On Rachael Denhollander, Biblical Counselling, and Healing

by | Mar 28, 2019 | Faith | 48 comments

What Safe Counseling Looks Like

Do we understand what a safe counselling situation looks like?

Last week I wrote a post on 10 questions you should ask your biblical counsellor before counselling. It was a controversial one to write, and I said pretty much all I wanted to say. But this week two things happened. I’ve had a ton of people contact me about that post, including biblical counsellors; and then Rachael Denhollander spoke at a conference echoing my themes. So I thought I could clarify a little bit.

Note: I was supposed to get a podcast out today, but my team has suffered from health issues this week, so we’re a day behind. Look for the podcast tomorrow!

“Biblical counsellors” are not the only Christian counsellors

Biblical counselling is a particular type of counselling, one where they believe their interpretation of the Bible is all-sufficient for counseling, and where they are not licensed by any government or professional entity. They are not, however, the only counsellors who follow Jesus.

Christian, licensed therapists also believe the Bible. Many studied at seminaries and were taught what the Bible teaches about bitterness, and anger, and forgiveness, and hurt, and healing. They were taught about the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives. But they were also trained more in-depth about treating trauma, anxiety, and depression using evidence-based therapies.

Safe counselors recognize that complex psychological issues such as trauma require specialized training

Licensed counselors and psychologists go through years of such training, much of it supervised. Psychologists take different training courses for treating different psychological illnesses with treatments backed up by evidence-based research. If you are seeking help for a mental health issue outside of your counselor’s training, they will often refer you to a colleague who is better equipped. A general practitioner wouldn’t operate on your brain tumour, but would refer you to a neurosurgeon or an oncologist. Similarly, a safe counselor will refer when it’s beyond their expertise. And this goes both ways! My uncle, who was a Christian psychiatrist, would occasionally refer Christian patients (with their consent) with particularly entrenched spiritual issues to pastors.

Last weekend, Rachael Denhollander, the brave woman who led the charge against Larry Nassar, the doctor who sexually abused hundreds of girls, spoke at the Valued Conference. Rachael has become an advocate for sexual abuse survivors, and become very outspoken about sexual abuse in the church. This is part of what she said about acknowledging our limitations in counseling:

“Pastoral care, church care is vitally important. But you cannot do everything. You are not trained to do everything. You need to know what to look for in order to walk a couple through this trauma. …

Please know your limitations. Realize how deep the damage is, and how much specialty is required in helping heal that injury. Just like if you have a parishioner who was in a car accident with a spinal cord injury, you would not try to be their pastor and physiotherapist…In the same way, please don’t try to take on the role of both pastor and …trauma specialist. Your role is vital but it’s not all-encompassing.”

She was then asked a follow-up question: “How would you go about finding a good counsellor?”

She responded with this:

“I think you need someone who is licensed—a licensed therapist or a licensed psychologist…You may need both a counsellor and a psychologist. You may need both if someone has experienced a lot of trauma.”

She went on to talk about the benefits of finding a counsellor who is also a Christian:

“The gospel is our ultimate hope; to be able to find a counsellor who understands trauma but also understands where the ultimate hope is found can be very helpful. That being said, there are a lot of secular methodologies that are in line with Scriptural principles.”

Why was she so adamant about licensed therapists? For deep hurts, you need training in treatments that have been shown to work. Most psychologists and licensed counselors use the same protocols for dealing with certain mental illnesses because those treatments have been successful. Happily, those methods are not in conflict with God’s word. In fact, many of them revolve around biblical principles like freeing yourself of lies  (John 14:6) and taking every thought captive (2 Corinthians 10:5).

One of the problems with biblical counsellors, though, is that many don’t understand that they aren’t qualified to counsel in all types of cases, because they don’t tend to be trained in evidence-based treatments.

That’s what Rachael’s questioner was getting at. She followed up, asking about a sexual abuse survivor who had been so hurt by Christian counsellors. Rachael responded:

“I know many, many people who have been through biblical counselling methodologies. I have yet to find one who has walked away less damaged than when they walked in. And that’s very painful to say.”

The Bible is a great source of wisdom and a gift from God that should show us how to live. But it is not the same thing as a doctor’s prescription pad or specialized training in trauma–and it doesn’t try to be. You can believe in the all-sufficiency of the Bible without believing that it is the only tool we should use in life. Just because you seek trained professionals in your area of need does not mean you have less faith.

Safe counselors acknowledge this need for extra training, and will immediately refer any client who is dealing with complex psychological issues.

How to make sure biblical counseling is as safe as licensed counseling

A safe counseling situation will protect the client’s confidentiality

Psychologists and licensed counselors have a clear ethical code they must follow. If they do not, they can be sued and lose their license to practice. One of the fundamental rights of a client is confidentiality. Licensed counselors and psychologists can only break confidentiality if harm is involved or if there is a reportable crime. Unfortunately, biblical counselors make other exceptions for breaking confidentiality, as I talked about last week.

