The Leaven of the Pharisees

In the past few months, I have been gently critiquing some of the problems that I see with nouthetic counseling. Nouthetic (or Biblical) counseling was a movement begun by the late Dr. Jay Adams, a professor of pastoral theology at Westminster Seminary. It has spread tremendously in the past few decades among conservative churches. It is beginning to lose favor in the traditional  Reformed Churches, but is prevalent in the neo-calvinist churches. Current champions of biblical counseling are Heath Lambert, John MacArthur, David Powlison, Elise Fitzgerald and many others.

It is not my intention at all to paint these men and women as dangerous heretics. I have greatly benefited from much of their writings. I also was trained in the school of nouthetic counseling, so my critique is towards myself, in the guise of a confession. I was wrong. In my zeal to be a good counselor, to help people with their problems, to be faithful to scripture and to my vows, I believed and taught certain things about counseling that I greatly regret. I’ve written about these things here and here.

So please understand me. If someone that you know subscribes to nouthetic (or Biblical) counseling and does NOT teach or believe these things that I am critiquing, please scroll down and ignore me. I can speak to myself and tell you why I can no longer call myself a nouthetic counselor. I also wish to warn anyone else following my path against some of the pitfalls.

Many nouthetic counselors love the Lord Jesus, teach some very good things, and have been a great benefit to the church. But they are just men and women. They make mistakes. Everything must be judged by the light of the gospel.

There – hopefully that will ease some of the ranting that I am sure to get.

OH! – one more thing. I fully subscribe, without exception, to the Three Forms of Unity, and always have.

Now to my point.

The heart of nouthetic counseling is the idea that every problem a person seeks counseling for is addressed in scripture. The verse that they continually use is this one:

16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
17 That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works (2Ti 3:16-17 KJV)

The idea, then, is that everything that we need to be perfect, “thoroughly furnished” as men and women of God, is taught to us in scripture.

I agree with them so far. Everything that we need to be perfect and thoroughly furnished for all good works is found in scripture.

But when you couple this with Adam’s behaviorism, you run into problems. Behaviorism is the belief associated with B.F. Skinner that all problems can be solved by positive reinforcement for good behavior, and negative reinforcement for bad behavior. To be sure, Adams would have rejected all legalism and behaviorism in principle. He taught that Jesus alone can cleanse the heart from sin.

But when it came to our sanctification and our walk with Christ, he was greatly influenced by behaviorism, as anyone who has suffered through nouthetic counseling can attest. Do better things, and everything will work out fine. Adams whole point was the “put off/put on” model of scripture. Quit doing bad things, start doing good things and your problems will be solved.

The nouthetic emphasis on the sufficiency of scripture, coupled with the leanings towards behaviorism created a strange view of scripture and an odd sort of counseling.

Whatever the problem is, find a bible verse to solve it. Do what the verse tells you. Everything will be fine.

  • Depressed? Rejoice always, again I say rejoice!
  • Worry too much? I say unto you, do not worry. Consider the lilies of the field.
  • Anxious? Be anxious for nothing, but in everything let your requests be made known unto God.
  • Husband abusive? Win him over by your meek and quiet spirit.
  • Pornography? Let them marry, for it is better to marry than to burn
  • A crazy man like Saul trying to destroy you? Go to him one on one and tell him his faults.
  • What if a group of soldiers are at your door asking where the men went. What do you do? Lie? Misdirect? Refuse to answer? Too bad Rahab didn’t have time to look up what to do in the latest best seller. She just had to wing it.

Many of you have been through this and know what I am talking about. The wreckage of lives is immense.  When you start to feel anxious about being too legalistic, then you can say, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” or “by the power of the Holy Spirit, of course” and then maybe you won’t hear the moans of despair and hopelessness in the innermost souls of those over whom God has made you a shepherd.

If they continue being anxious or worried or if their husband is still addicted to porn, you can always excommunicate them for contumacy, not doing what they are told, and get back to your football game in time for supper.

