Biblical Counseling: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Transcript)

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Justin Perdue: Today on Theocast, we talk about biblical counseling. We have a conversation about some of the downfalls of the biblical counseling movement, in particular its tendencies toward patriotism and hyper introspection. Then we consider how counseling can be done from a confessional and Christ-centered perspective. We consider how things like counseling centers can be used well for outreach so that people can hear the gospel and they can also be used to funnel people to the local church, which is the real place where counseling and ongoing soul care occurs.

Then in the member’s podcast, we talk a little bit about our particular areas and our visions for these kinds of things. Even stuff that’s already going on in the cities where we’re located. Then we talk a bit about sanctification in the church and how a perspective that emphasizes and obsesses on sanctification actually hinders our ongoing Christian life and our growth in the faith. We hope the conversation is helpful, clarifying, and encouraging for you.

Stay tuned.

Jon Moffitt: The subject for today is one that is very near and dear to my own heart. It is something that has plugged me in the past with dealing with the Christian life. We’re going to talk about the movement of what we call biblical counseling.

We had the longest conversation I think we’ve ever had prior to our podcast this morning. This is not a deconstructionist episode where we only here just to pull apart everything that we find wrong. But there are some areas where we want to help the church think through the role of counseling from the Bible from a confessional, biblical perspective.

There are a lot of movements out there and some of them are helpful and a lot of them are not. This is where we’re going to try and explain to you why we think that they can be actually more damaging than maybe helpful. All three of us have had positive experiences when it comes to biblical counseling and some of us have had horrible experiences when it comes Just by way of starting, when we say biblical counseling, it is giving someone directive to their life. Normally you don’t go into counseling unless there is a problem, right? You have some kind of problem that you need to be directed in that you cannot find that directive on your own. So that’s why people go to counseling. That’s pretty obvious, right?

Then we put the word biblical in front of it. So you’re not just getting secular idealism where it’s human behaviorism. What you’re looking for is to receive counsel from a power that’s above you, that comes from a trusted source that you know is true. A lot of counseling is theory. So in theory, this’ll work to help your marriage get better. In theory, this could help. Because it’s not necessarily founded upon rock solid, you can’t just stamp it and say this absolutely will work. When it comes to the word of God, biblical counseling is trusting its source with Scripture so you’re going to the word of God to say, these are truths that we know that we can absolutely trust because there are founded upon the inerrant word of God. That’s the background behind biblical counseling.

The unfortunate side of biblical counseling, which is what we want to talk about in the beginning, and then we’re going to move to how we think you should perceive and use counseling or if you want to call it biblical counseling, is we have people who walk into biblical counseling centers typically with a sin issue or something that’s been done to them. So they’re not necessarily in sin, but they are battling the sin of someone else, or they’re battling depression that may not even be a sin issue.

What they’re handed is not necessarily biblical truth. What they’re handed is behaviorism and therapy. The solutions that are provided to them – if you do this and you do this, then your behavior will change – that’s behaviorism. So they’re trying to improve your moral behavior and they’re going to use Scripture either as proof that you need to improve your moral behavior or as motivation.

When I was in seminary, the first verse that you took people to was Proverbs where it says, “the way of the sinner is hard.” The first thing we tend to say in motivating people is that the longer they stay in sin, the harder it will be. We immediately go negative because you don’t want them to stay in sin.

So you begin to have them question, “Do you truly love God? Do you want to get this?” And unfortunately you start messing with their assurance. In the model that I was taught, and then it was basically, “Do these things, read your Bible more, pray more, read these books, discipline yourself, and that’s going to improve your behavior.”

So that’s where we’re going to start. I know that we have quite a few things to add here. Justin, what are you some of your thoughts on this?

Justin Perdue: I want to pick up on some of the things that you’ve said and frame it in my own way to depict the kind of understanding of biblical counseling that we would not advocate. Biblical counseling is a very broad term, and not everybody needs the same thing when they use the phrase. It’s important for us to understand at least a little bit in terms of where some of this comes from. In the 1970s and 1980s, the church looked at the secular – for lack of a better way to describe it – the secular therapeutic model. The church looked at that and thought we could actually do that better than the world does it because we have Scripture and we have the Holy Spirit. What ended up happening, interestingly enough, is there began to be a perspective and a methodology that resulted that were effectively a cognitive behaviorism in the church with a Christian label slapped on it. When we say cognitive behavior, we mean you can change somebody’s thinking and recalibrate somebody’s thinking. In this case, according to Scripture, then you can change their behavior. That becomes the entire goal and project of the approach and it becomes the modus operandi that drives everything – that we need to transform behavior by changing and recalibrating thinking.

