10 Questions to Ask a Biblical Counsellor to Make Sure They’re Safe

by | Mar 19, 2019 | Abuse, Uncategorized | 63 comments

questions to ask before seeing biblical counsellor

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:

  1. When there is a clear indication that someone may be harmed unless others intervene.
  2. When required to report a crime, as mandated by Law.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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:

We believe that the Bible provides thorough guidance and instruction for faith and life; therefore, our counseling is based on Scriptural principles rather than those of secular psychology or psychiatry.

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:

Some people, when I talk about my intrusive thoughts, will say, “that’s Satan, Joanna” and I think, “maybe a little? But mostly my brain doesn’t work right…”

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:

If you have significant legal, financial, medical or other technical questions, you should seek advice from an independent professional. None of our counselors are licensed professionals. Our ministry staff and lay counselors will be happy to cooperate with such advisors and help you to consider their counsel in the light of relevant scriptural principles.

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:

On rare occasions, a conflict may develop between a counselor and a counselee. In order to make sure that any such conflicts are resolved in a biblical manner, we require all of our counselees to agree that any dispute that arises with a counselor or with church staff as a result of counseling, will be settled by mediation under the leadership of the church. We will make every effort to resolve conflict in a manner according to the principles of Scripture.

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!


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10 Questions to Ask a Biblical Counsellor to Make Sure They're Safe

 

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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63 Comments

  1. Anonymous A

    On the flip side, do not automatically assume that licensed Christian counselors are safe either. We have had more than one incident in our mid size community over the years of licensed Chrisitan counselors having inappropriate sexual relationships with clients. Yes, they lost licenses, but one of them is still very active in another people helping profession in another town now and on a national level.

    A good article might be one that gives a warning as to what is inappropriate behavior by a licensed counselor.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, that’s a good idea for a follow-up article! Thank you.

      And, yes, that is just tragic. The good thing, though, is that they LOST THEIR LICENSES. That’s the thing about licensed people–there are repercussions when something goes wrong. On the other hand, what we’re seeing in the church sex abuse scandal right now is that there often are no repercussions within the church when staff members do this. I think an external licensing body is so important. But I also think it’s important, whoever you choose to do counselling, that you ask these questions. It’s even more important and crucial, though, when you see someone without a license and they require you to sign over all your rights to confidentiality and to help if something goes wrong before you even start.

      Reply
      • Merl

        Very timely and needed article. There should be full conversation on these things and more they should also be something in writing for the client. Doing your research prior to beginning any counseling, and knowing that licensing information is available to the public on the board of counseling website or just by Googling look up counselors licensing information. As a pastor with a post doctorate degree and a separate degree in counseling school counselor by day Private Practice by night I’ve the majority of the aspects of counseling. A great follow-up article for me when your child is in need of Mental Health Services the difference between a licensed therapist , an intensive in-home worker, a mental health counselor , a therapeutic day treatment counselor , mental health skill-building counselor,and a life coach. My goodness I wish I was able to listen to or call into that pot crafts of yours that dealt with the subject.

        Reply
    • Anonymous A

      I would be very cautious about putting too much confidence in counseling boards and ethics rules. The main situation that I mentioned, the victim turned him into the state counseling board- and it took a year for any public notice of any investigation or discipline. During that year, when I called the counseling board- knowing the accusations- the counseling board would only say “He is in good standing and licensed to practice.” So legally he could have been seeing clients all that year, although I don’t think he was. My understanding was that they never contacted the victim for any followup questions or to give her a progress update or to get her any help at all dealing with the aftermath.

      Yes, he lost his license- but that does not undo the damage that he did- which to that victim and the fallout to many other former clients.

      So yes, he will not hurt anyone else as a counselor- however he is in another state now giving public seminars about a relationship with Jesus. And yes, his promoters know his history. The thing with counseling training is that apparently counselors are very well trained in how to understand other people’s psychology and that can be used for good or bad, regardless of whether they are legally practicing counseling.

      One caution I would have- is to be very wary if a counselor mentions that having sex with them is part of therapy. Not even sure it is illegal in all states- yes it is unethical, but there is a difference between unethical behavior for which you might lose your license and illegal behavior that might put you in jail( and there are major differences in state laws about what is legal or not).

      And apparently if a counselor is at the supervisor designation- at least in my state- which he was- there is very little on going oversight- by the counseling board- unless there is a complaint and like I said, the public has no official knowledge that there is even an investigation going on.

