Christian Counseling and the Life of Jesus

counseling image 2This is the fourth in a series of posts which examines the 95 Theses for an Authentically Christian Commitment to Counseling published by the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors and authored by Dr. Heath Lambert. I offer this critique from my perspective as a psychology professor and mental health counselor. For prior posts in the series on the first fourteen theses, click here. Today, I examine thesis 15.
Is Jesus the Standard for Everything?
This section focuses on Jesus as a standard for Christian mental health.

  1. Counselors require a standard to know what changes must be pursued in the lives of the troubled people they wish to help and, because the Bible portrays Jesus Christ as that perfect standard for human living, it is impossible to accomplish authentically Christian counseling without reference to him (1 John 2:5-6).

I can’t tell what this statement means in a practical sense. Knowing that Jesus is perfect in every way doesn’t tell me what kind of changes human beings should pursue in counseling. Three possibilities occurred to me which I will frame as questions:

  • Does Lambert mean Christian counselors should always pursue change in every dimension of personality (i.e., behavioral, emotional, cognitive, moral)?
  • Is he referring to the outcomes of counseling? Does he mean that Christian counseling should lead to clients being perfect as Jesus is perfect?
  • Or does he mean that counselors should only deal with issues depicted in the Bible’s accounts of the life of Jesus?

Each of these questions deserve a separate article for a full response. For the purpose of this post, I will briefly reply to each one.
Symptom v. Personality Change
Historically, counselors have debated the scope of counseling. Should counseling focus on symptom removal or on deeper personality change? Modern approaches aim for symptom relief while older approaches such as psychoanalysis focus on personality change.
I see nothing in the Bible which requires all counseling to deal with every level of human functioning. I believe counseling may properly deal with one aspect of functioning (e.g., symptom reduction versus deep personality change). In fact, Jesus at times healed diseases without any obvious attention to other areas of life. The needs of clients should guide counselors in planning their interventions.
Can We Be as Healthy as Jesus?
Although Jesus healed diseases in others, there are no recorded instances of Jesus suffering with medical or mental disorders. Does that mean he lived in such a way that he never suffered health problems? Or did His divine nature prevent those effects of a sinful world? Many theologians believe Jesus was unable to sin.* In like manner, could it be that Jesus was unable to experience mental or physical disease? Since He healed others, perhaps He healed Himself at the first sign of any disease. Or, on the other hand, is it possible that Jesus could have gotten cancer or suffered with bipolar disorder? Charles Spurgeon did not believe Jesus was ever ill. In his sermon, “Help for Your Sickness,” Spurgeon said no “disease was upon him.”
Spurgeon on sickness
Is Jesus a Perfect Standard for Every Aspect of Living?
Jesus is an example of obedience to the Father, holy living, and sacrifice. He modeled a life of virtue and was the substitute for our transgressions. He is our example for moral conduct and virtuous reflection. About this, most Christians agree. However, there is much Jesus didn’t cover during his short time on Earth.  Jesus’ teachings are the standard as far as they go.
We don’t know much about the life of Jesus outside of His mission to rescue people from sin. While the New Testament speaks in general terms about the humanity of Jesus, I don’t think it is possible to know with certainty what that means for mental health treatment.
Jesus didn’t deal with much of what we need to know to live today. He never chose a college, a spouse, or a profession. He never invested in a retirement account or purchased insurance. He didn’t play sports or watch movies. What He taught us we should emulate. However, on many aspects of human living, He offered no specific example or teaching.  We must use our minds in community with others to figure out how to pursue the rest.

For the earlier posts in this series, click here.

*This is certainly true of theologians who teach at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where Heath Lambert also teaches counseling. In a 2015 article, Denny Burk wrote:

Jesus’ impeccability in this regard has provoked some people to wonder whether his experience of temptation can ever be as intense as that of the sinners that he came to save. Can he really have known our weaknesses when he himself was not capable of sinning? (p. 104)

Burk believes Jesus did know the temptation but was unable to sin.

The text plainly says that God cannot be tempted by evil. In what way are we tempted by evil that God is not tempted by evil? Verse 14 gives the answer. We face temptations that arise from our “own desire” (1:14). By contrast, because Jesus never desired evil, Jesus never faced temptations arising from “his own sinful desire.” His heart never in any degree fixated on evil. Temptation had no landing pad in Jesus’ heart nor did it have a launching pad from Jesus’ heart. The same is not true of sinners, who are often carried away by their own desires, as James describes it. (p.105)


Petition Reignites Biblical Counseling Controversy at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

counseling image 2In September, I wrote about a controversy at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary involving the Christian psychology of Eric Johnson and the Biblical counseling of Heath Lambert. According to Johnson, his version of Christian psychology is no longer compatible with how SBTS wants counseling taught at the school. Thus, he had to step down from his position. It is not clear if he was fired or negotiated a settlement of some kind.

