Is a biblical counsellor a good option when you need help with your marriage?
Rebecca and I were talking on our podcast a few weeks ago about why biblical counsellors might be more likely to be dangerous when you need help.
I’m not saying Christian counsellors are dangerous. I’m saying “biblical” counsellors (it’s an actual term referring to a particular counselling model) may pose a problem.
Usually when we see counsellors we’re seeing one of two different types:
- A licensed counsellor who has received at least two years of professional training at a government accredited university, has undergone an internship, and has a professional license. That license obligates them to operate under certain conditions, including keeping confidentiality. That counsellor may also be a Christian.
- A biblical counsellor who may or may not have very much training, and who operates under the belief that all one needs to be healthy is the Bible. Sometimes they do have a postgraduate degree as well, but it is in “biblical counselling” and they are not accredited or licensed with any government-recognized entity (but only “biblical counselling” organizations). Many large churches have “biblical counsellors” on staff. They do not belong to any governing school (such as the school of psychotherapy or social work) and so can not be held accountable for what they say or do in counselling situations.
(Sometimes you may see a person on staff at a church in a counselling role who isn’t accredited but who also wouldn’t call themselves a “biblical” counsellor.)
I’ve seen licensed, Christian counsellors several times in my life, and they’ve been amazing. Once was early in our marriage when we were dealing with vaginismus. Another time it was several years after our son’s death when we just had a lot of things to process. They gave us great exercises, helped us process hard things, and prayed with us. Even though we didn’t see “biblical” counsellors, we received very Christian, godly, and biblical help.
Why do people see “biblical” counsellors and not accredited, licensed counsellors?
Often it’s a matter of money. Many churches have biblical counsellors on staff, and then allow you to pay on a sliding scale. Most licensed counsellors work in their own practice, and most charge over $100 an hour. So sometimes people just simply can’t afford a licensed therapist.
Other times a biblical counsellor has been recommended to you, or there are no licensed counsellors who are also Christian in your area, and you don’t feel comfortable going to someone who isn’t a believer.
Why it’s important to understand the limitations of a biblical counsellor
Those who ascribe to the biblical counselling model often adopt a worldview where mental illness does not have a biological basis–instead, it’s either spiritual attack, spiritual weakness or sin. Thus, they downplay the reality of depression or other mental illnesses.
In addition, many ascribe to a view of marriage which says that divorce is wrong for any reason. Because of this, they often downplay the reality of abuse, or misunderstand the dynamics of abuse, and can make marriages where abuse is present worse.
Finally, biblical counsellors may downplay the role of trauma in a person’s psychological well-being, instead blaming most problems on sin and/or spiritual weakness. Here’s an in-depth (but sad) account of the failures of biblical counseling from a child sexual assault survivor that shows how too often the Bible is used as a weapon, rather than a tool, in this counseling framework.
If you are going to see a biblical counsellor, you should do your homework first!
Whenever you’re seeing someone who does not have a professional license you need to be careful, because you don’t have normal protections. When licenses are involved, if someone’s unethical, or practices their job very poorly, they can lose their job. Where there are no licenses, there’s not the same repercussions for bad counselling.
You’ll be telling this person your deepest thoughts and fears. This person will be giving you advice about your biggest, most important relationships. And they’ll be doing this when you’re the most vulnerable.
That’s why, before you start counselling, it’s important to advocate for yourself. I know it’s awkward, but I’m going to suggest 10 questions to ask to make sure the counsellor is safe. Some biblical counsellors may be dangerous, but many are highly gifted and insightful, and didn’t get their professional, licensed qualifications simply because they didn’t have the time or the money. And many simply preferred to go the biblical counselling route.
If they are good counsellors, they will welcome these questions, because their aim will be to establish a good rapport with you and to genuinely help you.
If they are dangerous counsellors, they will resent these questions, because they believe that they possess special knowledge of how counselling should work. They see this as a power relationship where you must obey them, rather than as a professional relationship. If they balk at you even asking questions, then it’s a good idea to run away!
Here are 10 questions to ask a biblical counsellor (or any counsellor) before you start counselling.
To put these together, I googled “biblical counsellors” and found a very large church near me that offers biblical counsellors to its members. The church had a web page describing its counselling, and a consent form to fill out before counselling. I’m going to use both of those resources to show you why these questions are important.
