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The Nature of Biblical Counseling

Dale Johnson: This week I am joined once again by my friend Dr. Sam Stephens, who is the Director of Training Center Certification here at ACBC. He’s also a faculty member at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. I’m delighted that he’s here again with me. We have some semi-exciting news Sam, to talk about today. We’ve been working on proposals for books and that sort of thing. One of the things that’s come out of that is a definition of biblical counseling.

We understand as we talk about definitions that they are important, but when you write something down on paper, it’s always easy for it to be scrutinized. That’s okay because we’re not perfect. We’re going to put something out there as a definition. We do think it’s important that we clearly define what we mean when we’re describing biblical counseling.

We’ve made an attempt to do that and what I’d like for us to do, Sam, is to talk through that definition over the next several podcasts that we do together. It’s important that we define our terms, we define what we mean. Those things are helpful. Those things do become exclusionary, but for a good purpose because we’re defining what we mean, and we’re not unnecessarily excluding anyone or anything, but we’re trying to say, “This is what we mean when we use this definition.” There’s nothing in the world wrong with that.

Not all forms of counseling—not even all forms of Christian counseling—would fall under this definition, and that’s okay. We would just say clearly that falls into a different camp. We can be your friend and have lunch, but when we use the term “biblical counseling” we’re talking about something quite different.

First, I’ll go ahead and read the definition, and then I want us to walk through that, Sam. We’ve had a ton of questions come in about different types of therapies, asking things like, “How do we think about these things? Should these types of methods and techniques be utilized in biblical counseling?” Before we jump into that—which we’re going to do in subsequent podcasts—I want us to give a definition first because I think helps to build a paradigm. It helps to state clearly what boundaries we’re thinking through that help us to evaluate. We’re not just off the cuff trying to evaluate different theories. We’re trying to do that from a set standard.

You’ll see the definition is a little long. What we tried to do is build an idea of what is biblical counseling, why we do biblical counseling, and then also how—the function of it, the method of it. The definition is:

Biblical counseling is the personal discipleship ministry of God’s people to others under the oversight of God’s church, dependent upon the authority and sufficiency of God’s Word through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Biblical counseling is the personal discipleship ministry of God’s people to others under the oversight of God’s church, dependent upon the authority and sufficiency of God’s Word through the work of the Holy Spirit. Biblical counseling seeks to reorient disordered desires, affections, and behaviors toward a God-designed anthropology in an effort to restore true worship of God and right fellowship with others. This is accomplished by speaking the truth in love and applying Scripture to the need of the moment by comforting the suffering and calling sinners to repentance thus working to make them mature as they abide in Jesus Christ.

We’ve tried to put together a definition of how we think about biblical counseling. Now I want to take that first section and break up the bits and pieces to give meaning to what we are trying to say, and give understanding to the different phrases so that we’re clear on what we mean.

The first part of that is: Biblical counseling is the personal discipleship ministry of God’s people. When we say that, what are some of the things that we’re talking about? And what are we not talking about?

Sam Stephens: One thing we are talking about is the connection between biblical counseling and the ministry of the church. I’ve studied a lot about pastoral counseling in the protestant church over the last 100 years, and you don’t see discipleship at all as a description, characteristic of that approach. Mainly because there’s the use of these secular therapies and psychotherapies in relation to religion. But what we want to do here is make it very clear that discipleship itself—the very focus of discipleship—is a recognition that there’s a clear distinction between who God is and who we are as His servants.

This really is a very fundamental aspect of biblical counseling that I think also makes it distinct from other approaches to therapy and counseling. We are not God. God is God, and Jesus Himself gave us those distinctions as well. Setting that up is very important.

Dale Johnson: When we think about personal discipleship ministry, it’s intended to be done typically when an acute situation arises. It’s done often in a one-on-one or maybe even a small group setting, where we’re trying to help people to grow to maturity. It is intentional discipleship.

This is different. What we are not saying is the incorporation of all the psychotherapeutic models, which try to do self-improvement. Following Jesus is not self-improvement. We have to make that distinction clear. When we talk about personal discipleship, I’m hearing the call of Jesus in Luke 9:23, where He says, “If anyone wishes to be my disciple, he must deny himself take up his cross and follow me.”

