A “Bill of Rights” for Biblical Counseling Clients

by | Apr 5, 2019 | Faith | 13 comments

A Code of Ethics for Biblical Counselors, and Best Practices for Biblical Counselors
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Can churches do biblical counseling in a safe way? Is there a code of ethics that churches or biblical counselors could adopt to protect clients?

I really only intended to write one post about biblical counseling, but I wrote that post, and then the floodgates of emails opened. Initially I wrote about the 10 questions you should ask a biblical counselor to make sure they’re safe–because some biblical counselors are not. Then I wrote about the two big elements any safe counseling situation would include–referrals to specialists when you’re out of your depth, and a guarantee of confidentiality.

I have had a church ask me how how they can set up biblical counseling so that it’s safe for clients, and some seminary professors contact me. Like it says in Ecclesiastes, there is a time to tear down and a time to build up. I feel like I tear down a lot, so today I’d like to try to build up!

I know not all my readers will be interested in this, but I do hope you will bear with me, because rather than respond to inquiries individually, I’d like to have a post to point them to. What I’m going to do here is create a “code of ethics” that churches should establish for biblical counselors who work for them. I’m hoping this post will become a “living” post. I’ll give my suggestions, but then, as good suggestions come in in the comments or subsequent emails, I’ll add them to the post here. That way I don’t have to keep writing new posts about biblical counseling, and I can move on to other things!

Again, the issue I have with biblical counselors is that there are no licenses that can be taken away, and thus there are no enforceable professional ethics. Because of that, there’s a great power imbalance between the counselor and the client, which is not healthy in a counseling situation.

Here, then, is what I would recommend churches agree to, publish, and distribute to clients as part of the consent to counseling form. These values simply hold biblical counselors to the same ethical standards as licensed marriage and family therapists, and are in keeping with best practices for licensed mental health professionals.

If churches did this, I would be much more comfortable with biblical counseling!

(I am not including the traditional wording about how churches do things in light of Scripture, or in light of the cross, or through the leading of the Holy Spirit, because churches tend to already include that language, and I leave that up to them. I am only including here the areas that I fear may be lacking.)

A Code of Ethics for Biblical Counselors

Our goal, in counseling, is to protect the emotional, spiritual, and physical health of our clients above all else. This comes before the preservation of the marriage or concerns for the church.

To that end, we counsel using these values:

1. We consider all our counselors, whether they are paid or not, and whether the law requires it or not, to be mandatory reporters in the case of suspicion of abuse, including, but not limited to, child abuse, spousal abuse, or elder abuse.

2. We consider any sexual contact between a counselor and a client to constitute clergy sexual abuse, and we will report it to the authorities.

3. We recognize that while we have been trained in biblical counseling, there are many areas in which we are not well-equipped. We will refer clients who suffer from trauma, mental illnesses, depression or anxiety, or other things that we know we are not equipped to handle to other mental health professionals. We may counsel them simultaneously, but we will also advise that they get further help.

4. We recognize that mental health professionals and physicians have areas of expertise that we do not have, and we will not advise clients to contravene doctor’s orders, or discourage them from seeking medical attention if the client wishes. If we have concerns about medical treatment, we may advise that the client seek a second opinion from a medical professional, but we will not speak against medical treatment.

5. We believe that client confidentiality is vital to the health of a counseling relationship. Confidentiality will not be broken except when necessary to report crimes; to report suspicion of abuse; or if the client poses a harm to him/herself or others. In these cases the concern will be reported to legal authorities. Other than these exceptions, what is disclosed in counseling will be kept private. The counselor will be the only one with access to files concerning the client, unless the counselor is under supervision for the purposes of training, and then only that supervisor would also have access. These files will be kept locked up where other church employees will not have access. If digital, the files will be kept password-protected.

6. We recognize that in cases where marital abuse is the reason for counseling, couples counseling at outset is inappropriate. Abuse is not a relationship problem, but an individual issue. We will refer the offender to a trained counselor specializing in abuse, who understands the abuse cycle and narcissism, and is familiar with appropriate counseling methodologies in the case of abuse. We will support the abused spouse and any minor children in the interim, and will also look at referring the abused spouse for specialized counseling where appropriate.