If we’re not careful, we end up turning the Bible into something that it really is not. We turn the Bible into essentially a handbook for mental and emotional health. That’s not at all. The Scripture is an account of redemptive history. It’s God’s plan of redemption accomplished through Christ that unfolds through time and space in history. It’s not some sort of handbook for your life. We turn the Bible into a kind of medicine cabinet where we go to it, depending on the problem, to find the solution, the cure, or the elixir that’s going to make this better. “You’re depressed – here are your verses for that. You’re struggling with lust -here are your verses for that. Maybe it’s anger – here are your verses for that. If you take these verses and you call me next Tuesday, I’m sure you’re going to be doing much better.” That’s an unhelpful perspective that is often sadly common in biblical counseling today.

So the kind of things that we want to talk about and really discourage is this approach to counseling that is focused almost exclusively on transforming behavior. Whereas what we want to point people to is something very different. We want to use Scripture the way that we think it should be used. We want to talk about counseling really as a subset of the Christian life in the church and point people to a more corporate reality, and what we think is more in line with not only the Bible’s revelation, but also what we would understand to be a confessional and reformed perspective on Christian life and theology.

Jimmy Buehler: One of the things that I’ve noticed over the years, primarily in myself as well as in those around me, is that we as people are very much pain averse. We don’t want to experience pain, whether it be on a physical, emotional, or spiritual level. A lot of what that can lead to are quick fixes; a behavior modification approach offers that – it gives people that quick fix that as long as I can rid myself of this behavior, I’m going to feel better tomorrow.

It’s almost like eating junk food – it feels really good in that moment, and it’s even satisfying, but the issue is once that hunger comes back or once that feeling comes down, you can almost feel worse than you did before. Because when you’re aiming at primarily a behavior modification approach and that behavior returns, your lows become all the more lower because something that you were trying to rid yourself of has returned with a vengeance. It can turn the sinner more in on themselves and make them feel worse than they did

Jon Moffitt: I think that’s exactly what the issue with the biblical counseling is: it’s introspective mostly. To be clear, and it’s just a backup to what Justin is saying, we’re not taking a nuke to biblical counseling, but I’m definitely going to take a nuke to anything that is not going to help the believer truly find rest, just as I would to any church or preaching model. My biggest beef is that the believer cannot find rest in Christ in the midst of struggling with sin and their own depravity when they’re turned in on themselves.

Most biblical counseling is a quick fix in that these are the things you can do to overcome these sins. And as you do that, you’re pointed into yourself, which is a direct opposition to Colossians 2. The danger of most biblical counseling is introspective or here ‘s-how-you-fix-you.

Justin Perdue: Exactly. An introspective by definition is positivistic – that’s what we talk about all the time on Theocast. If we wanted to boil this down, what we are aiming at today, or what we have in our crosshairs today is what we might call biblical counseling that we find to be completely unhelpful versus what we’re going to offer as a more confessional perspective on counseling. A pietistic perspective on counseling is everything that you’ve said, Jon, it’s introspective. It’s pointing the Christian back in on him or herself. It’s pointing the Christian to his or her performance, obedience, or disciplines, and will honestly point the Christian to those things as the method to overcome said struggle. Now, of course there is acknowledgment of God and the Holy Spirit and grace and all these things, but really where the rubber meets the road is, “Are you going to be diligent enough and vigilant enough? And are you going to be disciplined enough in your application of these things in order to see yourself delivered?” That’s problematic from our perspective on a number of levels. We do believe in the transformation of life, but we understand that to be something that the Holy Spirit of God does over the course of a long time. As ordinary means, ministry is applied – something that we’ll get to in just a minute.

Jon Moffitt: One of the things we need to think about is helping the church recalibrate themselves when it comes to problems. Someone contacted our church through Facebook asking for counseling. That’s how they view the church: the church is there, fix my problems and my issues.

Even those who are in the church who find themselves really trapped in sin, their solution is that they need counseling. They think they need to meet with somebody for 6-10 weeks in order to walk them through what they’re going through. The issue with this is that it is not how the church handled sin and struggles with sin historically, and even biblically. When we look at Paul, he didn’t have a therapeutic model set in place. That’s just not how he described the church growing with sin. What that sounds like is you have a problem separated outside of the church when really you have a problem inside the church.

Jimmy Buehler: I do want to give a positive take on this because as somebody who has received counseling at a professional level, I had a positive experience with counseling.

Let me explain what was positive about that experience. One, I wasn’t divorced from the local church, and so I was active in the church. I was actively receiving help from trusted sources within that church. I was open with the things that I was struggling with because my issues, in my own opinion and in others’ opinions, were just very complex.

