I’m pleased to publish this guest essay from Brian Mesimer.

The door closes as your next appointment walks in and sits in the chair across from you. Putting his head in his hands, Rick lets out a mournful sigh. After a few seconds go by, he looks up, and with tears streaming mutters, “I think I’m depressed. What should I do?”

Tread carefully here, for the answer you give to this question will put you on one side of an ongoing war within Protestantism over how to do counseling. The factions, known as biblical counselors and integrationist counselors, have been fighting one another for fifty years.  You may have never heard of this war, but it is a contest of supreme importance, for the two groups are vying for the right to speak to us in our most vulnerable places.  Yet, if we listen, we may find the solution to this conflict in the most surprising of places.  

Here’s a bit of context: Until the mid-Twentieth century, there were virtually no evangelical voices speaking into the growing field of psychological science.  The health of the mind was dominated by the early pioneers of psychology like Freud and Jung while the church paid little mind to the matter.  Left with little guidance on how to use, refuse, or reframe the findings of psychology, evangelical ministers began a haphazard approach to its integration.  This all changed with Jay E. Adams’ 1970 publication of Competent to Counsel

Adams advanced a bold hypothesis: counseling was the exclusive domain of the church, for God had already provided everything suitable for life in the Holy Scriptures.  Any claims to the contrary, as Freud and Jung were wont to make, were an affront to the cherished Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura.  The Christian had no need to search the DSM to discover exclusive truth on how to treat mental disorders; the RSV would do just fine.  Thusly, Adams and his followers began the task of excising secular counseling modalities from the church and replacing them with programs more suitable to the methods of biblical counseling.

Such a revolution challenged those evangelicals who had already begun constructing a synthesis of psychology and theology.  These Christians, whom had been trained in psychology at secular schools, laid the groundwork for what is known as the integrationist movement, a view that saw the Bible as necessary but not sufficient for the counseling task.  Through appeals to common grace and the specialized nature of counseling, these practitioners claimed that secular research could produce knowledge of mental illness that was useful, provided that we use the Bible to interpret these findings.  

At first the confrontation was cordial.  Prominent thinkers from both sides could inhabit the same conferences, maintain correspondence, and even attempt to formulate a concord between the groups.  Yet in time the war was to grow cold, and curiosity was replaced with subtle contempt as each side followed their natural trajectories.  Since then, a few  skirmishes have broken out, but the two sides have generally kept to themselves.

Yet in a flash, the cold war turned hot again last month.  A well-liked professor and proponent of a cousin of integrationism was let go from one of America’s most popular seminaries for no other reason than that he wasn’t a biblical counselor.  The integrationists fired back with a petition and some mudslinging.  Returning the volley, the president of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (the main accrediting body of biblical counseling) publically called on integrationists to repent of the sin of their convictions from the platforms of both pulpit and PC.  When the smoke cleared, there were wounded on both sides (although some attempt at reconciliation has been initiated).

So why should anyone care?  Let’s return to Rick, sitting in your office with hopes of redemption.  What should you tell him?  As a biblical counselor, you might walk him through Psalm 23, pointing out how God promises comfort to him.  You would search for hidden sins, correct poor theology, and prescribe some good self-care.  As an integrationist, you might identify and correct maladaptive cognitions, refer to a few Bible verses, discuss medication, and assess family dynamics.  Given these options, would you be satisfied with what you say? Would Rick?    

It is not hard to see why each side sees the other as mutually exclusive, for each theory leaves little conceptual space for the other.  From the perspective of the biblical crowd, any view of counseling which doesn’t see the Bible as containing all the answers to problems in living is a de facto denial of the sufficiency of the Bible.  In the view of the integrationist crowd, biblical counselors put their charges in great peril by rejecting sound psychological science and methods.  One side cites a denigration of special revelation, the other decries an ignoring of general revelation.  Lacking a middle ground or terms for peace, the war rages on.

It is this denial of middle ground that threatens the Reformational heritage of both movements, for in so doing they prevent further reformation.  In the run-up to the 500th anniversary, a lot of Latin phrases have been thrown around, but one motto that has been underrepresented is semper reformanda—“always reforming” (more specifically, ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbi Dei, the reformed church must always be reforming by the Word of God).  Although this phrase is prone to abuse, the gist is that reform under God’s Word is a constant expectation of God’s people.  Among other things, this principle implies that we are not infallible and should therefore always be taking the log out of our own eye before we remove the speck from our brother’s.