Not holding the counselor to ethical standards of confidentiality distorts the counselor/client relationship

A teacher of biblical counseling, in a Twitter conversation, asked me to defend confidentiality biblically. He did not believe that confidentiality was necessarily a biblical concept, since it must be broken if a person was in persistent sin. The problem here, as I tried to outline in my post last week, is twofold.

First, who gets to define persistent sin?

If you go to a church that feels that divorce for any reason, other than adultery, is a sin, then if a wife decides to initiate a divorce against her abusive husband, is she in “persistent sin”? Will she be put under church discipline? (The answer, all too often, is yes.)

But then there’s a more fundamental problem that I didn’t mention last week: When we do away with confidentiality, we create a power imbalance.

Confidentiality in a counselling situation means that there can be trust between the client and the counselor. The client can be vulnerable, something which is very, very difficult for many trauma or abuse survivors, because they know their information is safe with the counselor. It’s that vulnerability, too, which is often necessary for healing to occur.

If, on the other hand, confidentiality can be broken for a number of reasons, there can no longer be trust. You’ve replaced trust with a power imbalance. The counselor has the power to destroy your most intimate relationships. They can talk about your issues with church leadership. They can bring church discipline down on you. They can take your spouse’s side, or your abuser’s side, and you have no recourse, because you have signed a biblical counselling consent form saying that if the counsellor does something you disagree with, the church leadership will mediate. You are powerless. 

In the church, when there are power imbalances, bad things have happened. Just Google Harvest Bible Chapel, Mars Hill, Bill Hybels, the Catholic sexual abuse scandal, the Southern Baptist sexual abuse scandal, and see what I mean. Recently, at Harvest Bible Chapel, former Executive Leadership Team member Dean Butters, in a letter to the elders’ board encouraging them to fire James MacDonald (which they did), reported:

“James collects information from Soul Care [Harvest’s biblical counseling ministry], small groups, and conversations with other pastors to use against people.”

Dean Butters is saying that former megachurch Pastor James MacDonald used the biblical counseling program to manipulate people. That’s heinous. Licensed therapists, if they shared information with the pastor in this way, would lose their credentials.

Safe biblical counselors will understand the importance of holding themselves to the same ethical standards as other mental health professionals. 

What a Safe Counseling Situation Looks Like: Biblical Counseling Vs. Licensed Christian Therapists

My prayer is that biblical counsellors will rediscover the imperative of confidentiality, and will recognize that there are some things that they are not “competent to counsel”

If those two things happened, I think biblical counseling would be much improved and much safer. And I am heartened that some Biblical counselling schools are beginning to acknowledge the biological sides of many mental illnesses. I still think licensing is crucial, because it’s the only way to enforce ethical standards, but these two changes would at least be a good start.

I love the Bible. I believe the Bible. I live by the Bible. But the Bible does not speak in-depth to all the different ways that trauma, anxiety or depression can manifest themselves, and all the different ways they should be treated.

If you are a biblical counsellor who agrees that what I wrote is important, please speak up. Defend confidentiality. Refer out to experts, doctors, and psychologists when necessary. And please, lobby for your colleagues to practice the same ethical, moral code as other mental health and medical professionals. It’s awful when the secular world does this better than some elements of the Christian world. As Rachael intimated, she would prefer a secular, trained therapist or psychologist than a biblical counsellor to help with sexual abuse trauma. When someone of her stature says that, the response should be to ask, “what are we doing wrong?”

The Christian world simply must get this right. God isn’t just concerned with our salvation; He wants our healing and growth, and Christian counseling is a huge, huge part of that. So let’s do it properly, and let’s do it safely, because the church needs awesome counselors.

What do you think? Why is stating that sometimes we need expert help considered so controversial? Do you think confidentiality in counseling is important? Let’s talk in the comments!

Written by

Sheila Wray Gregoire


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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Jane Eyre

    The two problems that many Christian counsellors have is 1) a premature psh for forgiveness, and 2) a misplaced desire to preserve the relationship.

    It’s easy to demand that other people forgive wrongs that do not hurt you, but we cannot create a situation in which a victim is told that she is the bigger sinner for not (yet) forgiving. Because that does happen.

    Likewise, a good therapist will help a victim to put distance between herself (or himself) and the abuser. But a lot of people just want to “make happy,” and do not want to acknowledge the needs of the victim or the perp’s inability to behave in a way that would ever lead to a functional relationship.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      This is very, very true. I wrote a post a while ago on how we try too hard to rush forgiveness. And I’ve written at length before, too, about how in too many churches the focus is on preserving the marriage rather than on the safety of the people in the marriage. Then you get this push to get people back together when the relationship isn’t safe. Just go through this 4-step communication and forgiveness plan and all will be well! And it doesn’t work that way, and it can actually be quite dangerous.

      • Jane Eyre

        That is a great post.

        I think a lot of people just want things to “work,” and they appear to work if the victim forgives and everyone moves forward. It can be easier to exert pressure on the victim to resolve the issue, rather than to get the perp to behave properly.