      Reply
    • AP

      Even church counselors with over 30 years in marriage counseling can be so complicit in abusive marriages. I still trust that mine had the best intentions, but shamed me for leaving and said it was due to my lack of trust in God. I had to finally go off of what I knew to be true and the peace and release that God put on my heart. It was very hard to know I was disappointing the counselor I trusted so much and subsequently to be cut off by them.

      Reply
    • Allison

      Hi. I am a member of a Biblical Counseling Association, although I have not finished my training to become certified. I cannot agree more with this list of questions. I have been under and hurt deeply by Biblical Counseling, which is one reason why I have not finished my own training. It wish those in this “field” could understand the damage done to people in the name of the Bible.

      And another point, those who say the Bible is all that is needed are by default claiming it to be insufficient to give us discernment in using wisdom from other areas of expertise. Anything else that is labeled “Biblical ” does not rely on only the Bible, but is instead based on and filtered through Biblical principles. Take for example Biblical preaching. Pastors draw from many different sources when preparing their sermons, yet based on Biblical principles, making it Biblical preaching. To say that Counseling can only be Biblical when using just the Bible is to deny the guidance of the Holy Spirit

      Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Thank you so much, Allison! This is great. I’m sorry for the experiences you had in school. I hope you can find a way to counsel without getting wrapped up in some very unbiblical thinking.

        Reply
    • Crystal Renaud Day

      I appreciate your warnings and they are valid, but there is a middle ground between licensed therapists and biblical counselors, especially biblical “counselors” with no training and appointed by churches. There is a third option… for example, I am a masters level pastoral counselor (MAPC). Meaning, I have a master of arts in pastoral counseling from an accredited university. I may not be licensed (i.e. LPC or LCPC or LMFT) but I have been clinically and theologically trained in a number of mental, emotional, and spiritual health issues. I marry psychology and theology together… and I always (ALWAYS) refer up when a client’s needs exceed my abilities to help.

      Reply
  2. Kay

    I already see comments on Facebook saying you have mischaracterized biblical counseling. I beg to differ. I saw a biblical counselor when I was struggling with PPD and had just had a psychotic episode. The very first session I was told that my PPD was a sinful response to stressful circumstances, that no temptation had seized me except what is common to man (which is exceptional disturbing to hear when just a few days earlier I could have killed my baby and myself if God hadn’t protected us from psychosis), and I was told to just do the right thing no matter how I felt. Just *trying harder* to follow God’s way would free me from my depression.

    To some extent, hearing it was my fault felt like good news at first because then I could fix it. The problem was the harder I tried to be godly, the more manic I became, and very soon was full blown suicidal because no matter how hard I tried to do things “God’s way,” I couldn’t break free. I finally switched to a Christian counselor trained in PPD and **the very first session** I was hospitalized. I saw the biblical counselor for months and she missed it. I was NOT okay. Not even a little bit okay. That hospitalization was the turning point in my journey. I wish I had gone months earlier instead of wasting all that time with a biblical counselor.

    Also, my FIL is a biblical counselor. I cannot in good conscience recommend that ANYONE see him.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, Kay, I didn’t know that part of your story! Wow! I’m so glad that you got help.

      And thank you so much for sharing your story. That’s really helpful (even if it’s tragic). Yes, the problem with seeing everything as a sin issue means that you miss important things.

      Reply
      • Kay

        The woman I saw did not have children. I think that was part of the problem. I don’t think she could understand the role of extreme sleep deprivation. I was told that I should never co-sleep because my marriage comes first, but after 8 months of sleeping in 45-90 minute increments, I was *literally* going crazy. Maybe some women can just roll with that kind of sleep deprivation, but I am not one of them. The licensed therapist helped me to see that sleep was our top priority because you can’t even have a marriage when the wife is suicidal from sleep deprivation. She was right. I did also need medication, which the biblical counselor told me was not “God’s way,” that I was just treating symptoms with a bandaid instead of getting to the root cause (rebellion and sin).

        That was in 2011. I am learning more and more about childhood emotional neglect and complex trauma, and I firmly believe this also has played a role in why my brain defaults to depression and intrusive thoughts when enough triggers have been tripped. Exacerbated by sleep deprivation, adjusting to a new baby, an insecure attachment to my husband (as a result of a neglectful childhood), and extreme hormonal changes? PPD was essentially unavoidable for me. And it was NOT my fault. I have the power to do a lot of healing, but I cannot change that I was not set up for success or the fallout from that. We are all doing the best we can until we know better. I know more now, and I am battling to make changes.