This was me. I found myself looking through scripture for the solution to all of life’s problems. Jay Adams even wrote a counselor’s study bible, and a commentary for counselors on the book of Proverbs. “Here’s what the bible says about it. Now do it, or we will excommunicate you for contumacy. If you have the Holy Spirit, you can put off worry and put on thankfulness; put off sadness and put on rejoicing. Just do it.”

By the power of the Holy Spirit, of course.

And the mire of despair grows thicker and thicker and there is no way out.

So what is the problem? Do we throw away the sufficiency of scripture? Do we then need to add a melting pot of theology and ideas that come from other religions or philosophies?

The way that nouthetic counselors put it, it is as if these are the only two options. I know. It is what I was taught and what I believed. Either you find the solution to schizophrenia, depression, worry, anxiety, abuse, PTSD, addictions in prooftexting the scripture, or you might as well convert to Hinduism or Jungism and be done with it. Going outside of scripture is an act of unbelief and worthy of church discipline. (Yes, I have actually heard that).

But I would suggest that these two options are not the only two. And I believe this is what Jesus was warning us of when he warned us to watch out for the leaven of the Pharisees. The Pharisees believed in the sufficiency of scripture. So did Jesus. So what was the problem?

The Pharisees believed that every problem and everything that anyone needed to know could be found by searching the scriptures. Problem? Solution. No matter what the issue is, the solution could be found in the law. With, of course, the centuries of rabbinical tradition. Sound familiar?

They would even thank God for the grace to do it. “I thank God that I am not like other men!”

So what was wrong? Jesus told them:

39 “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me.
40 “But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life (John 5:39-40).

And that was the problem. They viewed all of scripture as a textbook of moral behavior, rather than a testimony of Jesus Christ. If you miss Christ, you miss everything.

Cain and Abel isn’t about love in the heart or selfishness or blood sacrifices versus fruit sacrifices. It isn’t about the best sacrifice versus the cheaper sacrifice. It is about Christ and faith.

Jacob and Esau isn’t about stew and self-centeredness and sharing and hunting or staying home. It is about the promise made to Abraham, which is about Christ.

David and Abigail isn’t about submission or rebellion. She was a wise woman because she sided with David, the anointed of God, the picture of Christ the conquering king. She wasn’t given any other option. It was “kiss the Son and live” or “submit to your husband and die”. When we look at the account as a moral fable, we miss Christ. And when we do that, we miss everything.

Rahab isn’t about which occasions are acceptable for lying and whether or not it was wartime or not. I have read book after book after book trying to either defend Rahab or to judge Rahab. But it isn’t about that at all. It is about faith. And faith is about Christ. Rahab didn’t have the time to read the current best-seller. She had to rely on faith. And that was the whole point. God has placed the salvation of the world in THESE people. I better choose sides carefully.

When you read the scripture as a series of moral stories designed to tell you how to behave, you have sprinkled the bread of life with the leaven of the Pharisees, and you miss everything.

The gospel is not the law. Nouthetic counseling always changes the gospel into the law. Nouthetic counseling tends to start at Ephesians 4 and miss the first three chapters completely. But without the first three chapters, the last three chapters are simply another exercise in good works, B.F. Skinner to the rescue. Do this and live. The expurgated versions of scripture always seem to do that.  I studied systematic theology. Then I studied counseling. And the twain ne’er did meet. In theology 101, I learned Christ alone. In counseling 101, I learned “do this and live”.

But “do this and live” is the law, not the gospel. Life never comes from the law.

When I read what Jesus said to the Pharisees, I was convicted. I was searching the scripture for prooftexts – do this and live. If I can find the life principles then I can overcome depression, anxiety, worry, PTSD and any other problem life can throw at me.

And I counseled that way as well. Do this, and you will live.

Now my counseling is different. “Let me tell you about Jesus.”

What does that have to do with my PTSD? Everything. He bought you, body and soul, from sin and all the power of the devil. He has redeemed you and nothing can take you out of his hand.