Which brings us back to Adams’ Competent to Counsel.  In the opening pages, Adams distinguishes his form of therapy as one that sees counseling problems as autogenic (self-engendered) and not allogenic (other-engendered).  This principle being what it is, one would expect that biblical counselors would be the first to recognize when they are wrong about particular issues.  Instead, what we find is an all-out assault on the Other, as if the very possibility of integrationist critiques implied the complete collapse of their system.  Likewise, integrationists refuse to even consider the wealth of knowledge that biblical counselors have amassed, assuming it to be too simplistic to warrant serious attention.  

Instead, counseling done in the spirit of the Reformation might take a page out of Martin Bucer’s book. In 1536, those most pernicious of adversaries—the Reformed and the Lutherans—met at Wittenberg to hammer out a formula of concord in hopes of uniting the two wings of the Reformation around common conceptions of the Eucharist.  While Melancthon and Bucer were ultimately unsuccessful in instigating ecclesial union, the resulting Wittenberg Concord contains an astounding amount of agreement between the two traditions on one of the most divisive issues of the time—the Eucharist.  How was such a feat achieved? Through listening to one another.  When this was done, it became apparent that Calvin and Luther were not so far apart as once realized.

What if it’s the same with biblical and integrationist counseling?  Perhaps the two are feuding brothers, not sworn enemies, and their differences are more collegial than contradictory.  The trick lies in understanding where the conflict truly is:  at the balancing point between special revelation and common grace.  Biblical counselors give more precedence to the former while integrationists emphasize the latter.  We should not minimize the considerable difference in those two orientations.  We should, however, maximize the fact that the two are engaging in the same task of wrestling with how to bring God’s revelation to bear in all of life’s problems.  Focusing on disagreements, we miss the surprisingly obvious common ground that exists among brothers (brothers whom, Freud might even say, perpetuate conflict in order to repress the truth of their similarities).   

And if that is the case, then biblical and integrationist counselors better stop fighting and get busy listening to one another again, for each has much to learn from the other.  After all, counselors are supposed to be the experts in listening.  Eschewing zero-sum battles and doctrinal nit-picking, the two should move towards one another.  We should attend each other’s conferences, work with one another on difficult cases, and teach at the same seminaries.  And we should keep working on understanding where we agree and disagree, for the areas of agreement are large:  formal commitment to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, an emphasis on the finished work of Christ, belief in salvation by grace through faith, and ascription to the orthodox creeds, among others.

Bucer and the lessons of the Reformation illustrate that when brothers talk, we can spur one another onward towards continual reformation.  Time and time again, history demonstrates that conciliation is the way of the cross that makes us strong.  What EJ Hutchinson said about the Wittenberg Concord is equally applicable to the counseling wars today:

“This probably seems almost impossible now, and so it is a good reminder that the horizon of the possible is something that shifts over time; our own circumstances are not the permanent state of affairs, nor should they be perceived as a prison from which escape is out of the question.”   

The result?  The Ricks in our lives will reap the benefits of our conversations.

Brian Mesimer is a graduate of the University of South Carolina, Columbia International University, and currently studies theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.  His interests include practical theology, current events, and the relationship between psychology and theology.  He and his wife live in Columbia, SC, where he works as a counselor.

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  • E. J.

    My concern is that Biblical counseling operates under some theological/philosophical assumptions that would make reform very difficult, more so than for integrationists. It is one thing for an integrationist to agree that sins need to be dealt with and that incorrect theology can contribute to someone’s mental problems. That doesn’t require a very radical shift. Some people who have started out as integrationists have also shifted to a “Christian psychology” position, which tries to recognize the influence of different worldviews on psychology, in an effort to deal with some of integrationism’s philosophical weak points.

    My undergrad institution, Bob Jones University, teaches Biblical counseling exclusively. I expect its teaching on the subject, at this point, is probably similar to what would be heard at other Christian universities that take the same view. What I recall hearing from counseling major friends, and from the one psychology class I took that directly addressed the topic, is that all mental disorders, without exception, are either caused by sin or a lack of sufficient spiritual growth. The only exception is if the problem can be traced to some part of the body other than the brain–like a malfunctioning thyroid. Even schizophrenia could supposedly be tied to sin or spiritual immaturity. For the counseling faculty to have admitted that some mental disorders are not the sufferer’s fault and may need specialized treatment, would have destroyed the entire enterprise. Scripture would no longer be “sufficient.”

