saw - as if my eating disorder was my fault, as if I was being stubborn and rebellious, and as if a closer relationship with God was all it would take to heal me (implying that I wasn't close enough to God, which I found hurtful at the time).

    This sort of thing is dangerous, and these counselors and pastors are playing with fire - mixing powerful messages of guilt and shame with discouragement of helpful resources (medication, cognitive therapy, etc.) in situations where there's real danger - alcoholism, spousal or child abuse, suicide, etc.

  11. Gothard and the Jay Adams trained counselors that I sought for suicidal depression did nothing for me. One even suggested that my mental habit of considering suicide as an option for dealing with my sin was a healthy mental exercise for me. That was until I actually put a loaded gun to my chest. The therapist that was given to me by the hospital saved my life and my mind. I shudder to think how many people Adams, Gothard, and their students led right into the grave.

  12. Stumbled across your blog and just wanted to make a few comments. I'm a born again Christian, who does some counselling. My wife suffers from clinical depression and one of my sons is a schizophrenic. The help of secular psychiatrists and psychologists is something we are very thankful for. Their professionalism augments our faith.

    Also with the many congregations I have been associated, I know of none who would have treated this 15 year old girl like you have suggested. All of them would have reported Phelps to the authorities… A 15 year cannot give consent to someone in a place of authority or trust. Seems to me you’ve taken the extreme to paint us all with the same brush.


  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. Well, my friend Penny received secular, non-directive, active-listening (aka Carl Rogers method) counseling from a nun when she was 17 years old (over 30 years ago). She said "The nun looked at me with an understanding expression & left me to fend for myself in deciding whether to have an abortion or not. This so-called 'Christian counselor' gave me the impression she was there to support me in whatever decision I chose. I consider what she did to me CRUEL! lt showed a lack of Christian compassion for me & for my baby." This is how counseling WITHOUT the absolute truth of the Bible works out. Everything is 'relative' & 'situational ethics' rules the day. Penny wrote: "Biblical counseling (aka TRUTH) would have told me that: 1) my baby was personally designed, created by God in His image & likeness (& so was I) 2) abortion would dismember my baby 3) God has commanded "You shall not murder", so murder is a sin 4) I could personally choose a loving couple to be my son or daughter's forever family (adoption) 5) There were maternity homes where I could live as I continued my pregnancy 6) sex outside marriage is called the sin fornication and it is forbidden by God 7) unless I repented of all my sin & trusted in Jesus Christ. I would reap what I had sown in life & be cast into the lake of fire at the judgment. That is what I NEEDED to hear instead of the hogwash of the empty vanity of secular active-listening. Perhaps my baby would alive & a father himself today, if that nun had been faithful to tell me the God's honest truth."

  15. Our daughter-in-law has her Masters in Biblical Counseling from Master's College. We are born-again, evangelical believers who raised our children in a Christian home, and who managed to "counsel" and be "counseled" before Jay Adams appeared on the scene. We fought the "self-esteem movement" of the 70s, helped friends with marriage problems, guided a son who was molested by his uncle (and pastor), and we are absolutely sickened by this movement. Our grandchildren are being raised as "evil daughters of Eve" (has anyone else heard this expression?), and being taught that "Daddy ALWAYS makes wise decisions." It's scary hogwash. They are a very unhappy couple, he now does most of the housework, they are going to a church that operates like a cult, and they have less insight into life than most unbelievers. The truly sad thing is the model of discipline they employ - many, many vicious spankings with the "whacker" for the least offenses. Our son is now teaching "parenting seminars" on how early you may begin using the whacker (9 months is his date), how many hits for what offense, the use of "Xs" drawn on the hand when they are out (at one point he bragged about giving his 4 year old 30 hits before she "broke") and of course, the "restoration" nonsense. We're contemplating turning them in for child abuse. Their kids (4 girls, oldest is 6, youngest is 12 months) now sit at their own table for all meals (except the 12 month old who is in a high chair). We are praying that God judges this wicked movement. I heard that Jay Adams has now written a new translation of the NT, titled, appropriately, "The Christian Counselor's New Testament", wherein he translates the Greek word "nouthos" as "counsel" in every case. Shame! And yes, we've heard of several examples of the woman being blamed for the sin of the man. Get away from the Word of God, and you lose! And the depths of the sin is incredible.

