Biblical Counseling vs. Christian Counseling: What’s the Difference?
This post is adapted from Heath Lambert's Theology of Biblical Counseling online course.
There are some Christians who disagree that the Bible should be used to help us solve our counseling-related problems.
Christians who rely—to one degree or another—on the counseling insights of secular people have been called integrationists, Christian counselors, and Christian psychologists—among other things.
I want to show how the decision to be a Christian counselor is a theological decision. In order to do that, I will describe areas where biblical counselors agree with our brothers and sisters in Christian counseling, as well as some areas where we disagree.
5 Areas Where Biblical and Christian Counselors Agree
Biblical counselors and Christian counselors have had their fair share of disagreements over the years. Because that is true, it’s easy to lose sight of all the areas of agreement between biblical and Christian counselors.
Here are five:
1. Biblical counselors and Christian counselors are conservative
First, biblical counselors and Christian counselors have, for the most part, been located in Christian circles marked by conservatism.
More often than not, we have agreed on the theological realities most central to Christianity, such as the creation of the world by God, the inspiration of the Scriptures, the virgin birth of Christ, his sinless life, his payment for sins through his death and resurrection, and the indwelling nature of the Holy Spirit.
Such agreement is not insignificant. Biblical counselors and Christian counselors have the most important things in common—we are brothers and sisters in Christ.
2. Biblical counselors and Christian counselors care for hurting people
Second, biblical and Christian counselors care for hurting people in need of help. We all want to offer the best care possible.
When we as counselors debate our positions, we are not doing what comes most naturally to us (perhaps that is the reason we often have done it so poorly!).
Every counselor I know—regardless of their theoretical commitments—has been motivated into counseling by heartbreak over the pain people experience in this fallen world.
Our disagreements, while often strong, have sprung from the same desire to offer help.
3. Biblical counselors and Christian counselors affirm the practice of psychology
Third, biblical and Christian counselors agree that psychologists make true observations that are often helpful.
This really is an area of agreement.
Few have doubted that Christian counselors embrace this view. Many have doubted that biblical counselors agree with it. Those doubts notwithstanding, a belief in the helpful nature of psychological observations goes back as far as the foundational ministry of Jay Adams.
The vast majority of biblical counselors today accept that the modern biblical counseling movement began with the ministry of Jay Adams, particularly in the publication of Competent to Counsel. In the very first pages of that book Adams wrote,
I do not wish to disregard science, but rather I welcome it as a useful adjunct for the purposes of illustrating, filling in generalizations with specifics, and challenging wrong human interpretations of Scripture, thereby forcing the student to restudy the Scriptures. However, in the area of psychiatry, science largely has given way to humanistic philosophy and gross speculation.
Adams does two things here:
- He affirms the use of science in areas like psychiatry. He also states the nature of any objections he might have whenever they arise.
- He goes on to say that, essentially, he does not like bad science. When one’s secular vision of life (i.e., humanistic philosophies and gross speculation) crowds out actual scientific observation, Adams grows concerned.
I think this is essentially the view all biblical counselors have about science in general and psychology and psychiatry in particular.
In spite of all the accusations in this regard, I am aware of no biblical counselor who outright rejects the findings of psychology. This is an area of agreement between our two camps.
4. Biblical counselors and Christian counselors agree that secular psychology gets things wrong
This point is on the other end of the continuum from the previous one. Few have doubted that biblical counselors embrace this belief. Many, I think, would be surprised to discover that Christian counselors embrace it as well, but they do.
Stanton Jones and Richard Butman have written in Modern Psychotherapies: A Comprehensive Christian Appraisal:
This “destructive” mode of functioning is vital, in many ways, for Christians today. There are times when the best response of the Christian is to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:5). But we contend that the appropriate time for such apologetic efforts is when the views actually are raised up against God. In other words, when the views of romantic humanist Carl Rogers, for instance, are presented as ultimately satisfying answers to the major questions of life, the right Christian response is to point out critical flaws in the approach and to reject his views.
Our brothers and sisters in Christ, like Stanton Jones and Richard Butman, are not wholly given over to secularism as some have slanderously charged. They have a strong desire to think carefully and biblically about how to filter out secular visions of life.
We might have disagreements about how best to do this, but we should admit that we all are trying to place the Bible in authority over psychology. Whenever biblical counselors have not been honest about this, we should repent.
5. Biblical counselors and Christian counselors agree that not all problems are counseling problems
We all agree that the presence of a problem does not mean that the solution for that problem is necessarily counseling.
To say it a bit differently, both biblical and Christian counselors believe that people have physical problems that require medical treatment.
Any faithful Christian will confess that it is important to minister to the souls of people enduring medical difficulties. This is different from denying the presence of physical problems and the necessity of treating them with medical care.