I’m not naming the church because the problem is not this particular church; it’s actually very typical of most biblical counselling I’ve seen. So here we go!
1. What is your education?
How long was their course in counselling? Was it done at an accredited university? Do they have a license?
This church’s website says:
- We are not licensed counsellors, therapists, psychiatrists or psychologists.
- We are trained, biblical counsellors.
- Our counsel is based solely on God’s Word, which is sufficient to handle any issue of life.
These disclaimers mean that there is no licensing body that can enforce any professional standards. It also means that they reject most psychiatric and psychological theories, even if those have great research weight behind them, because they feel that the Bible is all they need. Personally, I think the Holy Spirit is what we need, and the Holy Spirit will guide us to wisdom that will help–and some of that wisdom will be gleaned through modern research, just as medical breakthroughs are often gleaned through modern research.
2. Can you tell me what your policies are for confidentiality?
Because biblical counsellors aren’t accredited, they don’t have the same obligations to maintain confidentiality that licensed therapists do. In addition, many times when you see a biblical counsellor at a church, you’re required to sign a document that there may be times that the counsellor will have to talk to the leadership of the church about you.
To sign a document that permits a counsellor to share information with the pastors and elders at the counsellor’s discretion is very dangerous and ill-advised.
This church gives 5 reasons the counsellor may break confidentiality:
- When there is a clear indication that someone may be harmed unless others intervene.
- When required to report a crime, as mandated by Law.
- In discussions with a physician, previous counselor, counselors and/or your advocate, for the sole purpose of gaining information for your care, or to help in follow up and after care.
- When a counselor is uncertain of how to address a particular problem and needs to seek advice and wisdom from another staff member or elder, we will make every effort to be sensitive to your situation.
- When a person persistently refuses to renounce a particular sin and it becomes necessary to seek the assistance of others in the church to encourage repentance and reconciliation. (see Proverbs 15:22, 24:11, Matthew 18:15-20)
The first two are no problem–even licensed counselors break confidentiality for these reasons.
But let’s look at the others.
First, no physician should EVER share information with your counsellor without your written permission. But this says that the church can also contact your previous counsellor. If your previous counsellor was not licensed, and is not bound by confidentiality, and you had a bad experience with them, your current counsellor can still go behind your back and talk to that counsellor. Not good.
Second, they can break confidentiality if the counsellor needs help. There’s nothing here, though, that says they will keep your identity private when they do so (only that they will be sensitive).
The most concerning condition, though, is the last one: the counselor may report to others if you’re in persistent sin. But what constitutes persistent sin? What if you refuse to reconcile with a husband who has been addicted to porn and the counselor tells you to? In 2015, The Village Church put Karen Hinkley under church discipline because she refused to reconcile with her husband who was addicted to child pornography (the church later apologized when the story hit the national press).
3. What makes you different from a non-biblical counsellor?
Listen to their reasons for pursuing biblical counselling instead of going the accredited route.
This document states:
Ask if they can give an example of secular psychiatry and psychology that they reject. Do they accept the concept of mental illness? Of boundaries? Of cognitive behavioural therapy?
4. What role do you think demons play in psychological disorders? What is your opinion on the use of antidepressants or other psychiatric medications?
We know that the evil one does plague people and causes confusion, doubt, and depression. But sometimes we do that to ourselves, too, and sometimes we have biological imbalances in the brain that also do that. If you see everything as a demonic attack, and reject any other causes of psychological disorders, then that is a red flag. As my assistant Joanna said:
If the counsellor does not believe that medications should ever be used, that is also a red flag. Perhaps you are not dealing with an issue that would ever require medication, but this belief that all problems are spiritual attacks or spiritual weaknesses and never biological does mean that the counsellor can have tunnel vision when it comes to the issues that you’re dealing with, especially anxiety or depression.
5. Do I have your blessing to follow the advice of other professionals?
The document further goes on:
What is meant by that last bit: “help you to consider their counsel in the light of relevant scriptural principles”?
