Biblical Counseling Training in the Near East * An Encouraging Update on a Burgeoning Movement: Part 1

May 25, 2017

Wayne Vanderwier

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Wayne Vanderwier

In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that remains of His people from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Cush, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea.
Isaiah 11:11

What a promise! And what a very special day that will be!

In the meantime, God is doing amazing things in “the lands of the Bible;” those primarily Arab countries that form the southern and eastern perimeter (the coastlands) of the Mediterranean Sea. Although most of these nations have a population that follows the majority religion and are strongly influenced by the culture that flows from it, the gospel of Jesus Christ is both present and powerful in this area. Various sacramental (orthodox) churches have been in these lands for many centuries and, unfortunately, their aberrant theology and works-focused traditions have defined “Christianity” for generations.

But are there also strong and relatively large evangelical churches in these countries? Yes. Do these evangelical churches declare their belief in the authority of the Bible? Yes. And do these evangelical churches subscribe to the inerrancy and sufficiency of the Bible, especially when it comes to the disciple-making process of progressive sanctification and the redemptive, restorative care of the souls of their members? Sadly, no.

As is true in many places in the world, the pastors of churches in the Near East are what we describe as “highly psychologized.” Secular and humanist-based systems of people-helping have been popularized and culturally adapted in these countries. Godless psychological philosophies for assisting people with the struggles of life are taught in the theological schools. There simply has not been, until recently, any challenge to these therapeutic methodologies from a biblical sufficiency-based model of ministry.

“The Point of the Spear” in Egypt

When I was first invited to teach a basic class in biblical counseling in Egypt in 2007, Overseas Instruction in Counseling (OIC) was a little more than a year old. I could not have envisioned what God had in store. Because God had been good to give me the theological and biblical counseling training He had, I naively assumed that all real, born-again Christians believed in and would want to practice biblically-based and local church-rooted soul care ministry. Why else would they enroll in a five year, 60 credit hour graduate degree program?

But it was war! Those nine days were a delightful, spiritually-challenging, crushingly-difficult, intellectually-stimulating, motive-testing, soul-sapping war. And something remarkable happened. God began to turn the hearts of those students toward a theologically-rich and heart–focused, instead of problem-focused, plan for addressing the sinful responses Christians have to God-ordained circumstances. I continued to hear the same refrain, “We’ve never heard this before!” Of course they thought this teaching made sense: The Bible is God’s Word. Why would anyone abandon something “alive and powerful” (Heb. 4:12) in favor of man’s ever-changing ideas? But I warned them of the fate of the point of the spear. Piercing new territory includes the requirement of being thrust against difficult obstacles. The resistance of the combatants can dull the edge of the tool. And the damage done to those “first in” can be severe.

That “prophecy” came true. Some, finding it too difficult, abandoned the idea of establishing a biblical sufficiency-based soul care ministry. Others, seeking the approval of man and possible ecclesiastical advancement, focused their energies in that direction. And what of those who determined to fully embrace this “new thing”? Relationships were strained, speaking opportunities (and the income they provide) were lost, and reputations were unjustly damaged.

Something Only God Could Do

That one class prompted the president of the school to request that I design a Master of Biblical Counseling (MBC) degree for the Near East. Two years later it was a reality with 65 students enrolled, eight of them medical doctors. Textbooks were needed. So OIC, through the generosity of its partner churches and supporting families, embarked on an ambitious translation project. Today there are 24 biblical counseling-related textbooks and 35 topic-specific booklets in Arabic that are being used by believers in Arab-speaking ministries throughout the world.

From that original academic program grew numerous less formal, module-based programs developed and taught by our graduates. Now, 10 years after that first class, we estimate that around 400 believers have received biblical counseling training in Egypt.

I wish you could have been with us in March as OIC hosted a reunion/vision-casting meeting with our 2009-2014 MBC program graduates. Having not seen most of them since graduation in 2014, and not speaking Arabic, I really didn’t know what they were doing with the education they had received. Twenty-two were able to attend. After a nice dinner we met in a hotel conference room and I asked them to share how God is using their biblical counseling training in their ministries. We could have stopped after the first few; my cup was full with the blessings of how God was using them in the area of biblical counseling! Their testimonies were overwhelming!

Discussions are now being held concerning how a national, culture-specific biblical counseling certifying organization can be established in Egypt. There are many barriers, and a system very different from those with which we are familiar may need to be invented. But the fact that this kind of collaborative, quality-control ministry is even being envisioned and discussed is encouraging progress!

Tomorrow? An update on Lebanon and Jordan.

Questions for Reflection

What has been your experience in working in the Near East? How can we more effectively serve our brothers and sisters in these lands? Do you have a heart to do biblical counseling training in this region?

* I’m using the term “Near East” in a technical sense to differentiate this region from the Middle East (primarily the Arabian Peninsula) and the Far East (Asia).