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Why Would the State Seek to Regulate Biblical Counseling?

Dale Johnson: Today on the podcast, I am excited that we can introduce to you Ed Wilde. Ed has been a lawyer in the state of California since 1989. He has taught at Masters University since 2002. He’s taught both counseling courses and courses in law there. He is married to Kelly and has five children, praise the Lord, one of whom is with the Lord even now. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Ed these last several months. We are working on a book together on counseling and legal issues. Ed, it’s been really fun to get to know you and for us to talk. You have taught me a tremendous amount—even things that I was passionate about, but areas where I could refine language—and so I’m grateful now to introduce you to our listening audience. Thank you, brother, for being here.

Ed Wilde: It’s absolutely my pleasure to be here.

Dale Johnson: Now, we’re going to discuss today legal issues. This is important. And what I love about you, Ed, is God has gifted you in such a way to think well about law, to think about our legal system and how it works as you’ve operated in that space for quite some time, but you also have a passion for God’s church and you love the ministry of biblical counseling. You’ve taught this at Masters University for several years. You intersect into a very unique space that is very helpful, a unique skill for so many in our movement.

As we talk today, pastors have all sorts of questions. You and I have talked a number of times before about a couple of the great hindrances to biblical counseling that I see consistently among pastors. The first is always something to do with psychotropic medication and the diagnostic criteria of the DSM. People are hindered from thinking about biblical counseling because they say, “Well, what about that stuff?”

The second major issue that I see all the time from pastors is they preach the Word solidly, they’re conservative, they believe the Word has power when it’s preached from the pulpit, but what inevitably happens when we talk about counseling (to utilize the sufficiency of the Word and the authority of the Word in a counseling room), pastors start to get nervous. The thing that they’re nervous about, that hinders them from jumping into the world of biblical counseling, is the area of law, being afraid in many ways of lawsuits and that sort of thing.

And we live in a country that historically has welcomed freedom, welcomed the practice of religion, welcomed worship of God, but even now pastors are a little fearful about that. Some may even engage in counseling ministry or do things in their church and they still operate under fear, understanding that we have freedom of religion. We have some understanding about the Constitution, but help us to understand exactly how the Constitution works for us in the church.

Ed Wilde: Well, as everyone knows in the United States, we do have expressly stated in the Federal Constitution—and it’s repeated in the various state constitutions—the right to have a free exercise of religion. The Constitution is set up in such a way that the government isn’t to establish a religion. The idea there at first was something along the lines of the Church of England, where there would be a tax-supported religious institution to which everybody would be a de facto member. That’s not something that takes place in the United States. But in order to make sure that was possible, in order to allow the various groups of people (who were coming from Europe primarily at that time) to live with each other in some harmony, the Federal Constitution stated that there would be no impediment put to the free exercise of religion—at least nothing by the federal government.

Over the course of time, that guarantee of freedom of religion in the Federal Constitution has been extended directly to the states. And as I stated, each of the states have a statement in their constitution that there will be freedom of religion. The problem with that is that what constitutes freedom of religion in practice can be a little bit more difficult. If we are to think about religion in terms of a particular doctrinal statement, the federal government is neutral on those sorts of things. The state governments are neutral on those sorts of things. I’m unaware of any local government anywhere trying to institute—at least anytime recently—adherence to the Nicene Creed or not. Not even in a state that is so heavily towards one religion as a state of Utah is there anything like a state-imposed religion.

When we’re talking about the content of religious doctrine, there is not any problem when it comes to that. When we speak about what happens in terms of our liturgical practice—when we go to church on Sunday morning and we close the door—the state government in the United States is unconcerned about whether we wear vestments or we do not, whether we face East, whether we take the host on our knees or whether we have a communion plate that is passed person-to-person. Those sorts of things are typically not where the conflict comes up.

The conflict will come up when we begin to think about the other entailments of religion. For instance, as a Christian if we’re going to be biblically faithful, we have fairly expressed rules about our understanding of the human body, about what is appropriate sexual practice and what is not, and we are coming to a position where our opinions about such things, our doctrine as to how we organize our life, tends to run contrary to the majority culture.

An easy example I had is a friend of mine who attends church here with me at Grace Community Church, by the age of 30 he was married and he had a few children. The people with whom he worked thought that he was a strange person for having gotten married and had children at such a young age. What we would consider to be normal sort of behavior, because it is an entailment of our religion, starts to look strange when we go outside of the church. The conflict comes about when we start to look at what we do when we’re outside of our “house of worship,” as the regulations in the state of California on COVID referred to it. And what do we do in those places? We have to be careful how we think about this as Christians, because if we automatically say, “I should get to do whatever I want in the public space because my religion permits that,” we have to understand that whatever the general rule is has to apply to everyone.

