One of the most common areas where syncretism—an attempt to marry two incompatible worldviews—is making massive inroads into Christian faith and practice is in the area of counseling and therapy. In the conviction that this is a very bad development, as well as believing it is an area where many pastors need to be encouraged or challenged, the following theses are presented for consideration, meditation and application. I have tried to group these theses in a coherent order, and may have succeeded partially, but there is of necessity a great deal of overlap between them.
1. We begin with the sufficiency of Scripture. This doctrine does not mean that the Bible is a sufficient instrument for accomplishing any human activity whatever, but rather that it is sufficient to accomplish anything that it presents itself as being sufficient to accomplish. The Bible cannot be used as a hunting rifle, or as a cooking pot. But it can be used to provide all necessary teaching, counsel, and direction for any matters pertaining to life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3). Thus the Scriptures are not in a competitive relationship with sporting goods stores, or with cooking stores, but the pastoral ministry necessarily is in a competitive and adversarial relationship with secular schools of soul-care that operate within the realms of psychology, medicine, psychiatry, and therapeutic care. They are essaying to address the same sorts of problems that we are, and they have different approaches for doing so.
2. Scripture assigns to pastors, as one of their central duties, the care of souls. The Greek word for soul is psyche, the word from which we obviously derive the word psychology. Coming to Christ in humility means that we find rest for our souls (Matt. 11:29). We are instructed by the Lord Himself to possess our souls in patience (Luke 21:19). The pastors of the flock of God are given express warrant in Scripture for believing that one of their central assigned responsibilities is the guardianship of souls (Heb. 13:17). Obedience to the truth purifies our souls and this enables us to love one another truly and fervently (1 Pet. 1:22). The end of our faith is the salvation of our souls (1 Pet. 1:9). The Lord Jesus is the shepherd and overseer of our souls (1 Pet. 2:25), and the elders of the church labor under Him and together with Him in this work that He does as shepherd (1 Pet. 5: 2, 4). In the course of their pilgrimage, Christians must learn to entrust the keeping of their souls to God, and their pastors are supposed to teach them how to do this (1 Pet. 4: 19). And one of the things that false teachers do is beguile unstable souls (2 Pet. 2:14).
3. It is therefore the height of arrogance for secular psychologists, or for Christians who have been unduly influenced by them, to tell pastors that they are getting out of their lane if they undertake to address matters of the soul, heart, mind, motives, and will. So when wise pastors help their people with challenges such as depression, anxiety, sexual trauma, eating disorders, obsessive behaviors, and so on, they are not doing so as hacks and amateurs. They are trained in the Scriptures, and the Scriptures are sufficient for reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16).
4. The fact that this is a task assigned to pastors by God in the Scriptures does not make pastors automatically wise or competent. Pastors can fail at their assigned task, but it by no means follows from this that the task was somehow not assigned to them. You can only fail a class that you were enrolled in.
5. If a pastor comes to the realization that he is unable or unwilling to provide the kind of soul-care that Scripture talks about, this is not the moment for him to outsource that part of his pastoral responsibilities to the secular experts. Rather, it is time for him to realize that he is not qualified for ministry, and for him to resign his position.
6. A pastor can be qualified for his position, and take his responsibilities for pastoral ministry seriously, and still have a lot to learn. This will necessarily be the case with young pastors, and it will also be the case with more experienced pastors who have never encountered “this kind of situation” before. There is no shame or dereliction when a pastor acknowledges that he is in over his head, and he seeks additional help.
7. Having a lot to learn is no disqualification from ministry. Abdicating your fundamental responsibilities is.
8. So the issues revolving around pastoral counseling are not really issues that involve navigating life in a world shared with unbelievers. The Pharisees did not get everything wrong. Who can forgive sins but God alone (Luke 5:21)? There is no problem buying oil for your car from an unbeliever, or baby oil, or olive oil for cooking. But when someone offers to sell you the oil of forgiveness, as the Essential Oils folks do, they are offering a commodity (for sale!) that promises to do what only God can do. An unbeliever can offer to sell me oil that will make my hands slippery. That is within his right and capacity, and we have no reason to object to him attempting to do so. But he has no right to sell me oil that will remove the guilt and shame. That really is blasphemy. He has no authorization to sell me love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness or self-control—and it does not matter whether he makes such promises through the medium of oils, crystals, joy pills in a bottle, lying on his couch to relate one’s dreams, or drawing energy from my third shakra.