        And a lot of people do not want to face how complicit they were in allowing the situation to get this bad. It’s easier to pressure an emotional victim to forgive than it is to do some soul-searching as to why this was allowed to go on as long as it did.

    • Beth

      Thank you – we have learned this the hard way – through years of pain and suffering. We thought that if we went to the pastor and then followed up with Biblical counceling – if the perpetrator got help for anger management,for sexually and alcohol addictions,marage counceling,parenting etc that all would be well. No help was given to the abused wife and children – they were told to go back to the abuser and submit.
      This proved fatal to the relationship and horribly catastrophic to the abused wife and to the helpless children. We are going through a learning experience and know that God is leading us through. We are slowly learning the depth of damage and know that we need professional help. Slowly we are learning from others what help is available. Thank you so much for helping to educate. We have been fortunate at our present church . They have and continue to help. But they can only help as we discover the needs. They are trying to learn as we have been learning. Nothing can prepare you for this pain and suffering.
      The damage is almost beyond belief and will take a lifetime to heal.

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Oh, Beth, I’m so sorry. And I’m so sorry that your church didn’t take abuse seriously. I know that angers God. He does care, and this isn’t in line with Scripture. I pray that you all do get the healing you need!

  2. Anonymous

    After experiencing spiritual abuse, I went to biblical counseling (only they called it “discipleship”.) There I learned about what grace really meant and how I am deeply loved in Christ. It was life changing. I was no longer suicidal. I started receiving grace for myself and my mistakes. I started giving grace. Then I walked with a friend through a difficult journey of escaping domestic violence. That changed my life and my thinking as well. I went back and took a biblical counseling course, so that I could help others through domestic violence situations. The biblical counseling facility taught that their method of counseling was the only “true” method. I disagreed. For those who have been through sexual trauma and domestic violence, they may need more therapy options like medication, EMDR or neurofeedback.
    Recently I helped another gal with PTSD. When “stuff” hit the fan, you better believe I referred her to appropriate mental health facilities. Why? Because she needs immediate, life saving help.
    We have to stay open to what the Holy Spirit would have for us. We can’t limit ourselves to just “biblical counseling”. Plus, working with women coming out of domestic violence, I have seen all too often that churches, pastors and biblical counselors mishandle the situation. They are usually a part of the problem and not the solution. It’s sad.

    • Rebecca Lindenbach

      That’s such an important story because even though you personally experienced great healing with a biblical counsellor, you still see the limitations of many biblical counsellors. We need more biblical counsellors with that mentality–it grieves me that so many biclical counsellors can hear “what many biblical counsellors are doing is causing more harm than good” and their first response isn’t, “How can we fix it?” It’s to circle the wagons. I hope that other counsellors follow your example of taking mental health issues seriously and referring out. Thank you for what you do.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Thanks for chiming in, Anonymous! And I appreciate what you said about how biblical counseling helped you initially, too. That’s absolutely valid. There are certain types of difficulties where biblical counselors may be uniquely qualified. We all have our areas of expertise. But believing that you are qualified to handle “everything” after minimal training is just wrong. And you’re right that churches often really mishandle domestic abuse situations!

  3. Paul

    I have come, over the years, to distrust and even dislike the term “biblical.” It has come to be used in negative ways: “I’m more biblical than thou,” or “I’m biblical. If you don’t agree, you aren’t.” It’s one of those things where people don’t know what they don’t know, but claim to know. (and yes, I was there once. I’m not innocent)

    Second thought I had while reading. Christian leadership was supposed to be different. It isn’t based on authority or power, but service. It’s similar to how, when Jesus was asked, “Who’s my neighbor”, He answered, not by telling the man who his neighbor was, but by telling him to _be_ the neighbor.

    Christ said lead, not by telling but by living, not by ordering, but by serving. So-called churches today have upended that, creating churches based on authority and power structures that are inverted from what Christ called Christian leaders to.

    So, I guess it’s no wonder that biblical counseling is in such a sorry state.

    I’d like to add that it seems to be a particular blindness in Christian circles to the very concept of power imbalance (probably because of that misunderstanding of authority?).

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      YES, Paul! So much yes to your last paragraph. It seems as if modern Christianity is all about creating hierarchies and worrying about who has authority and power, and who is supposed to be submitting to what authority. And those at the top try very, very hard to maintain their place. But that was never Jesus’ intention or His focus. He was all about service. When we start creating situations where there is a lot of power imbalance, we’re doing things wrong. We’re not doing it via Jesus’ model at all. And yet so many churches don’t even recognize where they’ve gone astray with power. Seriously, if you just look at the megachurches where power has run amok, it’s not only the pastors. Elders have a ton of influence. Even small group leaders have power over those in their groups (Sovereign Grace Ministries was famous for requiring small group members to confess sins to small group leaders, who could then report). This is all so wrong. Accountability should be two-way, not one way. Yes, we should confess our sins to one another, but that shouldn’t be in a power-imbalanced relationship. It should be to ONE ANOTHER, not just one way. And that’s the problem.