God has given him dominion over all principalities and powers, might and dominion. All authority has been given unto him. So he gives his wisdom and his spirit to the children of men. So you can get to someone who can help you with PTSD, because Jesus died for you. You can cry out to him because he died for you and he knows you. And he loves you.

You can go to someone who can help you with your anxiety and can talk to you about fear and worry, because Jesus died for you and loves you.

Job cried out to God for a mediator. And God became flesh, the mediator of the New Covenant.

He didn’t give you a bible verse about whether to take job A or job B. He didn’t give you seven steps to be free from pornography. He didn’t give you a bible verse to give you the marriage of your dreams. He didn’t give you an instruction manual for your kids.

He gave you new birth, and filled you with the Holy Spirit so you can be free to make music, paint pictures, cook a fabulous meal, make the world a little more beautiful and a little more colorful –just because you are a human and he died for you, restoring your humanity. You can sit with your kids and play with them with joy and freedom without worrying if they are being raised right, getting enough spankings, being breast-fed long enough, or any of the other jillion things we all worry about. Because Jesus rose from the dead and is seated at the right hand of God making intercession for you AND your kids. He didn’t give you an instruction manual. He gave you a witness of Jesus Christ, and told you to tell your kids about it.

He didn’t call you to bondage to the law, but to freedom in the spirit, and that changes everything. It doesn’t do away with the law, it fulfills the law!

That is what the Bible teaches. It isn’t a series of moral prooftexts. It is a book of life, a testimony to the one who IS life. Jesus didn’t come to show us what do do in order to inherit eternal life. Jesus IS life and he came to call us to himself.

And all of scripture bears witness to him. From Abel to Zechariah, from Abraham to Malachi, from Moses to Haggai. The Pharisees, old and new, search the scriptures for the key to a happy life, for the keys to financial health, the proper diet. Our local grocery store sells Ezekiel 4:9 bread, for crying out loud! As if that is what Ezekiel 4:9 is about!

Really? God’s people are in exile. The temple is about to be destroyed. God’s presence is about to leave the temple for good because of the idolatry that is there. His people are about to be divorced, scattered, slaughtered, imprisoned and destroyed – and God says, “Let me tell you how to make really good gluten free bread.”

This is what we’ve come to. You search the scriptures, for in them you think you have life, but they are what is testifying of ME!

When you miss Christ, scripture becomes a gluten free recipe book, a treatise of vegetables and fish, a self-help guide to a fitter YOU. Ugh.

Don’t miss Christ in scripture. He is what it is about. Learn of him. His yoke is easy and his burden is light.

And the more we know of Christ, the more we are set free from sin and misery and the power of the devil. And this is how I counsel. Let me tell you about Christ. About freedom, about mercy. Let me tell you about love.

Book after book after book written on how to overcome your problems. Here is a list of bible verses that tell you what to do. Seven steps for this, six steps for that.

The old hymn said it best:

“Tell me the story of Jesus, Write on my heart every word; Tell me the story most precious, Sweetest that ever was heard.”

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17 Comments

Filed under Pastoral ministry

17 responses to “The Leaven of the Pharisees

  1. Gany T.

    YES! Powerful!

    Wish I’d heard this 40 years ago…but His mercies are new every morning. Thank you!

  2. Resa

    PRAISE GOD!! Let’s go back to the word of God and learn who Christ IS and has ALWAYS been. I am Thankful for your article, your honesty and the truth about this type of counseling that is very harmful.

  3. Z

    Thank you for this, Pastor. Abiding in Christ Who live in us-in His FINISHED and all-encompassing work on the cross-is where we find all we need. Always.
    What a relief not to have to “strive” and “perform” when the Source of LIFE lives in us!

