Biblical Counseling Can Be Dangerous.
Julie Roys has been doing an expose of how John MacArthur handled counseling Eileen Gray, whose husband was physically and emotionally abusing her children (and later found to be also sexually abusing them). When she went to the church for help because of her husband’s abuse, they told her to reconcile. When she refused and got a restraining order, they put her under church discipline, announced in church services to 8000 people that she was in sin, and excommunicated her.
Her husband later was sentenced to several decades in prison. The church is still supporting the husband over the wife.
Part of the issue in the counseling of Eileen Gray was the nature of the biblical counseling she received.
Biblical counseling is NOT the same as going to a Christian counselor. Biblical counseling is a specific field and method of counseling that rejects secular research and psychology and focuses only on the Bible. Emotional problems and relational problems are viewed through the lens of sin or lack of faith. Depression is seen as a lack of faith, rather than potentially a biological condition.
Biblical counselors are not licensed with the state (unlike licensed marriage and family therapists; licensed social workers; or licensed clinical psychologists). They don’t have ethical guidelines they must follow to retain their license. There is no guarantee of confidentiality, and in fact, when seeing a biblical counselor, most churches will require you to sign a consent form to say that the counselor can share your story with pastors or elders if they deem it important to. (This is what happened at James MacDonald’s Harvest Bible Chapel, for instance).
Master’s Seminary and most Southern Baptist Seminaries are now exclusively biblical counseling; Liberty University offers both a licensed track and a biblical counseling track. Other smaller universities also offer biblical counseling training, while many other schools focus on licensed training.
So when I say “biblical counseling”, I’m not saying counseling by a Christian. I’m saying a particular method of counseling that isn’t trauma informed, doesn’t use evidence based therapies, and often focues on gender roles and marriage permanence rather than proper approaches to abuse that keep the victim safe.
I know that there are good biblical counselors who are abuse informed.
I have spoken to many and they are wonderful. The problem is that the method of counseling as a whole is very problematic and, as Rachael Denhollander has said, often does more harm than good, especially when abuse is involved. I hope that good biblical counselors will speak up and start demanding that seminaries change how they teach about these issues, and start asking for licensing requirements.
In the process of her investigative report of this incident, Julie started looking into the biblical counseling that is offered at MacArthur’s Master’s Seminary.
She focused on John Street, the head of Master’s Seminary biblical counseling program, and published a long article looking at how Street believes women should endure abuse in their marriage for Jesus.
Because of that, Twitter erupted again with the problems of biblical counseling and abuse. I saw some things that really disturbed me, and I made some Fixed It For Yous about them. We’ll start with one where John Street blames a man’s sexual abuse of his 4-year-old stepdaughter on the fact that his wife wasn’t sexually satisfying him:
While this may seem horrid, this is actually in line with what Jay Adams, the founder of biblical counseling, taught about abuse.
One cannot understate the importance of Jay Adams on the biblical counseling (once called nouthetic counseling) movement. He was the one who taught the church that using secular practices in counseling was wrong, and the Bible was all we need. His book “Competent to Counsel”, a defence of biblical counseling, is still a big textbook in many institutions. Over his career, he wrote over 100 books, mostly about the movement.
The next two Fixed It For Yous are from his Casebook on how to handle the case “My Husband Molested Our Daughter”:
Most horrid of all, he says that the counselor must entertain this question:
The universal reaction when I have posted these Fixed It For Yous (the middle one is going up tonight!) has been horror and outrage and a lot more profanity than is usual in my social media channels! People are absolutely outraged and gobsmacked and sickened.
So here’s what I want to ask today: If a normal person is absolutely sickened by this, how did biblical counseling become so big in Christian circles?
I’m honestly wondering and trying to figure it out. I have three-point theory I’d like to share with you, and I’m hoping that we can start a conversation in the comments to try to figure out the attraction of this.