Reviving Eric Johnson’s Position Revisited

At the time, a petition was constructed to register discontent with Johnson’s ouster. Now, an update has been posted to the petition with a broader aim. The petition to SBTS now asks:

Given the obvious harm that these consequences would cause both to the standing and reputation of Southern Seminary, the following are recommended steps that should be taken and questions to be asked next week as the Board of Trustees visit Southern Seminary:


  • Offer immunity and anonymity to any and all professors who would be willing to speak with the trustees regarding this situation. Many of them know far more than we do but are terrified of speaking out for fear of ending up like Professor Johnson. Allow them to simply affirm, deny, or elaborate upon anything said in this letter without the fear of disciplinary actions.
  • Reconsider the silencing effects that the removal of tenure in 2014 has had up the seminary’s faculty, as they have been afraid to speak up for their terminated colleague, Professor Johnson. Please take steps to reinstate tenure. Tenure ensures the continuity of an institution’s identity, maintains the financial security for faculty families, and establishes boundaries that prevent the president from wrongfully firing professors. Before the removal of tenure in 2014, professors could be justifiably removed for moral or doctrinal transgression. There is no added benefit to the new faculty contract policy aside from the consolidation of power within the office of the president. The reason alumni are writing this letter is because all the faculty and staff members who contacted us were afraid that they would lose their job by speaking out.
  • Southern Seminary’s counseling program is very important in the life of Southern Baptist Churches, as it is on the front lines of pastoral and congregational soul care. Is it in the best interest of the churches that Southern Seminary serves to train up future pastors in a monologuing counseling department? Should pastors not study under both biblical counselors and Christian psychologists as they learn how to care for the complex needs of their churches?
  • Ask President Mohler directly whether any ACBC-affiliate (church, person, organization) was involved in his termination of Johnson. If Mohler refuses to provide a direct “yes” or “no” answer, ask him whether or not his reluctance to speak about the termination is the result of a non-disclosure agreement. It is imperative that the truth come out so that the Seminary can move on and begin a healing and reunifying process.
  • Based upon the findings of the above mentioned investigations, if it is found that there was any improper conduct that led to the termination of Professor Johnson, we recommend that the Board of Trustees extend a public apology to Johnson and offer to reinstate him in his original position at Southern Seminary.

This Story Is About More Than Eric Johnson and Heath Lambert

Johnson’s personnel matter is wrapped up in a broader issue. Will Southern Baptist pastors be exposed to one narrow approach to counseling or will they have access to training and teaching which takes psychological insights into account? Why this matters to a broad audience is that many people go to their pastors for counseling or for recommendations for counseling. It would be tragic and potentially dangerous for pastors to refer only to Biblical counselors.
Note to the folks at SBTS, mental illness is real and the Bible doesn’t say much about it. Recently, I featured representatives of Biblical counseling and Christian psychology in a discussion about a case. It was clear to me that the Biblical counseling approach left important components out. Furthermore, there are many problems in living which Scripture doesn’t address.

Should Christian Counselors Talk Only About The Bible And Jesus?

If a resource is authoritative, does that make it all you need?

counseling image 2If a resource is authoritative, does that make it all you need? According to the 95 Theses for an Authentically Christian Commitment to Counseling, the Bible is both authoritative and sufficient for all counseling conversations. In this post, I challenge that claim.
This is the third in a series of posts which examines the 95 Theses from my perspective as a psychology professor and mental health counselor. For prior posts in the series on the first eleven theses, click here. Today, I examine statements eleven through fourteen.

What Does the Bible Claim?

11. When the Bible claims to address all the issues concerning life and godliness, it declares itself to be a sufficient and an authoritative resource to address everything essential for counseling conversations (2 Pet 1:3-4).

I covered this thesis in the last post but I want to say something else about it. There I pointed out that living a “godly life” doesn’t mean the absence of emotional disturbances. A godly life is certainly possible for the person who believes God’s promises, but this by itself doesn’t prevent mental illness. The Bible does instruct us in moral teaching but is not a medical or psychological text. We need knowledge not contained in the Bible to provide the best care for many human problems.
Here again are the verses which form the basis for the statement:

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

One must read into these verses to say that “the Bible claims to address all the issues concerning life and godliness.” One could assume that the Bible is an aspect of his divine power, but the verse doesn’t limit God’s divine power to the Bible. I think Biblical counselors make a claim for the Bible that it doesn’t make for itself.

Authoritative Doesn’t Mean Sufficient

12. Christians must not separate the authority of Scripture for counseling from the sufficiency of Scripture for counseling because, if Scripture is to be a relevant authority, then it must be sufficient for the struggles people face as they live life in a fallen world (2 Pet 1:3-21).
13. The authority and sufficiency of Scripture for counseling means that counselors must counsel out of the conviction that the theological content of Scripture defines and directs the conversational content of counseling.