We’ve had circumstances where I’ve read of Muslim women who come from a very Orthodox conservative Muslim background, who believe that they should have their face covered at all times except when they’re with their husband. The same woman then tries to get an ID from the local government, and she refuses to take off her face covering for purposes of the photograph. Well, she devoutly believes that her religion entails misconduct and it is an entailment of her understanding of the religion, but that runs contrary to what the rest of us believe is necessary for civil society.

If we say, “Well, I should be able to do whatever I want because it’s my religion,” that’s not exactly what we believe. We certainly would be apprehensive if we had a neighbor who was involved in Molech worship. When we say that we have freedom of religion, we need to realize that necessarily is built into that some kind of conflict with our neighbors. That didn’t show up for a long time in the United States because originally everybody belonged to generally a Judeo-Christian background. Most people were Christians, there were a few Jews, fewer Muslims. But their religious behavior outside of the time of worship was relatively the same.

It’s become much more complicated now. One reason is that we’ve had more people from other parts of the world moving to the United States. Now we have people who are engaged in Hindu or Buddhist practices, and far more people who are engaged in Muslim practices. The question about what is protected as religion and what is not has become more difficult.

Dale Johnson: Now, that’s a critical point because we’re certainly not saying there’s not freedom of religion. The Constitution certainly gives us that right. That’s certainly true.

However, I think you’re shaping that well to help us to understand that can’t just be a free-for-all in public spaces. I think you’ve helped to give the nuances that explain the wisdom that’s behind that. Our knee-jerk reaction often is to say, “Well, we want to just simply do away with the government or governmental restrictions,” or, “They’re encroaching upon my religion.” But we also have to recognize the Scriptures demand from us that we honor ruling authorities. We honor the government. And we recognize that the state has legitimate authority. Can you describe what that legitimate authority really is?

Ed Wilde: Well, the legitimate authority of the government is, as Abraham Kuyper would put it, it’s to be able to keep human beings alive so that the church has a place to flourish. We do want there to be public order. We do want the government to provide for public safety. We want the government to make it possible so that when I leave this building I can walk to a car that I have relative surety is still going to be there. And when I go home, my house isn’t going to be attacked. When we’ve seen some of the riots and things that have been going on in the United States, we have a legitimate concern about safety and public safety, and we expect the government to be able to take care of those sorts of things, to protect us from other people. There is a legitimate authority there, and it does entails certain elements of the way we interact with other people that may come into conflict with religion.

You’ll see even in the places where we are having difficulty—for instance things concerning human sexuality—the government is trying to frame its concern about Christianity’s teaching on those issues in terms of public safety. They say Christian teaching about homosexuality causes people to feel bad about themselves. If they feel bad about themselves, they’ll hurt themselves. We don’t want you saying that because we don’t want people hurting themselves. Even when they are coming at us on a point which is going to be difficult for us to deal with, they are coming at us (at least in terms of the rhetoric) as a matter of public health and safety to care for all of us.

Dale Johnson: That’s a critical distinction. We want to acknowledge very clearly that God has given the state legitimate authority and it’s actually for the flourishing of the church. It’s helpful. It’s healthy. It’s a good thing. Now for us, we need to bring this to bear and pastors have thousands of questions as it relates more broadly, but for our purposes, we’re dealing with the issue of biblical counseling. We have to be cautious as we understand constitutional rights in our country that we want to honor the government. We recognize our biblical responsibility based on what God has commanded that we do—and nothing trumps the sovereign. But we bring that into the counseling room and we have to be vigilant and wise in how we go about doing the practice of biblical counseling because those two worlds begin to collide. Talk for just a second about how we distinguish the idea of counseling from therapy and why that’s important when we talk about legal issues for the church’s sake.

Ed Wilde: First we should think about what therapy is. In psychotherapy, we’re talking about a professional relationship between relative strangers. As an attorney, I hang out my shingle. I say that I’m a lawyer. In order for me to do that I have to receive a license from the state. The state’s delegated that to State Bar Association. I have to go to college, I have to go to law school, I have to take the bar exam, I have to have continuing legal education. The purpose of that is so that members of the public know what it is that they’re getting when they come to see me. There are certain minimal educational and ethical standards, which I need to adhere to so that when strangers come to me, we know what is going to be part and parcel of this relationship and what they can expect. We have food inspectors for the same sort of thing.

Therapy falls into that sort of category, where the government is regulating professional relationships between strangers for the good and protection of the public. However, as I said before, the government doesn’t regulate the content of a religious doctrine. Provided that our religious conduct doesn’t cause safety concerns for the people outside of our religion, the government is willing to permit us to engage in those behaviors and hold our opinions. Government doesn’t care whether we adhere to the trinity or not. Both of those are acceptable positions as far as the government is concerned.