For context, take a look at this video where the quote from John Street in the first Fixed It For You is taken from. Start at around the 6 minute mark. What amazes me is not just the horrid words he is saying, but the fact that all those men in the classroom are just dutifully taking notes as if this is normal. They don’t seem phased by the horrid things Street is saying at all.
How did we get to the point where Christians–where biblical counseling–failed to see the abuse victim as the victim?
How did we get to the point where Christians failed to see the abuser as the problem?
How did we get to the point where we thought it was appropriate to treat abuse by trying to figure out the part everyone had played–as if everyone was guilty?
That’s what I’m trying to figure out, and here’s what I’ve come up with:
1. A devotion to hyper-Calvinism sees humanity as inherently disgusting and evil.
Calvinism tends to see humans as “totally depraved”, unable to do anything good outside of God.
Take this to the extreme, and anything that humans would naturally think is good must therefore be evil; or anything that humans think is evil must therefore be good. God’s ways aren’t understandable because we’re so depraved, and so the more confusing and awful it sounds, the more this may actually be proof that it is right. It’s like an upside down world.
Most biblical counseling programs are done in seminaries that are heavily Calvinist, or at least have those influences, and so I’m wondering if this has been taken to an extreme?
2. A devotion to patriarchy seeks to keep men in authority and power, and marriage permanent
Much of biblical counseling is also focused on making sure that women stay in their place. See, for instance, my article on a biblical counseling program at Harvest Bible Chapel that asked a woman whose husband was cheating on her to fill out this form on 98 ways she could be sinning against her husband. The focus seems to be on making sure that women submit to husbands, and that the bad things that men do are not taken as reasons to end the marriage (because we all sin, after all).
Biblical counseling also tends to have a permanence view of marriage, where even abuse is not grounds for divorce. (Again, not all biblical counselors believe this, but it’s far more common among biblical counseling programs than among licensed counselors).
3. A yearning for “secret sauce” makes being counter-cultural a virtue
Feeling like you have access to truth that no one else does is intoxicating. It’s really cool to feel like “I’m in the secret club that gets it.”
When I think about my younger years as a Christian, I remember feeling that the more extreme someone was, the more devoted to God they must be. So those who wanted to give up their lives for mission work were the most Christian. Those who chose to save their kiss for the wedding were more devoted than those who kissed earlier. Those who wouldn’t watch certain movies were more devoted than those who did.
We often see the extremes as meaning that people are more sold out for Jesus. The more counter-cultural you are, the more you’re in the will of God.
When we take these three things together, we have a recipe for dangerous counseling.
If normal, everyday people are absolutely disgusted by this approach to handling abuse, how did they manage to create a whole counseling movement that does this sort of thing?
I think it’s teaching people that the Bible is all they need, and that God thinks in a different way than us. It’s focusing on roles and men in power rather than emotional health. And it’s feeling as if the more counter-cultural we are, the holier we are.
In this school of thought, God becomes almost unknowable, because what He asks of us is so counter to what we would normally think is healthy. And yet instead of that being a warning sign that we’re going off the rails, it somehow becomes proof that we’re on the right track.
I don’t know if that makes a lot of sense, but that’s what I’m thinking about biblical counseling.
Other than that, I’m at a complete loss as to how this became mainstream in evangelicalism and is even growing, with Souther Baptist seminaries eschewing their previous counseling programs that led to licensed counselors in favour of biblical counseling. How did that happen? Why? I’d love to chat about it and try to figure it out.
And again–if you’re a healthy biblical counselor, I would ask you to change things from the inside. Please speak loudly about the harm that Jay Adams did (and I haven’t really touched on how he handled mental illness and depression/anxiety). Please speak loudly against how abuse has been handled. Please speak loudly against the Master’s Seminary counseling program. Please fight for licensure and ethical guidelines and privacy. It’s not enough to say “not all biblical counselors believe that” when this has been the foundation of the movement, and when the head of one of the largest seminaries is still teaching this.
We need change. So what should we do? I honestly want to know!
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