        Reply
  3. Anonymous

    Thank you for sounding the alarm. It needed to be pulled!

    Not having the money for licensed counseling was given as a reason for turning to these other options. But as an alternative some critics counseling centers offer a sliding scale, if there is a Christian university or seminary nearby- they often offer free counseling by their students that is supervised, and many charitable organizations will offer grants for counseling help if you qualify. I’ve heard of churches who will help
    pay for licensed counseling from their ministry funds as well.

    And while I’ve known some Stephens Ministry programs at churches that seem helpful, I also know of a couple of very dangerous people acting as Stephens ministers in churches. So ask hard questions there also.

    Reply
    • Anonymous

      That should say “some Christian counseling centers offer sliding scales”

      I forgot to proofread. Sorry

      Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Anonymoous–yes, you’re totally right about the schools. Rebecca has several friends who have gone through the counselling program at St. Paul’s in Ottawa, and they offered counselling there that was supervised while they were in training. I also know that many churches in Ontario network together to provide licensed counselling to their members.

      Reply
    • Wendy

      I’m currently in training to become a Stephen Minister and I just want to point out that we are not considered counselors in any way. We are “Christians care-givers” and are taught to listen to our care receiver and to ask questions to help them process what they are going through. We are not supposed to give advice and must be very cautious and sensitive about if, when, and how to share Biblical truth (such as an appropriate Bible verse or who we are in Christ). We are also being taught about how to recognize when our care receiver needs help from a qualified professional. Confidentiality is a huge requirement & we are under regular peer supervision. All of that said, we are not professionals & I’m sure some bad apples get through the training, but hopefully they would be reported to the local Stephen Ministry leaders who should not allow them to continue care giving. Asking these questions of the Stephen Ministry leadership is a great plan to help someone feel comfortable with the care giving relationship and to understand what it is and what it is not.

      Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Yes, Stephen Ministers is something very different to me. I had a wonderful Stephen Minister walk beside me in the weeks after my son died. She was marvelous. Never tried to give advice, just listened and cared for me. I think that’s a great model for lay ministers. But I’m sure there are some bad apples, but the thing is that when they’re bad, it’s because they’re violating some aspect of Stephen Ministry. When a biblical counselor misses trauma or the biological basis for some disorders, that can actually be part of the training/ethos, and that’s a problem.

        Reply
  4. Stormy

    To Love, Honor and Vacuum I agree!!!! My husband is a Licensed Professional Counselor and went to 3 years of Grad school and a 3,000 hour internship before he could be licensed. He is a Christian Counselor. And he is totally fine with his clients asking him questions the first session or beforehand. I hate when people get counselors with a lower case confused with Counselors with an upper case. I’ve got a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and I am not equipped to counsel someone the way my husband is because of his training. He is a professional, that’s the kind of person I want to see.
    Someone who went to a certification program just doesn’t have the training to be a true counselor. They could be a mentor or a coach, but not counselor.

    Reply
  5. Connor Lindenbach

    I am actually working down the path to becoming a licensed counsellor, so I have studied and researched the distinction between Christian and biblical counselling. I have read literature on both sides of the “sufficiency of scripture” debate. I have heard of bad practice and good practice coming from Christian, biblical, and secular counselling.
    There is always a potential for benefit or for harm, but the important point is that in the world of certified counselling there are safeguards in place to protect the confidentiality and autonomy of the client, as well as to enforce certain standards of quality. In biblical counselling settings, you are not guaranteed any of these protections. What Sheila is saying here is something I wished more people knew: If you are considering a biblical counsellor you should take steps for your safety. There is no harm in asking.

    Reply
  6. CK

    Sheila, do you have recommendations for how to find a good licensed Christian counselor?

    Reply
    • Rebecca Lindenbach

      If you know any Christian medical professionals, they’re usually a great place to start!

      Then, I would ask pastors for a list of licensed counsellors who are Christian and then look them up to see if they have proper credentials.

      Finally, you can always google it! Google “Licensed Christian counselors near me” and many websites pop up with their full credentials available. (E.g., registered psychotherapist, clinical social worker/therapist, and whether or not they belong to a school of psychotherapy.)

