Tag Archives: nouthetic counseling

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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The most damaging counseling mistakes

This could also be called, “Lessons from Ignaz Semmelweis.” He was a fascinating man. He was the first one to suggest that doctors wash their hands between patients. He was ridiculed and soundly mocked, put down, and outcast for it. Everyone knew that sickness came for spirits, bad air, bad joojoo, or God’s curse. What did handwashing have to do with it? He’s just being worldly. There’s got to be Bible verses about the evils of medicine. Isn’t it “trusting in man” or something like that?

I used to think the same way. I was taught that anything learned about counseling from a (hushed gasp) secular counselor, or, the most shocking of all, the psychologist (!) was just one step away from inviting the devil to dinner. I heard of a sermon where the pastor said that anyone who goes to a psychologist is denying Christ and the sufficiency of scripture. Stupid hand-washers!

I say this to my shame, for I used to believe and counsel the same way, and have since repented of my ungodly, unbiblical attitude.

If we will put aside our pride and listen to the voice of simplicity, and just “wash our hands” we will learn from our mistakes and quit killing the souls of those who come to us for help.

Here are the biggest mistakes we still make – soul killers – in no particular order. By the way, for you “nouthetic” people out there, each one of these mistakes is a mistake because it contradicts scripture, not because unbelievers say they are wrong. I agree with you that scripture alone is our only guide. So let’s hear what it says. So here is my list. I suspect there will be more to come.

  1. We say, “It takes two to ruin a marriage”. Or “It takes two to fight”. No. The Bible nowhere teaches this. Abel didn’t cause Cain to sin. David didn’t provoke Saul. Jesus didn’t provoke Judas. Joseph wasn’t to blame for his slavery. Stephen didn’t cause his stoning. And on and on. In fact, David said, “I am for peace, but when I speak they are for war.” (Ps. 120:7). There is a difference between David and those who sought to kill him. They wanted him dead because they “were for war”, not because “it takes two to fight.” Quit making this completely unbiblical statement. It simply isn’t true.
  2. When we hear of pornography use, we say, “Are you satisfying him in bed?” This one astounds me. Everyone listen up: Pornography and marital sexuality are as different as night and day, dark and light, good and evil. One is an expression of our one flesh intimacy, an act of love and mutual dignity and honor. The other is assault. A man who assaults doesn’t learn how to not assault by being taught to assault his wife instead. Just stop. Porn is death, murder, darkness. It isn’t “sex with the wrong person”. It is as far from the love of marriage as death is from life. Just stop. Now read Ephesians 5 again – from the beginning, not just the “submit” part. Fornicators need Christ and repentance, not a “porn-star wife”. Sheesh.
  3. (Similar to 3) We hear of a man committing adultery, and assume it is because the wife isn’t loving him enough. This comes from a horrible interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7. If you want to know what it really means, you can listen here. But, again, adultery is not simply sex with the wrong person. It is death, folly, madness – assault. The same applies, by the way, with the sexes reversed.
  4. When we hear the cry of the soul against injustices done, and we say, “You are just bitter.” Not only is this NOT the meaning of “bitter” in the scripture, the hatred of sin and the cry for justice is NOT sinful. It is what it means to be in God’s image. Jesus will not come in justice because he is bitter, but because he is just. We long for that day. We long to see our enemies destroyed, and justice reign. It is what Psalm 72 is all about. The promise of the kingdom is NOT that we should quit being “bitter” but that Christ will come with justice and righteousness in his hands. This is how we learn to put off anger, wrath and malice. Not by pretending that injustice is OK. You can learn more here.
  5. When someone is weeping, we assume that they are trying to manipulate us. Very common, but again, contrary to scripture. I am so glad that Jesus doesn’t treat us like that. Paul said to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Can someone show me the passage that says, “Beware of those who weepeth, for they are seeking to manipulate thee.”? Compassion with wisdom can only be taught by the Holy Spirit.
  6. We automatically assume that depression is a sin.  Depression is sometimes medical – an imbalance of chemicals.  Counselors, learn the signs of depression and get people to medical help if needed. But sometimes, our sighs and tears are just the proper response to living in a cursed world, far from the shores of the celestial city. We aren’t home yet, and sometimes that makes us sigh and weep.
  7. We make the same assumptions with every medical condition we don’t want to deal with. Chronic illness? Just laziness. Bipolar? Just rebellion. Adhd? Just a scam. Tourettes? Just looking for attention. They could stop if they wanted to. This one makes me want to scream at people.
  8. We assume that every problem that anyone can have can be fixed if we just find the right thing to rebuke them for.

And so we have turned into the most heartless bunch. Cruel, unkind, uncaring, fools. Heaping burdens of shame on those who come to us for help. It is no wonder that people won’t see pastors for guidance anymore. We forgot how to be compassionate. We look for the simple fix, when maybe we just need to listen, to stop and hear, to offer a kind word. Maybe point someone to Christ, who sweat great drops of blood, who was afraid,  who wept at the tomb of Lazarus – KNOWING that he was about to raise him from the dead.