  4. Yep. I’m with you. And yet the church still tends to downplay and minimize porn, abuse, fornication…

  5. This was a breath of fresh freedom air. Although it is biblical to strive towards holiness and obey His commands, to see the entirety of our duties releases the undue burden to follow the Law. This perspective follows closely the line of theological thinking known as New Covenant Theology. Thank you, Pastor, for speaking what the Spirit of Scripture is truly trying to convey. I’m sure you’ll receive a lot of blowback for this piece, but you’re realizations are solidly biblical.

  6. Pingback: Leaven and Contradictions… | See, there's this thing called biology...

  7. It’s interesting that there seems to be a split in the biblical counseling movement these days. I’ll still call myself a biblical counselor, but I avoid the term nouthetic, because there really are separate camps. Seems like the folks at CCEF and IABC do a much better job than the those at ACBC and NANC. Some are far more willing to humble themselves and learn than others. Thanks so much for writing this!

  8. ACBC certified counselor here. I don’t know where you were trained, my brother, but my training looked / felt / sounded like where you ended up, not where you started. Simply put, your training did not match my training.

    • I’m glad that you got good training.
      It isn’t just me, but these are the same themes that I hear over and over and over again. You can read the comments yourself, and see for yourself how many people have been affected by the inherent behaviorism of nouthetic counseling.
      I think that nouthetic counseling had some good things to say and had some valid critiques. But we also have to be honest with ourselves with the pitfalls.
      If you avoided them, then I am glad. But thousands of others have not.
      Behaviorism and legalism have pervaded these ministries tremendously.
      Just listen to the survivors.

  9. anonymous

    Just a note about spankings — ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ didn’t mean beat the child or spank the child. It meant discipline and guidance. What shepherd uses the staff to whack the sheep?

    Spanking children teaches them to fear their parents, confuse love with abuse, and generally humiliates them. It’s harmful. It confuses the child and terrorizes the child.

    People who hit their children generally say something like, ‘well, I was spanked and I turned out fine’ and dismiss, discount, and have completely forgotten what it was like to be a 3 foot child getting hit by an angry parent. Even if the parent calmly hit them, it doesn’t matter. Kids, being half (or less) the size of their adult parents are being hit, slapped, and whacked. IT TEACHES CRUELTY AND THAT VIOLENCE IS A GOOD WAY TO GET WHATEVER YOU DEMAND.

    Spanking shames, confuses, harms, and humiliates the child, It also teaches violence. Enforce rules or obedience by striking a child who is half your size?!

    Adults have even more tools at their disposal to process being stuck, but imagine if at work your boss got out the yardstick, a switch, or just used their bare hand and paddled your bottom when displeased with your performance. That’d be jarring, humiliating, and potentially give rise to a call to the police for battery/assault. Yet adults do this kind of thing to kids and feel like they are being ‘good parents’. It’s wrong.

    Female genital mutilation has gone on for generations. Parents who went through it themselves probably say the same thing ‘it was done to me and I turned out fine’ but it’s an insane, cruel, violent, abusive, horrible thing. Just because your parents spanked you and you’ve forgotten the terror of what is was like, doesn’t mean you turned out just fine. Just the fact that you’re not only willing, but eager to spank your own children shows it negatively affected you and you bought into the lie that cruelty and violence is ‘for your own good.’

    Please, stop with the spanking of children. You’re literally striking a helpless child that is half your size and is totally dependent on you for life, food, housing, clothing, etc.! It teaches abuse is “love”. It’s wrong.

    Shepherds do not strike, hit, or beat their sheep. The rod/staff is used to gently nudge them along the path, so they don’t fall off the side of a mountain, to partially hoist them up and out of a dangerous spot where they find themselves stuck, and/or to defend the flock (and the shepherd) from wolf attacks. Nobody spanks sheep, not any kind, caring shepherd, that is.

  10. Hi Pastor Powell!

    I came over to this blog post from your comment on a thread on Facebook– the one where someone posted that image with the words, “I’ve messed up. What do I do now? Say 100 Hail Mary’s (Catholic), Read your Bible and pray 4x a day (Nouthetic), or Turn to Jesus and trust His promises to you (Christian).”