      But whoever you go to, always ask what their credentials are! People who are trained in MA or other graduate programs to become licensed counsellors do NOT see this as an insult–it’s actually a good sign that you are taking your care seriously! Plus, they get to brag about their qualifications a bit, which always feels good when you put so many years into getting them. 🙂

      Reply
  7. Phil

    Sheila – I see this time and time again in my 12 step program for sex addiction. Beleive it or not we have a very high clergy presence. Guys will choose that clergy (who is often lying to us anyway about his sobriety) as their sponsor. Why? Because he is clergy. Because he is supposedley connected to God. Well this sounds great right? Here is the thing. The real reason they choose them is because they dont want to actually do the work. They want God to do it for them. So they think if they choose a Christian clergy they will automatically get sober. I venture a guess the same thing often applies with why peope choose christian counseling as well. If they choose a Christian counselor well then I am sure their marriage will be saved. Just like the guy who thinks he is going to get sober right? I am all for the Christain approach. Jesus is the answer. The problem is, he is only the answer if we do the work and if we allow him to do HIS work. More of the same from me I guess but that is something common I see in all areas of life where folks are looking for help with their problems….

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      So true, Phil! You have to do the work. It isn’t just about believing certain things.

      I do think Christian licensed counsellors, in general, are great, though. I’m just wary of the biblical counselling model. I don’t want to disparage all Christian counsellors. I honestly think that’s a better idea than secular counsellors. I just think that when biblical counselling is involved, you need to be wary and ask these questions (and don’t sign that form!)

      Reply
      • Phil

        With you Sheila…

        Reply
        • Angela SMITH

          I just got done having multiple meetings with two different Church counselors. The first meeting was with an older lady and she was flabbergasted and I wanted someone to talk to my husband and I together. She doesn’t do that so she referred me you can say to the main counselor at my church. Well as scheduling snafu happened and my husband couldn’t make it to the first meeting. So the counselor and I talked and he came to the conclusion I was not being rebellious. But I was having proper boundaries. However a few days ago we had a meeting and my husband was actually able to come and they’re the pastor / counselor said I was being rebellious and that I need to apologize for something I did. I got my haircut. Yeah. Anyways the counselor was calling this conflict resolution. Far from it my dear. I have another meeting with him in a few weeks and I will be finding out what he thinks of this list.

          Reply
          • Sheila Wray Gregoire

            Oh, Angela, that sounds like a very toxic situation. Please find a different counselor! That’s not safe.

  8. Lisa Hall-Wilson

    Well – I have lost count of the number of mentors, biblical counselling, and professional counselling I’ve had over the last 15 years.

    You don’t know what you don’t know, right. And when you don’t have $$ you do the best you can with what you have available to you. And you have to give yourself some grace for that limitation.

    These are great questions to ask. I’ve had a really great experience with biblical counselling but did find it limited. They weren’t able or equipped (or willing) to diagnose the underlying issues, but I did find some help there at a price I could afford – so that shouldn’t be dismissed.

    So, yeah – the biblical counselling (from a couple of sources) helped me learn about forgiving myself for childhood molestation, learning to give myself grace, praying for healing. That was over a series of months and then they said there was nothing more they could do for me.

    It took a licensed professional – on the first visit – to diagnose my mild (not complex) PTSD. I haven’t been put on medication, though I’ll admit there have been times that would’ve made life easier for sure. The biblical counselling wanted to talk about memories and past trauma and there’s a place for that, but they concluded I was “healed” when I had finished their “curriculum”. *sigh* I wasn’t healed – May never be “healed” this side of heaven, but that sent my head on a bad trip when I couldn’t pray the problems away.

    What I’ve come away from all of it with is that good questions are central to success AND knowing what you need help for. Which is hard – cause sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. If I’d known from the start I was dealing with PTSD, maybe I’d be years ahead of where I am now. But I’m paying $140/hr for counselling (we have insurance which I’m so thankful for that covers a little more than half that) and I could never have afforded that before.

    I’m now seeing a professional (who providentially happened to be a Christian – love how God worked that out) with an MSW trained in trauma and EMDR therapy (the latter is what I’m about to start and what should’ve been recommended years ago).

    I received help from all of it, but it wasn’t the most efficient journey. I got the help I could afford and each counsellor helped me move ahead. But when you’re not able to think clearly, when you’re vulnerable, when the biblical counselling isn’t working – these questions would be a better hedge of protection than blind trust.

