Religious Liberty in the Counseling Room

We are getting very close to our Annual Conference, where we will talk about Destroying Strongholds. We are also doing a Pre-Conference and this year we have chosen to focus on the topic of Legal Issues and Biblical Counseling. I never dreamed when we set out to talk about this issue at our Pre-Conference that we would be in the scenario that we are in. We plan these conferences 18 months minimum in advance, and never would I have foreseen where we are now in our country—dealing with the issues of the pandemic and so many questions that pastors have about obeying public officials, and what we should do relative to governing authorities, and the questions that arise. It is a very relevant issue. And as we approach pastors dealing with the question, “How do we handle government officials? What is the prudent thing for us to do?”

What we want to do at the Pre-Conference is narrow that a bit to talk about dealing with legal issues, dealing with the government, dealing with ruling authorities from a biblical perspective. And then also think in relation to that responsibility, under God what have we been called to do in relation to governing authorities? This question arose to me several years ago as I began to think about pastors and how pastors are dealing with the issue of soul care in the church. It seemed to me that there was this place of confusion, a place of a rift, of difficulty in some ways.

I remember being at one of my former positions and I was tasked to call several local pastors to survey them, to ask them questions about beginning a biblical counseling ministry. In this list, we called hundreds and hundreds of pastors. In calling those pastors, one of the key themes that I consistently heard from those pastors was areas of concern in opening a biblical counseling ministry. In conservative Christian theology, we have men who believe very firmly and churches who believe very firmly, in the authority and the sufficiency of the Scriptures. We see men standing weekly to preach the sufficient Word under the power of the Holy Spirit to preach powerfully and exegetically through the Scriptures, believing that it is the Scriptures that encourage, edify, and change the hearts of people. The logical conclusion to that is not only that we would believe and trust the Scriptures in a public proclamation of the Word, but also its corollary—which is to trust the Scriptures in private ministry of the Word.

As I talked to these pastors—and I would discuss that idea with them—of course, they believe that sitting in a counseling room, sitting one-on-one with somebody, that we were called still to minister the Scriptures to people who are broken, people who are hurting, people who are suffering, people who are in the ravages of sin, and so on. They believed that yes, we are responsible to do that. It makes logical sense. If we believe and trust the Scriptures in that public forum to do its work, to change hearts and lives by the power of the Spirit, then yes, that’s exactly how we should minister the Scriptures.

But the rift that I’m talking about is there was there was typically a hesitation from pastors. That hesitation was, “Well, but what do we do about the government? What are we supposed to do when there’s a question of us setting up some sort of official counseling ministry in the church. What responsibilities do we have to the government?” I began to be very curious about that particular subject, knowing that as a church we have a responsibility from a biblical perspective to care for the souls of people. That is a part of what God has mandated the church to accomplish, that we care well for people, utilizing the Word and so on. I began to do some research and study.

As I began to move into that world, I discovered historical theological positions by men like Balthasar Hubmaier, who was an Anabaptist theologian. He wrote some very wonderful essays, one of which is called On the Sword and On Baptism, where he talks specifically about the distinction between the church and the state, and the role of the church versus the role of the state, and how God has ordained and given those two entities distinct responsibilities and distinct roles in the society in which we live. Both are primarily for the purpose of the propagation of the gospel, allowing the kingdom of God to continue to flourish in the world, allowing human beings to flourish in the world.

Not just Hubmaier, but Calvin talks about this. John Calvin uses the term often “sphere sovereignty,” where he speaks of God as being the primary sovereign, and then he talks about the different entities are the different spheres (if you will). The government being one that God has ordained and established, and the government is a good thing that God has given to us. Then the church, and the church has responsibilities. Certainly, we could argue that there was confusion to some degree relative to to Calvin’s thoughts—particularly in the way in which he practiced—but we can leave that for another podcast. Then you move forward in history and you have a man, a Dutch reformer like Abraham Kuyper, who talks about this issue of sphere sovereignty very clearly. There’s a small book that he wrote called Rooted and Grounded, where he talks about this issue that the church is an organism. Then he talks about the government and their responsibilities.

And we see this clearly in the Scriptures. We see very clearly that God has ordained the government. He’s called us as individuals to submit to ruling authorities. Regardless of whether we agree with them or not we are called to submit to ruling authorities. I want to make a statement that that’s very clear at least for us that’s a guiding principle. We are called to obey the ruling authorities, not because they are worthy or not even because they are moral in their disposition. We are called to obey them because God is worthy and God has commanded us to obey. We understand very clearly that if they are asking us to do something that is sinful or that is a breach of the commands that God has given, then we are called to civil disobedience. That’s very clear. We have a higher authority. When I talk about sphere sovereignty, God is the supreme authority. It is all His authority and He delegates different aspects of authority to different institutions.

The way I would describe this is the government has a role and responsibilities that God has delegated to them. The church has a role and responsibilities that God has delegated to them. Then I would also argue that the family is another institution that God has delegated, given certain authority and responsibility to them as well. For our discussion, we would narrow in on the two institutions the government and the church. God has given them a stewardship. Here’s the thing we can remember: Because this authority is delegated, it’s not inherent, which means that any authority that a ruling official tries to employ they will give an account to God for how they steward that type of authority.

Now, let’s get back to the point. The primary point that was concerning for me is I’m seeing in our country, in America, I’m seeing certainly an encroachment upon religious liberties broadly speaking, you know when we talk about the issues of redefining marriage. We’re seeing Christian morality squelched at the legislative level. With the Supreme Court decision with Obergefell, we’re seeing the idea of sexuality and marriages changed in our country. We’re seeing the trickle-down effect of that. If you take historically, you look at the Masterpiece Cake Shop, or you look at the Hobby Lobby and their religious liberties, or we could talk about the Little Sisters of the Poor—the Supreme Court case that has been prominent in our country in recent days. This is just a small sampling of how we’re seeing religious liberty challenged.

