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April 1978    Vol. 7 No. 2    pp. 23–32 

Responsible Christian Counseling

George G. Konrad

Counseling as a distinct discipline of the social sciences has existed for only a few decades. It has, however, been a basic Christian concern since the birth of the church, and many passages in both the Old and the New Testament describe counseling relationships. The pastoral care movement, which came into its own in the forties and has experienced rapid expansion, attempts to integrate the biblical mandates of interpersonal responsibility and the burgeoning insights of the social sciences.

Today marriage breakdown and family deterioration are giving further impetus to the need for responsible Christian counseling. Many pastors are experiencing such overwhelming demands on their time for marriage and family counseling that their administrative and preaching assignments suffer. Indeed, many have seen this aspect of ministry as so significant that they have left the parish ministry and entered into full-time counseling practices.

But how shall a counselor counsel? Many models of counseling are being proposed by various psychological schools of thought. Names such as Rogers, Freud, Perls, Glasser, Mowrer, Satir, and many others are increasingly part of the counseling vocabulary. However, other voices, voices of Christians, are also beginning to be heard. Men such as Howard Clinebell, Jay Adams, Lawrence Crabb, John Marten, etc., are seeking to define the meaning of Christian counseling. But here, too, the approaches vary considerably, and the pastoral counselor may well be at a loss which one he should adopt.

This article will chart answers to the following questions: What should be the Christian counselor’s relationship to the social sciences? How can one assume a responsible counseling role? What about our view of persons and counseling? What does the Gospel have to do with the counseling relationship? {24}

RESPONSIBILITY AND THE SOCIAL SCIENCES

Almost everyone has been exposed to the insights and approaches of the social sciences. Psychology (often with a capital P) pervades every area of our educational experience. Some Christian counselors have completely accepted current psychological insights into their counseling practice without critical assessment, whereas others have resolutely attempted to reject whatever the social sciences have to offer.

John D. Carter has outlined four ways to relate Scripture and psychology, particularly as they impinge on counseling philosophies. 1 The first is Scripture against psychology. Here the underlying assumption is that revelation is against reason. Soteriology and the Fall are given such prominence that there is no room for creation and providence. All necessary mental health principles are contained in the Scriptures. Thus the responsibility of the counselor consists essentially of only three tasks: 1) identify the specific problem in the case; 2) search for the biblical principles that apply to the case; and 3) bring these principles to bear upon the case in order to understand and solve the problem. 2

The opposite extreme places psychology above Scripture. Human reason is considered more basic and comprehensive than revelation so that creation and providence pre-empt soteriology and the Fall. The basic principles of emotional health have been discovered by psychology, and there is little or no need for the Bible. The application of these principles with the help of a therapist will lead to the resolution of emotional problems.

A third position is to consider Scripture and psychology as parallels. This viewpoint tends to view revelation and science as two distinct and irreconcilable systems. Creation-providence and soteriology are both stressed but they belong to different categories. Hence a person with emotional problems would seek the help of a psychologist or psychotherapist and the person with spiritual problems would go to a pastor.

The fourth position seems to reflect a certain maturity in the Christian counseling movement. This is an attempt to integrate psychology and Scripture. Lawrence Crabb identifies his own struggle in coming to terms with psychological systems as a Christian counselor:

I determined that my belief in Scripture was rational and firm . . . and that my psychological theory and practice would have to conform to biblical truth. . . . The more I read the more difficult it became to block out the impression that, with a few rewarding exceptions, humanistic psychology was not being replaced by {25} Christianity but rather integrated with certain biblical ideas. 3 (Italics mine)

The integrational approach is based on the assumption that both revelation and creation originate in God. Hence all truths, whether from the special revelation of Scripture or from the general revelation of creation, are from God and must be integrated into the whole. Both soteriology-Fall and creation-providence must receive due attention. Although all personal problems are the result of the Fall in principle, they are not always the result of conscious (responsible) acts.

The responsible Christian counselor must then take all that God has given him with utmost seriousness. Truths from the social sciences, which derive their insights from a study of man (i.e. creation), must be used when they meet the test of Scripture. To reject them out of hand because they are not specifically found in the Bible is as irresponsible as to reject the doctrine of the Holy Spirit because it is not recognized by the psychologists.

RESPONSIBILITY AND COUNSELING ROLES

The definition of counseling roles has also troubled many Christian counselors. In most instances our assumed role reflects the training we have received or the latest book we have read on the subject. To achieve responsibility in this area we are again called upon to assess the knowledge that is available and submit it to the test of the Scriptures.

