There is a lot happening in the church/mental health world, largely because there are some growing divides within the biblical counseling movement. I am still wading through some recent videos and posts by Heath Lambert, Brad Hambrick, and others in order to write a comprehensive response. One question I want to tackle today is related to the sufficiency of Scripture. This question is common in the world of biblical/Christian counseling: to what degree is the Bible sufficient as we counsel others?
What is Scripture For?
The Bible is sufficient for all people from a spiritual standpoint. The Scripture reflects God’s choice to reveal aspects of himself to us through words that can be read. If he wanted us to know more, he would have said more. So in that sense, the Bible is sufficient for all of us. Also, the Bible helps us understand why the world is the way it is. We know how sin entered the world, we know the results of sin, and we know that the only way out of this sin-cursed world is through Jesus. So the Bible is sufficient for understanding why we live in a world filled with disease and disorder, and understanding how to be rescued out of it. Scripture also offers a lot of wisdom for living. When a person needs spiritual wisdom to handle common life problems that we all experience, the Bible is sufficient in teaching us how to come closer to the heart of God and an imitation of Christ.
What Are We Talking About?
When it comes to counseling and the sufficiency of Scripture for conducting it, the problem with most of these conversations is that we talk about different things as if they are the same thing. Sometimes, for example, it is not clear if we are talking about giving “wise counsel” (spiritual advice) or if we are talking about psychotherapy (a process of working with and healing the brain). Also, it is not always clear if we are talking about counseling people who are already Christians or those who do not know Christ. Thus, many debates become convoluted because different circumstances require different answers.
Different Roles, Different Functions
I have written before on the role of the pastor and how it is different than the role of a counselor. A pastor’s job can include direct evangelism to unbelievers, whereas a counselor’s job does not. (I did two posts on evangelism in counseling versus discipleship that fleshed this out.) There are many roles within the body of Christ, and all Christians play a role in advancing the kingdom. Ephesians 4:11-16 makes it clear that there are different roles and different giftings that work together to edify the church. (Interestingly, evangelists are listed separately from pastors, so even those roles can be and often are very distinct.)
When functioning as a counselor, one is not in a role of trying to convince or proselytize. Instead, the counselor meets a person where he or she is at and allows them to take the lead in exploring spiritual issues. Counselors are trained to assess a person’s psychological symptoms, whereas pastors are not. The Bible is not sufficient (nor is it attempting) to assess or treat biological disorders including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD, schizophrenia and others. The Bible also does not offer specific evidence-based treatment methods that can be used by counselors to effectively treat mental disorders.
What’s The Real Problem in Christian Counseling?
In the Christian counseling world, the word “integration” is often used to describe the process of synthesizing theology and psychology. I have been trained at integrationist programs and in some ways I fall into this category. However, the integrationists have a problem in that their theory often does not translate into integrated practice. They may have a biblical view of persons (made in the image of God), but many of these Christian counselors have chosen to work completely outside the framework of the Church or discipleship. I find this to be tragic, as many well-trained Christian counselors do not see it as their role to serve the Church. I believe that much of the biblical counseling argument is actually related to the fact that many Christians who are trained as counselors choose to function in a secular way. Their arguments are often not relevant to my understanding of what integration is; thus, they get tangled up in the wrong questions and dig their heels in in all the wrong places.
Bringing True Integration Into The Church
The Church Therapy model reflects true integration: Christian counselors trained in both theology and psychology serve the church in a professional capacity on a team with pastors in the work of discipleship. This therapeutic work is specifically for those who are already believers or seeking to explore their faith, so the work of evangelism has already been done. Emotional and spiritual growth happen together, and when people hit a wall in their discipleship process because of a mental health problem or emotional brokenness they can receive professional counseling within the church setting. Pastors must preach, teach, evangelize, and train. Counselors must listen, reflect, come alongside, and bring healing. When we ask, “Is the Bible sufficient?” we must also ask, “Is the Church bringing healing in every way possible?” Pastors cannot do it all, nor should they. Multiple roles are best done by multiple people. The Bible guides us all, but quality mental health care requires additional training and knowledge that licensed Christian counselors can uniquely provide.
My desire is for biblical counselors to continue to recognize that their training programs do not include courses or practical experiences on assessing/diagnosing mental health symptoms. Therefore, they (as well as pastors) cannot be the ones to decide what type of depression a person might be experiencing. Pastors who do biblical counseling also must recognize the complex power dynamics that occur when one tries to be both evangelist and counselor. On the other hand, my desire is for integrationist Christian counselors to recognize that integration can only truly happen when one is serving the body of believers (whether on a church staff or in a Christian center/practice). Helping someone spiritually without knowing how to assess and treat their mental health is not counseling. But helping someone heal emotionally without helping them spiritually leaves them stuck as well. When counselors engage in the work of healing to bring both mental and spiritual wellness, they are playing a significant role in bringing about the kingdom of God here on earth. Pastors, invite professional Christian counselors in and listen to our expertise on emotional and mental health. Christians who are professionally trained counselors, return to a place of serving the Church and re-engage in the work of discipleship. Perhaps then we can find a Church that is safe for everyone.