  4. Sleepy

    I know this has been more about people needing help in cases of sexual abuse but I think this is important in general. For more than 1.5 year I have started to walk towards freedome from pornography. I have thanks to God come far, there is still some way to go but I have gotten far. One thing that made the difference for me was to meet licensed therapists. Secular licensed therapists. I have felt a little guilty that they were secular but there arent many christians here. The reason that I liked that they were secular therapists was that they could see things from a different perspective. My whole life I had tried to deal with this the only way I knew: The Bible and what pastors were saying. Im not saying that is wrong. And the advice I got from leaders and pastors about this was really great. But they didnt have the knowledge about what this could really be about.

    Meeting these secular therapists who didnt judge me or condemn me but instead wanted to see past that to find the reason I was addicted to this made a difference. They taught me to see this sin froma different perspective. They taught me to see that there were things from my past, emotional things like anxiety and etc. which helped me start to deal with this sin differently. Does this make the biblical advices and the biblical teachings about this sin invalid? No, they are still very important. I need to seek God , I need to repent and deal with my flesh but I also need to see that there are other factors playing into this. And learning to see this from a psychological perspective has helped me to live in more and more freedome. So both are needed and sometimes we as christians miss the psychological perspective when we only meet biblical counselours.

    Again, I know this article wasnt about porn but I just wanted to tell my experience. We need to be honest in the church and point people to professional therapy when it is needed.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Sleepy, this is brilliant, and I’m so glad you commented.

      One of the things I’ve been trying to drive home is that our approach to porn is wrong. We keep talking about it as a sin, and only a sin–“Don’t use porn because it’s wrong!!!!”

      But then the only way we have to fight it is to repent, etc. What isn’t talked about is the effects on someone when porn use starts in the teenage years when you’re still developing (which it usually does). It can stunt emotional growth. It can become the outlet for stress and anxiety. And it can become about self-soothing. So while it’s a sin, yes, it’s also MORE than a sin. It becomes a coping mechanism. And to truly fight it, you have to deal with the underlying issues that caused a person to turn to porn in the first place.

      I think secular counselors are more open to looking at this sometimes because they’re less focused on the sin aspect (although I know some amazing Christian licensed therapists who also treat it this way). But I’ve always said that the root to real healing from porn is threefold:

      1. Minimize the temptation by getting controls and filters and minimizing wifi use (this does not SOLVE the problem. It creates the baseline so that you can start addressing the issue)
      2. Get some accountability and support around you
      3. Delve deep into the roots of what porn use has done to you and why you turned to porn

      Too often in the church we stop at #2 (actually, often we stop at #1) But we need to go deeper. I’m glad you have, and I’m glad it’s helping!

      • Paul

        In my experience, addictions are the result/symptom of deeper problems, and just attacking the symptom doesn’t solve the problem. Only drives to deeper guilt, and can deepen the problem long-term.

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire


  5. Andrea

    This is going to sound like I’m splitting rhetorical hairs, but I think it makes a difference. Instead of “God isn’t just concerned with our salvation; He wants our healing and growth” I would say that healing and growth are a part of our salvation. Not that what God wants for us is salvation + a few other things, but that it all falls under the umbrella of salvation, that we need a more expansive understanding of salvation. More specifically, since the dangers with biblical counseling often have to do with tolerating physical abuse in the home, we need an understanding of salvation that encompasses both our spirits and our bodies. As Christians, we believe in a bodily resurrection, so our salvation involves the entire person, our spirits as well as the bodies (temples) that house them.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I love that, Andrea! Thank you.

    • Mary

      👏👏👏 Yes!! Salvation is so much more than a spiritual experience!

  6. anonymous

    This is so profoundly oversimplified. We can find the worst examples of counsel in every field – EVERY field. And by God’s grace, sometimes His common grace, we can find the best as well. I have to wonder if you’ve thought about Jesus’ words, “By this will all people know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” I’d encourage you to consider how the Lord would want you to love your ‘erring’ brothers and sisters. I feel pretty confident a public undressing is not it …

    • Rebecca Lindenbach

      Anonymous, when an apostle did something that could potentially harm others they were called out in public. And this is not a personal attack, it’s not spreading lies, it’s simply presenting the facts.

      If a Christian were a doctor and she was prescribing thalidomide to pregnant mothers despite the fact that it leads to birth defects in some cases, you wouldn’t just talk to her personally. You’d also tell everyone not to take thalidomide. This is the same situation. This isn’t a personal grievance, this is a public safety hazard.

      Jesus didn’t calmly talk to the merchants outside the temple one by one. He flipped over their tables and made a scene. When injustice is being done, we need to protect those who are being hurt. Not coddle the ones doing the injustice. That’s what Jesus did. He told off pharisees in public, he used them as examples of what not to be. According to your definition, Jesus is apparently not acting Christ-like. So by that logic, your interpretation must be wrong.

      • Paul

        Yeah, Jesus’ strongest language, and fiercest behavior was against those in the power structure, who misrepresented God’s grace to humankind. He pulled no punches, minced no words, and held nothing back in condemning them (seven woes, no less! at one point).

