A Skeptic’s View of Christian Counseling Part 1: Prolegomena
Judging by the numbers of counseling centers, counseling schools, books and other instructional media, and church involvement, the Christian counseling movement has developed quite a momentum. My first exposure to this was as a post-grad in an evangelical church which introduced Gary Sweeten’s “Apples of Gold” program to teach the congregation so-called “active listening” in order to help people help others with their problems of living. For a variety of reasons, the attempt was a complete failure resulting in the church council ditching the program. Years later, while trying to sort medical from spiritual problems with one of our children, we were very blessed to have had the assistance of a seminary-trained counselor whose common sense and empathy helped us deal with some of our son’s behaviors. However, in another encounter a few years later, we found ourselves dealing with another counselor trained at the same seminary whose ineptitude and ignorance resulted in what can charitably be described as quackery; fortunately for us, the only damage done us was the loss of the counseling fee though it had the potential for far worse given the issues we were seeking help for. I include these anecdotes only to say that I’m not writing from inexperience or ignorance, and that I’m not being completely dismissive.
Articles on the history of Christian counseling are legion, so I won’t bore you with a recap. Suffice it to say that, prior to the 1960’s, churches often ceded the field of counseling to the secular world, giving disturbed members short shrift. This is in spite of well-near two millennia of pastoral work historically referred to as “cure of souls” and seen as inseparable from the pastoral office. The near triumph of scientism and specialization in the western world lead to the rise of psychology and psychiatry and the capitulation of the Church to the world. Much credit for the reversal of this trend in Christian circles goes to the work of Rev Jay E Adams in the 1960’s, giving rise to the Christian counseling movement (CCM) as we see it today.
As secular counseling had been established since the time of Freud, it was and remains imperative for the CCM to differentiate itself from its secular rival in order to justify its separate existence and retain credibility. Nonetheless, all studies, statements, and ballyhoo aside, the two movements have a number of similarities, which is to be expected. It is to these that one should first review in order to gain a good understanding of the situation.
The most obvious similarity is that both Christian and secular counseling involves counseling. Disagreements on just how one is to counsel has resulted in competing schools, each with their own diagnostic and treatment paradigms, specialized jargon, etc. Some of these schools are mutually exclusive, and even mutually antagonistic; each side also features eclectic practitioners.
Secondly, both movements are inherently religious due to making truth claims resulting from underlying world-views. The CCM posits man as created by God in His image and hence responsible to Him to obey His moral law, and who, body and soul, suffers from both the general consequences of Adam’s Fall and from specific sins. Secularists believe that man’s evolved antecedents slithered out of a bowl of primordial soup, he is born a blank slate, suffers a variety of slings and arrows from a variety of slingers and archers (including himself), and is responsible to himself and others. CCM purports to gain its authority through Holy Writ and a view of science tempered by such, while the secular counselors vary in their claims of practicing art or science. These contrasting views often but not always lead to contrasting recommendations.
Lastly but most importantly, both movements constitute self-interested guilds whose prestige and profits depend upon credibility and maintaining a client base. These aforementioned schools charge tuition, grant degrees and certification, regulate and discipline their practitioners, often require continuing education, and collect fees for service. In short, both sides view their practitioners as professionals with specialized skills and expertise.
The consequences of this for counselees are not always benign. In the American mental health system, a diagnosis can have negative effects on the counselee’s employability, ability to purchase or own firearms, insurability, and can put him in the crosshairs of the legal system (eg involuntary commitment, forced medication). While Christian counselors lack the backing of the State apparatus (DG!), counseling under church aegis can result in discipline or ostracism. This can lead to adverse social consequences including loss of face and/or of one’s position in the church, the ability to peacefully transfer to another church, etc. Often, for both sides, labels applied prove indelible, resulting in no return to the status quo ante.