When we talk about biblical counseling it is personal discipleship, which means we’re teaching people to follow Jesus, to deny ourselves, to turn from our wicked ways, to turn from our poor habits. We have to turn away from those things that are weighing us down, that are not allowing us to live full lives of true worship before God.

We are engaging in discipleship ministry and we believe very clearly that this is what restores the soul as the Scriptures talk about in Psalm 19:7. It is an intentional personal discipleship ministry. It’s not a therapeutic approach where we’re borrowing from all of these other avenues that lead to some sort of self-improvement. Jesus is not some sort of cosmic psychologist, where we just utilize Him as one among many options for our own self-aggrandizement or for our own self-fulfillment.

We have to learn to distinguish what we mean when we say biblical counseling. It is a difficult call. That’s why when Peter is talking to Jesus and he asks, “Do you really mean ‘eat my flesh and drink my blood’?” Jesus replies, “Yes, Peter. That’s right. And are you going to follow all those other guys?” Peter’s reply is, “No, you’re the only one who has the words of eternal life.”

It’s that kind of call that we’re making in biblical counseling, and it’s not simple. It’s not easy. That’s the first part: It’s personal discipleship. And I think that’s a helpful, positive aspect of what we’re describing, but then also it does describe some exclusions there as well.

The second part of that is: Ministry to God’s people, under the oversight of God’s church. I think this is a critical distinction that should be made, particularly as you mentioned in the last 150 years, where we’ve seen professional-style counseling emerge. Talk for a second about what we mean when we are describing the oversight of God’s church.

Sam Stephens: Another distinction between biblical counseling and the other counseling theories of the world is that biblical counseling sets up a God-oriented worldview. Anyone who’s talked to me knows this is something I emphasize all the time. What I call the therapeutic worldview, which is established in this idea of self-help, it is very much focused on the here-and-now, and any kind of eternal concept is either non-existent or it’s made up in the individual’s mind—whatever that may look like. The God-oriented worldview places an eternal perspective that the Bible provides to us—what eternity looks like, our responsibility before God the Creator, and our roles as the creations to worship Him.

Of all of the institutions that God has graciously given us—think about marriage, the government, and the church—only one of those is seen gathered around the throne in Revelation, and that is the church triumphant. The church is the eternal institution that God has given to us. He saw it fit to be the context in which we see growth and maturity and faithfulness abound. That’s why a biblical counseling belongs specifically in specially in the context of the church.

That is where sinners and saints are confronted with the gospel in the public preaching of the Word. And we mentioned this earlier too as we talked about discipleship as the personal ministry of the Word. We see that as a natural companion to the public preaching of the Word, the same purposes are there.

Dale Johnson: When we describe under the oversight and authority of God’s church all we’re simply saying is that the Bible makes very clear the institution that He has designed to have oversight for the care of souls. He’s done that in description, particularly in the New Testament, that He’s given the responsibility to Jesus who is the head, and those who would hold the offices to take care of the people of God through the means that He gives us in the New Testament Church, whether that be preaching, the one anothering that we described in the New Testament. All those things are intended to be done under the oversight of the church, under the legitimate authority.

A part of that distinction is we are not saying that biblical counseling is open to be under the oversight of any other entity—particularly the government. When we think about Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs), we have several people who are certified through ACBC and they are able to enjoy biblical counseling in some form or fashion. However, we have to be very cautious when we think about who is the authority that’s governing the way we counsel. Is it a godly worldview, which is driven by the Scriptures, or is it state statutes that have a very humanistic morality that they’re pushing? Is it a standard that you would have to be upheld to? What we’re describing is that biblical counseling needs to be done under the oversight of God’s church, and not under the oversight of the government or any other entity because God has given the role and responsibility to His church to accomplish this task for those who are broken. That’s the distinction.

For the next part that we describe in the definition of biblical counseling,  we wanted to use some language that was clear, but we wanted to put full weight to say that if the Bible doesn’t exist, we have no tasks. We have no job and we have no means to do it. This next phrase is that biblical counseling is dependent upon the authority and sufficiency of God’s Word. What we do in biblical counseling is absolutely and utterly dependent upon what the Scripture says, in authority and sufficiency. Both of those things are two sides of the same coin—if one goes the other goes with it. We believe the Scripture to be authoritative in everything that it says, we also believe that God has been gracious to us to give us everything that we need for life and for godliness—that it is fully sufficient and equips us for every single good work.