9. An unbeliever can therefore teach me how to tune an engine, how to hit a golf ball, how to organize a file cabinet, how to write code, and so on. These are areas where common grace is certainly operative, and where unbelievers might know far more about a subject through this common grace than believers do.
10. The unbelieving world can therefore sell believers real estate, jugs of milk, or entertainment. Such a transaction with the unbeliever should not be evaluated on the mere fact of it, but rather on the adverbs and adjectives that describe how the transaction was done, or the precise nature of it. We would reject it as sinful if we were buying stolen real estate, or poisoned jugs of milk, or filthy entertainment.
11. All truths are God’s truths, this is true. But it is also the case that all lies are the devil’s lies. And all good lies claim to be true. All gold is God’s gold, and all fool’s gold is the devil’s gold. Speaking of plundering the Egyptians, all gold is God’s gold, and all the gold that Egyptians gave to the Israelites was God’s gold, but some of it still wound up in the Golden Calf. All truth is God’s truth, but that doesn’t make the latest psychological study true. All assertions of truth are not God’s truth, and not all of God’s truths are used in line with God’s truth.
12. It is quite possible to glean wisdom from a donkey (Num. 22:31). But this is very different from seeking wisdom among the donkeys. An Amorite might tell you something about yourself that you needed to hear, to wit, the truth that you are being a fathead. He knows this by common grace, and natural revelation, and because he has eyes in his head. You should take his observation to heart and, if you do, you will no longer go to the Amorites for wisdom.
13. Body and soul are intertwined, and in such an intimate way that only the Scriptures can discern the precise boundary between them (Heb. 4:12). And yet, while the exact border may be difficult for us to determine, there are aspects of our existence that are clearly on one side or the other. Our fingernails are clearly part of our body, and the heart which is called to love God is clearly part of our soul. We might not know the precise boundary between Canada and the United States, and still know that we are in one country or the other.
14. So when it comes to body and soul, we need to distinguish food from medicine, and medicine for the body as opposed to medicine for the soul. The Bible repeatedly and emphatically declares all foods to be clean (Mark 7:19; Acts 10:15). If we can eat meat sacrificed to idols because the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof (1 Cor. 10:28-30), then it is certainly permissible to eat eggs and bacon prepared by a hash-slinger in a greasy spoon diner, or tofu prepared by a vegan, or a Michelin 3-star meal prepared by the best chef in Europe, even if all three of them are atheists. Food and drink can affect the soul through the body, but we need not worry about that. We may also treat the body with medicine, and be unconcerned if it has an indirect but beneficial effect on our soul. The problematic challenge that we are dealing with has to do with medicines that are aimed directly at the soul, and which are necessarily in competition with those things God has directly told us to do with regard to our souls. So when it comes to worldliness, the world says do this, and Scripture replies, yes, but not that way. When it comes to pastoral care, the world says do this, while Scripture usually says, no, do that.
15. Scripture teaches us that treatment of bodily ailments through medicines or regimens is lawful (1 Tim. 5:23), and that training and discipline of the body is lawful as well (1 Tim. 4:8). What treatments or practices are best in any given instance needs to be determined through investigation and reason, and such answers are available to us through common grace and natural revelation. That being the case, such solutions or approaches may be discovered by unregenerate men, and it is no compromise for Christians to utilize such knowledge that was given to unconverted men. That headaches can be removed by aspirin or ibuprofen is something we can know, and this was not revealed to us by Scripture. We do not know if those who discovered these remedies were converted men, and that actually does not matter to us one way or the other.
16. And yet, because our bodies and souls are united as one through the creative will of God, what happens on one side of that boundary can easily have an impact on the other side. Someone with a roaring headache may be sorely tempted to be short with the kids, and the requisite aspirin may remove that temptation entirely. But we have to distinguish ameliorating temptations that come at our souls through our bodies, and attempts to take care of the soul directly. Thus we can treat something like sleep deprivation medically, and which might have a corresponding blessing for our spirits. It is also true that someone’s body can be depressed through illness, and it is no problem to treat that illness.
17. In a similar way, choices made in the heart of a man can have an impact on his body. The boundary between body and soul is hard for us to determine, but it is also a porous border. There is a good deal of traffic across it, and the traffic goes in both directions. But in modern counseling, grounded in secular assumptions, it is very common to assume that the traffic goes just one way because it is (quietly) assumed that the body is all there is. When the secular counselor gets to the brain, he has found the roof of the cavern. When the Christian counselor gets to the brain, he has found the bottom step of a staircase that leads up to the top of the tower, and which looks out over the sea.
