I was heartbroken when a pastor told me, “The truth is that we are unable to provide the professional care that many of our members need.” Now, this wasn’t a bi-vocational pastor of a small church. This was a seasoned pastor—one of ten—in a large conservative church with thousands of members. He explained how he had contracted with a local counseling firm to provide “Christian counseling” to couples who were experiencing problems in their marriages. The pastor was convinced that the counseling center could tap into resources that were not available to him in the church.
As we spoke, all I could think about was how in the history of the church, Christians once had a whole-hearted belief in the sufficiency of the Scriptures for counseling. Yet we see in today’s culture that many believe that the Bible is inadequate; that it needs to be supplemented with something more.
Helping suffering people has been a ministry of the church since its inception. We read throughout the Scriptures how the power of the Word has helped the suffering and provided hope for those who are hurting. The early church fathers wrote in detail about the usefulness of the Scriptures to address hopelessness, problems, and suffering.
Early Church’s Dependence on Scripture
Augustine (354-430) wrote Confessions, a book that introspectively discusses Augustine’s own internal youthful struggles and the healing and salvation that God provided for him. He explained how to address wrong desires using God’s Word. St. Gregory the Great (540-604) is known for writing the earliest textbook on pastoral care. His work, Pastoral Care: The Book of Pastoral Rule, pioneered the ways in which the pastor can counsel those who are fearful, prideful and impulsive, angry, overly passive, or depressed. Pastoral Care became the dominant treatise on pastoral work for one thousand years, from 590 until the Reformation in the 16th century.1Purves, Andrew. Pastoral Theology in the Classical Tradition (Presbyterian Publishing Corporation), 56. Kindle.
There are numerous resources from the 16th and 17th centuries that show how the Puritans used the Scriptures to help people with their suffering and spiritual problems. This personal ministry of the church was considered an integral component to helping people to live a life that glorified God. Puritan pastor William Bridge’s, A Lifting Up for the Downcast, provided the pastor with wonderful instruction regarding spiritual depression, discouragement, and God’s provision through affliction and suffering. Bridge wrote, “Hoping, trusting, waiting on God, is the special, if not the only means appointed against all discouragements.”2Bridge, William. A Lifting Up for the Downcast (Titus Books), 204. Kindle.
One of the more prolific Puritan writers was John Owen. One famous work by Owen, The Mortification of Sin, speaks extensively of the need to “put to death” sin in the Christian life with the help of the Holy Spirit. Regarding counseling Owen writes, “It belongs unto men … to be ready, willing, and able, to comfort, relieve, and refresh, those that are tempted, tossed, wearied with fears and grounds of disconsolation, in times of trial and desertion.”3Packer, J I. Puritan Portraits (Christian Focus Publications) Kindle.
In A Christian Directory (1673), Puritan Richard Baxter wrote over one-million words to guide Christians, particularly inexperienced ministers, to use their knowledge and faith and provide “practical resolutions and directions on the subjects that they have need to deal in.”4Purves, Pastoral Theology in the Classical Tradition. 101.
Throughout the vast majority of church history, God’s people have understood that counseling is a ministry and a theological task. And as such, it must be based in God’s Word, the Bible.5Ibid., 21.
The Bible’s Call for You Today
Second Timothy 3:16-17 states that God’s revelation to us through the Scriptures is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. Here Paul explains that all of the revelation God provides in His Word is “breathed out” by Him; it is His personal instruction to His people so that they understand how to have a right relationship with Him and with other people. The Apostle Peter writes that God in His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness through the knowledge of Him so that we may become “partakers” of His divine nature (2 Peter 1:3).
Just a little over 150 years ago, the responsibility and jurisdiction for helping people with their problems gradually passed from the church to various medical and quasi-medical professions such as psychiatry, neurology, social work, and clinical psychology.6David Powlison, The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context (Greensboro NC: New Growth Text, 2010), 22. Sadly, many of the theories of psychiatry, clinical psychology, and social work contradict the biblical view of man, the Scriptures, the source of man’s problems, and the solutions to those problems.
It was not until 1970, more than 100 years after counseling moved from the church, that Jay Adams wrote his groundbreaking book, Competent to Counsel. In it Dr. Adams laid the foundation for the evangelical church to begin reclaiming “soul-care” from secular professionals.
The Scriptures are clear that truth is found in Jesus Christ, who is the foundation of all truth; He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). God’s truth is expressed in His Son, Jesus and all truth is found in Him… there is no other source. What God claims to be truth is what He has revealed to us in the Scriptures,7Jay E. Adams. Is All Truth God’s Truth? (Timeless Texts: Stanley SC, 2003), 2. therefore it is imperative that we make counseling a ministry of the church once again.
Pastor, I want to encourage you to acknowledge that counseling belongs in the church and we are called to counsel. Colossians 1:21 gives the pastor clear directions about the responsibility we have to teach AND counsel: “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ.” Paul reminds us again in Galatians 6:1-2, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
It may seem overwhelming, but there is no better time to start the process of bringing counseling back into your church. I realize that you may be pressed for time, or you may feel ill-equipped, but there are numerous resources readily available to help you in this endeavor. Here are a few tips that may help:
1. Biblical counseling is a mindset. As you do your daily Bible study, think as you read of someone in your congregation who is suffering and in need of hope. How will this passage help in their situation?
2. Begin reading counseling books and blogs, and listening to podcasts: ACBC offers a wonderful array of materials, including “Truth in Love,” a weekly podcast with topical advice and guidance. This podcast has great information that you can listen to in 15-minute increments. Also, take a look at the book reviews on the website in order to keep up with the latest developments in biblical counseling. It’s amazing how much you can learn about counseling by dedicating just 15 minutes a day.
3. There are ACBC certified training centers all over the world that can help you learn how to counsel biblically. If there is not one in your geographical area, ACBC offers online training. Most centers offer some training specifically geared for the pastor. This is an effective and efficient way to get the tools you need to be a good counselor. The lessons are practical and will help you grow in your ministry. It’s well worth the time and investment!
4. Find a certified biblical counselor in your geographic area who can come alongside you in this journey. They will assist in helping both you and your members to counsel one another. They can also provide counseling for members of your congregation, allowing you an opportunity to sit in and observe the process. In addition, an accredited training center can help train members of your congregation for a counseling ministry. Having trained counseling leaders in your church will alleviate a good deal of the counseling burden from you, and at the same time provide wonderful discipleship opportunities for your flock.
God has given us a wonderful gift in His Word, and a wonderful opportunity to glorify Him by caring for His people. Let’s commit to use His sufficient Word for counseling care in the church.