One of the best-known counseling role models, and the one with the longest history, is Rogerian or client-centered therapy. This approach dominated the entire pastoral counseling movement in the forties and fifties and is still much used today. Rogerian counseling is based on Freudian psychoanalytic psychology. Its emphasis is on achieving insight and casts the counselor in a rather passive role. The assumption is that new self-perceptions and changes in feeling will also lead to new behavior. The individual is viewed as having all the necessary power within himself for renewal and change. It assumes that emotional disorders most frequently stem from unconscious motivation and have their roots in childhood experiences. Although few Christian counselors would accept the underlying psychoanalytic philosophy of Rogerian counseling, there are emphases, such as listening and responding to feelings, which treat the counselee in a wholistic manner and merit our attention.

Almost in direct contrast to the Rogerian role model is that of the directive counselor. Generally speaking, this style cannot easily be identified with a unified psychological system. O. Hobart Mowrer probably comes closest to it in his method of identifying the sin of the {26} client, confronting him with it, and insisting on repentance and restoration as the only approach to healing and growth.

The directive counseling role seems most compatible with the conservative evangelical counselor. The general operational assumption seems to be that the client is weak, helpless and, of course, sinful. The counselor, on the other hand, has the truth on his side, the Word of God. Therefore, he has not only the opportunity, but the responsibility, to identify the problem, establish the appropriate Scripture, and inform the client of what he must do. Adams says simply, “Because it is authoritative, biblical counseling is directive.” 4 Certainly there is no argument with the premise that the Bible is authoritative. However, the conclusion does not necessarily follow. It would be comparable to say that since I as a parent have authority over my child, therefore I must always be authoritarian.

How can the Christian counselor be responsible in the role that he assumes? Does he have to choose between the non-directive and the directive approach? One of the problems of both of these role models is that the person of the counselor is largely disregarded. He remains insignificant, almost a non-entity. In the non-directive approach the client is everything and the counselor is little more than a mirror of the feelings and ideas of the counselee. In the directive approach the Scripture is everything and both the client and the counselor are of little consequence. This does not seem to be in keeping with the relational emphasis of the Scriptures. Responsible Christian counseling demands that both the counselor and the client receive due attention and respect.

A growing recognition of the significant role of the counselor has been accompanied by a shift from doing to being. Now the counselor does not begin by asking what he must do (or know, or say). He begins, rather, by asking, “What must I be to be of real help to the person?” 5 In projecting the new person-centered emphasis of counseling, Howard Clinebell suggests that,

The new model is “relationship-centered” in that the pastor views his relationship with the counselee as an important part of the counseling . . . the pastor is free to reveal his own humanity. . . . Experiencing healthy relationships is important for the personal growth of the counselee. The pastor recognizes his rightful authority and, when necessary, uses it to guide, teach, encourage, or confront. 6

The first and primary responsibility for the Christian counselor in choosing a role model is that he give attention to himself as a Christian and to the quality of the relationship which he establishes between himself and the counselee. The impact of the Scriptures will first come {27} to the client through the person of the counselor, not through quoted Bible verses. David Carlson, in an article dealing with role models says,

Ideally, the range of therapeutic responses represents a person’s professional role and personality so that the counselor does not merely act out a particular helping role but actually possesses the attitudes and feelings of that role. 7

A study of the biblical materials relating to the counseling roles of Jesus provides adequate evidence that no one role (as directive versus non-directive) is adequate. Jesus assumed a variety of roles in his relationship to different people. 8 These included the prophetic, the pastoral, and the priestly roles, and he exercised them in a continuous, not in the dichotomous, fashion. The prophetic role includes preaching, teaching, confronting, and calling for repentance. Nurturing, protecting, supporting, encouraging, and calling the lost reflect the pastoral role. The priestly role involves listening, forgiving, sensitivity to feelings, mediating, and calls for confession.

The point of this discussion is that when we opt for any one role exclusively in our counseling relationships and then stereotype that role as the only “biblical” one, we can easily be un-Christian in our relationship with the client. Role rigidity (the unwillingness to switch roles according to the needs of the client) may simply be a reflection of the inflexibility of the personality of the counselor.

Carlson derives the following conclusions from his study of the various roles assumed by Jesus: 9

  1. Therapeutic role integration is possible when one takes into consideration the whole counsel of God.
  2. One can “know” what the problems and the solutions are and still be willing to listen.
  3. A counselor can be authoritative without being authoritarian.
  4. One can be right without having to demand that the counselee accept and recognize the person’s rightness.
  5. Confrontations and interpretations (as well as other roles) must be timed according to the need of the client.

The person who assumes only the directive role is in danger of not listening, of jumping to conclusions, and of speaking the words of the Lord before the person is ready to listen. By the same token, the non-directive pastor faces the pitfall of not sharing the Gospel, not speaking words of comfort, and not offering forgiveness and healing. {28}

RESPONSIBILITY AND OUR VIEW OF MAN

Different views of man are implied in different counseling models. The client-centered therapist assumes that all the potential for healing, change, and growth reside within the person. Directive counseling reflects the total helplessness of man, his sinfulness, and his lack of strength to help himself. Help comes only from the therapist (through his sharing of the truth) and from God. This latter view heightens the client’s dependency and further weakens his sense of responsibility. He tends to think, “You tell me what I must do and how to do it, and then I will change.”