  16. I forgot to add - check out Martin and Diedre Bobgan were in on the early days of NC and left it when they realized how unbiblical it is. They have written several books exposing the flaws in the movement, and the books are all free e-books! These guys are awesome, and are fighting a hard battle.

  17. I've taken the bait,hook,line,and sinker...the whole enchilada...the Word of God,Jesus...theres no other name under heaven whereby we can be saved ,but only by the name of Jesus. Saved means to make WHOLE. Did not the Messiah, Jesus say that He came to set the captive free? Did He not make whole so many through His miracles? Why would it be any different today, moreso, did not He send the Holy Spirit, that testify's the truth of His promise that He would. Read the Book of James, Chapter 5. We are admonished about praying and confessing sin and being made whole. My Wonderful and Mighty Counselor is Jesus...who is yours???

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  22. I know this is an old post, but man... I am teaching on biblical counseling now and the book for the class is Jay Adams "A Theology of Christian Counseling"... needless to say, I have stopped reading it and am crushed that the students MUST read it! The arrogance is unreal. Funny thing is... I am teaching the students methods I have learned from great men of God such as Charles Solomon (whom Adams bashes) and John Glenn.

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  25. It seems to me that people in this string of comments are using single examples of malpractice or narrow mindedness to support their conclusions. Most do not support biblical counseling, and use their negative experiences to express outrage at their departure from confidence in the wisdom found in the scriptures when it was not provided by a wise, loving biblically approved elder. What has transpired in this commentary is the commentators have nearly all described egregious examples of the malpractice of biblical counseling. The truth is that a good biblical or secular counselor is going to be effective and a bad one is not. Statistically, there will be more secular malpractice in counseling because there are more secular counselors. Personal anecdotes have a place, but if you are a Christian, the love and grace of God can come to mean a great deal to you. It is a narrow path, and one to be sought after diligently. It is not the broad path. There are many false teachings out there which will increase in the end times. We believers should all seek out the Lord from wise counselors and be quick to recognize the many wolves among us and those who promote religious laws rather than growing into the maturity of the Lord under the care of a loving wise Christian. The scriptures teach we will know we are Christians by our love, and we will know a tree by its fruit, and that not everyone who says, "Lord, Lord, didn't we do this and that" are actually Christians, but rather those who are kind and loving to those in need. Christianity is never about a method, but about a man, Jesus Christ, and what He did for mankind, and what we do when we believe in Him. People always seek to create a formula for God... secular or otherwise. The truth is that BOTH systems of how to address man's problems are faith based. It is a MYTH that they psychological health profession is based in empiracal fact more than a variety of theories. Does the Bible have answers for the maladies of man? Yes. Can they be maligned? Yes. Does psychotherapy have answers? Yes. Can they be maligned? Yes. The difference is that the biblical counseling is really the act of discipleship, and those of us who believe by faith through grace that Jesus was and is, have a different relationship with the Word of God than those who do not. The misapplication of the Word can keep you from finding the love, wisdom and healing of the Lord, but you must seek and keep on seeking; knock and keep on knocking. Pray, and a very real Holy Spirit will help you.

  26. True biblical counseling is to get a person into the Word and have them arrive to an understanding of what God says concerning my situation. Too often, even in biblical counseling, the counselor presents their presuppositions that are not even close to the actual Scriptural application. Take the issue of divorce, there are situations in which a woman can indeed divorce when one looks at Jewish literature. The problem as presented in the previous post is that there tends to be biblical malpractice going on.

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