    Also, it took me a while to realize this. But counselling (like mentoring) is sometimes only a short season. Some counsellors I only saw once or twice about something specific. Some didn’t feel right. Some lasted for years. Be objective enough to know if you’re being helped or not. And move on if you’re not.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Thank you so much for sharing your story, Lisa! That’s tremendously helpful. I’m glad you’re seeing someone good now (and so glad you have insurance!). I do think that the biblical counselling model of thinking that people are healed when they can embrace certain doctrines is fundamentally flawed. I’m glad you are where you are now!

      Reply
    • Kay

      Hi Lisa, can I ask a quick question. You wrote “forgiving yourself for childhood molestation.” Can you clarify what you mean by that? Is that something your biblical counselor said was needed?

      Reply
      • Lisa Hall-Wilson

        Hi Kay,
        Specifically – I had to forgive myself for not fighting back. For blaming myself for what happened. For holding myself accountable for things I would never expect from any five-year-old.

        The advice I got from the biblical counsellor was more in line with what I might have gotten from a trusted older woman – a mentor. Wasn’t on par with a trained Christian counsellor or anywhere near what I’m getting now with an accredited and secularly trained counsellor, but as a starting point for someone with no $$ – it was an OK but ultimately inadequate, and Overly-simplistic.

        I say that with the caveat that I can see now I exhibited many red flags for anxiety at least (what was really trauma-PTSD) and should have been immediately referred to someone with specific training and experience in that field. PTSD is not something that should (or can be) ignored, prayed through, or pushed past.

        Reply
  9. Anon for friends sake

    I just followed the rabbit trails to all the info on Created to Be His Helpmeet. I’ve read about it before (thankfully steered clear of it for myself) and of their child rearing books (evil).
    I have a friend who struggles a lot in her marriage and I know at one low point she read that book. I’m so sad at the thought that she likely internalized this CRAP. Now, her husband is not abusive but the whole relationship is so full of disrespect and dysfunction and I can’t help but think that this book encouraged more disrespect and dysfunction. 😢
    I also have a friend who is married to a narcissist serial flirt (at best-he also spends time alone with women so I doubt it stopped there) and REFUSES to change this behavior on any level. She was seeing a counselor (I assume Christian since they are believers) who told her she should leave him. She stopped seeing that counselor. It’s so unhealthy. But you can’t make someone see the truth. The best counselor is only helpful if you listen to what they have to say even if it doesn’t tickle your ears.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      So very true! And I’m sorry that she read Created to Be His Helpmeet. It’s just so very wrong.

      Reply
  10. Amanda K.

    Licensed Christian counselors at an accredited hospital saved my life. I had the absolute best care that God has seen fit to provide through advances by Christian medical scientists. I had a comprehensive treatment plan that recognized my need for both spiritual and physical/mental care. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive, but in fact go hand in hand toward providing the best possible outcome. I was truly blessed to have licensed Christian therapists who understood that.

    My pastor is an incredible counselor and I have met with him, but he recognizes that he is but one part of the team that God has entrusted with my care. Any counselor who does not recognize that is at best ignorant of what comprehensive care looks like, and at worst is involved in self-idolatry.

    The idea of a biblical counselor can be appealing and can even be part of care, but it overlooks a bigger picture that a qualified Christian counselor sees.

    Our bodies are temples. We are called to care for them accordingly. If God has designated a Christian who has thorough training in care of the mind, which is an integral part of the body, then I feel we shouldn’t settle for less.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Thank you, Amanda! And I’m so glad that you got the help you needed. And your pastor sounds like a very wise person.

      Reply
  11. SH

    I have a family member who trusted a staff member friend who took them to a Biblical counselor, and I can vouch that the whole process was even less confidential than I (too late) was told. “Accountability” designed for the benefit of the church, not the client. So angry right now. We are helping them through it at this point, but it’s very condemning for someone who has other issues that must be factored in. I didn’t understand the invasiveness of this approach till now. Thanks for laying this out so clearly, Sheila.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      You’re welcome, SH! And I’m sorry you have to navigate all of this. I wish your friend all the best.

      Reply
  12. Wifeofasexaddict

    Don’t be afraid of a counselor who isn’t Christian either. A counselors job is not to give advice or tell you what you should do. Their job is to help you figure it out yourself. I mean, avoid one who is antagonistic to your faith, but even a non-Chrisyian counselor can help young they are doing their job right. I think we should be over the notion that being in a Christian environment keeps you safe after all the church abuse that has come to light the last few years.