7. We recognize that while many issues have sin at the root–such as addictions or pornography use–that sin, when practised over a long period of time, often leads to emotional issues which also have to be addressed in order for full healing to occur and freedom to be found. We realize, too, that much sin has its roots in brokenness, and thus healing will only be achieved when the initial brokenness is also dealt with. Thus, our focus will not only be on repentance, but on full healing at all levels. In some cases, this may also involve referring to further professionals.

8. We recognize that in the case of sin, confession and repentance must be accompanied by the fruits of repentance for relationship restoration. We realize that these fruits must be visible over a period of time, the length of which is commensurate with the degree of the offense. We recognize that the offended party has insight into the offender that we may never have, and thus the offended party will not be pressured to reconcile at any timeline other than the one he or she chooses.

9. Should disputes arise between the counselor and the client, the client can bring those concerns to the leadership of the church. If the client is still not happy with the way that counseling was handled, and believes that some of these values espoused above were violated, the church will hire an independent, third party licensed counselor in the area (such as PERSON YOU INTEND TO HIRE) to review the case and offer recommendations. This report will be given to both the church leadership and the client simultaneously.

A Code of Ethics for Biblical Counselors, and Best Practices for Safe Biblical Counseling

Okay, those would be my recommendations to help ensure that clients’ needs are respected, and that clients are treated appropriately.

Many of these do involve referring to outside counselors, and I think it wise for churches to dedicate a portion of the budget to supporting members in obtaining this counseling. Some areas have a counseling program a church can subscribe to, where any member can get a certain number of sessions a year. That’s another great idea.

Anything else you would add to these 9?

Seriously–this would be the best of both worlds. A person being able to get safe counseling from a church, but also being referred to experts when warranted, and a church protecting the client above all else. This is what the church needs.

So what do you think? I invite your suggestions. And especially if you are a licensed counselor, other mental health professional, or a biblical counselor–do you have issues with any of these? Would you word them differently? Any other concerns? Let’s talk!

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. Emily

    I like this. Having guidelines in place makes everyone safer – the counsellor, the person needing help, etc.

    A small thing. In point 8, I don’t think you mean commiserate. I think you mean commensurate.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Perfect! I will go change that now.

  2. Melissa W

    I think this is a great list. The one thing that jumps out to me about biblical counseling and referrals is that being unlicensed and not trained to the level that a licensed counselor would be I am not certain that many of them would recognize when a referral is necessary. Would they recognize the symptoms of PTSD, PPD, anxiety, depression, addiction, etc. I would suspect that because of the way they are trained with taking everything to the Bible first that many would miss the signs that a referral is necessary. It would be great for a church to get a list of things or training from a professional about what type of symptoms would lead them to make a referral as opposed to continue counseling themselves. And a statement about the fact that they have worked with a professional to recognize the signs of problems that would be beyond their capabilities and thus needing referral would be a nice addition to this list. Not sure exactly what that would look like but if a church is wanting to take the needs of clients seriously they should be willing to put something like this in place for the protection of their clients but also of their counselors. Counselors should be able to discontinue seeing a client if they believe it is beyond their capabilities even when the client refuses to see a licensed professional. I think protecting the counselor in these types of cases is important as well.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Really excellent point, Melissa, and I think that gets to the heart of the problem. I think that this type of list is absolutely necessary to protect clients (and even counselors, as you pointed out). However, the real problem, as you also pointed out, is that, with the way they’re trained, they don’t necessarily agree with the need for referral, agree that these things are not just sin/faith issues, or know how to recognize them. And that’s why I’d be very hesitant to go to a biblical counselor for anything other than minor relationship issues or faith issues.

    • Hannah

      I thought that too as I read. My therapist (licensed, PsyD) read the warning signals for issues I was dealing with immediately, and pushed me to go see a doctor and get further help/look into medication/etc. I’m not sure that an untrained individual would have put two and two together as quickly.

      Somewhat related, I actually wanted a non-Christian therapist–well, I have no idea whether she’s a Christian or not, because it’s none of my business–for the outside perspective. I’ve really appreciated that. I have other people in my life I can ask for general religious advice, but no one else who understands the ins and outs of anxiety, depression, etc etc etc.

