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Approaches to Christian Counseling

Will Riddle 6 minutes to read

The basic task of pastoring people is helping them to grow. A major component of this then is counseling. And both counseling and pastoring are tied closely to your view of sanctification, and your view of the human person. There are several major schools of thought within the church today that provide an approach to helping people to grow:

“Christian Counseling.” Christian counseling has matured a tremendous amount in the past few decades, but when it started, Christian Counseling tended to lean heavily on secular ideas.  This is probably because most Christians didn’t believe in secular psychology at all, and those that did, had to be trained in secular schools.  The result was to borrow heavily from secular counseling insights while inserting Christian values without addressing the fundamental models. Gary Collins’ book Christian Counseling is an example of this.

Christian counseling is popular among evangelical and mainline churches, reflecting the belief that the world has valid insights into the human person and we can mirror the secular approach in many cases.

Of course, secular psychology and Christian psychology are based on very different premises. Starting with the existence of God, and working through the various facets of the human personality, traditional psychological models differ greatly from a Biblical view. Secular counseling for example has no concept of “sin” and therefore no idea of “repentance.” Secular counseling sees self-fulfillment as the highest goal, while Christianity (which also promises self-fulfillment) calls disciples to lose their selves in order to find themselves in Christ.

Secondly, secular models are neither uniform nor static. The psychoanalytic approach of Freud and Jung focuses on how childhood experiences and the subconscious drive human behavior, whereas cognitive behavioral therapy works on modifying dysfunctional thought patterns and beliefs. Reigning paradigms change every decade or two.  In order to do truly Christian counseling, we have to move away from the prevailing winds of secular psychology and build on a more solid foundation.  The good news is, I think we are seeing more and more of that. 

“Biblical Counseling” Reacting to the strongly secular overtones of much of Christian counseling at the time,  Jay Adams pioneered “Nouthetic” or “Biblical” Counseling beginning with his seminal work Competent to Counsel. Adams is a strong correction to integrationist approaches, but in my view an overcorrection.   Looking at examples from his books, you could almost caricature his model as “Scriptural Rebuke.”  It’s confrontational and truth-oriented.  The idea is that “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” This approach was for a time popular among Reformed and Fundamentalist circles.

While the truth will set you free, in my experience it is rare that a forceful confrontation like this will actually lead someone to believe it.   On the other hand, Biblical counseling does understand that taking responsibility is crucial to freedom.  This is a key insight which is often overlooked in other approaches.  As the title suggests, Competent to Counsel also strongly promoted the idea that any believer is, in theory, qualified to counsel.  This is important as a corrective to the hyper-professionalization of counseling, where the tendency is to disempower lay people from even the basic kind of counsel that we all need. 

While these are good correctives, I do not recommend it as a method and at its extreme, Biblical counseling could be damaging. The person in your office probably already knows that what they are doing is wrong; just telling them that the Bible also says it is wrong is unlikely to change their behavior. In order to do that, you need to dig into the roots, empathize, walk with them, encourage them, and give them practical tools to change.

“Deliverance.” In the Charismatic church, if you have a problem you can’t beat we say that you have a demon.  The idea is that if we cast it out, you will be able to break the cycle. This traditionally involves repentance of past sins, closing open doors, naming the spirit and commanding it to leave. This approach is popular among charismatic circles, where the reality of the spiritual world and demonic is taken seriously.   Deliverance peaked during the 1970’s when the classic Pigs in the Parlor was released.  Charismatics led especially by Derek Prince and Don Basham (author of Deliver us from Evil) were discovering the reality of demons and the powerful effect that casting one out can have.

The strength of this approach is that it takes seriously Jesus’ command to believers to cast out evil spirits! The weakness is that deliverance alone, even when effective, seldom results in long-term change. A person who is demonized often has underlying issues that need to be addressed. If these vulnerabilities and character issues are not addressed, the person may remain stuck in the same sinful habits and dysfunctional patterns, and the demon may even return. Furthermore, not all problems are demonic. Some people simply have a sin or an immaturity problem, and repentance and growth, not deliverance, are needed.

“Inner Healing.” Over time, the inner healing movement emerged to round out the deliverance model. It often incorporates elements of deliverance, but focuses primarily on healing wounds in an interview and prayer session under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. John and Paula Sandford pioneered inner healing in the 1970’s and 80’s, and it went mainstream after the Toronto Blessing and the advent of Cleansing Streams from Jack Hayford’s church.   Theophostics was a major step in the development of inner healing, as it focused more explicitly on a personal encounter with Jesus.  Contemporary models like Bethel’s Sozo and the Catholic Unbound trace back to these roots. 

Inner healing is now the primary theory of change practiced in charismatic circles. The strength of this approach is that, in contrast to counseling alone, inner healing actively seeks the Holy Spirit for power and insight.  On the other hand, inner healing is usually practiced as a substitute for all other elements of transformation such as being in healthy community, spiritual disciplines, or a long-term pastoral and counseling relationship.   While I’ve known many people who have received great breakthroughs with inner healing, when inner healing is held up as a panacea, it can stunt further growth. Over time my experience with and practice of inner healing models has led me more toward pastoral counseling and away from inner healing as the primary model.

“Discipleship Counseling” Neil Anderson was a major force in Christian counseling for nearly 20 years, bringing a deliverance based model to the mainstream with his breakthrough book The Bondage Beaker, but over time, shifting more toward inner healing and eventually settling on a truth based model he called Discipleship counseling.  However, I think a more descriptive name would be Christian Identity Counseling. Anderson’s basic idea is that when you are not doing well it is because you are failing to recognize your identity in Christ. In addition, you may have demonic activity, which mainstream models essentially ignore.

Anderson, whether consciously or not, has much similarity with the "Word of Faith" movement. He leans toward a once saved always saved model of salvation and with it the idea that if things are going wrong it is because you are not walking in your already fully established identity in Christ. One sign of this is his use of the word "renounce" in several places where it would be natural to say "repent." Others in the Word of Faith movement, such as those influenced by Andrew Wommack, use similar approaches and emphasize the past tense nature of salvation. One needs only to confess the true reality of who one is in Christ, and that will make you free. While this model has a positive emphasis on what Christ has already done for us, it can underemphasize the need to appropriate and “work out one’s salvation” in the present.

Stepping back, all of these models have something to offer, and over time, we’re seeing more and more convergence in these trends as they mature.  In the past 10 years, Cloud and Townsend have become the new thought leaders in the area of Christian counseling, bringing truly Biblical paradigms to the fore in counseling, beginning with their breakthrough book Boundaries, while building on insights from their mainstream training.  Similarly, Dr. Caroline Leaf is a Spirit-filled counselor who has brought brain research and the importance of habits to the forefront.  The emergence of Spirit-filled counselors bodes well for the future of Christian counseling.

My journey through this landscape, and trying it in practice with many difficult cases has led me to develop my own models.  After several years of work with addicts, I wrote Free at Last: How to Make the Gospel Work   which really focused on personal responsibility as the beginning of freedom.  Over time, as I worked with more people and I refined these ideas and began to have a lot more success.    This led to friends asking me to write a book to explain this method.  The result was Unlocking the Heart: A Guide to Pastoral Care.  In this book, I develop a method I call the Emmaus Road.   


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