Weeping doesn’t mean I don’t believe the promise; fear doesn’t mean I’m not trusting God; sadness doesn’t mean I am unthankful. These things mean I am human, just like my Lord. And he came to redeem this flesh and this blood. He suffered with every infirmity, and was without sin, to redeem me, body and soul. The day will come when every tear will be dried, but that day is not today.

So excuse me if I weep now and then. Don’t mind me if I get afraid sometimes. Don’t sing “joy, joy, joy” at me when the infirmities of the flesh are sometimes too much to bear. Yes, I know that God is good. Yes, I know that he is coming again. Yes, I know that all things work together, and so on. But right now I’m sad. If all you can say is “All things work together for good!”, then just go away.

These are some of my thoughts today. What are yours? What is the worst thing you’ve heard? It seems like I am missing some. I expect that this blog will be continued…

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The Opinions of men

Recently, I saw that someone posted the following quote from Dr. Jay Adams:

In my opinion, advocating, allowing and practicing psychiatric and psychoanalytical dogmas within the church is every bit as pagan and heretical, and therefore perilous as propagating the teachings of some of the most bizarre cults. The only vital difference is that the cults are less dangerous because their errors are more identifiable.

I am sharing my response to this here – not because I have any wish to be controversial, but because I really think that it is time we as conservative, Reformed Christians, started to compare the words of our heroes to the scriptures and to the creeds. It is supposed to be what we do.

So here is my response:

Statements like these from Dr. Adams have caused more harm to the body of Christ than anything I can think of in the last 30 years.

“In my opinion” – the opinion of Dr. Adams has been elevated to creedal status, woe be to anyone who may question it.

Those who have dedicated their lives to the study of the human soul and to the easing of the suffering of so many millions are dismissed if they use “heretical” words like trauma, narcissist, abuser, pedophile…
Victims are cast out of the church and wolves are given safety within because we look for quick proof-texts, and refuse to do any soul-searching.
Those who have suffered unspeakable trauma and suffering are given 8 sessions with their pastor, not allowed to speak their story, given a few proof-texts and then cast out of the church for “bitterness”.

All because Dr. Adams had an opinion. This opinion is not backed up with any scripture, which is odd (since it is purportedly based on Sola Scriptura) but simply declared so to be.

So I would ask here – what scripture is used to cast everything with the title “psychiatric and psychoanalytical dogmas” into the bowels of hell? By what authority does Dr. Adams’ opinion supersede the creeds of the church?

Why is it, that in the ancient Heidelberg Catechism, which we all revere, we learn that good works are “not such as rest on our own opinions or the commandments of men” but are based upon the law of God, which is further defined as the Ten Commandments, – why is it now that Dr. Adams’ self-declared opinion is the criterion by which thousands and thousands of sufferers are allowed no relief, no second opinion, no question, and no other answers?

Some serious things that we should perhaps think about…

To back up my whole point, I am well aware that I am now going to be branded a dangerous heretic and anything I might say will be suspect from henceforth – because I dared to question Dr. Adams opinion.

How many of those suffering from real mental illness are allowed no relief because of this man?

How many have been beaten and abused and raped by their husbands and sent back home because of this man?

Those who follow Adams would have rebuked Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus for bawling like a baby.

I’m sick of it.

Yes, he said some good things, and some of his critiques were valid.

But he was just a guy. His opinion isn’t a creed. Speaking of trauma and narcissism and abuse and PTSD and depression isn’t heresy. It is naming what most of the Psalms are all about. We are created in the image of God, and naming things is what we do.

I would add a few things here:

When God created the heavens and the earth, he gave names to some of the things that he created. When he created man, he gave man the task of naming the animals. Men and women exercise their dominion as image-bearers of God by naming. Any study, any discipline, and lessons, first begin with learning the names of things.

The scripture gives us the outlines, the framework, the first principles. But because we are image-bearers of God, we are called to use wisdom and give things names as we study them.

Classifying biblical concepts is not being “worldly”. It’s called wisdom, and it is what we are called to do. I thank God for those who have spent their lives studying and classifying human behavior. The bible says that Jesus knew the hearts of men, and answered accordingly. We don’t have that ability, because we are finite. So we are called to listen, to classify, to stop our mouths, to hear what others might have to say.

But that takes work. It is a lot easier to simply classify all opposition as heretical, cult-like and evil and be done with it. But this keeps us steadfastly bound to our ignorance and happily immune from loving our neighbor.

God would have us reach outside our little bubbles and see that there is a huge world out there that cannot be explained by Christianized behaviorialism. Skinner is not the gospel, no matter how you baptize him.

Think about it.

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