        This goes back to the imbalance of power. When power in God’s name is used to abuse and hold others down/repress/suppress, then why should we gloss over their distortion of God’s image, used to injure others?

        Yes, we should focus on the action/behavior, not the person committing the act (i.e. no ad hominum), but an unclear message is not going to help here.

        • anonymous

          Your handling of the Scripture sounds suspiciously like the counsel that is being criticized in this blog post. Sadly, you’ve thrown every biblical counselor under the bus with some sinful leadership. I don’t even know a church with leadership who has power … and no, I’m not being naive. I don’t know a biblical counselor with power. I don’t know any who could be compared to those doing business in the temple or a doctor knowingly prescribing thalidomide. I know many who long to be the hands and feet and heart of Jesus to those in the church who are hurting. They are saying, “We are willing to walk with you, along side any others who are needed to walk this journey”. What they are not say is, “Take your problems elsewhere.”
          Father, may your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Teach us to love each other.

          • Rebecca Lindenbach

            Anonymous, if you’re hearing these stories of abuse and harm being done and you don’t have compassion for those who are being hurt, I think you need to rethink how you are approaching this.

            Jesus gets angry when his sheep are hurt by bad shepherds. Many biblical counsellors are bad shepherds and there are no checks and balances to make sure they are not. That is simply the fact. The answer is not to say, “Don’t call out bad shepherds,” but to say “Wow, I believe there’s a lot of potential good here so what can we do to clear the bad shepherds out?”

            It is not more holy to ignore the cries of those who are suffering simply because you personally have not been affected. This is a common strain in many Christian circles, but it is wrong. We are called to compassion, and ignoring others’ hurt because we have not personally been hurt is simply not compassionate.

  7. anonymous

    Rebecca, I have misunderstood. I heard, “biblical counselors are unqualified to serve.” “Biblical counselors do not regard confidentiality a trust.” I wasn’t hearing a call for compassion for the hurting. Forgive me for misunderstanding. Like you, I deeply care about the hurting – weep with them – walk with them – champion for them – stand with them in their defence when necessary. I have a sense that you and I are more alike than we can know at this distance.

    • Rebecca Lindenbach

      Thank you for saying that. Sometimes compassion for the hurting isn’t only about talking about those who have been hurt–it takes the form of calling out those who have done the hurting. It’s sometimes about standing up for the victims.

      What the post was saying was that biblical counsellors ARE unqualified to treat real psychological illnesses because they simply haven’t received training in them. And some DO fail to see confidentiality as important. But the post also explains how biblical counsellors can choose to act in a safe, ethical manner with these things. I”m glad that you agree that we are to show compassion to the hurting, I hope that you can understand that it also means calling those who are acting as the shepherds of these people to high levels of ethics because of the importance of the situation.

  8. Lynn

    So I have some questions.

    What exactly is “church discipline”?

    If you sign a counseling document or church membership or whatever that says you agree to do what they say or you’ll be put under church discipline, or whatever, are those documents seriously legally binding?

    You recounted the story of a woman who was starting divorce proceedings because her husband watched child pornography. And the church put her under church discipline cause they basically believe “divorce is the ultimate evil”.

    But, I’m asking…what do they actually do? Can they actually legally prevent someone from divorcing or leaving the church or going to a different counselor? Or is it basically a mind-control thing? “You signed this paper saying you would do this so you have to, otherwise that’s breaking your word and you’ll be a BAD person.”

    I understand a lot of people will choose to listen and obey their church leadership. Partially out of respect, partially due to truly believing the church leadership is right and has their best interests at heart, and, it has to be said, partially because many Christians have been brainwashed since babies that pastors and elders are the ultimate authority and always right.

    I think my point though is, there is nothing making us submit to church discipline other than our own minds. At least as far as I can tell.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Hi Lynn,

      That’s a great question! I’m going to have to go from memory here, but you can Google it to see if i’m right, but I believe in the case of The Village Church they sent out emails to church members saying that she was under church discipline and explaining why (that she was being rebellious towards the church elders by refusing to reconcile with her husband or to attend counseling with the goal of reconciliation). She sent a letter saying that they needed to stop because she was rescinding her membership, but they said she wasn’t allowed to. So they were basically ruining her reputation and telling others not to associate with her (again, I’m going by memory).

      Harvest Bible Chapel did something similar a few years ago. 3 of their elders, back in 2013 maybe?, asked James MacDonald and the elders’ board for a line item budget. They were told they were rebellious to ask to have financial oversight of the church. They resigned, and then the church put out a video that was shown on all campuses saying that the three were in sin (I believe they were actually called “satanic to the core”), and that they should not associate with them. Their businesses, I believe, were also affected.

      After a ton of bad press, they had to apologize for the videos. But that’s the kind of church discipline that is often given–you are talked about publicly; you are often told you can’t attend the church anymore; your children are ostracized, etc.

      It is serious, because for many people the church is their main social group. There’s some good information about the dangers of church discipline here, and there’s a good letter that people can send to churches renouncing their membership covenants here.