The counseling that I received was in addition to the care I was already receiving at my local church. So my counseling experience, I was telling you guys before we started recording, was actually a vital step in my journey towards greater Reformation Theology. Here is why. My counselor was very fixed not on applying Scripture verses out of context – he was more so fixed on helping me focus on the objective and declarative realities of the gospel in my life and getting me out of this introspective, morbid navel gazing posture that I had built over time, very much like a puritanical approach to the Christian life. He was very good and skilled at pulling me out of myself and helping me to fix my eyes upon Christ, regardless of the sin that was weighing me down in my life so much. My counselor was very much helpful at pointing me to the outside-of-myself realities. So we want to be clear, and I know we’ve said this already, that we are not saying that there is no time and there is no space for counseling at any level. What we’re trying to say is that helpful counseling is pointing the sinner, the struggler, and the weary saint outside of themselves and onto Jesus.

Justin Perdue: Agreed. Jimmy, I think it’s helpful for a counselor to look at somebody and tell him or her, “Okay, you’ve come to me to meet with me because you have this struggle or this problem in your life.”

Let me tell you that you may very well struggle with this for the rest of your days. So if your approaching this is, “Let me go get counseling and I’ll be better. Let me go get counseling and I’ll be fixed,” I don’t think that this is for you. But in coming to counseling, the goal would be that the counselor is a tool that the Lord uses to point the Christian to Christ, and to point the Christian outside of him or herself to the objective realities of the gospel and what Jesus has done for them.

Jimmy’s experience was a good one because he had a counselor who pointed him outside of himself, and because his counselor was caring for him in conjunction with the care that he was receiving in his local church. Those are two critical pieces that I know all three of us would advocate. We want the objective realities and the confessional realities of the faith held out to people in counseling, and it must be done in the context of the local church and in conjunction with the local church, even if we’re seeking counseling outside of the elders of our church.

What we want to see is that when anybody is going to get biblical counseling outside of the church, that counseling entity is funneling people back into the local church for their ongoing care, and for the ongoing practice of just living the Christian life. The counseling center is not the entity that’s going to do the heavy lifting and the sustaining work for this person in their following of Jesus. The local church is going to do that. And that’s a critical piece here.

A quick shout out to an entity here in our city that one of our members has started – the Restoration Counseling Center of Asheville – which is seeking to do this very same work in not only pointing people to Jesus, but also pointing people to the local church in terms of what they need in an ongoing basis to live the Christian life.

The counseling piece in and of itself is at best a supplemental aspect. It is not going to be the thing that’s going to do it. Those two pieces are what’s missing, sadly, for so many people. You’re pointing people in on themselves – that’s unhelpful. And you’re acting like the counselor. The counseling center is going to be the instrument that the Lord is going to use, and I think it’s going to be the local church, if we look at the New Testament.

Jon Moffitt: I couldn’t agree more. There are great counseling ministries out there. I had a good conversation with somebody last night that was trying to start a podcast. We were talking through counseling and biblical counseling and I’m excited for their podcasts and their ministry. We need more people who are willing to get down in the mire with people and love on them, funnel them out of the community who are not in church, and use counseling to funnel into an ordinary means context. Most Christians don’t know what ordinary means context looks like to where you strive, struggle, and love underneath the means that God has provided – that is His word, fellowship, the sacraments, and baptism. Once you learn to live in that context, it changes how you see your struggles and what you need counseling for.

Now there are times when the Bible is very clear that if you get engulfed in sin that you’re not coming out of it, you need to sit down with someone who is wise, and confess these problems so that they can speak into your life and say, “Hey, this is why you continue to struggle in these areas. Let me give you some counsel here.”

There are some extreme examples that I’ve personally been involved in where I have admitted a person into a hospital. They were so psychologically messed up that they could not even have a logical conversation with me and the fellow elder I was with. I have a smaller church now, so this is at a former church. We had to admit them and they were there for two weeks. We couldn’t even have a logical conversation. They were meeting with psychologists to try and figure out what was going on. He had fallen into such a deep depression that he couldn’t even have a logical conversation.

So I need to be very clear here that I am not opposing psychology on certain levels. There is a lot of horrible stuff that is out there. I’ve also had sexual cases we’re some of the stuff that they are dealing with, I can’t even give biblical church-driven counsel to because we can’t even have a normal conversation until we’ve been able to regain some ground on a level that I am not trained in. We’re not talking about a spiritual level right now – we’re talking at a physical level.