    Reply
  13. Jan Finochio

    So many valuable points in your article!! It was a pleasure to read it!

    Reply
  14. Coleen

    I’m glad to see more people talking about the problems with Biblical (nouthetic) counseling. I’ve personally seen the damage it can do, especially regarding mental illness and abuse situations.

    Reply
  15. Ashley

    I never went to anyone with the biblical counselor title. My ex-husband and I did see our former-pastor for marriage counseling. It was such an awful experience. As you know, he cheated in various ways and was emotionally abusive. I sought counseling at that time because I was feeling so hopeless in the marriage. He was withholding communication and affection (I didn’t realize it was abuse at the time.) and I was really feeling like our marriage couldn’t last long without a change.

    At our counseling appointing my ex managed to make me look lazy because I was already struggling so much with migraines and insomnia, and many mornings I would get up late after struggling so much during the night. The pastor really didn’t believe I had health problems, or he believed it was all in my mind. He told me I should get a job so I would be tired enough to sleep after a day of work. He also told me things I should try to improve communication (I wasn’t the one withholding). The clincher was when he told me repeatedly that I should have a baby so we would have something to talk about. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention he got sooo mad at me because I thought our marriage might not last and lectured me about that, saying divorce was NOT an option.

    Let’s just say I didn’t go back for a second session of that!

    Reply
    • Natalie

      Have a baby so you can have something to talk about?!?!?! Are you frickin’ kidding me?!?!?!? This person should never counsel another soul ever again!!! Oh my gosh!!! Good thing you had the sense to not stay longer than that initial session! Ugh! What a nightmare!

      Reply
      • Ashley

        Natalie,

        To be fair, my former pastor was trying to help, and was just honestly out of his league. Miles out, actually! But that’s why the proper education is so important, isn’t it? I do think a lot of the advice he gave (other than having a baby) would likely help a couple struggling with run-of-the-mill communication problems. But pastors and other leaders should really have discernment about when they are out of their league and refer a couple to more qualified help for more dire matters, like what I was facing.

        Reply
  16. Ashley

    Oh, on a humorous note, Flying Free has the most hilarious spoof video on Facebook of a biblical counseling session with David after Saul threw the javelin at him. This would definitely be counseling gone wrong! Haha!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, I just watched that! So well done! Now I want to go watch all the rest of Natalie’s videos. 🙂

      Reply
  17. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

    Great post; counseling can go so horribly wrong, sometimes.

    I would suggest that if one of the partners has combat-trauma-induced PTSD that the counselor be carefully questioned as to attitudes and background. (Reading Jonathan Shay is a good start.)

    The common perception is that combat trauma is relate to horrific memories and guilt over experiences, and while that may be true, there’s a whole ‘nother side.

    For some people – for me, certainly – it was the knowing that I woud never be that awesome again, and that no civilian experience could possibly match combat.

    I was lucky; the battle followed me home, and I am now fighting pancreatic cancer and non-Hodgkins lymphoma. It’s painful beyond belief, but I have a bled-to-the-bone sense of purpose again.

    Wish I had learned earlier, what I really was. Would hae spared my wife a lof of grief.

    Reply
  18. Kate

    These are great tips. And thank you for mentioning that most people seek out Christian councilors because of lack of money. When you grow up in an abusive family and you don’t have money due to being destitute for fleeing your home in order to survive, you don’t have $120 sitting in your bank for a 1 hours session everyday. The rich prosper because we live in a world where the love of money makes the world go round in many areas of life. Most people make $10 or less an hour while councilors demand $120 for ONE hour! Ridiculous! Either increase the hour or lower the price. The Christian councilors i have had have been wonderful and God sent! I would be dead today if it were not for them. Thanks for the article!