    I read this post of yours yesterday and have been mulling it over. Thank you for writing it! I was hoping you could help me understand something a little better, though, related to this blog post and that Facebook image.

    I spent the last few days reading through the book of Proverbs, and so it’s fresh in my mind. The persistent theme that stuck out to me was, “Keep my commandments and live” (in 4:4 and 7:2, for instance).

    Now, of course I don’t for a second believe that works save a person, or that works can in any way be our salvation. But I’m not understanding the discord/disconnection you seem to be making between wanting to DO what God says all the while trusting in Jesus.

    When I’m going through a struggle or am faced with a difficult choice, I don’t separate “Pray and read my Bible (Nouthetic)” and “Trust in Jesus (Christian)” as two completely separate options– I see them intertwined, going hand in hand. Does that make sense? Rather, I choose both… I trust that Jesus is my righteousness, and yet I also search His word to see what He has said and what He would have me DO in a particular situation. I’m not looking for the law to SAVE me, because I know Jesus has already done that. And yet, I desire to learn and love and keep His law– His Word, and so I search it out and try to understand it and apply it.

    I’ve had some really frazzling parenting days recently (4.5 year old + 3 year old + 1 year old= crazy sometimes), and occasionally I find myself truly stuck as to how I should respond to a different situations with my kids…. And I pray in my head, “Jesus, I need HELP. I need you. I don’t know what to do. What would you have me do here? What do I say?” And in those seconds or minutes afterward, I search the Scriptures in my memory (or pull out my Bible) for guidance as to what I should do/say… And I do that because I know His ways are better than mine (my way would be to yell and get angry), and I want to speak truth and life to my children. I do trust in Jesus– but I also want to know, “Lord, now what? What would you have me do? How do I live/speak/respond in light of that trust?” And that’s where searching the Scriptures, proof texts, etc. comes in for me. I try to think of a way to address the heart issue for my children and tell them of their need for Jesus, while also citing those verses about jealousy, unthankfulness, etc.

    That being said, that’s where I’m confused in reading this blog post and that Facebook post. I believe I’m doing the right thing by trusting in Jesus AND reading + praying + trying to teach from the Scriptures… And yet, I can’t help but feel like you are suggesting I’m not going about this the right way. Put simply, my question is, what’s wrong with “Pray and read your Bible” AND “Trust in Jesus,” so long as I’m not counting on the reading + praying to save me? I do those things *because* I trust in Jesus.

    I apologize if I haven’t articulated myself well enough, and also for the length of this comment! I really appreciate you and your heart.

    • Your desire to obey Jesus is a desire that is given to you by virtue of the new birth. It isn’t possible to be saved without a change in heart.
      But that change of heart is not the ground of our blessedness and peace. Only the perfect righteousness, satisfaction and holiness of Christ is my righteousness before God.
      I am a child because Christ’s righteousness is imputed to me. Because I am a child, I live.
      My issue with nouthetic counseling is that they tend to confuse the two. It turns into searching the scripture for formulas to bring peace, happiness and contentment. But salvation doesn’t come by a formula. It comes only by Christ.

      Here is how the Heidelberg Catechism puts it…
      60. How art thou righteous before God?

      Only by true faith in Jesus Christ; that is, although my conscience accuse me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil; yet God without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sin, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me; if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.

      61. Why sayest thou, that thou art righteous by faith only?

      Not that I am acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of my faith, but because only the satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ is my righteousness before God, and I can receive the same and make it my own in no other way than by faith only.

      24. SUNDAY

      62. But why cannot our good works be the whole or part of our righteousness before God?

      Because the righteousness which can stand before the judgment-seat of God, must be perfect throughout and wholly conformable to the divine law;1) but even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.

      63. Do our good works merit nothing, even though it is God’s will to reward them in this life and in that which is to come?

      The reward comes not of merit, but of grace.

      64. But does not this doctrine make men careless and profane?

      No, for it is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by true faith, should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.

      • Thank you for responding. I know you’re busy and have a lot on your plate! My question is still lingering though and I think maybe I’m misunderstanding.