    When GRACE did an investigation several years ago, at the university’s request, into how the university had handled sexual abuse and assault issues in the past, the major thing that came out from the investigation was how damaging biblical counseling had been to the victims. The counseling faculty were approaching trauma victims with the assumption that repentance of sin would fix whatever symptoms they were experiencing. Terrible theology, to say the least. And because trauma victims were not supposed to see trained psychologists, they sometimes ended up in counseling with people–like dorm staff–who were untrained and had no idea how to help them. There seemed to be a lack of understanding that not everyone who knows a lot about the Bible can counsel people competently, Jay Adams notwithstanding. There’s a reason that Proverbs talks so much about practical wisdom! I do think BJU learned some things from the results of the investigation in regard to how not to treat trauma victims–though they did not take a number of GRACE’s recommendations to prevent further mistreatment of abuse and assault victims, including, of course, the recommendation that the school drop biblical counseling altogether.

    Biblical counseling seems to be defined by its adversarial stance toward mainstream psychology. I’m really not sure how it could become friendlier with integrationists without losing its distinctiveness. Maybe that is just because I am coming from the perspective of someone with very little formal training–I have no idea what you mean when you mention the “wealth of knowledge that biblical counselors have amassed.” In my experience, biblical counseling seems to mostly progress by grudgingly accepting research that mainstream psychologists have done, once the problems with ignoring the research have become very obvious. Again, my experience may just be limited. But my suspicion is that attempting to get biblical counselors to want to learn from integrationists is rather like trying to convince Ken Ham that old earth creationists may have a few legitimate points about Genesis 1. The system is too rigid to deal with new perspectives very easily.

  • E. J.

    My concern, on reading an article like this, is that biblical counseling would have to abandon some of its fundamental presuppositions in order to be open to constructive interaction with integrationists at all. Asking a biblical counselor to be willing to work with integrationists strikes me as being rather like asking Ken Ham to develop a warm relationship with Hugh Ross–if anything, a biblical counselor becoming more open-minded on this issue seems less likely.

    I do think there have been some improvements in biblical counseling over the years–that is, trained biblical counselors are slowly learning, after damaging a considerable number of already damaged people, not to push the idea that trauma victims need to repent if they are experiencing psychological symptoms! But change has been slow in coming. The idea that anyone experiencing a psychological problem is suffering because they have committed sin or has not grown enough spiritually is simplistic, to say the least. I can understand taking that view for mental illness like depression that are generally easier to treat, but the last I knew biblical counselors also took that view for things like schizophrenia. For biblical counselors to admit that schizophrenia could result from brain dysfunction unrelated to someone’s spiritual life would essentially meaning rejecting biblical counseling altogether. When you found your system on rigidity and an unwillingness to consider ideas from mainstream psychology, I’m not sure how you can get beyond that without fundamentally changing the system. Change is needed, but the results would be drastic, and I can’t imagine biblical counselors being willing to accept it.

  • hoosier_bob

    The first step toward dialogue involves the recognition that “biblical counseling” does not exist, at least not in reality. Contrary to what fundamentalists suggest, the Bible is not a comprehensive textbook on every meaningful facet of life. Presbyterian theologian, David Gordon, addressed this point well in an excellent article from a decade ago, entitled “The Insufficiency of Scripture.” Gordon specifically addresses one danger of this misguided principle, which is, that this kind of thinking gets in the way of developing wisdom.

    But there’s another danger. And that danger lies in failing to account for the extra-biblical sources of one’s thinking. Because the Bible is not sufficient to teach one how to be a competent psychologist, practitioners inevitably end up relying on secular theories anyway. Even so, the premise of “biblical counseling” prevents them from acknowledging what they’re doing. So, they end up rebranding certain secular theories as “biblical,” and treating them as though they bear divine approval. But because these practitioners refuse to acknowledge the secular sourcing of their theories, “biblical counselors” cut themselves off from recognizing the limitations of the theories on which they rely.

    In my experience, most “biblical counseling” is deeply indebted to certain strands of neo-Freudian thought that were popular in politically conservative circles in the 1950s. The “biblical counseling” movement did little more than rebrand certain neo-Freudian theories as “biblical,” and cite Paul as their source in place of Erich Fromm. It’s likely no accident that these theories support the authoritarian political views held by many evangelical leaders, both then and now. But acknowledging their origin would put those political views up for debate. And that’s not a debate that Al Mohler and his band of self-appointed evangelical gatekeepers is interested in having.

    The embrace of Trump by 80-85% of white evangelicals surprises me little. His alt-right political rhetoric is largely consistent with the political program that evangelical leaders have been tacitly promoting for decades. Trump just promoted it in an explicit way, while evangelical leaders sought to pass it off as “biblical.” Evangelicalism has always been an alt-right political movement masquerading as a theological movement. And “biblical counseling” has played a key role in maintaining the movement’s theological facade. But one has to wonder whether the stealth approach had any strategic merit. White evangelicals seem to be enjoying more political success by ditching the stealth approach of Erick Erickson in favor of more explicit advocacy of their alt-right political agenda.