We require another look at the biblical view of man. Man is created in the image of God. He is a person as God is personal. He is a social creature, created for fellowship with God and with his fellow creatures. God’s assessment of the individual human condition is “that it is not good that man should be alone.” But man is also fallen, a sinful creature, with innate tendencies to rebel against God. The result is that separation from God is part of the human conditions. But the Bible teaches further that God is at work through His Holy Spirit in the life of unregenerate and regenerate persons. The Holy Spirit convicts sinful man of sin, righteousness, and judgment, whereas He empowers Christians to walk in the Spirit.

A responsible view of man acknowledges the continuing work of the Spirit in his life and recognizes that man assumes responsibility for his own spiritual destiny. Recent counseling trends have emphasized this aspect of responsibility in the therapeutic relationships. Adams acknowledges this important concept when he points out that one of the consequences of sin is that man begins to shift the blame for his own actions to others. 10 David Augsburger reflects concerning personal feeling: “I discover that as I own it, accepting full responsibility, I am then able to respond in new ways. I become response-able.” 11

Many counselees keep trying to place blame on the other person: “She makes me angry;” “He is trying to ruin my life;” “She always puts me down;” “He doesn’t have any respect for me.” A responsible attitude toward persons will help them to recognize that each of us must assume responsibility for our actions, our feelings, and our decisions. No one has the power to make us angry, or to hate, or to be jealous. Our responses to various situations and persons are our own responsibility. God holds us accountable.

Lawrence Crabb entitles a chapter, “Hold Your Client Responsible: For What?” and correctly points out that the danger exists that such an approach may well promote effort in the power of the flesh. 12 We can only hold the counselee responsible for that which he can {29} control. But we must again indicate our basic assumption that the Holy Spirit is at work in us to help us both “to will and to do of his good pleasure.” Christian counseling becomes more than just the sharing of biblical maxims as guides for behavior along with authoritative encouragement to comply.

Certainly all good counselors, Christians included, agree that “Bible-beating” a client with various Scriptures and giving him the biblical ‘answers’ do not facilitate growth in either the counselor, client or the relationship between them. 13

Counseling must become an encounter between the client and the counselor and through the counselor, an encounter between the client and God. Our task is to enhance this encounter and help the client to understand that he must carry the responsibility of the response.

Perhaps at no other point do secular and Christian philosophies of counseling separate ways so sharply as in the belief in the work of the Holy Spirit. Christians are aware that they can tap into a spiritual, supernatural, source of Divine power which is at work in both counselor and counselee. A responsible view of persons in the Christian counseling relationship must, therefore, recognize the sinful nature of man, encourage him to assume responsibility for his feelings and behavior, and together with him rely on the power of the Holy Spirit for changes in his life. This reliance is not an avoidance technique since God does not overwhelm us and force us into His mold; rather he works with us and heightens our powers as we decide to follow him. Paul Barkman says that “It is impossible to support from the Bible the idea that when the Holy Spirit guides a person he is less intellectually keen, perceptive and oriented to reality than when he is not divinely guided.” 14

RESPONSIBILITY AND THE GOSPEL

The Gospel of Jesus Christ should be at the heart of every counseling relationship. Much of religious counseling, however, tends to be condemnatory rather than an offer of grace and forgiveness. We bring the counselee face to face with the biblical standards that he has not attained, the religious mores that he has broken, or the Christian ideals that he ought to achieve. And then we congratulate ourselves because we feel that we have once more been true to the Bible. But the client that comes to us seeking help is usually deeply aware of his sin along with an enduring sense of failure, guilt, frustration, and discouragement. What he needs most at this point is not judgment but grace, not law but the Gospel. To the sin-ridden Corinthian church, Paul says, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:3). {30}

Many approaches which aim at the removal of guilt are inadequate for Christian counselors. Psychoanalysts have tended to resolve this problem by shifting the blame to unconscious motivations and childhood experiences of the past. Behaviorists will readily call attention to the determinism of the external environment. Others may seek to excise guilt by an act of the will. All these will fail. There are two ways to remove guilt: one is to pay for our sins and the second is to seek forgiveness from someone with the authority to grant it, namely, God. To be responsible as a Christian counselor, my task is to share the Gospel, the Good News that God in Christ is willing to forgive. We must offer this release to the captives. In the economy of the divine kerygma we always have another chance. By being forgiving as counselors and by evidencing a non-judgmental attitude, we will be responsible toward the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This will open the doors to an acceptance of the One who offers us love and grace and enables us to effect the changes necessary for growing relationships.

