Biblical Counseling and Its Neighbors: Conversations Over the Fence

June 13, 2011

Ed Welch (CCEF)

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Ed Welch (CCEF)

Biblical Counseling and Its Neighbors

Lines should always be drawn with care. They identify some as in, others as out. They may say that some are right, others are wrong. Yes, we could say that lines simply identify differences, but differences can be strongly held and quickly become moral imperatives. We are, indeed, schismatic by nature.

Scripture draws lines. There is a categorical difference between those who follow Jesus and those who don’t. Other than that basic line, however, Scripture tends to put us all in the same group. A murderer and a person with a quick temper? They are more alike than different—they live in the same neighborhood. Pharisees and me? Yes, my self-righteousness acts up every day.

So when we draw lines among Christians, we want to make sure that they are broken lines—porous boundaries, moveable fences—that serve to aid unity rather than disrupt it. This means, in part, that fences are opportunities to discuss both why the fences exist and how to keep fences from becoming walls.

Who Are the Neighbors?

Among Christians who are involved in counseling there are at least two distinguishable groups: 1.) integrationist (“Christian”) counseling and 2.) biblical counseling. This follows Eric Johnson’s suggestions in his book, Foundations for Christian Soul Care (IVP, 2007). Eric further breaks integrationists into two groups: conceptual and ethical, and biblical counselors into traditional (e.g. NANC—National Association of Nouthetic Counselors) and progressive (e.g. CCEF—Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation).

Eric’s distinctions make sense. These groups do sound different from one another. While all are clearly united in their desire to be faithful to Scripture, each group has its distinct vocabulary, emphases, methods, and interests. Each group does have a different “feel.” The problem is that differences easily morph into boundaries and walls. How does that happen? It happens if we simply do nothing. Walls don’t need hostility, they just need a little neglect.

Conversations, therefore, are essential. They can debunk stereotypes and sharpen both our theology and practice. They can make our theological infrastructure more explicit and remind us that we are really neighbors who share a common goal.

What Fence Divides Us?

What are the differences? As curious as it might sound, we are all still trying to sort that out. With biblical counseling and integrationists, a.k.a., Christian counselors, the discussion, up to this time, has been slow and difficult. It has been bogged down primarily around one question: “Do you—or don’t you—benefit from secular data?”

The conclusion of this debate has been, though with many nuances, “Sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t.” I don’t want to minimize the gains made by the many articles and books devoted to the question, but my point is that this question won’t identify the most important differences. This question doesn’t identify the fence.

There is so much left to do in order for us to have conversations that are mutually sharpening, and progress will continue to be slow. Counselors are busy people. We have enough to do with our conferences, continuing education, and reading within our own “camp.” Who has time to read what the neighbors have written?

If we do read books from outside our own camp, we can be quick to make judgments based on a turn of a phrase or a citation that makes the author guilty-by-association. We can so easily set up straw-men from neighboring camps and knock them over with a simplistic critique. Thoughtful interaction is rare.

I can think of perhaps three integrationists who have offered an informed critique of biblical counseling. Most judgments are based on an anecdote from the 1970’s or assumptions that are untrue. Perhaps, integrationists and Nouthetic counselors can say the same thing about those of us at CCEF.

How Do We Start the Conversation?

We start by doing what counselors do best. We listen and enter into the world of the other person (or in this case the other counseling perspective) in such a way that the person representing the perspective says, “Yes, that’s me. You understand.”

This isn’t easy, but most counselors have these skills. But what are we even trying to understand? What information is important? What will help us in this endeavor?

Listen to the Person’s Story

First, listen to the person’s story. How did this person, who now represents a particular perspective, get into counseling initially? What were some of the influences? Were they hurt by a counseling approach? Were they blessed by one?

I have spoken at a few secular conferences in which my blatantly biblical and Christ-centered presentation was well received, or at least politely received. Yet there have always been a few hecklers. When I have had an opportunity to speak with them their stories were very similar: they believed they had been hurt by pastors who ignored their pain or merely slapped a few biblical texts on it. If you discover this story, the task at hand is not so much to identify differences but to express your sorrow and perhaps even ask forgiveness.

Or consider another possibility. Let’s say the person you are speaking with believes that Alcoholics Anonymous saved their marriage. If you set off to find differences in your approaches you are essentially criticizing the person’s mother, and that’s rarely a good way to have a profitable conversation. We can hold our positions for deeply personal reasons.

Understand the Person’s Institutional Location

Second, understand the person’s institutional location. For example, a professor at a secular university will approach psychology in a different way than I would. Though we might share very similar values, our work sites will affect our perspectives on counseling and the questions we ask. If someone works for a state agency, he or she will have a different approach than someone who works at a church. Someone who ministers in a Baptist setting may approach counseling differently from someone in a Presbyterian setting.

Examine Theological Commitments

Third, since our counseling theory and practice ultimately rises from theological commitments, take on the hard work of examining these commitments. All counseling practice rests on a foundation of both explicit and implicit theology. Some of it we may be able to articulate, some of it is assimilated without our knowledge or even permission. The task is to X-ray our counseling practice and see the theological bones that support it.