I grew up in a biblical counseling world where any type of psychology or any type of medication was unbiblical, and you need to get off of it and stay away from it because it hinders the work of the Holy Spirit. I’m just not there. I would heartily push back against that, which we did in our depression episode.

Jimmy Buehler: There is also the other side of this coin where people can hear us and think that what we’re saying is you don’t need to ever seek professional help; you only need the local church. That is not what we are saying. There is a healthy marriage that needs to occur.

Let’s go to the other extreme – what about those who would say the Bible is sufficient? I believe it’s 2 Peter 1 – Peter’s introduction. “God has given us all things that pertain to life and godliness.” And then you also have Paul’s letters to Timothy where he talks about the sufficiency of Scripture. And you can go on the other extreme where people can say you don’t need any sort of professional care because the Bible is sufficient for all of the complex realities and emotions and psychological things that you are facing.

Justin Perdue: The three of us agree that the Bible is sufficient for all matters of faith and practice. We believe that but we need to be clear about what we understand the sufficiency of Scripture to mean and be so. The way that we use Scripture in this conversation is critical. If we misuse the Bible and turn it into something that it isn’t, we really do damage to people. I alluded to this a little bit earlier – whenever we view the Bible in its sufficiency as some sort of medicine cabinet or as some sort of handbook for mental and emotional health, that’s bad. What we need to do with Scripture is to understand what it’s about.

We talk all the time about the redemptive-historical framework of the Bible, that it’s about redemption accomplished through Christ. It’s about God’s utter faithfulness to us in spite of our faithlessness to Him. That’s what we use Scripture for. Whenever we take people to Scripture, we’re pointing them over and over again to the utter faithfulness of God in the face of their suffering. We’re pointing them over and over again to the perfect, sufficient, adequate work of Jesus Christ that stands outside of them, that’s unshakable and unmovable in spite of their sin and struggle and failure. That’s the main application of the Bible when it comes to any kind of counseling, right?

So of course the Scripture is sufficient. But then how does change in the Christian life happen? It happens over the course of a long time and it happens at different rates at different times for different people. So we have to be very clear about all of that stuff. It’s going to happen in the context of the local church through the ordinary means over the course of years and decades. It’s when people take their eyes off of their own navel, put their gaze on Christ, and concern themselves with loving their brothers and sisters that real growth and transformation happen. That’s what we’re really trying to do in counseling – liberate people with the truth of the gospel with this kind of change and perspective that will then set them free to trust Christ even in the midst of their struggle and battle with sin.

Jimmy Buehler: We harp this phrase all the time. We are always talking about what it means to live status forward. When people are coming to receive care, when people are coming to find balm for their soul, we’re reminding them of what God says in His gospel that they are declared righteous by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone. These realities exist extra nos or outside of themselves. That’s where we’re pointing people.

I want to give a small illustration. We are in this place right now with our children where we are finally getting out of diapers. If you were to talk to me three or four years ago where all three of them were experiencing going to the bathroom in various ways and fashions, we were so inundated with those things that it was hard to look beyond that. Justin, when you talk about kind of keeping your head down, keeping your eyes upon Christ, and just allowing God’s goodness and kindness and sovereignty to inundate our lives over the course of years and decades, it’s similar when it comes to the little years with your children – they will come to an end. You will not be dominated by diapers and nap schedule for the rest of your life. But in that moment, those words of comfort may not feel good because it’s all you can see, but it will come to an end.

Similarly, when we are talking about walking with people in their sin as, as they struggle with their own frame, flesh, and the different things that have happened to them, we have to have a certain level of patience. These people may be walking through these things over years and decades and we say, “You need to drop the sin now. And if you don’t drop this sin now, it’s saying something about the greater state of your heart.” Let’s just be a little bit more patient with people as they struggle. I just wanted to throw that in there.

Justin Perdue: To be able to believe in the sufficiency of Scripture does not mean that we jettison and abandoned common grace means that God has given us. We uphold both that Scripture is sufficient for what it was intended to be sufficient for, and at the same time, God has made us in His image with the ability to develop common grace means that are helpful to people. That would include wisdom that exists in the world that God has made. It would include even medication in some cases. Jon, you referenced this already. There are certain instances where people have real medical problems that need to be addressed medically. If we’re going to really be of much help to people, just like we don’t try to reason or counsel the alcoholic when he’s drunk or the addict when he’s high, we wouldn’t want to try to do but so much work with somebody that has in the throes of a real medical issue. Sometimes the best thing we can do is point people to a medical professional and then resume the work of ongoing care. That’s just a commonsense observation, but it matters.