18. A great deal of popular psychology—and the forms of it that creep into much Christian counseling—contains a certain set of (erroneous) assumptions about the mind/body problem. For the secularist, and the secularist researcher, the mind and soul and heart of a man is entirely contained within the confines of his brain. Thus, when a certain part of the brain lights up when exposed to “this” stimulus, and another part when exposed to “that” stimulus, it is reasonable for him to assume that the lit part of the brain is the cause of whatever is then occurring in that person’s life. But Christian orthodoxy requires us to deny that the mind and the brain are synonyms. For the secularist, the brain is the driver of the car. For the Christian, the brain is the clutch and transmission that the (invisible) driver of the car, a driver named Soul, Heart, or Mind, uses to make the car go. For the Christian, the glow-brain reductionism of the secularist is like taking x-rays of the clutch in an attempt to find out what song the driver is humming, and why he is so happy to get there. A great deal of what makes us go will never be reducible to brain scans.
19. There are many genuine Christians who are trained in the disciplines of psychology, psychiatry, and various approaches to therapy. Such Christians can say and do good things, and are capable of providing genuine help for their clients. But the original sources of this sound advice can be many. Say that the counselor had a good upbringing, he has a happy marriage, he has a naturally sympathetic disposition, he is a faithful Christian worshiping God regularly, he knows how to weed out the outrageous things he sees in his professional journals, and so on. How much of the good he does is in spite of the profession he is in?
20. We can certainly grant that a wise secular counselor can do more good for someone than a stupid biblical counselor. This is equivalent to Luther’s comment (which may be apocryphal) that he would rather be governed by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian. Quite so, but we must also remember there are two other options as well. Beware of false dichotomies. There is also the option of the foolish Turk and the wise Christian.
21. So in order to honestly compare psychology with biblical pastoral counseling we should compare the best representative of each, and then ask which should then be preferred. Mutatis mutandis, everything else being equal, do we want a good psychologist or a good biblical pastoral counselor? Compare the best with the best—otherwise you are not seeking truth, but are rather a partisan for a particular faction.
22. We have no grounds for assuming that the placebo effect is limited to bodily ailments. If confession is good for the soul, and it is, along with seeking counsel, and someone has unburdened himself concerning something that has troubled him—to a psychologist, or a pastor, or even to a trusted friend—the benefit that comes to him may not be the direct result of the counsel given. We might see someone doing better simply because he has finally sought help at all. Because there are such cases, we want to be careful about taking too much credit for the help we might provide.
23. While greatly preferring the approach of biblical counseling, there is no good reason for being fastidious about it. A pastoral biblical counselor will likely have numerous opportunities to interact with professional counselors, and this might happen for various good reasons. You might be helping someone who is also seeing another counselor by order of a civil court. You might be helping someone who just joined your church, and she has been seeing a therapist in town for many years. It is best, wherever possible, to maintain a courteous and professional relationship with your fellow counselors. If they are Christians, and if they believe there is such a thing as sin and moral responsibility, so much the better.
24. Scripture identifies a number of behaviors as sin, and gives us corresponding commandments to turn away from such sins. In numerous instances, our therapeutic age has tagged such sins with an alternative label, and thereby has radically altered everyone’s idea of what is happening. In other words, we are seeing the therapeutic model being applied to virtually everything that Scripture addresses on the moral level. Is drunkenness a sin or the disease of alcoholism (Eph. 5:18)? Is anxiety for tomorrow the sin of worry or is it generalized anxiety disorder (Matt. 6:34)? Is it a refusal to rejoice in all things as instructed (Phil. 4:4; 1 Thess. 5:16) or is it clinical depression?
25. The Scriptures are sufficient because they are God’s appointed instrument to tell us about Jesus Christ, and Christ is always and necessarily sufficient. What is Christ in the life of the believer? He is the hope of glory (Col. 1:24). The word of Christ dwells in us richly (Col. 3:16). In Him we have every spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:3). The believer has to contend, not with an unfathomable id, but rather with the unfathomable riches of Christ (Eph. 3:8). The believer is one out of whom flows rivers of living water (John 7:38). The pastor’s task is to guide the believer into a full and complete awareness of these infinite riches that have been bestowed on him by sheer grace, and to present that believer to God in full maturity. It is quite an ambitious spiritual mission, but it should be the mission of every pastor. And in his pursuit of this mission, he need not call for reinforcements from the world, the flesh, or the devil. They won’t help nearly as much as they promise to.
“Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Col. 1:28–29, ESV).