This observation is important. Some believe that asserting the profound relevancy of Scripture for solving problems rules out legitimate medical care.
Both biblical and Christian counselors advocate for the necessity of proper medical care to treat physical disorders.
Areas Where Biblical and Christian Counselors Disagree
All of that agreement still leaves more than enough room for disparity when it comes to our positions regarding counseling. In the face of many areas of agreement between biblical and Christian counselors, there are two central areas of disagreement.
1. Biblical counselors and Christian counselors disagree on the necessity of secular counseling techniques
In spite of our agreement on the ability of psychologists to make true observations, our two movements continue to disagree on whether it is necessary to augment the Scriptures with secular counseling practices.
The position of Christian counselors on this matter is clear. Just one example is the work of Mark McMinn in Integrative Psychotherapy: Toward a Comprehensive Christian Approach. He says,
By way of analogy, consider the temperature system in an automobile. On one end of the continuum is hot air and on the other end is cool air. Often a person selects a temperature in the middle, mixing the hot and cool air for the desired effect. The climate is more desirable and adaptable by combining both sources of air than it could be if only one source of air were available. . . . In this analogy we are considering two sources of information: psychology and Christian faith. To what extent do we let the “air” from both systems mix in order to achieve an optimal balance? Or should we trust only one source of information and not the other? Reciprocal interaction involves the assumption that caring for people’s souls is best done by bringing together truth from both sources.
McMinn is one of the leading Christian counselors today. He bases his integrative approach on the assumption that it is necessary to add secular counseling techniques to biblical ones in order to provide the best help for struggling people.
Then there is the argument of someone like David Powlison, one of the leading biblical counselors today. Powlison has a very different position from the one advocated by McMinn:
Do secular disciplines have anything to offer to the methodology of biblical counseling? The answer is a flat no. Scripture provides the system for biblical counseling. Other disciplines—history, anthropology, literature, sociology, psychology, biology, business, political science—may be useful in a variety of secondary ways to the pastor and the biblical counselor, but such disciplines can never provide a system for understanding and counseling people.
Whereas McMinn believes it is required to add secular counseling techniques to Scripture in order to be maximally effective, Powlison responds to this suggestion with a “flat no.”
I see no evidence that biblical and Christian counselors are any closer together on this issue than they have ever been.
2. Biblical counselors and Christian counselors disagree on whether the Bible is a sufficient counseling resource.
The foundational reason for this dispute is due to the second area of fundamental disagreement between biblical and Christian counselors: the question of whether the Bible is a sufficient counseling resource.
Christian counselors believe that secular counseling strategies are a necessary adjunct to the Bible. They do not believe that the Scriptures are a sufficient counseling resource.
This is the argument of Stan Jones in an important article he wrote:
There are many topics to which Scripture does not speak—how neurons work, how the brain synthesizes mathematical or emotional information, the types of memory, or the best way to conceptualize personality traits. Because Scripture and the accumulated wisdom of the church in theology leave many areas of uncertainty in understanding and helping humanity, we approach psychology expecting that we can learn and grow through our engagement with it.
Jones’s logic is apparent. Because the Bible lacks information Christian counselors believe to be pertinent to counseling, they move toward psychology, expecting it to fill in the gaps.
A theological debate
I will have more to say in my Theology of Biblical Counseling online course by way of response to these issues, particularly the areas of disagreement. My point is to highlight the issues and show that the terms of debate between biblical and Christian counselors are inherently theological.
When Christian counselors and biblical counselors agree, the basis of that agreement is theological.
When we agree that the discipline of psychology makes true observations, that agreement is based on a theological commitment that God has given grace to all people (believers and unbelievers alike) to understand true things.
When we agree that the discipline of psychology gets many things wrong, that agreement is based on a theological commitment that sin has so stained the thinking of human beings, we cannot see many crucial realities without the enabling of divine grace.
When we agree that not all problems are counseling problems, that agreement is based on a theological conviction that people are physical and spiritual beings and can be afflicted with problems in both aspects of their nature.
When biblical counselors and Christian counselors disagree, the basis of that conflict is also inherently theological.
Biblical and Christian counselors debate the necessity of secular counseling resources and the sufficiency of biblical resources because of different theological commitments about the contents of Scripture.
When biblical and Christian counselors advocate their competing positions, they are making a statement about the contents of Scripture.
This is a theological claim requiring theological knowledge, demanding a theological investigation, and resulting in clear articulation of a theological position.
The point of all this is to show that counseling is necessarily theological. Engaging in counseling practice is a theological engagement.
Evaluating and debating with various counseling practitioners, whether secular, Christian, or biblical, is a theological enterprise.
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