    Reply
  19. Laura Willenburg

    I understand your experience has not been good with biblical counseling but I want to present to you another aspect of this. I used to be in a professional counseling program and found it to be insufficient for working with spiritual matters. I am now studying pastoral counseling at Liberty University and I find it to be a much more balanced approach to counseling. I am being taught techniques and information on how to handle spiritual issues as well as helpful research and techniques that the field of psychology and others contribute to the counseling process as well. I do not specialize in mental disorders and would refer out for such cases but I assure you that I do not believe in discounting psychological or biological causes of problems. There is also licensing available through the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, so you may want to look for that as well when you are looking for a biblical counselor. I know there are different schools of thought on this and not everyone who does this has the proper training but I just wanted to clear up some things. God bless!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Hi Laura,

      I’m not sure Liberty actually is a “biblical” counselling program, though, but just a counselling program that has a Christian aim? That’s what my son-in-law is planning on taking at a Christian university, and that’s what my Christian counsellors had–a counselling degree from Tyndale University in Toronto, which is Christian, but is also accredited.

      Again, there’s a big difference between someone who is a Christian and who has a counselling degree and someone who is a Christian and has a BIBLICAL counselling degree. It’s a specific school of counselling that says that the Bible is sufficient for all things, and tends to look at things very differently from most trained Marriage and Family Therapists.

      ***
      I’ve just looked at the Liberty website and it looks like I was right–they don’t offer biblical counselling. They offer pastoral counselling and then accreditation, and again, that’s a very different kettle of fish. Those are the kinds of counsellors that I was talking about who are licensed. If you look at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, for instance (all the SBC seminaries teach only biblical counseling at this point) you can see the difference.

      You can also read this article which talks about the “fight” between the two different schools of counseling (pastoral vs. biblical) at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where the “biblical” model won out.

      Reply
  20. Sharon

    I think we need to be careful in putting Biblical counseling into a box. Not all Biblical Counselors are as you’ve described. For the last 17 yrs I have seen Biblical Counseling all of which have a license or have a masters/doctorate in counseling. They are Biblical Counselors because they apply God’s word and keep the gospel in the midst of all problems. God is our great Healer and when we leave Him out of our mental healing I believe we walk on dangerous ground. I struggle with depression and anxiety, my BC suggested I see my GP to get on meds, which I did. We talk about heart issues and root causes, yes it’s a chemical imbalance but the way we deal with, the lies we believe etc are often sinful reactions that need to be dealt with. I don’t know, I just thank God for the BC I have received as it has healed me and has allowed me a greater understanding of who God is.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Hi Sharon,

      If they have a license, then they’re not actually “biblical” counsellors. They’re Christian counsellors. I hate the word “biblical” counsellors because it sounds like I’m saying all Christian counsellors are bad. Biblical counselling is a field of study that says that the Bible is all-sufficient, and thus we don’t need other help. They tend to focus on the sin aspect of hurt, and they tend not to be taught about the trauma aspect of hurt. Someone trained as a biblical counsellor is not actually eligible for government licensing.

      Most Christian counsellors (ie counsellors who are Christians) also believe that the Bible is necessary for healing, but they have a much better understanding of the dynamics of abuse/trauma, and don’t tend to focus all healing at the idea that we need to repent and forgive. Sometimes we just need healing. They also are much better at understanding chemical imbalances. I hope that helps!

      Reply
  21. Annonymous

    I don’t have the emotional capacity/energy to type my story but I can say that this information is 1,000% true. My only regret is that I didn’t know this sooner and to leave an emotionally abusive and destructive marriage at the first sign of the blaring red flags in my marriage. ~ When a pastor tells you to read “Real Marriage” by Mark Driscoll (thank GOD I had already known about the dangers of this book) and I quietly, nervously spoke up to the pastor and said “With all due respect, have you actually read this book?” And then I never heard back from him after that. Anyways, I could go on about how pastoral care and biblical counseling re-traumatized me. But the one book that changed my life was “The Emotionally Destructive Marriage” by Leslie Vernick. I’m begging any woman who believes she might be in an emotionally destructive and abusive marriage to please read this book. She also has a private online community and safe place for women- it seriously saved my life. And yes, I was also counselled by someone who was trained in Biblical Counseling (they received a certificate online) and was very much re-traumatized by the advice given when in fact I was actually just suffering from PTSD and Generalized Anxiety from living in a toxic abusive marriage. But instead was asked repeatedly “what unconfessed sin do you have in your life?” Instead of getting me the proper healthcare I needed and to get the heck out of that marriage.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m so sorry! And I’m so glad that you’re in a good place now. I recommend Leslie’s books and website quite frequently. I do find that far too much emphasis is placed on “unconfessed sin” in biblical counselling, and not nearly enough on simply understanding trauma or toxic situations. It’s very sad.