    • Rebecca Lindenbach

      I think there’s a good point in the fact that if you are being spiritually abused by a church, you CAN leave. They don’t have any legal power over you, you can just up and find another community.

      But in many abusive counselling situations, the person’s personal experiences and secrets have been blasted to church leadership in the name of “discipline.” But in doing that they tear down that person’s social standing in the church. Remember in Jr. High when people spread rumours about you and how horrible those were, even if it was just about how you may have a crush on someone you didn’t? Well now it’s about the most damaging, hurtful things that have ever happened to you. The church suddenly knows your deepest secrets. And there’s nothing you can do to escape it. Emails are sent, phone calls are made, the rumour spreads and spreads and spreads all in the name of Christian discipline.

      That, even if there isn’t anything legally they can do, can be emotionally devastating to someone who is already hurting. People don’t tend to seek counselling when they’re in a good place–they tend to seek it when they’re vulnerable and hurting. So you take someone in that situation and then “church discipline”, when done incorrectly, can become spiritual abuse.

  9. Gemma

    I think that some of the problem stems from the fact that mental health isn’t considered as a medical issue but as a spiritual issue by some Christians. This is why they don’t see the need for experts outside your local church.
    But in reality it’s a bit like saying you shouldn’t go to the doctor about any illness because the Bible should be enough to heal you. I believe the Holy Spirit can heal us of anything, big or small.
    But I still take ibuprofen for headaches and go to the doctor when something’s up.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m taking ibuprofen today, and I’m praying! 🙂 I’m a little battered after some minor surgery today. And I’m very grateful for the medical profession.

    • Andrea

      I read this in a Jewish prayer book once: “Pray as if everything depended on God. Work as if everything depended on you.”

      • Amber

        Hi Sheila,

        I’m a licensed professional counselor and a Christian and I very much appreciate your article as well as last week’s post on questions to ask a potential Christian counselor.
        Those were great questions and words of wisdom. I also wanted to add that some Christians who are not trained in therapy or the effects of trauma may do more harm than good ( going against one of our ethical principal) by misquoting scripture, taking it out of context, or being too legalistic at tree expense of humanity, as in the case of the village church disciplining the wife for asking for help seperating her finances from her husband who was looking at child porn several years ago (I’m also a member of one of their sister churches). I’ve heard too many Christian principles thrown around without first trying to understand the other person, even going as far as saying anger and anxiety are sins, both are emotions Jesus demonstrated. Another directive I’ve heard recently is “just forgive” in which they were confusing with the core issue of necessary boundaries in a situation with extensive alcohol abuse and even some domestic violence.
        Again I want to thank you for speaking up about this and many other controversial topics.

  10. Sheep

    I think that a lot of the problem with “Biblical” counseling, christian counseling, pastoral counseling, or even good christian friends giving counsel, is based on the mistaken foundational belief that God values and loves the institution of marriage more than he values and loves the individual people in it. YES, marriage is supposed to be a picture of Christ and the church. But stop for a second, the Bible does not say that marriage IS Christ and the church, but that it is a picture of Christ and the church. It isn’t the same thing. But it seems like the church believes that divorce is the worst possible thing (sin) that can happen, so they do everything in their power to stop it. Never taking into consideration that it might not be the worst option, and that it might actually make a sinner stop and see the error of their ways and bring them to the Lord.

    Look at 1 Corinthians and Galatians where they list those that will not inherit the kingdom of God. Are divorcées listed along with the idolaters, fornicators, drunkards, revilers, etc..? No, they aren’t, but you would think that was first on the list by the emphasis some place on it.

    And by the way, I’m not saying that the answer to marriage problems is divorce. It is awful, and the sins that lead to it are awful. It’s just that sometimes it is the only option that the victims of abuse have left.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I have nothing to add, Sheep. This is exactly right.

  11. Noel

    I know someone who was told by a nouthetic counselor that God is sovereign and nothing happens outside of God’s will. Therefore the abuse he experienced was God’s will.
    That may be an error specific to that counselor, but is there any accountability? That was both wrong and irresponsible, and caused ten years of the man’s leaving his faith entirely- because why would you believe in a God who WILLED that kind of suffering for a child?
    I would not go to a nouthetic counselor; it sounds as twisted and manipulative as Gothard counseling.

    • Amber

      Noel, I agree with you. I think this kind of calvanistic teaching is very harmful and unbiblical. Leighton Flowers has some great teachings that explain why this type of doctrine is wrong and unbiblical.

  12. Anonymous A

    While at times Biblical counselors probably share too much because they don’t take confidentiality seriously enough, I would be cautious about placing extreme faith in lock tight confidentiality from licensed counselors.

    Suppose you are a licensed counselor. A pastor comes to you and confesses that he is having an affair- not with a member of his church, and he does not plan to break it off. You happen to have family or friends attending his church, and this guy is really good at getting away with this for years.

    So you know about it, but there is nothing you can go about it- other than to ask him to do the right thing. It is not illegal.