That’s a part of what we mean. Describe a little bit more, Sam, on what we mean when we say we are dependent upon the authority and sufficiency of God’s Word.

Sam Stephens: I think sufficiency has been misunderstood by many people, and it’s become a catchphrase that maybe some people say, but there’s become an authority vacuum and what’s taking the place of the Bible in many areas—both in the church and maybe even outside too—is pragmatism.

Pragmatism fills the spot for most people and this is inside the church, unfortunately as well. What we’re saying when it comes down to the the sufficiency of God’s Word is that—just as you said—it speaks to the fact that God, who is the creator of human beings, wrote the book. What other text can we go to? What other source of knowledge can we go to as human beings other than the Bible that can speak to the very nature of who we are as people?

That’s what I keep coming back to—no person can write a clearer text that would outline the problems that I face, the origin of those problems, and much more the solution to those problems than the One who created us, that being God.

Dale Johnson: That’s right. This section is intended to sort of fence in, if you will, what we’re saying is the authority and then what we’re saying are not the authorities. Our culture right now is driven in a thousand different directions with voices trying to gain authority in one area or another. We have to be cautious to say those things may have knowledge, present knowledge of some sort, but they do not trump the authority that comes from the Scripture.

We have to be cautious and careful not to abdicate that authority into some other area, particularly with all the social ills that we have right now. We have to be dependent upon the Word to help us interpret what’s going on and how to clearly think about those things.

The final piece of the definition that we want to talk about today describes the “what,” the essence, the nature of biblical counseling. That is we believe that this has to be done through the work of the Holy Spirit. I’m going to set this up by saying when we describe the Bible as being the authoritative and sufficient to do this work, part of the reason is because of who we believe the agent of change to be—it is the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit uses His sword—the sword of the Spirit—the Word of God. Those two things work hand-in-glove together. The Spirit of God uses the Word of God to accomplish this task. So many times these other theories that we tend to run to in opposition to what God says are trying to replace the Holy Spirit. Much, in my opinion, of secular psychological theories of counseling and their approaches are replacements of the authority of the Scripture, and they’re also trying to give some sort of almost Gnostic insight that’s a replacement of the Spirit. We see sanctification hijacked and the role and work of the Holy—by unveiling our hearts, helping us to see, guiding us into truth, and then Him being responsible for change and transformation. But yet we look to these other theories for help and hope. That is against the definition of the Holy Spirit being the agent of change.

Sam Stephens: What I actually hear quite often—pretty consistently from my counselees—at feedback after our counseling time has ended is they consistently tell me, “Sam, one thing that’s really struck me during our time together was that you consistently pointed out that you were insufficient to really address my problems. You brought the the spotlight back on the Holy Spirit as the agent of change.” I think that is a very important and vital distinction that biblical counseling has that other these other therapies do not have.

I think you said it so well. This professionalized, set apart, almost Gnostic, inside esoteric knowledge—that’s not the case here. The Bible is given to us. It’s provided to us, but the Holy Spirit is the one, as Jesus Himself said, who would remind us everything that Christ taught us. We have those things recorded in the Bible, not personal experiences, not any of these mystical experiences. The Bible is given to us very clearly. It is a sweet and precious gift. I tell people often the “biblical” in front of “biblical counseling” is not just some sort of additional adjective. It’s vitally important. It’s the essence. It’s the nature. It kind of wraps up this whole definition, if you will because it brings it brings much glory to God.

Dale Johnson: As we wrap this up, this is makes me excited for the subsequent discussions that we’re going to have about the rest of the definition, but it reminds me once again of how important it is that we defend the truth of the Scriptures. When we think about practicing in ministry—whatever that ministry might be—in order for it to be biblical, every implication of what we do, every aspect of methodology in what we’re trying to accomplish, it must be consistent with Christian doctrine. That’s why we sort of outline things the way that we did in trying to describe what biblical counseling is, to defend the idea that we believe in personal discipleship ministry, it has to be done under the oversight of God’s church—because that’s the proper authority—that it’s dependent upon this beautiful, authoritative, and sufficient Word that God by His grace has given to us, and that the work is done through the Holy Spirit as described in 2 Corinthians 3, where He unveils and He guides us into truth (John 14-17). So we defend these things, we uphold these things even in the implications of the practice of what we do in ministry.

Questions?
Send your Truth in Love questions to info@biblicalcounseling.com.

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