What this means is that if you see a lawyer because your husband is abusive, and you want to protect the kids, the church may encourage you to reject the lawyer’s advice because they believe that abuse does not constitute a valid reason for divorce. Or if you see a psychiatrist who wants to put you on some medication, they may tell you to stop because it isn’t scriptural. By saying that they will be happy to help you consider the advice of the other counselors in light of relevant scriptural principles, they’re putting themselves ABOVE those other professionals, and may put you under discipline if you decide to heed the counsel of another professional (and this may constitute ‘persistent sin’ in the confidentiality clause above).
6. What is your definition of submission in marriage? What should a wife do if she feels that her husband is ignoring her legitimate needs?
If you are going to a counsellor for marriage issues, you need to make sure that the counsellor’s aim is that everyone’s legitimate needs are being met, rather than simply trying to maintain a hierarchy in marriage.
Especially since this document states that they will go to the church leadership if you are in “persistent sin”, please ensure that they don’t classify trying to draw good boundaries in marriage with your husband as being in sin.
7. Can you tell me a time when you’ve recommended that someone leave a marriage? If there hasn’t been such a time, when would you recommend that?
I’m all for keeping marriages together. But I also know that some marriages cannot be saved, and that requiring a spouse to stay in a marriage with an abusive or addictive spouse is not fair or right.
However, some biblical counsellors would never advise separation or divorce. If this is the case, then they are not safe to go to if you are having marriage difficulties. Even if you are not considering of divorce or separation, you need to see a counsellor who is primarily concerned for your safety.
8. What do you think emotional abuse is? Can you tell me an example of an emotionally abusive relationship?
Even if you do not think you are not dealing with emotional abuse in your marriage, find out if the counsellor believes that emotional abuse is real (many, unfortunately, don’t). If your counsellor does not believe this abuse is real, then they are not well-equipped to help you because they don’t understand basic dynamics in marriage. If they believe that standing up against abuse is sinful in and of itself, they may also be dangerous.
9. What do you think of Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s book “Boundaries”?
To me, this is a great litmus test! Many biblical counsellors do not believe in the concept of “boundaries”, because it’s a self-help book rather than the Bible (although Cloud and Townsend base it on biblical principles). If a counsellor does not believe in the concepts in this book, then it’s unlikely the counsellor will be able to offer good or adequate solutions if one person is acting selfishly in the marriage.
10. What are your favourite marriage books?
If they say Love & Respect by Emerson Eggerichs or Created To Be His Helpmeet by Debi Pearl, run for the hills! Those books both encourage women to enable their husband’s sin and selfishness rather than standing up and dealing with it appropriately. God does not call us to enable sin!
If you are seeking marriage counseling, it is very important that you understand their opinion of proper gender roles in marriage, because if they believe that a wife must do what her husband says no matter what, then you may be in a very difficult position.
Finally, be sure that you can walk away if biblical counselling goes badly.
This document also declares:
When you sign that document, you’re saying that if you disagree with a counselor, or get upset that they brought something to the leadership of the church, you have no standing to get help if the leadership believes you’re in sin. That’s exactly what happened with Karen Hinkley. She tried to leave The Village Church, and they told her she wasn’t allowed because she had signed a document putting herself under their authority. And then they sent out emails telling the congregation how she was in sin.
Update: Many supporters of biblical counselling point to the fact that the founders of the discipline or big names in biblical counselling can seem much more lenient in these areas and are more open to medical approaches to psychological care. However, even if the leaders of the biblical counselling movement all had PhD.s in clinical psychiatry, that wouldn’t actually change anything for the lay counsellor because there is still absolutely no higher accountability. A biblical counsellor can say or do anything and there are no ramifications. He cannot lose his license, she cannot be sued, he cannot be held accountable. Licensed Christian counsellors, on the other hand, can have all of these things happen if they they break the vows they took for ethical behaviour.
Most licensed, Christian counsellors are amazing.
I learned so much from my counselor Denise. She’s a good friend and mentor to this day. She had a true desire and passion to help people through difficult times in their lives. I do believe that seeking counselling is the right thing to do for so many issues. I’m just aware that many churches do it very badly, and so I encourage all of you to do your homework before you get into a dangerous or difficult counselling situation.
Have you ever had counselling from your church? Was it a good experience or a bad experience? What do you think about some of these issues? Let’s talk in the comments!