    So you are carrying that burden of knowing what is going on, and knowing that if it ever blows up a lot of people are going to get hurt and people are getting hurt now, even if they don’t know it.

    Seems like in Christian circles that it might be best to have something in the middle ground between loose standards with some Biblical counselors and almost air tight confidentiality standards with professional counselors.

    And don’t absolutely count on licensed counselors keeping their lips sealed. Yes they can face discipline, if caught, but that can be hard to prove, and if you are the one talked about, before they get caught, you are the damaged one.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Anonymous, you’re right. That’s the big problem with confidentiality.

      But with all things, we must decide which is the lesser of two evils. There are always downsides to every decision; no decision is absolutely perfect. And in this case, it is better to err on the side of confidentiality.

      Why? Because without confidentiality, many people won’t get help. Without confidentiality, many people won’t fully open up. Without the ability to fully open up, many people will never uncover the layers that really need healing.

      Look at it another way. Let’s say that you work at a church and an elder comes confessing that he is using porn. If you notify the church leadership that he is disqualified, you will lose this elder. However, it’s very likely other elders are also using porn–they’re just not trying to get help for it. Here’s a guy who is trying to get help, and trying to do the right thing. If, by getting help, he loses his position, then he will not seek that help.

      Or let’s take it to another level. What if it’s a pastor? If we tell pastors that the second they confess to a sin they are dismissed, then pastors will not get help. Even worse, their wives will be trapped with a husband who can’t get help and whom she can’t ask for help about, because their livelihood is at stake. Many pastors are only qualified to be pastors. If they lost their church, they could never get another one, and would likely take a pay cut to 1/3 or 1/2 their current salary. If someone wants help and is seeking help in a counseling situation, they should be provided that help.

      Is it messy? Yep. But the Christian life is.

      If I were the counselor to that pastor having the affair, I would counsel him to break it off. I would ask that he invite his wife in for couple’s counseling. I would tell him that he was in sin. And I would tell him that if he did not bring his wife in, and he would not break off the relationship, I would no longer counsel him. And then I would counsel his wife (if she came in) that she should report his sin to the elders and to the church, and I would help her find help.

  13. Anonymous A

    Thanks for your insights. Yes, real lie is messy.
    However, my understanding is that if you terminated that man, or even kept seeing him as an independent client, and his wife came in, independently- confidentiality would forbid you telling her about the affair- if she did not already know.

    And there are also pretty strict ethics rules about how you terminate a client.

    Again- with or without strict confidentiality- many situations are very messy and at times unclear what the right thing to do is morally or ethically and sometimes the legally ethical thing, might not seem to be the moral thing.

    • Rebecca Lindenbach

      Yep, that’s exactly it–you can’t tell the wife.

      The reality is, people don’t always act morally. And it’s not our job to police individual people’s choices. When someone comes to you you can give them the best advice you can, you can counsel them and be blunt, but just like how God gives us free will even though we’re really dumb and do the wrong thing a lot, we can’t try to usurp someone else’s free will.

      This would be different if you weren’t the counsellor and you were a friend since friends are equal-power relationships. Then you go and tell the wife. Totally. But if you are the person in power, like a counsellor, and you make that decision for someone else, that’s not fair. The power dynamic is what makes it wrong, not the act itself.

      It is messy. But is it morally wrong that God doesn’t step in every time we do something stupid? Because He chooses not to, and I think we can all agree that He knows better than us 100% of the time. He’s given us free will, and when people in power over someone else force their will upon the client, they are actually undermining that person’s God-given free will because of that power imbalance. You can warn them, you can scold them for goodness’ sake, you can lay out for them exactly what they are doing, but they still have a choice. And that’s not your fault if they make the wrong one.

      • Anonymous A

        You can probably tell from my comments here and on a couple of the other posts about licensed counseling/biblical counseling that I have some cautions, skepticism, pain regarding licensed counselors, confidentiality etc.

        Just to give you a little more back story. I have had boat loads of licensed counseling over the years- almost all by Christian counselors and lots of it has been helpful.

        However, I mentioned in another comment that I knew a counselor who had sex with a client and gave up his license but he is now leading seminars about Jesus in another state.

        My wife and I happened to have been clients of his about 14 to 15 years ago, and we know his victim. He did incredible damage to her- and what he did to her has caused incredible damage in the community.

        It has taken me four years of counseling as a man, to help me on a healing journey of watching the fallout of what he did to her and the fallout in many of his other former female clients- even ones that he did not abuse sexually.

        All of the ethics in the world and the confidentiality requirements did not protect her from what he did to her , and it has not protected others from the fall out. And taking away his license is not giving much protection to the world population from him using his skills to possibly harm others in the future- even though he can not legally diagnose- he still understands how to psychologically influence people more than the average person does.

        So my main concern is that people do not totally let their guard down and totally trust that a licensed counselor even a Christian will follow ethical codes and do no harm. There are a certain per centage of licensed counselors in good standing who do lots of harm until they get caught, and can do further harm later.