Some authors will do most of this work for you. For example, Larry Crabb works hard to spell out his biblical rationale. Robert McGee in Search for Significance does the same. Whether you agree or disagree with the conclusions, you know where they stand. Usually, however, an author will offer a very sketchy biblical perspective and we are left with the task of drawing out and identifying the theological details.

If we make it through the first two steps, this third one might be the toughest. It takes familiarity with different theological systems and the skills to highlight key theological issues. The Journal of Biblical Counseling has dabbled in this.

For example, it included an article that suggested the trichotomist/duality distinction was an important one for identifying differences between biblical and integrationist counseling. Other articles tried to identify Jay Adams’ unique view of the biblical category of flesh and of habit as a way to ferret out differences between biblical and Nouthetic counseling. Many articles have addressed motivation theory, the interpretation of situational variables, and the counselor’s role—but without overtly identifying contrasts with other views. None of these, however, have created enough discussion.

What are the Next Steps?

How do we go about talking over the fence to our neighbors? One task ahead is to generate some of the theological categories that might be useful in identifying our differences. Some of my colleagues can probably do that better than me, but I am motivated, so I will plan to offer some suggestions soon, unless they do it first.

Join the Conversation (Added by BCC Staff)

How can we start constructive conversations over the fence between “Christian integration counselors” and “biblical counselors”? What might the benefits be? The potential pitfalls?


7 thoughts on “Biblical Counseling and Its Neighbors: Conversations Over the Fence

  1. Ed, appreciate your tenor and tone about talking to each other in the Christian counseling world. It is sad that we counselors have not always used our counseling skills to listen first to those who think/practice differently. A couple of comments: Should we start with labeling? Or does that unnecessarily move us to categorize before we really hear. I think this is especially true since words like biblical counseling, integration, christian psychology are used in diverse, even divergent, ways. I’m not sure how helpful these labels are anymore. Second, I like how you raise the issue of location of practice. I would add, goals of practice. Someone who has the goal of counseling discipleship may practice in very different ways from someone who has the goal of reducing or eliminating a phobia. Both are important and the one who focuses on one ought not think their goal is better than the other.

  2. Thanks for a stimulating blog! It spurs many thoughts.
    Location is so important. Some locations are more risky, because they require participation in the public mental health field, which is currently controlled by secularists. However, we need Christians in that field, don’t we? As a result, it seems very important to encourage and support believers whatever their location, recognizing the value and limitations of all locations in this fallen world.
    Also, I like labels, because they provide categories for people’s underlying assumptions. However, labels have many problems, not least of which is that, as Phil notes, they are used in different (and sometimes contradictory) ways. Knowing that you (Ed) have participated in SCP conferences and contributed to SCP publications, I’m curious why you didn’t also mention Christian psychology as a label/position. I think it helps to let others know that there is a “middle way” between biblical counseling and integration, that is committed to supporting the strengths of both. This is important to me, because if there are only two major options (biblical counseling and integration), then people like me get put in the integration camp by some biblical counselors, and that’s simply not accurate.

  3. Eric I thought the same thing about labels. We use them all the time whether we like them or not. As you said, they are quite helpful in providing categories. Granted, I think we need to be humble in our assumptions those categories which is what I think philipmonroe, you were saying. 
    This is a very stimulating blog. Agreed also that those of us in Christian Counseling have not done the best job listening to our colleagues. I think one of the core ideas from my perspective is that we draw our lines in the sand theologically, whether we are an integrationists or not, but we also use that sand, add some water and begin to build relational walls. It is one thing to draw a line in the sand philosophically, theologically, or ideologically…ideas have consequences, but using that metaphor a bit further, people can step over a line in the sand–and should.  It is one thing to say, my ideas, my convictions are here, but to say to someone, a fellow brother or sister, your must stay on the other side of my line if you don’t agree with me goes against the body metaphor Paul emphasized in 1 Corinthians. I am all for convictions, I am all for critical thinking and being discerning, but I also for community and for brotherhood/sisterhood. I am not sure how much time and resources we are wasting by spending so much time drawing our lines? I wonder if we would instead work together more where we can and combine our resources what impact we could have together on helping the church toward health and wholeness.Thanks for a good conversational starter.

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  5. It’s ironic that people always think themselves to be in the middle on any issue.  It’s part of our sinful desire to justify ourselves. One reason we create labels is so we can define as many groups to our left as there are to our right (which lovingly is what Eric wants to do by adding “Christian psychology” as another label so he can have integrationists to his left). The core problem, as is referenced here already, is that my definition of an integrationist and Eric’s are totally different so the labels appear helpful but ultimately are meaningless.

    The body metaphor in 1 Cor 12 is talking about spiritual giftedness in the local church, not counseling camps. The same Paul also told Titus to kick false teachers out of the local church and was not contradicting himself. Unity at the expense of truth is not unity but a charade.

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