The problem of having a judgmental attitude and of imposing values on the counselee is closely related to our attempt to share the Gospel. Almost uniformly counselors are taught not to be judgmental, not to impose their values on the client, but to be supportive and accepting. The assumption is that the client must experience freedom of choice in developing his own values and in making decisions about his life. This is best accomplished in a climate of love and concern. Paul Tournier has pointed out that judgment is always destructive. 15

At the same time, we recognize that it is impossible for a significant relationship to exist without the reciprocal influence of values. The Bible also reflects this tension when on the one hand we are instructed not to pass judgment on another person and on the other we are encouraged to confront, to teach, and to advise. Our Christian values, our Christian personhood, will impinge with judgment upon others in the counseling relationship. We do not condone sinful living. At the same time our attitudes, our willingness to listen and to forgive, will extend a message of grace.

Counseling is an expression of human values and human attitudes, and as the counselor is working and relating and experiencing with another person, he is giving a fairly clear picture of his own personal philosophical concept of man, his nature and his function on this earth. 16

We must therefore conclude that the first level of sharing the Gospel has to do with the person of the counselor as a Christian. The first answer to the question, “In what way are you a Christian counselor?” is not by sharing an outline of our counseling methods, but rather with the affirmation, “By being Christian in the counseling relationship.” {31} Our first act of love, sharing the message of the Gospel, will be our non-judgmental attitude and relationship with the client. Our values, the quality of our relationship, our total being will be a significant level at which we share the message of God’s love.

A second level of responsibility towards the Gospel has to do with the nature and quality of dialogue that is carried on between the counselor and his client. Self-disclosure of the humanity of the counselor can open the encounter to the experience of God. A look at the Apostle Paul shows that he wept, he rejoiced, he was angry, and he was frustrated, all of which he shared with his readers. Dialogue, both verbal and non-verbal, opens the doors to communication and to the presence of God. “When we seek one another in honest exchange, we find ourselves also in communion with God.” 17 As we establish loving and caring communion with each other, God enters in. It is instructive that the heated dialogue recorded in Acts 15 resulted in the conclusion that the Spirit had, in fact, been in their midst and exercised His divine influence upon their difficult decision.

When man is open to both man and God, miracles happen. But they are forged out of everyday events, the happenings between persons: the conflicts, failures, misunderstandings and tragedies of living together, as well as out of the love and acceptance that are both the source and environment for the miracle of dialogue. 18

Paul exhorts us to speak the truth in love (Eph. 5:15). This “truth” includes the truth of persons and their need, the truth of the counselor as a person, and the truth of the Gospel which is transmitted in loving relationships.

Responsible Christian counseling also includes the sharing of content, the message of hope and forgiveness. This message, however, must be given in the context of the authenticity of the person of the counselor and the caring quality of the relationship. Then we will be able to say with Paul, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).

FOOTNOTES

  1. John D. Carter, “Secular and Sacred Models of Psychology and Religion” Journal of Psychology and Theology (Summer 1977, Vol. 5, No. 3), pp. 197-208.
  2. Jay E. Adams, The Christian Counselor’s Manual (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973), p. 24.
  3. Lawrence J. Crabb, Jr., Basic Principles of Biblical Counseling (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975), p. 12. {32}
  4. Crabb, p. 17.
  5. Quoted in John R. Martin, Divorce and Remarriage: A Perspective for Counseling (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1976), p. 75.
  6. Howard J. Clinebell, Jr., Basic Types of Pastoral Counseling (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1966), pp. 27, 28.
  7. David E. Carlson, “Jesus’ Style of Relating: The Search for a Biblical View of Counseling” Journal of Psychology and Theology (Summer 1976, Vol. 4, No. 3), p. 187.
  8. Carlson, pp. 181-192.
  9. Carlson, pp. 187-188.
  10. Adams, p. 124.
  11. David W. Augsburger, The Love Fight (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1973), p. 51.
  12. Crabb, pp. 98ff.
  13. Cheryl J. Erbes, “The Examination and Integration of Biblical Christianity and Counseling” Journal of Christian Counseling (Summer 1977, Vol. 1, No. 3), p. 11.
  14. Paul F. Barkman, Man in Conflict (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1965), p. 118.
  15. Paul Tournier, Guilt and Grace (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), p. 99.
  16. Dougald S. Arbuckle, Counseling: Philosophy, Theory and Practice (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1965), p. 3.
  17. Reuel Howe, The Miracle of Dialogue (New York: Seabury Press, 1963), p. 152.
  18. Howe, p. 152.
George G. Konrad is Professor of Christian Education at the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California, and a Licensed Marriage, Family and Child Counselor.

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