        So whether you are seeking counsel from a biblical counselor, pastor or a licensed counselor- no matter how good their reputation, no matter how good their credentials look on paper or in a database- it is still wise to be on guard.

        And yes, there was a police investigation and not enough evidence to charge, and yes there was a lawsuit that was settled out of court- so the public does not know the details.

        • Rebecca Lindenbach

          Yes that’s an excellent point–you should always be on guard and always stand up for yourself! Always.

          And I think the point we’re trying to make is that what that counsellor did was horrible–but then he lost his license to counsel. Whereas if someone who is unlicensed did that, he/she could still counsel and no one could stop them. That’s the concern, and that’s why licensing is important. So that the abuse stops.

          Also, why on earth is he being allowed to teach anywhere? Do they not know of what happened? Because that’s the kind of thing that needs to be disclosed if they do not know.

          • Anonymous A

            Yes, some of the leaders know. That is their judgement call to make. Apparently they believe he has healed appropriately.

            So just because he lost his license does not mean the potential for abuse stops. He could in theory do the something very similar again in an unlicensed helping field or for that matter working at McDonalds.

          • Rebecca Lindenbach

            Yeah and what you said there, “He could do something very similar again in an unlicensed helping field” is exactly the point. If you only see licensed counsellors, you know that someone who has been found guilty of sexual assault is not able to continue counselling. Whereas with unlicensed, you could be seeing someone who has done this multiple times before and just keeps counselling. That’s what we’re concerned about.

            You can never make a 100% perfect system. But with licensing, at least there is accountability for when something bad does happen. And that adds a layer of protection that unlicensed counselling situations just can’t. It’s not about saying “This will NEVER happen,” it’s about saying “there are safeguards in place to ensure that abusers aren’t allowed to abuse again.”

  14. Anonymous A

    As to your question of why he is being allowed to lead. This guy is extremely knowledgeable about therapy and is extremely skilled in therapy techniques, and very charismatic and has a long relationship with the leaders that are promoting him. If he is truly not healed( apparently they believe he is) he could very well be psychologically manipulating them, and they might not even know it. They are not trained in psychotherapy

    And yes, one of the leaders has been warned by two therapists that know the situation.

    Like I mentioned, this guy could work at McDonalds and if he is not healed- with all the psychological training he has- that was given to him by the counseling field, he could be a danger to the public.

  15. Anonymous A

    Just to clarify. In this case he was not convicted of sexual assault. He confessed in writing to the state ethics board that he engaged in an intimate sexual relationship with a client.

    In my state- my understanding is that is an ethical violation, however it is not a crime.

  16. Jonathan Stairs

    Hi Sheila, Thank you for bringing to light a concern that some Biblical counsellors have no apparent accountability and what’s worse, is that those counselled, particularly women, have not a clear reporting structure when poor or wrong counsel is given. This power imbalance must change! Too often women have not been believed and protected from men who are emotionally abusive misusing submissive language. This is an example of what has been called “hyper-headship.” Since we are hosting an upcoming Girl Talk, we have talked about this issue with you and our church is going to work harder at putting such a reporting structure and accountability in place as we provide care and discipleship. One piece that seems to be missing from the conversation is that our problems are often communal. As 1 Corinthians 12:26 states, “If one member suffers, all suffer together.” You rightly emphasize confidentiality and that doctors and counsellors must exercise confidentiality unless there is self-harm, harm of others and or an alleged crime has been committed. This is the practice at our church. However, it may be helpful to think of care in the church as a team approach just like I am sure that your doctor husband has consulted other physicians. This can be done without breaking confidentiality by keeping the “counselee” anonymous. The problem is when the problem has communal affects such as listed in 1 Corinthians 5. Back to the issue of emotional abuse, an individual counsellor is pretty much powerless against such aforementioned husbands. Counsellors, be they Biblical, Christian (integrated) or non-Christian, usually are only counselling the wife. Only Elders and church discipline can firmly and lovingly call the husband to repentance. We believe this is an example of properly used God-given authority. Which raises the question to whom are Elders accountable? They are accountable to the church, external governing authorities and most importantly, God. As Proverbs 1:7 declares, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom.” We believe this should always be our starting place.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Jonathan, thank you so much for your comment. I’m so glad that people are starting to realize that counseling clients do need recourse when counseling goes awry, and that they do need to be protected.

      And, yes, definitely you may talk to a team, but it must be confidential without giving any details. That’s when having a team outside of your church to consult with is vitally important.

      One thing with the emotionally abusive wife–it’s very important that she be empowered to report the abuse herself, and that pastors and elders be educated on how to recognize emotional abuse and respond to it appropriately. But one of the problems with abuse is that for years the wife’s (and sometimes the husband’s–abuse can go either way) agency has been taken from her. She hasn’t been able to make decisions because she’s always been trying to appease him. That’s another reason why the counselor’s role is not to break confidentiality, but to empower her to decide to do something. That is much easier to do in a church congregation that is aware of domestic abuse issues, and where pastors preach on the reality of abuse.


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