  3. Jennifer

    I LOVE your initial statement that the health of the individuals comes before preservation of the marriage!! When I was in counseling with my ex years ago every “Christian “ counselor we saw kept telling me that I had to stay despite how he treated me. To the extent of holding up other couples with horrible abusive marriages and telling me how Godly the woman was for staying in that situation. It wasn’t until we saw a secular counselor that we got to the root of the issues. The marriage ended, which was the best outcome for all involved. But the Christian counselors were so preoccupied with saving the marriage at all costs that they were blind to the changes needed for true healing.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, I’ve said often (and I think Gary Thomas said it first) that God cares more about the people in the marriage than He does about preserving the shell of a marriage. I wrote a post about that here–how God made marriage for us, not us for marriage. And so we do matter.

      • Christie P

        That thought and that post helped save my life.

  4. El Fury

    This is an important effort, and I don’t feel qualified to offer an opinion on the content you’ve assembled. My only recommendation is that you solicit input from a variety of ministers and professionals. Ideally, an ongoing working group could form to “certify” applicant counselors who choose to adhere to the group’s recommendations.

  5. Laura

    I’m wondering if you could clarify the abuse issue a bit more. We had a couple in our church who split because of emotional abuse, primarily because he was clueless as to how to relate Biblically to her. I suspect our church leadership went strictly with the Biblical counselling model, which didn’t work. She still walked away while he was still trying to “reform” and resolve the issues. I have wondered if there would have been a chance at reconciliation if they were referred to a professional.

    Physical abuse is beginning to get the attention and proper response that it should, but emotional abuse seems to be a grey area in terms of how to approach dealing with it. Sometimes it is just a case of education — one or both partners needing a better understanding of the marriage dynamic. In others, one partner has a personality disorder that requires professional help.

    So, perhaps there could be a codicil on Point 6 on how to evaluate the best way to approach emotional abuse?

  6. Christie P

    It’s been very difficult to maintain my faith in the aftermath everything that I’ve learned about my abusive marriage and leaving it and getting divorced. So today on a trip I downloaded the first sermon of a series I listen to years ago. I began to listen to it but then got curious as to what this preacher thinks about abuse and counseling and found a 4 part sermon of his on nouthetic counseling so I started to listen to it instead and seriously this is what he said within the first 2 minutes: “There is a premise for these classes, these are not seminary classes so don’t worry about any of this. These are for you. And there is a premise and that is this: A true believer in Jesus who thinks according to the Bible, and who lives according to the Bible, is more competent to counsel people than a modern counselor, a modern psychiatrist, a modern psychoanalysist, or a modern psychologist. In fact he is more competent to counsel than many modern Christian counselors who are synthetic. That is what most modern Christian counselors do today. Is that they blend a little bit of Christianity with a whole lot of pagan psychologies and therefore are very ineffective.” Thoughts? (Hearing him say that just sickens me! And I can no longer listen to him on any other topic.)

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, Christie, that is indeed the problem.

      Look at it this way–most of the healing that we read about Jesus doing was PHYSICAL healing–He healed the blind; the lame; the paralyzed; the leprous. Yet we do not say that those who know Jesus are better equipped to heal people’s physical ailments than medical doctors. We know that sometimes God works through medical doctors, and that modern medicine is a gift. WE know that God gave us intellects, and set up the world with natural laws, so that it can be studied and learned. And we are grateful. That does not exclude supernatural healing, but we know that we need doctors.

      Yet somehow when it comes to mental health, we say something different. This is very shaming for those who have gone through trauma or who have mental health conditions. We need to acknowledge that God gives us great insight on how to heal the mind as well, and that spiritual healing and mental health counselling can go hand in hand. They are’t exclusive of each other. To claim that they are is just to heap shame and guilt on people who are already at their weakest point, and it’s wrong.

  7. Sally

    Thanks so much for this article Sheila. I saw a biblical counselor with my severe post partum anxiety that came out of nowhere after the birth of my daughter (appetite loss, severe exhaustion, loss of all my pregnancy weight within a week due to inability to eat and diarrhea caused by anxiety, depersonalization, panic, and racing thoughts etc. I was never “afraid” of anything specific and it came on within days of my return from the hospital). I was told all of this was because I wasn’t reading the word and praying enough and that I needed to get back on track. I was given 2 books to read in counseling, including the Excellent Wife, and given extensive bible homework and scripture memorization. I finally had to end the counseling after 6 months of biweekly visits that resulted in 2 hr long “bible studies“ essentially. Nothing wrong with bible studies…in the least…and I can say time in the word doesn’t return void but what I needed post partum WAS NOT to be told my faith wasn’t strong enough. After my second pregnancy and delivery I found a licensed therapist who was also a Christian and it is the best of both.


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