Church Counseling

Q – Dear Pastor Jim,

I just returned from a weeklong Biblical Counseling Seminar with NANC in Lafayette, IN. The sessions were such a blessing to my heart, and the Lord certainly did a work of grace in my heart this week.

However, my husband and I noticed a lot of emphasis on the counseling within the local church. In fact one speaker even mentioned that if you do not have a counseling ministry in your church, then you need to find a new church.

Also we noticed that they placed a lot of emphasis on trying to teach Biblical principles to a unregenerate person. But with all of that said… may I ask how you feel about counseling. I am afraid a lot of pastors are allowing the counseling to take the place of the preaching of God’s holy word. Please comment on this issue.

Jim – You’ve touched on a subject that I think is one of those “tip of the iceberg” topics. I am truly concerned about the emphasis on counseling that is permeating the contemporary church, for several reasons. But, let me say at the outset that I am not against counseling, per se, in its proper context. There are plenty of licensed, educated specialists available for every field of counseling, from psychological to marriage and relationship. As a matter of fact, my son is autistic and the psychologists and counselors we have consulted have been very helpful as we’ve learned how to raise and understand him.

That being said, I am simply not convinced that counseling is a necessary pursuit within the confines of the church. I know that’s not a popular position, but I seem to excel in unpopular positions these days.

First off, in the history of the church we find no emphasis on counseling as either a gift of the Spirit or a specific ministry. The Bible is clear that God gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, to equip the saints and for the service of the ministry (Eph. 4:11-12). “Counselors” are conspicuously absent from that list. So, that fact leads me to two immediate conclusions: (1) it is unwise and potentially dangerous to meddle with God’s ordained manner of doing things. And, (2) raising counseling to such a status that you must warn people to abandon churches that do not offer it is not only an unbiblical stance, it fails to recognize or give proper consideration to the many other necessary and spiritually vital attributes such a church may have.

Some would certainly argue that the office of pastor is necessarily a counseling position, intended to deal with the personal aspects of individual Christian lives – their moods, marriages, phobias, trials or emotions. But again, that is not the way the office has been Biblically defined, nor the way it has historically functioned.

The word “pastor” comes from a Greek word that more properly means “shepherd.” Shepherds guide and feed sheep, defending them from predators and bringing unity to the flock. The first century elders were said to have specifically given themselves to prayer, and the ministry of the word.

“And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:1-4)

“For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre; but a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate; holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.” (Titus 1:7-9)

“This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (for if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?). Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.” (1 Tim 3:1-7)

As you can see, there is nothing in the Biblical description of pastor, elder or overseer that necessitates personal, marriage or any other type of counseling. Consequently, the counselors in a church necessarily operate outside of any ordained office. And, that just adds to the confusion. Potentially, a church could wind up with “lay” counselors who have intimate “insider” knowledge of the lives of the congregants, while also having no direct accountability to the eldership or spiritual commitment to the body.

In any case, while I see the value of counseling from a medical/psychological view, I am concerned that the current emphasis on it within the church is indicative of the larger problem, which is that the church is increasingly devoid of proper teaching and a genuine Biblical emphasis. So, inasmuch as they cannot offer any depth of theology, doctrine or teaching, they have substituted programs, entertainment and a feel-good philosophy designed to bring people back. But, all that is of no genuine spiritual value. It’s like a diet of empty calories.

The original design and purpose of the Church was to serve and glorify God. The emphasis was always on Christ. To use a big word, it was “Christocentric.” Everything the Church did and taught had Christ at its center. It was all about Him.

But, these days the shift of emphasis is away from Christ in favor of the individual sinner. I call that “sinner-centric” theology, because it makes the individual the center of attention. The contemporary church has designed myriad programs that appeal to the individual and bring them back for more good feelings. “Form over content prevails,” to use the legal parlance. And, rather than exist to lift Christ up, the church now concentrates on serving the sinner.

But, that is the natural outgrowth of the free-will theology that emphasizes the sufficiency of each individual to decide for themselves what their relationship with God will be, as opposed to placing the emphasis on the sufficiency of Christ in all things – especially our relationship with God!

So, I understand how the seminar was a blessing to your heart. And, that’s good. But, to say that people need to look for a new church if their current church does not have a counseling ministry is simply a method for spreading discord and scattering the sheep. I disagree with that statement most adamantly. The primary virtue of any church is not its programs. The primary virtue of a church is its devotion to Christ first, the Word, and the fellowship of the saints.

I’m a hardheaded old guy and I’m pretty dogmatic where these things are concerned. I have been carefully guarding against such attractive ideas and programs that steer people away from their primary focus. We are to look to God, not to ourselves. And, unfortunately, counseling is by definition a method of introspection and self-awareness. If the church continues to emphasize the human will, self-sufficiency and ego, they will eventually crowd God out completely.

As for your observation that church counselors appear to be attempting to teach biblical principles to unregenerate folk, that’s a very astute observation. There is so much mixing and matching going on in the church today that it’s increasingly difficult to tell the church from the world, whether that’s in their music, entertainment, methods or philosophy. And, so many worldly principles are being introduced to the church that it has indeed lost its first love. Meanwhile, church counselors attempt to force Biblical notions of morality and love on a world devoid of the spirit of God, incapable of true faith and at enmity with God’s word.

It truly is a confused state of affairs.

Thank you for writing and for your keen powers of observation.

Yours for His sake,

Jim Mc.