Sufficiency does not necessarily follow from authority. One may see the Bible as authoritative when it speaks but not believe it speaks about everything. There can be no doubt that the Bible doesn’t speak about everything. The Bible does say some things about medical issues (e.g., Timothy was told to take a little wine for his stomach’s sake, 1 Tim. 5:23), but doesn’t describe brain surgery procedures or how to do a heart catheterization. Taking some wine instead of tainted water might be good advice, but it isn’t sufficient for most of our other medical questions.

Does Jesus Solve Every Problem?

14. The Bible teaches that the person and work of Jesus Christ provide God’s sufficient power to solve every problem of humanity so, according to Scripture, he is the ultimate subject of every counseling conversation (Col 2:2-3).

Surely, Dr. Lambert and the Biblical counselors don’t mean that Jesus actually solves “every problem of humanity.” A quick look around wherever you are will demonstrate that Jesus hasn’t solved every human problem. One can argue that Jesus has the power to solve them all but decides not to do it, but you can’t argue that all problems are solved.
Since all problems aren’t in fact solved, what happens in those counseling conversations where Jesus didn’t solve the problem? Do client and counselor keep talking about the power of Jesus in a theoretical sense? I can’t imagine how it would be helpful to keep telling a chronically depressed person that Jesus has the power to solve every human problem, just not yours.
By analogy, one would not say Jesus is the subject of every medical visit. Most evangelicals believe Jesus could heal any illness, but that He doesn’t often do so. Because we believe Jesus provides sufficient power to solve every medical problem, is it necessary for a Christian physician to make Jesus the subject of every medical conversation? Of course not, if I have a medical need, I want extra-biblical medical knowledge brought to bear on my problem along with prayer.

SERIES: Evaluation of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors’ 95 Theses

I am evaluating a proposal by Heath Lambert, the executive director of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, for an authentically Christian approach to counseling. Lambert listed 95 theses on the ACBC website which he believes defines an appropriate Christian method. I disagree with most of the points and am writing this series to offer another perspective. To read all posts in this series, click here.  To read a similar series on Biblical counseling v. Christian psychology, click here.

Biblical Counseling and Sufficiency of the Bible

counseling image 2I am in the process of evaluating the 95 Theses published by the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors. The first post is here.  Today, I evaluate theses six through eleven. These statements seem to be key components of biblical counseling.

6. When people experience difficulties as they live in a fallen world, they require wisdom about life to help them face these problems (Prov 19:20).
7. The wisdom to confront life’s difficulties is most often communicated in conversations our culture refers to as counseling.
8. The issues of concern in counseling pertain to problems people face as they relate the difficulties in their life to the faith and practice described in Scripture.

I agree that counseling conversations often relate to common problems with work and family and that clients often want advice about them. I also agree that many problems in living are illustrated in Bible stories. In these situations, Christians could be well served by getting advice from someone who has studied the Bible thoroughly and has a knack for application. However, I don’t believe that all counseling problems involve requests for advice or guidance. Some relate to mental illness in self or others. I will say more about those counseling conversations below.
Furthermore, people today face problems never contemplated by people in the Bible. For instance, advice about what college to attend, what major to take, or what career to pursue, etc. are all specific issues which require specific, individualized conversations. The Bible doesn’t give any specific advice about how to choose a college or academic major.
Although clients may benefit from biblical principles about decision making, a conversation about the specific college and major still requires an individualized focus which could involve various career assessments and information about occupations not mentioned in the Bible.

9. Because counseling problems concern the very same issues that God writes about in his Word, it is essential to have a conversation about the contents of the Bible to solve counseling problems.

I may not understand the meaning of this statement, but on the surface, it seems inadequate and unrealistic. Frequently, counseling problems are similar to those described in the Bible, but often they are much different. We live in a different era and culture. There are daily demands which are radically different than anything reported in the Bible.

10. The subject matter of counseling conversations is the wisdom needed to deal with life’s problems, and so counseling is not a discipline that is fundamentally informed by science, but by the teaching found in God’s Word.

As I demonstrated in my article on school refusal, all conversations don’t require Bible knowledge in order to address the problems people bring to counseling. We could have talked about the Bible in my sessions with the school refusal family, but I can’t see how it would have addressed the main reason they came to see me. On the contrary, we discussed a solution which did not come from my study of the Bible but rather my study of family systems theory. I could have consulted the Bible for days and not come up with that.
Although the case of the boy with school refusal ended well, I now realize he might have had a medical problem which triggered separation anxiety. The problem I wrote about — PANDAS — was discovered by scientists at the NIMN, not theologians in the Bible. There are many other problems which afflict humans in the mind and mood which we have come to understand through science. Counselors, biblical or otherwise, ask for trouble when research is ignored.