      Reply
    • Tu

      I can vouch for the online group Conquer byLeslie Vernick. As a wife to a man who emotionally and verbally abused me for decades even while we were dating (I was fourteen and he was seventeen), I needed this type of support.
      I had grown up in an emotionally, spiritually, and verbally abusive home with my mom and her sex addicted husband. I didn’t know how to take care of me. Everyone else was strong and powerful while I was weak.
      I’m standing up to the lies I learned and growing in my relationship to God, myself, and others.
      You wouldn’t believe the things I hear other Christian women suffering at the hands of so called Christian husbands, pastors, church folks, and when they cry for help, their families turn their backs. It’s heartbreaking…

      Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        I’m so glad you’ve got good help, Tu! I fully vouch for Leslie. She’s one of the good ones.

        Reply
  22. Erin

    I agree with other commentors that sometimes licensed Christian counselors are unsafe too, simply because every single one is a person and sometimes, no matter the training, a person’s opinions or personality can be hurtful. Be careful!

    We went to one where my husband just plowed over everything, going forty-five minutes longer than our session time, to list my “sins.” (Even things like how Christian friends in our church had sent thank you notes to me and wrote of how they appreciated me. Yes, to him this was a problem because these people should know the “real” me and not be kind to me apparently.) The woman basically said nothing the whole time just letting him take over. It was absolutely traumatizing. I went to my own personal Christian counselor later that week and when she told me, “I had a mentor early on who told me to never let abuse happen in my office,” I realized what it was. The fact that a professional was sitting there, in my mind, made it justified and right. I thought he must be right.

    No one is automatically a good fit no matter the training. Be wise and be okay with standing up for yourself. This is of course much easier said than done because if you are at a counseling session because of emotional abuse, rarely does the abused even see their value at that point. They need an advocate, not a professional the abuser can wield as a weapon.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Absolutely agree, Erin! Another thing, though: If you are seeking counseling for abuse, it’s actually ill-advised to seek it together. If someone is being abusive, it’s better to seek counselling individually. Abusive spouses can often manipulate counselling sessions, and with abuse, there’s not really a relational aspect that needs to be fixed. The abuser needs to stop. So individual counselling is more appropriate.

      Reply
  23. Anonymous A

    I kept looking at your spelling of counsellor and I kept thinking the spelling is wrong. But I realized that you both have training in counseling, so surely you know how to spell your field of study and I seldom see misspellings on your site- so I thought- well, maybe I am wrong so I looked it up.

    We are both right. You are in Canada and I am in US and by george we spell it different.

    https://grammarist.com/spelling/counselor-counsellor/

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I know! I tend to spell it with two l’s–counselling. That’s my natural bent. But then I kept changing it because I know Google likes counseling better. So I think I’m likely running about 50/50! I still think counseling looks wrong. It should be counselling. But there you go!

      Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        I know in later posts that I wrote I tried to do counseling, but it looks like in this post I stuck to counselling. So confusing!

        Reply
  24. Gordon Ackerman

    Hi, I am a Christian and a licensed counselor, and I unfortunately know that many of the things your article speaks of are true. So just to say, thank you for a well balanced and helpful article.

    Reply
  25. Kendra

    Although I take your point, I’d caution a bit further. If you’re intending to speak with a marriage counselor, be sure the person has been specifically trained in marriage counseling. Everyone and their brother (licensed counselors) says they counsel marriages but most are not trained specifically in that field.

    You want a counselor who is 100% for your marriage (not for one spouse’s viewpoint over the other’s), someone who will work with you as a couple to fight for your marriage until the time that you (or your spouse) decide you don’t wish to fight for it anymore.

    It’s their job to help you and your spouse work out your differences. Far too many counselors say they counsel marriages, but aren’t trained in it and end up doing much more harm than good.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Totally agree, Kendra. Training is essential.

      Reply
  26. Anonymous

    My husband and I went to a licensed Christian counselor a few years ago. We were having some serious issues in our marriage and sex was not happening. She told me my husband looked big enough and strong enough to just take it from me so I might as well just give it to him. I was horrified.

    I refused to do biblical counseling at my church because I knew they would pretty much take the same line and their attitude would be that frequent sex would fix everything.

    By God’s grace, we are still married, but have felt very much on our own in dealing with our issues.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That is awful! did you ever report the counselor? I know here in Ontario that would contravene pretty specific professional ethics and guidelines. I’m so sorry!

      Reply

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