        I know those Heidelberg Catechism questions, but since think those are more related to justification… I know we are made righteous through Christ alone. My question centers more around sanctification, and the role that prayer & reading the Bible plays in the life of a believer.

        Here’s my thought process:

        We shouldn’t think that if we say/do the right thing, that our actions will automatically fix our problems and everything will be okay. We can’t change hearts– only Jesus can. And so we have to speak and act in faith, trusting that He will work as He sees fit, trusting in Him alone to save and to be our peace.
        But those of us who are anxious in heart *should* still cast their cares on Him… And those of us who worry should still faithfully trust in His care…. Right? NOT because we think those things will “save” us, but because He tells us to and we want to obey Him?

        You said, “It turns into searching the scripture for formulas to bring peace, happiness and contentment. But salvation doesn’t come by a formula. It comes only by Christ.”

        If all you’re saying is that we shouldn’t trust in our own obedience to automatically give us peace & happiness, then I completely agree and understand. Because yes, only Jesus saves and only He can bring peace and joy and faith. But where I’m getting lost is when you talk about not searching & applying the Scriptures to our lives & problems…. What is Scripture for, if not for telling us the gospel and of how He justifies and sanctifies? How are we supposed to use His word as our sword & tool if we’re not reading it and applying it, looking for examples and prooftexts and such? (And I’m not suggesting doing all the reading & searching in place of trusting Jesus. But rather *because* we trust in Jesus.)

        If I had to sum up my question, or confusion, in one sentence, it would be: what role should prayer & Bible reading have in the life of a Christian?

        I know this conversation would be better had in person, because I’m probably misunderstanding and also not explaining myself well. I truly understand if you don’t have time or the mental energy/desire for this online conversation.

      • You are asking excellent questions, and I will respond. But I take Monday off. If it’s okay I would like to respond on Tuesday

      • It is a big subject, but I will try to answer the best I can. I understand where you are coming from.
        The problem is what I mentioned – when you look to scripture to be a moral guidebook instead of a book about Christ, you miss everything.
        You are right that the HC talks about justification – but the third section is on sanctification. Question 118 speaks of why does God so strictly enjoin the Ten Commandments on us if in this life no one can keep them (which is also your question about the proverbs). And the answer is
        First, that we may always know our sin and misery and then always seek salvation and forgiveness from Christ alone. And second, that we without ceasing diligently beg God for the gift of the Holy Spirit that we might begin in this life to live obediently. (I’m paraphrasing)
        To use Solomon’s terms, when he says, “Keep the commandments and live”, the application is Chapter 2 – diligently seek wisdom, and chapter 8 teaches us that wisdom is a person. Moving to John 1, that person – wisdom – became flesh. And he says, “Abide in me, for without me you can do nothing.”
        The problem with nouthetic counseling today is that the work of the Holy Spirit is relegated to a corner and scripture becomes about following moral precepts, rather than driving you to Christ again and again.
        I gave examples in my posts. I know that not all who call themselves nouthetic counselors are like that, but enough are that the victims of the system recognized the problem I addressed.

        When I say “You search the scriptures” I was speaking of nouthetic counselors who do the same thing that the Pharisees of old did. They missed Christ in Abraham, Sarah, David, Nabal, Abigail, Jacob, Esau – and turned it into moral fables. Do this and live…
        That is where they failed. God desires truth in the inward part, not outward show. That can only come by forgiveness, mercy, grace and the Holy Spirit.
        Every failing, every sin, every problem we face should first drive us to our knees, and then to the scripture to learn more about Christ. Everything flows from there.

      • And one other thing I forgot to touch on: can you talk more about what the Proverbs mean for us, specifically Solomon’s repetition of “Keep my commandments and live”? How should we understand those words in light of what Jesus has done? I know we are not bound to the law anymore, and that it’s not my keeping of the law that saves me… So how are we to understand Solomon’s, “Do this and live” words?

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