11. When the Bible claims to address all the issues concerning life and godliness, it declares itself to be a sufficient and an authoritative resource to address everything essential for counseling conversations (2 Pet 1:3-4).

Actually, these verses don’t say that the Bible addresses “everything essential for counseling interventions.” I think Dr. Lambert and his supporters engage in eisegesis and not exegesis of these verses. Second Peter 1:3-4 reads:

3 His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4 Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

Through His divine power, we have the Bible (although the New Testament wasn’t fully together at this time), we have the Holy Spirit and the church. These resources provide sufficient moral teaching to let us know what God requires of us. Because of those divine resources, we can have a place in God’s Kingdom. This is Peter’s focus in the chapter.
However, the Bible does not promise to provide the best way to assess and treat medical and mental disorders. I can’t find that promise in 2 Peter or anywhere else. Those disorders are valid subjects of counseling conversations. Often with the involvement of several healthcare professionals, people find relief from these problems.
Peter promises that resources are available to live “a godly life” not a problem-free life. As a matter of experience, I have known many godly people who experience mental and emotional disorders. Godly Christians and non-Christians experience these conditions. Assertions to the contrary are contrary to reality.  I believe biblical counselors who hold to thesis eleven read into 2 Peter something that wasn’t intended.
The authority and sufficiency of Scripture for counseling is the key tenet of biblical counseling. There are numerous overlapping statements in the 95 Theses. I will pick up my critique of this theme in the next post.
To read all posts in the 95 Theses series, click here.

Series: Evaluation of 95 Theses for an Authentically Christian Commitment to Counseling

This week Tim Allchin, biblical counselor from Chicago, will help me complete the series I started on Biblical counseling v. Christian psychology (read the prior posts here).  This series was triggered by the news that Christian psychologist Eric Johnson was fired/taking early retirement from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. With Johnson’s departure, the seminary is committed completely to a biblical counseling model. One expression of that model can be found in a document written by Heath Lambert titled 95 Theses for an Authentically Christian Commitment to Counseling.
With this post, I want to start a new series during which I will critique one or more of the theses from my vantage point as a mental health counselor and psychology professor.
I offer this series in keeping with the stated desire of Heath Lambert, the author of the theses and executive director of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors:

And so I offer these theses for the purpose of debate. But they are also offered with a prayer. My prayer is that the spirit of the Reformers to recover the emphasis on divine grace in their day would be the commitment that Christians would have today regarding counseling.

Thus, I welcome the reaction of Dr. Lambert at any time during the series.

Counseling in Contemporary Culture

I will list one or more of the theses and then comment. There isn’t much to disagree with in the first three theses:

1. Christians in the twenty-first century live at a time when the counseling practice of many evangelical churches is marked by chaos and confusion regarding the nature of counseling.
2. Secular therapy has defined the nature and terms of counseling for more than a hundred years, and Christians responding to its influence have been confounded by it—not knowing whether to consume this secular therapy in an undiluted form, to combine it in some way with resources from the Christian tradition, or to reject it entirely in favor of an approach that relies exclusively on scriptural resources.
3. The confusion that exists on the part of Christians has been a distressing source of conflict among brothers and sisters in Christ who debate these issues, and has caused pain in the lives of troubled Christians who seek counseling care.

In don’t know how many are in “chaos” but I would agree that some Christians are confused about counseling. Generally, there is much we don’t know about mental health and brain based diseases and so it seems reasonable that Christians would also experience the confusion which goes along with that. Number two captures the broad historic responses to psychology by those in the church.

4. It is a matter of urgency that Christians coalesce around an understanding of counseling that is authentically Christian (Col 3:14).

Let me go out on a limb here and say that I doubt Christians will ever “coalesce” around any one understanding of anything. I disagree that it is a matter of urgency to come to one understanding. However, I do think it would be good if those who hold different views could discuss them rationally and on the merits. We can and should disagree agreeably without casting doubts on the spiritual commitment of ideological opponents.
Furthermore, the diversity of settings within which counseling is conducted make it unlikely that one view will ever win the day. Some Christians work in the public sector, others work in private settings such as the church. I don’t think we have a one-size-fits-all audience, so we won’t have just one approach to counseling.

5. A commitment to counseling that is authentically Christian requires believers in Christ to understand the nature of counseling, which resources must be used in counseling, and to possess growing skill in caring for people in need of counseling.

I don’t disagree, although I know that my definition of the nature of counseling and resources allowed is much broader than Lambert’s.
Again, I welcome Dr. Lambert’s reaction at any time. I don’t have a specific time table for the series and will post as time permits.
For more on Biblical counseling v. Christian psychology, see this series.
For all posts in the 95 Theses series, click here.