Jon Moffitt: I’ll speak to that on a different level, maybe a negative level in that I’ve had people come to my church and assuming that as their pastor, I’m going to be their new counselor. They have these ongoing meetings with me, and what I’m doing is pushing them back into the context of the church because they don’t have any life-threatening issues. It’s like saying, “Look, you’re struggling like the rest of us. And the solution is to learn how to function as a body member.” But usually that’s not what they want. They want a personal relationship with me that is an ongoing therapeutic ride – I meet with them, listen to them, and then give them something to work on. And I will say, “Look, I gave you something to work on. You don’t want to do it. We’re not going to go on and on.”

On a word count basis, how much does the Bible say about marriage and parenting? You can count maybe five verses, and now you can apply all verses that speak to your neighbor because your wife is your first neighbor. Your kids are your neighbors. So all of those verses apply. But when it comes down to marital advice or even sexual advice, that’s just not there. There’s not a lot. And where there can be men who have a lot of commonsense instruction and… What I’m finding is that guys that are in their twenties and thirties getting married today lack common sense when it comes to how to care for your wife. Forget biblical counseling. I’m just talking about common sense in how you take care of someone you’re married to.

Justin Perdue: If you need me to open Proverbs to convince you that what you’re doing right now is foolish, then we’ve got another conversation.

Jimmy Buehler: What about all those sermon series on marriage and parenting?

Jon Moffitt: I have books that I recommend on marriage and parenting. Then people will say, “Why can’t you just show me from the Bible?” The Bible does not contain, for instance, knowledge and wisdom on how to buy a house. I’m not going to go to Scripture other than to make sure you’re not one, buying a house you can’t afford, and two, you’re not doing this out of envy. But after that, you need to talk about budgeting. You need to talk about the market. You need to talk about loans. That’s not going to be in the Bible. That’s counseling. You’re going to need to go get from like a real estate agent or somebody that does exactly does this for a living.

Justin Perdue: Marriage is a great example where parenting too, if you were to only go to the passages in Scripture that exclusively mentioned marriage or parenting, you would miss 99.9% of what the Scripture actually says to you that’s going to be relevant for your marriage or for your parenting. Because the vast majority are high-level truths of the gospel: the work of Christ, the reality of who you are in Adam and what it looks like to love neighbor.

I preached a four-part series sermon a couple of years ago at CBC, and I was very clear from the outset that I will not be looking at any of the typical marriage texts. First of all, they’re often abused and ripped out of context. What the Bible says to this reality has more to do with who you are, your struggles as a sinner, and the sufficiency of Christ and his work in the gospel than it has to do with anything else.

Let’s just talk about common sense about how we struggle with each other because we’re sinners. That’s really how we counsel. It doesn’t matter what the subject matter is. That’s how we use Scripture. We use Scripture as it was intended to be used.

Jon Moffitt: We’re going to move over to our members’ podcast and before we do, I want to tee it up here. We’ve done a lot of deconstruction, and done a little bit of reconstruction here. What I would love for us to do is see how biblical counseling or counseling in general can be a wonderful outreach into your community. It’s something that I personally am starting to do now. I have a lot of people who grew up in the South, who grew up around Christianity, and they blow up their life for marriage or parenting. Then they say, “Well, now I need counseling.” I would love to give some wise counsel to those people and say that what you really need is soul care. Let me show you what that looks like. We’ll speak to that a little bit in the members’ podcast.

Then we’re going to also just talk about how we need to learn to be counselors as body members. Let’s just forget the word counseling because it has this weird psychological connection to a one-on-one basis, but every person in the body is responsible for the soul care of each other.

Let’s put biblical counseling in the proper perspective. Where actual growth and maintenance should happen is back in on the church. We’ll speak to that on a more practical level in the members’ podcasts. So gentlemen, unless you have any parting shots, we’re going to go ahead and move over there.

We want to thank you for listening. If you’re new to Theocast, you can go to our website Theocast.org. We actually have a new podcast called Ask Theocast. If you are a member or want to join our membership, you now have access to all of our podcasts on your favorite podcast app. We have a new program that we’re working with where you can download our weekly premium podcast, which is our members’ podcasts, and all 300-plus back episodes right on your phones. For those of you that are tired of logging into the website to try and find an episode, you don’t have to do that anymore. You can have it right there on your phone.

Thank you for all of those monthly supporters. This is what makes us available.

We should also have a new book available, if not by now, on assurance. We are excited for that. It’s a primer; we’re starting a primer series, so that’s the next book in our primer series on assurance.

If you want to learn more about all of that, you can go to Theocast.org. Gentlemen. We’ll see you in a few minutes.

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