I would venture to say that the pandemic has brought this discussion even more forward, when we think about churches being required not to meet, or asked not to meet, or whatever the various restrictions are around the country. My point is that we’re seeing this issue come to the forefront.

One of the things that’s inconspicuous to many is the idea that I feel like we are going to be pressured in so many ways, where religious liberty is going to be an issue in the counseling room. And you say, “Well, why?” This is a big enough issue to me that I wanted us to do a Pre-Conference about it because I wanted churches to be able to think through this issue and not to be hindered and paralyzed by what they perceive and what they fear from the government as far as restrictions in counseling.

When you take the shape of counseling the way it sort of unfolded in the last 80 or 90 years, what we’ve seen is the development of licensed professional counseling. With that, I understand the government needed to regulate. Otherwise, you would have all sorts of mystical, crazy views about counseling about people, about theories and therapies. You have to understand that that what was growing in the 40s, 50s, and 60s in our country relative to psychological theories was massive to where we were seeing hundreds and hundreds of different approaches. The government steps in, because it’s a part of their role and responsibility to sort of keep order and peace so that their people aren’t deceived and that sort of thing, and they began to build a regulating arm. We see that through a group called CACREP. In the 70s, this group arose, the government endorsed it, and they began to regulate the education of those preparing to do counseling of some sort.

This is distinct. This is secular counseling. I’m not talking about the church, particularly. In the late 70s, we began to see regulations form at the state level. Not the federal level. We began to see at the state level regulations in state statutes that were built upon codes of ethics that would affirm those who had been recognized as getting the right and proper education. They would be licensed to do a certain thing, a certain type of therapy or whatever, and then they would have to uphold those types of regulations which were done by the state.

The interesting thing about that is as integration began to grow in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, we began to see churches now voluntarily subverting some of their counseling proposals under the auspice of the state. You have well-meaning Christians who want to help people, but they’re following the normal pattern of the secular world.

They’re getting education, becoming regulated, and regulated by the authority of the state. Do you see how we’re working toward the potential of a difficult crossroad? The difficult crossroad is now what’s become commonplace and patterned is we voluntarily, often, submit ourselves to the state, as regulated by the state, under the authority of the state, to do a certain type of counseling. This is a part of what we see in in the integration world.

This is my point of caution for churches is now churches believe in so many ways that any type of counseling that has to be done, therefore then must be regulated by the state. We have to be cautious here because so many pastors fear that if they begin a counseling ministry, they will be under the auspice of the state. They will be regulated by the state, and we don’t want the state involved in matters of worship, in matters of the freedom of our conscience, and so on and so forth. One of the things that we to try and do is to help people to understand the freedom that we have of worship in our churches, and the command from God that we have to provide this type of soul care from the Scriptures, and not to fall into the secular pattern where we feel like we have to be regulated by the state and meet all of their demands relative to discipleship, relative to worship, relative to soul care.

In this conference, one of the things that we want to do is to help you to think through all of these processes, particularly as it relates to counseling. That is a major issue. You do need to be wise in the way in which you fill out your forms. Make sure your forms have proper information. Make sure you’re covering all of your bases, relative to what you’re claiming to be and to do. You’re not claiming to do something that should be or ought to be regulated by the state.

We want to make you as pastors, as church leaders, as lay people aware of those things—in part because I don’t want you to be paralyzed as church leaders to do the things that God has called you to do. For example, being able to preach the Word consistently, being able to sit in a room one-on-one with people and minister the Word in a counseling manner. I think it’s that important that we not be hindered by our fear of governmental intrusion, but we be aware, that we be wise as serpents, but gentle as doves, that we hold and maintain the posture of obedience toward ruling officials, but not cave in and be paralyzed to where we can’t do the work that God has called us to do of the ministry when we engage in the brokenness of the lives of people. One of the things that I fear happening is that we would as a church—even in a well-meaning fashion—that we would move in the direction of being so fearful of the intrusion of the government in this particular area, that it would move us in a direction of either ceasing to do this type of personal, one-on-one ministry or never inviting this type of personal, one-on-one ministry into our churches.

I think that’s sad because what happens then is now all of these institutions outside of the church become the primary places that people look for help and hope, for the care of their souls, when I believe the church ought to be the priority. It ought to be the place of first importance in relation to caring for the souls of people. People ought to have an understanding that the church, whenever I have difficulty, is the first place that I need to go to meet with God, to understand who God is, and to have peace for my soul.

We want to encourage you to be a part of this Pre-Conference. We are going to have several legal minds that are going to walk us through some very important questions that I know you as pastors and use church leaders are asking. So many questions, like, “What am I supposed to do in relation to the government about this? Where am I free to meet as it relates to issues of the pandemic? How do I interact with the government on things just like that?”

I want to encourage you to join us. We’re going to have some great legal minds who also believe in the ministry of soul care and biblical counseling, and some of these men and women have already helped so many churches walk through this process of being able to set up counseling ministry and to put documents in place as it relates to their individual state, and help to protect them so they’re not claiming something that would force the state to regulate them, but to free them to do this important, necessary work of the ministry.

I know that so many of you are asking these same types of questions. You felt the pressure, and even if you didn’t feel the pressure of legal issues before the pandemic, you certainly have felt those questions now. They have been very prominent—pastor, church leader—in your thinking.

I want to encourage you to join us. There are some wise legal minds to help us out and they are going to give us some wonderful wisdom on how the church has to think through this, to maintain a posture of honor toward the ruling officials as the Bible calls us to and to be free to worship the God of the Scriptures and to obey His clear commands.

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