What we need to do as counselors is we need to make it very very clear that what we are doing when someone comes into the counseling room is not providing them therapy. We’re not there to help these people identify what will make them happy and then help them to become happy. Now, they’re going to present with a particular problem. “I’m depressed.” “I’m anxious.” “I have a bad marriage.” But what we’re teaching them is not to not be depressed, not to not be anxious, or have a better marriage. We’re teaching them how to become better Christians. We’re teaching them what is required to be an adherent of the religion of Jesus Christ.

He said, “Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Jay Adams wrote the book Teaching Them to Observe. His point is that what we do as counselors, we’re engaged in discipleship practice. We’re teaching people to become Christians. Now, part of that is going to have effects up on whether we feel anxious, whether we feel joyful, how we conduct our marriage. But the reason that we’re teaching them how to behave in a marriage is not primarily for the purposes of them having a better marriage. That’s a side effect of our aim. We’re teaching them how to behave in a marriage because that’s what is required of us by Jesus, not because I’ll be happier if I do that.

Dale Johnson: So Ed, at the beginning of the conversation, we talked about constitutional freedoms. And thankfully, we live in a country where we can have that conversation. That’s not our ultimate aim necessarily. We are biblical Christians where we try to operate under what God has given to us. Based on the things that you just recently said about the counseling room and provisions that are made, I don’t want pastors to continually walk under the assumption that they think they’re doing everything okay or above board because they have a constitutional right of freedom of religion, but we’re very sloppy in the counseling room in the way that we approach it. Talk for a second about how we can be very wise and cautious about that constitutional freedom but not getting sloppy in the counseling room.

Ed Wilde: I’ve been watching Christians on Facebook and Twitter and all sorts of social media, or talking in conversation, how they understand the way that constitutional rights function in practice. There’s this belief that if I just say it’s protected by the Constitution, it somehow magically is. The jurisprudence around constitutional rights is enormously complex. Even narrow issues of constitutional law are hotly debated among people who are experts in them. The argumentation that goes into them is very complex. When somebody would come up and ask me, “Well, is this protected by the Constitution or is it not?” Oftentimes, the only thing I can say is, “I don’t know. I can tell you what kind of arguments I would make.” Because the Constitution isn’t a self-effectuating document. It doesn’t happen just because I say that something is protected by the Constitution.

A couple of cases that illustrate this pretty easily would be one in the 19th century involving polygamy and the Mormon church. At that time the Mormon Church required polygamy or permitted polygamy as part of its doctrine. The United States Supreme Court said you can be a Mormon, you can believe this, but you can’t engage in the practice of polygamy.

There is a case in the early 1990s as I recall, that involved the Native American religious adherents who were taking peyote, which is illegal under federal law. Is it permissible to take this drug, which is illegal for everybody in the United States, if I say I’m doing it for purposes of my religion? Those were things that had to go up to the Supreme Court to find an answer to.

On the other hand, you had the flag cases involving the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The first time it came up, the court found that not saluting the flag was properly reprimanded and you didn’t have a religious freedom to not salute the flag. Then shortly thereafter, the Supreme Court reversed its decision on the exact same point. When we talk about something being protected by the Constitution or not, we need to realize that what is protected by the Constitution or not is going to be something that will be answered by a judge. No person making the assertion, no pastor in a pulpit, no lawyer making the argument can tell you that something is absolutely protected or is not. Those are questions that are answered by judges in the context of litigation. That would be the first caution I would give pastors.

The next thing I would be careful about is the pastor being enormously clear about what he is doing. We get sloppy in the counseling room when we begin to talk about our counseling in terms of trying to help people feel better. We have a very robust doctrine in Christianity that suffering is oftentimes a good thing, that the goal of God in this world is not to make human beings happy—at least not in this world. To paraphrase a line from Augustine in his Confessions, he says you’re looking for a happy life in the land of death. You’re looking for a happy life where there is no life. That expectation is the thing that’s being held out in therapy, but not the thing that is being held out in discipleship. We need to make it abundantly clear that what we are trying to do is to teach people how to behave as a Christian when I leave church on Sunday morning. If we’re unclear about that point, we’re going to run into a number of difficulties.

I think one of the things that comes up right there is, “Yeah, but we’re gonna run into difficulties anyway.” Well, if we’re going to run into difficulties, then it better be for Jesus’ sake. You were bringing up the relationship between the Christian and the government. How does the church relate to the government? I’m thinking of 1 Peter 2 and we need to maintain a good witness. But a little bit after that in 1 Peter 4, Peter says if any of us suffers, he better not suffer as a criminal. Let him suffer because he’s a Christian. If teaching people to behave as a Christian comes to the point that it does bring us in conflict with the state, we need to make very plain it’s because we are Christian and because the Scripture requires this of us and we’re going to have to live with the consequences of that.

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